The two of them slid downhill through the briars in back of the house. There’d been a drought that summer, and so the only path through the dense branches was a dusty, rocky fold gouged into the fill that the excavators had dumped there years back when they put in the public housing. When they reached the bottom, the boys peeled off their sneakers to shake the scree from them before continuing.
The path led through more undergrowth until it reached the chain-link fence marking the railroad property. The “No Trespassing” sign was pock-marked from a hundred thrown stones, its chipped surface suggesting the claw marks of some small rodent across once-wet paint. The older boy crouched and lifted a section of the torn, curled-up fencing so the other could squirm through, then followed him.
Kenny didn’t know the younger boy very well. His name was James, and he was the son of family friends who had dropped by after lunch to visit Kenny’s parents. Kenny would have preferred to be spared having to entertain the boy that afternoon. James was eight, only two years younger than himself, but it wasn’t just age that Kenny felt separated him from the boy. His parents had taken him a few months back to visit the Cloutiers and the tony section of Barrington they lived in. It was rich with sprawling single-level homes like those pictured in the glossy magazines Kenny’s mother kept by her bedside, each with crisply tended lawns and some even with swimming pools. The houses had the fussed-over feel of unopened gifts, and reminded Kenny of the parlor at his grandparents’ house, where Grandma Celeste kept the good furniture under protective plastic sheets, unused unless it happened to be Father Blanchette who was visiting.
Then there was the combination of James’s button-down shirt and his brand-new PF Flyers, which reminded Kenny of the kids in his sixth-grade class who always sat up front and raised their hands too often. The boy had close-cut blond hair and a peeling sunburn on his nose that he couldn’t leave alone, which made him seem to always be working on a deeply lodged booger.
Earlier, at the house, James had been telling Kenny about the birthday present he’d received the previous week.
“So what else about it?” Kenny asked.
James paused on the path and held up his left hand to inventory the toy’s virtues on his fingers.
“Okay, so besides the grenade launcher, anti-armor gun, anti-tank gun, and anti-bunker gun, it’s got — let’s see, what else?” He rolled a bit of nose skin between his fingers, flicked it into the prickers, and resumed his count. “Well, obviously, the rifle. And a tommy gun. Oh yeah, the pistol. Seven weapons in one: Johnny Seven, O.M.A.”
Kenny had seen the commercials, and had lusted after the thing himself, although he wasn’t about to admit that to James. On Saturday mornings, sitting over his cereal, watching the Stooges or Bullwinkle or whatever, you couldn’t miss the advertisements. They ran constantly, showing one squad of helmeted boys menacing another, who cowered, trapped near some backyard stairwell, defenseless but for one boy armed with the O.M.A. — the One Man Army — which he uses to lead his comrades to victory against overwhelming odds. Kenny particularly liked the scene where the boy with the Johnny Seven leaps atop a brick wall, boldly clutching the complex plastic rifle in one hand and brandishing its detachable pistol in the other.
“You should have brought it. You know, give it a field test.” He gestured to the trash-strewn terrain around them.
James paused. “Yeah, uh, I wanted to but Mom said no.”
He was lying, Kenny knew. No way James would let his precious superweapon leave his bedroom, never mind risk its being taken from him by the rough kids who roamed this sketchy part of Pawtucket.
They came to the railroad tracks, four sets of them. Kenny crossed, hopping from one steel strand to another, and turned to wait for James, who hesitated, peering anxiously right and left.
“Relax, okay? No one uses them anymore,” Kenny said. He pointed to the weeds curling up through the creosote-dark railroad ties. “Think those’d grow if they did?”
“I know.” Acting annoyed, but still high-stepping across the rails as if they were hot coals.
After a couple of minutes, they could see the incinerator’s towers poking above a stand of bittersweet, and they were at the clearing.
It being a Sunday, there were lots of empties. Some still held the stink from the night before. Just smelling the stale beer put a bad taste in Kenny’s mouth. Schlitz, ‘Gansetts, even a couple of Coors cans, which you didn’t find much on the East Coast, his cousin Barry had told him once, and Barry would know, being one of the teenagers who partied down here on Friday and Saturday nights. Today’s pickings were good: cans and bottles, which would make the game even more fun. You could nail a bottle and get that satisfying brittle report, or hit a can and watch it fly spark-like into the weeds.
He picked up a rock and held it out before James.
“This is a good size, okay?” He pointed with his chin to the glittering rubble blanketing the target area, about 40 feet away from them near the front bumper of a trashed-up panel truck that someone had driven — or pushed — here a couple of years back.
“There’s tons more over there, but watch where you step. While you’re gathering the rocks, I’ll grab these empties and bring them over.”
The clearing they stood in was bounded by stands of knotweed and honeysuckle, and intersected by a half-dozen makeshift paths that led to various neighborhoods that bordered the derelict scrubland. People occasionally used one cut-through or another to avoid making the long circle-around trek along Mineral Spring Avenue, but mostly the area was frequented only on weekends by teenagers who hauled in six-packs and ratty old mattresses to hold rowdy parties. Sometimes Kenny could spot from his second-floor bedroom window the faint flare of the bonfires they lit.
He had just bent down to start gathering the cans and bottles when Kenny heard a metallic click that he thought he recognized. He froze, and a few seconds later some slight breeze he hadn’t noticed before carried the smoke to him, and somehow he just knew. He began laying the bottles quietly down and tried to catch James’s attention, but it was too late. The kid was too far away.
The driver-side door of the panel truck creaked open, and Neil stepped out, sliding the cigarette lighter into the front pocket of his jeans. His T-shirt was grey like Kenny’s but had “Black Sabbath” printed in slashes across its front, and his dark stringy hair was mussed up, as if he’d only just pulled his shirt on over his head. He looked at the boys with disdain.
“Two little kiddies out to play,” he said, his eyes lingering on James. When he saw the rocks cradled in the boy’s arms, and the cans and bottles in Kenny’s, he let out a theatrical sigh, as if finally agreeing to something. “All right, let’s do it.”
Neil was a familiar minor menace, well known to Kenny and his playmates though not to James. He was older than Kenny, a ninth-grader, same as Barry but not part of that crowd. Barry was always saying how none of his pals could stand Neil, wouldn’t let him hang out anywhere near them. Which was maybe why Neil so often horned in on the doings of younger kids, Kenny figured.
He and his pals had endured Neil’s attentions before — as recently as four weeks ago, in fact, when Neil intruded on their game of whiffle ball over at Fairlawn Field. Neil had commandeered their bat, monopolizing it and ordering everyone around, making them pitch to him and chase down his line drives until he finally tired of it all and wandered off, his jacket slung over his shoulder.
Standing there amid the empties, Kenny thought about making a run for it, but quickly abandoned the idea. He’d seen what happened to kids who tried to flee Neil. Plus, there was James to think of.
“Come on, what are you waiting for?” Neil flicked his cigarette against the side of the panel truck and walked toward Kenny.
“You, Poindexter” — this toward James — “bring those rocks here and then take these empties and set them up. Rows of five.”
James walked his armful of stones over to them. His eyes questioned his companion but Kenny only shrugged, a universal suggestion to submit, and scooped up a handful of cans and bottles for James to carry back over to the customary target zone.
As James crouched to set up the targets, Neil passed a rock to Kenny and motioned toward James’s back. When he hesitated, Neil said, “Don’t be a pussy, go on.”
Kenny’s throw sailed high and far to James’s left. Neil rolled his eyes and picked up a stone. It hit the Rolling Rock that James had just wedged upright, mere inches to his right, scattering green shrapnel around the boy. James fell on his rump and looked back. His eyes were wet.
“Don’t you fucking cry. That never even touched you.”
Neil turned toward Kenny. “Where’d you get this kid, anyway?”
Kenny looked toward James, frowning, like you might when you need to stall a teacher who has called on you in class. He tried to summon up something, anything, that might work to disarm someone like Neil, but all he could think of was: “He’s my cousin.” Then quickly, seeing the lameness of this lie: “He’s… not from around here.”
The derisive look on Neil’s face only deepened. He shook his head, as if disappointed in Kenny, and then turned toward James.
“Okay, look, come on back. You try throwing some.”
James walked back slowly. He took a rock from Neil as if he suspected a trick. His first throw was short, but his second hit a can, and he smiled at its jangling clatter, even as he dabbed his eye with his sleeve.
“See that? Great shot,” Neil touched the boy’s shoulder, and glanced at Kenny with a look of feigned approval. “You get a prize for that.”
He picked up a stick the length of his arm and pointed it toward the truck. Its rear doors were open, and sticking out the back Kenny could see the shabby mattress that some teenagers had placed on its floor.
“Over there: balloons. Lots of them,” Neil said, looking at Kenny again. His eyes held a veiled warning for Kenny to play along.
“In the back there, kid. Just grab one and blow it up.” He tossed a rock in the air and swatted at it one-handed with the stick. Kenny saw that he was avoiding James’s eyes.
The boy walked over toward the back of the panel truck. He leaned over the mattress and examined something there without touching it, making a face, and glancing back toward them. Kenny gave his head the slightest of shakes, hoping Neil wouldn’t notice, and James stepped back from the truck.
“What are you: afraid of a balloon?!” Neil pretended to be dumbfounded. “What a dick!”
But now James was staring past them and, hearing the footsteps, Kenny and Neil turned to look.
Kenny recognized the girl, even remembered her name: Cynthia. She had been in his school last year, before moving up to the junior high. At Kenny’s school, she had been in the special class, and was teased a lot because of that, which maybe was why she always seemed angry, Kenny figured.
Her dark reddish hair curled around her freckled cheeks, and she wore a light-pink sweater, with an iron-on patch depicting a teddy bear sewn somewhat crookedly onto the front. The teddy bear itself wore a sweater with a red tartan motif. The girl’s black skirt hung like drapes, just reaching her knees. Kenny had always thought she was pretty, but her perpetual scowl had kept him from speaking to her. Now, he saw, Cynthia had grown breasts — the teddy bear on her sweater seemed to bend back awkwardly, like a limbo dancer might — which made her even more intimidating to Kenny than her demeanor had.
Cynthia seemed just as surprised to find the three of them standing there as they were to see her. She stopped now, almost in the clearing with them, clutching to her chest a dark-blue bag that read “Lorraine Mill Outlets,” which Kenny knew was the fabric store over on Mineral Spring where his mother shopped. Her eyes moved back and forth between Neil and Kenny. James, she ignored.
As their eyes locked, Kenny wondered: Does she remember me? He couldn’t tell, but part of him hoped that she didn’t.
No one spoke for a few seconds, and finally Cynthia lurched straight ahead with that leaning-forward stride he remembered, like she was simply following her own momentum. But Neil stopped her.
“Hold on, sweet thing.” He held his stick out across her path as if he were a crossing guard. When she tried to go around him, he slid sideways to block her again.
“Don’t be rude. Stay and play a minute.” He poked at her bag with the stick.
“Pretty fabric,” Neil said, lifting something red from the bag and letting it slide back.
He looked behind him to see if Kenny were appreciating this. As he did, Kenny noticed that Cynthia bobbed down and back up, looking like some peasant in a movie curtseying before the king.
“And how about this, huh?” Neil said, turning back to Cynthia. “You make this thing?” This time, he lifted the hem of her skirt with the stick. He raised it one inch, then three, and again looked back at Kenny with a smirk.
Kenny didn’t actually see Cynthia’s blow but a line of blood appeared almost instantly on Neil’s forehead, running like a jagged signature above his eyebrow. The boy collapsed, falling next to Cynthia’s shopping bag, and Cynthia dropped on top of him, the rock in her hand hammering Neil over and over. Each of his screams seemed to enrage her more, and she struck him until his arms curled up enough to cover his head like a turban.
When she stopped, she looked over at Kenny, seeming to dare him to intervene. Neil was crying, with strange coughing gasps that frightened Kenny almost as much as Cynthia’s attack. Finally, she took one last whack at Neil, hitting his forearm and triggering another rasping wail. Then she stood up, grabbed her bag, and stalked off through a curtain of bittersweet in the direction of the incinerator.
Kenny approached Neil carefully, like he was a wounded, still dangerous beast. He glanced at James, then crouched over Neil and whispered, “Are you all right?”
“The fuck you think?!” Neil kicked out blindly without touching Kenny.
After a moment James ran up to them. His eyes were wild, his hands clenched in fists. He delivered a sharp kick to Neil’s forearm, the kind you might inflict on a stuck door. He would have hit Neil again but Kenny held him back. Finally, James yanked the stick from Neil’s hand, and walked off, back in the direction of Kenny’s house.
Kenny followed him, walking a few steps behind. Along the way, James swatted with his stick at the underbrush. When they reached the railroad tracks, he leaped back and forth between the rails with exaggerated bravado and sound effects, and at the fence, he used the stick to prop up the section of curled-up links so Kenny could pass under.
At the base of the hill, Kenny touched the boy’s shoulder.
“Listen. Don’t tell your parents, okay? You know, about… all that.”
James didn’t seem to be listening. He stabbed the air and swung his stick wildly, fighting off the swordplay of some imaginary adversary.
“Really, okay? ‘Cause they’ll tell my folks and I’ll get in all kinds of trouble, you know, for bringing you there and stuff.”
Still, James paid no attention, swiping and dodging as his sneakers kicked up the dust.
“I mean, you’re okay, right?”
James turned, his stick trained on Kenny as if holding him prisoner, and said in a gravelly, theatrical voice, “The fuck you think?!”
At the house, Kenny’s mother had put out cookies, and the boys, finding themselves ravenous, stood over the plate and ate three apiece without budging from the table. James’s mother came in.
“Hey, guys, leave some for other people, okay? Honey, where’d you get that stick? You can’t have that in here. Take it outside.”
They each grabbed two more cookies and went out to sit on the front steps. James held the stick tight under his right arm until he finished eating. When a trio of boys walked by, he targeted them silently with it, as if it were loaded, until they turned the corner.
Watching him, Kenny could not understand how it had happened, but James, who had earlier seemed so laughably young, — babyish, even — was no longer that pathetic little kid, had even left Kenny himself behind in some critical way that he could only guess at. And this, Kenny knew, was his own fault. It was as if you’d been playing with something you knew you should not touch, and then broken that thing, but not in any obvious way. You could put that thing back on the shelf, in its exact original position, but someone, someday would pick it up and notice its fracture. And you would always know: I did that.
After a while, James’s parents came outside and hustled James into their car. The grownups lingered over their goodbyes: Mr. Cloutier showing off his new Buick to Kenny’s dad and the boys’ mothers promising to get back together once James was through with his summer camp.
Finally, the Cloutiers climbed into their car, pulling slowly away from the curb, and Kenny saw that James had smuggled the stick into the back seat with him. From the window its muzzle menaced the project housing until the car faded from Kenny’s view.