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Kevin felt the all the air leave his lungs; somehow every time it happened it caught him off-guard. He had been going to school with Aria May Pearson for nearly four years now so it wasn’t like this was the first time he had ever seen her but, coming back from the ten-day Christmas break, it kind of felt like a lifetime and thus the involuntary reaction. Aria was standing on the far side of Barton Middle School’s inner courtyard, the center of gravity for the “it” crowd and waiting, as were they all, for the last bell to ring, signaling students to class before they were counted tardy.
It seemed that she grew more beautiful every time he saw her, even on a daily basis, and this was no exception. The cold January air gave her cheeks a rosy glow that accented her strawberry-blonde hair and whatever pinkish lipstick she was wearing that day. Kevin was pretty sure he knew every line and detail of her face, having stared at her yearbook picture more than he would ever care to admit.
Seventh grade had been a living hell so far, more of a punishment than a chore, and there were days that he woke up crying at the prospect of having to come. How many times had he faked having the flu? The only redeeming factor were those few moments in his day when he could put his own eyes on Aria and, if he was really lucky, was able to talk to her. He couldn’t exactly say it made it all worthwhile, but it was certainly Kevin’s biggest motivating factor for leaving the house each day.
Christmas break had been a wonderful reprieve and he savored every second of every day that he didn’t have to deal with Bruce and his band of mindless minions. That entire morning as he sighed and hem-hawed his way through getting ready for school there was nothing but utter dread, but now that he was back…well, he definitely missed seeing her.
Aria was smiling and laughing; oh what a smile. She was talking to the group of girls that always gathered around her like moths to a flame and telling a story. Probably talking about her amazing Christmas break and all her amazing presents. Although, even if it were mundane Kevin would have probably found it to be ‘amazing’. There was no way that any aspect of her life wasn’t lifted straight from a fairy-tale. It was always that way in the many, many, sometimes somewhat confusing, dreams he had had about her. Google said it was “infatuation” but Kevin knew better; it was love.
Aria finished her story and everyone laughed. Of course. She began to look around with her brilliant blue eyes until she was looking at…oh crap…she was looking at him. Despite the forty degree weather out, Kevin’s body temperature rocketed up and he began to sweat, his cheeks going flush. All this from a look, he thought to himself, man that’s pathetic. He hoped she wouldn’t notice in her passing glance; at least he expected it to be a passing glance. It wasn’t.
With her eyes locked on his, she began walking in his direction, the group of girls parting like the Red Sea in her wake. With her gaze still on him she smiled and waved and closed the distance. Instinctively, Kevin looked behind him; there was no way she was waving at him…yet, it seemed like maybe she was. His heart began pounding so furiously, Kevin could hear it in his eardrums. Aria Pearson was walking to him. This was new territory and, not having a clue what to do, Kevin put his hands in his coat pocket and waited nervously for whatever might be getting ready to happen. Most likely she would just walk right past, maybe having a giggle at his expense for being stupid enough to think she wanted to talk to him. Except that wasn’t Aria; she was an angel.
“What…you don’t wave?” She was right next to him and he turned again to make sure she wasn’t talking to someone above his head. He was pretty short for his age.
“M…me?” It took a lot just to get the one word out and Kevin struggled to remember if she had ever spoken to him before other than to say ‘hello’ in the hallways.
“No silly,” she giggled, “the group of monkeys behind you.” She smacked his arm playfully and Kevin feared the very real possibility of passing out. He tried to keep his breathing steady. “Duh, you. So how was your Christmas break?” Had he stepped into an alternate dimension? Was Aria Pearson really striking up a conversation with him? Kevin was in no way prepared for this scenario this morning and if he had anticipated it in the least he would have stayed up all night preparing his words. It wasn’t that he wasn’t a smart kid…he was. Everyone knew that he was the one that kept the grading curve so high, but when he was around Aria something about his brain just wouldn’t work right; synapses misfiring or not firing. Basically his mind went to mush.
“Um…” Come one man, you can think of something good. Wow her. He wasn’t so sure and, “It was good” was the best he could come up with.
“Oh…well that sounds exciting.” She wasn’t giving up. “Did you get anything cool?” He did actually. His parents gave him a whole slew of expensive video recording and editing equipment; he had basically built a full studio in his room and, if he were so motivated, could probably film and edit a full-length feature. Telling her about that would be the perfect segue into his aspirations to be a Hollywood director and before long she’ll be captivated. She’ll want to say she knew him when he was a ‘nobody’.
“Uh…I guess.” ‘You guess’…really? Last chance. “I got some…uh…video stuff.” No one would ever accuse him of being a professional pick-up artist. Kevin actually had many talents and a bright future but social awkwardness was really his forte.
“Oh…well, that sounds cool.” She leaned in close and wrapped her arm around his. He could smell her perfume and feel her body heat. At least in this position if he did get tunnel vision she could keep him from falling… or you bring her down with you. “So listen,” her breath smelled like cinnamon. “I know we don’t really talk a lot but I was hoping maybe we could work out a deal of some kind.” Kevin had no idea what she was talking about but he could listen to her speak until the end of time.
“You know Missus Lash?” she asked. He did, of course, everyone did. Having taught Algebra and Pre-Calculus at the school for nearly forty years, she had a reputation that preceded her. Without a doubt a difficult woman who taught at an unforgiving pace, what Doris Lash was really known for was her lisp and the ensuing spittle that it brought forth. Her classrooms, surprisingly, had no assigned seating which led to students, despite was one might think, hurrying to be the first ones in. The later one got to her class, the closer the front one had to sit to the front; the closer one had to sit to the front, the wetter one tended to get.
“Yea I know Missus Lathhhhh.” He imitated the old woman’s lisp, bringing Aria to genuine laughter. She even doubled over a little, pulling his arm with her. He didn’t mind.
“Stop,” she cried. “You’re gonna make me pee.” The image brought a fresh coat of crimson to his face. “That’s her, dead on. Geez…I didn’t know you were so funny.” Neither did he. “So…anyway…I’m getting killed in her Pre-Calc. I missed two days last month with the flu,” he remembered, “and her lesson plans just go so damn fast I could never get caught up. I swear that woman’s like a NAZI.” Kevin nodded in agreement. He didn’t really think Doris Lash was like a NAZI but she could have said a ‘pizza-shaped snowboard’ and he would have agreed with her.
“And I know that you’re like super-smart and shit,” she continued, “so I was hoping maybe you could help me catch up. You know…like tutor me and stuff.” Was she really saying what he thought she was or was he still in bed asleep? That seemed the likelier of the two. “Don’t get me wrong, Kev.” His knees nearly buckled as he A. had no idea she knew his name, B. had never heard her say it and C. had never been called ‘Kev’ by anyone at school before. This had to be a dream.
“I don’t expect you to do it for free or anything. My parents will pay you for your time and everything. I was thinking that you could just come home with me for a few days next week and my mom can give you a ride home afterwards. Heck, we’ll even feed you a great dinner, to boot.” Come home with her? Dinner at her house? What was happening? “So, you know…just think about it and stuff and, you know, just get back to me.” She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek, her lips were moist and cold and the world began to spin.
She turned, her blond hair flipping in the wind, and walked away without looking back. She probably assumed that he was looking at her derriere, most guys did, but Kevin wasn’t seeing much of anything. The blackout he had been fearing was upon him, darkness eating away at his periphery. Taking a few steps backwards, his back found a wall to brace himself on as he took large breaths of cold air, in through his nose and out through his mouth; praying the whole time that he wouldn’t go down. There were certain things that were never lived down and passing out in front of his classmates from a peck on the cheek would certainly be one of them.
For the moment his prayers were answered; his vision returning while his temples pounded with his heartbeat. The whole process was only a few seconds long but it felt like time had stood still. Once fully recovered, Kevin pushed himself off the wall…except…it wasn’t a wall. It was a type of fabric but whatever was beneath the fabric was as solid as a wall. Slowly and with fair amount of dread, Kevin looked up and over his shoulder. Shit! It was exactly what he expected it to be. It was Bruce Brian Botty.
With a name like Bruce Brian Botty one might think the boy received some degree of teasing growing up…he didn’t. Bruce looked like he should be graduating high school, not yet to go into it. It didn’t help that he had been held back three times in his scholastic career so far. Bruce towered over his classmates. Hell, the kid was bigger than the majority of the guys on the high school football team. He wore intimidation on his sleeve as a badge of honor and wielded fear like a fine-tuned weapon. You would be hard pressed to find one who would admit it out loud, but it was obvious that even the teachers were afraid of the not-so-little monster.
After so many slashed tires, homes broken into and threatening calls were made, they just wanted to wash their hands of him and push him on to the next level. Let the high school authorities’ deal with it. It became that way for his whole little group; his disciples. Andy March, Cary Dowel, and Mark Winchester were good sized ruffians themselves, but much closer in stature to their fellow classmates than to the giant they followed into mindless mayhem.
It was them…all of them…that were standing behind Kevin when his vision returned to him; life somehow going from one extreme end of the spectrum to the other in a blink of the eye. Bruce leaned down into his face, his greasy black hair falling over one eye.
“Pretty girl,” he hissed menacingly with cigarette breath. There was nothing kind in the compliment. “Get ‘cha a little kiss…did ya?” Kevin couldn’t move; frozen with fear. “So I guess you haven’t heard…and that’s okay; we’ve been gone for a while so the news hasn’t had a chance to get around.” The brute’s crew laughed cruelly. Kevin didn’t get the joke.
“But I’m gonna clue you in right now.” Bruce shoved one fat, sausage finger into his chest, pushing Kevin back several inches without even trying. “Me and Aria are a thing now.”
“Aria and I.” As soon as the words came out Kevin was wondering where the hell they came from. He was way too smart to have just corrected Bruce Botty…and yet…there they were. Even Bruce’s own guys were shocked enough by the reply to look at each other before turning their heated glares back his way. There was a time, back in third and fourth grade, when Kevin and Cary were actually good friends; they had been to each other’s homes for sleepovers more than once having heated video game battles until the sun came up. To even admit something like that now would have resulted in a hailstorm of insults and beating from his crew so he glowered at Kevin just as hard as the rest of them.
“Oh…” Bruce snarled, literally showing the top of his back teeth. “Thank…you…so…much. You know, four-eyes, I don’t know what I would do without you.” Then leaning in close again and just above a whisper, “Maybe we should find out?” Kevin was just starting to wonder if it was possible to pass out again so quickly when the bell rang out for class.
The three sets of double-doors that led into the main building all opened as a flood of students poured in from the cold. Mr. Hopkins, a history teacher, and Ms. Powell, a science teacher, each stepped out of a door to oversee the process and they both made the situation immediately. Walking much slower than they should have been, they made their way to where Kevin was still stuck like a deer in headlights and surrounded by hungry wolves.
“Mister Botty…” Mr. Hopkins asked, “Is there a problem here?” The authority he tried to convey in his voice was made hollow by the uncertainty in his eyes. Ms. Powell shared the same expression. If there were a problem, they wouldn’t know what the hell to do about it other than Ms. Powell hitting the send button on her cell phone. The 911 were already pressed. Bruce looked at the teachers and then back at Kevin.
At no time in Bruce’s life would he be accused of being a smart man but the specter of grade-school’s past hung over him still and the last thing on earth he wanted was to be stuck in middle school for another year. It was almost a forgone conclusion that he would be dropping out when he turned eighteen in two years anyway but he really needed to keep Social Services out of his life until then. After that, his old man could beat his mom and rape his sisters as much as he wanted; Bruce would be out of there.
“No,” Bruce shook his head. “No problem sir. My little buddy here was just helping me with my English homework. Ain’t that right kid?” The teacher’s presences caused Kevin’s muscles to relax enough to move again and he nodded in agreement.
“That’s right.” His voice was hoarse and weak. The teachers could tell it was more than that, but no one, at that point, wanted the issue to escalate further, so they didn’t press.
“Alright then,” Mr. Hopkins piped. “Let’s get to class boys. You’re going to be late.” Kevin grabbed his backpack and scurried to the closest entrance as Bruce motioned for his guys to follow him to a different one. Just before Kevin could slide inside Bruce yelled back to him.
“Hey kid…we’ll finish our little talk after school so don’t go anywhere!” They were perhaps the most disturbing words Kevin could ever imagine hearing, somewhere just behind, “Do you have any last words?” and if there had been a large enough hole anywhere nearby he would have crawled inside to die. With some bullies, a threat like that might just be taken as a threat, but with Bruce…it was a brutal promise. Especially if anyone else heard him. Were it just the two of them, Bruce might have let it go, but when others are around it sets a certain degree of expectation and Bruce didn’t like to let his fans down.
Kevin spent the rest of the school day on a roller-coaster of bi-polar emotions. So much had happened in such a short amount of time; it was difficult to process it all. So many inconceivable possibilities had opened up in his near future he found it impossible to focus on either one, let alone his classes. What would Aria’s house look like? What would Bruce’s thick fist feel like against his tiny head? Would Aria and he become close enough that she’d consider acting in a movie for him? Would Lenscrafters still have the same frames after Bruce shatters his? Would, in a worst case, Aria speak at his funeral? For that matter, did his parents have life insurance on him?
Needless to say, a lot didn’t get done that day. Sixth period went the slowest; Kevin watched every second tick by on the wall clock. As the closing minutes of what was his Study Hall wound down Kevin found himself on the precipice of his seat anxiously waiting to be the first one out the door and down the hall. Bruce, as most everyone seemed to know, was in Phys-Ed at the other end of the school. If fate was with him, Kevin could get enough of a head start while Bruce was changing back to his even dirtier school clothes, and be on his bicycle and down the block before they were even out of the school itself.
That was the plan, at least. The one thing Kevin didn’t factor into the plan, however, was the insane number of times that Bruce and his gang skipped class, especially P.E. where the teacher was always absentee anyway, drinking in the teacher’s lounge. That must have been the case today because when Kevin came out of the courtyard into the parking lot and was approximately fifty feet from the bike rack he saw them standing there next to his silver BMX Racer. Fifty feet…that’s how much of a head start he had.
Instead of freezing up as it had earlier, Kevin’s mind rapidly calculated his best odds and a split-second after recognition his legs sprang into action, carrying him into the street as quickly as they ever had before. A cursory look over his shoulder told him that they were in pursuit…all of them. To say the town they lived in was small would be something of an understatement. With one middle-school, one high-school, one stop-light and three churches, it would never be confused with something that ended with a burg or a ville. The locals called it ‘quaint’ and often brought up the town’s connections to the work of Norman Rockwell.
Kevin had made a beeline straight for “downtown”; six blocks consisting of a few old shops, a coffee house, a post office and, with a block all to itself, the courthouse complete with a statue of a flaming lion reaching for the sky and an inscription which read: Justice is a lion burning for truth. His thought process was that it would provide the largest number of corners for him to run around and, with any luck, lose them in the process. Kevin had anticipated them covering the gap between them quickly, but, thanks to a pack of cigarettes a day, he was actually adding to it.
He had passed a couple of buildings when he decided to duck into the alley that ran between Sweeny’s Drug Store and Franny’s Flower and then back behind the drug store onto second avenue. The alley provided a lot of cover with its garbage cans and dumpsters and, upon finding two wedged close together, he managed to slip between and then behind them. It was a pretty good hiding spot with the wall behind him; providing a descent spy-hole in both directions.
It took another thirty, agonizing seconds for anything to come into view. It was Cary Dowel making his way into the alley. Apparently they had split up in their search for him. For a moment Kevin considered revealing himself and appealing to any nostalgia Cary might have had for their warm history but the thought was fleeting. Even though he ended up on a different side of the fence than Kevin, he still lived under the firm umbrella Bruce’s fear; just as much a victim as he was an aggressor. Bruce was the ultimate predator and they all just tried to survive their time with him.
Kevin held his hand over his mouth trying to temper the volume of his heavy breathing. Cary was walking all the way through the bent alley, from one entrance to the other. His former friend passed the dumpsters without incident and was nearly out of the alley when, as Kevin was about to breathe a sigh of relief, a noise came from somewhere close to him that drew Cary’s attention back in his direction. It was whimper of sorts. Kevin held his breath and prayed, please keep going. He didn’t. The other boy stopped at the edge of the alley and turned back around.
“Kevin?” he called out to the alley that was possibly not deserted after all. “If you’re here man…just stay hidden. He’ll get bored of looking before too long.” The boy turned back around, pausing just long enough to say, “I’m sorry,” before disappearing from view. Kevin finally allowed the sigh of relief to come out but the sensation was short-lived. Another high-pitched whimper echoed off the wall behind him; it was coming from somewhere very close.
Fear was the first emotion to grip him…it usually was, but it was quickly replaced with curiosity. The noise conveyed pain and fear itself, like a wounded animal, and his naturally nurturing instincts kicked in. Kevin began searching the undesirable rubbish around him and very quickly found the source of the sound. Beneath a cardboard box and buried in a pile of discarded sales flyers was the most pitiful looking dog Kevin had ever seen.
He had never been good with dog breeds and had no clue what breed the shaggy little animal might have been but it was, in Kevin’s opinion, the spitting image of “Benji” the movie-star dog from the sixties. The little pooch made eye contact and renewed its pitiful pleas, but did little else. The boy inspected the dog with all the expertise that Google and his cell-phone provided and could find nothing wrong other that the fact that the animal was probably starving; its little ribs poking through its fur. Torn between his desire to heed Cary’s advice and stay hidden and the need to get his new friend some food, he finally decided on the latter and slid out from his trashcan cubby.
Feeling like he was in a “Spy Vs Spy” comic strip, Kevin carefully peered around each corner before slipping into Sweeny’s Drug Store with as much stealth as he could muster. Several minutes later he had returned to the dog with two large cans of wet dog food and a bottle of water. Without even realizing that he had started doing so, Kevin began calling the bushy little guy “Benji”; it seemed fitting given the remarkable resemblance.
The moment Kevin cracked the first can of food Benji came to life, jumping up and furiously trying to shove his nose into the can before he could even get the lid off. Kevin laughed as he tried to work around the excited dog, Benji’s tail smacking him in the face. The two cans went in no time and Kevin found himself making a total of two more trips into the drug store until the animal seemed satiated.
All in all, Kevin spent nearly two hours in the alley with Benji; a large amount of that time spent trying to think of a way to convince his parents to let him keep the dog. Of course it was probably out of the question, they already had three cats, but maybe he could be an outside dog. Except…they didn’t have a yard; they lived in an apartment. He finally decided that, for now at least, Benji would have to be an alley-dog until he could think of something better and he would come and feed the animal every day.
Goodbyes said and kisses exchanged, Kevin left the animal for the evening. He would use the rest of the time he had to retrieve his bike and get home to think of a viable excuse to give his mother for being so late. Since he was a good kid, she wouldn’t need much and by the time dinner was over, the subject was passé. So many monumental things had happened over the course of the day the Kevin was surprised to find himself dreaming about Benji when he finally drifted away.
His alarm was set extra early the next morning and Kevin was out the door at least an hour before his usual departure time. It would have seemed inconceivable just the day before that he would have any desire to be heading in the direction of his school any earlier than he was forced to do so, but that was before Benji. Of course the thoughts of both Bruce and Aria continued to dance on the edges of his mind, but what he was really focused on was his new friend.
Benji was there, curled up in the bed of old newspapers that Kevin had made for him and their reunion was as sweet as he had hoped it would be. The little dog both remembered and missed him and their hour together went in minutes before Kevin left for school. He wasn’t even aware of the massive smile he was wearing when he walked into the courtyard, but…someone noticed. A tap on his shoulder made it disappear instantly and all the fear and anxiety the dog’s influence had been holding at bay came flooding back, burying him in its wake. Kevin held his breath and slowly turned…it was Aria.
In a shiny, gold jacket and painted on jeans, she was almost too much to take in. She was, like the sun, almost too bright to look directly at. Her hair was pulled back into a pony-tail, exposing her neck and that was where Kevin found himself focusing. In that moment he would have traded his left hand to be able to kiss her neck…right where it arches gracefully to her…oh shit…she was saying something.
“…so what is it?” He was embarrassed on several levels, simultaneously wishing that he had been listening to her question, and hoping she would have no way of knowing what he was actually thinking about.
“I…uh…I’m sorry…what?” It was the best he could do.
“Wow…you’re a real space case this morning. Partying late last night, were we?” Kevin nodded and smiled even though he had never really known the definition of “partying”. “I said, ‘what’s with the smile?’ You had a big shit-eater when you walked in.” Aria Pearson was watching him walk in? He thought for a moment and then decided to come clean…after all, girls did love dogs.
“I…well, I kind of got a dog.”
“Oooooh.” He was right. “I loooove dogs. What kind is he?” Kevin didn’t get a chance to tell her as the final bell rang them to class. “Oh well,” she leaned in and kissed him on the cheek again. “You can tell me about it at lunch. Come find me.” Aria was off and Kevin, dumbstruck, was left wondering what the hell happened…again. Were they friends now? When did that happen? One thing was for sure: he’d never be washing that cheek again.
He drifted through the first half of his school day in a foggy haze, unable to shake the giddy elation of that moment. The lunch break did nothing to bring him back to Earth either, especially when Aria called out “Kev” from across the lunch-room for all to hear, waving him over to the table where her and her friends were sitting; a table Kevin wouldn’t have dreamed of sitting at even if it were completely unoccupied. This was all highly irregular.
The weirdness continued when she and her sycophantic “friends” treated him…well, not like the social pariah he knew himself to be. Marcie, Jerri and Sarah all smiled and asked him about his Christmas break despite the fact they would have never been caught dead speaking to him in the past. When he told him about the video equipment they all seemed interested and when he told them about Benji that all responded with appropriate “ooohs” and “aaahs”. It were almost as if Kevin had been sitting at the table with these untouchably elite kids all year…almost.
As they were leaving lunch for fourth period and when Kevin was just around a corner dumping his lunch tray, a hard shove came from behind nearly sending him into the garbage can behind his milk carton and uneaten food. He didn’t have to turn around to know what it was. Bruce put one meaty hand on his shoulder and squeezed…hard; it hurt. Leaning his mouth down next to the smaller boy’s ear, he hissed, “Missed you yesterday. Don’t worry…I won’t miss you today.” With another less than gentle push, he was gone and Kevin was left with his plastic lunch tray trembling in his hand.
Whatever magic the first half of the day had brought had been shattered. What had he done to deserve this? He never did anything or bothered anyone. At best, he was background material…but not now. For some unimaginable reason Bruce had placed Kevin in the middle of his cross-hairs and he wasn’t going to let him go. Maybe it was because he was so unassuming…easy prey; like the runtishly slow gazelle that gets separated from the herd. Whatever the case may be, he spent the next two hours of class feverishly trying to calculate an escape plan.
By the time the bell rang signaling the end of fifth period he had pretty much decided to do the unthinkable. He had never once, in his entire scholastic career, skipped a class; the mere thought of it was foreign and taboo. Might as well go ahead and grab a crack-pipe while he was at it. In his mind it was a very slippery slope. It was, however, only Study Hall and the odds of any actual studying getting done were low to none. In the end, he valued his life more than his attendance record and slipped out the side door with his backpack in tow.
Even though he was taking off early, Kevin was still very careful about peering around the courtyard wall when leaving, rather than blindly stumbling out into view like he did yesterday. As fate would have it, it was a good thing. Bruce and his crew were already waiting at the bike-rack; skipping class seemingly not as big a deal to them as it was to Kevin.
Andy and Mark were kicking Kevin’s already dented, bicycle into unusable shape while Cary watched from the side with a glum look on his face. Bruce was leaning against a teacher’s car, foot propped against the door, and smoking a cigarette in plain view of the world. Kevin hated just how untouchable that kid really was. Everyone was scared to death of him…and it wasn’t fair. Tucking his head back behind the concrete wall, Kevin considered a new route off the school’s property and to Benji…one that wouldn’t involve using his bike, obviously.
Wanting to see what sort of shape they would leave his two-wheeled companion in, he took one more peek around the wall. Unfortunately, it was one peek too many. Cary saw him first…and said nothing, but when Bruce’s gaze caught him looking, he turned as well to make visual contact. Kevin watched just long enough to see Bruce point and, nose flaring, scream, “GET HIM!” and then his legs were in motion; pumping as hard as they could and carrying him the same direction he had gone the day before. It had worked once.
He didn’t bother looking over his shoulder this time and he didn’t slow at any point to calculate a direction; he went as fast as he could to Benji’s alley. It didn’t really occur to him that a livelier version of the dog might give him away this time, he just remembered how safe he felt in his little dumpster cubby-hole. Kevin rounded the corner of the drug store and down to the elbow of the alley. Benji was there waiting, wagging his tail and as happy as he could be to see the boy.
Scooping the dog into his arms was probably a risk, as some dogs might have attacked given such a move, but was low on Kevin’s list of concerns. The little animal did nothing aggressive, however, and Kevin shoved him through the small space between the giant metal containers and followed behind on his knees.
“I think he went down here.” It was Mark yelling from the front of the alley and upon hearing the new voice, Benji began wagging his tail and yipping. Kevin tried to put his hand over the dog’s snout to quiet him but to no avail and after a couple seconds of struggling to do so, the fluffy guy slipped out of his grasp and back into the alley. There was no moment of indecision as Kevin scrambled out behind him. As improbable as it might seem to most in such a short amount of time…he loved that dog. They could end up doing whatever they wanted to him, but there was no way in hell he was going to let them hurt Benji.
Kevin quickly righted himself and ran around the alley’s bend…smack into Bruce. Standing with his cronies behind him, the greasy brute snarled at him…or maybe it was a smile, they looked the same on his thick face. Kevin looked around frantically for Benji but didn’t see or hear him anywhere. Good, he thought, he must be hiding again. Which was what he probably should have been doing.
“There you are, shit-stain.” The tormentor grabbed him by the collar of his coat and lifted Kevin easily from the ground; his coat and shirt digging into his armpits. “I’m not too happy with you, four-eyes.” Verbal insults weren’t exactly Bruce’s forte. “I don’t like to run, turd, and this is two days in a row that you’ve made me run!” He shook the boy like a rag-doll as Kevin remained instinctively limp.
“You should have just taken your licks like a man and it wouldn’t have come to this.”
“Yea!” Andy piped in from behind them.
“Shut the fuck up, Pansy-Andy; nobody’s talking to you right now.” The red-headed boy looked a little hurt and muttered, “sorry” but the cruel smile never once left his face. Whether he had to be put in his place or not, he wasn’t going to miss the show. Andy was the same special kind of evil that Bruce was only one hundred pounds lighter. If and when he ever achieved the type of size Bruce had, he would be just as physically vicious…maybe worse.
“So,” Bruce said, turning his full attention back to Kevin. “What do you think we should do as a punishment?” The question was obviously rhetorical, but Kevin still had to fight back the impulse to blurt out something sarcastic and funny. Why did his best lines always come at the worst moments? “Before,” the savage continued, “I was just going to put you in the hospital…but now, oh buddy, now I’m gonna put you in the…” He couldn’t come up with the word. “Um…funeral?” Bruce looked back at his boys.
“Funeral home?” Mark offered.
“Morgue?” Andy guessed.
“A cemetery,” Cary finished, clearly the smartest of the bunch. “You’re gonna put him in the ground…a cemetery.” That seemed satisfy Bruce and Kevin prayed that Cary didn’t actually believe what had just said.
“You know what?” Bruce asked, turning his attention back to his dangling puppet. “You’re getting heavy.” With that, he threw the smaller boy several feet backwards. Kevin landing awkwardly on his backside; his head smacking against the concrete, shattering his glasses in the process. His fight or flight instinct had kicked in and Kevin wanted to get up and run away as quickly as he could, but he found it difficult to sit upright.
His head ached and with every ounce of energy he could muster, Kevin crawled around the bend, the sounds of malicious laughter echoing behind him and maybe someone asking, “Where are you going?” A few feet was the most he could manage as the alley around him began to spin. He was vaguely aware that blood was dripping down his face from somewhere within his hairline. Kevin laid his head back down on the ground and turned it to the side. Tragically nearsighted, he couldn’t see very far, but even then, it didn’t matter as everything started fading to black. The last thing he did see before succumbing to the possible concussion was Benji…sweet Benji, licking his face. The last thought he had: please don’t let them hurt my dog.
Cary felt sick to his stomach. Seeing Kevin crawl around the corner, smearing a trail of his own blood behind him, was almost too much. Yea, he had seen some pretty messed up shit since he fell in with Bruce, but this was approaching a new level. What the hell was he going to do…stand here and watch the psychotic man-child kill someone; his child-hood friend, no less? This was the last place on Earth he wanted to be right now and for the life of him, he couldn’t really remember how he had gotten there. The person he was becoming was not the person he set out to be and every moment spent with Bruce sent him further down that path.
“Where are you going?” Bruce asked while he and Andy laughed maniacally. Was this really fun for them?
“Bruce?” Cary called out timidly. He didn’t know what he was going to say, but…he had to say something. The kid was bleeding, for Pete’ sake, passing out; he needed an ambulance…not further abuse. The other three boys stopped a few feet from the corner and turned to look at him. “I…I don’t know man.”
“You don’t know…what?” Bruce didn’t like being questioned.
“Pussy’s afraid.” Andy offered, earning him a punch on the arm.
“Shut up Pandy.” He looked back at Cary. “You wanna say something?” Obviously, he didn’t want to say anything but his conscious wouldn’t let him stay quiet. There was a very real fear in the back of his mind that not doing so would be akin to putting his soul at risk. He believed in God and he believed in Heaven and he knew that was where he wanted to end up.
“It…it’s just,” he stammered. “It’s just…c’mon man. He’s already messed up pretty bad. What are you planning on doing to him?” Bruce closed the distance in the alley between them until he was face to face with the other boy. Cary was actually pretty tall for his age but Bruce still towered over him.
“What I’m planning to do…Care-bear, it to teach the kid a lesson he will never forget.”
“I think you’ve done that.” As much as Cary wanted to diffuse the situation, everything he said only pissed Bruce off more. He picked up half of broken broom handle and shook it in Cary’s face.
“Maybe you need a little lesson today as well…hmmm?” Cary was petrified…he knew what Bruce was capable of, but, in a very polarizing moment, something in the back of his mind snapped and he decided that, from that day forward, he would do everything in his power to escape the bully’s grasp on him.
A bark echoed out from around the bend and they all looked in its direction, only seeing the tips of Kevin’s motionless shoes and a streak of blood. Suddenly, a bright light began to shine from the other end of the alley. ‘Bright’ really didn’t even describe it; it wasn’t like a flashlight or even a car’s headlights, but rather like the sun itself were rising up just around the corner. It was blinding and the boys all held up their hands to shield their eyes.
What happened next would stay with Cary for the rest of his life. At times it might seem like it was a dream and as he would grow much older, a delusion, but it would never leave him. Even as it happened, he questioned the reality of the moment. That’s the effect a semi-mythical creature can have on one’s day. Cary would have thought of it as a full blown mythical creature except…there it was, right in front of them.
In its most recognizable sense it looked like a giant lion…a giant lion engulfed in an unquenchable flame. It was too bright to discern any details but there was something vaguely familiar about it to Cary…something he couldn’t quite put his finger on; mostly likely due to the shock his body was going into. To his left, he could see a puddle of urine building around Andy’s trembling feet and to his right, Mark had fallen into a fetal position and was crying like an infant.
It was impossible to see Bruce’s face from behind him so Cary didn’t know how shaken up, if any, he was. His body was rigid, giving no real indication…unless he was scared frozen. When he raised up the broom handle in an offensive position, Cary figured that wasn’t the case either. “What the…” was all that escaped his mouth before the…thing…spoke. Its words sounded like rolling thunder and echoed off the alley walls, penetrating straight into their skulls.
“You will kneel in my presence.” Cary could feel the words vibrating in his chest and he fell to his knees, hardly aware that he was doing so. Head slightly bowed, he could see Bruce in his periphery. Not nearly as intimidated as he should have been, he took a step towards the burning beast. Bruce Botty didn’t really know how to back down. His entire life he had gotten everything he had wanted and most of it came because he took it. In his best estimation he was seeing an illusion of some type; perhaps an augmented reality app or something. He didn’t really know how those things worked.
Swinging the broomstick over his head and bringing crashing into the side of the lion’s with enough force to kill most men, Bruce made his desire to kneel painfully clear. The wooden handle shattered from the force, sending burning embers of wood in all directions. The piece still in Bruce’s hands had caught fire and he stared at it with an uncomprehending disbelief. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Still confused, the lion opened its mouth to roar a single word and the force of the vibration alone sent Bruce sprawling backwards and then onto his ass.
“Kneel!” the beast commanded and this time Bruce wasted scrambling from his behind to his already dirty knees.
“What do you want?” Andy cried out like a terrified child kneeling in his own piss, before putting his head down between his legs and bawling, his red hair becoming wet with his own waste. “What do you want…what do you want” he continued to mumble in between sobs while rocking back and forth. When the answer rang out, Cary was terrified; he had to imagine they all were.
“Justice!” The flames, which seemed to somehow be emanating from within the creature itself, grew larger and hotter every time it uttered a word. Cary was overwhelmed with awe and when he saw what Bruce did next he was doubly amazed. Screaming “Fuck this!” at the top of his lungs, Bruce leapt to his feet. Cary half expected him to tear ass past him and out of this alley nightmare and when he didn’t it was actually kind of admirable if such a word applied in that situation. When the big fool decided to go on the attack it turned into something closer to pity.
It was as much of a frenzied rage as Cary had ever seen the other boy in and if these were anything remotely close to normal circumstances, he would be scared to death of him. In this moment, however, it all seemed puny and weak in comparison. Regardless, Bruce flung himself at the thing, seemingly without a care for his personal safety. Cary had often wondered, on more occasions than he should have, if his gang-leader were actually insane…like, clinically insane.
He recalled a time approximately six months ago when they were on the Bower’s farm and Bruce was attempting to break into Old Man Bower’s pick-up truck for no other reason than his seeing a pack of cigarettes on the dash. Using a large rock, he ended up smashing the driver’s side window; the noise bringing the Bower’s two Pit Bulls from the back of the farmhouse and, foaming at the mouth and barking furiously, straight towards the boys.
Andy, Mark and himself had, what he would have considered, perfectly rational reactions to the rapidly approaching, snarling animals and began hauling ass themselves to the end of the property. Cary didn’t know why he turned to look over his shoulder while running away, but when he did it forced him to a halt. Bruce wasn’t a few feet behind them as he expected, but rather holding his ground next to the pick-up, large rock still in hand. Cary remembered wondering just exactly what the other boy was planning to do; the Bower’s pits weren’t without reputation, after all.
The entire act played out in a matter of slow-motion seconds and when it was over, one dog was dead and the other was sent, tail between its legs and whimpering, off into the tall grass. Bruce was left standing with a bloody rock and a satisfied, lip-splitting smile. But…that was then, and this was a significantly different situation. Neither of the Bower’s dogs were the size of a Clydesdale nor were they significant burn risks either. None of that mattered as Bruce jumped forward, fists swinging.
Cary couldn’t bring himself to watch and squeezed his eyelids tightly shut. The flames must have soared at the contact, however, because he could feel the increased heat singeing his nose hair. Then there was the scream. Part of Cary knew that it was Bruce…it had to be Bruce, but it was a sound he’d never heard from the boy before; never heard from anyone. It was barely human, a wail of primitive, primordial anguish that made Cary’s stomach lurch and release “pizza day” lunch all over his blue jeans.
He could hear Mark and Andy wailing themselves, each having their own reactions to the sickening scream which lasted only a few seconds, but seemed to freeze time itself. When it finally ceased as abruptly as it began, the blistering heat and bright light against the back of his tear-soaked eyelids disappeared as well. One second they were searing with the crackling and popping of the fire roaring in their ears and then…nothing; cool alley air and silence. Well…not complete silence; there was Mark and Andy’s infantile whimpers still lingering.
Cary waited several agonizing seconds before opening his eyes and, even then, it took a Herculean effort. Three things came to his attention immediately. First was Mark and Andy, both in fetal positons, holding their knees with their arms, and blubbering like traumatized fools. The second thing he noticed was the bushy, little brown tail that was just rounding the corner out of view…a dog? Finally, and probably the most striking of the three, was Bruce…or rather, the lack of Bruce.
Bruce was gone…just gone, and there was nothing left behind to prove that the psychopath had ever been there at all. There was no blood, save Kevin’s, no burnt leather jacket…hell, there wasn’t even a pile of ash; which is what Cary rather expected. The half-torched, broken broom handle was still there, however, but other than that there were no indications at all that the alley had been anywhere near the temperatures they had just experienced.
It took a bit, but Cary finally found the strength to stand and then, wordlessly, helped Mark and Andy to their feet. They all took one look at the still lifeless feet of Kevin and then at each other. Andy took off running first and after practically no deliberation, Mark followed. Cary shook his head. He understood what they had been through and the permanent trauma it probably invoked, but to just run away when someone might be dying, especially now the Bruce wasn’t there to force their hands…they were cowards. Cary guessed he knew that all along.
Cary rushed around the alley bend and was immediately relieved to see that Kevin was breathing, even from where he was standing. Curled up next to his head and gently licking the blood from his wound was one of the cutest little dogs he had ever seen. It the circumstances weren’t so damn tragic it would have been adorable. He got to his knees next to the unconscious boy and pulled out his cell phone. Dialing 911 he began to stroke the little mutt.
“You’re a good boy, aren’t you?” he asked before the line clicked and a woman’s voice said, “Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”
Kevin awoke in a hazy fog which seemed to linger for some time after. They told him he had been in a coma for three days and his very first panicked thought was for Benji. His mother and father calmed him quickly with kisses and reassurances; his friend had been taking care of the dog. Friend…did he have a friend? He didn’t know who they were talking about but it pacified him nonetheless.
The next two hours were spent having every family member he had ever met in his life, and some he hadn’t, come through to kiss and stroke his hair. It seemed the concern that he might not pull through was greater than his parents had let on. When the reunion parade finally came to an end, his mother told him that his “little friend” had been waiting patiently to see him and asked if he could visit for a while. Kevin said ‘yes’ more out of abject curiosity than any desire to visit with a classmate.
When Cary walked through the door he honestly didn’t know how to feel. The remorseful expression on the boy’s face immediately gave it away that he wasn’t here to terrorize in any way. He settled into a chair next to his bed and waited for Kevin’s mom to give them some privacy. However, even after the door closed behind her it took several minutes for Cary to work up the nerve to say anything.
“I’m…so…sorry,” was what he finally managed to get out, but he looked his old friend in the eyes as he said it and Kevin could see the sincerity. It took a significantly less amount of time for Kevin to respond.
“It’s okay man…I forgive you,” and he truly did. He knew that, although in a very different way, Cary had been a victim of Bruce’s just as much as he was…maybe even worse. The words were like a weight had been lifted from Cary’s shoulders and the pressure in the room instantly lightened. Within minutes they were reminiscing video game tournaments and afternoons together in the little-league dugouts. The conversation felt so fluid and natural, as though they had never stopped being friends that they both began to wonder why they ever did. As inevitable as it had to be, the subject of Bruce eventually came up.
“Missing?” Kevin didn’t understand. “What do you mean ‘missing’?” Cary wasn’t sure how much to say. Still not fully believing that the experience in the alley behind Sweeny’s had actually happened, his latest theory was some type of mass hallucination, a form of group hysteria that Wikipedia confirmed to be real. Yesterday he had been convinced that he’d been drugged with LSD.
“Just…well…gone. Nobody knows where he is. His parents filed one of those missing persons things and all.” This didn’t really come as a shock exactly; everyone that knew Bruce assumed he would probably die as a result of his own stupid endeavors, but it was something of a pleasant surprise. Kevin wasn’t a malicious person and in no way wished an ill fate upon him but…if he never had to see him again…he wouldn’t complain. After contemplating a world without Bruce for a few seconds, Cary broke the mood with lighter news.
“I’ve been taking care of your dog.” Kevin smiled instinctively and contagiously.
“Oh thank God, I’ve been worried. How is he?” Cary nodded, again unsure how to answer.
“Um…he’s good. It’s just…”
“What?” Kevin felt a twinge of concern, his smile beginning to fade.
“No…it’s nothing like that…relax, man. It’s just…well, I took him home with me the first night you were hurt. Super sweet little guy. Curled up on my bed with me when I went to sleep. In the morning…he was gone; we couldn’t find him anywhere. On a random hunch, I stopped by the alley on the way to school and well…there he was.
So now, I’ve taken him home twice more and in the morning he’s either in the alley or hanging around the courthouse across the street. It’s weird, right? We have no idea how he keeps getting out of the house. Mom wants to name him ‘Houdini’ but I told her it was your dog and you probably already had a name for it.”
“Benji” Kevin offered. Cary smiled again and nodded his head; he got it.
“Benji…yes…that makes perfect sense. He looks just like him. So anyway, I’ve been feeding him real good and he’s gotten a couple baths but I can’t seem to keep him around for a whole day.” Both the boys laughed at the oddness of the little creature they had both, obviously, fallen in love with. Before finishing his visit, Cary had one more bit of news that Kevin was both excited to hear and totally unprepared for.
“You know…you’ve got another visitor out there…from school.” Kevin’s mind was grasping at straws. Were Andy or Mark here as well…maybe a teacher? Cary could see that he wasn’t going to get it anytime soon so he put the poor boy out of one misery and into another, more desirable, one.
“Yea…Aria Pearson’s here. She’s been waiting for a while; so you probably shouldn’t make her wait too much longer…you stud.”