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Stupid Games

stupid games


Estimated reading time — 52 minutes

Prophetic Ender

Think your ripple has no meaning?
Think a rifle won’t leave men bleeding?
I’m tired of preachers that are blind to their words
I’m sick of acts that are silent to the herd
And sick of seeing those that overtly hurt
Getting special passes from the hipocrate’s court
But I won’t carry a stick because it’ll come one day
That wave you ride will soon demand it’s pay
You predict your own end with your actions in life
And that prophet in you awaits hungry with a scythe

Shawn Haze

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I never really understood poetry. I thumbed through a single subject, wide-ruled Calculus notebook that belonged to my friend Shawn Hayes, and I stumbled upon this poem that he wrote. Honestly, I was sort of surprised when I learned that Shawn wrote poems and stuff. I have seen this same kid stop in the middle of a paintball match and take a shit behind a tree announcing that it was a “no wiper!”. Shawn stopped coming to school two days ago. I hadn’t thought much of it at the time – he wasn’t an honor roll student – but in retrospect, I should have done something.

Ok…let’s get on with it. My name is Tommy Muto, and I am about to tell you the tragedy of a group of misfit friends that has left a wake of uncertainty and regret in its path. I have been lying to myself long enough, and it’s time the story is told. I am not asking for anyone’s forgiveness, but try and understand… understand that we were just kids.

*****

The story begins at the foot of a dilapidated house, at the end of a horrifically classic street. But rather than a cul de sac, or deep chasm into a wooded abyss, the house abuted train tracks. The house felt it every time a train sped by, rattling the air and earth around it. And naturally, this place was… haunted. At least, Hunter said it was. But Hunter said a lot.

We stood in the shadow of a tall oak tree and gazed upon the house. It wasn’t large and twisted like you see in the cartoons. It didn’t have massive windows for eyes, or an oversized, gaping, heavy door for a mouth. There were no giant, iron knockers, nor was it built with ancient brick and covered in vines. In fact, it was very plain. It was the lack of grandiose features that made me more nervous.

The structure was short – only a single story with an unimpressive roof peak. The driveway sloped down into a cutout of the surrounding yard where it joined a garage door. On every visible side from the street, the paint was chipping and peeling. The front gutter hung low in one area. One window was boarded up, and a small window on the garage door was smashed, but every other pane of glass seemed still intact.

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I didn’t want to go in, but not because I was scared. I just had lost steam on the whole thing… the dares… the stupid games. Especially ever since what happened.

Hunter, Shawn, and I stood there in the street, not saying a whole lot… just staring at the shit hole of a house that was in front of us. This is actually the first time the three of us had been together in months, and we were already back at it. Hazel lingered behind us, sitting and swaying back and forth on a skate board.

Wait, hold on. I am getting a little bit ahead of myself. Let me back up a little.

*****

I showed up to this small town at the end of Sophmore year. What a fucking time to start somewhere new – I wish my parents could have thought about how it affected me before dropping everything and moving to a small town outside of Boston. My dad had taken up a job in the city and we were going to start a life in the southern burbs of Beantown. I remember we showed up in late April and there was snow on the ground from two weeks prior. I remember thinking how I just might blow my brains out. We moved up from Virginia where it was beautiful, and the flowers and trees were already in bloom. On that final leg of the trip up I-95 I just kept thinking about how the further we went from the sunshine of Richmond, the more things looked… dead.

Like I said, being the new kid at the end of Sophmore year sucked. The more that no one wanted to be my friend, the more I didn’t give a shit. At least I acted like I didn’t… but deep down, I did… and it sucked. We would do things as a family, go out to eat a few times a week, that kind of thing. My little brother was doing better than me with this whole thing. I remember just staring out the window on drives up and down Route 1 as my family looked for a restaurant, and everytime I would see Blue Hills off in the distance I would picture myself hiking up there and hopefully being abducted by aliens or something. My dad always tried to get the family talking on the rides, saying things like “hey- what’s the deal with ‘route 1’, is it first, or is it the best, someone please decide”. My mom would reply with “thanks for the commentary Jerry.” Other times my dad would say… “Hey, you guys know that this is the same Route 1 in Virginia?” And my mom would reply, “wow.. that’s so cool hun.” I think I heard the same routine at least three times. It was monotonous and at times a complete droll, so much so that I envied the dead. I would sign into AIM at night and message with my friends from Virginia, but over time they started to say less to me. These kids I had known by whole life just seemed uninterested in keeping this friendship alive. And so my life here in this small town of Massachusetts had become a complete bore.

All that changed the day I met Hunter Twombly. I was walking home from school, as I always did. I didn’t have a car to myself so walking was the best I could do. I had been the new kid for a month now, and in late May the Massachusetts weather was finally catching up to what I was used to when I thought of Spring. I took mostly backroads to walk home, and usually it was uneventful. But not that perticular day. A loud rumble came from behind, and as I heard the engine soften as it got closer, I knew it was slowing down. I became a little more alert, but didn’t want to over-do it because for all I knew.. it was just someone pulling into their own driveway.

The rumble steadied out, and kept a distance to me that seemed unwavering. As I walked it didn’t get any further away, nor closer. Whoever it was, was unmistakably following me. Then a new sound… a voice.

“Hey kid!”

I was hypersensitive to the situation already, but to avoid looking like a fool who thought they were being spoken too but really weren’t, I kept walking and kept looking ahead.

“Hey. You!”

This time I looked. It was a blue pickup truck that crept behind me. I raised my eyebrows in acknowledgement, and stopped walking. The truck pulled alongside and I finally got a look at my stalker. The window was lowered all the way on the passenger side of the single cab Ford F150.

“Ya?” I replied – a mix of annoyance and intrigue. I didn’t really mind my daily routine of walking home to an empty house, but sometimes I prayed for a change. And it looked like, on this day, my prayer was being answered. But thinking back on it, it wasn’t the man upstairs that was doing the answering.

The truck had two occupants. The passenger had on a backwards Red Sox hat, all black except the logo. He spoke again.

“Wanna have some fun?”

I remember thinking that he was trying to cut to the chase. No small talk. I had a feeling they needed me for something.

“What do you mean?” I replied. I felt awkward, I really didn’t know what else to say.

“Ever play paintball?” The driver chimed in, talking over the passenger. He had a mop of brown hair that partially covered his face. He had a lame looking mustache that suggested he was a little older. I had recognized both of them from school, probably just from passing them as nameless faces in the halls.

“Once.” As I continued the conversation, my brain played back to my one and only paintball experience. I remember I cried under my mask after being pelted with paintballs. The collar bone hurt the most.

The passenger hopped out and jumped into the truck bed. “Here, you get shotgun,” he said as he swung his legs over and into the bed. “I’m Shawn by the way.” He said.

I nodded my head up in acknowledgement. “Tommy.” I replied.

“And I’m Hunter,” said the driver. The F150 roared as we drove off.

After winding around a few roads and taking some jerked rights and a few sudden lefts, we pulled off into a flattened and overworked patch of grass. Hunter jiggled the stick shift checking that it was indeed in neutral, and in a single moment he killed the engine and pressed the e-brake with his left foot. “Let’s go,” Hunter suggested.

“Hey, listen… I don’t have my own gun or anything,” I said.

“Don’t worry about it.” Shawn said as the three of us walked up to a beat-up looking shed. The off-white paint was chipped all over.

“Yo Steve-ay!” Hunter shouted.

“Hey fellas.”

Out from behind the shack, a short kid appeared, dawned in a paintball mask and dark green jumpsuit. He flipped his mask up and I recognized him from History class. I recall the teacher would refer to him as a “Mr. Miller”.

“Sup, Stevie.” Shawn replied.

“Alright ladies, let’s do this.” Hunter was eager to get going. No introduction to Stevie, just getting on with it. Overtime Stevie and I started to awkwardly say each other’s names until we got more and more comfortable around one another.

“Tommy… there is a gun and mask for you over there. The gun is wicked old but should work OK” Hunter gestured toward an old barrel. “You and Shawn will start here, me and Stevie will start up the hill.”

We spent the afternoon traunching around the woods and playing a half-assed game of paintball. Majority of the time I was just walking around the woods by myself. Some of the times I was with Shawn. At one point I heard the sound of paintball guns firing off but both Shawn and I were not getting shot at.

As the sky was beginning to glow with creams and pinks, the four of us sat back around the old shed.

“Alright boys, who’s thirsty?” Hunter reached behind where he was sitting and revealed six cans strung together by their plastic chain.

“Yo! My lips are wicked parched right now,” Announced Shawn raising his hand. A can flew through the air and was quickly cracked open and started emptying. Stevie wasn’t far behind.

“Tommy?” Hunter ask while pretend-passing a can to me several times in a row.

I hesitated. I knew what it was, even though I had never seen this can before, nor have I ever drank a beer. I remember having a sip once or twice of my dad’s Budweiser and it was awful. The Maple leaf on the side of these cans has been imprinted into my brain to this day, ever since.

I caught the can and cracked it open. I remember the smell – like an old bowl of Cheerios and milk that my brother left under his bed for a few days. I lifted the can to my lips and took my first sip. I tried not to cringe in front of these guys, but it was gross, and warm. I remember thinking these guys were pranking me and gave me a can of piss because there was no way that this is what beer tasted like. After another sip I continued to raise the can to my lips but faked slugging it down. By that time, Hunter was on his second.

“How’s your back Stevie,” Hunter said with a chuckle. “Dude I fuckin’ lit you up.”

“You were on my team dip shit!” Stevie fired back. Stevie turned and displayed his back to us, covered in orange splotches. “It fuckin kills.”

“I guess I got a little bored,” Hunter said with a shrug. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a box of cigarettes. I remember the box had what looked like a cat with sunglasses. Hunter let a cigarette hang loosely from his closed lips as he passed the pack to Shawn, who soon was mirroring the look. Hunter continued to pat his pockets, looking for something. A lighter.

“Hey, woah.” Shawn said, looking at me.

I didn’t want to smoke a cigarette, and I remember feeling nervous. But Shawn’s next move had me puzzled at first. He leaned over and grabbed at my neck. It felt like he pulled out a thorn. I reached up and felt the site where Shawn had just pulled something from and there was a small bump, like a newly forming pimple.

“Damn, I just saved your life man.” Shawn said with the cigarette bouncing up and down between his lips.

“Let me see.” Hunter reached over and grabbed at this invisible thing. “Yep… deer tick.” Hunter shook his hand so this thing landed down onto a log, and then he hovered the burnt end of his lit cigarette above where the little black spec was.

“What the hell is that?” I asked.

All three of them stared at me.

“What, you’ve never seen a tick before?” Hunter asked.

“I guess not.” I replied.

“Your killin’ me Smalls.” Stevie added.

“They suck your blood and kill you.” Hunter said with a laugh.

“They can give you something called lime disease.” Shawn added. “Make you real sick.”

“Your messing with me. Lime disease?” I didn’t believe them. “What am I going to do… turn into a lemon or something?” I scoffed.

“Well no.. you would turn into a lime if that was the case. But it’s not ‘lime’, it’s ‘Lyme’s’, genius.” Stevie chimed in. “It’s named after some guy.”

“Well whatever. These things suck, and they are hard to kill. You have to burn them.” Hunter said proudly pointing to the burn mark on the log. I think he found joy in the act.

“Just make sure you check yourself later when you get home.” Shawn was sincere when he spoke.

“Yeah, especially under your nuts. That’s where they love to hang out.” Hunter… not so much. After shooting the shit for a little bit longer, we loaded up in the truck and Hunter drove us all home.

The next day was similar. The following was too. I started spending more time with Hunter, Shawn and “Little Stevie” Miller. I went from meeting up with them on the back roads of town, on my way home … to meeting them in the parking lot outside of school. We would drive around in the pickup truck, drink beer in the woods and talk shit to each other. I never asked where the beer came from, I just figured Hunter or Shawn had a parent that didn’t care.

About a week later, it all changed. “Sup, fuckers?” It came from behind and caught me off guard. A female voice that was calling in our direction – I wasn’t expecting it. But that day is when I met her … Hazel. Her name was Hazel, and I was immediately infatuated with her. She was Hunter’s neighbor and a Sophomore, like me. I had seen her around school but never paid too much attention. Kids in this place get lost in the sea of the unfamiliar. But I remember the first time she came over to the four of us walking to Hunter’s truck. It was a sunny afternoon, and I remember I was feeling better about the situation… about moving to this town.

“Hey Hazel.” Hunter replied. She didn’t look amused by the quip. Her brown eyes rolled back in annoyance, and the light freckles on her face shifted as she made a face. She had light brown hair that hung beautifully below her shoulders and waved as she shook her head. Everything about her, from her jeans to her loosely fitting plaid shirt, was planely perfect.

“Where are we going?” She breezed passed us and hopped up into the truck bed of Hunter’s pickup. “Well.. what are you waiting for?” She immediately took control of the situation. And with that the rest of us loaded up. In typical fashion of this friends circle, no introduction between me and this girl were made. Shawn and Stevie hopped into the bed and I into the cab, shotgun.

“How do you know her?” I asked Hunter as he fired up the Ford.

“Huh? You and Hazel never met?”

I shook my head.

“Hazel’s my neighbor. We grew up together.” He caught me glimpsing back through the rear window in her direction. “Heh- don’t get any ideas Muto, she’s the preacher’s daughter.”

“Uh wha- oh no I- a, I wasn’t, just was, no… Huh?” I was flustered and felt my face getting hot as a tripped over my own tongue.

“Your face is wicked red dude.” Hunter said as we pulled out onto the road.

The day continued like any other, except for my interest changed. Instead of just fitting in with these misfits I was focused on this girl. And she kept up. We would down a six pack in the far corner of the farm that Stevie’s Dad worked on, or co-owned, I didn’t really know for sure. Five of us just meant that Shawn only got one – Hunter wouldn’t make such a sacrifice. Most days Hazel was with us. And when she wasn’t I felt worse.

*****

“Tommy?” I got a AIM message from the screen name xXBillnTedsXx one quiet night. I usually had AIM on but barely bothered anymore with my old friends from VA. I messaged with Stevie once and a while on it, but never with Shawn or Hunter.

“Ya? Who’s this” I replied.

“It’s Hazel”

My heart jumped. She had actually wanted to talk to me. We messaged back and forth all night. It was easy to talk with her on AIM and I was less awkward than in person. We chatted about music and the pop-punk bands we liked. She told me she just got an Alkaline Trio album and I asked which songs she was in to. I had Lime Wire on my computer and found a few songs. I remember going to bed that night dreaming about her.

The next night I messaged her screen name but didn’t get a response. I figured she wasn’t interested in talking to me and was about to go to bed when I heard a chime from AIM.

“Tommy!” xXBillnTedsXx showed up on my screen.

I wanted to play it cool so I waited a bit.

“You still there?” Another message from Hazel. I waited a little longer. “HELLLOooOooOo” another message came in.

“Hey” I said.

“I just got back from a Blink 182 show in Boston” she messaged me.

“Wooowwwww thanks for the invite” I replied.

“Sorry! You should have known” she messaged back. “It only cost one dollar.”

“What???!!! Well when I get Less Than Jake tickets… I’ll remember to forget to invite you” I quipped. We chatted back and forth into the early morning hours and I went to bed happy once again.

*****

On one day in June, it was just the four boys out on our usual paintball course, but Hunter seemed a bit more agitated than usual. He just seemed on edge, irritated, and short with the rest of us – even Shawn. He was never that way with Shawn.

“Let’s do something.” Hunter announced.

“We are already doing something.” Stevie chimed in. He was being his typical sarcastic-self.

“Shut the fuck up Stevie. You’ve been wicked annoying today.” Hunter snapped back. Stevie was quiet, and just kind of looked down at the ground. No one was anticipating that snap from Hunter. We were all quiet. I don’t know why but Hunter got away with talking this way to us.

“Fill up your hoppers and follow me, I got an idea.” Hunter started marching off into the tree line. We put a few hand fulls each into our paintball hoppers and followed across a field of knee-high beige grass. We all went through the woods, up and over giant mounds and shifting landscape, past a 40 foot pine that was completely uprooted. Then finally the woods gave way and we were all perched up on some high ground overlooking a parking lot. A single building stood erect with a sign that suggested this was a lawyer’s office. ‘The Law Offices of Murphy and Murphy.’ I remember the sign to this day, white background and cursive black engraving with gold outlines. I always thought it was stupid when a lawyer firm had the same name twice – and for the longest time I really didn’t get why.

There were two cars parked at opposite ends of the parking lot, and were at opposite ends of the social spectrum. On the far side a rusted Ford wagon – I think it was an Escort. On the side closest to us, a silver Mercedes Benz.

Hunter turned toward us…

“We’re going to play a game.” Hunter’s eyes were wide as he stared at the three of us. Stevie chuckled under his breath. “Somethin’ funny fat boy?” At this point Hunter was being a total prick.”It’s truth or dare, except no truths.”

No one spoke. We all knew where Hunter was going with this. “Alright pussies, I dare you all to pepper that Benz down there.” Shawn didn’t hesitate, he lined his paintball gun up and put that silver car right in his sights, and then waiting for the rest of us. Hunter followed suite. “Come on you two.” Hunter’s voice was a little agitated in our hesitation.

Stevie and I looked at each other.

“Fuck it.” Stevie said as he raised his gun up.

Once I saw Stevie, I too raised my weapon. I don’t know who fired first, but the sound of pressurized CO2 being released into the air was suddenly and violently all that could be heard. I didn’t hear the breaking of little plastic balls, but I watched as this silver luxury vehicle was quickly desecrated with yellows and oranges, and then finally greens from my hopper. Too bad, it looked like it has just been freshly waxed.

“HEY!” A voice shouted from below.

“Holy shit! Go go!” Hunter shouted. The three other boys were already on the move sprinting back into the woods. I remained a little stunned and fixated my view on the car that now had several dozen paint spotches all over it. And then I was off and running too. Sprinting as fast as I could, quickly catching up to Little Stevie, but Hunter and Shawn were out a ways in front. We got back finally, to our usual post-game hang out. Everyone gasping for air. We weren’t athletes so this sprint took a lot out of us.

“Holy shit.” Laughed Hunter. “Did you see the look on that asshole’s face?” I hadnt seen the person, only heard his voice.

“We should probably load up and get outta here.” Shawn suggested, breathing heavily between pairs of words. We hopped in the truck and Hunter fired it up and we were gone.

And so that was the start. From that point on, we were local towny hooligans. We were a group of boys all on strings. When Hunter twisted his wrist, we danced and hopped around.

A few days later, we made our rounds. School was out and it was time to cruise around and look for something to do. Walking up to the truck Shawn called out, “outta smokes, head to cumbies.” He hopped in the back with Stevie and I climbed into the cab.

“Tommy, I’ve been thinking of another dare. And your going to do it.” I remember feeling uneasy, but also kind of proud that Hunter called on me. He felt I could handle it… at least that is what I convinced myself to think. “I am going to grab a pack of smokes, meanwhile you grab some drinks and chips n’ shit. I’ll be at the counter, you just walk right out.”

Hunter was daring me to steal. He was calling upon me to feed his craving of juvenile entertainment. We pulled into the parking lot at Cumberland Farms. I was nervous. I remember that my heart was racing and my mouth dried up. As we walked up to the door to the place, a police cruiser also pulled up.

“Dude…” I said whacking Hunter with the backside of my hand and nodding in the direction of the cruiser.

“So?” Hunter wasn’t phased.

The bell rang as we walked in. There were a few other patrons throughout the isles. The shelves of this convenience store were low, less than shoulder height. Hunter made his way to the counter, and he winked at me. I slowly made my way around and didn’t touch anything. I felt everyone’s eyes on me. Sweat was descending from my hair to my eyes, I felt a sting as it flooded my vision. Finally I picked up a bag of Ruffles because I was starting to look like an idiot just aimlessly roaming the isle. Alright it was a good start. Some peanut M&Ms sat nicely in my hoodie’s front pocket. Then a Slim Jim. I scanned the store… no one gave a shit that I was there… it was just all in my head.

I traveled the isles and next thing I knew my hands were full. For some reason I cared less by this point. As I made my way back towards the front, Hunter distracted the clerk by asking for a different pack of Marlboros, oh wait no… “Actually I meant Tomcats,” he said. I took the cue and put my shoulder into the large glass door and it swung open.

To my shock and surprise, a man in blue uniform was talking to Stevie and Shawn who were still sitting in the back of the truck. My handle on the loot became awkward and I dropped a mountain dew. I panicked as it bounced and rolled towards the officer. I prayed that it wouldn’t crack the cap and spew sugary green liquid everywhere.

“Slow down there son, you’ve got a handful.” The officer said, bending down to pick up the drink.

“Jeez Muto. What’d you rob the place or something?” Stevie piped up from the truck bed. I remember I could feel my face getting hot. I looked down to cover my redness.

“Heh- ya.” I mumbled back. I leaned in through the open window on the passanger side and released all of the stolen snacks and drinks. They landed partly on the seat and floor.

As the officer handed me the Mountain Dew, he paused. His stare looked serious. I remember thinking that this was it, I would be leaving this parking lot in the back of a cruiser instead of the F150.

“Muto huh? Tommy Muto?”

“Y- ya..” I didn’t make eye contact for more than a split second at a time.

“My son is Peter.” He replied with a slight smile. “I recognize your name from a group paper he brought home.”

I looked at the shiney name plate on his uniform. SGT. Goddard. His son was Peter Goddard. A temporary friend from Social Studies.

“Oh, ya. Peter. Cool.” I must have sounded like an idiot.

“Well, enjoy the afternoon boys.” And he made his way into the store as Hunter was coming out.

I walked back to where Shawn and Stevie were sitting in the truck bed.

“You alright there Tommy?” Shawn asked.

“I fuckin stole all that shit.” I said in a low growl. Both of their eyes widened.

“Holy crap, I was just joking..” Stevie chuckled.

“Tommaayy…” Hunter announced as he smacked a pack of cigarettes against his open palm. “I watched that whole thing. Hilarious. Need to change your undies?”

“Let’s fuckin go already.” I said getting back in the truck.

*****

Then summer came, and once school was out the four of us spent more time together on the days that we did, and also went entire days without seeing one another. When I was alone I would walk around the nearby streets with my headphones, an mp3 player in my pocket, and daydream about Hazel.

When I was with the boys, we would continue our nefarious deeds. One night, Shawn ran a pocket knife across the shiney black paint of a BWM parked near the baseball fields. Stevie tipped over a Red Box machine outside of a Stop & Shop supermarket one town over. We all walked out of a fancy looking Italian restaurant before the bill arrived. We did so much more, and each time it started off with Hunter asking “who wants to play Dare?”

If Hazel was with us, we would usually hang out around Hunter’s basement and do absolutely nothing. On those days, I wished everyone would just vanish and Hazel and I would be alone.

“Anyone wanna get Wendizzle?” Stevie asked on one boring afternoon in Hunter’s basement.

“Oh, ‘fo shizzle,” Hazel said without skipping a beat.

“I hate when you guys talk like that.” Hunter said with disgust. “But ya let’s go.”

This time Hazel rode shotgun while the three of us were in the back and Hunter behind the wheel. I had occasionally caught Shawn eyeing Hazel the same way I did. It’s no surprise, she was truly beautiful, and I’ll add that she was fun to be around.

We got to Wendy’s and placed our order inside.

“JBC and a frosty please,” Stevie said, going first. We all got something similar. Stevie was first to get his food and he grabbed a booth. I sat across from him and to my surprise Hazel plopped in right next to me.

“Squeeze in!” Hunter announced shoving Hazel into my side. The two seater had just become a three seater. I felt panic, but I a good way. I was smashed into a seat with this girl that I couldn’t stop thinking about. Shawn sat on Stevie’s side.

“Hazel, what the fuck!” Stevie announced, pointing in awe at Hazel. She was dipping french fries into her frosty and scraffing them down.

“What? It’s good! Try it!” She reached across and attempted to shove a few freshly dipped chocolatey fries into Stevie’s face. Stevie deflected it with a karate chop. “Aww c’mon, it’s salty-hot-fried-goodness mixed with sweet-cold-heaven. How could you not like it?” She added.

“I’m with Stevie on this one. You’re gross Hazel.” Hunter added.

“I like it,” Shawn said with a calm tone. “She’s right, it’s a great combo.”

“So that’s two ‘n two. Tommy, you make the final call.” Stevie said.

I had never tried it. I leaned in and ate the sloppy mess of fries and chocolate frosty from Hazel’s hand. I could tell Hazel was surprised by my bold actions. I then held a thumb sideways and hesitated in order to build up the anticipation. With a fake twist of my wrist to point down, I pointed my thumb up to the sky, like a Caesar suggesting to spare the life of a beaten gladiator.

Hazel covered her mouth and laughed. Stevie and Hunter ‘booed’ me.

*****

One day in August was different from the rest. Stevie wasn’t around. Hunter and Shawn picked me up and we headed towards Hunter’s house. We usually just went down through the basement door, but this time we went in through a large sliding glass door on the first floor. Hunter’s house surprised me. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but it was extremely tidy and bright. A deer head was mounted to the wall above the fireplace, and a large wooden cabinet full of rifles was in the living room. The cabinet looked like it could house eight guns, but only had seven. We made our way upstairs and entered a room at the end of the hall that ended up being Hunter’s bedroom. Knowing Hunter like I did, I always just imaged he slept in the basement and never saw his parents, but this room on the second floor was a surprise. Honestly, sometimes I even thought that he may have slept in the shed out back.

“You wanna smoke weed?” Hunter said with a smirk.

“W- what?” I wasnt expecting that question.

“Don’t worry about it man.” Shawn interuapted

“Hey! Let the kid answer for himself.” He turned back to me. “So… wanna?”

Hunter retrieved a wooden box from a shelf. It had a faded design of a sun on it. All of the colors looked washed out, but maybe it was suppose to be that way. He flipped open a latch and lifted the lid. Inside was a bundle of marijuana that looked like it was wrapped in Seran wrap with a rubber band around it, a blue and brown glass bowl, and a metal circle-thing that I thought was a tin container. Hunter unwrapped the weed, open the metal container and put some inside. He rotated his hands around it and it made a grinding noise. Shawn picked up the bowl and tipped it upside down and gave it a smack with his open palm. At one point Shawn put a Sublime CD into a boombox, and flipped ahead to Smoke Two Joints. I got lost in what was happening around me as Hunter and Shawn packed the bowl with ground marijuana and began inhaling the THC-rich smoke. Finally Hunter extended his hand to me with the bowl.

I took it, and had no idea what to do. Shawn held a lighter over the opening and instructed me to breathe in once he sparked the Bic. With his other hand he covered a small hole at opposite end that I was about to inhale from. I breathed in as the lighter did it’s thing. Shawn raised his finger, freeing the small hole, and the hot smoke filled my lungs. I coughed uncontrollably. The heat in my throat and chest was unbearable. Hunter and Shawn laughed. Assholes.

“Don’t worry, you won’t get high today.” Hunter said, taking the bowl from my hands. “But tomorrow… you’ll like it for sure.” I didn’t fully understand at the time. In all of the movies the new guy gets high whenever he first tries smoking weed… I guess that was just Hollywood.

After about an hour, Shawn and Hunter were giggling and I remember feeling tired and my mouth was so dry I wanted to puke. I stepped into the bathroom to cup some water in my hand to sip on and when I looked in the mirror, my eyes were red.

“Yo! Let’s go do some shit.” Hunter shouted from his room.

“Target practice?” I heard Shawn say.

The two started making their way down stairs, and we spent the rest of the afternoon shooting arrows into a fake deer in the back yard.

Smoking weed was added to our routine on the days when Stevie wasn’t around. He started working more at the farm during the busy summer and was around less.

*****
Hazel scooped ice cream for a summer gig. One evening I intentially stalked by the creamery when I knew she was due to be done with work. She saw me as she was leaving with a coworker.

“Hey, I’m going to walk home tonight.” She said to the other girl.

“You sure?” The girl responded with curiosity.

“Ya. Sure.” Hazel walked towards my direction as the other girl hopped into a small, red convertible and sped off.

Hazel and I walked. I remember not really knowing what to say. I didn’t want to sound stupid. She initiated. And we small-talked for about a half-a-mile. It got easier as the steps went on. As we walked down the middle of a quiet cul de sac street, there was one part of the conversation I remember most.

“Let’s play truth or dare, but you can only pick truth,” she said.

I laughed, “ok.”

“Alright, and you have to tell me,”

“Alright, alright.” I was getting nervous about what she might ask.

With a coy smile she spoke. “Tell me an embarrassing band that you listen to.”

“Hah!” I scoffed back. “I don’t listen to any lame bands.”

“Don’t lie Tommy.” She gave me a little shove. “Come on… we all have one.”

I hesitated.

“C’mon, you have to say it,” she persisted playfully.

“Alright alright… I guess if I had to pick a band. I sometimes like listening to… Dashboard Confessional.”

Her eyes widened and she snorted as she laughed. “you should have kept that one a secret.” She then started to sing “vindicated!! Tommy is selfish, he is wrong, blah bl-blah something something” she held and invisible microphone up to her mouth and danced around the empty street. I couldn’t hold my smile back.

“Alright… you turn. I want to know what lame bands you listen to.” I prodded.

“Oh no way… I’m not telling you.” And she skipped ahead of me, laughing and singing.

*****
Summer was winding down, and one late August day I got a knock on my first-floor bedroom window. It was a Stevie.

“Hey Tommy, want to come get a tour of the farm?” Stevie said like an eager child.

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“Uhh.. oh. Hey Stevie.” I was a little confused and surprised. I remember thinking that I felt like it was some kind of trap and Hunter was going to ambush me with a paintball gun or something… Jackass style.

But Stevie was being sincere, there was no trap.
Little Stevie showed me around the farm that day. We started with the goats and sheep. Then two small horses. The chickens were completely caged in. I remember seeing several of them with patches of bare skin. One of them was in very rough shape. The out strutted a larger hen without a single bare spot. I remember hearing the term ‘pecking order’ but I never really quite understood it’s origin. Now I did. It’s funny how Queen-hen can remain unscathed while the peasant is continuously stripped. I remember thinking that one day that hen would get hers.

Around the bend was another fully caged in animal. The rooster. Completely out of sight of the chicken coop. I didn’t see the rooster for myself, but there was a sign that read “Harold”.

Like a kid showing me all of his Legos, Stevie was pointing to each animal pen and telling me about it. At the rooster’s cage, Stevie said “and here’s Harold the rooster. Or as we like to call him, ‘Harry the cock'”

Then we turned another corner and walked up to what Stevie said was his favorite part of the farm. The pig pen. A pile of rotting vegetables was in one corner. Eight small pigs were trotting around and rolling in mud. Somewhere inside a little shack must have been the mother pig.

“See that little one with the brown ear.” Stevie said pointing at a never-still creature among others that all looked the same to me. “He’s the runt- just a little guy. But there is something about him that’s special. … I can tell he will serve a grave purpose.” As Stevie went on about this runt of a piglet, he seemed to be talking to it rather than to me.

We preceded past the pigs and ventured into the crops. As we walked between cherry tomatoes and a future pumpkin patch, Stevie’s tone became a bit serious, and his voice quivered. “Can I ask you something Tommy?”

“Uh, ya, what’s up?” I tuned in my sincerity. I liked Stevie, and I wanted to ensure that I could be a friend, or at least put on the mask and listen.

“Are you getting tired of it?”

I just starred at him with a look that suggested I need a little bit more.

“Uh, you know. All the bullshit that Hunter has us doing. It was fun at first, but i don’t know. I feel like I am over it. I feel like I am just on edge all of the time lately. And I can’t handle it anymore.”

“Listen…” I said. I really didn’t know what to say at the time. And before I could get another word out Stevie spoke again.

“Honestly, spending more time here at the farm has been a good excuse to take a break from Hunter.” Stevie went on. It’s just gotten so weird lately. Hunter seems like he’s… he’s just different, I don’t know. I mean he’s always been kinda an asshole, but never like this.” I think I just shrugged my shoulders. He wasn’t wrong about Hunter. “Anyways, thanks for listening.” Stevie added.

“Ya… anytime” I hesitated because I remember thinking I didn’t really know what to do in this situation.

We continued to walk along a dirt path and finally got to a clearing. A larger dirt road ran in front of us, and the farm opened up so that I could really see how massive the property was.

Stevie spoke again, “Hey… we got a lot to do around here. Summer is wicked busy and we are actually looking for help. So wha-da-ya say…You want a job?”

*****

Summer turned to fall, and as the leaves were dying so was the mood around the group of misfits. Hunter was tough to be around, but we still met up and drove around, drank and smoked weed.

Stevie was a kind kid, a hard worker and he was pretty smart. But because of his size he sometimes got picked on and teased. Jace Schuler was the opposite, a fucking prick and a jock.

School had gotten out and we were in the parking lot, I was going to Shawn’s house across the street to hangout and probably down a beer or two. Stevie was about eight steps ahead of us when I heard “Hey runt, you smell like pig shit.” It was Jace, and he was talking to Stevie. It triggered me. I remember not really remembering much except that Shawn and Jace were yelling back and forth. I think Jace kept calling Shawn a pothead. The next thing I knew I was walking past Jace, and I cocked back my arm and planted a knuckle sandwich right on his cheek and part of his mouth. I had never been in a fight before. First time. A few of Jace’s friends stepped in and shoved me and Shawn. I do, however, remember the look on Stevie’s face. He lit up like a Christmas tree.

“New kid, I’m going to fuckin kill you.” Jace was shouting while lunging toward me.

Then, a person in a dark green jacket was standing in front of me. It was Hunter, and he was shoving Jace backwards.

“Chill the fuck out Schuler.” Hunter was shouting.

“Oohhh Cunter. You got something to say about this?” Jace was obviously very clever with his nicknames. Hunter was standing his ground with his arms down at his side. I noticed a metal object in his right hand that was covered up almost entirely by the sleeve of his jacket. He was holding a knife, and I immediately started to think that something very bad was about to happen.

Then, like a savior, Hazel’s voice broke through the air. “Hey Hunter, can I get a ride home?” She walked up to him and I noticed he put the knife discreetly into his pocket.

“Take your fuckin faggot friends and get outta here.” Jace mumbled.

“Let’s go.” Hunter announced. Stevie, Hazel, and Hunter headed to the pickup.

“Me and Muto will catch up with you later.” Shawn shouted to those three. Hazel turned and looked at me with disappointment.

Shawn and I walked across the street to a plane house that had a crushed-shell walkway and an American flag flapping in the breeze next to the front door.

Shawn got a key from under a garden gnome and unlocked the door. We went in and I followed him through a living room, kitchen, and then down a flight of stairs into the basement. “Phil ain’t home, want a brew?” Shawn asked.

“Heck ya. Phil… whose Phil?” I realized I knew very little about Shawn’s life at home.

“He’s my step dad.” Shawn said bluntly. I didn’t ask any more question.

“Day of defeat?” Shawn asked. I didn’t know what that meant. I shrugged and watched as he loaded what looked like a World War II game on the computer. He cracked a beer and started gulping it down.

“You know what… Jace and I were best friends growing up.” Shawn began. He spoke calmly, and searched for the right words to say. “We played soccer and basketball. Rode bikes. Fucking inseparable. Friendships are funny.” He paused and rocked his lower jaw back and forth. “I would say now that I don’t have a single, true friend. Haven’t for a long time. I mean… Hunter? Heh- He’s not my friend. He’s just… there. And don’t take offense to this Tommy, because you’re a nice kid, but you’re not my friend.” I wasn’t expexting that. Shawn continued. “Seriously though… What makes a friend anyways? I am talking about… like someone that you can truly depend on.” He trailed off. “I’m starting to think there is no such thing.”

I awkwardly sipped my beer. The game was done loading.

Shawn turned toward the screen. “Alright let’s kill some Nazis.”

*****

Then one day in the fall, Hunter wasn’t in school. Shawn, Stevie, and I were walking out to the parking lot where we would usually hop into the truck, but we spotted the blue pickup on the road. It’s as if Hunter didn’t want anything to do with this school, not even pulling into the parking lot. It turns out that Hunter had dropped out of school but didn’t bother telling any of us – no surprise. Walking through the school parking lot, Shawn stopped dead in his tracks. Awkwardly he mumbled, “I’ll catch up with you guys later.” It’s like he sensed what was to come and darted through some cars and off to his house across the street.

“Load up.” That was it. That was all Hunter said as we approached. He seemed annoyed. Maybe at Shawn for dodging-out from this after-school trip. Or maybe something else. Stevie and I jumped in the truck bed, we both hesitated to sit in the cab.

“Hey, can you bring me to the farm.” Stevie asked loud enough for Hunter to hear. He got no reply but we both saw Hunter’s stare in the rearview, and then we were on our way. It was a speechless ride to the farm where Stevie jumped out and barely gave a “see ya.”

“Hop up front Muto.” Hunter’s words were tense. I complied.

“I guess just take me home.” I suggested.

“Sure. Just gotta’ do somethin’ first.” As he spoke his words were droll and lifeless. For a few long minutes it was quiet in that cab. Awkward and dense. Then he spoke.

“You ever go deer hunting Muto?” He didn’t allow me to answer, because he really didn’t need my response to proceed. “I remember my first time out. My dad woke me up at some bum-fuck hour in the morning. It was pitch black at first, might as well ‘been midnight but I knew it wasn’t. We loaded up the truck and by the time we got to the spot there was a glow in the sky. It didn’t take long for a buck to appear and my dad wanted me to take it. It was my time to take this deer’s life. As I took aim on it’s chest…” Hunter took a long pause. “I couldn’t do it. But I couldn’t let me dad down either so instead I fired above the deer and pretended I missed. The buck took off. And there wasn’t another one for the entire day. My dad barely spoke to me the rest of that hunting trip. I quickly had become his.. his… burden. That drive home was weird too, because I knew that my dad knew that I had missed on purpose, but he never said anything. That was the one and only time he ever wanted me to go with him. Christ, I couldn’t even live up to my own damn name.”

The brief silence was anything but brief. Hunter spoke again, “I felt weak. Like I wouldn’t be able to hack it in this world. I couldn’t shoot a deer. And I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. I don’t know about you Tommy but I sure as shit dont want to live my entire life not knowing what it’s like.” I remember my jaw was ajar and my eyebrows were raised as I listened to Hunter’s rant. At this point we were on a quiet wooded road that was notorious for speeders. It was wide and flat with a slight bend. Hunter continued, “what it’s like to take total control over another’s life. That power.”

The truck slowed and Hunter began to go off of the road and onto the embankment. At this point I was beginning to fear that he was talking about me. I knew Hunter always had a knife on him. My right hand found and became friendly with a screwdriver down in the door’s pocket, but I kept it down there with preparation to defend myself. Hunter reached for something under his jacket that was in a bundle between us. I remember tightening my grip, but quickly loosened it when I saw what he had. It was a plastic container full of, what looked like, hundreds of nails and screws. All of them looked to be long, at least 3 inches. Some of the screws were in fact fat lag bolts. Buried in the pile was a strip of nails that reminded me of an ammo belt from Saving Private Ryan. It was obviously a lifetime’s collection of excess from many projects. My dad had something similar that he was always rummaging through.

Hunter removed the lid of this container and rolled down his window. A car sped by. After that there wasn’t a car insight in either direction. Hunter proceeded to toss the contents out like he was emptying a bucket of water. The screws and nails splashed across the tar and spread out over both lanes. He then pressed the clutch, put the truck into first, and sped off without saying another word.

“Dude, what the fuck!” I blurted out. I was stunned, and kept my eye on the side door mirror. I didn’t see a car, and soon that screwed up patch of road was out of sight. Then suddenly an oncoming car. I watched as Hunter followed the car and almost twisted his neck in a full one-eighty as it passed. I did the same. Then another car passed. And by that time I was numb to it. And hoped that maybe the nails and screws wouldn’t be enough to spin a car out of control and that they would just sail right over them. I just remember lifelessly… spinelessly… staring out the window as we drove.

As we finally arrived in front of my house, I gave one last look to Hunter, gripped the strap of my backpack and got out. That night I had a dream – a nightmare. It was the first time I dreamt this, but it wouldn’t be the last. The dream starts off on a train, and like every dream there is no rhyme or reason to how I got there or where it’s going. Over the loudspeaker a voice, maybe the train engineer, announces that the track has been destroyed ahead and that the train will derail. A group of people in my car plead with the conductor to break the train but the conductor insists that we are confused and as he speaks I can’t fully comprehend him. It’s like he’s speaking gibberish. I notice the emergency break handle and push through the crowd to pull it, but am apprehensive because I can’t understand why no body else had the idea to pull the break as if they already know it’s no good. I pull it anyway, but my hand can’t grip it right, as if its just not designed to be pulled. Then the entire train car begins to tilt. The derailment has already begun. And as everyone starts to get tossed into the air I wake up.

The next day my folks wanted to take the family out to eat. My dad announced that he was going to take a short cut and proceeded to head towards the long strip of road that Hunter turned into a death trap. As we approached the bend I prayed that it looked the way we left it, but I didn’t look. I just kept my head down and stared at my stupid sneakers.

“Woah…” my dad said out loud. “Looks like something happened here… probably just some crazy kids up to no good.” He chuckled lightly as he spoke.

I remember thinking that maybe nothing bad happened. Then my mom spoke up. “Jeez, I don’t know Tom. There’s bits of tire all over the place and that tree looks like it got beat up. I think an accident happened.”

“Ugh, I always see speeders on this bend.” I heard my dad say as I kept my head down. Then not another word was said about it. Not long after, my dad went on about what he was going to order for dinner. He couldn’t decide if he wanted a burger or a pork plate. As he rambled on to an unamused crowd, I thought about the day before. I pictured the blue pickup just sitting there, watching the chaos. I don’t know for sure if Hunter went back to spectate after he dropped me off, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

*****

It had been almost a month since I had seen Hunter. But Shawn has hung out with him so I knew he was still here. I helped out Stevie at the farm, they were building a new green house I think. Stevie kept going on and on about some strange things that were happening with the pigs, but I didn’t keep up with what he was saying. Honestly I just wasnt paying attention. I struggled to pay attention to anything.

I spent a couple of afternoons with Hazel. We walked through the sleepy downtown and then we took a lap around the lake on another day. Being with her was all I could think about. I had forgotten about that day with Hunter.

On a cold, gray day, I was surprised when Hazel approached me in the hall at school. Typically she had on a pair of blue jeans and a loose fitting shirt, and her brown hair would be in a ponytail. But not today. Her hair was black with streaks of purple. She had on a black tee-shirt with a white design. And her black jeans were ripped at the knee. Howver, her black converse were the same as usual. She had eye shadow on that made her eyes look like a Disney Princess. I think I fell in love. And it wasn’t because of her looks but because I knew that this change was a sign of her being her true self.

Before I could speak, “I like your hair.” Shawn beat me too it. Hazel blushed. I also knew that she was a bit self-conscious… that feeling that all eyes are on you, and not in a good way.

Later that day the three of us boys were leaving school and the blue pickup was just beyond the parking lot. “Looks like Hunter wants to chill,” Shawn said. We made our way over and were greeted by “sup bitches?” Stevie and I loaded up into the bed, Shawn was in the cab. I could hear Pantera blasting from the trucks overworked speakers.

We cruised through town and pulled up to Hunter’s house. The four of us made our way around the back and through the basement door. It wasn’t long until Hunter had a bowl and packed it full. Stevie didn’t smoke, but Shawn, Hunter and I were passing it around and we all started feeling good. Hunter was quiet, but I remember it felt somewhat normal. At one point someone flipped on the TV and started flipping through the channels. Whoever was driving parked on a kids show. It was Sesame Street and the four of us, even sober Stevie, were all laughing.

“Hey let’s kick this up a little.” Hunter said as he pulled out another plastic bag. This one was filled with something brown.

“Oh, damn.” Shawn looked surprised and amused. “Let’s make a peanut butter sandwich or something.”

“Naw, you gotta go hardcore and dive face first into this cow shit,” Hunter fired back.

At the time I had no clue what that was or what they were talking about. I quickly caught on as Shawn looked at me and said, “you’ve never done shrooms, but it’ll be cool.” The three of us grabbed a small handful and shoved it into our mouths. I almost puked, but instead grabbed an open can of Coke and slurped down the mushy mess in my mouth.

We all kind of chilled for a while. There are gaps in what I can remember with clarity. I became fixated on the TV. Those fury monsters talking about feelings, and one guy had on some kind of argyle shirt that boggled my mind.

Then I can back to the group’s reality when Shawn said “damn, this thing is a fuckin killer.” Hunter and Shawn were both looking into a metal case, and Stevie was rubbernecking over their shoulder.

“Let me see,” Stevie said, reaching for it, only to have Hunter swat his arm away. I got closer and looked in. Inside the metal case was a silver metal revolver and a small cardboard box that looked no bigger than a deck of cards. I was shoulder to shoulder with Hunter, slack-jawed. I had never seen a real gun before. Hunter lifted it and popped open the wheel where the bullets sat. “This bitch is always kept loaded. Just in case someone decides to break in and …. POW!” I jumped as Hunter said it. He then proceeded to take each bullet out, one by one. I remember the gun was blurry as he worked, and his speech was long and drawn out. I was in a daze.

“Alright, it’s empty.” Hunter showed me seven hollow champers, and hovered his thumb over one of them. I nodded but was also confused. Hunter spun the wheel and slapped it back into place. “Alright boys, dare time.”

“Haha!” Shawn caught on right away and grabbed the gun out of Hunter’s hand. He put it up to his temple and squeezed the trigger. It clicked. “Woooahhh!” Shawn said followed by hysterical laughter.

Stevie grabbed it next and waved it around the room. He made gun noises with his mouth as he pointed at stuff. “Hey guys, Taxi Driver.” Stevie imitated Robert De Niro, raised the revolver up and squeezed the trigger. It clicked. He pulled the hammer back with the palm of his other hand and squeezed again. “Yee haw!” Stevie was now a cowboy. Then he raised it to his own head. And he squeezed the trigger once again.

The sound made us all jump. To this day I remember the smell. It was burnt, like lighting a match and smashing it out on a concrete block. A cloud of smoke hovered where Stevie was standing moments before. His body made a thud on the basement floor. No one said anything, no one moved. We all just stared as if we were expecting Stevie to pop back up, like he was pranking us. Stevie didn’t pop back up. He never would again – EMTs carried him out and he was declared dead on the scene. Hunter hid the drugs and the adrenaline of it all sobered the three of us up. It was ruled as an accident.

The following weeks were hard. Regular sit downs with my parents, sometimes asking about how I was doing, and other times interogating on how the fuck it could have happened, and what the fuck were we doing that day. They wanted to know if I knew the severity of playing around with a firearm and that I could have been killed too. The whole time I barely responded with anything. I was just waiting, hoping that this nightmare would end, and thinking about Stevie’s lifeless body laying on the floor. Some nights I cried. Other nights I was just angry. Seldom I went to sleep with zero brain activity. I didn’t see Hunter for over a month. I only passed Shawn in the halls but we didn’t speak. Hazel was distant too.

I remember late at night I would hear my parents arguing, saying things like that if we never moved up here this wouldn’t have happened. The weather started getting warm again, and I finally met up with Hazel. She asked how I was doing but at the same time I knew she felt that I was partially to blame for Stevie’s death. That we all were.

Then one day in May, just over a year had gone by since I got to this town, Shawn came up to me in the parking lot as school was getting out. Hazel saw the two of us talking and came over too. Shawn showed me a hand-written note that was sloppy and tough to read.

‘5 S. King st. after scool’

“I think it’s from Hunter.” Shawn said sternly.

“Why?” I asked.

“I can just tell.” He responded. “I think we should go.”

“Man, fuck that. Fuck Hunter. I don’t want to see that guy ever again.”

“Tommy, I know how you must feel…” Hazel’s voice was sweet. “But I think we should go.” After some hesitation I finally nodded and the three of us walked toward South King Street. It wasn’t too far from the school, and I knew exactly where it was from my days walking home. The 20 minute walk to get there felt longer than it should have. I think in part due to the anticipation of not knowing what to expect with Hunter, mixed with the three of us barely talking to each other.

When we got there, Hunter was waiting on the road in front of a short, rundown looking house. His blue truck was parked up the street a bit, right where the road ended. Hazel dropped her backpack and skateboard and just kind of lingered as Shawn and I approached Hunter. Hunter lit a cigarette and stared at us, no one said anything.

Whooooooosh

My heart jumped as a train raced by – it showed on my face and by my body movements. I wasn’t quite sure why I didn’t hear it coming… maybe because I was focused on what I should be expecting from Hunter, here, in front of this house.

“A little jumpy there Tommy boy?” Hunter said with the cigarette between his lips.

Shawn and I stood, staring him down. “Woah fellas. You guys got a fuckin’ problem?” I don’t think I have ever seen Hunter get defensive. “Alright. Who wants to go in first?”

“What are you talking about?” Shawn didn’t seem amused.

“Dare.” Hunter responded. “I can already see the door is cracked open from here. Everyone spends 5 minutes in this old haunted shit-hole.”

Shawn spoke under his breath and directed his frustration right at Hunter. “Dude, we haven’t seen you in months. Since Stevie. And now you want to just play a stupid game?”

“This is stupid.” Hazel piped up. I didn’t think she was listening. “Are you guys seriously talking about breaking into that house? Tell me your joking.”

“Hey Hazel, who invited you.” Hunter shot over Shawn and I. Hazel just made a face.

“Fine.” Shawn said, marching forward without another word. As he passed Hunter he bumped shoulders with him and Hunter backed out of the way.

“Woah Hayes, watch yourself.” I had never seen such tension between these two.

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Shawn walked up the crumbling walk to the two cement steps and finally stood at the front door. The storm door was off-white and rusted, and It opened with a scream. Hunter was right, the front door was ajar. Shawn lightly pushed it open and it squealed. He took one look back at us.

“Shawn, don’t.” Hazel said with an uneasiness that I haven’t heard before. But it was no use. Shawn disappeared into the house.

“Alright, five minutes.” Hunter said.

“How the hell do you know it’s empty? What if someone is in there with a fuckin’ shot gun or something.” I wanted answers from Hunter.

“I know, because I know.” Hunter faced and stared down the house. “I just know. Alright?” And for some reason the tone of his voice convinced me. I can’t explain it more than that but at that moment I knew that he knew that there wasn’t someone waiting in there ready to blow our heads off for breaking and entering.

“Ugh, what the fuck Hunter.” Hazel was annoyed and frustrated. She wasn’t like us. She didn’t cause mischief. She was a good person. Better than all of us. Stevie was too.

Another train rushed past. Suddenly the door kicked open and Shawn walked slowly down the steps. He looked serious.

“Alright, Hayes.” Hunter said. Shawn’s head was looking down but his eyes just kind of looked up at Hunter. Then he looked at me, and his lip quivered and he walked past us.

“You alright?” I asked.

“Ya. I’m jus- I don’t know.” Shawn replied.

“Muto, you next?” Hunter suggested. I couldn’t help but feel that something wasn’t right about this. Something… with how Shawn was acting.

Hazel walked in front of me. She put her hands on my shoulders. “Tommy, this is stupid. Just forget it and let’s walk home.” Walking home at that moment was the only thing I wanted to do. But there was something else. Something compelling me to go into this house.

“Hey, let the man make his own decisions.” Hunter said from over Hazel’s shoulder.

I stared into Hazel’s eyes. She knew I wasn’t backing down, and loosened her grip on me.

I walked up the path the same way Shawn had. As I got closer I could smell a mustiness in the air. The few windows along the flat, front-facing side of this small house stared at me. My mind placed faces inside, glaring at me as I approached, and I began to feel uneasy. I went up the steps, and pulled the storm door open. I was staring into a kitchen that was dimly illuminated by the sunlight outside. I entered, and unlike Shawn I didn’t bother looking over my shoulder.

The countertops were bare except for a few clear plastic-looking cups. Linoleum ran in a L shape, a sink sat quietly below a window facing the street. A boxy looking peninsula of butcher block extended away from the wall and blocked my may to move straight forward. The wall it extended from had another door that was ajar and it looked like a stairwell down to the basement. The room had a yellow tinge to just about everything. I took a step in and the wood floors in the kitchen creaked. I remember scanning across the floors and saw bumps and bends, cracks and rot, a hole that probably protruded all the way to the basement, and finally a pile of bones with a little fur, sitting quietly in the corner.

I could have just stood in one place, I could have hung out in this kitchen for five minutes, but no, I wandered deeper into the house. I rounded the bend, passed the butcher block and looked out the back picture window at a backyard that matched the front. The place was fully furnished, and that surprised me.

Branching off of the living room was a long dark hallway. I counted four normal sized doors and one skinny door all clustered at the end. I knew the layout because it mimicked the ranch-style home that I lived in. I made my way down the hall. About half way down I noticed a smell. To this day I can still smell it but still struggle with how to describe it. I remember when I was a kid we had a dead mouse somewhere in the walls. The smell in this house had a hint of that rotting flesh, but also mixed with mild gasoline. It was raw, natural, and chemically, all at the same time.

I cautiously proceeded. The back left door was completely open, the others only slightly. So in choosing the path of least resistance I walked into that room. A bed was centered on the back wall. The quilt was twisted and there was black dirt all over it, at least I thought it was dirt. I imagine this is what it would look like if a bear broke in and climbed all over the bed. The ceiling had a large hole in it. I could see roof rafters and insulation. the hole was jagged and chaotic. There was a black outline around the hole that faded as it spread outwards – I looked like a water stain, maybe from a leaking roof. The strange part is that not only was the ceiling plaster gone, but the joists also were missing in this section of the ceiling. As a kid I didn’t really think about that, but as I have gotten older I realized how strange that was.

I remember I walked backwards and looked into the bathroom. There was a hole in the ceiling that looked like it was a continuation of the abutting room that I just was in. Fist-sized holes made their way down the wall and I followed them, down and across the floor. I was led right to a larger opening in the floor. The floor hole was the same as the ceiling – it was void of both flooring and joists and had a similar stained coloring around the rim.

I had no clue how long I had been in this house. It felt like longer than five minutes, so I started to make a my way back to the front door. But then something strange happened. I felt pressure on my upper back toward my right shoulder, as if I was shoved from behind. I lunged forward and tripped into the couch in the living room. I panicked and looked over my shoulder only to see nothing. Not a damn thing. still, to this day, don’t understand what happened, or if it was all in my head. I had figured that Hunter snuck in, shoved me, and was just messing with me. The only thing that I saw was another ceiling hole in the hallway just beyond where I felt this hitting-pressure. A ceiling hole that I didn’t notice on the way down the hall the first time, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.

I regained my composure and darted out the front door, down the steps and back out to where Hunter, Shawn, and Hazel waited. I stood and stared at them halfway down the walkway and Hunter made his way to me.

“Alright, my turn then.” Hunter said as he approached. His walk was slow and deliberate as he came my way, then as he passed something unexpected happened. He grabbed my jacket with a tight grip and stared me in the eyes. “That bullet was meant for me.” He spoke low so that only I could hear, and I saw something in his eyes that I had never seen before…

Guilt.

When I got down to the road Shawn was sitting down and tossing rocks into the storm drain on the other side of the road. Hazel walked over to me and we both sat down. No one spoke.

Time went by, I threw a few rocks at the same target Shawn was aiming at. Hazel rocked back and forth on her skateboard. The rolling of the wheels on the sandy street tar was rhythmic.

*How long has it been.” I asked, peering over my shoulder back at the house.

“Hmm? No idea.” Shawn replied. “I smelled gasoline in there. He’s probably going to burn it down.”

“Heh- ya. Me too.” I said. “You know I saw some holes in the floor, maybe we should make sure he didn’t fall through or something.”

Hazel groaned. “Are you serious? You guys should not be going in there.”

Shawn stood first, then I followed. We both made our way back up and into the house. “Hey Hunter, your time is up. Games over.” No reply.

“Hunter? Huuunterrrr.” Nothing.

We rounded the bend and down the hall. Checked each room, no sign of him. That smell of death and gasoline was stronger now, but maybe it was because we rushed around and didn’t take our time getting used to it. In looking for Hunter I saw the interior of each room. They all had similar ceiling and floor holes. Some of them had wall holes as well – about the size of a clenched fist.

“The basement?” Shawn suggested.

I wasn’t thrilled. “Uhh ya I guess. I think I saw the stairs from the kitchen.”

I was right. It was a set of stairs down to the basement. As we stood at the top we shouted down one last time for Hunter, but again we were only met with silence in return. Each step creaked louder than the last as we descended. The smell grew stronger. “Fuckin stinks” Shawn muttered.

The basement was open and it was easy to see that Hunter wasn’t down there. Three out of the four walls were concrete, the last was built with drywall and wood studs. A doorway led to the garage and I bet Shawn had the same feeling as me. This was where Hunter was. We made our way through the door only to find it empty. “Let’s see if we can go out this way.” Shawn gripped the handle to the garage door and pulled up. He only managed to get it about knee-high, so we both scooted under. I was fully expecting to see Hunter out talking with Hazel, laughing at us. Hazel stood alone, hands on her hips, confused and surprised to see us come out through the garage with no Hunter in sight. The three of us looked at each other.

“Hunter!” We repeatedly called. “We are leaving!” Hunter was trying to make a point, or scare us, or something – I don’t think anyone understood. The three of us started walking back down the road, occasionally looking over our shoulders expecting for this stupid game to come to an end, and Hunter to run out into the road or to race after us in the blue pickup. But he didn’t. The three of us walked until it was time to part ways. Shawn headed to his home, and I asked Hazel if I could walk her home. As we did it started to feel like it used to, but we also talked about what a weird afternoon this had been.

“So… tough guy. What was in that house?” She asked with a coy tone.

“Uh nothing really, just a normal looking house.” I didn’t mention all of the weird holes, or the smell.

When we arrived to hazel’s house, the sky was starting to get dark. Before she ran inside she gave me a long stare, deep into my eyes and held my hands. And finally it happened. A kiss. It was too short, but each second left an ever lasting imprint in my mind. And then she turned and was inside, leaving me on the front lawn in a semi-daze. I turned to walk home, and I couldn’t help but smile.

That smile didn’t last though. Across the street and up two lots was Hunter’s house. I thought of Stevie. He deserved so much more. I walked home with my head down in shame and misery.

The next day at school I bumped into Hazel. I gave her a smile, and she returned it. But as she approached me she had a more serious look. “Every morning when I leave to come here, I always see Hunter’s truck in their driveway. I didn’t see it today.”

“Alright, let’s go back there after school.” I suggested. Hazel nodded her head.

When school got out I was feeling more anxious than the day before. We met Shawn in the parking lot and, like deja vu, headed to 5 S. King Street. As we turned the corner onto South KIng, there was a heavy sense of dread. The blue pickup was right where we left it yesterday. Hunter had not left.

We approached the house. It too looked the same as it did yesterday.

“He definitely was not in there, anywhere.” I said.

“What do we do?” Hazel asked with a nervous quiver as she spoke.

“I don’t know.” Shawn said under his breath, just staring at the house. He walked over to the truck and looked in the window of the passanger side. Then he looked back at us and shrugged his shoulders.

“We have to go to the police station.” Hazel said.

“Why don’t we just tell Hunter’s parents.” I said, realizing that I had never seen Hunter’s parents before.

“No, that’s not a good idea.” Hazel said. Neither Shawn nor I had any better ideas, so we walked to the police station. Getting involved with the cops wasn’t something that Shawn and I wanted to do after what happened with Stevie, but then again, we couldn’t let another bad thing happen.

I was nervous going into the police station, and as we walked in, none of us knew where to begin.

“Can I help you?” A female voice came from the other side of a window. A woman in uniform took our information and heard our story of Hunter going missing.

“So what were you doing there?” She asked.

“We were just checking out the abandoned place.” Shawn answered.

“Do you know what breaking and entering is?” She fired off a few more questions like that and then went back through a doorway. The silence in that room could kill. The three of us just stared at each other. Then a buzzing noise, followed by a loud click and a door opened. The female officer and Sergeant Goddard walked through. Goddard wanted to hear the whole story.

I’ll never forget what happened next. Shawn cut into the conversation and suggested the whole thing was his idea. “I noticed the house was empty,” he said. “So I suggested we take turns going inside. Me and Hunter did, but Hunter never came out.” I remember just staring at him. “Tommy and Hazel had nothing to do with it. They just were there telling us not to, but we didn’t listen.” Both officers scanned all three of us. Shawn continued, “and now Hunter’s truck is still there and we’re afraid something happened to him.” The room was quiet again. Goddard sighed and ran his hand across his face in an effort to conjure up a reasonable idea on what to do next. “And ever since Stevie…” Shawn gave a pause. “… I dont know.. ” with a shrug of his shoulders he was done.

“Alright….” Sgt Goddard spoke. “Stace please notify the Twombly’s. I’ll head over to that house and check it out. Where was it again?”

“5 south king.” I chimed in.

“Hunter still drive the blue truck?” He asked.

“Yeah”.

“And what of these three?” The female officer asked.

“Uhhhh. You three head straight home.” Sgt Goddard said.

So we did. The walk home felt longer than usual even with the company of Hazel for part of the way. Without saying it we both knew that walking her home wasn’t really anything either of us wanted, we both just wanted to part ways for the day.

I didn’t sleep well that night. I kept expecting a phone call from the police, not really sure what they would want, but something kept me awake thinking. I must have dozed off at some point in the morning hours because I rushed back into being awake when my alarm went off. Seeing my family in the morning felt awkward, I hadn’t told them about what had happened yet, and my mom seemed like she didn’t want to prod but my dad was the opposite.

“You alright there sport?” He asked as I poked at my oatmeal.

“Ya. Just not feeling great.” I replied. That definitely got my mom’s attention. I wanted more than nothing else to stay home and waste the day away in my bed. But at the same time i knew that this wasn’t going to end with silence.

When i got to school, the day started off normal, but it didn’t last. I was standing at my locker, staring into a disorganized rectangle of space, not taking anything out or putting anything in. I remember thinking about Hunter, about all of the shit he had us doing over the past year. I thought about how maybe it would be better if Hunter was gone – a thought that I regretted thinking, but explored it in my mind all the same.

“Tommy?” I snapped back into the school hallway, packed with other kids making their way to class. The voice was sweet and I knew it by heart. “Are you Okay?” Hazel asked.

“Ya, uh… just spacing out.” I replied.

“Peter wants to tell us something.” that was the last thing I was expecting today. Peter Goddard, the officer’s son. There is nothing good that he could say to us, but I knew that being the son of the officer that went and checked out King st., he must have known something. We navigated the halls until we found him.

“You didn’t hear this from me, and don’t go spreading it… you got that?” Unlike my dwindling group of misfit pals, Peter was a straight shooter… serious, honest, and didn’t deal bullshit. Hazel and I moved in closer. “You got it?” He asked again, demanding some sort of confirmation. We both nodded. “Last night, I was sitting on the couch when my dad came home. I had my headphones in but I turned the music off, so they didn’t know that I was listening. My dad told my mom what happened to your friend Hunter. I had never heard my dad talk like this before. He actually sounded scared. He was telling my mom that they found a local boy, and I heard him say Hunter Twombly. They found his body in an abandoned house in town.”

Hazel grabbed my hand and squeezed. I knew this was hard for her to be hearing, and a tear started to form in each eye. Peter continued, “And listen, what i’m about to tell you is the worst part.”

“I cant!” Hazel released her grip on me and ran out through a nearby door. I took a step after her but my arm was grabbed.

“Tommy, you have to hear this.” Peter’s stare was intense. “They found Hunter in the attic of some house. He wa- was stuck to the ceiling between the rafters in some kind of… black tar. Like, he was suspended there, like it was a spider web.” I didn’t understand what Peter was telling me. “And he was… like… dry. Like paper.”

“What?” I asked with a puzzled look.

“Tommy. Something fucked up happened to him. My dad said he was like a fucking mummy at the museum. He couldn’t even get the words out last night.” And with that he let my arm go. I went after Hazel and by the time I caught up with her, she had black streaks running down her face.

“I know Hunter was into some shit. But he didnt deserve this.” She said between sobs.

Later that day we all spoke with the police, explained the same story that we had told them the day prior. The cops didn’t tell us what they found, but because Peter told me and I told Shawn, we both knew what happened – assuming Peter told us the truth. When I told Shawn what I heard, he had a blank stare and didn’t ask any questions.

I didn’t go to school the rest of the week. Sitting at home on a dark day I riffled through the mail until I came across a pamphlet. There was a recruiting station in town and I spoke to a man in an Army uniform. He told me to come back when I was eighteen. Summer came and went and in September when I became of age, I enlisted in the Army.

My mom cried.

On A chilly September day after school I walked Hazel home. As we walked I told her that I had joined the Army and would be shipping off to basic training as soon as I graduated. Hazel held back her tears. Hazel and I were not boyfriend and girlfriend, we didn’t date, but there was an unspoken feeling that we shared. At least it was unspoken until this day.

Hazel was choked up but started to speak… “Tommy l-… I can’t believe that you did that. … you know before you showed up I felt… like giving up. I hated every, single, day. I would wake up, go to school, go home, wishing day in and day out for a change. Then there you were. And of course you were with these guys, but it didn’t matter… I felt something that first day we saw each other. And I have felt it ever since. And I was getting tired of pretending I didn’t, and the more we spent time together the more I didn’t have to, and I was beginning to feel like I was free from the hole I had been in. Tommy, I love you. You have made each day worth getting up. You made me feel comfortable with … with myself. I felt like I could drop the look that I used to have and be who I wanted. And now this? Your going to go off n’ join the army n’ fight in some stupid fucking war? For what?” Hazel faced away from me with her hands covering her face. She had just told me everything I had ever wanted to hear. It’s everything that I had felt too.

“Hazel… why did you tell me all of that?” It’s all I could think of saying. Then she turned towards me. I knew she was disappointed with my response, but at the same time seemed to understand why I asked.

“Why are you joining the military?” She replied with disdain. And she was right in asking me, and our reasoning was probably the same. We both didn’t really know why.

Hazel and I didnt walk home together anymore after that. We didn’t stay up late messaging each other online. I had isolated myself from my true best friend and the girl that I was in love with.

Then one day Shawn wasn’t in school. He wasn’t at home, in fact his house was completely empty. I knew the combination to his locker and grabbed some of his notebooks and looked through to see if I could find anything that stood out. Shawn always had a habit of doodling, writing poems, and writing about things he was thinking about rather than what the teachers were preaching. He always talked about moving someplace warm where he could skate late into the night and walk along the beach at sunrise. I like to think that if he left town that he had made it. Shawn was a good person that got dealt a tough hand. Now all three of those boys were gone. The days of riding around in the back of a blue pickup, not knowing what the afternoon would bring, were also gone.

I have been reflecting back on that year that my family moved to Massachusetts. That was 19 years ago, but it plays back in my mind like it was last week. In the last nineteen years I have had nothing but time to think about it. I served two tours in Iraq and got out of the Army after 8 years of service. It’s funny because there are details of my time serving that I can’t remember at all, and I have been out longer than I was in. But still that one year seems to be crystal clear.

A month ago I went to a doctor because for as long as I can remember I have had pain in my upper back that creeps towards my right shoulder. At first my doctor chalked it up to wear and tear from being in the Army, but it was getting so much worse as time went on. I had a x-ray and MRI, and they found a cancerous mass in my upper back. I can still feel it… like that day in that house on S. King st. That feeling of being shoved and then a soreness in my back like I was punched. The doctor said this type of tumor was extremely rare to form the way it did. He said there is a 1 in 8 chance that I would succumb to it. When he told me I was shocked by his cander, and that he gave me the odds of losing this battle rather than winning. Maybe it was what the doctor said, or maybe it was my recurring nightmares, but I have decided to head back to that small town in Massachusetts. I want to know what happened that day on S. King st. I have needed answers for 19 years. Every night when I close my eyes I see that house, and even though Stevie wasn’t there that day my brain places him there, standing and watching me in that hallway.

Now that I have had nothing but time to think… think about all of this, I sometimes think about the last question that Hazel asked me. Why did I join the Army. So here it goes… my best attempt at an answer… Its my fault that Stevie died. I was too much of a coward to stop Hunter from passing the gun around. I knew there was a bullet in there and I didn’t do shit about it. And I just watched in awe as Stevie pulled the trigger and accidentally took his own life. That didn’t have to happen. Stevie didn’t have to die that day. But he did. And I can only blame myself.

Credit: Dranek

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