Empty_Hotel_8

Emboldened by their exploits at the fair, the boys grew hungry for adventure. They kept each other awake until late, talking of Stephen’s larceny and Jack’s rescue. Ben interjected occasionally, but allowed Jack and Stephen to dominate the discussion. When they woke, they got excited about what this new day could bring.

“What do you think we should do today?” asked Jack.

Stephen replied first, “What about that pond we saw on the map?”

“Or we could try to get across that river and see how far we can get that way,” suggested Ben.

“I think we should do something bigger — like build something cool,” said Jack.

“Like what?” Stephen asked.

“I don’t know, maybe like a big tree fort or something?” said Jack.

Ben dampened the idea — “You need tons of lumber and junk for that. It would be easier to find some other kid’s tree fort and take it over.”

“That’s true — my Dad’s always talking about how much lumber costs,” said Jack. “I can’t think of any other kids who have a good fort. Well there’s one a couple of streets over, but it’s right next to the house and it’s pink.”

“That would be awesome,” laughed Stephen. “They look out their window and we’re right there in their girly tree-house. We’d be all playing house and making tea and stuff.”

“Hey, why don’t we just break into that guy’s house?” said Ben. “You know, the one who the cops hauled away.”

Jack paused before commenting — “No, that’s crazy, that’s a crime scene. You can’t just break in there.”

“Yeah, besides, they would have already taken all the good stuff out of there,” said Stephen. “All the torture stuff and everything is probably down at headquarters already.”

Ben said, “But what if there’s a like a secret door or something, and that’s where he keeps his victims. Cops are always missing that kind of thing, and then the guy gets off and goes right back to killing.”

“Sure! That happens all the time,” mocked Jack. “Oh yeah — in the movies. Bad movies at that.”

Ben pretended to be offended — “Man, that’s just not nice. I just had an idea, and you had to make fun of me like that. Why do you have to be like that.”

“Seriously, Jack,” said Stephen. “Now he’s going to go off and make a secret torture-chamber and hide it from the police in a pink tree-house. See what you’ve done?”

They all laughed.

“You know what we ought to do?” asked Jack. “We ought to find out if those stupid guys shot that dog.”

“How are we going to do that?” asked Ben.

“Well, if you find the bullet that killed that dog, then you could probably get the cops to match it to their gun and stuff,” answered Stephen. “But that would be really gross, because you’d have to cut up smelly dead dog. The best way would be to catch them shooting another dog.”

“Oh, you think they’re going to do it again?” asked Jack. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“Why do you think they were looking for that other dog?” asked Stephen. “They were trying to find it so they could shoot that one too. Those types of guys always come back for more.”

“Hey — I should bring my camera,” said Ben. “It’s in my bag somewhere. It’s got an awesome zoom on it.”

“How are we going to know when they’re going to do it again though?” asked Jack.

Stephen answered — “We just go over there and stake it out. It's too bad you don't get any cellphone reception around here. I've got zero bars and we need communication — do you have any walkie-talkies or anything.”

“Sure, but they’re probably not charged,” said Jack.

“Let’s get everything together,” said Stephen.

 

**********

 

Planning and plotting absorbed most of their morning. When they headed out, the boys each carried a pack with provisions for their stakeout. Exchanging excited banter, they made their way through the hot midday sun, taking their favorite trails. Still twenty minutes from the quarry, they started to plan their approach. The west side seemed safest — they could come up through the woods and be high on the ridge with the sun at their backs all afternoon.

Stephen brought up the possibility that the older kids were already at the quarry, so they decided to check the parking spot before trying to approach the pit. This detour added significant time to their hike, but they all agreed that it made sense to be cautious.

They found the road empty, and found no sign of the dead dog from days before. Moving through the woods to hide their tracks, the three climbed to the western lip of the large pit. They agreed on a spot mostly shadowed by a maple tree, but with clear line-of-sight.

To pass the time they started naming the areas of the pit below them. Passing the binoculars, they took turns attaching monikers to the various rocks and describing how to locate them.

“Okay,” said Stephen, “I’m betting they come around the side of ‘Big Rock’ and then pass by ‘Digger’s Corner’ before settling into ‘The Big Open Spot.’”

“No way!” said Ben. “They have to be coming out from behind ‘Jack’s Pillar’ because their car will be parked back there.”

“It is the best way,” added Jack.

Within an hour they had lost their energy for the stakeout and dug into their lunch supplies. Chewing on sandwiches, and drinking sodas, a shot, fired down in the pit, interrupted lunch. They dropped their food and scrambled to the edge of their lookout.

Down in the pit they saw a solitary man on one knee, pointing his gun off to the right. He looked older than the two men from the other day. Using the binoculars, Ben described the shooter to his friends.

“He’s got big earphones and yellow glasses on,” Ben reported.

“Yeah, ear protection, and those are shooting glasses, I’ve seen those before,” said Jack. “What’s that target look like?”

“Hold on a second,” said Ben. “It’s got three black rings and then the center ring is white. It’s got a yellow spot on it.”

“I bet he’s sighting-in his scope,” said Jack. “That target turns yellow where it’s been hit so he can adjust.”

The man shot again and the boys flinched.

“Could he hit us up here?” asked Stephen.

“If he wanted to,” said Jack. “But I bet he’s okay though. He’s just target shooting.”

“Hey look!” said Stephen, pointing back to the ‘Big Rock,’ “I told you they’d come that way.”

At the far end of the pit they saw the two older boys from the other day. The one they referred to as “Smoker” swaggered ahead of his companion. He approached the crouching shooter and stood behind him as the man was lining up his third shot. Ben couldn’t tell if the target-shooter knew the Smoker was behind him.

“That guy has another brown-paper bag with him,” said Ben, referring to the man hanging back.

“I wonder what they’re talking about?” asked Stephen.

The target-shooter took his third shot, set the safety, placed his gun down on a case at his feet, and removed his earphones while turning to Smoker. They talked and pointed in the direction of the target. Smoker put his hands in his back pockets and tilted his head, while the shooter crossed his arms. The boys were dying to hear the conversation, so they peppered Ben with questions he couldn’t answer.

“What does it look like they’re saying?” asked Jack.

“How should I know?” countered Ben.

“Shut up!” hissed Stephen. “They’re going to hear us.”

Stephen, Jack, and Ben were all silenced by sudden action below. Smoker reached back and pulled out a large pistol from his waistband. The shooter’s arms came up and he took a half-step backwards. Smoker extended his pistol at arm’s length and took aim at the target. The boys saw the gun jerk and then an instant later were buffeted by the sound of four shots in rapid succession.

“Whoo!” yelled Smoker below. He put his arms up in a “V,” pointing his gun to the sky.

The target shooter removed his yellow glasses and took a careful step backwards. He knelt next to his case, but never took his eyes off Smoker. While he stowed his gun, he watched Smoker trot down to the target and hold it aloft. Smoker yelled something back to Bag Man, but the boys couldn’t discern what he was saying. Smoker threw the target up in the air and then started walking back to the careful target-shooter’s position.

Still kneeling, the target shooter was closing his gun case and latching it. He had tucked his ear protection into a bag and slung it on his shoulder as he stood. Taking a path angled away from Smoker, the targt shooter exited the pit at a measured pace.

“That Smoker guy’s a psycho,” exhaled Jack.

“No shit,” whispered Stephen.

Back at the floor of the pit, Smoker had been joined by the guy carrying the brown-paper bag. They were huddled close together and gesturing slightly towards the retreating target shooter.

“Maybe we should get out of here,” said Ben in a low voice.

As if he could hear them, Smoker suddenly turned in their direction and shielded his eyes with his hand. Ben lowered his binoculars instinctively.

“The sun’s in his eyes,” said Stephen, barely audibly. “He can’t see us.”

“Quiet,” said Ben.

Smoker continued to look in their direction for three long seconds. Turning back to Bag Man, he pointed down-range to where the shooter’s target had been. Cradling his bag, the other guy headed off. When he was about forty paces from Smoker, he set the bag down and pulled a length of rope from his rear pocket. He tied one end of the rope around a large, watermelon-sized rock, and tested his knot by hefting the rock.

A second later, the guy was reaching into his paper bag. Smoker had taken a cigarette from behind his ear and smoked it as he waited for his target to be set. Shuffling backwards, Bag Man had tied the other end of his rope to an orange and white cat, wearing a harness.

“Say what?” said Ben he lifted the binoculars. “That cat is tied to the rock.”

“Oh man, gross,” said Jack.

When Bag Man reached his friend, he took the proffered cigarette so Smoker could concentrate on his aim. The cat pulled on the harness briefly, but then crouched, facing the boys.

Smoker took his time, aiming carefully this time. The boys saw the smoke from his gun at the same instant that a plume of dust rose near the cat. They heard the echoing report an instant later. The cat jumped forward and doubled back, trying to pull the rock. Both arms extended, Smoker dropped to one knee and reset his aim.

The next shot nicked the cat along its neck and it jumped straight in the air — legs every direction. Bag Man pointed and said something to Smoker. After glancing between his friend and the cat several times, Smoker handed over the gun. Throwing away his inherited cigarette, Bag Man extended one arm confidently and shot.

The cat rolled from the impact of the bullet into its flank. It ran in slow circles. Smoker grabbed the gun back from his accurate friend. Ben reported that Smoker appeared to be reloading the weapon.

“Do you think they have more animals with them?” asked Stephen. “Like back in their car?”

“We should find out,” said Jack.

“Maybe that other guy went to call the cops,” offered Ben. “Shit, I forgot my camera.”

“I don’t think these guys are going to rat each other out,” postulated Stephen. “They might all get in trouble then.”

“We can’t let them shoot another animal,” said Jack. “I’m going to go see if they have one in the car.”

“No way, Jack,” said Ben. “Your arm is going to slow you down.”

“I don’t even need this thing,” Jack held up his sling. “It comes off the day after tomorrow anyway.” Jack removed the sling and threw it next to his pack.

“Here,” said Ben as he handed a walkie-talkie to Jack. “Make sure the volume is low and we’ll call you if those guys head towards the car.”

“Cool,” said Jack as he crept off.

“Turn the volume down on that one too,” Stephen advised Ben.

Ben adjusted the handset and then pushed the button: “Jack?”

A voice came back from the device: “Yeah?” asked Jack.

“Just checking,” said Ben.

Back in the pit, Smoker moved closer to the injured cat and took aim again. His next shot dropped the cat to the ground. Bag Man hailed Smoker and held up a small rock. Smoker nodded and held the gun at the ready. After a pause, Bag Man tossed a rock into the air. Tracking the rock with his gun, Smoker loosed a shot when the rock reached eye level. The rock dropped unharmed. The pair repeated this game until the gun was empty again.

Smoker and Bag Man sat down — using a large rock as a bench — to reload.

“How long do you think it will take him to get there?” Stephen asked Ben.

“He’ll let us know when he’s there,” answered Ben. “I just hope those guys stay put.”

Smoker produced two more cigarettes and handed one to the Bag Man. He lit his own and then handed his lighter to his friend. Half-way through his smoke, Bag Man strode over to the dead cat. He rolled it over with the toe of his boot and then knelt to remove the harness from the body. He held it up and yelled something back to Smoker. Stephen and Ben heard Smoker laugh. Bag Man returned to his paper bag and opened it carefully. He pulled something out and dropped the harness back in. Bag Man then walked back to Smoker. They talked for several minutes.

“Hey,” said Jack through the walkie-talkie.

“What’s up? Any dogs or cats?” Ben pushed the button and asked.

“I’m still pretty far away from the car,” crackled Jack. “I think there’s someone guarding the car.”

“Really?” asked Ben.

“Hey,” said Jack, “I’ve got an idea.”

“Yeah?” asked Ben.

“Listen — wait exactly five minutes and don’t make a sound,” said Jack. “Then yell to the guy while I sneak around the other side.”

“Okay, I get it,” said Ben.

“Okay, I’m turning the volume up after you say okay. Then you give me exactly five minutes.”

“Okay, five minutes starting now,” said Ben.

Stephen and Ben both alternated between looking at Ben’s watch and the guys in the pit.

“Hey, what if they leave?” asked Stephen. “How are we going to tell Jack without accidentally calling the guard?”

“I didn’t think of that,” said Ben. “But I think he’ll have time. It takes more than five minutes to get back to the car from down there.”

 

 

**********

 

At the parking area, Jack walked a wide circle around the the guy at the car. He left his walkie-talkie in a thick bush just out of the guard’s view. Jack crept across the road and dashed into the brush on the other side. When he started to creep towards the car from the opposite side, he heard Ben’s far-off voice. Jack thought it obvious that the voice was coming from a radio — something artificial about the sound — but he hoped the effect would be the same.

The man leaning on the car stood up when he heard Ben's voice. Jack saw him take a half a step away from the car. When the man rose, a dog started barking from within the car.

“Shut up,” commanded the man.

The dog continued barking until the man slapped the car window. Moving a little closer, Jack saw the dog appear in the window on his side. Jack froze. He hoped the dog would stay quiet. Ben continued to call through the walkie-talkie, but Jack couldn’t hear exactly what he was saying. The man took one more glance back at the car and then headed off towards the scratchy voice of Ben.

Bracing his nerve, Jack rushed through the thick woods and reached the car as the man disappeared on the far side of the road. The dog watched Jack open the rear passenger door.  Jack thought he recognized the yellow labrador retriever. The dog wore a black collar and panted and wagged as he pushed his way out of the car. Jack paused to think; he gently brought the door back to the frame without pressing it fully shut.

He glanced in the direction he had last seen the man, and then Jack ran back into the woods on the far side of the road. He wanted to move quietly, but focused more on getting quickly out of sight. The dog bounded alongside Jack. The bushes became thicker and harder to navigate while the ground squished under their feet. Jack stopped to consider the best way to make it through this marsh.

“Jesus, fuck,” Jack heard a voice far behind yell. He stood perfectly still and heard a car door slam. Moving to his left, he tried to skirt the wet area as the dog plowed through the mud. He shushed at the dog to no avail. When he reached a dry spot, Jack started to run. He figured he was moving approximately parallel to the road.

 

**********

Ben lifted his finger from the “Send” button and looked at Stephen.

“Do you think that’s enough?” Ben asked. Stephen was poking his head over the lip of the pit, watching Smoker and Bag Man.

“I guess so,” Stephen replied. “There’s really know way to know, unless the guy answers back.”

“Let’s wait a minute and see if anyone picks up,” said Ben.

They both turned their attention to the guys with the gun. Bag Man was arranging the dead body of the cat. A second later, he trotted away and joined Smoker again. They watched intently until a small explosion lifted the dead cat from the ground. They laughed and ran over to see the damage.

“Those guys are like movie-evil,” said Stephen. “It’s like a gag — I mean who would be that sick?”

“Look!” said Ben.

Down in the pit, Smoker and Bag Man broke off their game with the fireworks and dead cat and made their way towards an approaching man. They met up at the spot the boys had dubbed The Salt Flats, and had a lively conversation. The older guy was gesturing and pointing back towards the parking area. Smoker nodded and tucked his gun back in his waistband. The three then stalked off in the direction of the car.

“Do you think that was the guard?” asked Stephen.

“Must be, but why would they even have a guard?” asked Ben.

“We should get ready, in case we have to make a quick getaway,” said Stephen.

Ben and Stephen worked quickly to pack up their supplies and don their backpacks. Ben carried the walkie-talkie, and Stephen carried Jack’s pack. The two headed down the hill.

“You know, we’re just as likely to miss him if we move — maybe we should stay put,” said Ben.

Footsteps coming up the hill made them stop. They were joined by the exuberant yellow labrador whose muddy tail slapped at their legs. Following close behind, Jack met up with them next.

“They had this dog in their car,” said Jack. “We should get out of here.”

“Are we taking this dog with us?” asked Ben. “Your mom will shit.”

“We’ll figure that out after we get away from here,” said Jack.

“Yeah, let’s get gone,” agreed Stephen.

The boys consulted briefly on direction and then jogged off into the woods.

 

**********

Back at the tent, Jack examined the collar on the dog.

“He’s got a rabies tag, and a state registration,” said Jack. “No address or anything. I thought I'd seen him before, but now I'm not sure.”

“There must be someone we could call,” said Ben. “We’ll just say he wandered up to the house.”

“What if he belongs to one of those guys though?” asked Stephen.

“Jesus, would someone do that to their own dog? Nobody would do that,” stated Ben.

“You never know,” said Jack. “Maybe we should think about it.”

“Well, even if it is connected to those guys, would they know that we grabbed the dog?” asked Ben. “You said that you left the door cracked — maybe they just thought the dog got out by accident.”

“Shit! The walkie-talkie! We should have grabbed it,” said Jack.

Stephen shook his head — “No way, we’ll go back for it. They might already have it, but either way, we should wait until night or something to go find it.”

The boys played with the dog and discussed their options for the rest of the afternoon. They settled on a secret night-trip through the woods and planned their assault. Leaving the dog at the tent, they went inside to use the computer to check on the moon rise and weather information.

Armed with notes on the time and date to make their next trip, the boys were about to head outside when Jack’s mom interrupted them. She had found the dog nosing around the back door.

“Do you boys know anything about this dog?” she asked.

“What dog?” Jack played dumb.

“There’s a big dog sitting outside the back door, and I don’t even have to get close to you to see dog hair all over your shirts,” she countered.

“It showed up this morning. We just played with it for a little bit — it didn’t have any name or address on its collar,” said Jack.

“Well is it registered?” she asked.

“I think so.”

“Then we’ll call over to the town hall,” she said. “I’m sure its owners are looking for it. You can help me by looking on its collar for a registration number.”

“Okay,” said Jack.

 

**********

Dinner that night was one of the mandatory family dinners. Jack, Ben, and Stephen sat uncomfortably at the table with Jack’s parents. They ate quickly and quietly — anxious to be away from adult supervision.

“Tell your dad the exciting news of the day,” said Jack’s mom.

“Huh?” asked Jack — a little panicked.

“The dog,” prompted Ben with a whisper.

“Oh, yeah, a dog showed up here today.”

Jack’s mom took over the story: “His name is Buddy. The town hall sent over animal control because the Harrisions are out of town. It’s their dog, but they had dog walkers while they’re on vacation. At any rate, he’ll be staying with the Harrison’s vet until they get back.”

“How did he get over here? Don’t the Harrisons live on the other side of the highway?” Jack’s dad asked. Jack's parents knew everyone in town because of his father’s business and his mother’s former association with the town hall.

“Well, Linda said that Buddy sometimes wanders,” said Jack’s mom.

“Who was walking him? They must have been embarrassed.”

“She didn’t say,” Jack’s mom replied.

 

**********

 

That night the boys stayed inside — spreading out sleeping bags on the floor in the basement. They scheduled their nighttime mission to recover the walkie-talkie for the night after next so they could have the right moon and clear weather.

 

 

**********

 

Without his sling, Jack felt free. All three boys were nervous and excited, but Jack was beyond excited, he was beside himself. Unable to sleep, they engaged in scattered conversation that roamed easily from subject to subject. They kept the lights off so their eyes would adjust to the dark. The moon illuminated the walls of the tent, and the shadows of trees danced. The night was warm but comfortable, with a slight breeze.

A little after midnight Jack poked his head from the tent. He crept around the bushes between their tent and the house and studied carefully, looking for any sign that his parents were still awake. When he was satisfied, he summoned Ben and Stephen.

The beginning of their trip was very slow as they dodged from shadow to shadow. They wore their darkest clothing and carried little: Ben had their remaining walkie-talkie, and Jack and Stephen carried flashlights that were turned off. They picked their way along the path by the moonlight.

Having started out tentative and silent, they adjusted quickly to the hike. Jack led the way and he soon began to trust his ability to move down the path without being able to fully discern the way ahead. Stephen followed Jack, and Ben followed Stephen.

“Hey, you guys ever hear about that snake last summer?” asked Ben.

“Are you just trying to scare everyone?” asked Jack.

“No, seriously, you didn’t hear?” said Ben. “Last summer this guy’s six-foot boa got out of his house and lived in the woods for weeks.”

“Shut up!” said Stephen. “That’s the oldest story ever.”

“Whatever, you don’t have to believe me. Some guy almost hit it driving down Kirkpatrick Road.” maintained Ben.

“Oh, wait — I heard about that,” said Jack.

“You guys are full of shit,” said Stephen.

“Really. I saw the picture in the paper,” replied Jack. “The worst part was that when they caught it, it got upset and disgorged.”

“Yeah, that’s the one,” agreed Ben. “Snakes get scared and throw up so they can run away.”

“Well I do know about that,” said Stephen, “but I still say you’re full of shit.”

“Anyway,” continued Ben, “what they didn’t say on the news was that it disgorged a whole baby.”

“No way!” said Stephen.

“Yup, a baby,” said Ben. “The thing had eaten the girlfriend’s baby just before it got away.”

“Now you’ve gone too far,” said Jack. “I remember the snake, but there’s no way it ate a baby.”

“Hey,” added Stephen, “you know what they call it when someone tries to scare their friends at night in the middle of the woods?”

“What?” asked Ben.

“It’s a rare condition,” said Stephen. “It’s called ‘douche-ism’.”

“Yup,” said Jack. “You’ve got the douche-ism, Ben. Worst case I’ve seen in years.”

“You might be in luck though, looks like we’re out of the woods for now,” said Stephen.

The sky opened up as the path led to the power-line cut. They were suddenly surrounded by a full dome of stars. The sky was so black and deep that Jack almost lost his balance. Out in the open, with more light from the moon, they talked less and walked faster through the night.

When they got to the quarry where they had witnessed the shooting, Stephen convinced his friends to go to the floor of the pit. They peered around carefully into the darkness and then dared to use their lights. Stephen combed the ground where they had seen Smoker and bag-man cavorting. His prize was four shell-casings — one small and the other three large. Pocketing the casings, they headed towards where the car had been parked.

Rounding a sharp corner of the quarry, Ben, in the lead, stopped abruptly.

“What?” hissed Jack.

Ben pointed and Jack could barely make out a dim red glow ahead. They stood stock-still for minutes, taking shallow breaths and collecting all the sensory input they could. Ben began to move again. When Jack and Stephen began to follow, Ben turned and held up his hand, signaling them to stop. Ben continued alone. He returned several minutes later.

“Campfire,” Ben said. “It’s almost out.”

The three approached cautiously and found what Ben had described. The few pieces of wood left were scattered. Someone had attempted to put the fire out some time before. Silent, they continued cautiously until they found the parking area empty.

“So where’s the walkie?” asked Ben.

“Hard to say,” replied Jack. “Try yours.”

Ben triggered the call button on the walkie-talkie and they were rewarded with a faint ringing off in the bushes. The boys had to search carefully — rationing their battery power on both the walkie-talkies and the flashlight — before finding the lost radio.

“Awesome,” said Jack. “Now let’s get back before my mom catches us.”

With renewed purpose, the boys headed back on the long trip to the tent.

 

**********

When they left the power lines and were back on the path through the woods, they had spread out. Ben led the way, and Jack followed a good twenty feet behind. Even further back, Stephen brought up the rear.

Stephen startled Jack and Ben: “Hey, guys, get over here,” he said.

“Did you find a giant baby-eating snake?” asked Jack.

“Funny,” said Ben.

“You have to see this,” said Stephen.

Jack and Ben back-tracked to find Stephen crouched in the middle of the path and studying the bark of a large tree. Almost at ground-level, a red dot of light glowed on the bark.

“Check that out!” said Ben. “Where’s it coming from?”

Stephen put his hand over the dot and the dot responded by lighting up the back of his hand. Jack bent to get a better look and then began to turn his head.

“Don’t look into it!” ordered Stephen. “It might not be safe for eyes.”

“Good point,” said Jack.

Jack put his hand in front of Stephen’s and then began to move in the direction of the source.

“Oh shit!” said Ben. “Wait, guys! That might be one of those laser-sights for a gun. Get your hand out of the beam.”

The three stood back. Jack spoke first: “Nah, that doesn’t make sense. Why would it be pointed at a tree and be that still. I don’t think someone could hold gun that still.”

Stephen picked up a stick. “Let’s follow it.” He adjusted the stick carefully to center the beam on the end and then began to walk into the woods away from the path. He lost the beam often at first — it rose slowly as he moved away from the tree — but once he guessed its approximate path, he was able to follow it faithfully.

Jack’s eyes were trained on the stick as he backed up, ahead of Stephen.

“Hey,” said Ben, “I’m going to stay here so you don’t get lost.”

“Oh come on,” replied Stephen. “Check your compass, and come with us.”

“You guys have the flashlights,” replied Ben. Jack and Stephen were now about thirty paces from the path, and they kept moving away.

“Shit,” said Ben as he headed into the woods to catch up.

Ben reached his two friends; they were tracking the laser at about knee level.

Crouching ahead, Jack made an observation: “The trees are really thin in this direction. Looks like it opens up to a clearing up ahead.”

“Where are we, anyway?” asked Ben.

“I think this is the spot where the path gets close to Route 203,” answered Jack. “But it’s hard to tell. We’re definitely going to have to check this out again in daylight.”

“Wait — what happened?” asked Stephen. He was looking at his stick, which no longer carried a dot of light.

“Did you move?” asked Ben.

“No, it was right here.”

They strained to look into the night.

“Hold still,” said Jack as he moved in front of the stick. “Do you see anything?” he asked Ben as he looked down at his own body.

Ben studied Jack for signs of the dot. “Nope.”

“Let’s start again,” said Stephen as he dropped his stick and headed back in the direction they started.

Jack dug around in his front pocket and produced a knife. He moved to the nearest sapling and took a small strip of bark from its side. Jack followed Stephen and Ben — he marked their track back to the path. Jack arrived at the path to find Ben and Stephen on their knees.

“This was the one,” said Stephen. “I’m sure of it.”

“How can you tell?” asked Ben. “It’s too dark to see anything.”

“This tree is way bigger than the rest though, and it’s right next to the path,” said Stephen.

“I’ll mark it,” said Jack. He moved around to the side they would first see when approaching the next day. At about shoulder height he scraped a section of the tree. He couldn’t make his way down to the tree’s flesh, but flicked on his flashlight to verify that his mark was visible.

“Let’s get going,” said Jack.

“Let’s wait,” countered Stephen. “Maybe it will come back on, or maybe a little tree or something just blew in the way.”

“I’m tired,” said Jack.

Ben agreed — “Yeah, let’s go back and we’ll come back in the morning.”

“Shit,” said Stephen. “This is really cool though.”

“We’ll figure it out tomorrow,” said Jack.

They hiked back to their tent and barely spoke the whole way. The night’s exploits had taken their toll, and the boys were dog-tired by the time they got in their sleeping bags.

 

**********

Every few days, Jack’s mom would break the privacy of their back-yard campsite and check in on the boys. This morning she found they were still fast asleep in the tent, so she quietly gathered their laundry and the few pieces of trash scattered around the site. She was trying to top off a load of light clothing, but she found mostly darks around the sleeping trio. The pants were wet around the cuff, but she explained to herself that they must have been playing in a creek. 

 

**********

They awoke late, and very hungry. Ben looked at his watched and announced that it was Sunday, July 8th — 9:30 am.

“Nine days,” said Stephen.

“What’s nine days?” asked Jack.

“I go back on Tuesday the seventeenth,” replied Stephen.

“That sucks,” said Jack. He surprised himself, realizing that he meant it. Just a few days before he would have relished the realization that half of Stephen’s time had passed.

“Ah, don’t think about it,” said Ben. “Time only passes quickly if you think about it.”

“Isn’t that like the opposite of true?” posed Stephen. “You know, like, a watched pot never boils.”

“Whatever. Let’s get something to eat,” said Jack.

They were greeted with a gray day outside the tent. And, rummaging through their supplies, realized they had neglected to keep their larder well stocked. Desperate for a warm meal, they headed into the house. In the the kitchen, they began noisily producing a breakfast. Jack’s mom appeared from upstairs.

“Jack — your dad wants to see you. His office,” she said.

Jack handed his spatula to Ben, who took over on the pancake duty. He followed his mom through the living room to the addition where his dad had an office. His dad was sitting at the computer.

“Jack — what are these?” his dad pointed at four shell casings sitting atop a file folder on the desk.

“Bullets? Or casings, I mean. We found them at the pits,” said Jack.

“Which pits?” his dad asked.

Jack looked back over his shoulder. His mom was standing in the doorway with her eyebrows raised. “The quarry, past the power lines,” he paused. “We hiked over there the other day.”

“Are you allowed to go that far?” his father asked.

“Yeah, you guys said yes — remember?” asked Jack.

“We talked about you guys going as far as the power lines,” his mom corrected. “That’s what I remember.”

“But the pit and power lines are the same thing. I mean, they’re connected,” said Jack. He was confused. He knew his parents must have realized their all-day hikes were taking them at least that far. He decided to push back — “Mom, we check with you before every hike. You know when we’re going and when we’re coming back.”

“Yes, that’s true,” she replied. “But it’s more than that, Jack. There’s a difference between walking on trails in the woods and getting into some old quarry where people are shooting.”

“That’s right, Jack,” his father continued. “We talked about the things you would do this summer if we let you and your friends set the agenda, and I don’t remember guns being on the list.”

“We weren’t shooting or anything,” countered Jack. “We just found those. We never did anything.”

“Jack,” began his mom, “you’re going to face a lot of decisions in life, and more often than not, what happens to you will be the result of those decisions.”

Jack looked down.

“If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she continued, “it doesn’t much matter if you were doing the right thing. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” he answered too quickly. He knew instantly that he should have waited.

“I don’t think you do,” she reprimanded. “If you’re out walking and you see something that you know is dangerous, you turn around and come home. Then, you immediately tell me or your father.”

Jack nodded.

“Go get your friends, we want to talk to all of you,” said his mom.

Jack opened his mouth to protest and then closed it. He looked to his dad and back to his mom, they were not going to bend. He dragged himself back to the kitchen where Stephen and Ben were making breakfast.

“We started to make you eggs, but then we had to throw them away,” laughed Ben.

“Hey, come on, my parents want to talk to all of us,” said Jack.

“About what?” asked Stephen through a bite of toast.

“My mom found the shell casings, and they’re pissed,” said Jack.

“Oh shit — where were they?” hissed Ben.

“My pocket,” said Stephen. “God, what is she a psychic?”

“Just come on,” said Jack.

The three boys trudged back to the office. Jack’s mom and dad were standing together at the far end of the room. His dad waved them closer.

“Boys, listen up,” Jack’s dad began. “You’ve been pretty responsible this summer, but we’re afraid that you’re not displaying the best judgement. Most kids your age are having a very structured summer — camps, sports, volunteer work. We were skeptical that you could keep yourselves occupied all summer, but we were willing to let you try.”

Jack’s mom broke in — “We won’t — we can’t — have you wandering into trouble without even knowing it. We just heard yesterday that some older boys were shooting animals over in that quarry and today we found out that you boys were over there too. I know you weren’t a part of that, but you still could have been hurt.”

She paused to composer herself. “So, no more wandering around. You can play in our yard, and sleep in the house at night.”

Jack couldn’t contain himself anymore — “Mom, you can’t be serious. We didn’t even do anything.”

“Jack,” she said, “you’re not hearing. You don’t have to do anything wrong to be hurt. All you have to do is not do something right. I have a whole book of summer activities upstairs if you’d rather I sign you up for something.”

“No,” Jack pleaded. “But why do we have to stay in yard? Can’t we just not go to the pits anymore?”

“This is not a debate, Jack,” said his father. “Our job is to keep you safe so that one day you can make your own informed decisions. This is not yet that time.”

“Where will we even sleep — we can’t fit three in my room,” asked Jack.

“You can have the basement rec-room,” answered his mom. “Get your sleeping bags set up down there.”

The room was quiet for several moments. Jack didn’t want to look to see how Stephen and Ben were taking the news so he looked at the floor. His shoulders slumped, weighed down with the punishment.

“Okay? Go finish your breakfast,” directed his mom.

They turned and shuffled out. Back in the kitchen they cooked and ate in silence.

 

**********

 

They laid out their gear in the basement. Trouble settled on the three boys.

Stephen tried to lighten the mood — “Hey, only nine more days for me.”

“Very funny,” replied Ben.

“Don’t blame me, they were looking for an excuse to take away our privileges,” said Stephen. “That was not based on those shell casings.”

“I wonder how they found out about the kids shooting those animals?” pondered Jack.

“Probably that target guy,” said Ben.

“Yeah, but he wasn’t even there when they shot the cat,” reminded Stephen.

“Maybe Smoker threatened him and then the cops staked it out,” said Ben.

They sat down and turned on the television. Outside the gray morning had turned into a drizzly afternoon.

“What if we told your dad about the dog. Maybe he would realize we were doing the right thing,” said Ben.

“That’s dumb,” said Jack. “He would just be more pissed that we were there and didn’t tell anyone. Plus, it’s my mom we have to worry about.”

“That’s true,” said Stephen. “She’s definitely calling the shots there.”

“Hey, shut up, dumb-ass,” said Jack.

“Douche-ism,” said Ben. “It’s contagious.”

“Who are you talking to?” Jack turned to Ben.

“Both of you,” replied Ben.

“What the hell?” asked Stephen. “What did I do?”

Ben raised his hands — “Who are you guys pissed at?” He turned to Jack. “Your parents? Big deal. So we find stuff to do inside for a while. They’ll calm down.”

“But there’s still tons of stuff we should do,” said Jack. “I just got my sling off.”

“And what about that red light?” asked Stephen. “We should be out there right now, finding out what was going on with that.”

“Yeah,” said Jack. “Besides, we didn’t do anything.”

“Wait, wait,” said Ben. He lowered his voice and leaned towards Jack and Stephen. “Why don’t we just wait until night and we’ll look for the light again.”

“We’ll never find it,” said Jack.

“No way — it’s easier to find it at night,” said Ben. “Besides, isn’t the moon is going to be full soon? There will be plenty of light.”

“That’s true,” said Stephen.

“Oh, man. You guys are insane. My mom will kill us,” said Jack.

“We’ll be careful,” said Ben. “How did she catch us before? Laundry? All we have to do is check our clothes really carefully when we come in. If they’re wet from dew, we’ll just hide them until they’re dry.”

“And we’re in the basement, and they’re all the way upstairs,” continued Stephen. “We can sneak out this door and they’ll never know.”

“What if she checks on us?” asked Jack.

They were silent as they considered this possibility.

“Fort. We’ll build a pillow-fort with these two couches,” said Ben. “We take all the cushions and put them parallel, like this,” he demonstrated. “Then all we have to do is stay in one night and the second night she’ll just figure we’re in there. If she comes down tonight, we’ll all be in back and when she looks to see where we are we just make a big deal about it.”

“Yeah,” said Stephen, “you just go ‘What’s wrong? Mom? Is that you?’ and then we’ll all be up and she’ll feel bad.”

“I don’t know,” said Jack, furrowing his brow. “Maybe we should just play it cool.”

“Give it a day,” said Stephen. “You’ll change your mind.”

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