The trailer home smelled of eggs and sizzling bacon. John, now twelve, was seated at the artificial wood table in the breakfast nook, and gazing out through the crack in the blinds. Through the thin slit, he could make out the neighboring trailer home and its owner, an old widow named Martha Hildegard, with white-purple hair, who wore thick black sunglasses all the time. Martha was currently seated in a nylon lawn chair under the candy-striped awning of her mobile home, her wrinkled old feet soaking in a bucket of hot water, the brown whiskey and ice clinking in her glass, as she smoked long thin cigarettes and read the women’s magazine that lay sprawled across the bareness of her spindly, bruise-mottled legs.
This Epsom foot soak was a nightly ritual for Martha. So whenever the sun was setting, one could be sure to find her out front of the trailer, while her raggedy, little, half-blind terrier, Russell Martin, lounged beside her on the ground, grumbling in and out of agitated sleep. Martha was always kind to the Maisey brothers during the seven months in which they’d lived there, and so John more or less liked her, even if she sometimes talked too much about nothing in particular. Gazing out at the old widow, John felt the weight of sadness on his heart, not just for Martha and what seemed her lonely way of life, but a larger, swelling kind of sadness for everything under the sun. This feeling of pity for the world was becoming increasingly constant for John Maisey over the past several months, though he never expressed it to anyone, not even to his younger brother: the only real friend he still had left. Sometimes he had strange thoughts and desires about how to get rid of the feeling, some of them so bad they managed to frighten him. He’d heard the word suicide before. In fact, he’d even had a few relatives who killed themselves. And though he would sometimes think of doing the same, the word itself: suicide…seemed much colder, much scarier, than the actual act that he contemplated and the more euphemistic words he’d used to describe it, e.g. Offing one’s self, Punching out, Throwing in the towel, and Kicking the bucket. Suddenly the terrier, Russell Martin, rose up onto his legs and started yapping at a passing car, breaking John from his trance.
"You ask me, that damn dog ought to have its vocal cords snipped the way it carries on." Darlene muttered, drawing on her cigarette with one hand, while shaking the pan of frying bacon with the other.
Neither of her two sons made any attempt at responding to their mother’s violent hiss. But, then, she didn’t expect them to either. For they’d both become more or less taciturn towards her since this most recent move into her new boyfriend, Doug’s, trailer home, on account of they could no longer make rent at the apartment anymore once the landlord raised the prices for no apparent reason except the blanket term general upkeep.
Curiously enough though, no more than a week after raising the price of rent in all of his buildings their former landlord, Byron, pulled into the parking lot, seated behind the wheel of a sparkling, blue Mustang, so clean and new that it shone like a mirror. The Maiseys, who were busy packing their belongings up in old potato boxes at the time, watched Byron as he stepped out of the Mustang and carefully ran a white cotton diaper along the door, removing any smudges there may have been, before making his way to the office. Upon opening the door to his office, Byron all of a sudden paused in order to glance back and see that his Mustang was still safe. He breathed a sigh of relief at seeing the car in all its pristine glory. A second later his vulturelike head twisted and his beady eyes came to fall, very suspiciously, on the Maiseys. He looked hesitant at first. But then, feeling ill at ease by his own transparency, he extended a feeble wave of farewell before vanishing into the office.
"Don’t you boys ever grow up to be like that man." Darlene had said in the heat of resentment, while stuffing a ball of coats into one of the potato boxes. "It’s better to be poor in pocket than poor in spirit any day, and that old geezer’s rotten from the inside out the way he does his business." Then under her breath, and to no one but herself: The crooked old fogey – probably crash that damn car – get himself dead and decapitated….
Later that afternoon, as they rode along in the station wagon full of boxes, towards their new home in the trailer park, John and Evan could not stop giggling about something together in the backseat. Darlene probed them, even got mad and ordered them to confess what it was they found so funny. But neither boy would say. Finally Darlene became exhausted by their secrecy and her furious yet futile attempts to wring it from them, and so instead she lit a fresh cigarette, turned the radio up loud, and stared ahead at the road, muttering to herself and pretending she was mature enough not to care. Once she’d begun to ignore her two boys, their laughter resumed, till tears came to their eyes at the thought that at some point that same evening, Byron would return to his blue Mustang to find not only that all of the tires had been leaked of air, but that there was also a large piling of dog excrement left on the vinyl upholstery of the driver’s seat….
Presently Evan, who would turn eight years old in a few days, sat opposite John at the breakfast nook, his fingers operating the green plastic arm of a Ninja Turtle action figure to swing up and down, as if it was chopping at the air. Below this chopping demonstration, there lay many other action figures, of mixed origin, strewn about the table like fallen corpses: G.I. Joe’s, X-Men, more Ninja Turtles, and a few different renditions of Batman. Ever since their father’s arrest and subsequent incarceration, Evan had become almost mute, save for his interactions with John, and the indiscernible things that he would mumble through the mouths of his action figures – with whom he staged long, intricate dramas, the plotting of which only he, alone, could know. No doubt, given the many disruptions over the past two years, these toys were his preferred mode of escape from any of the pain and dissatisfaction he felt for the realities of their new life in the Pine Vista trailer park, and the new schools that split them up, now that they were older (John being of age now to attend Junior High School, whereas Evan, a 3rd grader, was still three years away from completing elementary school). The loss of their father affected both of the Maisey boys in their own, singular way. For Evan it was a sudden rejection of reality, replaced by a fierce and impenetrable innerworld of daydreams and fantasies. He hardly talked at all….
As far as their education was concerned, neither boy expressed any great interest in academics. Nor did their mother place all too much importance on the matter, signing whatever forms she was handed by John and Evan, and tearfully explaining the loss of their father should anyone from the school call to discuss one of her son’s varying difficulties in the classroom, of which they (the faculty) seemed to feel there were many. That being said, neither boy suffered a learning disability. On the contrary, they were both rather intelligent boys – more so than either of their parents were ever said to have been, that is according, at least, to the way Darlene explained it one afternoon in the salon to her close friend and hairdresser, Connie. So all possibilities of mental retardation aside, the truth, of course, was that the boys just didn’t like the restrictive structure of attending school, plain and simple as that.
Since the school year began just seven months prior, both of the boys had already accrued a great deal of truancy notices. All of their unexcused absences owed to the fact that they would often start out in the direction of school and then, when they were almost there, they’d be swept offcourse in the direction of an altogether different plan, thanks to John’s adventurous spirit, coupled with an innate contempt for the drudgery of public education. It all seemed to him, especially given his then present state of depression, a pointless and absurd series of tortures in the form of endlessly dull tasks and teachers who on the one hand seemed to meddle in his business to no end, and yet, on the other hand, seemed to loathe the sight of him with a level cold detachment. And to John’s credit, his instincts were fairly, if not entirely accurate: many of his teachers, on a purely animal level, disliked him and sabotaged him whenever they could. Therefore it should come as no surprise that John suffered no compunction about running off with his kid brother to play pinball in the local laundromat. Nor did the slightest sting of guilt plague him, the time he and Evan stocked up on candy at the 7-Eleven and spent the school hours in the field behind the junkyard, sipping Slurpee’s and meditatively flipping through a few dirty magazines which they had stolen out of Bob’s sock drawer.
Luckily for John, Evan was almost always a willing accomplice in these extracurricular escapades. Though there were a few occasions when, due to a certain assignment over which Evan had labored hard, and thus wanted to turn in for credit, John was left alone. But not before he had delivered Evan safely to front doors of the elementary school. That done, John was then left to his own hapless devices, his only real agenda being that he kept a good distance between himself and the junior high campus.
On those days John would simply wander around, shuffling down the streets of the small town, stealing halfsmoked butts from the ashtrays outside of bars, and then smoking them later as he ambled through the woods by the lake, a captive audience to the easy meandering rhythms of his mind: all of the sad, bizarre thoughts that passed through it like so many ghosts, or the wind through the trees. Being alone didn’t bother him. In fact, the more he was alone the more he realized he liked it. It allowed him to see things and then think about them by himself, without anyone being there to change what he thought of the things he’d seen so that they belonged to him, and to him alone. For example, one afternoon he saw a naked woman through the parted curtains of her open bedroom window. He hid behind a car and watched. She was standing before the mirror, and turning side to side to see how her naked body looked at different angles. She seemed so close that John felt as if he could reach out and touch her through the open window. And although she had been rather fat, he admitted to himself that he liked the way she was, and knew that he would take her memory with him to the private place in the woods where he liked to sit alone and think.
There was another day too, in the woods, when he’d stood on the hillside and for the first time watched as one man killed another man in cold blood. He was walking along the hilltop, on his way to his secret place, when he heard their voices down below and stopped to have a look. The hill looked down upon the train tracks where the two shabbily dressed men sat side by side on the rails, passing a bottle back and forth. John couldn’t hear them from his place on the hill, but they had seemed friendly enough with each other, this impression made all the more credible by the bottle they shared back and forth. Suddenly one of the men stood up and began to shout in anger at the other man, still seated on the tracks with the bottle in his hand. The man on his feet began to point his finger and howl at some injustice he felt had been done to him. The seated man shooed him away with his hand as if he were being foolish and should go elsewhere with his anger. Well, the angry man did go away, stalking off over the rocks of the train tracks and disappearing beyond the low hanging branches of the trees…. John remained a moment, chuckling. To him it seemed like two cartoons fighting. The man on the train tracks slumped over his bent knees, drunkenly lost in slurred reproaches and bitter memories, so much so that he failed to look up when the first man came storming back at him, emerging from under the branches, his shoulders bent forth, muttering to himself in a fury as he raised his hand, very deliberately, and brought a heavy stone down upon the back of the other man’s head. A horrible crack rang out through the woods, stirring the birds to scream and fly up in frenzy. John’s face went white with horror and he knelt down behind a row of ferns, watching breathlessly, as the first man continued to smash the rock down on the other man’s head, till at last John could hear only the mushy sound of the rock sticking in the exposed brain matter, the dented cavern of bone and fascia now pooling with blood. The rocks and rails, too, were spattered in flecks of wet darkness from where the second man’s head was cleaved open by the rock. When the first man was certain the other was dead, he proceeded to sip the remains of the bottle while sporadically making clumsy efforts to roll the second man over, and then, once the dead man was on his back, the first man frisked his corpse for any valuables. He was fortunate in that he found a small plastic bottle of vodka, stashed inside of the dead man’s coat pocket, as well as a semi-rusted pocketknife and some matchbooks, all of which he took as his own, first hurling the empty bottle into the woods and then stuffing the found objects into his pockets as he stumbled off down the tracks.
Allowing the first man plenty of time to get lost, John ventured forth bravely, and very cautiously descended the dusty hillside, soon coming to stand over the remains of the murdered drunk, sprawled on his back between the rails, and looking up at John in a partial squint as if he were having the strangest of dreams. Upon hearing the sound of clattering rocks growing louder and from the direction the first man had left by, John didn’t bother looking to see if it was the murderer come back to see his handy work, but turned and started bolting it down the tracks, making short work of the long trek back to the trailer park, and arriving just in time to see Martha Hildegard seating herself in the lawn chair for her evening foot soak. At dinner he had debated telling Evan about what he’d seen, but ultimately decided against it on account of it may give him nightmares, knowing all too well that already Evan had the worst time sleeping, sometimes crying out from a bad dream and shaking the mattress they shared. Thus John kept it to himself and avoided entering the woods for about two weeks after the day of the killing.
"Come on, Evan," Darlene said, a cigarette dangling from her lips, as she toted two steaming plates with eggs and bacon on them to the breakfast table. "Clear those toys off the tabletop already. It’s time to eat your supper."
Dejectedly, Evan swiped all of his action figures off of the table so that they fell in the empty space beside him on the plastic lining of the bench cushion. Then he set his elbows down on the table and letting go a withdrawn sigh, he rested his head in his hands as the steaming plate was slid beneath his eyes. He didn’t like to talk, thus this display was Evan doing his mime’s best to express a complete absence of appetite.
"Well you’re going to eat it anyhow," Darlene said. "I just took the trouble of making this food, now you take the trouble to eat it. That’s the only way it’s going to be, mister. Otherwise I’ll let Bob and you discuss it when he gets home from work – which should be…in about fifteen minutes or so. And you know how Bob hates waste. So you decide what it’s going to be, Evan. Because I don’t have the patience – I just don’t."
"We got any more pepper?" John asked while chewing a strip of bacon and dangling his fork above the not yet punctured yolk of his eggs.
"I think so, let me see." Darlene said, leaving Evan and the matter of his eating alone for the time being, in order to insure that at least one of her sons enjoyed the meal she’d taken the time to prepare. "Yep, here you go." she said, plucking a pepper shaker off the counter and handing it to John.
"Thanks..." John muttered, chewing more bacon as he sprinkled both his eggs and bacon in a thick dust of pepper until the eggs looked blacker than they did white. Then, without asking, he took the liberty of reaching out and sprinkling pepper on Evan’s eggs, knowing that he liked it this way and hoping it might convince him to eat. "Here, Evan," John said, pushing the plate further under his brother’s downcast face. "Eat up…I don’t want to hear Bob nagging at you when he gets home. It gives me a headache!"
Evan pushed the plate away, shook his head no.
Incredulous and offended by Evan’s bullheaded stupidity, John looked at his younger brother like he was a man drowning in the ocean who refused to take the coastguard’s hand. Meanwhile Darlene had vanished into the bedroom at the back of the trailer home, where she sat on the edge of the mattress and swallowed her diet pills, two Valiums (given to her without prescription by Bob’s sister, Heather, who was dating a pharmacist’s assistant at the time), and topped her pharmaceutical regimen off with a pull from the whiskey bottle kept on the bedside table before lighting a fresh cigarette. Taking advantage of their mother’s absence, John quickly forked Evan’s unwanted food onto his own plate and began ravenously putting it away in rapid forkfuls, hoping he could have it all down before Bob returned home from the motorcycle repair shop where he worked.
Seven minutes later, all of the food on both plates had disappeared, and John looked pale, almost woozy. He set Evan’s fork down onto the plate that was supposed to be his then slid it closer to him so that he looked as if he’d eaten. Then John clicked his tongue to get his brother’s attention. When Evan looked up, John waggled his finger for him to lean in closer and listen. Evan leaned in, not only ungrateful that John had helped him with his food, but also looking somewhat annoyed. John ignored his brother’s doleful stare, having grown used to it by now.
"Hey Evan, listen, tonight would you want to come along with me and help me do something?"
At first Evan cocked his head and scowled.
"It’ll be fun, I promise." John said, whispering in case their mother was eavesdropping from the bedroom. "Besides, I could use your help as a lookout…"
The term lookout could only mean John was scheming something dangerous. All the same it managed to prick Evan’s curiosity.
"Maybe." Evan said, glancing down the trailer at the bedroom door. "You have to tell me first, though, what are you thinking of doing? I don’t want to get in any trouble."
John gave a noiseless chuckle then grew serious once more:
"No, I won’t tell you anything until you agree and we’re at the place. Otherwise you could chicken out, or worse you go and rat on me."
Hurt and offended, Evan crossed his arms:
"Screw you, John! What are you talking about anyway? Sheesh! Since when did I ever rat on you about anything? You know I don’t ever tattle."
"I know, I know – lower your voice, though!" John urged. "Listen, I’ll tell you all about it if you come with me. And Evan, I really do need you to help on this. It’s important, okay?"
"I don’t know…"
"If I help, what’s in it for me?"
"I don’t know. I mean I’m not sure yet, but it could be something good."
"You mean to steal, don’t you, John?"
"Depends on if there’s anything worth stealing. But let’s just say there is something good, and we take it…well, I’ll give you half, or the best part, of whatever it is we take away. Is that fair?"
Evan looked doubtful. He glanced again at the bedroom door then down at the empty plate on the table.
"I don’t know…I guess so."
"You’ll come with me then?" John asked, tensing with excitement.
"Yeah, John…I’ll come with you." Evan said, sighing. "But it better be good, whatever it is."
"Oh, don’t worry, I think it will be. Yep, I got a good feeling about this – been scoping this thing out for like three whole days now, and I got a real good feeling."
Just then the windows of the trailer began to rattle and the growl of Bob’s chopper could be heard out front, revving and purring like a mechanical cougar for a full minute. It finally died down and the engine cut off.
"Be cool." John said, leaning back in his seat and assuming an expression of bored innocence.
The door of the trailer clicked and swung outside, allowing the night air to waft into the stuffy trailer, swirling also with the stench of motor oil and gasoline that clung to Bob’s massive hands. The boys lifted their eyes to watch Bob mount the steps, his black motorcycle helmet cradled under his hairy, tattooed arm. Bob entered, the whole trailer tilting slightly under his weight, and then he looked down at the boys, an abnormally large man with a rust-colored beard, his long brown hair fell down around a red Harley Davidson bandanna. Though his face was large and pockmarked, his eyes seemed almost too small for his skull, and so it was nearly impossible to tell that they were green unless he was very close to someone’s face, which no doubt was also a frightening event. He wore black leather boots, black leather chaps over his blue jeans, and, of course, a black leather vest with tassels over his favorite faded and hole-riddled black T-shirt, the one that said Sturgis Motorcycle Rally 1995. Looking down at them now, Bob nodded a somber hello.
"How you boys doing? It looks like ya’ll ate your dinner already…that’s good. Is your mama around here someplace?"
Even though the boys had lived with Bob for seven months and got along with him just fine, they still looked upon him as something of a stranger, an imposing stranger at that. However, so long as they didn’t cause their mother any undue stress, ate all of their food, and left the adults alone whenever they could, their relationship with Bob was fairly easygoing. His dominating stature obviously helping to insure that Darlene’s children did their best to keep him from becoming angry. Anyway, between the two it was John who did most of the talking, acting as a representative for both his brother and himself.
"Hey Bob. Yep, we ate already." John said. "Mom’s in back, I think, guess she’s lying down for a nap or something."
"Sounds good." Bob said, pulling the front door closed and setting his motorcycle helmet and keys down on the counter nearest him. "Ya’ll got any plans tonight?"
They both shrugged their shoulders.
"No, not really."
Grinning, Bob reached into the inner pocket of his leather vest, "You do now." he said, and threw a red, crinkly paper package of firecrackers into the air, which John caught and brought down to inspect. "But wash up your dishes first."
John agreed and thanked him, setting the firecrackers down on the table and lifting both his and Evan’s dirty plates up to wash.
Hunched over and halflighted by the yellow light of the open refrigerator, Bob removed a cold bottle of beer, stood upright, opened the beer with his teeth, and then spat the metal cap into the wastebasket. He took a sip and said "Ya’ll have matches or something, you know, to light them things off with?"
"We got a lighter." John said, now rising with the plates in his hands.
"That’ll work. –Just don’t go blowing your goddamn fingers off or nothing. Your mother would cut my nuts off for sure." Bob said, chuckling.
"Don’t worry." John said with a short laugh, placing the dishes into the sink and running the faucet. "We won’t do anything stupid."
"Well, there’s a first time for everything, I guess." Bob said in the tone he reserved for wit. And when he was done chuckling, he started for the bedroom. "Anyway, I’m going to go in and take a nap myself, ya’ll have fun. Oh, and take those things far away from the park, okay? I don’t want to get bitched at by any of the neighbors. God knows there’s some cranky old sons of bitches that live here."
"Will do." John said, scrubbing the crusted egg yolk off his plate with a metal sponge.
"Nothing stupid, now." Bob reminded them, before stepping into the bedroom and sliding the floppy, fake, wood door shut on its rollers. Thereafter, the sound of murmurs could be heard behind the thin door, followed by the whine of the sinking mattress under Bob’s body.
When John had finished washing their dishes and set the plates to dry in the metal rack, he turned and knelt before an open shelf with odds and ends in it, where he removed his father’s green baseball cap and fitted it on his head. Then he got up, took the firecrackers that Bob had given to them off of the table, stuffed them into his pants pocket, and whistled to his brother.
"Come on, Evan. Let’s go."
A moment later, John and Evan emerged from the trailer, shut the door behind them, and then started walking off along the dusty road that wound through the length of the Pine Vista trailer park. On both sides, the lights from the mobile home windows shone and stretched out on the ground before the two boys, their shoes crunching over the dust and rocks, the balmy night air blowing gently around them.
Girded on every shore by tall trees, the moon cut the dark lake with shimmery white lines of light and the evening breeze whipped up its briny coolness, carrying it into the forest. Sliding on their backsides down the dust and leaves of an embankment, the Maisey brothers stopped to peer at the lake from behind a rise in the earth. John laid his arm round Evan’s neck, whispering to him in a conspiratorial voice.
"There it is…. Do you see it?"
Evan’s eyeballs glistened in the moonlight as he stared, looking out for whatever it was that his brother meant him to see.
"What, that boat over there?" he asked, his voice becoming loud.
"Shhh!" John said. "Yes, that boat. You know what kind of boat that is?"
"Nuh uh." Evan said.
"That there is a houseboat…meaning, it’s like a trailer home that floats."
"Huh," Evan said, now looking at the distant watercraft afresh in the light of new information. "So you mean that someone is living out there?"
"That’s the thing," John said. "I’ve been watching it for, like I said, about three days now and I haven’t seen nobody inside, nor going to or from it. So I’m thinking that it’s been abandoned or else the person that lives there is on a vacation – or heck, maybe they’re dead inside, who knows. Either way, I don’t think anyone is there now. So I was thinking that you and me go and check it out, see if there’s any good stuff that we can take for ourselves – some kind of treasure or something. What do you say?"
Evan shrugged. "I don’t know…what if there’s someone out there?"
"There isn’t, I’m sure of that. Like I said, I’ve been keeping tabs on it."
"Okay, fine. Suppose it is empty and no one is there. How do you figure we are supposed to even get out there, huh? Tell me that, John. Because there’s no way that I’m swimming, not at night."
"Don’t worry none about swimming." John said with a quiet laugh. Then he pointed further down the embankment towards a thin strip of rocks and dirt that hadn’t been swallowed by the tide. "Down there, I’ve seen a couple of boats, you know like dinghies, tied up at the trees. I say we head down there and untie one. Then we can just float it out to the houseboat…. Will you do that at least?"
Scuttling down the crumbly slope the boys emerged at the water’s edge, the dark tide lapping at their feet. John clicked his tongue and motioned for Evan to follow him down the shoreline. They stopped.
"Here." John said, pointing down at the place where the brambles sagged beneath the trees, tamped under the weight of two overturned canoes. The bottoms of the boats were so filthy with mud and algae that they shone a pale blue in the moonlight. "Come on. Let’s get that one out of there. How bout you go around and untie the rope? I’ll start yanking it up from the bushes."
Evan crunched into the woods, absorbed by the ink of darkness between the trees.
"Okay," he called. "I think it’s untied."
John heaved at the canoe and it came gliding out from the bushes and skidding up and down over the rocks of the shore with surprising ease, almost causing John to fall backwards into the water. Getting his balance back, John knelt and turned the boat rightside up, his hand feeling about inside the dark hull for signs of an oar, he needed only one. But there wasn’t any to be found.
"Hey, is there an oar over in those bushes?"
"A paddle. You know, for rowing with."
Evan squatted on his hams, searching the flattened bushes, his hand tracing around blindly till his fingers gripped the wooden pole of an oar, the clinging weeds snapping as he brought it up. "Here’s one!"
"Good. Bring it here." John said, reaching out and grasping the oar from his brother as he approached. He set the oar inside the canoe, propped on the rare thwart, and laid his hands on the lip of the stern. Here, get up front and I’ll push it into the water.
A moment later the canoe skimmed smooth as a javelin through the nightdark waters. From the bow Evan stared nervously ahead at the houseboat’s enlarging silhouette on the lake. Meanwhile at the stern John laughed and rowed side to side, eager to explore the forsaken craft, his mind overwhelmed by dangerous adventure stories and fabrications pilfered, no doubt, from the many comic books and movies about pirates he’d enjoyed as a little boy. As they moved across the water and the shore became more remote, it seemed to Evan that they were drifting through a soup bowl fit for a god, encircled all around by the blackened trees of the forest. He hoped against reason they would not be gobbled up. A clear sky, blue and gray, the sidereal lighthouses blinked their silver omens warning travelers of impending danger. In its usual state of torpor, the moon could only frown as a few lost clouds, like straggling buffalo calves – far behind the herd, wandered slow and aimless across the lower heavens. Drawing nearer and nearer to the bobbing black shade of the houseboat Evan’s fingers gripped the gunwale, his muscles tightened, and gulping down his fear, he felt his stomach suddenly become hollow – so hollow, in fact, that he, given the male creative impulse to replenish what is void, imagined an aluminum can rattling around in his belly, just to fully understand the newly expanded emptiness caused by his gnawing anxiety. A moment later John had fastened the canoe by its thwart, using a wet bungee cord that he’d found dangling from a metal cleat at the stern of the larger craft, and having done that the two brothers stealthily crept aboard to investigate the unlighted houseboat as it rocked side to side, tumbled by the waves.
"In here!" John said, reaching for the door. "Stay close, and keep an eye out."
The door was not locked and slid open with a groan. The sound of clinking glass rose up from a thick and clingy darkness, which stank of sweat and the mould of a drunken body rotting in the damp breath of the lake air. John lifted his arm to hide his nose deep within the crook of his elbow, the smell of something wicked at first breath. He then felt the collar of his T-shirt yank at his neck as Evan was tugging at it for comfort.
"Come on, Evan, stop it!" John said, pulling his wrinkled shirt free and stifling the anger of his fright. "Just keep alert. Being afraid will make you stupid."
Evan nodded. "It smells real bad, John. Like maybe something, I don’t know – like maybe something in here that’s dead…"
"Well that’s a good thing." John said, reaching into his pocket for the lighter. "'Cause if it’s dead then it can’t hurt us."
A blazing petal of light appeared, the flame radiating in visible auras in the darkness, casting a dim ocher glow to pulsate and vaguely illumine the walls and squalor inside of the houseboat, the boys’ faces as well, like pale yellow masks rising out of the dark and staring awestruck at their surroundings. Several empty liquor bottles rolled pendulously across the musty reeking carpet, banging against the two opposing walls and clanking every few seconds to the rhythm and sway of the anchored ship: back, clink, and forth, clink, back, clink, and forth, clink, the sharp cry, resulting from the loose bottles creating an additional eeriness, like the smell of decay, to what had already struck the boys, John now, too, though he hid his feelings better, as being an unnervingly macabre experience.
"Shit!" John cried.
And at the same moment, almost as if the living darkness itself had lashed out at the disturbance made by the small dancing glow, the flame was extinguished, and the houseboat returned to an almost total blackness, save for the two windows, by which a vague blue glow strained through the dusty glass on either side of the ship’s living quarters. It was only these two squares of ashen light because all of the blinds were lowered over the windows, up front, in the helm station. Stranded in this new dark now, the sightless boys instinctively drew closer to one another until their shoulders were touching. Blind and reliant upon their remaining senses, Evan felt an appalling confusion when he heard what seemed a kind of suckling noise issuing to his right, not unlike the smacking of an exaggerated kiss. Naturally several questions and concerns raced through Evan’s frightened mind just then, and with incredible speed. And though the first question he’d intended ask his older brother pertained to the abrupt absence of light, the prior concern was suddenly derailed by his curiosity regarding the perverse noises occurring nearby. Luckily for him, however, the second question also served to enlighten him, for lack of a better expression, in terms of the first.
"John! John!" Evan hissed. "What’s that noise? Oh god, John. Do you hear it?"
In order to speak, John first had to remove the thumb from his mouth, still tingling with the venom of heated metal from the lighter’s hot roller wheel.
"It’s nothing. Just burnt my goddamn thumb is all."
"Maybe we should go." Evan said. "It’s creepy in here. And it smells real bad."
"We just got here!" John said. "Let’s take a few more minutes at least to see if there’s any good stuff we can take with us."
"That smell, though, John…"
"Yeah, it’s maybe the worst thing I ever smelt in my life. But then I won’t give a damn what it smells like if we walk out of here with something like money or pornos or something neat like that." John said, while thumbing in the dark at the lighter to see if it had cooled enough for him to use again. It had.
The clicking of the lighter in John’s hand mixed with the steady clanking of the bottles, momentarily overwhelming Evan, until finally a blossoming of dirty light once more wavered in the dark, warming foreign objects with a jaundiced glow and casting dark trembling shadows here and there. Before them was the helm station: many round, glinting glasscovers housing needles, the steering wheel, an abraded leather chair on a swivel, with many odd holes choked by loosed cotton stuffing. On the ground to their right was a single bare mattress piled over with a random assortment of ratty blankets and begrimed squares of cardboard. From this vile bed rose the clammy oily musk of bodily odors like rotting plums coupled with the bitter reek of alcoholic vomit. The brothers Maisey each covered their noses after glancing down at the soiled pallet. His voice muffled by the fact that his nose was buried in his elbow.
"Man, that sure is nasty." John said, and wheeled his face and the lighter in the opposite direction as the mattress. His eyes then scanned rapidly, desperately in the hopes of discovering something, really anything that might be of relative value so that they might be able to finally step outside into the fresh spring air again as victors, and not have to breathe in the rank filth of this dark, putrid dwelling anymore. In addition to, or probably more likely because of the awful smell, John, who was no doubt the braver of the two boys, now became increasingly uneasy in his mind. And so once more, after a frantic series of anxious gestures with his torch-hand, the tiny flame of the lighter died out, and darkness, ancient darkness returned, but now manifesting in deeper shades of black for having been driven off by the brief interval of light. When John went to restore the flame his thumb jerked away, stinging and recoiling independently from the scorched metal of the roller.
"Come on, John!" Evan said. "Bring it back already. I’m getting spooked."
"What do you think I’m trying to do over here, dammit?! The metal’s still too hot for me to touch. You have to wait a second."
Their two breaths, strained and shortened by fear, fell and collided in the shadows as the darkened houseboat wobbled, and every four seconds the loose bottles clanged and rattled from within their devil’s track across the moldy carpet. A minute later the flame returned, and shortly thereafter John discovered a square hatch cut into the floor.
"Hey look down here."
"It’s some kind of a trapdoor or something."
"Oh, wow. It is."
"It’s probably where the good stuff is kept."
"Yeah, yeah I bet you’re right. Let’s lift it up and see what all’s down there." Evan said, his curiosity suddenly outweighing his fear.
"All right." John said, and knelt down beside the square in the carpet lined with metal. He then ran the fingernails of his free hand along the crack searching for a means of lifting the hatch open. There was a metal loop sunk in a smooth metal socket, which John snuck his finger underneath, and then when he yanked upwards the plate shifted with a groan, and a smell so bad, so sickening that the mattress paled in comparison wafted up from the dark hollow the hatch revealed.
"God, John. What is that?"
"Oh man, that’s bad. That’s worse than bad."
"I think I’m going to puke. Really, John, I think I am."
"Well do it over there at least." John said, lifting the collar of his T-shirt up over his nose like a mask and squinting down through the murk of the stinking hull, his eyes watering as he stared.
Darting the flame above the open hatch: a few coils of white rope, some orange life vests, a tackle box, and a blue plastic snaptub. John reached in and lifted the snaptub out and set it down on the floor beside him. Meanwhile Evan stood hunched in the corner of the houseboat retching with his arms wrapped around his stomach.
"Evan, get over here!" John said. And looking up at Evan as he drew near, looking piqued and like a faint street urchin in an old book, John motioned to his face and said, Here, Evan, put your shirt up like this. It helps to keep the smell out.
Evan lifted his shirt up over his nose like John instructed.
"Now get down here with me and let’s open this thing up to see if it has anything good inside."
"Okay." Evan said, kneeling beside John as if he were about to pray, his knees bent forth and his calves tucked under his backside. "But then can we get out of here?"
"Yeah. Then we can get out of here."
John opened the snap tub. Inside there were several packets of bandages, gauze, band-aids, dehydrated food, antibiotic cream, thread and needles, and then some. But most prominently, most fetching of all, there was a black flare gun in the tub along with five spare flares of varying colors, each indicating a different emergency scenario. Their eyes lit up so big that they each possessed a tiny dancing flame reflected in the iris.
"Well I’ll be." John said. "It’s the damn mother load right here, boy."
"Wow. A gun…"
"It’s not like a – like a regular gun, you know, that shoots bullets," John said, reaching in and taking up the flare gun, which he turned from side to side in appraisal. "It’s a flare gun. It shoots flares."
"A flare gun?" Evan asked, the mask of the shirt collar falling from off his nose.
"Yeah, it shoots these neat colored lights, kind of like bottle rockets or something, but brighter called flares. They go up super high in the air and float down all red or blue or whatever so that the other ships can see it. That way they know someone is in trouble and can go help them out. This right here, John said, taking a final moment to relish its sleek design. Now this is cool…"
Then John slid the flare gun away into his pocket and took up the extra flares.
"Hey, you didn’t let me hold it!" Evan said, offended and scowling as he lifted his shirt once more to hang upon his nose.
"Oh, sorry." John said, and took the flare gun out once more, stuffed the spares into the vacant pocket and handed Evan the prize of their raid. "Be careful with it, though. I don’t know if it’s loaded. I’ll need to check it later when we get into some good light."
Evan held the flare gun in his lap in two hands over his knees, not by the handle, but like it was a dead bird he’d found in the lawn, cradling it in his palms and admiring its secret power. Flare gun, he whispered to himself, reveling in the sacred act of assigning breathed and living words to the cold object below. Awesome.
John was then in the process of leaning forth to give the opening in the floor one last perfunctory glimpse, maybe move a few ropes aside to see if there were any other boxes buried below. If not, oh well. Having acquired the flare gun, he felt the journey to the old houseboat had been validated and, because of the perilous stench, legitimately earned. Still, he would kick himself later if he weren’t now only slightly more thorough in his investigation of good, theftworthy spaces. But alas, for the third time as his eyes began to delve and scrap at the tangled shadows within the rotripe cranny, the flame was swept low, and again trounced by the soot dark hue of night.
This time, though, John made no impulsive motions to reignite the flame, knowing from experience that he’d need to allow a good thirty seconds to pass before the wheel roller was cooled down enough to touch. Not daft, Evan understood this law of physics as well. And so the two boys sat there in the silent dark and waited together for the heat in the metal to dissipate. Having grown used to the shrill rhythm of the crashing bottles by now the boys were both able to suppress the haunting character of the din for mere noise, and hearing instead the creaking of the ship’s wood and the narcotic chugging and plashing of the waves outside. Above their heads, on opposing walls of the houseboat, the ashen blue light from the windows blared against the dark like a camera refocusing while their eyes acclimated to the night world, all these nocturnal sights and sounds managing somehow to lull them each into a web of distraction all their own, the opiate darkness hypnotizing the boys into a deep mist which clouded their minds into a state of aimlessly numb reflection, as they awaited their feeble light.
Meanwhile out on deck, a man’s lank black silhouette lumbered blindly past the starboard window. Then, having sensed the intruders’ presence, it slunk back and hunched forth cupping its hands beside unfathomable black eye sockets, in order to better peer in through the scummy pane of glass, that fragile only thing which separated him from the genuflecting brothers inside. Its peeping concluded for the moment, the ragged creature then turned and lurched hastily out of view, unseen…
"Here, take my hat." John said. "I don’t want it getting lost in there."
"Okay." Evan said, and took their father’s hat, holding it in his lap like he did the flare gun before.
John sparked the lighter and like statues woken from a stony trance, the new light kindled their squirrely bodies to move, both of them crawling to rest on either side of the hole in order for John to have one last glimpse at the treasures of the hull. Reaching down, John swiped some coils of rope to one side. He pulled some stale-smelling life vests out and flung them up and over behind his shoulder, crouching again to keep digging through the depths of junk and supplies with his one free hand while Evan watched his progress in the flimsy orange dark of the flame.
"Huh." John said, almost halfway down the hole now, shirt falling loose and nose crinkling with disgust, his eyes looking up in concentration as his submerged arm swatted about wildly in blind interrogation at the objects therein. Then he came back up and reapplied his shirt. "I don’t think I can hold the lighter and still look around without falling in. Here. You hold it while I move some of this shit around."
Evan nodded and they skillfully passed the torch without losing the flame, Evan’s thumbnail clapping down on the fuel lever at the same time John’s slid free. Then John, with both arms now, returned to rooting about in the hole, coming up now and then to drop vests and rope and dry buoys onto the floor beside the hole before diving back down.
"The hell?" John said, suddenly disturbed by the touch of some enigmatic form down below.
"What is it, John? What’d you find?"
"Not sure. It feels weird though. Give me that lighter." John said, reaching up without looking, his fingers hovering.
"It’ll go out."
"Let it go out. I don’t care. I think I can spark it down here now that all of that junk’s out of the way."
Evan took his thumb off the lever, ran the hot metal of the shroud back and forth across the thigh of his denim shorts, in an attempt to cool it some, and then placed the plastic bottom of the lighter in John’s palm, the fingers coiling around it in the blue semidark and gliding down once more into the belly of the houseboat.
In deep black, his torso hovering and snaking about with his shirt over his nose John sought the unidentifiable, strangefeeling object again before he wasted any more of the fuel or light. Then for the second time the palps of his fingers lit on the cool waxen form, its surface at once hard yet soft to the touch, with concave areas, the many naturalformed bowls of shadow and moisture.
John struck the roller. Liquid fuel rose and kissed the spark and a yellow flame choked forth, its radiance instantly magnified and swimmy given the claustrophobic dimensions, allowing John to finally meet the horrific, fisheyed gaze of the cadaver cramped, twisted and rotting down in the hull of the houseboat. Lips blue and jutting, flaked and sunken cheeks the color and texture of frosted cheese. The myth of postmortem growth verified by the shaggy coils of a dead man’s beard and the pale claws curling from a crimped, bloodless fingers, now more of a talon than a hand. Like a discarded dummy, the arm twisted over its head, hardened there in rigor mortis, the rest of the extremities tamped in a crude contortionist mime amongst torn strips of plastic garbage bags, a few yellow rat teeth against the black gullet of eternal ambush. Crusted streams of black blood caked at the temples. As if mocking the face of the corpse, John stared back in petrified horror and the shock of vague recognition. That day in the woods. Train tracks. A voice bellowed, haggard and insane. The flame died as the lighter fell, and John spun up and out of the hole to face the doorway, where a demonic shape loomed intent on pouncing.
"You shouldn’t of come here." the man said, and staggered forth.
"Shit!" said John, first shoving Evan to tumble off and out harm’s way then rising up himself to take the brunt of the murderer’s rage.
Upon seeing Evan go one way then having to adjust his eyes to the advancing form of John, the murderer hesitated long enough for John to lift and swing one of the empty bottles, the glass shattering off the man’s kneecap and hobbling him. The man bent and clutched at his knee, now gashed and spitting blood, before falling backwards onto his ass in a roar of anguish.
"You little fuckers!" the murderer growled. "I’m gonna kill you. Gonna kill you both!"
But John was already leveling the next bottle above the man’s head and bringing it down as hard as his muscles and fury would allow. The man’s hand came up to defend his face. A little low, the bottle exploded against his forearm, a debris of razor shards sailing and cutting the man’s face, slashing his cheeks, while one of the bits of glass managed to slit the sclera of his left eyeball so that he was forced to apply his bloodied hands to his head, screaming and cursing like the Cyclops he’d become.
"Run!" John yelled to his brother. "Get to the boat!"
Though he didn’t need to say anything, as Evan was already scampering for the door, whimpering with tears of fright and their father’s hat still clenched in his hands, more owing to the seizure of fear than any emotional reverence for its previous ownership. While gathering up the next bottle, John watched his brother slip safely through the open door and his frantic body turn black against the dark blue sky. John started out after him. However his ankle stuck fast in the man’s grip, John dropped forth onto his arms. The bottle came loose from his hand and wobbled on the floor. Then like some mangled incubus the bleeding, half-blind murderer scaled up John’s body until he could rise enough to straddle him, his weight pressing onto the boy’s sternum and ribs to cut off the flow of air, and bringing John’s eyes to spin with the nauseous want to throw up. Breathing so hard that slivers of drool sucked in and out of his cracked mouth, panting in a pervert’s short hot breath the murderer reveled in the chance to express some parting word to the squirming child on which he’d placed the sentence of death.
"Oh, yeah. You’re gonna love this boy!" the murderer grunted through ropes of slobber, flicking a silvery blade from his coat, the knife edge sparkling in the window’s light with the robbed souls of many past unknown victims. "Cut you up like a hog. Gonna watch your eyes, boy. Gonna watch the life right out of 'em while I skin your hide. But that ain’t nothing compared to what I’m fixing to do with your brother. Whew! Gonna have me some fun with that one, believe me. Make him squeal a long old time fore he ever feels my blade…"
The one-eyed murderer chuckled and licked his lips at the thrill of his own words, his loins hardening with the guttural song of promised violations. No matter how much John wriggled he could not get loose. The man was too heavy on top of him, and both of his arms were caught beneath the man’s thighs. The world flickered in and out, though he fought his mind to keep a vigil for any chances at escape, if only to insure that Evan got away. His wound dripping still, the murderer hunched low over John’s face, chortling blood and drool onto John’s brow, made drunker by the fear he induced when he waved the knife tauntingly back and forth before John’s eyes no more than an inch from his flesh.
"Guess I ought first to make us even, huh?" the murderer said. "Maybe that I start by sawing out your eyeball like you done to me. Huh?" The murderer caressed the blade to John’s eyebrow, slicing off a few tiny hairs. "Huh? Huh?! What do you say, boy? Do you like the sound of that as much as me?"
Raising up off of John then pointing the knife downward, the murderer slowly leaned forth in preparation of some unspeakably grisly and maniacal surgery. But having been so absorbed in this sadistic foreplay, as it might be called, the murderer had failed to notice Evan’s stealthy return to the room. With not a second to spare, the bottle burst in a squall of flying glass behind the stooped murderer’s skull, the knife handle bouncing off John’s cheek onto the floor as the man reared back, clutched at his head and howled out like some tormented banshee screaming from the depths of hell into the next world. He sank back just enough for John to slither free, spin onto his hands and knees then lunge up to his feet. John lifted the bottle he’d dropped then hurled it viciously down at yelping man, the projectile splashing against the murderer’s exposed face as if it were momentarily liquid.
"Come on. Let’s go!" John cried, making through the door with his brother in front.
At the stern of the houseboat they found the canoe where they’d left it. However it was no longer alone. The second canoe was now moored to the stern, no doubt taken by the murderer to ferry himself out to his mongrel’s lair of bottles and bones. The boys quickly boarded their canoe and pushed off from the stern. Then John began to row them madly for the shore, grunting as he cleaved at the waves with the single oar. As he rowed them toward land, John couldn’t help but feel a deep guilt when noticing how Evan sat in the bow clutching his knees tightly in his arms and shivering, his face downcast, looking like the silhouette of some defiled cherub, its wings no longer affixed. John sighed and looked down into the guts of the slender boat only to discover his father’s green hat resting in a tiny pool of lakewater. The sight of the hat filled him with relief and love for his kid brother. He scooped it up and fitted it on his head once more, wasting no more time than was necessary in reclaiming his duty as oarsman. They were halfway to land when John then decided to cast one fleeting glance back to the houseboat in case the murderer should still be mobile, and in case they were being pursued.
He was. And they were.
Hellbent, the murderer manned his paddle, from god knows where, and smacked at the water with new-sprung vigor, his motive simple and desperate: catch the boys, kill the boys, and vanish their bodies so that his crimes may continue to go untold. He was making fast progress, too, now about twenty or so feet in the wake of the leading canoe. And the moment it took John just to appreciate this fact meant another five feet the murderer gained. The idea hit as fast as its execution.
"You still got the flare gun? Give it here." John said, rowing a few strokes while his plan stuttered to manifest in the physical realm.
"What?" Evan said, rattled dumb when he turned to see they were being followed.
"The flare gun!" John shouted. "Give it here!"
Evan fumbled at his pockets. He still had the gun. John yanked it from his brother’s hand and turned to stand up in the wobbling canoe, facing back and aiming the flare gun at the oncoming craft, praying on his aim and the luck of the gun being loaded. Then he squeezed the trigger.
A flurry of blazing red hissed from the barrel like a fugitive bolt from Hell. The flare scorched the air where it sailed, arching some, and coming down to sizzle and flash in the dark chest of the unsuspecting man. Instantly flames fed on the rags of clothing, gnawing at the jacket.
The murderer stood up in the stalled canoe and screamed, a flamebathed scarecrow swaying within the unsteady boat, an effigy of evil roasting upon the lake. The waves below blazed and flickered in reflection, all brilliant shades of orange and crimson. Arms flailing out of the conflagration, the murderer’s final scream was cut short by the crackling of hungry tongues shimmying through his beard and lapping at his teeth. Seconds later the flaming body crumpled overboard with a hissing splash, writhing about a moment until death rendered it a smoking marionette afloat on the dark. It lay hunched and limp on its belly, gazing sightless down at the sway of seaweed and murk through cremated eyes, bobbing like scorched driftwood.
Then a moment of quiet disbelief passed in which John was uncertain as to what he’d achieved just a few moments prior. Finally regaining his senses, John threw back his arm and hurled the flare gun up and away from him as far as he could. The flare gun came spiraling down through the sky soon splashing white and sinking beneath the bloodblacked waters. Afterwards John sat back down in the canoe and continued to row them ashore, his face stoic and severe, hardened beyond his age by that expression of hateful disgust seen most often in tired soldiers…
Aside from John vowing Evan to the strictest secrecy, the walk home was a long and silent one for the brothers Maisey. Neither boy wished to nor even knew how to speak about the events of the night. At one point along the way, while passing by a sleeping suburban house, John tossed the unspent firecrackers into an open trashcan.