One holding a shotgun. The older boy, Hudson, held the gun across his waist, as they sat on tree stumps, debating who would shoot first.
Hudson would have started sixth grade. His accomplice, Curt, held back to try fifth grade again. He was more wild than child and couldn’t read. The third boy, River, would never attend school again.
The boys formed an irregular triangle with Hudson holding the longest side. His intense demand for loyalty, paired the other two against each other, each one fighting for a straight line to Hudson’s favor.
All three lived in poverty, but River’s home was a little cleaner, the water from the tap ran without rust and there were crimson curtains that covered the windows. His father lived at home and mowed the grass. Hudson and Curt both envied and mocked River’s normal life.
Curt supplied the shells, bullets made by his Uncle’s hand, lying around his garage, easily swiped while taking out the trash. The shotgun his mother’s trophy from the divorce.
Hudson and Curt playing Call of Duty one night had pointed out how fake it had become. “Don’t you wonder what it really looks like?”
“Pretty fucking gross, right?”
“You could do it?”
“I’d have to be pretty mad.”
“Mrs. Garson. She’d be a good one. Blaw. Blaw.”
“No, no adults. Never get her in the open. Gotta be a kid. Someone that trusts us.”
” Ha Ha, right?”
River didn’t want to feel ashamed of his house, his father, his ability to read. He didn’t feel pity for the other two, but he knew that he was different. In fact, Hudson and Curt kind of frightened him. Not in any tangible way, nothing to tell his parents about or the counselor at school, who wouldn’t leave him alone. She was always bringing him books, asking him to draw his feelings. Telling him once, “People don’t like smart and silent. You might want to talk sometimes.”
“I thought we came out here to shoot something,” Curt said, eyelids heavy, looking at River.
“I ain’t the one holding the gun. Besides, no animals moving around anyway.” River wiped at his nose with the sleeve of his jacket. He had some tissue in his pocket, but the other boys would call him names if he used it.
“Well, at least let me hold it, Hudson,” Curt said, holding out his arms.
“And watch you shoot your pecker off? I think I’d better go first soon as we find something to pull the trigger at.”
“We agreed. You remember, River? Tell him now.”
River walked over to Hudson, close enough to smell the gun’s oil, the boy’s sweat from holding the heavy weapon. “We said we’d all get a turn, Hudson.”
“Ain’t nobody said who got to go first. And I’ve got it now, so I say that makes me first. Unless you wanna take it from me?”
Both boys took a step back, their eyes on the rim of the barrel.
The only people River could talk to were Hudson and Curt. Not about books or math. He saved that stuff for himself. But stupid stuff like video games and crummy horror movies. How ran over animals were both repulsive and fascinating. The giggle fits they fell into as they dared each other to touch the squashed raccoon. How quiet Hudson had gotten, the way the woods hushed on both sides of the road, Curt’s breathe so ragged next to River that he wished a car would come screaming up the road. Was this the day he stopped wishing all together?
“Quit screwing around Hudson, alright? Alright?” River waited until Hudson lowered the barrel.
“Whimps, both of you. I was just playing. Bang Bang,” Hudson said, falling into an obnoxious laugh.
The last time River had heard it, Hudson had threw a lit firecracker at his feet. There was that feeling in his stomach of heated popcorn kernels right before they split open, but before River could do anything Curt wrapped his arm around River’s shoulder guiding him toward the woods. “Let’s go find some bottles. Get this show on the road.”
If River could be honest, he’d tell them both that he hated the woods, hated the way it made him sweat, the buzz of gnats, the wildness that came uncaged from the loping boys. The subtle gnawing wind of violence that seemed to roil over their small town inciting desperate choices. He’d taken to going to the library, though he was afraid of the books and their unintelligible black marks. But he loved the cautious quiet, the clean lines, the way the sun lazed into the windows, no longer a threat.
River stepped on a stick, Curt yelled, “Snake,” and thunder erupted. River lay on the ground looking at the cloudless sky, wondering just where the storm had come from.