The phone rings. It’s Jason.
“Hey, assface. My parents are gone.”
“Be right over, dickwad.”
Weeks of waiting, and the day has finally come.
Our first target rattles down the road, a beat-up old Chevy pickup truck, and it’s going fast. We leap to our feet, brussels sprouts sailing from our hands, condensed mini-grenades of green awfulness, peppering the truck in half a dozen places, a few landing in the bed among shovels and tool boxes. Our aim is perfect, the impacts so closely spaced that they elbow each other for the courtesy of reaching our ears. Brussels sprout guts spray into the air, or they bounce off altogether and roll drunkenly across the pavement.
The thrill courses through me like an electric current for the split second before the driver locks up the brakes. The truck screams to a stop a hundred feet down the road, two black stripes of smoking rubber marring the pavement. For a moment, half a heartbeat, less, I’m transfixed by the ghostly vapors curling up from the burned rubber.
My heart leaps into my throat. We’re stunned stupid. This is a first for us.
Then the driver slams the truck into reverse and tires squeal again. A grizzled, unshaven man with blazing eyes leans out the window. He looks right at me, and those bulging, furious eyes rivet me in place, like a giant spike of ice has been plunged right into my chest. Not as invisible as I thought.
“Little sons of bitches!” he screams.
We don’t think about running: we just do it. Jason goes one way and I go the other as the guy swerves off the road. His door slams shut and now I know he’s really after us—this is really happening. I don’t go toward the house; I aim for the chicken coop where a narrow path crouches in the shadows along a thick line of trees. There’s no thought to this hiding place—I just go there, evaporating a few feet into the woods and throwing myself flat into the thick brush. I don’t move. He might hear the crackle of sticks and leaves. I gasp air tainted by the sharp scent of chicken shit, terrified, but after few minutes or so, I work up the courage to inch my way out just enough to peek around the coop. A stocky guy in a hooded sweatshirt is walking slowly around the back of the house, peering in the windows. His clothes are dirty with paint, or cement, or both. A working-class type. A take-no-shit construction guy type.
This isn’t good.
I slink back to my hiding spot and wait. Seems like forever before I hear his truck start up on the road and drive off. Only then do I creep out. Jason meets me by the back door. He’s pale, but his eyes are shining, too.
“Holy shit,” he croaks.
“Holy shit,” I agree. Then he smiles, and we both start laughing.
“That was awesome. He almost got us!”
“We’re too damn slick.” We high-five.
“Let’s do it again.”
Then a car door slams in the driveway just on the other side of the house, and we freeze. Just for a second though, because it’s too early for Jason’s parents to come home, and this thought makes its way through our brains at roughly the same moment. Construction Guy is back.
This time, we both hide behind the chicken coop, and again, the guy stalks Jason’s house. We throw ourselves into the leaves and watch from the trees. It’s kind of fun, spying on this guy unseen, and we snort down laughter more than once, even though the wire of fear winding through us has a polar chill.
Construction Guy goes to the front door and rings the bell, and when no one answers, he goes to the side door and tries the knob. He pounds on the back door, his fist like thunder. He circles the house, peering up at the windows, searching for movement, the flick of a curtain or a dodging shadow.
“I know you’re in there, you little shits! C’mon out and face me like men!”
His voice is rock hard, his scarred, knotty worker’s hands clenched. Then he abruptly changes direction, running to the shed in the opposite corner of the yard, yanking open the doors. He stares inside for a moment, then looks disgusted. His eyes fall on the chicken coop. We can see him through the wire, bearing down on us, a grizzled face tight with awful determination.
“Don’t. Move,” Jason hisses.
As if he had to tell me. We don’t move a muscle. The guy peers into the henhouse, circles the coop, finds the path, and now he’s maybe fifteen feet away. He gazes into the woods, searching. He sees us! He hears breathing—our ragged, terrified breathing! After a moment, he moves along the path and back out into the yard, walking slowly along the edge of the tree line, until he circles back to the driveway. He climbs into his truck, and for a while he just sits there, waiting us out, but eventually he decides it’s too much effort and he starts the truck up with a wheezing rattle and backs out of the driveway.
It doesn’t occur to me until right then that my walk home is over half a mile. The guy is smart; dangerous even. My throat goes desert dry.
“Can I stay for dinner?” I manage.
Jason gives me an odd look. “What’s wrong, dude? Scared?”
“No.” We both hear the weakness in my voice.
“Sure, you can stay. Better hope we don’t have Brussels Sprouts, though.”
He smiles, and I punch him in the arm, but it’s a light strike, more relief than revenge. I’ll wait until after dark, and then move up the street like a ninja, dodging the headlights of every car. Just in case.
Our bravado begins to settle back in, as it does with all twelve-year-old boys. Jason sits up and takes a pack of Marlboros out of his pocket. A matchbook follows. He hands one to me without asking, and of course I take it. We light it from the same flame, an ancient and binding ritual.
“I’m still up on you. Seventy-eight points,” Jason says, exhaling.
“No way, dude. I’m at eighty-one. I nailed that dude’s windshield twice. That’s eight points, so I’m in the lead now.”
We’re not stupid. Construction Guy ended our game for the day, so we find other things to do until Jason’s parents come home. We argue good-naturedly and brag about our aim, how we splatted this one or that, how a sprout bounced or missed. Bravado becomes laughter. It’s all real funny until we’re sitting at the dinner table that night and someone knocks on the door. Firm but insistent.
Jason’s mother looks at us. “Is someone else coming over?”
Jason can only shake his head. I push a brussels sprout around on my plate. I watch her get up, and there’s a fleeting moment when I think about bolting for the back door, and then another of hope: it’s something else, a delivery, or someone looking for directions; anything. But I know the feel of energized air just before thunder claps and the world is drenched with lightning and hail. Jason’s mother appears in the doorway to the kitchen moments later, and she looks pissed. But Construction Guy looms behind her, and that’s way worse.
“Nice to see you boys again.” He grins.
After that night, my parents and Jason’s parents close ranks. We’re both grounded for a month: no TV, no phone, no one over after school. Family time every weekend. We’ve become inmates . . . but it’s too late. The inmates have grown restless, and the ideas have already taken root. I start wearing darker clothes. Black Metallica t-shirts and dark jeans and black, hooded sweatshirts. Black boots. I buy army makeup and my mother confides to her friends that I’m going through a PHASE—capital letters—but that’s not quite it. Eggs have begun to disappear from the carton in ones and twos. Old cans of shaving cream. Flammable aerosol cans and lighters. The occasional roll of toilet paper. An armory is growing in the woods behind my house, until late one night weeks later, I slink out the back door and vanish into the midnight streets with pockets full.
A shadow waits for me at the bus stop, a hooded figure with the cherry coal of a Marlboro flaring in the dark pool of his face. Jason’s got his own arsenal, and wordlessly we fall into lockstep as we sink into the moonless autumn night.
I know what that feeling is now. I’ve had weeks to speculate, turn it over and over in my mind until I know its name. It’s the thing that makes everything sharper, brighter, more exciting. Adrenaline has become pulse of my life. I’ve had my first hits, and I’m a fledgling addict.
Little do I know that there will be a car chase and epic battles and raging parties and once, a fugitive run from the police up into the wilds of Maine with a shotgun and a black bag of something I won’t open because I promised I wouldn’t. Evidence of some kind. A string of petty but mostly harmless crimes and for a time, a drifter’s lifestyle up and down the East Coast with two Brazilian girls and an iguana named Othello. None of that matters. That is to come.
This is now.
Vlad V. is the author of The Button, Yorick, and Brachman’s Underworld. His novella “The Sleep Artist” was published in Insanity Tales, a collection of dark fiction, in October 2014 (Books & Boos Press). His most recent release is his novella “Float,” published in Insanity Tales II: The Sense of Fear in October 2015 (Books & Boos Press). His first kids’ book, The Moon is Dead!, was released in January 2015.
Vlad is also the founder and managing editor of The Storyside, a publishing collaborative dedicated to bringing the best in independent fiction to the market.
He is an editor, publishing consultant, freelance writer, and former newspaper correspondent for the Lowell Sun andFitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise. Learn more about Vlad at www.TheVlad.net.
His books are available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple and Smashwords.com, as well as most bookstores.