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Archibald Lee Caswell had named the still he and his best friend, Armory Mitchell, had built in the basement of his grandparents' home The Last Hurrah, in honor of Armory, who was moving with his family to Washington, D.C. He couldn't believe that a still they had made with their own hands would really produce any alcohol. That's why he agreed to the scheme when Armory showed him the instructions for building it. How could a few copper pipes, some scrap metal, a hose, and Armory's Coleman stove produce real alcohol? So Archie went along with the plan, and for a week the two of them carried the bits and pieces they had found for the still past the living-room windows, where his grandparents could have looked out and seen them at any moment, to the bulkhead and down the steps to the basement. But there they stood, to Archie's great surprise, facing each other with their first mugfuls of the homemade brew in their hands.
They were an odd-looking twosome. Archie was tall for his fourteen years and lanky, but his freckled face and wide blue eyes still had the look of a little boy in them. Armory, also fourteen, was three inches shorter than his friend and built like a truck, with a voice that carried like a truck's horn. He had small dark eyes that glinted with mischief.
Armory held his mug out toward Archie's and said, "Here's to our friendship. Long may it sail. Hurrah!"
Archie clinked mugs with Armory and waited for his friend to take the first sip, but Armory said, "No, let's drink it together. Down the hatch in one big gulp."
Archie sniffed the brownish liquid in his mug. It smelled like a toilet. "Are you sure we didn't overheat this stuff? The instructions said to keep..."
"I know what the instructions 'said.' You were the one looking at the thermometer every five seconds. You tell me."
Archie sniffed again and shrugged. "I guess it's all right."
"You wouldn't chicken out on me now, would you, Cas? The last hurrah and all that?"
"Have I ever?" Archie asked.
Armory chuckled. "Well there was that cliff face you and your bike didn't seem to want to go down a while back."
"I went, didn't I? And I beat you down it, too."
"Yeah, on your face. What did you call that maneuver you did off the front end of your bike? The arc and splat?" Armory hooted and Archie shushed him. "My granddaddy will hear us."
"He's gotta know we're down here. He'd be more suspicious if we were quiet. So come on"-Armory lifted his mug-"to the last hurrah!"
Archie hesitated a second while the memory of the broken arm and ribs he had gotten from his ride down the cliff flashed through his mind. What's the worst that could happen this time? He lifted his mug and said, "To the last hurrah!" Then he and Armory drank the bitter liquid down, each in one long gulp. When they had finished, they looked at each other and laughed.
Archie said, "Shh, he'll hear us." Then he laughed again and added, "This stuff's terrible. It tastes like we scraped the mold off these basement walls." He looked at the musty walls of the old basement and felt a sudden gripping pain in his gut. He clutched his stomach, and then the pain was gone.
Armory turned back to the still. "Let's go one more round."
"Are you kidding?"
"Come on, Cas, it'll put hair on your chest."
"More like my tongue," Archie said, feeling another sharp pain in his stomach. "This stuff's not sitting too well."
"Of course not. You never drank before. You're inexperienced, that's all." Armory held out his hand. "Give me your mug, Cas, come on."
Archie handed it over and wondered how he could get out of drinking another mugful. He didn't want to wimp out on his best friend on their last day together, but he didn't think he could keep another round down.
Armory handed him back his mug, and Archie took it without looking into the cup or sniffing the brew this time. Again Armory held up his mug and said, "To the last hurrah!"
"To the last hurrah," Archie said without enthusiasm. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and swallowed a big gulp. He heard his friend laughing, and he opened his eyes.
"Caswell, I can't believe you drank that. This isn't brew, it's hair tonic." Armory shot forward and dumped his drink on Archie's head. Archie howled and emptied the rest of his brew onto Armory. "You lunatic!" he shouted.
"What y'all doing down there? Archibald?"
Archie heard the cellar door open and he froze. "Nothing, Granddaddy, we'll be quieter." He heard his grandfather coming down the steps and felt both panic and alcohol rising inside himself. He turned and looked wide-eyed at Armory, who wore an expression of surprised delight. Archie turned back in the direction of the stairs and saw his grandfather appear in front of him.
It took the old man no time to figure out what they had been up to, and Archie saw his face turn purple with rage. "What?" his grandfather shouted, grabbing the front of Archie's shirt.
"Granddaddy, it-it's not what you think. It's..." Archie couldn't speak. He could feel the alcohol rising and rising. He tried to swallow it back down.
His grandfather shook him and shouted, "This here is the last straw! You are in the clutches of the very devil himself! I'm gonna tan your hide, boy. Makin' a still in my own home. Drinkin'!" He shook Archie again, and Archie couldn't hold back any longer. He vomited all over the front of his grandfather's shirt and pants.
Armory laughed and shouted out, "The last hurrah! Caswell, you did it!" As though Archie had vomited on purpose.
Archie was stunned. He looked at his grandfather, whose body shook with rage. The old man clenched his jaws and bared his teeth as though he wanted to rip into Archie and shred him to pieces. Archie tried to speak, but the words wouldn't come out. Then his grandfather's expression changed. In an instant it went from rage to alarm. Archie watched him wide-eyed as he fell forward onto his knees and then down to the floor, where he curled up into a tight ball.
Armory stopped laughing.
Archie dropped down beside his grandfather and touched his shoulder. "Granddaddy, are you all right? What should I do?"
"Get your grandmama, boy," he whispered. "Get your grandmama. I'm dying."
Copyright © 2003 by Han Nolan
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