Authors: Corina Vacco
Val walks over to a pile of private stuff me and my friends can’t stash at home. “What’s all this?”
If it was anyone else, I’d tell them to back off. Val is picking through Charlie’s weapons, tossing saw blades aside, laughing at nunchucks, fake stabbing me with a samurai sword. She shrieks when she uncovers the robot Cornpup built from junkyard scraps.
“Oh my God. Does this thing actually work?”
Of course it works. We load small stones into a chamber on the robot’s arm. I tell Val to stand a few feet away. I punch a code into
the remote control. The robot fires stones at Val’s legs. She laughs so hard, she can’t even look at me. When she settles down, she starts picking through our stuff again.
My sketchbooks are wrapped in black garbage bags. She pulls them out gently, like she knows they’re special. She doesn’t flip through them, half looking, like Charlie would. She goes page by page, studying my drawings like they’re the most amazing images she’s ever seen.
“I already knew you were an artist. But I didn’t know you were this good. You did all this in black pen, but the shading is so perfect, it feels like color.”
I shrug and look away. This is a good time to pull out the sandwiches. My hands are dirty, but I don’t care. I’m suddenly very hungry.
“What is it with you and monsters?” Val asks me. “Why don’t you draw anything else?”
I give her my real answer, the thing I never tell Cornpup and Charlie. “Sometimes I get so pissed off, it’s like I’m gonna snap. I pull the anger out of my head and force it into those creatures. Then I feel calm for a while.”
Outside the bomb shelter, I hear chunks of earth falling. The tunnels aren’t reinforced quite as well as I led Val to believe, but we’re still safe. It might be a good idea to get going soon, though, just in case.
Val comes to a two-page illustration of uranium monsters. They’re tearing a group of men to shreds. It’s my favorite drawing, the angriest picture of all.
“You felt like
?” she asks me.
I’m holding a ham sandwich in my dirty hands. I’m chewing a mouthful of dry bread and meat. “Yeah, I felt like that. The night my dad died.”
“It was so horrible, what happened to him. I hate to even think about it.” Val cocks her head sideways. “These decapitated heads look familiar.”
I slide the sketchbook out of Val’s hands and toss it to the floor. I don’t want to start talking about the Mareno Chem executives. I don’t want this night to get ugly. I grab Val’s face and kiss her. She kisses me back.
We climb out of the tunnels. I never kissed a girl before tonight. I feel wild and alive. The last time I felt like this was when Charlie brought over a rat in a plastic tackle box. It had scars on its back, little places where its fur wouldn’t grow. It jumped out of the box and started running around my bedroom. Cornpup was shrieking, “Bubonic plague! Fleas and ticks! We’re gonna get rabies!” And Charlie was saying, “I’ll take care of it. I’ll catch it. Let me handle it.” But I was the one who caught it. I grabbed the rat with my bare hands and threw it outside like it was nothing.
Charlie and Cornpup couldn’t believe it.
Tomorrow night, when I’m alone inside the Mareno Chem building, I have to remember this feeling.
green-haired monster mask is Charlie’s, from last Halloween. The stinky football pads are his too, but they don’t fit him anymore. The canister of pesticides came from Cornpup’s garage.
“What’s all this stuff for?” I ask them. The one thing I’ve forgotten, the one thing I really need, is a watch. We are supposed to be walking to Mareno Chem by way of Two Mile Creek, but we are just standing on the shore, watching the water carry sticks and sludge, beer cans washing up on the rocks.
“Mareno Chem has security cameras. Plus there’s a night watchman on duty,” says Charlie. “You’re going in there with a mask, some armor, and a weapon. You should be good.”
“You’re making me more nervous.”
“I’m trying to protect you,” says Charlie. “Because sometimes you don’t think.”
He is wrong. All I ever do is think.
“The weapon,” says Cornpup, “is the most important thing. Spraying chemicals on a Mareno Chem executive would be poetic, especially if it’s the guy who tampered with your dad’s safety gear.”
“I’m not spraying chemicals on anyone. I just want the jacket back.”
“But if someone catches you or tries to hurt you, you have to defend yourself,” says Charlie. “Don’t be stupid.”
“Spray them in the eyes,” says Cornpup. “We’re talking about the biggest chemical plant in the entire state of New York. We’re talking about people who bury toxic drums in neat little rows the way normal people plant corn. They buried your dad. They don’t give a damn about us. So let’s show them how it feels.”
There’s a pile of truck tires in the creek. I can’t stop looking at all the bald rubber.
Cornpup sees it too. “That right there is why the chemical companies treat our neighborhood like their own personal dumping ground. We’re poor. We’ve got nothing. They think we go around throwing mattresses into the woods and dropping duffel bags full of asbestos tiles into our wells. They don’t respect us, because they think we don’t even respect ourselves.”
Charlie has a strange look on his face. “Why do you always have to say stuff like that? We’re not poor. Blue collar isn’t poor.”
“You can’t smell chemicals burning in Buffalo. There’s no landfill by the shops on Elmwood Avenue. You get landfills in your town when you don’t matter. They throw garbage in your town when they think you’re garbage. That’s how it is.”
I can sense another one of their fights brewing. Charlie is loyal to Poxton, all the more so because this town is like a mangy dog at a pedigree show. It doesn’t need a blue ribbon; it just needs someone to love it. Cornpup could not agree less. He says again and again that we
poor, that we have been written off.
Charlie lights a match, watches the flame burn down the stick until it reaches his fingertips. Fire is his element.
I think of landfills and dead frogs and creek sludge—these things are everywhere, because industry is everywhere, and without industry, there’d be no jobs. I believe Charlie, who says our lives are normal. When Cornpup refuses to drink Kool-Aid made with our tap water, we say, “Good. More for us.” When Cornpup gets talking about toxic air release sirens, we tell him he’s putting us to sleep so bad, it’s gonna take every toxic air release siren in the world to wake us up.
They cannot get into a fight right now. I won’t let them.
I put the monster mask on my head, warty face pointing to the sky, because I need them to remember why we’re really here.
It’s getting dark fast. I want the sun to stay with us for just a little while longer. I listen for one frog, one cricket, one bird, but living things seem to not like this part of the creek. I sometimes see deer on the mudflats, but it’s like there’s an invisible barrier; they almost never cross the railroad tracks. Without earthworms, the dirt feels dead in my hands. Without birds, the trees seem like metal sculptures connected by wires that crisscross above my head. Without biting flies, my skin itches anyway, like it has a memory, like it wants to get stung.
Only the rats will survive the dead zone
, Cornpup once said to me.
But he was wrong, because there are no rats here.
Mareno Chem looms up ahead. The administration building never fully shuts down. Even now, after hours, it is lit up like a planet—tall streetlights over an empty parking lot; spotlights along the edge of the flat roof; pale fluorescent lights shining through random office windows. There are three rear buildings, each one as dark as death at this time of night: the processing plant, where the chemicals are mixed and contained; the hangar, where chemical trucks and railcars are stored; and the warehouse, where the
final products ship out on tankers driven by truck drivers who need hazmat licenses.
“Why isn’t Goat’s car in the parking lot?” I start to panic. “What time is it? Do you think he bailed on us?”
“He’ll be here,” says Charlie.
I’m amped up now, scared. “Goat said fifteen minutes, in and out. If I show up wearing this mask, he’ll change his mind about the whole thing. He’ll say, ‘You know what, Hammond, I don’t think you’re mature enough to go wandering around in the administration building by yourself,’ and then I’ll really be screwed.”
“Just tell me you can run in those shoulder pads without falling,” says Charlie. “Save your complaints and excuses for later, because you’re gonna owe us big-time if you come out of there alive.”
In the end, I put the pads on, even though they’re bulky and it’s hot out. I wear the monster mask. I carry the canister of bug spray. Having a disguise, armor, and a way to defend myself, well, it’s not the worst idea Charlie’s ever had.
Goat is waiting at the back employee entrance. He doesn’t say anything about my being late, but he does say, “Jesus Christ, Hammond. I’ve had a bad feeling about this all day, and seeing you in that outfit just makes it worse.”
“It’s in case they’ve got security cameras,” I tell him.
Goat lets out a long, irritated breath. “All right. Whatever. Here’s what you’re gonna do.”
My stomach knots up.
“You walk down the hallway, just go straight, past the laboratory, and you make your first right. Take the first set of elevators you see. The executive offices are on the third floor. Find your old man’s jacket and get the hell out of there as fast as you can. In fifteen minutes, if you’re not standing right here, I’m locking you in.”
I don’t have a watch, I want to tell him, but I’m scared he’ll
change his mind. He doesn’t like me, or what I’m wearing, or the idea of getting his own dad in trouble over my dead father’s jacket.
I promise him I’ll be quick.
At the edge of the parking lot, Charlie and Cornpup are crouched behind a Dumpster. Cornpup sticks his hand out and waves.
Mareno Chem is beautiful inside. Once I pass the research laboratory with
DANGER: AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY
signs posted all over the door, there are contemporary paintings lining the bright white walls. Every office has a glossy metal desk that looks expensive. I catch a glimpse of things sitting at each station: coffee mugs, puppy calendars, framed photos, and pen holders shaped like golf balls. When I reach the elevator, I feel like I want to work in a place like this one day, with my very own desk and important folders.
The third floor is even better. The paintings have golden frames. Real leather chairs are parked at dark wooden desks. None of the potted plants are fake. One guy has a dartboard on his wall, the nice kind, one that lights up and makes sounds. Another guy has a small putting green beneath a window that takes up the entire wall. The pictures on these desks are of families in crisp white shirts and tan pants, standing in front of mansions, waving from cars that are worth more than my house. I like the cruise pictures the most.
I’m not sure how much time has gone by. I haven’t been paying attention.
I try to stop getting distracted, but it’s hard when everything is so clean and new. I expected the inside of Mareno Chem to be hideous, because of how Cornpup always says chemicals are dirty and chemical workers are monsters.
There’s one office left to check, and by the process of elimination, I know exactly who it belongs to: Dan Benecke, vice president and general counsel. He uses his power and his law degree to ruin
people. His name is etched on the outside of his door in gold lettering. On his desk there are vacation photos—a cabin at the foot of a ski slope, that leaning tower, fireworks over the ocean, llamas on a footpath in the mountains—all of these trips with the same beautiful woman. It must be wonderful to be a chemical executive, to have no conscience, to live like this.
Behind the desk, a huge map of our town is pinned to the wall. There are red thumbtacks next to our school and the grain mill. There are white thumbtacks in other places, mostly lining the creek. There are notes in sloppy handwriting that I can’t read. I wish Cornpup were here. He’d decode this stuff.
There is a red thumbtack stuck in Cornpup’s backyard.
I notice a tiny desk clock, gold and polished. It’s 9:27. I’ve taken too long. I might already be locked in here for the night.
Dad’s jacket is draped over a chair in the corner.
I pick it up and hold it to my face, breathing in the leather, except I can’t smell Dad anymore. I smell this office—coffee and carpet. I smell Charlie’s monster mask.
Anger is ripping through me again. I smash the picture frames on Dan Benecke’s desk. I tear up his photographs. I use a silver letter opener to slash his leather chair. I scribble
in black ink all over his desk calendar.
It isn’t enough. I want to do more. I want to do something worse.
Instead, I do what I should’ve done five minutes ago. I speed down the hallway to the elevators, where I press the first-floor button so hard, I jam my finger. I run along the bright white walls, past contemporary paintings and golf ball pencil holders.
All I want to do is get out of this building.
Through the window of the employee entrance, I can see Goat outside smoking a cigarette. Charlie is talking to him, stalling him. I push the door open a crack and hear a sound that’s so loud, I feel frozen and confused.
I tripped an alarm.
“What did you do?” Goat shouts at me. “What the hell did you just do?”
He fumbles with his dad’s keys and finally, clumsily, locks the door.
Cornpup is at the edge of the parking lot. He points up at red lights flashing all along the top of the Mareno Chem building. “Run!” he shouts.
I have on Charlie’s football pads. I’m carrying a monster mask, a can of bug spray, and Dad’s jacket. I can’t run fast right now. I’m too weighed down and scared.
Goat says to me, “Never again. Don’t you ever ask me for anything ever again,” and then he takes off in a dead sprint toward the trees.
Charlie says, “Jay, give me the stuff. I’ll carry it all. Just run.”