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By Gregory Lamberson
Medallion Press, Inc. Copyright © 2008 Gregory Lamberson
All right reserved.
Chapter One Emerging from the brick Tudor house, Eric pulled the front door shut behind him. Icicles hung from the sloped roof like daggers. He shuffled through two inches of powdery snow to the black car waiting in the driveway, cold air filling his lungs and stark white filling his vision and causing his brain to pulse. The two-door Cutlass Supreme idled, gas fumes spewing from its exhaust as an electric guitar screeched through its speakers with digital clarity. The car looked like it had journeyed to hell and back, with varying shades of black and gray with different textures overlapping each other like scorch marks. A giant skull leered from a concentrated inferno airbrushed on the hood.
The Death Mobile.
As Eric passed the front bumper, the car lurched forward, like a panther poised to strike, then settled back on its haunches. Pretending not to notice, he opened the passenger door just as the guitar solo climaxed over the CD player, an orgy of self-indulgent showmanship. He dropped into the seat, feeling cold vinyl through his jeans. Setting his gym bag across his knees, he heaved the door shut and buckled his seat belt. The interior reeked of gasoline, fast food, and stale cigarette smoke. It repelled the sunlight.
Beside him, long fingers jeweled in silver skull rings drummed the steering wheel like crawling spiders, keeping time with the torturous beat. A shiny mane of long black hair, parted on the left, turned to him. Thin lips pulled back into a wicked grin, dark eyes glinting.
"Good morning, Erica."
Eric stared back. "How's it going, Jenny?"
Laughing, Johnny backed the Death Mobile out of the driveway. He shifted the car into gear and stepped on the gas, causing them to rocket forward, snow and ice spraying out from beneath spinning rear wheels. Eric glimpsed his mother watching them from the living room picture window, stern disapproval on her tight face. Speeding down Maple Street, they passed elegant houses separated by narrow yards.
"Maybe you could slow down? People do know me around here."
"Everyone knows everyone in this pissant town." Johnny eased up on the gas. "There. Your reputation's safe."
Eric opened his bag, took out a spiral notebook, tore out a page. "Here's your homework."
Johnny aimed a sideways glance at the sloppy, handwritten page. "Damn, boy."
"You want it to look believable, don't you?"
"Depends. What am I getting?"
"I could have done better than that myself."
"So do it yourself next time."
"You think reverse psychology will work on me? I'll take your shit grade. At least I'm passing."
Eric said nothing. Johnny made a right onto Garden Street, where older houses stood farther apart and had deeper front yards.
"You're getting grouchy," Johnny said. "I think it's sexual frustration. You need to get laid."
"I don't need to do anything."
"People are going to wonder about you."
"Let them." Eric glanced out the side window as they made another right-hand turn, this time onto Cherry Street, a gradual incline.
Johnny snapped his fingers. "Hey, maybe I should fix you up with Karen."
"Karen's your girlfriend, remember?"
"'Course I do. I popped her, didn't I? You never forget the ones you pop, because they never forget you. But I think you two could help each other out. You need to get laid, and she needs a good laugh. She only moans when she's with me."
"I don't blame her."
Releasing the steering wheel, Johnny gave Eric's bicep a playful punch. "Keep it up, Erica. You'll still be a virgin when you go away to college. They have secret societies that sacrifice people like you."
Johnny turned left onto Main Street, which dropped off before them like a waterfall, the town square coming into view a quarter mile below. The car plummeted down the steep hill like a roller coaster, and they sped downtown, passing the brick elementary school and a fenced football field. The village of Red Hill had been named after a minor yet bloody skirmish of the American Revolution that had been fought on that very hill.
Johnny jerked the steering wheel to his left, then his right. The Death Mobile zigzagged across the lanes, and Eric slammed his palms against the dashboard, which Johnny had covered with white fur. Behind them, a car horn blared. They roared over the Main Street bridge, laughing.
* * *
The Death Mobile cruised the town square, passing a white gazebo in the park on the left and single-story shops on the right. Four brick buildings surrounded the park: two churches, the municipal building, and the post office. Snowdrifts had buried the wooden benches surrounding the ornate fountain, and a bundled postal employee shoveled icy steps.
As they passed Saint Luke's, Johnny rolled down his window and spat out it. "Fuck you, Father Webb!"
He did this every morning, perhaps the only ritual he followed. He refused to explain this behavior to Eric, who accepted it as mere eccentricity. Johnny had stopped attending church after his mother's death seven years earlier.
Johnny gunned the engine and the commercial district receded behind them, Victorian houses rising from each side of the street.
"I got my first blow job in there," he said as they passed the Green Forest Cemetery.
"So you keep telling me."
"Maybe you should take Rhonda there. You two nerds could research each other."
Eric looked away.
"'Hi, Rhonda.' 'Bye, Rhonda.' 'What grade did you get on your composition, Rhonda?' Why don't you talk to her already? We graduate in three and a half months."
Eric ignored him.
"Damn it," Johnny said with sudden gravitas as he glanced at the rearview mirror.
Eric looked over his shoulder. The Red Hill Police Department's only SUV, a Pathfinder, had pulled behind them, its strobes flashing red and blue. "What did you do?"
"I didn't do shit. Turn around and stop looking like we just knocked over a convenience store." Johnny pulled over to the curb. On the sidewalk, underclassmen walking to school gawked at them.
Eric studied the side-view mirror. A tall police officer with a black mustache emerged from the Pathfinder and approached them, mirrored sunglasses masking his eyes, a revolver holstered on his hip. "Oh, great. It's Matt Crane." Eric hoped the man would not recognize him.
Johnny killed the music and rolled down his window. The sounds of cars splashing slush grew louder.
Leaning before the open window, Matt peered inside. Snowflakes landed on his mustache. "'Morning, boys."
"How's it going, Chief Crane?" Johnny forced a cheerful smile.
"It's just 'acting chief,' Johnny. Chief Butler will be back on the job soon."
"That's good news."
Matt leaned closer, his shades probing the dark interior. "How's your father, Eric?"
Eric resisted the urge to swallow the saliva pooling in his mouth. "Fine, sir."
"Glad to hear it."
Johnny gestured at the speedometer. "I'm pretty sure I wasn't speeding."
The ends of Matt's mustache curved upward. "Who said you were?"
"You must have had some reason for stopping me."
Matt appraised Johnny. "You're right, I did. You're driving without your seat belt on, and the roads are slippery. Better buckle up."
Johnny looked down, surprise registering on his face. "You saw that from across the street? Good looking out." He pulled the shoulder strap across his chest and snapped its buckle.
"My wife has both of you for first-period English, doesn't she?"
Johnny flashed sharp teeth at Matt. "How'd you know that?"
"Believe it or not, she's mentioned it a time or two."
Johnny winked at Eric. "You hear that?" Before Eric could respond, Johnny turned back to Matt. "Mrs. Crane is one of our favorite teachers."
Matt set his gloved hands on the door, his expression impassive. "Then you'd best be on your way. I know she'd hate for you to be late on my account." He patted the car. "Take it slow, okay?"
"Yes, sir." Rolling up his window, Johnny cranked up the music.
"You've got a major set of balls," Eric said.
The Death Mobile surged forward. "Fuck him. He only got where he is because Butler's croaking. Seat belt, my ass. He just wanted to roust us. That cocksucker's had a hard-on for me ever since I got my license." He grinned. "I'd do his wife in a heartbeat, though."
"I'm sure she'd appreciate that."
* * *
Watching the Death Mobile recede into the gray morning, Matt shook his head as the sound of screeching guitars faded. As a teenager, he had listened to the likes of Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, and Judas Priest. Those musicians seemed quaint compared to the speed metal Johnny favored. Returning to the Pathfinder, he wondered how Carol put up with these kids, which made him feel old. They didn't have children of their own yet, a frequent topic of conversation. Maybe now that Carol had tenure at the high school and he had a promotion within his grasp ...
He climbed into the front seat and started the engine. Carol wanted to start a family, but he wasn't sure he was ready. With the long hours he worked, he valued what little free time he had. They led simple lives: dinner with his mother once a week, dinner with her parents once a week, and a night on the town, which usually consisted of dinner and a movie. He liked Westerns, as rare as they were, and action movies, as long as they weren't too unbelievable. Carol preferred romantic comedies and high school dramas. He didn't know why: if he had to spend his days cooped up with hormonally driven teenagers, the last way he'd want to relax would be watching fictional representations of them. Besides, nothing dramatic really happened to teenagers. At least not in a village as quiet as Red Hill.
* * *
Eric glanced out the left window as they passed Johnny's house. The two-story Colonial home had seen better days: shingles had fallen off the roof and paint peeled from the siding. A blue cutout of a buffalo, the Buffalo Bills' emblem, stood on the front lawn. Johnny stared straight ahead with no reaction. The houses on the right gave way to the school's winding driveway, which divided the snow-blanketed schoolyard in two.
"Welcome to Alcatraz," Johnny said.
Excerpted from Johnny Gruesome by Gregory Lamberson Copyright © 2008 by Gregory Lamberson. Excerpted by permission.
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