The cars rushed up and down the steep, rain-slicked road, all in haste for Thanksgiving preparations. A group of children ascended the hill together. The sidewalks bordered numerous apartment complexes, each one separated by patches of grass and fences sloping downhill, until it leveled out in a thick clump of woods. The children were on their way home from school, and were about to turn into the next apartment complex on the right. All of them wore backpacks and puffy winter coats with hoods pulled up over their heads. And those that had no hoods wore wool hats.
The rain had stopped falling hours ago, but the sky remained gray and cloudy. In the middle of the road were strips of grass, housing bony, leafless trees. Being that this was an area mostly populated by Microsoft employees, the majority of faces one could spot on the roadside, walking or waiting for buses, belonged to Indian people. The group of children walking was no different in that their smooth, cherubic faces were the light brown color of caramel. Walking along, they chattered in the language of their fathers and mothers. They were not the only ones hiking up the hillside, though.
For following behind them at a distance of twenty-odd feet was another determined figure. From a bird’s-eye-view this lone, encroaching form resembled a hungry wolf as it lopes behind an oblivious herd of buffalo calves.
The wolf in this case was actually a human boy: perhaps fifteen or sixteen years old. He was lean, and somewhat tall for his age. Unlike the children whom he trailed, his skin was the color of Appalachian cream. And though the boy himself had never set foot on West Virginian soil, he retained a blood-echo of all the grit and stubborn character of his not-so-distant relatives. By one look into his surly dark eyes it was clear that the boy came from a rough line of stock, and furthermore that no amount of socialization would alter what bizarre attitudes and leanings murmured within his veins.
Nor was it these brooding eyes alone that gave away the boy’s outlaw ancestry. His appearance, as a whole, spoke volumes – and in rather deafening clarity too – so that any a curious passerby that laid eyes on the boy might easily find some cause for alarm.
He had a short round head, the hair buzzed down to mere peach-bristles. Two large ears, like an ork’s, stuck out beside the boy’s sharp and prematurely wizened face. In fact, he resembled more of a spry old man than a teenage boy. However the distinction became obvious in the way the boy dressed. That is not to say he dressed like an average youth, but there were clues. Namely the saggy, silky red basketball shorts and the red and white high-top sneakers. As far as a shirt or coat was concerned, the boy had none; his torso was bare except for the single strap that ran along his spare ribs and held the red backpack in place upon the sharp blades of his shoulders. Bouncing as he hiked up the hillside, a wooden baseball bat was tethered slantwise to the backpack by two cords of elastic. Thus giving him the strange distinction of being some displaced warrior sent forth from the past to stalk deadly through the modern world, likely in order to conduct some grievous task. And though these details alone ought to have been enough to warrant concern, it was the business of his hands that may help to escort home the menace of the boy’s practically naked march up the hillside.
His head bent low over his chest so he could better scrutinize their work, he held a long stick in one hand, while the other hand furiously scraped the stick-end with the blade of a hunting knife, whittling it down, until it formed a suitable spear-point.
His name was Brady Gumtree. And for what purpose did he prepare this weapon; it was anybody’s guess…
And so on he went – walking and sharpening, sharpening and walking – his deranged progress not once molested by a telephone report to the police, nor by the bravery of some worried mini-van owner…
Having turned into the parking lot of the Pine View apartment complex, the group of bundled up school kids wandered over and settled by the big community dumpsters to talk and pass the short while before they would separate, and go back inside to the warmth of their family apartments for the night. Giddy and free from strict observation, the voices of the children now formed a clear, shrill chorus that resounded like nested birds into the air. It was as though there was not one point of discussion, but four or five loudly sung soliloquies scrapping for dominance.
Brady turned the corner and was moving towards them. His spear good and sharp now, he thumbed the steel blade of the hunting knife back inside of the handle and slipped it into the side of his shorts, the shape of the knife now jostling against his knee in the great depth of the shorts pocket.
The noisy school kids were too absorbed in their own activities to notice Brady approaching. He strolled closer, eyeing them suspiciously. Until finally he stopped beside them and listened: leering, unobserved, over their heads. The foreign language acted like a discombobulating poison on his mind. His face frowned and creased at the brows as he tilted his head aside and squinted with one eye only, his plump lips parting to expose a questioning darkness. As he strained to make sense of the words his frustration increased, causing him to press his thumb down, unthinkingly, upon the sharp end of the stick.
Then when he realized he was doing this and that his thumb had already begun to bleed, he grew angry, flung his wounded thumb down to his side, and snapped at the gabbling school kids:
“What in the hell is you sand-niggers talking bout, anyways? You all sound like a bunch of cartoon monkeys.”
The only sound after that was of the cars growling up and down the road, like a river of mechanical sludge.
Not liking the silence, Brady kept on the offense and filled the stunned emptiness with a fierce, antsy cackle: the kind a hyena would make after cornering a group of neglected lion cubs.
Relishing this superiority, he was suddenly taken aback when one of the Indian boys from the group answered him with a curse, in English, to which he was familiar. It was a boy of nine or ten years old, and the nobility of the boy’s face coupled with the eloquent coldness of his delivery caused Brady to scramble for a rejoinder, one that he hoped would be equally piercing in its simplicity. But this proved an uphill battle, for now he was shaken by the tidal wave of jeering laughter that rushed out at him from the united front. And the more Brady looked on them the more his mind and vision seemed to blur into a nightmarish tableau of laughing brown faces and brown fingers pointing up at him from the puffy sleeves of winter coats.
Outnumbered and desperate, he countered with the first thing that popped into his mind:
“Yeah? Well your mothers a stanky, ol, pumpkin-breath!” Immediately upon hearing his own words, Brady wanted to flagellate himself: Pumpkin-breath? Why, that’s the damn dumbest thing I ever said, he told himself.
The leader of the school kids paused, turning the insult over in his mind to see if it held any weight. Meanwhile his friends waited for the verdict. A second later, after deciding the insult was meaningless, he replied in a cool, sure voice:
“Yes. But this is better than your mother, who is a prostitute, and who sleeps all of the day and does not love you.”
The words stung at the Brady’s mind. His cheeks grew hotter and hotter, like the smooth side of a teakettle. Staring back at him now, Brady’s enemy retained the same leisurely hateful expression his face had made the moment he’d said it, his thick, dark eyebrows slanting and his arms crossed to give him a solid and steady appearance; all the while, the row of cinnamon-colored faces, behind him, pointed and laughed at Brady for having a dissatisfactory home-life.
Brady didn’t know what to do, his mind was moving in many directions at once – feeling one more bitter feeling after the next. And before he knew what he was doing Brady had plunged the sharp stick into his enemy’s stomach.
So well had he sharpened the stick that it pierced first through the puffy winter coat then entered the victim’s stomach muscles, about an inch and a half deep, where it stayed suspended even after Brady had let it go.
The air suddenly felt charged by a tense electrical current. And there followed a moment of pure confusion while every one, including Brady, but especially the victim, tried to make sense of what had happened. The stabbed boy’s eyes grew huge and white, each with a perfect brown circle of terror floating in the middle, as he looked down at the stick jutting out from his belly.
The girls all screamed when a dark flow of blood ran out from under the winter coat and onto the victim’s pants. The victim staggered then fell onto his backside, like a man too drunk to stand, his mouth open in a noiseless scream. One of his braver friends stayed with him, but the rest of the kids, including Brady, ran off across the parking lot like startled cats, until they had all disappeared inside their families’ apartment to hide.
Slamming the front door of his mother’s apartment shut, Brady leaned his back into it, panting hard from having run up the steps, and still looking pale and startled by what he’d done.
* * *
To be continued tomorrow...
Nick Wenzel grew up in the Pacific Northwest and has since relocated to Los Angeles, where he lives with his girlfriend, their dog, and three cats. He graduated from Evergreen State College in Olympia. His most recent publications consist of one story at Quail Bell Magazine, a poem in the Sixfold annual, and another short story in the Percival Review. And he writes because there are things in this world which require the writer in order to be heard.