Branty’s got a baby bunny he killed with his slingshot. It doesn’t look cute and soft like it probably did when it was running around in the grass. It looks like what it is—a dead wild animal—the fur matted and mangy. The sight makes my throat close up. Branty handles it like a new toy, tossing it back and forth in the air. I think I would throw up if I touched it.
“Go get a fishing pole,” he tells me.
“I’ll have to ask my dad to use one.”
“Just get a Shitmano. Nobody cares if you use one.”
I open the garage door and look along the sides of the walls at all the junk in piles, leaning against the walls. The garage is cool and musty inside. My eyes take a minute to adjust; I need to avoid the spiders and centipedes. The centipedes are so fast.
Last year I grabbed a baseball bat out of the corner and one zipped up my arm and into my shirt. My mom came running when she saw me bolt out of the garage and tear my shirt off, clawing at myself. Cuts and scrapes ran across my chest, back, and arms from rolling around on the driveway trying to get that centipede off me. I never even saw it run away. For days I thought it might still be hiding on me somewhere. I could feel it crawling around in my pajamas when I tried to fall asleep. I’m more careful in the garage now. I get used to the dark and feel confident enough to sort through some rods leaning in the corner. I find one of the old Shimano poles and bring it out to Branty.
He makes a loop of line and tries to slip it over the bunny’s head but the head is too floppy to stay straight. He curls his index finger over the bunny’s head from behind its neck as if forming a curve ball. The loop slips over. He slides his finger out from under the loop. He smoothes the fur back against its head, exposing the bunny’s pink flesh. Then he tightens the line and works it under the fur, against the skin, so it can’t be seen. When he finishes, he holds the bunny up by the line and it spins in the breeze. “Perfect,” he says.
Branty wants to go to the forest preserve on the east side of town. He shot the bunny there in the clearing by the old schoolhouse before bringing it back to my house to get a fishing pole. We’ll be able to lure a fox out of the woods with the bunny, he thinks.
“I don’t like the schoolhouse. Thomas says it’s haunted,” I say.
“Thomas is a pussy and you are too if you believe him.” He takes the top half of the pole out of the bottom half and packs the pole in his backpack, then gently places the bunny into the smaller pocket inside the flap.
It’s true. Thomas is a pussy. But he is also smart. We’ve been researching haunted places at the library together lately. We’re both pretty much convinced the old schoolhouse is haunted. Even though the forest preserve has turned it into a storage building, the spirits are still in there. I’ve heard bad things happened to some girls at that schoolhouse. One of the nuns went crazy and killed a couple of them. Cut their bodies up and tried to flush them down the toilets. When it didn’t work, she killed herself by drinking gasoline.
Thomas refuses to hang out with me when Branty’s around. His mom says he’s a bad influence.
“It’s getting dark, though,” I say. “You aren’t supposed to be in the forest preserve after dark. I’ve seen forest preserve cops hanging around by the gate there sometimes.”
“What are they gonna do, arrest us? They’re just making sure no teenagers are hanging out giving each other blowjobs. They wouldn’t care about us.” He is always talking about blowjobs lately. On the bus a few weeks ago, Sybil, an eighth grader, told him about blowjobs. The next day the whole fifth grade was talking about blowjobs. Still, I don’t see what’s so great about someone blowing all over your wiener.
Branty picks up his bike and throws a leg over. “Are you going or are you gonna sit here and pick your ass like a wuss?”
“If we get in trouble, if anything happens, it’s all your fault.”
“What else is new?”
We ride by the McDonalds. I can smell the fries cooking and want to stop to get some food. Tom Hartmann, our town’s only homeless person, leans against the side of the building drinking a coffee and muttering. People in town leave him alone. He doesn’t seem to bother anyone. Rumor is he comes from an incredibly wealthy family and homelessness is his choice.
He says something indecipherable to us as we ride past. Branty yells back, “Eat shit!” and we speed away.
We pull up to the old schoolhouse and lay our bikes against the front of the building. The wooden window covers are closed and latched. There is a sidewalk along the side of the building with a low brick wall. The wall faces a clearing before the tree line. The air is heavy and smells musty like the river, which I can hear flowing through the woods. We set up on the sidewalk. Branty leans the Shitmano against the wall. He gently pulls the bunny out of the backpack and carries it out into the field, spooling line off the open reel as he walks. When he gets about thirty feet from the wall he lays the bunny down on its side and comes back.
The trees cast long shadows out into the clearing. We wait crouched on the walkway behind the wall with our heads poking over the top. After about two minutes Branty wants to move the bunny. “Just leave it,” I tell him. Whenever we go fishing for bass he constantly reels in his line and recasts. I always catch more fish than him. I tell him to wait a while and he will catch more but he never listens. He says it is more fun to keep casting.
“Screw it, I’m moving it.” He gets up and walks into the field. “It doesn’t look dead enough,” he hollers back. He rolls the bunny on its back and splays its legs out in different directions. The left front leg won’t stay where he wants it. He keeps adjusting it then half standing up before reaching down to move it a little more. He looks like my mom working in the flower shop putting the finishing touches on an arrangement. A dead bunny artist, that’s what he is. When he is finally satisfied he comes back to the wall.
“Now we’ll see some action. There are foxes and coyotes in these woods. They will smell it.” We wait. A crow lands and starts poking around the bunny with its beak. We watch quietly.
“I hope it pecks its eyes out,” Branty whispers.
The crow takes off and someone behind us says, “Nobody move.”
I look at Branty. He gives me his usual “shit happens” face. The same face I saw on him immediately after he threw an M-80 into my neighbor’s back yard and their Yorkie went after it like it was a treat. Luckily, the firework went off before the dog could get it.
I feel like my eyes should be burning Branty. My stare feels concentrated like sunlight through a magnifying glass.
“Stand up and turn around you two. You’re not supposed to be back here, you know.” I turn and realize it’s not a cop. It’s Tom Hartmann in his dirty Carhartt gear, close enough to smell him. Surprisingly, he smells earthy and not gross as I would’ve imagined.
“What the hell do you want?” Branty says.
I keep the pole behind me, trying to hide it.
“You show me some respect when you talk to me, you little shit.” He raises his arm like he is going to cuff Branty. Branty’s eyes grow wide. He flinches and cowers away from Tom Hartmann. Then, as if surprised by his own reaction, Branty puffs up his chest and holds his ground.
“It’s not even all the way dark yet. We’re not doing anything wrong,”
“Not doing anything wrong? What’s this you got here?” Tom Hartmann reaches behind me and grabs the pole away. He gives the line a tug. The bunny does a little flip in the air. He shades his eyes, trying to get a look at what’s at the end of the line. He tugs again, a little harder. The bunny jumps a little higher this time. Then he jerks the pole like he is setting the line on a trophy bass. The bunny comes flying at us and almost hits Tom Hartmann before slamming into the wall of the schoolhouse with a weak thud.
“You two kill this rabbit?”
I say nothing. I’m ready to run to my bike but I don’t think I can get around him. Branty looks at his shoes and kicks at weeds growing through the cracks in the concrete.
Tom Hartmann throws the pole to the ground. “You know it’s a crime to kill animals in the forest preserve? I know the kinds of kids that kill little animals. Sick kids. Rotten kids. You two are rotten. I never killed anything in my whole life. You two little shits are going to pay for this, one way or the other.”
Our bikes are leaned against the front of the schoolhouse on the other side of the short brick wall. I think I could jump the wall and get to mine before he cuts me off. If I can get over that wall cleanly, he will never catch up. Without even looking at me, Branty makes a mad dash for the path. Tom Hartmann grabs Branty’s arm and twists it behind his shoulder blades. Branty sucks in his breath.
“Alright shitface, you wanna make this tough?” Tom Hartmann spits the words into Branty’s ear and Branty winces. He loosens his grip a little. Then he lets up and crouches right in front of us. “Listen,” he says, “I know where you twinks live. I can have this matter turned over to the authorities in about two shakes.” He pauses and looks out towards the woods as if entranced by the sound of the river. Looking at the woods seems to calm him. He smiles slightly and says, “Or, you can just help me out a minute. I’ve been working on a project out by the river and I could use a couple sets of arms to help me out with a certain aspect I’ve found myself caught up on. Or we can head over to the cop shop?”
Branty and I look at each other. There’s a trail down his face from a tear that must have come when Tom Hartmann had his arm. Branty looks pissed. I shrug. Tom Hartmann always seemed harmless to me. I’ve never seen the cops bugging him and he is always around town, standing in front of the liquor store or the Starbucks. I’ve heard my parents talk about him when we pass him in the car. He was a few years behind them in high school. I don’t know this man, but I certainly don’t want any police trouble. Plus, being with Branty always makes me feel like there is no jam that can’t be gotten out of with a little effort and luck. Branty sucks up his chest and says, “Alright, we’ll help you.”
We walk into the woods, dark under the trees. Tom Hartmann keeps poking both of us in the back with his index finger. Hard. He’s humming some song I don’t recognize and jabbing me to the beat. Branty jerks in time with each poke. He seems to hit the perfect place to cause the most pain with each jab. Between the pain, the dark, and the twinging in my back, I can hardly walk straight.
The river is rushing. There has been a lot of rain this spring and it is rising up its high banks. In town, a few families moved into hotels because of flooding. Out here, the banks are higher and the river seems treacherous. It looks like whitewater rapids somewhere out west. But it’s just all the rain. It isn’t usually a very big river.
I think of what my mom always used to tell me when I would be out shopping with her when I was little. I liked to play in the round racks of women’s dresses and shirts. I would hide from her in there. I would pop out and scare her and she would get upset. She would tell me about the Walsh boy. Some kid who got kidnapped at a mall when he wandered away from his mom for a minute. They couldn’t find him forever. Then they found his head. Not his body. They never found that. His dad made America’s Most Wanted to help catch people who commit crimes. I started to get worried that I would pop out of the racks and my mom wouldn’t be there. Just some creep grabbing me and dragging me out of the store with his hand over my mouth. I stopped going into the racks. I was too old for it anyway.
On the bank of a rushing river a homeless guy holds me captive and it feels like I have dozens of centipedes crawling beneath my clothes and there is nothing I can do about it. He doesn’t even look that homeless. He’s not dirty enough. He just looks like some adult that probably has a crappy job and drinks a lot.
“What do you want us to do for you, man,” Branty asks.
“Well, that depends. I could use a million dollars, but you shits don’t look like you got a million dollars. I could use twenty bucks, but I’m doubting I’m getting that either. You got any booze?”
Tom Hartmann picks at his dirty fingernails. It seems like he doesn’t even know why he brought us out here anymore. He has his back to the river, almost as if protecting us from it. I look over the edge of the bank. It’s twice as high as usual. Still, it’s about five feet lower than the top bank. Normally there is a second bank you can climb down to. That bank is under water now. Tom Hartmann paces in front of us scratching his scruffy neck.
“I got an idea,” Branty says, “Why don’t you just let us go?”
He grabs Branty’s arm again, not giving it the full twist he did earlier but letting Branty know he could if he wanted to. “I’m not letting you go. What you did was wrong. Plain wrong. And you got to pay for it.” He pushes Branty aside. The sun is going to go down soon. The sky glows pink where the river cuts through the trees.
“I’ll tell you what,” Branty says, looking straight at Tom Hartmann. “I’ll give you a blowjob.”
Tom Hartmann takes a step back like he’s dodging a punch. “What’d you say kid?”
“I said I’ll give you a blowjob. I know how to do it. I’m good at it.” Branty licks his lips. Tom Hartmann won’t meet Branty’s eyes and Branty won’t look away.
Tom Hartmann puts his shoulders back and strokes his chin nervously. Then his face changes and he grins. “You really are a fucked up kid, aren’t you?”
“Come over here,” Branty says still staring him in the face. I back away, resisting some instinct begging me to find refuge in the woods, to escape. I want to run as fast as I can back to my bike but I can’t look away. I bump up against a big willow. There are carp bones on the ground. People catch carp and leave them whole in the trees for the raccoons. That’s how great people think carp are; worse than raccoons.
Up in the willow is the beginning of some kind of tree house. Two by fours web through the branches and there is a large tarp covering part of the structure. Planks lay across some of the boards. A school desk sits in the middle. It looks like the perfect place for a kid to have fun before breaking his neck.
“You like my fort, kid?” Tom Hartmann asks me. “That’s what I wanted to have you two help me with. I can’t seem to get the tarp on straight over the whole thing.”
I shrug. Tom Hartmann looks happier now, perhaps proud of his construction work. I wonder if this is his new home, perhaps even his dream home to escape the town that has shunned him to the woods. Maybe Tom Hartmann never grew up while the rest of the town did around him.
Suddenly Branty charges him like a defensive lineman, lowering his shoulder and driving into Tom Hartmann’s waist. Tom Hartmann is caught completely off balance. His arms pinwheel and he loses his footing. I run towards the bank but Tom Hartmann topples over the edge backwards before I am even halfway there. There’s a big splash, then yelling. “I’m gonna get you shits! I know where you live!” Then silence for a second. “Get back here and grab a branch and get me the fuck out of here!” He already sounds further away.
Tom Hartmann flails in the current, unable to swim to the edge, being carried downriver.
Branty grabs my arm and spits out, “Move, you idiot!”
“You want to just leave him?”
“Do you suggest we jump in after him, retard?” Branty pulls me away from the river’s edge, Tom Hartmann’s cries growing quieter.
We run through the woods towards what light is left in the clearing. I know there is no way Tom Hartmann is getting out of the river and coming after us. The banks don’t get any lower until the river snakes by the old grain factory. I consider the possibility that he could drown, but I’m more worried that he really knows where we live. I think he can’t know where we live. But it’s not that big of a town.
We run through the clearing and cut across to our bikes. We’re picking them up and Branty says, “Wait! The Shitmano!”
I look down the sidewalk and the baby bunny is there. But something else is beside it now. Something bigger. I think it must be one of the foxes Branty wanted to catch. I look closer. It’s no fox. A big adult bunny walks in tight circles around the baby bunny, sniffing and nudging it. Its ears twitch but it doesn’t run off when it hears us. It looks at me.
“Get the Shitmano, dude!” Branty yells at me. “Get the Shitmano, pussy!”
I’m not sure how to move right now. I’m staring at the bunny and feel stuck.
“Fine, I’ll grab it, you retard.”
That unsticks me. I grab Branty by the shirt and then by the neck. I put him up against the wall of the schoolhouse. My whole body feels like it’s on fire. I want to grind him into the crumbly mortar between the bricks. I feel like I could push him through the wall, like I am restraining myself from killing him.
“Leave it,” I say through my teeth.
“Dude, you’re gonna get in trouble!” I can feel him choking the words out from behind my grip. He looks seriously worried about me getting in trouble for losing some crappy fishing pole no one ever uses; a pole no one will ever miss.
I tighten up on his throat. “Leave it,” I spit the words at him. His face is getting really red. If he even tries to touch that pole I will kill him.
“Fine, you fuckin’ psycho, but let’s get out of here!”
I let him go. He runs to his bike. He looks back at me, one foot already on a pedal. “Aren’t you coming?” he says.
The bunny is still there, sniffing around the baby. I walk towards it and it hops off into the woods. I hear Branty ride away.
The sun isn’t all the way down but near the forest it may as well be nightfall. I reach down and pick up the dead baby. It is surprisingly soft, not as disgusting as I thought it would be. I try to remove the fishing line, but it is too tight so I bite through the line, leaving a couple feet of it dangling from the bunny’s neck.
The woods are starting to come alive, sticks breaking, things moving around. The air, cooler and wetter now, feels like it is becoming part of the water. I imagine myself stuck in the writhing current, being pulled away.
I carry the bunny over to the edge of the clearing and leave it there.