Granny squinted disapprovingly at Kyle. “You’d better lay off that still batch until it’s aged a bit. If it’s too raw, you’ll go blind. Don’t be expectin’ me to lead you around.”
Kyle threw her a disgusted look while catching another drop of moonshine oozing from the end of the condenser coil on his tongue. “Wouldn’t let you anyway, you old skank. You’d walk me straight into a brick wall just for the fun of it.”
“Would be fun. Can’t deny that. Wouldn’t deny it anyway.” She cackled, and his hatred of her scooted up another notch. Not that there were many notches left.
“And for God’s sake, cut it with water! If the stuff doesn’t make you blind, straight from the still like that it’ll make you go crazy. Well, crazier.”
“Ah, Granny, get off Kyle’s back for a spell. It gets old, and you’re killing my mood just as I’m working on a good high here.” Lyle was in one of the chairs they’d rescued from the city dump, the one with a broken spring that poked you if you sat on it wrong. He was holding a jar of moonshine, one of the one’s they sold that was diluted down to about 100 proof, and he was slowly lowering the level in the jar by constant small sips. He shook his head, looking at Granny. Seemed like all the old woman did these days was bitch and moan, give useless advice and criticize the both of them, especially Kyle.
After another two sips, after feeling the burn in his throat, Lyle said, “Hey, Granny.” He thought maybe he could ease the tension in the house a bit. “We drunk the stuff right off the coil before. You know that. You taught us, remember?” Lyle was always playing the peacemaker. Kyle and Granny had been going after each other for a long time, but it had recently begun turning ugly, really ugly, and neither one of them knew any limits when they were in a mood. It was getting to worry Lyle some. One of those two was going to get hurt bad when the tensions finally erupted. Maybe both would. Granny might be old, but he sure wouldn’t want to go up against her.
Granny scowled at them both. “You drink it all up before it even gets a couple weeks to mellow a little, and then we’ve got nothin’ to sell. We got a cash-flow problem here, boys. That moon’s all flowin’ out of the still into you two assholes, and our cash’s ‘bout flown the coop.”
Kyle looked at Lyle, then turned his back on Granny, muttering, “Bitch, bitch, bitch,” loud enough to be certain to be heard.
“What you sayin’, boy? I’ll whip your ass! Just cause you’re twenty-five now don’t mean nothin’. You hear me, boy? You hear me? Answer, you son-of-a-street-whore’s fifty-cent trick!”
Kyle turned to face her, ignoring the name calling. “What you mean, we’re out of cash? Lyle gave you all that stuff from the house we turned over last week. Didn’t you get it fenced?”
“Ol’ George only wanted to give me fifty bucks for the lot. Worth about ten times that, and I told him so. He said, ‘fuck off,’ so I left.”
Kyle turned back around so he was looking at the still, not her. In a more measured voice, a suspicious one, he said, “I heard George died. They found him in his shop all smashed up. Died on the way to the hospital. Just what happened there before you left? Huh?”
Granny spat on the floor. She did that now and then. Didn’t hurt the house at all.
The house they were in was in a neighborhood two steps below bad, and was more a rickety shack than a house. They’d taken it over after it had been standing vacant for a number of years. They’d ripped the large, red-lettered ‘Condemned, Keep Out’ sign from the front door, and when the men came with the wrecking ball, Granny had taken the superintendent inside. When he came out a half hour later, his fly was open and he was stuffing some bills in his pocket and carrying two jars of clear liquid; he told the crew they had the wrong house while zipping up. Now, four years later, the house was still standing. It was small and was constructed of faded boards that had long been bare of paint and were beginning to crack and loosen from their nails. The roof was tarpaper and leaked when it rained. The windows had all been boarded over so anyone brave or curious enough to step on the front porch to peek inside wouldn’t be able to see anything. The yard in front was weeds, but not overgrown—only because it hadn’t rained much that summer.
Inside was no better. There were only four rooms, two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen. The boys shared a room; they had since they were teens. The living room had no rug, just bare boards. All the furniture was from the city dump or scavenged from the curb from where people had set it for disposal on trash day. The main feature of the living room besides the decrepit furniture was the still: a large covered copper vat sitting on an electric heater, a hose running from the top to take the steam to an old car radiator which was sitting in a tub of water, and a tube running from the outlet of the radiator to a collecting vessel.
“Nobody tells me to fuck off.” Granny’s voice was hard. “I turned like I was leaving George’s store, saw a poker from a fireplace set he was selling, picked it up, whipped around and caught him up side the head with it. He went down, and I messed him up some, using that poker in ways the manufacturer never intended. ‘Fuck off!’ he’d said! Hah! Course I emptied the till before leavin’. Got more’n’ fifty bucks, too. Cleaned him out.” At the recollection, she cackled again.
“You killed him! He was our bank! Our fence! What we gonna do now?” Lyle didn’t care about George, but having a good, safe, no-questions-asked fence was important.
Kyle broke in with, “Then why you bitchin’ about money? We don’t need it; you cleaned out George.”
“Cleaned what I could. It were only $75 in the register. Must a had more hidden somewhere, but didn’t think I should stay around huntin’ for it too long, what with his body sort of layin’ there in plain sight, what with someone might wander in and all. You’d a been smarter, huh, and stayed around till the cops showed up?”
Lyle broke in before they could get going again. “Well, seventy-five bucks’s something, at least.”
“Nah, I stopped at Pete’s place and had a couple, then ol’ Amos Todd started making stupid bets on the game showin’ on the TV, you know, bettin’ whether the next pitch would be a ball or a strike, whether the next out would be at first or second base. He was bettin’ crazy, so I took some of the action. Cleaned me out. Didn’t know it was a rerun till everyone was laughin’ at me. Couldn’t do anything then, but when I see ol’ Amos or any a those shits alone next…” She took her gravity knife out of her pocket and began cleaning her nails.
“So you spent all the money at Pete’s? You’re fuckin’ stupid, you know that? You’re just a stupid…”
Before Kyle could really get going and Granny reacted, Lyle quickly said, “Hey, me an’ Kyle hit a Blockbuster last night. Got a whole mess of DVDs and video games and crap. If we can move that, we’ll make some cash.”
“How we do that?” Kyle protested. “Granny here just offed our fence. ‘Sides, that crap’s gonna be hot, and who’d want it anyway, if we can’t sell it to George? You screwed us up royal, Granny. What was you thinkin’? You’re bringin’ us all down ‘cause you’re so old and stupid.”
Granny was mad enough that her hands were shaking when she lit her crack pipe and took a long drag. Then the euphoria hit, she felt her energy pick up, and her thinking cleared. The annoying buzzing of Kyle’s tenor voice became soft background music. She was able to think better, and an answer to their short-term money difficulties appeared to her as though out of the blue.
What she didn’t feel was any less aggression toward Kyle. If anything, her attitude toward him hardened. She, and Lyle too for that matter, would be better off without him. Maybe she could think on that a little more.
She was still dwelling on that idea, fleshing it out some, when Kyle took another lick at the still coil, lost his balance and fell over, knocking the collecting pail flying. If the pail hadn’t been empty moonshine would have splashed everywhere, but because Kyle had been drinking their product as fast as it had been dripping, the pail flying off and hitting a wall didn’t make any difference other than to give Granny one more occasion to skewer Kyle with a sharp barb about being a drunk and too stupid to stand up on his own legs.
After calm was restored, she said, “I got it worked out. Money, I mean. Kids’ll buy that crap you lifted. Charge almost nothing, it’ll all be gone real fast. ‘Fore the cops get wind of it, so if they come here, there’ll be nothing to find, ‘ceptin’ the still, and I got a deal going with the police chief on that. Kids have money these days. They’ll buy that stuff, sure as shit.”
“That’s good thinkin’, Granny.” Lyle buttered her up when he could without being too obvious.
“Good thinkin’?! How the Jesus hell you think we can sell ‘em to kids? We don’t know any kids! They’re afraid of this place, the way it looks, and we go out on the streets with a pocketful of those things, if any cop sees us and gets suspicious, we’d go down for it, holdin’ the evidence and all. ‘Sides which, kids don’t like me none, would never come close enough to buy anything.” Kyle glanced at the collecting bucket he’d replaced. Instead of leaning over to take another suck on the coil end, he stuck a jar in the bucket to collect a little more juice, not trusting his balance at the moment. He glanced at the half jar Lyle was hoarding. Lyle looked back, knowing what Kyle was thinking, and flexed his shoulders. He was older, bigger and stronger. Kyle knew not to try him, but reminding him wasn’t a bad idea either.
“That’s cause of your missing teeth, and your limp,” Granny told Kyle. “That wanderin’ eye don’t help you much, neither. You look like the boogeyman to them!” Granny laughed, which turned into a case of the crack-induced giggles and she couldn’t seem to stop. She’d almost get them under control, then mutter, “Boogeyman!” under her breath and start right back in again.
Kyle just clenched his teeth. There were times that he could… well, Granny was still alive, so he hadn’t. Yet. But some day… some day soon.
Lyle had been thinking but had come up with zilch. “You got any idea how to get them kids to see all those videos and games and such?” he asked Granny when she’d got control of herself.
She smirked. “Yeah, I do. Ol’ numbnuts there, he’d never figure it out, but I did.” She was longing for her pipe again, it made her thinking so much sharper, but her stash was running low, and the hits had to be spaced out.
“You know what day this is?” she asked Lyle, grinning.
“Yeah. It’s Friday.”
“Yeah, but it’s more than that,” Granny said, grinning bigger now. “It’s the day before Halloween. So what I was thinking was, we could sort of have one those haunted houses you hear tell about. This rat hole is about perfect for that. Wouldn’t even have to do much to get it ready. Just a touch or two and it would be scary enough.”
Granny, seeing Kyle seething, said, “And the crowning touch would be to let ol’ Kyle there jump out at them and yell, ‘Boo!’ That’d do it, sure ‘nuff.”
“Yeah,” Lyle hurried ahead before Kyle could get started, “we could have the Blockbuster stuff set out on a table with a sign, sayin’ somethin’ like ‘Fifty cents each.’ For that price, they might buy us out. And if someone later asks ‘em where they got the DVDs and such, and the cops come bustin’ in here, hell, first we deny it, and if they get hard ‘bout it, we tell ‘em we didn’t sell nothin’ that weren’t ours. We found them in a box on the street. Let ‘em try to prove different!”
Granny nodded. “Kill two birds with one stone. Have the haunted house—that’s the stone—and we both get the loot off our hands but pick up some dough, too. I say let’s do it.” Granny cackled and added, “We don’t even need no costume for the boogeyman. It’s a come as you are party for him.” And she laughed hard, pointing at him.
“Fuck you, old lady! I know what we can do with you. I’ll make up a coffin and you can lay in it. You look dead, anyway—won’t need no makeup. When they’re looking at you, they’ll be sure you’re dead because nothing that‘s alive could look like you look. Maybe you can sit up and yell something while they’re all looking at you. Scare the crap out of ‘em, seeing a dead person come to life like that.”
“Kyle, you a dumb shit, think that’s going to get me mad? Actually, it’s not a bad idea. I can lie in a casket, you can jump out of a closet, Lyle can… I don’t know. What about you, Lyle?”
“I’ll be usherin’ ‘em in, having them set their bags of candy down, and then while’s they’re wanderin’ around getting the shit scared out of ‘em, I’ll go through their bags, take anythin’ that looks good. You know, some people give money instead of candy, and the little kids just drop it in the bags along with the candy. Maybe I can score some change. And hey, I can charge admission, be collecting that, too.”
Granny, looking at Kyle, but talking to Lyle, said, “Yeah, great, good thinkin’, but what’s best is the boogeyman thing. That’s right, ain’t it, Lyle?”
Damn, thought Lyle. What’s she trying to pull here, anyway? She’s forcing me to choose sides.
“Ain’t it, Lyle?”
He hated this but knew her. She wouldn’t ease up till he answered. She was forcing his hand. Well, if he had to, he’d choose the way that would be best for him, even though he knew Kyle had a long memory. “Yeah,” he said, regretting every word, “he should be the boogeyman. Scare the crap out of the little shitters.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Granny looked around. “Place is a shithole, just the right atmosphere for this. If we had more time, we could prolly think up a way to make more money outta this. Maybe kidnap a kid, something like that. Hide it away till a reward was posted, then join the people looking for it, and be the ones finding it. We’d be local heroes, even though we found it too late to save the little bugger’s life. Maybe do that next year. Prolly do that a number of years, become a regular thing in this town, some kid always windin’ up dead on Halloween. Make ourselves some real bread, we play that right. Right now, though, let’s figure out how to set this place up, get ready for tomorrow. Practice run for next year. Maybe we can make us some meth, sell that to the little darlins next year, too. Kyle, hey! You lay off that ‘shine. You’re dry till after tomorrow night.” After saying that and taking one last hit from the pipe, not able to resist—an act that just raised Kyle’s hackles even further—she started giving orders, with most of the heavy stuff going Kyle’s way.
He grumbled and grouched out loud, but to himself, he was thinking differently, letting his anger mask what was running through his head from either of the other two. Yeah, we’ll set the house up for tomorrow, he thought. But maybe I can make it all a little better than what that old shrew is planning. Make the scares more real. Really frighten those kiddies. Yeah, make it a little more real. That’s good; more real. And if the plan is just a might ghoulish, well, good! That’s what Halloween is for, now, isn’t it?
N N N
Bobby Raddler was sitting in the food court of the mall. He was by himself, something that was very strange for him. But then, for the past week, everything had been strange.
A week ago, he’d been here with his best friend, Stan. They’d been looking for Halloween costumes. They were both 12, and knew they didn’t have many years left for this childhood rite.
They were in Maxon’s, looking at costumes. It being a Friday night, a week before Halloween, lots of other kids were doing the same thing, and the store was packed.
Everyone was pulling out costumes, looking at them, then putting them back on the racks. Well, a lot of the boys were simply throwing the unwanted costumes back in the direction of the racks, so the floor was now littered with pieces of costumes, and the store clerks, especially hired for this week—mostly older teens themselves—were going crazy trying to re-organize things.
Bobby and Stan were looking for South Park costumes. Stan wanted a Stan costume and mask, thinking the irony would be great, and Bobby was perfectly happy with a Kenny orange- hooded top and big-eyed mask.
Bobby remembered how it had been. They’d not found what they were looking for, but Bobby had found Bart and Lisa Simpson masks, and showed them to Stan. Stan had looked, then said, “Yeah, but one of us would have to wear the Lisa one. That’d be really gay.”
Bobby had just screwed up. He’d been wanting to tell Stan for some time, the urge had been growing and growing, and here was the perfect opportunity. He forgot about all the kids around them. He forgot that he was planning to ease into his news carefully with Stan because he knew how Stan’s dad was. Instead of all that, with the opening he had, he just took his shot.
“Yeah, maybe, but maybe ‘really gay’ fits, Stan. I’ve been wanting to tell you. I am gay,” he’d said.
And that had been that. Stan had looked at him, stunned, then said, too loudly because of his surprise, “You’re gay?!” Other kids had heard, and the store had slowly become silent. Stan had repeated it, and this time, everyone had heard. Stan had then said, “I’m outta here,” and walked away, leaving Bobby alone with everyone staring at him.
At school the next week, Stan had stayed away from him. When kids had asked Stan why he wasn’t sitting with Bobby at lunch, Stan had told them. And just that quickly, Bobby had become persona non grata.
He’d been a boy with lots of friends. Now everyone was avoiding him, and some were shouting taunts at him. And now here he was at the mall. Alone. Alone when the place was full of noisy kids, many doing last-minute shopping for Halloween. For costumes, for party supplies, for decorations, for whatever. The mall was full, and he was sitting alone, sipping a Coke.
Early in the week, when the sting of being ostracized was hurting him the most, he’d decided he wasn’t going out trick-or-treating. He didn’t want to go alone, and his mom’s suggestion that he go with his 8-year-old sister and her friends was simply a nonstarter. His mom knew something was upsetting him, but as Stan wasn’t around, she simply assumed the two of them had had a squabble about something, and in a few days it would pass over. Too bad about it being right at Halloween, though.
Bobby sat and sipped his Coke, and he thought about how the week had progressed. He’d felt sorry for himself at first, then had got mad, but then, the more he’d thought about it, he’d kept changing how he felt. By the time Friday had rolled around, his thoughts had come to where he was now. He was no longer sorry for himself. Or even mad. He felt something else entirely.
He was pretty sure he was gay. But he didn’t feel bad about that. He just was. Why should he feel bad about something that simply was? He was a lot of things—athletic, strong, decent looking, pretty smart, outgoing, sociable. He was on the soccer team—their star player. Add gay to that list and it didn’t seem to diminish the list or him at all. So maybe, if some other kids had some problem, it was their problem, not his. He was happy with who he was.
He knew how kids worked. If a few kids started rumors about another kid, if things were said about him and passed around the school, often that kid got shunned for a while—at least until a new diversion came along. But people got over it eventually. Maybe he should just try to ride this out. He was a nice kid and helpful, and if he got the chance to show that again, well, not everyone could be that upset that he was gay. It was just the surprise, and the fun of the drama they were involved in at singling him out that had him separated from the crowd momentarily.
He took his last sip and got ready. He’d decided during the week that he’d go trick-or-treating after all, and if he had to go alone, well, so be it. He could do that and enjoy it, too.
He’d decided on his costume, too. He’d done some online research and found what he wanted.
He got up, marched down to Maxon’s and bought a cape. OK, his character, Northstar, didn’t wear a cape, but the cape made him look like a superhero. He wasn’t wearing a mask, and the cape would help.
Next, he walked to the tee-shirt store, the one that printed pictures on tee shirts.
The store wasn’t too busy. The guy at the counter looked to be young—mid-twenties, Bobby guessed. He had piercings in both ears.
“Help you?” the guy asked.
Bobby laid the picture he’d printed from the computer on the counter. “I’d like this printed on a red, long-sleeved tee shirt. One that’ll be a little too big for me; I’m not sure of the size.”
The clerk looked at the picture, then up at Bobby and grinned. “Hey! I know this guy! I’m into comics. This is Northstar, and he’s gay. Right on, man. You got some ’nads to wear this. Is it for Halloween?”
Bobby loved the fact the guy was smiling and seemed friendly. It had been a week since Bobby had been able to talk to anyone, and he was normally a very sociable kid. Talking to his mom and sister didn’t count.
“Yeah. I just got outed at school. So I said, the hell with them, and I’m going as Northstar. I doubt any kids’ll know who he is or that he’s gay, unless they read the writing, but I’ll know, and I’ll be proud. If everyone else just wants to see me as pretending to be a superhero, that’s OK, too.”
“I like that! Well, I’ll tell you what. I’ll make the tee shirt for you, and it’s on me. No charge. Zippo. Because I wish when I was your age I’d had your nerve. Hey, you ever need to talk, come on by. Lots of times we’re not too busy. I’m Chuck, by the way.”
Bobby went home with the shirt, the cape, and some cotton batting material he got from the fabric store in the mall. He was going to pad himself with make-believe muscles taped to his arms and shoulders. He grinned, feeling really good about this.
N N N
It was Halloween night. Ghouls and goblins were roaming the streets, along with princesses and Batmen. Lots of parents were accompanying them. As it got later, fewer and fewer little kids were out. By then it was mostly young teens, walking around in groups and pairs, except for Bobby. He was all alone.
As he had no one to slow him down and no reason to go home, he had wandered far from his home neighborhood, collecting a large bag full of goodies. Now he was in a seedy part of town where he hadn’t been before. There were still kids out on the street, but not all of them were in costumes now, and there were no little kids or parents at all. He looked around and wasn’t sure how he’d gotten here or where he was, exactly. He decided he wasn’t scared even if his stomach was telling him he was, telling him that maybe this wasn’t the best place for a kid of twelve to be out on his own at night. If nothing else, there was no one to help if some bigger kids decided to steal his bag of candy, which was getting pretty full anyway.
One more stop, he decided.
When he decided that, he was standing right in front of a house, a small one set back from the street a ways. A weak, yellow porch light lit up the door at the back of a sagging front porch. The yard was weedy and scraggly, and Bobby wondered if maybe this had been done for effect, just for Halloween. There were no other Halloween decorations on display here, he thought, and maybe he should pass this one by, but then he saw there was a sign on the porch, leaning on the front of the house next to the door.
Maybe I don’t really need to stop at one last house, he thought, not liking the looks of the house at all, not liking that suddenly there didn’t seem to be anyone but himself out on the street. Still, he found himself hesitantly moving up the cracked walk toward the house, wanting to see what that sign said.
Written all in caps, the sign said: WELCOME TO THE HAUNTED HOUSE. COME IN ALL KIDS WHO WANT A GOOD HALLOWEEEN SCARE. IF YOU HAVE THE NERVE.
Well, Bobby thought, I do have the nerve. And I did promise myself one more house. I’ll go in, see what kind of junk they’ll be trying to scare me with and then go home.
He climbed up the steps, steps which creaked under his weight, and knocked on the door, not seeing a bell. What he did see was wooden siding missing paint, much of it hanging loosely, some of the boards askew. Kewl, he thought. They really dressed this place up for effect.
The door swung open and a tall, thin man with long, scraggly hair stood in the doorway. He had a four-day-old beard, yellow teeth and bloodshot, watery eyes. He took one look at Bobby, two at his bag, and said, “Come on in, kid.”
Bobby found a few other kids inside. The room was dark except for a couple of old kerosene lanterns, both set with the wicks short so not much light was given, and the room was filled with creepy shadows as kids moved about. In the middle of the room a coffin was set on a couple sawhorses, and he thought he saw something inside. In the back corner, a strange looking man appeared to be chained to the wall. The other kids, Bobby counted eight of them, were moving around the room looking at stuff on tables. He heard a couple of ‘eews’ and ‘yucks’, but the room was pretty quiet.
Then things suddenly changed. The chained man, who’d been crouching in his corner, stood up and yanked his arms together, the chains pulling from the walls and falling away. He had a wild look on his face, and the kids stopped walking, frozen in place.
“Now’s time for the floorshow,” the man said, his voice high-pitched, the words sounding a little slurred. “Our special Halloween horror show. Welcome. I’m the BOOGEYMAN! But I’m the hero of tonight’s horror show. See that old corpse in the coffin? See how ugly she is? Well, she’s not really dead! Watch her come to life before your very eyes. She’s a zombie who wants to kill you. See what happens to zombies who come back to torment the earth. Watch me save the day. I’m the hero of this play. I’m the BOOGEYMAN!”
He stepped to the coffin, shook it, and screamed at the woman lying inside. “Come back to life, you old cunt! You vicious cow! You witch!”
Granny sat up, looked around and suddenly cackled, and the younger kids screamed. Then she looked at Kyle and said, “Hero, my ass!”
“I’ll save all you kids from her,” the wild man yelled. “She’s evil, but she won’t harm anyone again!” Then he drew a gravity knife from his waistband, flicked his wrist to produce a blade which gleamed in the flickering lantern light, and without hesitating plunged it into the woman’s chest. She let out a sickening scream, then fell back into the coffin, blood pouring from her wound.
“Granny!” Lyle yelled and ran to the coffin, leaning over to try to help her. Kyle withdrew the knife and screamed to the kids, “He’s her assistant, another zombie, trying to bring her back to life. Well, not this time!” And he shoved the knife into the side of Lyle’s neck.
Blood spurted in a long arc, and Bobby had to step back quickly to avoid it. He felt the door behind him, and by instinct turned the knob to get out. It turned, but the door didn’t open. Lyle had locked it.
Lyle was on the floor now, blood burbling from his lips as he tried to speak. Kyle yanked out the knife, then stabbed his brother rapidly in the chest until he stopped moving.
Kyle slowly stood from his crouch next to Lyle’s body. He looked around at the kids, his shirt soaked in blood, his hands dripping of it. “And that’s our Halloween show for you,” he announced. “Death of the Evil Beings. Come back next year and see it again. Now let’s have a big round of applause for our actors, who will remain as they are to reinforce the reality of the drama.”
The room was silent. None of the kids moved. No one said a word. No one clapped.
“Kids, I said clap. Clap for the great performance you just saw. We made it all look real to scare you. Hah! I guess we did that all right!”
No one clapped. The kids were like statues, some looking at the bodies, some at the bloodied Kyle. His smile was slipping, his moment of triumph less euphoric than he’d expected.
Then one boy spoke. He appeared to be the only one there older than Bobby, probably 13 or 14. His voice was shaking, but he spoke directly to Kyle. “That was no play. That’s real blood. I can smell it. They’re not breathing. You just murdered them.”
Bobby tried the door again. He couldn’t open it. “We’re locked in,” he said, whispering to a boy standing next to him. “He’s got us locked in.”
“No, no!” said Kyle. He was starting to feel the shock of knowing he’d just killed two people. “No, it was a play. You’re supposed to think it was a play!”
“Let’s get out of here,” said the older boy.
“We can’t,” said Bobby. Everyone turned to look at him. “The door’s locked. I can’t open it.”
The older boy started walking toward the door to see for himself, and Kyle suddenly yelled, “Stop!”
The boy froze.
“No one’s going anywhere. You were supposed to think it was just a play. But you don’t believe that, and you’ll tell the cops. You’re all witnesses, and you’ll all testify against me. You’re staying right here.”
Then, far off, they heard a siren. One of the other kids spoke. “I called 911,” he said, and held up a cell phone. “They traced the location and are on the way.”
Kyle’s eyes were large and wild. “No!” he shouted, then looked around the room madly. “They can’t catch me. And you guys can’t talk!”
Suddenly, his eyes landed on the door and lit up. He picked up one of the lanterns and desperately threw it toward the back of the room. It flew into the kitchen, smashed against the rear wall, and the kerosene caught fire, the flames quickly involving the back wall and the boarded up window there.
Kyle rushed to the front door, pushed Bobby aside, unlocked the door, flew through it, and relocked it from the outside.
The younger kids started screaming, and the older ones appeared to be petrified, even the older boy who’d first spoken. Smoke started to fill the room, and the sound of flames crackling as they advanced was getting louder by the second.
Bobby felt like panicking, too. He didn’t want to die—and especially not this way. But he forced the panic down, forced himself to think. He had to think. Panicking would be giving up. Think, he told himself. Think.
He had to find a way to control the smoke first. If they started breathing smoke, it would be all over. The smoke was already sneaking into the living room, crawling across the ceiling and rapidly getting thicker.
Bobby yelled at the older boy, but the boy seemed to be in a daze and didn’t respond. Bobby moved to him, grabbed his arm, and then slapped him. The boy jerked away, but his eyes seemed to focus.
“Check the hall between the bedrooms, and then the bedroom closets,” Bobby yelled at him, the urgency in his voice further focusing the older boy’s attention. “There should be an opening into the crawl space between the roof and the ceiling. Open it and the smoke will have a place to go rather than coming down to the floor. Hurry!”
The boy did as he was told, and a moment later yelled, “I found it, but it’s too high.”
Bobby ran to him and said, “Lift me onto your shoulders.” The boy did, and Bobby was able to lift and slide the panel up into the crawl space. Immediately, the smoke started up into the space, thinning below.
The boy set Bobby down, and Bobby said, “This house looked like it was ready to collapse. Maybe the walls aren’t all that strong. If we can find some sort of battering ram, we might be able to break our way out. It’s better than not trying anything.”
The boy nodded, and they started looking. Nothing useful in the bedrooms or the bathroom. Back to the living room. The coffin wasn’t strong enough, and anyway, neither of them wanted to touch the woman.
The boy yelled to Bobby, “There’s something over here.”
The heat from the flames in the kitchen was getting into the living room now, and the kids, many of them crying, a few still screaming, were huddling near the front door, as far from the heat and terror of the flames as they could get.
Bobby ran to the boy and saw what he was looking at. There was some strange contraption against the wall. It looked like a tub and then a hose, and then a car radiator sitting in a washtub filled with water. But the hose was suspended on what appeared to be an old coat rack, except it was made of metal.
“Let’s try it,” Bobby yelled, having to raise his voice over the noise of the fire.
They hurriedly pulled the hose off the rack, then picked it up. It was heavier than expected. It had projections on the sides, and Bobby thought it probably really had been a coat rack.
Bobby wasn’t sure which wall the best one to try. The older boy still was in panic mode and just standing, waiting for Bobby to tell him what to do.
“The wall by the door. It looked kind of weak when I came in. Let’s try there.” Bobby shooed the kids away from there, then they ran at the wall holding the coat rack with the base pointing forward.
They hit the drywall where Bobby’d pointed. There was a dull noise, and the drywall crumbled. “Again!” Bobby shouted, and they moved back and ran at the wall again. This time, there was a sharp crack, and the ram plunged through the dry wall, hit the boards of the front outside wall and knocked two of them loose.
It was dark outside so no light came bursting into the room, but they’d penetrated all the way through. What did come through was air to feed the fire. It immediately roared, and the flames which had been licking across the kitchen now lapped into the living room itself.
All the kids screamed now, but Bobby yelled over them to the older boy, “One more time!” It was very hot, but they moved towards the flames to get running room, then quickly back toward their opening. As they ran, Bobby yelled, “Really hit it this time!”
They slammed the battering ram into the hole, and Bobby and the other boy gave it all the added power they could.
The ram tore through the hole, taking more boards from the outside of the house down and enlarging the opening on the inside as more of the ancient drywall fell away.
The hole was now large enough for kids to squirm through. They all tried at once.
“Stop,” Bobby yelled, and for some reason he didn’t understand, they all did. “One at a time—and smallest first. You,” he pointed to the older boy, “you help them. Hurry!”
One by one, the kids were pushed through the hole. The fire was getting hotter by the moment. The sirens were getting closer, too.
Bobby was hurting from the flames being so intense behind him, but he was waiting for the rest of the kids to get out. Finally just the older boy and he were left. Bobby pushed the other boy through, then dived through himself, rolled on the porch, stood up and ran to the sidewalk where the other kids had gathered.
Not only the kids were there. A number of parents who’d been out looking for their kids were standing there also, hugging their kids and watching to spectacle develop.
The entire house was burning now, flames shooting out all over. Two police cars screeched to a halt, and their doors burst open. There was nothing the cops could do. They stood with everyone else and watched as the house collapsed into itself, throwing a tower of sparks high into the Halloween night.
N N N
Bobby didn’t want to go to school on Monday.
It had been a busy Sunday. All the kids had been taken to the hospital Saturday night for precautionary checks. No one had been seriously hurt, physically. The mental trauma they’d suffered would take more time to address.
The only boy who was even slightly singed was the older boy who’d helped Bobby. He had some burns that resembled a mild sunburn. Bobby, who’d been closer to the flames, had none at all, and a nurse remarked that all the fake muscle padding and the cape that covered his neck had done a marvelous job protecting him.
Sunday, the newspaper had come late, and when he looked at it, Bobby saw why. There on the front page was a full-size picture of him, Bobby Raddler, diving through the hole of the burning house. The picture, taken by one of the onlookers, had caught him midair, and it really looked like he was flying, his cape trailing him.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the headline read, “Boy, 12, dressed as a superhero, saves school kids from fiery death.” The subhead read, “Boogeyman still at large.” The accompanying article started with Bobby’s name as the first two words of a long story. It was all about Bobby; the other kids weren’t even named.
And his name was repeated time after time. Someone had interviewed as many of the kids as possible, and they’d made it sound like he’d done everything all by himself, like he really was a superhero.
That was another thing. A sidebar article mentioned the costume he was wearing. Somehow or other, someone at the paper must have recognized the picture on his chest because the article talked about Northstar and about him being one of the few gay superheroes in the comics.
No, Bobby had no intention of going to school Monday. It was bad enough to be ignored for being gay. Now he’d be teased mercilessly for supposedly being a hero, for being a superhero, for being a gay superhero, for having his picture in the paper, for having an entire article written about him.
Some guys would probably want to fight him just to show what a superhero he wasn’t! Or to prove they could beat up a superhero! What was he supposed to do then? If he got in a fight, his picture would probably end up in the paper again!
He tried to tell his mother all this, leaving out the gay part, and she’d have none of it. While being very proud of him and cuddling him way more than he wanted on Saturday when he returned from the hospital, she was adamant about his return to school. He wasn’t sick; he wasn’t injured; he was going to school.
So Bobby did. He rode his bike just like he always did, except he didn’t stop to wait for Stan at the corner of State and Conner like he used to. He decided to be clever, and after leaving the house, he rode very slowly. He wanted to get there late, just after the warning bell had rung, so he could hurry to his homeroom without having to listen to the shouts and catcalls he’d get otherwise.
He played it just right because the playground was deserted. He locked his bike and hurried inside and found the halls empty. Wondering about that, but with having to get to his homeroom not having time to think about it, he ran through the halls and skidded to a stop at the door to his room. He looked through the door and was surprised to find the room empty.
He wondered what was going on. This wasn’t some sort of holiday, was it?
He was deciding whether to go inside and wait for his teacher to show up or to go to his first class when he saw someone coming and his heart seemed to slip down to his waist. It was Mr. Cunnington, the vice-principal in charge of discipline.
Bobby didn’t know what to do other than stand and wait for him to approach, which he shortly did. “Mr. Raddler, well, well, well. Trying to sneak in a little late, are we?”
“No, the late bell hasn’t rung yet, has it, sir?”
“No matter. Please come with me.”
“But I wasn’t late! I’m still not!”
“I said no matter. You don’t want to argue with me, do you?”
Bobby opened his mouth, then closed it again. He hated unfairness, but at 12, he’d already learned that life wasn’t always fair. Instead of arguing he simply turned and followed Mr. Cunnington down the hall.
The hall was absolutely empty, and Bobby could never remember seeing that before, especially just before the bell. Then he remembered his empty homeroom.
“Sir, where is everyone?” he asked.
“Not to worry. Let’s just keep moving along now.”
They walked until they reached the doors to the auditorium. Mr. Cunnington opened them and beckoned Bobby inside.
The room was full, and when Bobby entered, everyone turned his way. Seeing him, they burst out in cheers and applause, and it just seemed to get louder and louder. Mr. Cunnington, a broad smile on his face, placed a hand on Bobby’s shoulder, a solicitous hand, and guided him to the stage. Not having any idea what was going on, Bobby climbed the eight steps up onto the stage. Mr. Cunnington followed and led him to one of three chairs set behind and to the side of the podium. The principal was already seated in one of them. Mr. Cunnington indicated that Bobby should take one, and he sat in the other.
When the applause and shouts finally began to ebb, the principal stood, stepped to the podium and raised his arms. When the students were quiet, he began speaking.
“It is very rare to have the opportunity I have today. Usually when we have assemblies, it’s to talk about problems. Occasionally we get to celebrate a sporting or musical success. But today it’s more than that. Truly, it’s much, much more. Today we get to honor a hero who saved lives. Without his acts of bravery, children would have died. He was a hero who, facing the worst possible danger and perhaps the most frightening one a child could face, kept a cool head, figured out what should be done, then rallied the help he needed and against horrible odds, saved others and himself from tragedy.
“Bobby Raddler did that Saturday night. I feel it’s an honor to have someone like that in our school. I know, from the way you acted when he entered, that you feel the same way. I hope each of you will find the opportunity to thank him for what he did.
“Please, let’s all show Bobby right now how we feel.” The principal then turned to look at Bobby and began clapping, and the audience all rose and did the same thing. Bobby wished he could have become invisible. He’d never felt so embarrassed in his life!
When the applause and shouting finally abated, the principal spoke again. “Now I have something else to say. I’ve spoken to a few of you. I’ve learned how Bobby was treated last week when someone told people that he was gay. As proud as I am of Bobby, as proud as I am to have him in my school, I’m almost equally disappointed in the few of you who went out of your way to disrespect and hurt him last week.”
He paused and looked around the room. Everyone seated thought he was singling them out. The room was suddenly very quiet.
The principal continued. “Being gay at one time in our history was considered sinful by some some religious people and wrong by a lot of other people. But we’ve been growning up as a nation in the past couple of decades, and we now recognize that being gay is just another way that someone is. Being gay isn’t good or bad—it’s the person who’s gay who is good or bad. The gay part is incidental to that—and it’s just something among a lot of different things that helps define him.
“No one, not Bobby or anyone else, should be punished or teased or ostracized for being gay, because that is simply not acceptable in our current age, in our community, and especially at this school.
“Bobby has shown us true courage. He should be given as high praise as it’s possible for us to give him. Bobby saved the lives of eight kids and then himself on Saturday. He himself was the last one to leave that house. Does anyone here now think Bobby Raddler should be shunned?”
The principal stopped again and again surveyed the audience. The room remained very still.
After a full minute of silence, the principal looked at Bobby. “Bobby, I know this is all a surprise to you, but do you have anything to say?”
Bobby had never felt comfortable speaking in front of a class, and this was the entire school along with the faculty. Yet he realized he did have something to say, and saying it once would be better than hundreds of times.
He stood up and approached the podium. The principal stepped away and returned to his seat.
Bobby looked out over the crowd. Then he stepped away from the podium toward the front of the stage so he could be nearer to the students. From there, he began speaking.
“I’m no hero,” he said, and as it had come out a in more of a croak than a voice, he said it again, more firmly and with more conviction. “I’m no hero.
“I didn’t want to die, and I didn’t want those other kids to die, so I tried not to panic, and I used my head and was really lucky that everything worked out. But that doesn’t make me a hero. It makes me lucky.
“I did what probably most of you guys woulda done. I’m just like you. Just another kid like you.”
He stopped for a moment and swallowed. “I’m just like you, and you’d probably be like me—sort of scared up here talking to you like this. I wouldn’t do it if what I wanted to say wasn’t so important to me. I wish I could just come down and sit there with you guys. But I want to say this.”
He looked around the room, and seeing all those eyes looking back at him made him even more nervous, so he unfocused his eyes, didn’t look at anyone, took a deep breath and spoke from his heart. “I like this school, and I liked most everyone in it, up until last week. Last week was hard. Yeah, I think I’m gay, but I’m the same kid I was before. Just the same as I was.
“I’m not mad at anyone. I know most of you were just following along with how everyone else was behaving. But you know, it’s OK to be different. I’m different: I’m gay. But think about it. Think about last week. What did most of you do?”
He paused for a moment, then smiled nervously. “What you did was, you either bought or made a Halloween costume. And what was the main thing you tried to do when choosing one? Huh? Do you remember?”
He stopped, hoping like mad someone would answer, someone would speak up. And then, someone did. Someone called out from the audience, saying, “I tried to come up with an idea for something everyone else would like but no one else would be wearing.”
“Exactly!” Bobby crowed, relieved that his question had been answered and just the way he’d hoped. “We all do that. We know that inside we’re all a little different, and we all want to liked for who we are. That’s what you did with your costumes. You didn’t want to be wearing what everyone else would be wearing on Saturday. You wanted to be a separate person all of your own. And for people to admire your costume, and to admire you as well.”
He stopped to breathe. He was still nervous, but everyone was listening to him, and that helped. He only had a little more to say, and now that he’d come this far, he knew he could do it. “That’s what I hope some of you will do now—with me. Accept that I’m a little different, but still want friends. Please, I want to be one of you again. I want you to like me for who I am. I don’t want to eat by myself, walk to class by myself, ride my bike to and from school by myself. Maybe a lot of you will still not want to be seen with me. But I’m hoping, just the way it was with those costumes, some of you will want to do what you want to do, and not what you see the rest of the crowd is doing.”
He was quiet for a moment, then, dropping his head, speaking a little softer, he said, “I’d like to have friends again. Thanks for listening to me.”
He nodded to the audience which was sitting hushed in their seats, then turned around to walk back to his chair. Suddenly, he was overwhelmed by a thunderous noise. He stopped and turned and saw the whole auditorium rising and again shouting and clapping and now also whistling and stamping their feet.
The principal stood, clapped Bobby on his back, and whispered in his ear, “You should think of going into politics; that was the best impromptu speech I’ve ever heard,” and then quieted the crowd.
In the cafeteria later that day, there wasn’t room at his table once he’d sat down. In only moments, the seats were filled, some by kids he knew, some by kids he didn’t. Everyone seemed to want to talk to him, about the fire, but also about being his friend, too.
When he rode home after school that night, he’d only gone a block when he felt he had company. He looked over and saw Stan pedaling fast to catch up with him. Finally he was riding beside him. Stan looked embarrassed. “Are you speaking to me?” he asked, tentatively.
“Sure,” said Bobby. “You were the one who walked away from me, not the other way around.”
“But I thought maybe you’d hate me now.”
“No, I’m just sorry that I said something that made my best friend not like me any more.”
Stan shook his head. “I made a mistake. I’m so sorry, Bobby. All I hear at home is how terrible gay people are. But I know you’re not terrible. I just was surprised when you said that, and I reacted wrong. I’m sorry.”
Stan stopped to breathe. Bobby didn’t say anything.
They pedaled together for a block, and then Bobby asked, “Why did you tell everyone else at school I was gay? That really hurt, knowing you’d done that.”
He glanced over at Stan and saw Stan looked miserable, looked like he might cry.
“That was the worst thing I’ve ever done,” Stan said, his voice shaky. “Kids asked why we weren’t together, and I didn’t know what to say, and so I just told them the truth. Mom’s always saying, tell the truth. But I knew after I did it how bad it was.”
He stopped to breathe again.
Bobby was looking at him. “So you don’t hate me for being gay?” he asked.
“No. Do you hate me?”
“I don’t hate you, Stan. You’re my best friend.”
“I missed you all week, Bobby.”
Bobby smiled. “Me too,” he said.
N N N
The man in the doorway of the bar stood very still and watched the boys ride by on their bikes. His wandering eye was the only thing that moved as it followed the boys. Then he patted his pocket, smiled at the feel of his gravity knife hidden there, and moved out of the doorway, limping after them.
Northstar image by Marvel Comics
Thanks as always to my editors for their outstanding work. I couldn’t do this without your help, guys. Wouldn’t want to!
I also wish to thank those of you who are keeping AwesomeDude on the web. It’s your contributions what allow it to continue to operate, and for us writers to continue to produce the stories you like. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. -- CP