Prologue

Three months earlier…


It was the first day of vacation and Curtis was in a great mood. Despite a late start, they’d made better than average time and now they were off the interstate and onto the two-lane road that snaked through the forested hills and tiny towns that dotted the way to Uncle Joe and Aunt Emma’s house.

“Almost there,” his mother announced. “There’s the general store.”

Curtis took off his headphones and craned to see. They always stopped at Stevenson’s Store, where Mrs. Stevenson treated them like family. Curtis loved the feel of the place – its country cabin vibe, its wooden counters covered with jars of everything from pigs' feet to candy sticks, its glass cases showing off the newest fishing lures and camping knives. In the back of the store was a pot-bellied stove surrounded by rocking chairs and nearby was a barrel with a checkerboard on top, bottle caps serving as checkers.

“I hope they still have that fortune-telling machine,” Curtis said. “That thing is creepy cool.” Behind him he heard Tanya stirring. He glanced back; she was rubbing her eyes, strapped into her car seat with Mr. Stuffed Monkey.

They pulled into the gravel lot and Curtis jumped out before his mother even turned the engine off. While she went to unhook Tanya, Curtis bounded up the front steps, threw open the wooden screen door, and ran to the counter where Mrs. Stevenson sat behind an ancient black cash register.

“Well, what do we have here?” she beamed, bustling around the counter to hug him. “Every time I see you, Curtis, I swear you’ve grown another six inches. It’s so wonderful to lay eyes on you again.” She messed up his hair. “And what’s with this? You turning into a hippie? You better prepare yourself for one of my special summer haircuts.” She laughed as Curtis tried to push her hand away. “Your mom and sister with you?”

“Yep, they’re getting out of the car. Mrs. Stevenson, you have change for a dollar? I need to get my fortune.”

“Sure do, Curtis. For such a handsome young man, I always have change. And I'm sure you'll get a wonderful prediction.”

“Always do,” Curtis responded.

She tousled his hair again, went behind the counter, and pushed down a key on the register. Kerchook! The drawer opened with a ding as a little red ‘No Sale’ sign popped up in the display at the top. “Here you go.” Curtis took the coins and headed for the corner at the far end of the windows.

He truly loved this place.

The machine was standing proudly as ever, a thin wooden box about chest high with a lit picture on top of a “Psychic Fortune Teller,” an old woman wearing a turban and a shawl. (Mrs. Stevenson said the contraption was over 60 years old.) Curtis put his quarter into the slot, heard some whirring noises from inside and counted the woman's eyes blink fiery red six times. It was always six, never more, never less. Then a card came out of an opening across from the coin slot, with its writing face down. Curtis quickly flipped the card over and read

I see a star full of light;
I see a future burning bright.

Curtis smiled and ran back to show Mrs. Stevenson, who was now oohing and aahing over Tanya. “She’s such a cutie,” she was gushing, “and this Curtis, take a gander at him. He’s practically a teenager already.”

“Not quite,” Ms. Kanen corrected, “but he did just become a new graduate.”

“Graduate?”

“Tell her, Curtis.”

“I’m through with elementary school. Next year I start middle school. Sixth grade.”

“Well, well, I’m impressed. Up in these parts, I don’t even know if we have middle schools yet. You must be plenty excited.”

“Yes, Ma’am. And look at the fortune I got today.” He handed her the card and she traded it back and forth with his mother.

“Sounds mighty good to me,” Mrs. Stevenson remarked. “Hey, when you make it big in Hollywood, don’t forget us little country folk, you hear?”

Curtis promised.

Now he was back in the car, munching on one of those candy sticks from on top of the store counter.

“Yes, I can feel it. There’s a fine summer ahead,” Ms. Kanen declared. “A month here with Joe and Emma, then two weeks of camp. I wonder if that bike’s working okay.” A picture of the old red racer stored in his uncle’s tool shed blazed up in Curtis’s mind. He’d find out as soon as they got there.

“Good as new,” he said with satisfaction as he wiped it down with a soft cloth. It hadn’t taken him long to make a beeline to the shed after their arrival, just long enough to hug his aunt and uncle and be told over and over how wonderful he looked and how much he’d grown. Things were already quieting down at the house. His mother was tired from the trip and was going to “hit the sack” as soon as everyone had caught up on the news. Tanya was already a goner, fast asleep on the sofa, Mr. Monkey cuddled up next to her.

Out here is where Curtis needed to be. Rod and Charlie were probably home, Aunt Emma assured him, and would be “in seventh heaven” to learn that Curtis was back in town. In just a short while he’d be paying them a surprise visit on the bike and they’d go traipsing to their secret cave in the woods or explore around the creek. Rod and Charlie were something else. They had mountain accents, which took a day or two to adjust to, but after that, they were the best friends anyone could hope for, though Charlie had an irritating habit of calling Curtis “city boy.” Together the three of them had been all over the area, on bike and on foot, and they knew the choicest places to fish or trap squirrels or target shoot with their air rifles. A day in the hills with Rod and Charlie? Well, it didn’t get any better than that.

“Yeah, fun times ahead,” Curtis daydreamed as he ran the cloth over the wheel’s spokes. The bike was way old, not a fancy twelve-speed like he had back home, but a one-speed, of all things, where you slammed down on the back pedal to stop. Even so, it absolutely flew on those mountain roads. It had been kept up and repainted by his uncle, who was a regular handyman and quite a carpenter, as the workshop around him readily demonstrated.

There was a warm smell and feel to this place, like Stevenson’s Store, of wood chips and old traditions. Shafts of afternoon mountain light poured through the southwest windows, bathing the room in a soft brown glow. All kinds of tools, from sanders to soldering guns, lined the shelves and the table saws were coated with a fine layer of sweet powder from Uncle Joe’s last project. Even the chemical vapors from the various cans and jars of lacquers, solvents, and oils added to the mix, like cinnamon on a pie.

Curtis stroked the bike and cottony bursts of fluff flew off, joining the woody dust mites floating in the light. In his mind they became hundreds of miniature parachutists, part of the giant Allied invasion. Dreamily watching the tiny soldiers, he urged them on to their designated landing fields. They were blanketing enemy territory in preparation for the imminent U.S. tank assault, but the winds were treacherous and many of the men were flying off course into who knows what – enemy fire, power lines, or quicksand swamps where they’d be sucked down by their own weight and tangled cords.

The men needed air cover; they were sitting ducks in their exposed positions. What kind of leader did these men have anyway? Probably some rookie, not a veteran like Commander Curtis, who could size up a situation in a heartbeat and take charge. There was no time to consult his fellow officers Rod and Charlie. He’d have to act and act fast.

Curtis scurried to the top right drawer in the old oak table and fished out his uncle’s large box of kitchen matches. This wasn't just a box of matches. It was his launching pad, his missiles, everything he'd need for his daring assault. Even the box’s design was perfect: red and blue stripes with white lettering and stars that looked exactly like the stars on the U.S. army uniform. “Strike Anywhere,” the box read. Well, he’d be striking, all right, right at the heart of the enemy who’d be blown to smithereens. On the side of the box, along the flinty brown striking surface, were the warnings “Handle with Care” and “Keep Away from Children.” Exactly. Commander Curtis was no child. He knew the procedure. And there was no time to lose.

Curtis set up several strategic targets to gauge the success of his mission. He fetched a couple of damp oily rags from a bucket and made a hill of them. Hill 284. Once ignited, it would create a diversion for the enemy, giving his men adequate time to land. He also confiscated the giant aluminum pot his uncle kept for washing things, lugged it to the sink, and filled it part way with water. He knew he had to keep any fire that hit Hill 284 under control. No use taking a game too far.

What else to aim for? Commander Curtis spied a wide-mouthed pickle jar with the tiniest amount of clear liquid in the bottom. A perfect place to locate enemy headquarters, the brains of their whole evil operation. The second he hit this target with a smart bomb, the enemy would dissolve into chaos. No question about it, they were doomed.

Curtis carefully poured out the liquid onto another rag and added it to Hill 284. He set the pickle jar headquarters a foot away. That was enough targets, but didn’t there need to be trees on the hill? He found splinters of wood near the workbench and spaced them through the rags.

There. The battlefield was set. Curtis backed up to assess the situation, making sure the pot of water was near. Once in his kitchen he’d been playing “basketball,” launching lit matches into the sink, and he thought he’d done great. Lots of three pointers in fact. But his mother had found two burn marks on the counter top that night and he’d lied for over five minutes, denying any responsibility whatsoever. He wasn’t sure if his mom had believed him, but he wasn’t going to risk her going ballistic on him, especially the first night of vacation. He wasn’t that dumb!

Curtis sized up the light from the windows. It was lower and darker, but the parachutists were in as much danger as ever. It was now or never.

The commander withdrew one flamethrower from the ammunition box and carefully shut the rest inside. He assumed the position, the launching pad resting on his right knee, just below eye level, the missile gently angled forward under his left index finger, its red detonation bulb tight against the runway. Curtis ratcheted the launcher up for a better angle, aiming high above Hill 284. In a couple of minutes, all by himself, he could turn the tide of the war. The future of the United States was in his hands.

Projectile in position?

Check.

Target in sight?

Check.

Fire!

Curtis flicked his right middle finger and made contact with the flamethrower just above the red bulb at its base. It scraped along the coarse brown surface and snapped as it left the pad flying to its target, spitting sparks in a deadly dive. The finest hint of sulfur and smoke drifted over the battlefield as Hill 284 took a direct hit.

Amazing! On his first shot!

The enemy was already in chaos. Mayday! Mayday! They're attacking from the north. We've been hit! he heard them yelling.

Oh no, put it out, put it out! he heard next.

The shell had just ignited the edge of the rag, which kicked off a nice hissing effect. Curtis watched as the tiny fire slowly crept up the incline, pushing a teensy wave of sizzling liquid ahead of it.

What a break! He couldn't give the enemy time to regroup. Commander Curtis hastily loaded the launcher again and let fly.

This time... nothing.

The rocket didn’t ignite and fell harmlessly to the side. What was a leader to do?

It was an easy decision. Keep the enemy on the run. Keep shelling them! American lives hung in the balance .

Seconds later, the next payload was on its pad.

Fire!

Incredible! The shot was perfect, a thing of pure beauty. With a high arc, the orange flare split the war-torn sky like a gently falling star. It was headed right for the wide-mouthed bottle. Below, Hill 284 was being decimated. Curtis marveled at the accuracy and the wonder of his armaments and had the most fleeting thought of popcorn.

To watch the show with.

Popcorn.

V-O-O-O-O-S-H!!! The jar exploded into dust, and with it, the world.

The white blast enveloped Curtis, devouring him in pure, searing energy. Hot needles pierced his body and face and he went blind as he was blown backwards. He was somehow aware of electricity, light yellow dots slamming into him like Uncle Joe’s soldering iron, turning creamy liquid and soaking him in a rush of tweezers tearing at every pore in his skin. His body shrieked.

Time stretched thin and strong as spider silk, dragging him through black tunnels of razor wire slitting his every nerve. No thoughts. Just pictures and pain, pain, pain without understanding... everywhere the feel of ground glass... power saws ripping through lips... electric piranhas... sparks of light piercing his eyes... there was something ahead of him... the house... the house was in front of him... now the ground... now the sky... his skin being ground between Indian arrowheads... the ground melting into his face... his nostrils filling with burnt meat... infinitely tiny bullets shooting into him everywhere... his hair... his hair?... HE WAS ON FIRE!... his hands were slapping him on the head... FIRE!... he was rolling and rolling, mashing soft skin into the ground... tearing at his clothes... hugging the fire... losing the fire... feelings going away... hands continuing to hit him... now... screams... his mother... the shed... where was his body?... he couldn’t feel anything... pieces gone, holes in the pain... they were screaming... covering him up... screaming... his mother...

“It’s my fault, Mommy! I did it! I did it!... It’s all my fault, Mommy... Mommy... please...

“Mommy...

Chapter 1
   

 


   

 


 


   
Chapter 1

Bobby Watkins didn’t start middle school with the intention of setting the place on fire. No way. He showed up the first day with a positive attitude. Kind of nervous, sure, but hopeful too. His clothes were ironed, his hair was combed, his zipper was up – he’d made completely sure of that last one (ever since that horrible incident in the third grade). He had a new book bag with new notebooks inside. Heck, he’d even sharpened his pencils. Bobby never would’ve admitted it – he wasn’t any dork – but he was almost looking forward to the first day. School had always been kind of a drag before, but this was a chance for a fresh beginning. Not many people knew him here at McCall Middle School. Maybe he’d find some new friends, do better in class, and overcome his shyness. He hated being shy. Maybe he’d have his growth spurt, show he could be good in sports. Finally. Like his dad was.

Daydreaming about middle school was fun. In your dreams anything was possible. Bobby pictured himself scoring the winning basket and walking down the hall with Heidi Newsome. He’d had a secret crush on Heidi since the fourth grade. He’d always been too nervous to say more than a few words to her, but then again, she’d never been mean and a few times she’d actually smiled at him. Hey, you never know.

As luck would have it, opportunity smiled on Bobby halfway through his very first day. School had been pretty cool so far. Mostly meeting the new teachers and a tour around the building. Not even any work and now he was on his way to the cafeteria where they didn’t have assigned seats and he could buy way better food than he ever got in elementary school. (“You can order pizza every day if you want,” his homeroom teacher Ms. Porter had informed the class.)

As he made his way up the hall, what do you know, there was Heidi, barely ten feet ahead. And she was alone. Excellent! It was exactly as he had pictured it. In his fantasy, he’d go up to her and give her a big hi – he didn’t know if it would be “Hi, Heidi” or “Hey, Heidi” – he hadn’t totally worked that out yet ’cause neither one sounded right – but then he’d say, “Hey, I have a question for you.”

And Heidi would answer, “What is it?”

And he’d be like, “Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?” she’d reply.

“Madame.”

“Madame who?”

“My damn name’s Bobby and don’t you forget it.” Ooh, that was an awesome joke! It was clever and kind of dirty, but not too dirty in case she was sensitive to that kind of thing. It got his name in there and it showed how he was cool and confident and she’d be seeing more of him.

Now if he could just drum up some nerve. Bobby’s heart began to race. If he was going to do it, he’d better do it fast. Chances like this don’t come along every day. If he did it right, in five minutes he’d be soaring like an eagle. Then again, what if his plan flopped? Fizzled? Flunked? Heidi might never talk to him again. But she never had anyway so what did he have to lose?

Thoughts were jumping around in Bobby’s head like a herd of kangaroos. It was driving him bonkers. Then all of a sudden, he had the strangest feeling. He felt calm and everything became clear. Crystal clear. I’ll do it, he decided. This was it. The turning point. Just like in the movies. It would be the first time he’d ever stepped up to the plate for real. Hit this one out of the park and the next step would be him and Heidi hanging out together at lunch. After that... oh, boy, everybody would know that Heidi was his girlfriend!

“Hey, Heidi,” he called. She turned and eyed him curiously as he ran up. “Uh, hi,” he stammered, catching his breath. Keep talking, Bobby. Don’t choke.

Heidi looked surprised. Or was it annoyed? It didn’t matter. He was going through with it.

“Hey,” she said.

All right! She hadn’t told him to get lost. And she hadn’t tried to escape either. Come on, come on.

“Uh, Heidi, I have a question for you.”

“Well, hmm, okay, what is it?” she said suspiciously.

Uh-oh. Was she getting wise to him? Better hurry. Before his nerves started chewing him up.

Bobby plowed on. “Knock, knock.”

She hesitated, then took the bait.

“Who’s there?”

Yes!

Bobby cocked his head to the side. “Madame.” He was beginning to smile. Just a couple more seconds.

“Madame who?”

“My – ” Suddenly he felt a jolt from behind – maybe someone had bumped into him? – then a strange feeling around his hips. The next thing he knew, he felt cold air on his legs. He peeked down and – Omigosh! – his pants were down around his knees. He heard Heidi laughing, then an eruption of hoots and hollers from nearby students. “Ooh, pantsed, he’s been pantsed.”

Panic! What now? Cover up, that’s what. Bobby collapsed to the floor and compressed into a tight ball, wrapping himself in his arms. But that made it impossible to pull his pants back up and a crowd quickly gathered around him, everyone busting a gut and pointing.

It was obvious he’d done the wrong thing, but he couldn’t make himself stand up. He hugged himself tighter and squeezed his eyes shut.

Make it all disappear. Please!

No chance. It only grew louder and crazier. People were dancing around him, buzzed with excitement, offering advice.

“Show us more, brother,” he heard.

“Take it off, take it all off!”

“Strip show, strip show! What do we owe? What do we owe?"

Then came the command, “Okay, everyone, back off, you hear. Back off!”

The racket quieted some and Bobby recognized the voice of Mr. Hamilton, his Math teacher. “Time for lunch, everybody. Make like trees and leave or I’ll have to write some people up.” Bobby felt the teacher clench his arm and whisper gruffly in his ear, “Stand up and pull ’em up.” Bobby dragged himself erect, yanking on his pants as Mr. Hamilton shooed students away.

In under a minute it was over. He brushed himself off, trying to avoid anyone’s stare. Mr. Hamilton took him aside and clued him in, “Forget about it, okay. It’s not the end of the world. You’re not the first.” Bobby peered up cautiously. The teacher continued. “Guess that shows the advantage of wearing your belt tighter, ay?” Bobby wasn’t sure, but Mr. Hamilton didn’t seem particularly upset. Actually he suspected the teacher was laughing inside.

Well, maybe he was or maybe he wasn’t, but it became quickly evident to Bobby that Mr. Hamilton didn’t care that much about him. He was all business all the time. In fact, the next day he became impatient while explaining fractions. It wasn’t a difficult problem, but Bobby kept getting confused. Mr. Hamilton kind of lost it. “Mr. Watkins,” he finally said, “it’s easy to deduce why you’re not up to snuff here. You don’t know your times tables. You were assigned those in the fourth grade, I believe, maybe even the third. How’d you ever expect to do sixth grade work?”

Bobby was sure he heard a few snickers. He wanted to disappear. Things like that stick with you.

Other classes weren’t much better. Bobby wasn’t a great student – he knew that – but in elementary school he’d made it okay. Sure, he’d gotten a few lousy grades, but he’d never been held back. Teachers usually wouldn’t hassle you too much, especially if they thought you were “doing your best,” but here, effort didn’t seem to cut it. He was barely making it through Science, English was boring, and Spanish... well, Spanish was fun at the beginning because they’d sing songs like La Bamba and he’d fake the words and drum the rhythm on his desk, but then it became just like the other subjects, except he had to do it in Spanish, which was impossible.

And there was so much homework. They were drowning him in the stuff and he didn’t know how to swim.

Talking to his parents about it didn’t help much. His mother listened, and offered to work with him on his times tables. She also agreed to double-check his homework. After he finished it! “You know I never had Spanish, Bobby, and I’m not much for math. The way they teach it now, that pre-Algebra and so forth, it’s beyond me. I can review your essays, say for spelling and grammar mistakes, but you can’t expect me to read your stories or your books for you.” As for his father, the message was, “You’re after some sympathy? Stop whining! What that man told you, that math teacher, I endorse a hundred per cent. You’re not in kindergarten anymore, kid. It’s time to suck it up and learn those things. Haven’t we been telling you that all along?”

Even the supposedly fun times at school weren’t any fun. Take lunch, for instance. Sure, you could sit wherever you wanted, which sounded nice, but Bobby’s shyness kept him from making friends and he often ended up sitting by people he didn’t even know. Even if he did know them, he mostly just listened.

Then there was P.E. Bobby wasn’t exactly spectacular in P.E. One day they were learning how to play volleyball. Bobby did okay when he was near the net, but having to serve from the back line was a killer. Every swipe at the ball delivered a sharp pain to his hand or arm and inevitably the thing would go too low or off to the side. So Mr. Barnett, the teacher, sidled over and gave him some tips. Then he made him practice it over and over in front of everybody. Bobby never could master it and Mr. Barnett finally gave up. “Maybe in your next lifetime,” Bobby heard him mutter as he rubbed his sore wrist, now bright red from getting smacked so much.

The next Monday, during free play, Bobby dropped a sure touchdown pass. He’d slipped down the side and gotten himself totally open, so open it felt like slow motion while he waited for the ball to float to him. And he had it, he really did. Then somehow he was bobbling it and two seconds later he watched it slip through his arms to the ground.

“Way to go, retard!” one teammate yelled. “You cost us six points.”

“Hey, Booby, or whatever your name is, catch the dumb thing,” another taunted.

Others had choicer things to say.

Even though he got open a few times after that, they didn’t throw him the ball again. One little mistake, Bobby fumed, and they make you pay forever.

On Tuesday, Bobby asked Mr. Barnett for a hall pass for the bathroom midway through class. He never came back. He hid out in the bathroom and waited for the bell.

The third time he tried this, they nailed him. Mr. Barnett barged in and found him standing there, and Bobby had no explanation for why he needed thirty minutes to “do his business.” That’s when he met Ms. Oakley, the assistant principal.

“Okay, mister,” she began, “this I gotta hear. I haven’t heard even one half-clever excuse today. Humor me, okay?”

Bobby stared at the floor and remained silent, but Ms. Oakley would have none of it. “Eyes on me, mister,” she coaxed, nudging his chin up with her forefinger. “Give me the courtesy of your attention.”

There was no escape. Bobby was facing a woman who was more than a match for any student. Heck, the whole football team probably couldn’t bring her down! She had short, stringy hair, a big nose and a strong jaw. Pock marks dotted her face. “Now I’m no psychologist,” she said, “but it doesn’t take a genius to see that something’s rotten in Denmark here. You’re not a dangerous sort. You even seem like a sweet kid. Tell you what. Let’s cut to the chase. What’s the deal?”

Bobby fidgeted in his chair.

“I’m waiting, mister.”

“Some boys… they were calling me names,” he ventured.

“They were? Well, that’s not neighborly, is it? Can you spit out their names? They find themselves in here having a pow-wow with an old battle axe like me, they might change their tune.”

But snitching wasn’t worth it, Bobby decided. Too scary. “I don’t know their names, but they were calling me things.”

“And what, pray tell, were they calling you?”

“Is it okay for me to say dirty words?”

“They were that rude?”

Bobby nodded.

Ms. Oakley paged Mr. Barnett. “Joe, can you kindly grace us with your presence ASAP?” she blared into the intercom. “We have a situation here.” He arrived shortly and Ms. Oakley told him what Bobby had reported. Mr. Barnett claimed he hadn’t been aware of any issues, no one had bellyached to him, but that he’d keep tabs on it in the future. For his part, Bobby had to admit skipping class was wrong, and if he did it again, the consequences would be no laughing matter.

“And don’t give up, kid,” Mr. Barnett advised. The teacher was looking at him like he didn’t even know who he was. He probably didn’t even remember the way he’d put Bobby down in volleyball. “Giving up won’t solve anything. Winners never quit and quitters never win.”

“That’s right, Bobby. Just because people are mean to you, that’s no excuse to cut class,” Ms. Oakley added. “That’s a reason to work things out, not run away.”

Their lectures didn’t help. The next day Mr. Barnett conducted a “special team meeting” to discuss Bobby’s “alleged allegations” – that’s what he called them – and threatened, “Now if I hear any more about this, you know what I’m going to do? Give out some In-School Suspension slips, that’s what. And that means phoning your parents.” So people stopped with the insults, at least to his face, but they still wouldn’t throw Bobby the ball. Most gave him the silent treatment.

Later that day he was getting some books between classes and… KA-BOOMPH! Someone rammed him from behind and crammed him halfway into his locker. They kept shoving and the door bit into Bobby’s back. His face was mashed up against the gray metal, he was in pain, and he could hear people cracking up. “That’s for ratting on people, you freak,” someone just behind him snarled. After a minute he heard a teacher yelling, “Hey, what’s going on here?”

Everyone beat it and the teacher helped pry him out. She seemed sympathetic and Bobby struggled to hide his tears. But he didn’t know who had pushed him so the teacher said she was sorry, try to get over it, and move on to his next class. If he needed a note, she’d write one.

Thanks a lot! The teachers were useless and if he made a fuss at home, he knew what the story would be there. His father would dish out the same advice as always – to fight back. “Once they know they can’t push you around, they won’t,” he’d preach. “Bullies are easy to deal with, boy. Most of them are cowards. Just show ’em who’s boss.” Bobby had heard it too many times to count. Easy for his father to say. He was huge. But what was he supposed to do – fight everybody?

Here he was minding his own business and he couldn’t catch a break. It was like he was trapped inside a snowball full of problems. He was going downhill fast, turning over and over, and the snowball just kept growing.

“Prisoners have it better than this,” Bobby complained bitterly to Ryan. They were sitting under a tree in Ryan’s back yard after school. “All I ever do now is work. I hate it.”

Ryan was pretty much Bobby’s only friend at McCall, but they were on different teams so they didn’t have classes together. They lived in the same neighborhood and Bobby had been following Ryan around for years. Ryan was more than a friend. He was more like a guide and a teacher. He was smart, especially about history, and he was an expert on all this violent and cruel stuff people used to do to each other: bloody battles between the Greeks and the Trojans, medieval tortures in China and India, and how people burned women at the stake if they suspected them of being witches. Ryan was definitely different and his stories were creepy, but super entertaining too. Like Bobby, he was kind of a loner, but it didn’t seem to bother him. He was fine on his own. He had more confidence than Bobby and didn’t worry very much. And he was more creative at finding fun things to do. Yeah, he could be mean at times, but more important, he never told Bobby to take a hike. They spent loads of time together and it was way easier talking to him than to his own parents.

“Yep, they got you coming and going,” Ryan griped, “and they think they’re untouchable ’cause they have all the power. Look how they treat us. They ring a bell, we run over here; they ring another bell, we run over there. We’re like lab rats. And the more work you do, the more they give you.” Ryan wasn’t overly fond of being ordered around. He already had a reputation with the teachers at McCall. According to him, in the first month he’d been sent to the office twice and one of those times they’d put him in In-School-Suspension.

It was nice, for once, to have someone on your side. “I hate this school,” Bobby went on. “I wish someone would march right in and burn it down. Then we wouldn’t have to go back till they built a new one.” He looked to Ryan, seeking approval.

“Yeah,” his friend agreed, “that’s just what needs to happen. Trouble is the place is too spread out and most of it wouldn’t burn so great. But I’d kill to see all those teachers running around screaming about their poor school. That old biddy Oakley, she probably lives there, she loves it so much, most likely in that lost-and-found room in the gym where it smells so putrid.”

“Right, and when she needs some deodorant, she just picks up one of those grody t-shirts,” Bobby crowed, raising his right arm and rubbing his hand underneath, “and wipes her pits with it.”

Ryan howled.

This was great! Ryan was loving this as much as he was. “And what about when they ran outside from the fire,” Bobby pressed on. “Ooh, they’d be so scared! I can see Old Hamilton falling down, he’d be so freaked, and he’d bust those dopey glasses.”

He waited for Ryan’s next comment. But Ryan had gotten this thoughtful, faraway look. “You know, Bobbo,” he said, “we can make some crazy stuff happen if we do it right. Tear ‘em up, shut ‘em down. Make ’em pay for the way they treat us, you know.”

“Yeah? How?”

“Well, I can picture a few places that might light up real nice. We’d have to time it just so, but maybe we could score a vacation out of it.”

A fire? A real fire? No, he wasn’t serious. Wouldn’t people get hurt? Couldn’t they go to jail?

“Naw,” Ryan explained, “you worry too much. As usual. We’d do it smart, you hear? Besides, there are fire alarms all over the place so there’d be time to clear out. We just need to put the fear of God in them, you know. A bit here, a bit there, where they’d never see us, but enough to bring the fire trucks.”

Was he for real? Here he was talking about committing a real crime. But the more Ryan explained it, somehow the more sense it made. He kept bringing up revolutions, where people who were shafted by the government had risen up and thrown the bums out. “Hey, look at the American Revolution,” he argued. “They set fires against the British all the time. Burned down rich guys’ houses like it was nothing.”

Ryan could talk a lamb into lying down with a wolf. And Bobby was too weak to resist. Once Ryan had an idea, not going along might lose him the only real friend he had.

A couple more minutes, a few more details, and Bobby was on board.

“We could do it, Bobbo,” Ryan insisted. “Just you and me. Knock ’em flat on their butts. They been kickin’ us to the floor, this is how we settle the score.”

Bobby felt a surge of adrenaline rush through him like runners feel just before the gun goes off. For the first time all year, he felt a sense of power. No more being pushed around. No more being everybody’s punching bag. And Ryan would be there to back him up.

Bobby clenched his fists and closed his eyes, barely able to contain his excitement and terror.



Here ends our free sample of Firebug.
It's on sale:
at Amazon,
at Barnes & Noble,
and at the Apple iBookstore.

The price?    $3.99

And thanks once more for spending your time at Freaky Dude Books.