Empty_Hotel_6

“Hey Jack, just in time,” his mom said as he walked in the basement door.

“Yeah? For what?” Jack asked.

“I just got off the phone with Mrs. Alexander,” his mom said. Jack caught his breath; it was a few seconds before he put together who she meant: Stephen’s mom.

“She said that Stephen should be here in two hours,” she continued. “I don’t know what she would have done if we weren’t home.”

“So, four o’clock?” Jack asked as Ben walked in.

“Yes, or a little before,” she turned to Ben. “Stephen will be here around four.”

“Oh, okay,” Ben said.

“I’ll be right back,” said Jack as he headed back outside. He wanted to make sure the campsite wasn’t trashed. Jack needed to look at their home with fresh eyes to see where Stephen would find fault. He came around the bushes and saw the tent, cooler, chairs, and fire-pit. Everything looked good to him so he tidied up and then headed back to the house.

Ben had gone upstairs for his shower when Jack came back in the house.

“You guys okay? You seem out of it,” commented Jack’s mom.

“Sure, yeah,” replied Jack.

“You like Stephen, right?”

“Yeah, of course. I don’t know him that well though,” said Jack.

“That’s true,” his mom said. “You spent some time together two summers ago, right?”

“Yeah, he came to Ben’s house for a couple of weeks,” replied Jack.

“Well good — you can pick up where you left off,” she said.

Jack hoped not — where he and Stephen had left off was close to a fist-fight. He knew he would have to make the best of this situation, but he dreaded having to hear how much better Stephen’s house, family, and life were.

 

 

 

**********

 

That afternoon at three-thirty the boys went out and sat on the curb. All summer they had tracked the progress of the sidewalk construction crew moving through the neighborhood. They had decided long before to try to get their names in the wet cement when it was laid in front of Jack’s house. Based on their observations, they guessed their opportunity was still weeks away, but they hadn’t deciphered the order of the streets.

A few minutes after four a cab from several towns away pulled up.

“He must have taken a cab from the airport,” said Jack.

“Expensive,” said Ben.

Stephen didn’t get out of the cab right away, but seemed to be having a conversation with the driver. Eventually Stephen handed a wad of bills over the seat and started to open the door. Jack and Ben took a half-step towards the cab, but just then Stephen closed his door and engaged in fresh discussion with the driver. The boys couldn’t hear what Stephen was saying and they stayed back, waiting for his next move. Eventually Stephen opened the door again and stepped out.

“Ben, my son, my son, how are you doing?” said Stephen. He was three months older than Ben and four months older than Jack, but he tended to act like he was an old man compared to them.

“Hey Stephen,” said Ben.

Jack looked on, wondering if Stephen would address him.

“Jacky — how they hanging?” said Stephen as he finally turned to Jack.

“Good, thanks,” said Jack.

“Well I am stiff — all-day travel from the Big Apple,” said Stephen. He walked around the rear of the cab and on cue the trunk popped open. Stephen fetched a large suitcase and a big, expensive-looking backpack.

“Be a guy, will ya?” Stephen said to Jack as he handed him the suitcase. Jack could barely lift it with arm, but was determined to not show weakness. Stephen put on the backpack and buckled it around his waist, as though he were beginning a long hike.

“So what’s going on here — catch me up,” Stephen said to Ben. Jack started off towards the house with the suitcase and Ben and Stephen followed behind. Jack’s mom opened the front door as they approached.

“We’ve been camping out, out back. Jack’s got a great backyard and we’re all set up,” said Ben.

“How much land?” asked Stephen.

“I don’t know — Jack, how much land do you have here?” asked Ben.

Jack wanted to answer, but couldn’t remember the figure — “Um, a bunch of acres, but I don’t remember how much.”

Jack’s mom overheard the question and interjected an answer: “It’s just under an acre, Stephen.”

“We used to have a house that looked a lot like this,” said Stephen.

“I’ll leave you boys alone now, but don’t forget — dinner with us tonight,” Jack’s mom said.

“Okay, mom. Thanks,” said Jack.

Jack began to take Stephen’s suitcase up the stairs one at a time.

When they reached the second floor, Stephen spoke up — “You know, most of that stuff should just go out to the campsite, if we’re camping.”

“I’ll grab it, you’ve got a bad arm,” said Ben as he took the bag from Jack.

“Thanks,” said Jack and followed Ben and Stephen back down the stairs.

 

 

 

**********

 

Out at the campsite, Stephen didn’t seem to pay any attention to how Jack and Ben had laid out their gear. Stephen dropped his backpack, sat down in one of the two chairs, and propped up his head with his interlaced hands. Ben set Stephen’s suitcase down at the entrance to the tent.

“What did you do to your arm?” Stephen addressed Jack.

“Fell out of the garage loft,” replied Jack.

“Man, Darwin awards, huh?” said Stephen. “Just kidding, son. You guys have a decent setup here. Do you cook out here?”

“Yeah, most of the time,” said Ben.

“We should get takeout sometime soon — what delivers around here?” asked Stephen.

“I’m not sure if anyone does — I doubt they would,” replied Jack.

“Wow, all this and no delivery?” chucked Stephen.

Jack looked at Ben, who looked up at the sky. Stephen looked back and forth between the two.

“Hey, let’s kick the ball a while,” said Stephen after a pause.

Stephen dug into his backpack and pulled out a clean soccer ball. He dribbled it around the tent and then passed it to Ben.

“Go deep!” Stephen called to Ben.

Ben took the ball to the other side of the yard and passed it back to Stephen. Jack had backed up against the edge of the woods, but Stephen passed the ball back to Ben. When Ben got the ball back, he passed it on to Jack.

Jack fired the ball back to Stephen who stopped it easily. This time Stephen kicked the ball back to Jack, but sent it past him into the woods. Jack carefully retrieved the ball and passed it on to Ben. Over the next few minutes Jack and Ben exchanged the ball easily, but Stephen consistently forced Jack to chase the ball into the woods.

“it’s nice and quiet out here — you should count yourself lucky,” said Stephen to Jack.

“Yeah,” replied Jack.

Ben reversed the direction of the ball, and Jack found himself kicking to Stephen. Jack resisted the urge to send the ball past him, and instead kicked a controlled shot directly to him. After a while the boys got tired of passing the ball and returned to the tent. Stephen directed the conversation.

“Do you guys have independent-studies classes?” Stephen asked Ben. Stephen and Ben talked about their classes and Jack could barely track the conversation. Their school-life was fundamentally different than Jack’s.

Like most of Jack’s neighbors, Ben attended private school.  The free-form curriculum of the private school catered to its diverse and creative students. Jack’s parents had offered to send him to private school, but Jack felt like his father respected the public school education more. The same way his dad avoided anything elitist. Still, he missed going to school with Ben. He missed not being his best friend all the time, like they were back in third grade.

“Where do you go next year?” Stephen asked Jack. Jack was startled to be included in the conversation and he had to take a second to process the question.

“Oh…. Um, Pembroke high,” said Jack.

“You sure?” asked Stephen. “Doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression.”

“Ha ha,” said Jack.

“Easy, son — just a joke,” said Stephen.

Stephen turned back to Ben and they discussed drama club for a while. They had acting in common, too. Stephen appeared in some commercials, and Ben had acted in several school plays. Jack busied himself inside the tent, moving the sleeping bags around to accommodate another person.

 

 

 

**********

 

The three boys prepared dinner, ate, and then turned in. It seemed to Jack that he and Ben hadn’t said one word the entire time. Stephen tended to fill every gap with stories about his amazing life. Occasionally, he would engage Ben in some conversation about one of their mutual acquaintances, but even then Ben barely spoke. The next morning was more of the same.

Ben and Jack typically woke up soon after dawn and listened to the sounds of the nearby woods. Stephen slept a little longer, but as soon as he awoke he started talking.

“Damn it’s cold up here — what are you guys, eskimos?” asked Stephen. Ben chuckled and Jack was silent. He suspected Stephen only lived a couple hundred miles south and doubted the climate was that much different.

“What’s the big plan? You guys get over to the beach much?” asked Stephen.

“Nah, too far,” said Ben.

“What? It’s like forty-five minutes, tops,” said Stephen.

“We don’t have a ride,” said Jack.

“Never heard of a bus, or a cab?” asked Stephen. “I go everywhere by cab these days. So convenient. I gotta hit the head. Be right back.”

When Stephen had crawled out of the tent and been gone for a minute Jack looked at Ben. Ben didn’t meet Jack’s gaze, but said “It’ll be fine,” and slid out of his sleeping bag to go outside.

That morning Jack and Ben fielded dozens of suggestions from Stephen. Everything he brought up required both transportation and money that the boys didn’t have. He seemed to be gearing his comments to point out the deficiencies in their life. Jack was starting to get fed up.

“What are we doing for fireworks?” asked Stephen. “Tomorrow is the fourth and all.”

“They’ve got a thing at the grade school,” replied Jack. “My dad said he take us over.”

“That sounds like a million laughs — you ever see the fireworks in Boston?” asked Stephen. “They’re spectacular.”

“Yeah, they’re pretty small here,” said Ben.

“What about bikes? You got bikes?” asked Stephen.

“I saw a couple in the garage,” said Ben.

“Two,” replied Jack. “There’re two bikes in there and one of them is my dad’s. Plus, I’m not exactly able to ride a bike right now,” Jack motioned with his injured arm.

“Well Ben can ride yours and I’ll ride your dad’s,” said Stephen. “I’m taller than I look… Long legs.”

“What am I supposed to do?” asked Jack.

“How should I know — I’m not your cruise director,” said Stephen. “Jeez, can’t you be alone for a while?”

“Hey man, if it’s not something we can all do, then we’re not going to do it,” said Ben.

“Relax friend,” said Stephen, “that’s what I’m saying.”

“No you weren’t!” Jack burst out. “You just said I should stay here alone!”

“That’s not what I meant,” countered Stephen. “You are tightly wound, son.”

“Fuck this,” said Jack. He turned away and stalked to his house. Jack went inside without looking back.

“Wow, what do you suppose that was about?” asked Stephen.

 

 

 

**********

 

Inside, Jack went right to the kitchen where a calendar was posted on their cork-board. Friday, July sixth was circled and his mom’s handwriting announced “J — Dr.” Jack was instantly relieved; he hadn’t realized his freedom from the sling was so close. Bolstered with this new knowledge, Jack was able compose himself and go back outside.

When Jack came back to the campsite, Stephen and Ben were nowhere to be found. Jack looked in the tent and took mental inventory of their gear. Nothing seemed to be missing, it was unlikely they had gone far. Unwilling to seem needy, Jack grabbed his knife and a branch. He squeezed with his knees to hold it. He proceeded to carve the branch into a spear. After a few seconds, Jack was interrupted by a distant voice.

“Help!” It sounded like Ben, but it wasn’t an alarmed call — it was almost matter-of-fact.

“Ben?” shouted Jack.

“Help,” he heard. Jack started off in the direction of the voice. When he crossed from the yard into the trees, a figure burst out from behind a large maple. Jack spun and defended with his right hand. Until he saw it reflect the leaf-dappled sun, he had forgotten that he still held the knife.

“Holy shit! Watch it!” yelled Stephen. Ben appeared directly behind Jack an circled around him at arm’s length.

“Jesus, he’s trying to stab someone,” accused Stephen.

“I’m so sorry, I forgot I had the knife out,” stammered Jack.

“Sorry, my ass. You’re a psycho,” replied Stephen.

“It was just an accident, could have happened to anyone,” said Ben. “Serves us right for tricking you, Jack — sorry.”

“That’s okay, no problem. I really didn’t mean it,” replied Jack.

“I know — no problem,” said Ben. “Right Stephen?”

“Yeah, yeah, just kidding man,” said Stephen.

“How’d you do that anyway — sound so far away like that?” asked Jack as they walked back to the campsite.

“What do you mean?” asked Ben. “Sound like what?”

“I heard you yelling ‘Help’,” said Jack.

Ben slowed down and looked at Jack — “Yelling? Jack, we weren’t yelling anything.”

“Seriously?” asked Jack. “Guys, I seriously heard someone yelling for help. It sounded like you, Ben, but not you.”

“Jack, I’m totally serious — we didn’t hear a thing,” said Ben. Jack looked back and forth between Ben and Stephen and shuddered slightly.

“True story, Jack,” added Stephen. “We didn’t hear a thing. Unless… Wait a sec, did it sound like ‘Help Me!’?” Stephen reproduced the voice perfectly and he and Ben started to crack up.

“Oh, you guys are assholes,” said Jack. “Both of you, total assholes.”

“Man, you really bought that,” laughed Ben. “Bought and paid for.”

Their laughter was infectious and Jack started to smile.

“Help! Help!” Jack mocked and began to really join the laughter. “It’s funny, all you have to do is try to sound like a girl, and you sound just like Ben,” he said to Stephen.

“Good one, son,” laughed Stephen.

Ben pretended to be offended, but couldn’t keep a straight face. Finally having something in common, they replayed the event dozens of times; laughing and cracking each other up as they sat at their campsite. Jack dug some cokes out of the cooler and they sipped soda and talked about what to do with the day.

They all agreed that they should check the weather and then plan a big hike if the weather was favorable. Ben and Jack gave Stephen the rundown of the places they’d been and where the unexplored trails were to be found.

“I should’ve brought my laptop,” said Stephen. “Do you get wireless out here?”

“Yeah,” began Jack, “but we have a pact.”

“No internets,” decried Ben. “Not at the campsite.”

“Whoa, really?” Stephen was surprised. “What’s with that?”

“We tried that once,” said Ben. “What’s the point of camping if we all just sit in the tent all day and surf?”

“It’s true,” added Jack. “It’s really all or nothing. We just check email like every two days when we have dinner with my parents, and cellphones don't even work in this area. We're in a valley or something.”

“Well, that’s gonna be tough,” said Stephen. “Sounds downright retarded if you ask me, but I guess it can’t be that bad. So how are we gonna check the weather then.”

“We can do that,” replied Ben. “But then we just get in and out.”

“That’s right,” added Jack. “On and off.”

“You guys are like those Pennsylvania Dutch people — I saw them on a field-trip,” said Stephen.

“Ya,” said Ben.

 

 

**********

 

After some more discussion and a weather-check, the boys packed sandwiches and headed into the woods. Ben and Jack had been making small improvements to the trail each time they hiked and it was a well-groomed path all the way to the power-lines. Ben took the lead and pointed out all the false turns and dead-ends they had created to throw off imagined pursuit.

Stephen thought they should add some traps to the path, but was vetoed by Ben and Jack.

“We thought of that, but little kids sometimes come out here,” said Jack.

They gave Stephen the grand tour of the woods bordering the neighborhood and popped on to the power-line cut at the top of a small hill. The clearing stretched east and west and the hill afforded them an excellent view. A large rock was selected as their picnic table. They opened their packs and unloaded provisions for lunch.

“Oh man, that’s good,” said Stephen through a mouthful of sandwich.

“The best,” agreed Ben.

“Remind me to thank your mom when we get back,” added Stephen. Jack focused on Stephen. “No, seriously,” he continued, “it was nice of her.”

“Yeah, okay, that’s cool,” said Jack.

Ben pointed out thunderheads building to their west.

“What happened to hot and dry?” asked Jack.

“They’re only right like half the time,” said Ben. “As long as it’s nice tomorrow. I like fireworks.”

“There’s hardly any bugs here, we were getting killed by them down south,” said Stephen.

“It’s been a good year — not too many bugs at all,” Jack boasted.

“Well, there was that one up your mom’s ass when we went hiking that time,” chuckled Ben.

“Hey!” said Jack. “Not cool. I told her we would keep her up-to-speed is all.” He paused. “That was when that guy was still out there.”

“What guy?” asked Stephen.

“One of the kids who lived down the street from Jack got abducted,” said Ben. “We saw the cops come and get they guy who did it though.”

“Seriously? That’s crazy!” exclaimed Stephen. “Where did he live?”

“Right next door to the kid,” said Ben. “We were right outside when it happened, and we saw the whole thing.”

“I still can’t believe it. Mr. Anderson was really cool,” added Jack. “He used to take care of that kid sometimes, when his parents couldn’t find a sitter and stuff. Just seems weird.”

“Yeah, but didn’t your dad say they had lots of evidence?” asked Ben.

“You guys need to back up a piece — what happened to the kid?” asked Stephen.

“Well, he went missing a couple of months ago,” explained Jack. “I don’t remember exactly when, but everyone was looking for him for a long time. After a while they just stopped. Not his dad though — that guy was really mad. We hadn’t heard anything about Gabe in weeks and weeks and then they showed up and took away Mr. Anderson.”

“Wow — where’s he now?” asked Stephen.

“I don’t know. We haven’t been watching the news or anything, but I think everyone thinks Gabe is dead by now,” replied Jack.

“And where did this kid live?” asked Stephen.

“Just down the street,” said Ben. “We’ll show you when we get back.”

“Wow. You live down the street from a dead kid,” said Stephen. “That’s trippy. But I think you’re right: it doesn’t make that much sense. I would think those guys wouldn’t grab a neighborhood kid. Too risky. They’d go for a kid who lived really far away so nobody would know.”

“Yeah, but maybe Gabe trusted him,” said Jack. “He grabbed him from pre-school, so maybe he just said he’d give him a ride or something.”

“That’s cool they caught him and all,” said Stephen. “My mom would probably freak if she thought there was a kid-toucher around somewhere.”

“Yeah, well we’ve been dealing with that for months,” said Ben.

“I think it’s getting better now,” offered Jack. “She didn’t even really ask where we were hiking today. Just told me to bring sunscreen.”

“Which you didn’t put on,” said Ben.

“Hey, leave him alone,” said Stephen, defending Jack. “He really needs a tan.”

Jack threw an empty can at Stephen — “You’re just as pale as me, buddy.”

“Yeah, but I just got here,” countered Stephen. “You and Ben have been nature-boys for weeks.”

“That’s actually a pretty solid point,” agreed Ben.

“Get bent,” said Jack. “Which way did you guys want to go, anyway?”

“You tell me — what’s where?” asked Stephen.

Ben pointed off to the west. “If we go that way just past that second hill we can take a right and get to the quarry. Over that way,” he pointed behind himself, “you can see that little river down there. It’s not that wide, but looks really deep and it moves fast. We’ve never gone across cuz it’s so cold.”

“We could make a raft or a bridge or something,” said Stephen.

“Yeah, that might be cool,” replied Ben.

“Did you ever follow it downstream to see how far it goes until there’s a real bridge?” asked Stephen.

“No, but we looked online,” said Jack. “The only bridge that way is the highway,” he pointed north.

“And back that way you’re all the way back to Jack’s house,” added Ben, pointing south.

“Yup,” said Jack.

“Well I guess there’s plenty of directions to go before we get desperate about that river anyway,” said Ben. “We still haven’t really gone much north from here, or west past the quarry anyway.”

Jack was digging through his bag. “Oh wait, check this out.” He pulled out a topographic map. “I forgot I had this.”

“Oh, nice. Thanks,” said Stephen as Jack handed him the map.

“So we’re about here,” Jack pointed. “And this is the quarry.” His map had all the local features. “It’s a little old, so it doesn’t have a couple of the newer roads, but it’s pretty accurate about this area.”

“What’s this here?” asked Stephen, pointing at the map.

“Looks like a little pond or something,” answered Ben.

“Don’t these lines mean that it’s uphill?” asked Stephen.

“Depends on the numbers, those are the height above sea-level,” said Jack. “They should be marked every fifty feet on the darker lines. Are they going up?”

“Yeah, look, five-hundred there, and five-fifty up here,” replied Stephen. “So that little pond is at the top of a hill. That sounds cool.”

Ben agreed — “Yeah, like a volcano or something.”

“Could be — we should go check it out. How far is it?” asked Stephen.

“Let me see,” said Jack. “Well, looks like a mile from here. Could be hard-hiking though, so maybe about an hour each way.”

“Do we have time?” asked Ben.

Jack cautioned: “We might, but it wouldn’t leave us much time to explore and stuff. I think we should plan a whole day around it.”

Stephen was the first to capitulate — “Yeah, let’s do that. Then we don’t have worry about getting right back,” he Stephen. “Actually, I think we might have to think about getting back before those clouds come.”

“Hey,” said Ben, “let’s go over to the quarry and see if we can get wet before we get wet.”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Jack.

 

 

 

**********

 

The boys packed their trash back into their packs and headed down the hill to the west. Ben was in the lead and Jack pulled up the rear. Jack moved somewhat slower down the hills — his balance was affected by his immobilized arm. He managed to catch up on the flats though, and kept pace with Ben and Stephen.

Shielding his eyes and squinting, Stephen looked off to the woods often. When a plane would pass overhead, he would look up frequently until it had passed. He seemed to be focused on everything except the trail in front of him.

They walked in silence for almost twenty minutes before Stephen broke in — “These trails are really pretty cool. We don’t have anything like this.”

Ben turned around and walked backwards to answer — “Yeah, we’ve been exploring almost every day, and we still haven’t nearly seem them all. The quarry is just up here.”

Stephen and Jack followed Ben’s lead to a narrow trail through the woods. Soon they had emerged at the edge of a clearing, on the lip of sandy slope that led to the quarry floor. Half-running and half-sliding, Ben descended first. Stephen followed and Jack came down a bit more gingerly. The floor of the pit was mostly hard-packed sand with a few large rocks strewn about.

“You gotta make sure nobody’s shooting down here before you come down — that’s the only thing,” said Ben. “There’s a target right there.”

“We’ve only seen them once though,” said Jack.

The three boys headed around the corner following four-wheeler tracks from pit to pit. Aside from the occasional broken bottle, the area was fairly un-littered. Soon they approached the quarry-pond, dumped their packs, and sat down to peel off their shoes and socks.

“What do you think — you going all the way in?” asked Jack.

“I’m just going to dip my feet,” replied Ben. “I don’t want to get all wet.”

“I’ve got to at least dip my head in — I’m burning up,” said Stephen.

After they had dipped and splashed, they climbed one of the rock walls and looked down at the quarry.

“You think we could jump off here?” asked Ben.

“Looks dangerous,” said Jack. “You first.”

“This first,” said Stephen as he chucked a large rock down to the water. He was rewarded with a giant splash.

He was ready to throw another when Ben stopped him — “Wait, hold on.” Ben pointed to the east side of the pond where two shapes were coming around a large rock.

Jack whispered — “They look pretty old, seniors maybe.”

As the two figures got a little closer they boys could make out two older kids wearing jeans and t-shirts. One was smoking and the other held a brown paper bag. Working their way around the far side of the pond, the older boys passed out of sight.

“C’mon, let’s get our stuff,” said Jack.

Nodding in agreement, the boys started down the rocks. Lack of shoes hadn’t seemed like much of an issue on the way up, but on the descent they were hampered by their bare feet.

“Jeez, get going!” ordered Stephen. He was slowed by Jack picking his way down.

Jack shook his left arm out of its sling so he could use both hands to assist his climb. He didn’t put much weight on the arm, but used it to steady his balance. In a couple of minutes Jack and Stephen had made it back to their shoes and packs, but Ben was lagging behind.

“Why are we running?” hissed Ben.

“Why not?” answered Stephen. “Should we just hang around and ask them what good they’re up to at the quarry?”

Ben caught up with them and asked in a normal tone of voice — “What are we up to?” he spread his arms and looked around. “They’re probably just here to swim or target-shoot.”

“Just get your shoes on,” said Jack who was already tying his left boot.

Ben looked off to his right. “Hey guys,” he said.

The boys they had seen were emerging from around a rock.

The smoker was about six-foot two, and wore a black tee shirt that could have been comfortable if it were two sizes larger. Well-worn boots were mostly covered by his frayed jeans. A half-step behind, the guy with the brown paper bag was about as tall, but much thinner.

Smoker took a drag — “Hey. You guys seen a dog here?” he asked. Bag Man chuckled at the question.

“Nope, not today,” said Ben.

“You see one, let me know,” said Smoker. “We’ll be over there,” he pointed to the adjacent sand pit.

“Yeah, no problem,” replied Ben.

When Smoker and Bag Man had walked out of earshot, Ben gloated: “See, what were you guys freaking out about? They were nice enough.”

A shot rang out. Jack, Stephen, and Ben turned to see Smoker pointing a pistol at a target mounted to a rock.

“See? Target shooting,” Ben said.

“Just get your shoes on — let’s get out of here,” said Jack.

Smoker fired again, and the sound was followed by laughter. They could heard Smoker barking orders at Bag Man.

“Yeah, okay,” acquiesced Ben.

Denied their normal exit, the boys had to debate how to exit the quarry. They knew there must be a trail or road on the other side of the pond because the older kids had come from that direction. Stephen headed off and Jack and Ben followed. When they had reached the far side of the pond, they found a path that wound through some scattered brush and led to a dirt road.

“Let’s check the map,” said Stephen when they had reached the road. They moved a few dozen yards past the car they assumed belonged to Smoker and Bag Man. Jack bent over to dig the map from his bag and Ben looked down the road.

The map showed a dotted double line. They assumed it was the road.

Stephen suggested a route: “Looks like if we follow this for a while we can take the train-tracks back to the power lines.”

“Yeah, but that’s kinda far,” said Jack. “Maybe we should go back and try to find a way around those guys.”

“Stray bullets are not my bag,” said Stephen.

Ben was now back towards the car. “Hey guys,” he said. “Come here.”

They approached and saw what he was looking at. In the brush next to the car was a fly-covered dead dog. It was big, a labrador-cross, and it reeked.

“Oh man, I’m gonna hurl,” said Jack. “Is that the dog they were looking for?”

“I don’t think so,” said Ben as he pointed, “look.” Following his line, Stephen and Jack saw that the dog had several bullet-holes in its side.

“They shot it!” said Stephen. “Sick bastards.”

“Seriously, let’s get going,” said Jack.

They turned and headed down the road. Occasionally they heard a shot from the direction of the quarry. Before long a well-traveled path appeared on their left. A quick check of the map and they were confident that it would lead them back to the power lines.

 

 

 

**********

 

The next morning they rose early and fixed their breakfast in the house so they could be ready to pounce on Jack’s dad. Eager to know the plan, the boys watched television and waited for him to come down the stairs. About nine o’clock, Jack’s dad descended.

“What are you guys doing inside on a day like this?” he asked.

“We’re waiting for you, dad,” said Jack. “We wanted to ask about the fireworks.”

“Well those aren’t until nine tonight. I think we have plenty of time to plan,” his dad replied.

“Yeah, but we just wanted to make sure,” said Jack.

“Okay, well how about this: we’ll go over to the fair at six, get some food there for dinner, and then we’ll go see the fireworks. Sound good?”

“Yeah, I guess,” said Jack. “Can we go over earlier than that though?”

“Sure. Five then?”

“Okay,” said Jack.

“Okay,” His dad continued through the living room and out to the kitchen.

“That went well,” said Stephen. “What now?”

“I don’t know,” said Jack. “Want to play games downstairs?”

Too excited to plan anything extensive, they boys killed time in the rec-room playing video games and watching television. The day was long and it seemed like a chore to have to wait for the evening’s entertainment. Jack’s mom passed through several times and suggested constructive activities that would help them pass the time, but the boys weren’t interested in any of them.

 

 

**********

 

One hundred feet in the air the ride stopped. The boys were packed in, strapped down, and looking up to see the ground.

“Oh, I don’t think I can take another round,” said Ben.

They were on a ride called “Sky Master,” and in the front row. They had spun in big looping circles — faster and slower. The ride would occasionally stop when their car was at the top of the arc and upside-down.

“Seriously, tell that guy I have a hundred bucks if he’ll stop the ride,” pleaded Ben.

“They don’t take hundreds,” laughed Jack.

Ben laughed a bit and then cut himself off. “Don’t make me laugh, or you’ll both be wearing used hot dogs.”

“Gross!” said Stephen. “Who let this guy on?”

“Let me on?” yelled Ben. “You practically begged us to get in. This is your fault.”

Ben reached across Jack to get to Stephen.

Jack held up his hands. “Stop! Stop, it will be okay. I’m sure they just forgot about us,” he giggled. “They’ll be back in a couple of hours and then I’m sure they’ll let us down.”

“Real funny,” said Ben. “You just made the list, buddy.”

“List of what? Guys you’re going to date next?” asked Stephen. “Cuz you’re acting somewhat like a woman.”

The three of them laughed at that and then screamed in unison as the ride began to move again. When the “Sky Master” had finally come to rest, the boys piled out and veered off in separate directions. Ben doubled over and looked at his knees.

“Oh man, you guys should kill me now,” said Ben. “I’m not going to make it.”

Jack grabbed his arm and dragged him back to the crowd. “C’mon, you weakling,” Jack said.

In the midway the sounds of the games and booths were deafening. The boys were jostled by the shifting crowds and blinded by the flashing lights. Stephen led the way to an attraction that housed a game of skill. He set down a dollar and attempted to move a small metal ring down a slowly-spinning contorted metal rod. He missed his mark and his loop touched the rod. A buzzer sounded and his game came to an end.

“Tough luck kid. Next time,” the operator counseled.

“I want to try again,” said Stephen.

“Sure thing,” said the man, and took his dollar.

Stephen was a quick study. He moved the loop confidently down the length of the twisted, spinning rod and didn’t hesitate when he got to the point of his previous error. He made it through the hardest turn and was making the home stretch.

“Hey!” Stephen shouted as the buzzer went off and the game stopped. “I didn’t touch anything! You guys saw.”

“Game doesn’t lie, kid. Next time,” said the attendant.

“Bullshit — that’s bullshit!”

“Hey — watch your mouth, rich-bitch,” said the man. “Take a hike.”

“C’mon, Stephen,” said Ben as he grabbed his friend’s shirt.

“What? He cheated me,” retorted Stephen.

“Whatever. You don’t want those prizes anyway,” said Ben.

Jack started to move away and then returned to grab Stephen’s other arm. Leading him on either side, Jack and Ben escorted Stephen away.

“This whole thing is a fake!” said Stephen. “I’m going to get these guys!”

Moving away from the games, the boys found themselves back near the rides. They compared ticket prices and line lengths and decided to go in the haunted house. The ride was about the size of a double-wide trailer, and had tracks that small cars travelled.

The line moved quickly. At the head of the line, they handed over their tickets to a disinterested attendant. Once on the ride, Stephen hatched his plan.

“You guys know that big box that was next to the expo building?” Stephen asked.

“Yeah, where I put my soda down and that guy yelled at me?” asked Jack.

“Yeah, that’s it,” continued Stephen. “I think that’s the junction box for the power for this side of the fair. Probably the whole midway is run off that.”

“How would you know?” asked Jack.

Ben surprised Jack by answering for Stephen: “His dad is an electrical engineer. He’s always inspecting that kind of stuff.”

“That’s right,” said Stephen. “And I bet if we throw the breaker we kill the power. Then, while the power’s out I can go get my prize from that guy’s table. He’ll be too worried about getting the power back on to even notice me.”

“That’s like the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” said Ben. “Why would that ever work?”

“I bet it will,” said Stephen. “Besides, if the power goes off and the guy’s not distracted, then I just won’t do it.”

Ben wasn’t buying it — “Or, everything looks cool, but everyone in the whole fair sees you trying to steal something because they have nothing better to do. I mean, if the power’s off, everyone is going to be on guard and you’re not going to have any chance. You’re better just watching the guy until he’s not paying attention.”

“That’s a pretty solid point,” agreed Jack. “Or you could just say ‘Hey, I got ripped off for one dollar and didn’t get my fifty-cent prize.’” What’s the difference?

The ride ended and the boys realized they hadn’t seen any of it. They were too busy arguing about revenge.

“I’ve to to take a piss,” said Stephen when they were out of the ride. He went off towards the expo building.

Jack and Ben were alone, and Jack turned to Ben — “You don’t think he’s serious, do you?”

Ben answered quickly — “I don’t know, he’s pretty stubborn. He might just do it.”

Wandering towards the midway the boys were caught completely off-guard when the lights and sounds suddenly shut down. A swelling group-scream rolled through the crowd and was accompanied by both cheers and boos from the startled mob. Most stood still, but a small contingency started a rough move towards the exit.

Stephen jogged up through the sea of people.

“Come on, let’s go see if he’s distracted now,” Stephen said, smiling.

Pushing their way towards the midway, the boys were moving upstream against a growing exodus. Their fellow fair-goers were getting rowdy and vocal about the darkness. Stephen turned abruptly and pushed Ben and Jack towards a gap between two displays. Trailers on either side, they had to step carefully over cables and tie-downs that filled the makeshift alley. When they popped out behind the trailers, the boys found themselves in an area of solitude amongst the chaos.

“Where are we?” asked Jack. “Have we gotten back to the Plinko yet?”

Stephen answered: “I don’t think so. We can go this way.” He pointed to a small space between tents and trailers. Ben and Jack strained to see what he was pointing at — it was incredibly dark behind these structures. Out in the midway their way had been partially lit by all the people holding up their cell phones and keychain flashlights.

Carefully picking their way, they were getting nowhere. A flashlight clicked on behind them and threw their shadows ahead of them.

“What are you boys doing there?” demanded a throaty voice from behind Jack.

“Run!” yelled Stephen and he attempted to dart off to his right. Ben and Jack plunged behind him when Ben suddenly stopped.

“We passed him,” hissed Ben. Jack looked back to see that Stephen had tripped and was tangled in the ropes of a tent. Soon they could see every detail as the man with the flashlight caught up with Stephen and hauled him to his feet.

“C’mon kids, game’s over,” said the man. “Warren?” he called over his shoulder. “Get over here.”

The man had a firm hold of Stephen’s shirt and pulled Stephen to a small courtyard between a food wagon and the Bingo tent.

A voice sounded from inside the Bingo tent. “What you need?”

Stephen’s captor replied — “I caught a kid sneaking around,” he directed his next comment at Jack and Ben. “You two come over here and things might go easier on your friend here.”

“Okay,” said Jack and he started walking towards the man holding Stephen.

Mouth open, Ben watched his friend close the distance to sure doom. Ben thought that if he could get away, he could go find help. He was becoming certain that the man holding Stephen and soon-to-be-holding Jack should not be considered trustworthy. The man was tall and skinny and his bare arms looked like they could hold back an elephant if need be. Ben was sure of one thing — he didn’t want to submit to this man in any way.

Ben was just getting his nerve to run when Jack came to within arm’s length of the man. As the man’s sinewy arm looped down to scoop him up, Jack ducked and lunged forward. The man had no way to block Jack, with a handful of Stephen taking away one of his hands. Unencumbered, Jack drove a hard uppercut to the skinny man’s crotch.

“Go!” Jack yelled at Stephen as the man dropped his shirt. Stephen ran to the right as Jack tried to escape left. The man, now doubled over, managed to trip Jack up, but with flailing legs Jack stayed upright and kept moving. Ben was the last to bolt, watching the whole scene as if it were happening on television.

The boys went their separate ways, but instinctively made their way back to where Jack’s dad had parked. Arriving simultaneously, Jack and Ben high-fived to celebrate their safety.

“Oh man, where’s Stephen?” asked Jack.

“Right here,” Stephen called from around the other side of the car. The joy Stephen felt was transparent in his step — he fairly glided around the car.

“Guess what I got?” boasted Stephen, holding up a glow-in-the-dark frisbee.

“Good job — you risk all our necks for a stupid toy?” said Ben.

“Relax — everything is under control, isn’t it?” said Stephen.

“As long as you don’t mind ruining the fair for thousands of people,” said Ben. “They’re all going home.”

As if on cue, the lights around the midway came back on at that instant.

Stephen laughed — “See? No harm done,” Stephen turned to Jack. “Jack, man, you’re the best — thanks for saving my ass.”

“No problem,” Jack replied. “You would have done it for me.”

“No way!” exclaimed Stephen. “These hands do not touch dudes down there.”

With the tension broken by Stephen’s joke, the boys laughed for several minutes. They recounted their exploits to each other, exaggerating their roles.

Jack finally put a stop to their reminiscence — “Hey! It’s nine, the fireworks!”

With that, the three jogged off to the hill beyond the football field. Earlier in the day they had debated the optimal viewing location and decided on this hill. Their opinion was shared by most; and the hill was packed with spectators. Once they had located a empty space on the dark hillside, they settled in to watch the show and slap at mosquitoes.

Mid-way through the display, Stephen remarked: “Man, these fireworks are awesome.”

Jack and Ben agreed.

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