Read an Excerpt
Chapter One A Coke bottle spins through the air. Thick green glass, curved like an Earth Momma statue, flicking the afternoon sunlight, as beautiful and strange as a space station or a hummingbird. You're pedaling home. You were thinking of drawing a cartoon about a girl who looks like Cindy Hurly. Would she be impressed? Would she think you're pathetic? Now a Coke bottle flies through the blue Florida sky. Toward your head. You stomp the brake. The rear hub squeals, but you keep moving forward. In the back basket, your books bang like a drunken drummer. Is a Coke bottle the last thing you'll see? Beyond the bottle, a gray Chevy pickup is cruising by. In the cab are three boys, old enough for high school, maybe older. One boy's arm sticks out of the cab. He has Brylcreemed hair, pale blue eyes, a pouting lip. Is he pointing at this bizarro thing, a Coke bottle hurtling through the air? No. He threw it. Your brake catches. You pitch off the seat and onto the crossbar. Putting your balls on an anvil and hitting them with a hammer would do more damage. It might not hurt more. The bottle passes an inch from your nose. You barely notice. You drop your desert boots onto the sun-baked ground. You want to fall on your side and lie there gasping. The bottle shatters in the ditch. That's when you figure it out. The bottle had a target. You. The pickup roars away. You stand by the side of the road, straddling your bike, curled over the handlebars, gulping air, staring at the truck as it climbs the hill. Its tailgate is thick with bumper stickers: support our boys in vietnam. america, love it or leave it. The Confederate battle flag over the words an unregenerate confederate. The Coke-thrower leans out the passenger window and shouts, "You one damn lucky hippie!" You ram your middle finger at the sky and yell, "Kiss my rebel ass, redneck motherfuckers!" It would sound better if your voice didn't crack, but he's too far away to hear. Thanks to your finger, he doesn't need to. His grin drops from his face. He yanks his head back in the cab. You lower your arm and smile. You're a lone dog watching wolves run off. Maybe you only survived, but you feel like you won. Then the pickup makes a U-turn. You glance up and down the road. Semis, sedans, and station wagons roll in and out of Gainesville. None of them will worry about a long-haired kid on a bike until the rednecks have done whatever they want. The pickup cuts across the highway and charges down the shoulder of the road. Gravel and dust stream from it like a cloak. In the cab, the Coke-thrower and two friends with pale crew cuts are laughing. If Hit the Hippie is a game, they want first prize. You yank your handlebars and take the ditch. Your tires bounce on rocks and ruts and grass. Every jolt sends fire up your spine. A book leaps from the back basket. Your front wheel twists on a hubcap. You slide sideways, nearly dumping your bike, kicking the ground to stay up. And you're across the ditch. An animal track twists into the woods. You race for it. Weeds slow you. Your back feels as wide as a billboard. Maybe the three kids have shotguns or slingshots. You've heard about rednecks catching freaks to shave their heads with rusty razors, rob them, beat them, rape them, kill them. The woods close around you. Branches slash and snag at your jeans. A truck door slams. Someone shouts, "Run like a nigger, boy! Ain't nothing gonna save you!" You're pedaling your fastest. The track's too bumpy and twisty to get up real speed. When you roll up against a fallen tree, you shoot a look back. Leaves rattle and branches break. Someone falls loudly and yells "Shit!" Someone else screams, "I see the little pissant!" A pale crew cut bobs up over a clump of bushes. You grab your bike, yank it over the fallen tree, and jump back on. You think, Keep going. Wear 'em out. They're looking for fun. Once they know you're not it, they'll give up. Just keep go-- The track ends at a pond. You brake hard. The pond is about ten feet across and twenty feet long. You can't guess its depth. It's covered with green scum and stinks of rotting plants. Or worse. There could be bodies in it. Who would know? You glance both ways: bushes and trees, too thick for anything larger than a possum. If you take the brush, you'll have to leave your bike. You won't make any speed. You'll have to break your own path. Making one for the rednecks, too. You could hide. Burrow into a palmetto grove and hope no rattlers or coral snakes are nesting there. Scramble up a pine tree and force yourself into its branches. Lie on your back in the water and breathe through a straw if you can find one or make one in time. You study the pond. You've heard of kids diving into dark water to be caught in barbwire, poisoned by industrial waste dumped by cheap-ass businesses, bitten by cottonmouths, eaten by alligators. And part of you expects monsters in murky waters, shark-faced mermen and giant octopi who grab your ankle and yank you under. You aren't about to hide in that pond. Someone shouts, "We got 'im now!" You look back. The trio comes walking easily, grinning as you whip your head from side to side, looking for any sign of salvation. You can't guess what they'll do with you. You doubt they know yet. You wish you'd stayed by the highway. They would've gotten in a few punches and kicks, then sped off. Now they can have all the time they want with you. Someone laughs across the water. You look. So do the boys. You think you have help, but it's only a crow high in a tree. The boy with Brylcreemed hair laces his fingers and cracks his knuckles. He tells you, "Best say your prayers, boy." You stomp on the pedals and plunge into the pond. You don't have a plan. All you have is panic, so you're panicking. Your wheels drop into the pond so fast your fear doubles. Not because of what might be under you. If you can't get far enough from shore, the rednecks will pluck you out like cats at a goldfish bowl. Your wheels hit something that bounces a little. Maybe that's just the air in your tires. You shoot across the pond, hit the far bank with your front wheel, and fall forward into a tangle of grass and weeds. You scramble to your feet. You're no worse for the fall, but you're scared worse. The woods are too thick for you to press on, even if you leave your bike. The Brylcreemed boy reaches the pond first. He stops, looking for the best place to splash through. The others come charging behind him. At the rear, the biggest of the bunch wears a green John Deere T-shirt stretched tight across his belly. The third boy, with black square glasses like Clark Kent, charges past Brylcreem and leaps. Brylcreem sees him pass and leans forward to follow, with John Deere maybe six steps behind. You step back. Branches scrape your back, butt, and thighs. You lift your hands in front of your face, maybe to block their blows, maybe to beg them not to hurt you, maybe to keep from seeing what's coming. The boy in black glasses splashes into the pond. And keeps dropping. He has enough time to open his mouth, but not enough time to scream. Dark water and green scum slap over his head, then settles. Brylcreem brakes at the bank of the pond, throwing his arms back and windmilling, his mouth and eyes wide. John Deere comes up behind him, saying, "What happened?" If you were drawing this, John Deere would bump Brylcreem, they both would fall in after Black Glasses, and your long-haired hero, the Kid, would laugh and pedal into the sunset while the wet rednecks waved their fists at him. But Brylcreem and John Deere don't fall in, you don't laugh, and Black Glasses stays underwater. You don't feel a thing as you watch Brylcreem catch his balance and John Deere look from him to the water to you. Something is wrong with the world. You rode across the pond, and Black Glasses disappeared into it. You feel like you're puzzling out a riddle: If you consider the clues long enough, the answer will come. Or it won't. Instead of an answer, there's a horrible rush in your guts. Someone is drowning in front of you, even if you can't see him. Someone is thrashing in the darkness, knowing he's about to die. Someone is so desperate for air that he'll fill his lungs in a minute or three, and go unconscious, and die. Brylcreem and John Deere look at you as if you have the answer or are it. "Get a stick!" you yell. "Get him out!" John Deere catches on first. He rips a long branch from a willow tree and pokes it in the stinking pond. The water still ripples where Black Glasses disappeared. It feels like you've been standing there all day. Maybe twenty seconds have passed. John Deere stirs the pond, bumps something, and starts drawing the branch up. It jerks in his grasp. He yells, "Help me!" Brylcreem grabs on to the branch to pull. You want to do something, but you don't know what. If you try to cross the pond again, will you fall in like Black Glasses? If you make it across and Black Glasses drowns, what will his friends do? Gripping the branch and streaming black water, two pale hands rise from the pond. A pale crew cut follows. The glasses are gone. The boy's head whips around. He gulps air as his friends pull him near. They tug at his arms and T-shirt to help him, but they probably don't make a difference. He scuttles like a lobster up the branch and onto the bank. Weeds are thick around his sneakers. One leg of his jeans is torn. There might be blood in his white socks, or it might just be mud. He stands and looks across the pond at you. His eyes are light brown. The right is slightly bloodshot. His face is flecked with pond scum. You half expect him to start cursing you, half expect him to apologize for chasing you. His eyes widen. He grimaces. Gasping, "Ohgod-ohgod-ohgod," he bolts for the highway. Brylcreem and John Deere try to grab him. His clothes are too slick with muck for them to get a hold. "Wait up!" Brylcreem shouts. He and John Deere run after the boy. John Deere never looks back. Brylcreem glances over his shoulder, then runs on. You can't describe his expression. If he had a gun, you wouldn't be reading this. And you're alone by the pond as if no one else has been here. You breathe heavily. Your balls drone with pain. Your ribs are cold with sweat. Your throat feels thick. You smell pine from the woods, sweet decay from the pond, the bitter tang from your armpits. You hear cars on the highway, a dog barking at the bottom of the hill, the redneck's truck roaring away. You don't know if you want to puke or cry. You stand your bicycle up. Overhead, a crow laughs again. "Fuck off!" you yell. It shuts up. The pond is smooth and still. A dragonfly speeds across it. Shouldn't there be frogs jumping in it, minnows darting beneath its surface, waterbugs dashing over it? You have to get away, and you have to know what happened. You put your bike on its kickstand and spot a long branch, dry and white like old bone, as thin as a finger. It would break if you snagged it on anything heavy. You like that. You need to know something's in the pond, but you don't want to drag anything out. You take a deep breath and poke the branch in. It goes deep, touching nothing. You lean over the pond, pushing the branch deeper, then rock back, afraid to get too close. You drag the branch sideways. It hits something and you jerk back, making the sound boys call "squealing like a girl" and girls never call "squealing like a boy." You expect the Creature from the Black Lagoon to appear. The Creature stays put. You poke the branch back in. Something solid is there, maybe a foot underwater on the far side of the pond and nine inches under by the bank where you stand. You trace it with the branch. It's about a foot wide. Its top curves. It's long and straight, running the width of the pond-- It's a log or a post or a broken phone pole. You don't need to reach into the pond to learn exactly what it is. It's a pole. Your wheels landed on a pole, and you rode it across. No mystery there. An ordinary pole, hidden by scum and dark water. You're lucky. That's all. Very lucky. Very, very lucky-- You laugh. Not because it's funny. It's impossible, and you have to free the pressure in your chest. What are the odds there'd be a pole where you need one? You take another breath. You can't look away from the pond. How lucky were you? Enough to use up your luck for the rest of your life. You begin to shake. Sweat bursts out again on your skin. If there wasn't a wall of trees around you, you would run anywhere that's away. Looking for a place to run calms you. It's a pond, a pole, and a great whopping chunk of luck. You tell yourself you should be glad or grateful. But you hurt, you stink of fear, and someone nearly drowned in front of you. You slap a mosquito, then another. Shade makes the woods cooler than the highway, but the air is hot and damp. Time to get moving. You aren't about to try your luck again with the underwater pole. You find the thinnest place in the bushes around the pond and back through, protecting your face while dragging your bike after you. When you come to a track, you follow it to the path back to the road. At the fallen tree, you stop. In the theater of your mind, you replay the last minutes: rednecks attack, the Kid runs away. Giving them the finger is dead time in the story. They attack; you run. Giving them the finger is worse than dead time. It's an idiot move, a red flag waved at a bull by a matador without a sword. You aren't a saint turning the other cheek or a samurai refusing to fight inferiors or a smart kid keeping his clothes and bike safe by running away. You're just a coward running away. Your nose is wet. So is your lip. You dab the moisture with the sides of your fists, then realize where it's from. You say, "Fuck." You can't say anything else. Something's swelling in your chest and behind your eyes. If you make another sound, it'll break free. Then you'll be a coward who runs away and cries. A gray squirrel the size of a chipmunk scurries around a tree, sees you, and freezes. You stare at each other. When he doesn't run off, you wipe your fists on your jeans, hold out an open hand, and whisper, "Hey, li'l Reb. You sure make piss-poor moss." Reb sticks with the statue impersonation. You pat your pockets and find a wadded-up bag of cashews. You thought you'd eaten most of them, but the bag is half full. You toss a nut near Reb. He darts up to it, touches it with his nose, lifts it in his paws, then pops it in his mouth. You smile, toss him another, and pop one in your mouth. If Reb minds the salt, he's too polite to say. You throw more cashews until he stuffs his cheeks, wheels around, and runs into the brush. The woods aren't as hot as the highway, but the air is damp and still. Gnats swarm around you. Your bladder needs emptying. You unzip and check yourself: your left ball is red and sore. Otherwise everything seems normal. Meaning you wish everything was bigger and hairier, but knowing you should keep what you have is good. Your piss is yellow, untainted by blood. That must be a good sign. You touch your left ball several times, trying to decide each time if it hurts any less. Then you imagine drawing this: The Kid crouches in the woods, his hand in his jeans fly, a cloud of thought balloons over his head: "Does it still hurt?" "Ow!" "Yes." "Does it still hurt?" "Ow!" "Yes." "Does it still hurt?" Cindy Hurly might ask if the cartoon is a metaphor for the war. If she does, you'll shrug as if she caught you being clever and never admit it's just about being a boy afraid his balls are mashed. Copyright © 2007 by Will Shetterly. All rights reserved.