THING IN THE WOODS - Part I
"Ssssh, here he comes," Ricky whispered as he hunkered down behind the clump of bushes. "Shut that damn mut up, will ya! He's gonna ruin it."
"Snoop, quiet." Ted grabbed Snoop, holding him close. He could hear Kenny nervously whistling a tune as he came up the wooded path. Through the shrubbery, he caught a glimpse of his gaudy red sneakers as they rounded the bend. One black shoestring was flopping and his jeans were bunched up around his ankles, telling Ted he hadn't hiked them up in a while. By now they were hanging half way down his butt displaying half a crack for all the world to see.
As the squeak of jeans rubbing together at thick thighs grew nearer, Ricky’s eyes grew wider with anticipation, and at the last second, just as Kenny was about to pass them, he tugged sharply on the rope he'd tied to a tree on the opposite side of the path. Ted grimaced when Kenny hit the dirt like a sack of potatoes, the hard fall forcing out a loud grunt of surprise.
"Oh man!" Ricky bellowed. With a shriek of glee, he jumped up and pushed through the bushes to stand over Kenny who lay sprawled on his back, his shirt up to expose a white jelly belly, and a comical stunned expression on his pale face.
"That was great, totally friggin’ awesome," Ricky brayed, slapping Ted on the back when he came up to stand beside him. "Oh man," he wheezed. Doubling over, he rested his hands on his knees. Tears were streaming down his face. "I ain't never seen nobody go down like that!" he said in a voice high with giddiness. "You see that! You see that Tedster? I swear that must’ve measured at least 6.0 on the ole Richter. What d’ya think Tedinski?"
Ted felt a rush of guilt. How had Ricky ever talked him into going along with such a stupid prank, anyway? To add insult to injury, Snoop was busy excitedly lapping Kenny all over his now justifiably indignant face.
"Jerk off," Kenny snapped. Pushing Snoop aside, he rolled to his stomach and pushed up on hands and knees with a grunt.
"Hey fatboy," Ricky sneered and, putting one foot on his broad butt, gave him a shove whcih sent him sprawling all over again. "Watch who you're callin' a jerk off, lard-ass."
"Cut it out," Kenny whined and, pushing back to hands and knees, began to spit dirt.
"Give him a break, Rick," Ted said and, offering a hand, helped to heave Kenny back to his feet where he stood red-faced, angrily brushing the dirt from his jeans.
"Pull your pants up, dopey," Ricky ordered. "Your friggin' ass is hangin' out. What are you, a gaywad?"
"Shut up! I think I twisted my damn ankle," Kenny whined, bending over to rub it. Realizing at the last second he couldn't reach, he rubbed his knee instead, hoping no one would notice.
"Wham! Right on his ass. You see that, Tedster? Was that great, or what?"
Kenny hiked his pants up and stood, a wounded, embarrassed expression on his round face. "If you're gonna be like this, I don't wanna see the damn fort. Who needs this kind of abuse?"
"What's wrong, fatboy, can't ya take a joke?'
"I'm not fat!" Kenny protested. "I'm just. . . . big boned."
Jabbing a hand out, Ricky grabbed a roll of flab that was still poking from beneath Kenny's shirt. "This don't look like no bone to me," he laughed, giving it a jiggle.
"Criminy!" Kenny whined, kicking at a stone. "To think I was gonna share my smokes with you guys.".
"What?" Ricky asked, suddenly very serious. "You got smokes? Let's see."
With an air of superiority, Kenny pulled a pack of Marlboros from his shirt pocket and waggled it in front of Ricky’s face.
"Awesome, dude," Ricky said. Snatching the pack, he patted out a cigarette like a real pro and holding it under his nose, inhaled deeply as if testing a fine cigar. "I knew there was some reason I liked you, fatboy. You're alright."
"I'm more than alright, man. Those are my old man's. He finds out I swiped those, my ass is grass," he said, hiking up his pants again, looking mighty proud of this bold gesture in the name of friendship.
"That's my man," Ricky said, slapping him loudly on the shoulder. "Give me some matches so's I can light this baby up."
"Yeah man, come on, come on," Ricky mumbled past the cigarette, snapping his fingers impatiently.
"Matches?" Kenny repeated numbly.
"Oh brother, are you friggin’ kiddin’ me," Ricky moaned, rolling his eyes in disgust.
"I. . . . I guess I kinda forgot."
"I guess I kinda forgot," Rick mimicked in a high girlish voice. "I guess I kinda forgot. What are you, a moron?" he said, giving him a shove on the shoulder. "What the hell good are smokes without matches, buttwipe?" Throwing the cigarette to the dirt path, he ground it in angrily with his sneaker. "You know, we don't let morons in the fort. It's against the rules, ain't it, Tedster? No morons allowed, no sissies, no pansy-assed fatboys either, ain't that right, Tedster?
"I ain't no pansy-assed. . . . Well. . . I ain't no pansy-ass and I ain't no moron. If I was, you wouldn't be gettin' no B in Algebra, would ya?"
Ricky stood glaring at Kenny, trying to intimidate him, but to Ted’s surprise, Kenny stood his ground until the scowl on Ricky’s face eventually softened.
"Whatever," he said, tucking the pack of Marlboros into his own shirt pocket. "I guess we'll let this lapse in mentality slide this time, right, Tedinski?"
"Well, do I get to see it or what," Kenny asked, hiking up his pants and wiping at a drop of sweat which trickled from his hairline down his temple.
"What do you think, Tedster? Should we give him the tour? Can he be trusted?"
Ted shrugged. "Sure. What the hey."
"If we show you, you have to swear to secrecy. You blab one word, you have to pay the consequences, understand? We don't want no girls nosin' around. Especially them bow wow sisters you got livin' next door," he said with a sour grimace. "I swear I seen one of 'em scratching fleas the other day," he stated matter-of-factly before projecting a thin stream of spittle to the path at his feet.
"I won't blab."
"Swear it. Swear it on your mother's life."
"Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye."
"Oh, how sweet. Stick a needle in my eye," Ricky mimicked. "Stick a needle in my eye. Ain't that sweet, Tedinski?"
Suddenly, Ricky clutched the front of Kenny's shirt, pulling him close. "I'll do more than stick a friggin' needle in your eye if you blab, blubberbelly. You'll wish that's all I did when I get through with you."
Kenny pulled away to straighten his shirt indignantly. "I swear it, okay. Do I look like a blabber mouth to you? Shit," he added, a feeble attempt at bravado. Pulling his shoulders back, he put his hands on his hips to wait for Rick and Ted to make their decision. This was it. His big chance to actually fit in for once. Being the new kid in the neighborhood was never easy, but being the fat new kid was the total pits. He knew how things went, knew how the game was played. Nobody wanted to hang around a "blubber-belly". It wasn't cool to be seen with the "lard-ass" of the trailer park. He knew he'd gotten off to a good start by letting Rick copy off his last two Algebra tests. His knack for math had finally paid off. Just had a way with numbers, he supposed. But this was his golden opportunity to finally fit in, to make some real friends for a change. He didn't want to blow it. Although he was shooting at indifference by his stance, he’d forgotten to breathe while Ricky and Ted eyed each other, and was feeling a bit light headed by the time Ted finally nodded the okay.
"Okay, the Tedster says you're cool," Ricky said, slapping Kenny on the shoulder and heading up the path. "Right this way, O honored one."
Ted saw the relief flood into Kenny's face. He would’ve had to be blind to miss it. The fact that Kenny was fat didn't bother Ted in the least. Any good psychologist could tell you that kind of prejudice came from people with low self-esteem themselves. Besides, from the first time he'd heard Kenny’s old man screaming at him at the top of his lungs, he'd felt a brotherhood with him, of sorts. Though he lived five trailers down, he had distinctly heard Kenny’s old man call him every name in the book. Yep. Ted Kelsey knew a drunk slob when he heard one and Kenny's father was a world class, out and out, good-for-nothing boozer.
Yes sireé Bob, Ted Kelsey was an expert when it came to detecting drunks. His expertise, of course, came from years of living with one. Eleven years to be exact. Up until eighteen months ago, he'd been the object of his own fathers' drunken rages. He was accustomed to the demeaning name-calling, had learned to accept it as a part of life, had even begun to need it, in a way. At least when his father was screaming at him, he was giving him the time of day. It was the only form of communication the two of them had. If he wasn't being hollered at, then he was being ignored. But he considered himself one of the lucky ones. His father had never abused him, not physically anyway. It seemed his mother always got the brunt of that.
It had been eighteen months since the accident, eighteen months which seemed more like a lifetime. He'd been driving home drunk. Nothing unusual for him. Somehow the old truck always managed to find its way home. But not on that stormy night nearly eighteen months passed. No, on that stormy night Jack Kelsey climbed into his old pick up for the last time. And he hadn’t just killed himself. Oh no. When Jack Kelsey screwed up, he screwed up big time.
He kept the newspaper clipping hidden, pushed way back in the bottom of his sock drawer. The lady with the dark hair. The little girl. The young boy. When the mood so took him, he would take it out and study them, tell them he was sorry for what his father had done. . . thank them for setting him free.
He was somebody now. And there was nobody telling him different every single day of his life. He could very well become a respectable adult, somebody important, somebody who could really make a difference, help others find their own self worth, even. A child psychologist, maybe. That way he could help out all the poor kids who were screwed up because of their good-for-nothing, boozer fathers. Like Kenny here. He was a classic example. The kid was in desperate need of a morale booster. Any good psychologist could see he would probably sell his soul into purgatory if he thought he might find a little acceptance there. It was really sad.
Wandering off the path about ten feet, Rick dropped down on hands and knees to crawl through some dense brush, and Kenny followed suit with Ted and Snoop bringing up the rear.
When they all three stood up, Kenny sent a high breathless whistle through his teeth, and Ted had to grin at the look of awe that broke out on his round freckled face. The small clearing they stood in measured about twenty feet in diameter and was surrounded by dense brush creating a nice private sanctuary. "Wow, this is totally radical," Kenny breathed, spinning around slowly to take everything in.
Ted felt a rush of pride. For six months, he and Rick had collected assorted treasures from dumpsters and brought in miscellaneous items from around the house to make their fort a home. There was a leather couch situated right in the center. Well, okay, so it was vinyl with a multitude of rips complete with bulging foam, but it was like the supplest of leather as far as Ted was concerned. It had taken hours of backbreaking labor to lug it in.
Then there were the two plastic lawn chairs situated about a round wooden table that was actually a jumbo cable spool they'd found abandoned in the field. There was a tan Lazy Boy with chewed up armrests. It was locked permanently in the lounge position, its hinges rusted in place. There was even a small refrigerator which presently held some chocolate chip cookies and half a bag of potato chips.
Rick walked over and opened the drawer of a rusty, dented file-cabinet and pulled out a Playboy magazine. Plopping down on the couch, he propped his feet up on the bowed and peeling particle-board coffee table. "Well, how do you like our humble abode, Kenster," he asked, a smug grin on his face as he flipped through the pages. "Hey, don't do that," he yelled suddenly. Picking up an empty coke bottle from the coffee table, he hurled it at Snoop who had lifted his leg to a nearby bush. "You gotta take a whiz, take it outside, you oversized rat!"
"Take it easy," Ted said. "This is outside to him."
"Teach that mut some friggin' manners, would ya," Rick muttered. Slouching back against the couch with a scowl, he stuck his nose back into his magazine.
Ted was used to Ricky’s temper. It didn't really bother him, anymore. Sure, some people might consider him a bully, but Ted understood why. He knew he was only masking his feelings of inadequacy behind that tough demeanor. Any good psychologist could figure that one.
Rick had to grow up way too fast. His father left when he was eight, leaving him to be "the man of the house", quite a burden to heap upon the shoulders of an eight-year-old. But being the oldest, he felt it was his duty to take care of his younger sister and, of course, his mom. He'd been doing a pretty decent job of it too, until his younger sister drowned in the drainage ditch behind the trailer. Ricky had been watching her. Not good enough though. Three years had passed since then, but the image of Ricky was still fresh in his mind, the hollow-eyed boy dressed in an oversized black suit and scuffed shoes which looked two sizes too big. How very pale, how very small he seemed, so lost, so alone as the casket of his five-year-old sister was laid into the cold harsh earth.
Since that day, Ted had witnessed Rick’s slow transformation from a normal, polite, kind of quiet kid, to the loud, pushy, abrasive kid he was today. In a way, Ted supposed he felt just as sorry for him as he did for Kenny. He was only twelve and already burdened with so much anger and guilt. He was just going about the wrong way of dealing with it. Any good psychologist could tell you that, too.
"Totally, totally awesome," Kenny breathed. Plopping down into the recliner, he laced his fingers behind his head, making himself right at home. "Man," he exclaimed, crinkling his nose. "This thing smells ripe."
It rained a couple days ago," Ted informed him. "Another couple of sunny days, it'll be good as new." Pulling six darts from the dart board which hung on one of the trees making up the perimeter of the fort, Ted stood back with one eye closed and took careful aim.
"I got a question for you, guys," Kenny said.
"Shoot," Ted said, letting loose his first dart which barely caught the edge of the board.
"How come you guys got a lamp here? It ain't like you can plug it in or anything."
"It adds to the ambiance, barfbag," Rick interjected as he continued to thumb through his magazine. "Anything else you wanna criticize?"
"Wasn't criticizing. Just curious is all."
"Yeah, well. . . , curiosity killed the friggin' cat, didn't you hear?"
"Yeah, I heard. I really don't know what the heck that saying means, though."
Rick slammed his magazine to the couch to glare at Kenny in disgust. "Where's your brain again? Oh yeah. I forgot. Better get off your fat ass. Must be cutting off its oxygen."
"So, what does it mean, then, O wizened one?" Kenny asked.
"It means. . . ." Slowly Ricky’s glare softened. "Who the hell knows," he snorted and they both began to laugh.
"Oh man," Kenny said, leaning back and crossing his ankles. "I could get used to this."
"Well, don't get too comfortable, chubo. We're just letting you check it out, is all. You still have to pass the initiation before you're really in."
"Yeah, it ain't no biggy," Ricky said, once again beginning to flip through his magazine. "All you got to do is spend the night here. Nothin' to it."
"No way!" Kenny exclaimed, and sat up to gape at Ricky incredulously. "I ain't spendin' the night out here. You must be crazy."
"Told you, Ted. He's a sissy. Baak. . . . baak baak baak." Ricky jumped up, and in an attempt to embellish his lame imitation of a chicken, began to flap his elbows and knock his knees together as he squawked loudly.
"I ain't no sissy. I just ain't no idiot, either. You ain't gonna catch me out here by myself at night. No way, José. I ain't that stupid."
"Whatcha fraid of, sissyboy, the bogey man? Baak baak baak. Let me see that belly again," he said, snatching Kenny's shirt up. "I knew it! It's yella. Baak baak baaaaaak."
"You tellin' me, you spent the night here. . . . by yourself?"
"Well. . . . no," Ricky said, ceasing his infernal flapping. "Ted and I are founders. We don't have to be initiated in, ain't that right, Tedinski?"
"Tell you what," Kenny said, relaxing once again and re-lacing his fingers behind his head. "You spend the night out here, first, and I'll be happy to do the same."
"Well, excuse me, El Blimpo," Ricky said, standing with hands on hips, glaring down with thorough contempt at Kenny. "But for one minute I actually thought this was my fort and I was calling the shots. My mistake. What could I have been thinking," he said, knocking himself on the temple with the palm of his hand. "Guess I was just delirious for a second there, ain't that right, Tedinski?"
Ted was impressed by Kenny. He had guts, that was for sure. He didn’t know many who could be so casual under Ricky’s rapid-fire cut downs. Or maybe he was just used to it. "I don't know," he said, as he loosed another dart. "Sounds pretty reasonable to me. We could take turns. Have our own private little camp-outs, roast some hot dogs, marshmallows. It'll be fun."
"Fun! Are you nuts?" Ricky snapped.
"Shut up, fatboy. I ain't chicken." Ricky kicked at a toadstool growing right in the middle of the fort, snapping its flimsy trunk and sending it hurtling through the air. It bounced, fragmenting into a hundred pieces which went tumbling out of sight into the brush. He was obviously irritated. Any fool with half a brain could see that. He didn't like the way the tables had turned. Somewhere along the line, he'd lost the upper hand. That wasn't good. People, like Ricky, with the need to dominate, had to stay in total control of the situation at all times. As long as they were in control, they felt things couldn't get out of hand.
"Sure Rick, it's only fair. Tell ya what, I'll even go first. Break the ice." He let another dart fly. "All right, bulls eye!"
"Fine. Whatever. Doesn't matter to me. I mean, I'll go first if you want. No hair off my ass."
"Right. . . ." Kenny mumbled under his breath, obviously not fooled by Ricky’s bravado.
"Shut up, fartface!"
"I'll go first, really," Ted offered. "I don't care."
* * *
Later that night, as he lay in bed listening to the light breeze as it rustled the trees outside, Ted began to rethink his rash proposal. Perhaps he’d spoken a little too hastily.
It wasn't that he was afraid. No, not at all. He was much too levelheaded for that, as any good psychologist should be. He was used to being on his own at night. His mom worked the late shift, after all. And he'd never been afraid of the dark. Didn't believe in ghosts or bogeymen or anything as irrational as that. It was just. . . well. . . . the thought of being in the woods alone didn't sound as appealing at the present as it had in broad daylight. As a matter of fact, it sounded downright spooky.
But he couldn't back out now. No way. He'd never hear the end of it if he did that. God. . . he could hear the yella-bellied, sissy, chicken, wimp jokes now. God no! No way! He couldn't back out. He’d never be able to live it down. Out of the question. Absolutely not. No way, José.
What was the big deal anyway? It was only one lousy night, right? He could handle that. Snoop would be there to keep him company. He had a nice comfy couch to lounge out on. He'd bring a flashlight and some of his classic comics. The night would probably fly by. Zoom. . . Zip . . . Zap. . . . morning. Just like that.
He looked toward the window. It was open slightly permitting the light breeze to tussle the curtains. A dark moonless night lay beyond the pane.
Man. He should have waited until there was a moon, at least. A full moon. A huge full moon that lit up the night like a giant lantern.
No! Not a full moon. Werewolves came out when the moon was full.
Whoah! Where did that zany thought come from, he wondered? Werewolves? That was ridiculous. Crazy. Jeez, you're driving yourself nuts, Kelsey. Just don't think about it. Don't dwell on it.
Tomorrow he'd tell his mom he was spending the night at Ricky’s and instead he would hang out at the fort for a few hours, read a few magazines, play some darts, maybe build a fire and roast some marshmallows or something. And then, he'd fall asleep on the couch and dream the night away. Wake up a new, refreshed, and totally initiated member of the freshest damn fort in town. Piece of cake. Nothin' to it. No problem. No problemó, amigó. Piece of cake. Piece of chocolate cake with fluffy chocolate icing. . . . and sprinkles on top. Chocolate sprinkles. No, rainbow sprinkles. Add a little color. Don't want it to be too dark. All dark. Dark dark dark. Blackout cake. Dark as midnight. Midnight. Yep. Witching hour. Stringy-haired, wart-faced, black finger-nailed, cackling, boy eating. . . .
Pulling the covers to his chin, he peered toward the fluttering curtains once again. Something about the window being open was giving him the major creepazoids. Strange, he thought. It never bothered him before.
Slipping from the bed, he padded to the window and slammed it down, giving it a couple of tugs to make certain it was latched, before hopping back into bed. He gave his pillow a good fluff and punch, quickly plopping his head into the fresh indentation. "Come here, Snoop. Here, boy," he whispered, patting the bed beside him, and Snoop obediently jumped up to join him. Ted knew he'd be in a heap of trouble if his mom caught them. She was afraid Snoop's nails would puncture the waterbed. But right now, Ted was willing to face the wrath of mom if need be. Pulling the covers to his chin, he lay peering up at the ceiling until, slowly, his eyes were drawn once again to the window.
Tomorrow, there would be no window between him and the dark, moonless night.
Oh man! There he went again. Getting all worked up over nothing. Nothing at all. Who needed a moon anyway? Just a few hours under the stars, fresh air, slightest of breezes. . . . carrying a variety of winged creatures. . .
Damn! What the heck was going on? He was out of control. All these bizarre thoughts popping into his head of their own accord. Absolutely no invitation whatsoever.
He rolled to his side putting his arm around Snoop, and peered at the darkness on the other side of the lacy curtains.
What was lurking beyond those curtains? What hollow-eyed, pointy-nosed, blood-sucking. . . crap! Ted rolled onto his stomach, burying his face into his pillow. It was going to be one long night. But probably nothing compared to what tomorrow night would be. It wasn't like him to let his imagination run wild. Right now, it was sliding down a steep, no, not steep, vertical snow-bank at lightning speed. . . . on a greased sled. Yes sireé. Greased up with something super-duper slick. Slippery. Slimy. Slimy, giant, leech-like, man-eating, monstrosities that slithered around under cool, damp, dead leaves and snuck up on unsuspecting kids who had no business whatsoever being out in the middle of the woods at midnight lounging on ripped vinyl couches. They would latch onto his neck at his jugulars, draining him dry in about thirty seconds while he bucked and clawed and lurched up, swirling and flailing to no avail. And while he lay on the ground spasming during the final moments of his existence, they would slither down his throat and wriggle their way into his stomach to munch out on not-yet-fully-digested, gooey, burnt marshmallows for dessert.
"Wow! That's really gross. Disgusting. Totally vulgar, not to mention irrational."
Snoop’s tail gave a few half-hearted thumps at the sound of his voice.
If he was going to make a good psychologist someday, he couldn't make a habit of thinking irrationally. No way. He had to think logically at all times. This was a totally unacceptable line of thought processes. What kind of psychologist was afraid of giant man-sucking leeches? That was absurd. Ludicrous. Could it be any more far-fetched?
Now bats. . . . , that was a different story. A swarm of a hundred hungry sharp-toothed vampire bats could probably suck him dry in a mere matter of seconds. Now that was a little more realistic. Except, of course, for the fact vampire bats didn’t live in the United States, did they? He’d read that somewhere, hadn’t he? Plus, it would probably take at least a couple of minutes. Let's not get carried away. Be reasonable. But he would literally have to be covered with them. Thousands. Not one inch of body showing. He would be stumbling blindly forward, arms outstretched, desperately heading for home. But he wouldn't make it. Nope, not even close. Just a mass of swarming, pulsating, flapping, feasting vermin. Lurching. Lurching forward on Frankenstein legs. . .
Now there was a strange movie. Yuck! Some guy made up of all these different body parts. A leg here, a hand there. Pretty gory stuff. What made it even scarier was that the guy was supposed to be a doctor. A man of higher than average intelligence, even. So what in the world would possess him to go traipsing around in graveyards and tombs, cutting off heads and arms and legs? That Frankenstein dude was one messed up sucker. Who in their right mind would go through all that trouble just to create some freakish monster? Nothing more than a walking dead corpse. A zombie, dude. Dead, rotting, staggering. . .
"Whoa! What the devil is going on?"
Devil. Now there was something to really think about. What exactly would the devil look like, anyway? Would he look like all the pictures: horns, pitchfork, long serpent-like whipping tail, furrowed brow, deep-set evil eyes? Or would he be in disguise? Would twelve-year-old Ted Kelsey even know him if he ran into him? And was there a possibility that he might be taking a late evening stroll through the woods on a moonless, nippy, Saturday night?
Sleep would be an elusive lady most of the night, though there were bouts of fitful sleeping. He would awake from these in a sweat, the sheets plastered to his body, the vivid dreams jam-packed with creepy-crawly, slithering, lurching things beyond all description, still swarming through his brain.
He was awake and breathing a sigh of relief when the first morning rays filtered through the curtains. Shooing Snoop from the bed, he swung his legs over the side and rummaged through his drawers, pulling out a fresh pair of blue-jeans and his tan T-shirt with Joe the cigarette smoking camel on the front. Lastly, he pulled on his one hundred dollar Air-Jordan high-tops and then made his way into the kitchen where he poured himself a heaping bowl of Frosted Flakes. He was only slightly perturbed when he discovered his mom had forgotten to bring home the milk again. Any good psychologist could tell you an angry response to something so trivial would not only be a waste of time, but was very probably the sign of some other deep-rooted problem, the anger released actually anger stemming from an entirely different repressed issue, an unresolved issue that might even go back years, possibly even back to infancy.
Yawning, he pulled a spoon from the drain board and plopped down at the table to eat his flakes dry, and though he tried to focus his attention on the bowl before him, he found his eyes constantly being drawn to the window over the sink. He was a bit disturbed by this.
Of course with the sun shining brightly, things appeared much differently than they had during the night. He realized his behavior had been utterly ridiculous. What was that saying - There was nothing to fear but fear itself? His imagination had been in overdrive for some reason, but he had it under control now. He was back to his old self again: assured, confident, laid-back, real psychologist material. Spending the night in the fort tonight. . . . no sweat. He could do it with his eyes closed. He would do it with his eyes closed. Sleep the whole night away. Yes sireé. No problem. And the Frosted Flakes were actually better without the milk. Crunchy and sweet, not all watered down and soggy. His mom was a genius. A real genius. And today was going to be one terrific day. And tonight. . . .
There was a loud crunch in Ted’s head (even louder than the milk-less Frosted Flakes) as his teeth clamped down on the meaty inside of his cheek, completely obliterating his chipper mood. His tongue darted to the area of "chompact", feeling for the loose flap of skin and his mood lowered even further when he tasted blood. Heck, who was he trying to fool anyway?
Sprinkling the remaining flakes into the garbage, he tossed the empty bowl into the sink and then headed to the bathroom to take a whiz and brush his teeth. He was caught a bit off guard by his reflection in the mirror.
Oh man! Bloodshot eyes, dark circles. Looks like you haven't slept a wink in a week. Twelve years old with bags. Look like an old man. Look at you. And what was that he saw in those bloodshot eyes? Fear? "Just relax, Ted. Stay cool," he whispered to the sorry excuse of a boy in the mirror. "Oh great. Now you're talking to yourself. One great psychologist you're gonna make. Your own best patient, huh Teddy boy?"
In the other room, the phone rang and his heart hammered as he heard his mother's sleepy voice answer it. He held his breath. Yeah, like that’s gonna make time stop, he thought. Get real.
He knew who it was.
Ted exhaled slowly. For some reason, he was hoping Rick would forget. No such luck.
Reluctantly, Ted shuffled to the living room and picked up the receiver.
Arrangements were made.
Teddy moped around the trailer, played some Nintendo, watched a few cartoons, gave Snoop a bath, flipped through some comics. He felt numb. Was he really going through with this? There was still time to back out.
No. No. That wasn't possible. Couldn't do that. He had to go through with it. Couldn't wimp out. Unthinkable. Wouldn't be able to face himself in the mirror ever again, bags or no.
When Rick rapped on the front door shortly after noon, Ted was ready. He'd packed some hot dogs, marshmallows, a flashlight (the extra heavy-duty one his mom kept on hand for emergencies), half a roll of toilet paper, three cans of Pepsi, some cookies, a couple of Snicker bars, and half a bag of Dorrito's. He was set.
"Got your toothbrush, Teddy," his mom hollered from the bathroom.
"Got it, mom."
"And a change of underwear?"
"Mom!" Ted rolled his eyes at Rick.
"And I expect your behavior to be exemplary while you're the honored guest." She came out of the bathroom fastening a dangling earring shaped like a large silver snowflake to an earlobe. "Hi Ricky, how's your mom?"
"Fine, Mrs. Kelsey."
"Tell her I said hi, okay, and oh Teddy, by the way, I love you."
"Okay, okay, just let me give you a kiss here," she said, kissing his head and tussling his fine brown hair, "and then the mushy stuff is all done, see. Not too painful. I mean it now, no horsing around. No pillow fights. No jumping on the bed. . . ."
"Mom. That's kid's stuff."
"Oh right, I forgot, sorry. My little boy's all grown up."
"Mom," he groaned.
"Gotta run. I'm late again," she said, snatching her purse and keys from the kitchen counter before stopping at the decorative mirror by the front door for some final adjustments to her hair. She tucked in a few loose tendrils and fluffed her bangs. "Love ya, baby," she said, blowing him another kiss from brightly painted red lips before exiting through the front door.
"Love ya, baby," Rick mimicked and grabbed him, pursed lips headed for his.
"Get away, fagboy," Ted snapped, shoving him playfully and they both toppled to the couch, laughing.
Sometimes, Ted found it hard to believe the bubbly, glowing woman who had just left a cloud of Chantel No.5 in her wake was the same woman who, up until eighteen months ago, had been a withdrawn, drab, timid, nervous little mouse who never would have dreamed of wearing lipstick or dabbing her neck with perfume, much less dousing herself in the stuff. The transformation since his father's death was amazing. It made him feel like a heel sometimes when he though about it, but his father's death was probably the best thing that had ever happened to the both of them. She was radiant now. He'd never seen her so happy.
"Come on, Teddy," Rick aped. "Did you get your change of undies, Teddy? Oh Teddy, one last kissy pleeease."
As Rick came after him again, his puckered lips making vulgar smacking sounds, Ted gave him an elbow in the side. "Cram it, gayboy. You're just jealous."
"I am! I am!" he squealed, throwing his hands to his face in despair. "You promised to be mine, all mine!"
"Quit screwing around, dorkus. Let's go. Kenny's gonna be waiting."
Half and hour later, the two met up with Kenny at the entrance to the woods and the three of them made their way single file along the beaten path with Snoop leading the way, busily sniffing his way from tree to tree and occasionally lifting his leg as they went.
"You ready for this, Tedster?" Rick asked, out of the blue.
"Course, why shouldn't I be?"
"Well, I'll tell ya, Teddy," Rick said as they meandered along. He reached down and picked up a sturdy looking stick, weighing it in his hands, feeling its weight, measuring its sturdiness. Satisfied that it would make a good walking stick, he continued. "I wasn't gonna say nothin' but. . . . a couple weeks ago, when I brought in the lamp, well, it was gettin' kind of late by the time I headed back out and I swear I heard. . ."
"Heard what," Kenny asked, enthralled, when Rick hesitated.
"Oh . . . , well, never mind. It was probably nothing."
"No, come on, man, tell us," Kenny huffed, already winded from the short hike.
"Well, I swear there was somethin' followin' me, you know, kind of off to the side like, in the bushes."
"Man, you are so full of it," Ted said, shaking his head and kicking at a stone in the middle of the path as they meandered along.
"No man, I swear it. And every time I would stop, you know, to listen, it would stop too, almost like it was stalking me, or something."
Ted stopped and turned to glare at him. "You're a liar," he said, and was taken back a bit when what appeared to be a genuine startled expression broke out on Rick's face.
"No man, I'm serious. I wouldn't worry, though. Just some damn raccoon, or something."
"Right." Ted turned and all three continued on in silence, each lost in their own private thoughts.
When they reached the fort, all the tension was temporarily forgotten as they joked and laughed and ate chips and cookies and listened to a Snoop Doggy Dog tape and played a few rounds of darts. They had a burping contest which Kenny won hands down, after which he proceeded to grace them with a burping rendition of Old MacDonald Had a Farm.
The time passed quickly. Much too quickly for Ted, and when Rick looked at his watch and declared he and Kenny should be heading out, Ted felt his resolve waver just the slightest bit. Almost said, "Fine, just let me pack up my few belongings here, and we'll be on our way."
Instead, he said, "Later turkeys," and plopped himself down casually onto the couch, propping his legs up nonchalantly. Yep, he was one cool dude. No sweat off his back. Well, that was the impression he was trying to give off, anyway. In actuality, he was screaming inside. Screaming for them to stay. Not to leave him here to face the night alone, and whatever else the night just might happen to throw his way.
"Well, I guess this is it, my brave and foolish comrade," Rick teased. "I guess it's. . . farewell." Rick used his sleeve to wipe away invisible tears as he sobbed unabashedly.
"Eat me, douchebag." Ted said, flinging an old chewed-up tennis ball in his direction. Rick ducked as it whizzed by his head and then stood with an incredulous, wounded expression on his face as Snoop went bounding after it.
"Why, Teddy, I'm crushed. I thought. . . I thought we were friends."
"Take a hike, dike," Ted replied calmly, and looked around for another possible missile.
"Fine, fine, okay, I'm going," Ricky wept. "I just want you to know. . . You're the best friend. . . I ever. . . ha ha had." Dropping down to hands and knees, Rick left, sobbing loudly.
"Well, hang tough, guy," Kenny said, giving him a salute. Hiking up his pants, he plopped down on all fours and scurried after Rick in a hurry.
Ted looked down at Snoop who sat looking up at him expectantly, the old tennis ball still lodged in his mouth. He immediately started to wag his tail.
"Well, Snoop, looks like it's just you and me, boy."
Snoop gave a muffled bark and, grasping the ball between his front paws, settled down for a good chew.
Ted slowly scanned the fort. Though the sun was just beginning to sink down, the fort was already beginning to take on an ominous aura, the lengthening of shadows creating an eerie impression about the place which was unsettling.
Before the sun could disappear, Ted quickly gathered some wood and built a fire, roasting one hot dog for himself, and then one for Snoop which was wolfed down with great relish. Licking his chops, he sat back on his haunches to watch with great intensity every bite that went into his master's mouth.
"Here, knock yourself out," he said, tossing him the last bite which was gobbled down instantly. "Now. . . . , come on, did you even taste that?," Ted asked and Snoop responded by thumping his tail enthusiastically. "I'm sure it never touched your taste buds, you glutton," he teased, rubbing his head affectionately.
As darkness descended, he busied himself roasting a couple of marshmallows until they were good and black, and then wolfed them down, washing them down with a Pepsi.
Things were actually going pretty smoothly. . . , until the flames began to die down and true darkness began to creep silently in. Ted clicked on the heavy-duty flashlight and stood it on the coffee table, welcoming the light which spilled radiantly around the fort. He then cranked up the volume on Snoop Doggy Dog, who was now accompanied by a chorus of crickets that seemed to have moved in with the darkness, and settled down on the couch to leaf through one of his comics.
This wasn't really all that bad, he thought. Just as he suspected, he'd been all worked up over nothing. Nothing to fear but fear itself. Whoever said that sure knew what he was talking about. This was a piece of cake. Nothing to it. Only he wished he'd though to bring a jacket. It was starting to get a bit nippy.
He heard a rustling!
Snoop heard it too and sat up, cocking his head. Quickly turning off the radio, Ted sat listening. A strange sensation coursed through his body, a tingling clear down to his toes. He felt his heart palpitating like mad and wondered briefly if it was possible for a twelve-year-old kid to have a heart attack.
Snoop gave a low-throated growl.
Suddenly, everything wasn't so fine and dandy, anymore. He felt a strange crawling sensation along his scalp and suddenly the bright flashlight didn't seem like such a great idea. He felt like a goldfish in a fish bowl. It was like a beacon, calling whatever might be roaming through the woods right to him.
He reached into his pocket, pulling out his pocket knife and slowly reached over, clicking off the light.
Darkness engulfed him. Overhead, through the canopy of entangled branches, the night sky was cloudy, so that even the stars could offer little relief.
Snoop growled again, looking toward the bushes and there was more rustling, ever so slight.
Ted held his breath.
It was nothing. Just like Ricky said. Just some raccoon. Smelled his hot dogs and marshmallows. Yeah, that's what is was. Some stupid, hungry raccoon. Yep. Had to be.
Ted held his knife in one sweaty, shaking palm. It felt so minuscule. So totally worthless. He flipped up the tiny blade and was disappointed when he felt not even the tiniest hint of relief.
This had been a terrible idea. The worst. What on earth had he been thinking? Maybe he'd just go home. This was crazy. Nuts. Yeah, he'd gather up his stuff and go home. Who would know, right? He'd get up early and be back here before Ricky could come looking for him. No one would ever be the wiser. And to hell with the higher than average code of ethics he'd sworn to uphold in order to pave the way for his highly respectable intended line of work. He'd lie through his teeth to Rick and Kenny, both. Bet your ass! To hell with this!
There was more rustling, and Snoop jumped up and began to growl with more enthusiasm, his hackles raised as he strained toward the bushes off to the left on the other side of the lounging Lazy Boy. Reaching down with a shaky hand, Ted stroked him gently in an attempt to quiet him, and though it seemed to do the trick, Ted could feel the trembling beneath his hand. It seemed Snoop was just as spooked as his master.
They sat in pitch blackness, trembling, two pathetic fear-filled souls, allies in terror. . . . waiting. . . . For what, Ted didn't know. But they were definitely waiting for something. This he knew for certain.
And then . . . the unthinkable happened. Something he never would have expected in a million years, not even in his wildest dreams. The lamp on the refrigerator, the lamp that was only there for "ambience", the cracked, ceramic lamp with the water-stained, over-sized shade, the lamp plugged into nothing but a pile of old rotting leaves and dirt. . . . . . flicked on, enshrouding them in brilliance.
Reality, as Teddy knew it, ended in that split second, fragmented by a million tiny particles of light which pierced the night like tiny, finely-honed slivers of glass. All his hard work trying to train his brain to think like a scientist, pragmatic, sensible, all seemed to be for naught. Suddenly nothing made sense anymore. What was reality, anyway? It was only what each individual perceived it to be. So who was to say whose perception was correct? This was his perception of reality at this moment, and though it seemed totally irrational, it was his reality none-the-less, and if his sanity was to survive, he would have to accept it for what it was. . . . wouldn't he? He felt his jaw draw slack as he stared in horror at the impossibility that went beyond his comprehension. He felt the blood drain from his face, felt himself teetering on the edge and somewhere in the background, heard Snoop barking and heard cackling, high, insidious, maniacal cackling. A witch! A witch hiding in the bushes cackling at him. And then the witch popped through the bushes. . . .disguised as. . . . Ricky? It was doubled over holding its sides and cackling hysterically.
"Oh man! Man, man, man!" it shrieked. "That was un-friggin-believable!"
Ted could only gape as it performed what appeared to be some sort of ritual dance, stomping its feet and slapping its thighs as it staggered around in a tight circle, before once again falling subject to a fresh barrage of cackling.
"The look on your face was too cherry! Better check your skivvies, Tedinski. Might need that clean pair after all. Holy shit, man!" It waggled fishing line held in one hand up in the air. "I got you good this time, didn't I. Whewee! Oh, man, I have to sit down," it wheezed. "Please don't stick me with that piece, Tedster. I'm having too much fun. That would ruin everything." Giggling out of control, it staggered to the couch, holding its stomach and plopped down next to him.
Finally, it began to sink in through the shock engulfing him. This really was Rick. Not some evil, cackling, boy-eating witch. With this realization, he felt his thumping heart begin to slacken slowly. His frozen muscles coming back to life, he reached down, picking up his soda can to wet his cotton mouth. "Really funny, you moron," he mumbled through numb lips.
"I thought you were gonna permanently imprint your face in the dirt, for a minute there, Tedster. Thought I was gonna have to do CPR or something. Call 911. Uh, yeah, hello," he said, holding the imaginary phone to his ear. "My friend, Tedinski here just had a wimp attack. I think he’s gonna need a ball transplant immediately. Yeah, that's right, he seems to have lost his somewhere, vanished into thin air. Oh yeah, and uh, you might wanna tell the paramedics to bring a fresh change of skivvies. That's right. Size fourteen. Huh? Oh. Fruit of the Loom," he finished amidst profuse giggles. Lifting his shirt, he wiped the tears coursing freely down his face.
"You're a real jerk off, you know that?"
"Had to crawl out a window, man," he said, as he propped his legs on the coffee table and leaned back looking mighty proud of his little prank. "But it was well worth it."
"Yep. Real piece of genius, huh. Hooked this line up to my flashlight, a little tug, and vóila, time to make gravy in your pants."
"Kiss my ass."
"Gotta change your skivvies first," he said, and a fresh onslaught of giggles ensued.
"Pea brain. Ass-wipe."
"Oh! Good thing I'm here, then. You could probably use a few ass-wipes right about now, huh Tedster?" With this, Ricky doubled over clutching his sides and laughing hysterically. Slowly, his outburst subsided and he leaned back, wiping the fresh tears from his face and hiccuping loudly.
"Well," he said, standing up and brushing the dirt and leaves from his knees. "I'd love to hang around, Tedinski, but I think it's time to leave you to ponder on your new-found. . ." He clutched at his chest as another hiccup interrupted him. "ball-lessness," he finished.
Rick retrieved his flashlight from the lamp. "So sorry I have to depart from such hospitable company so soon," he said with one final hiccup. "Enjoy your stay, now."
"Just remember who's spending the night next week, Jerk," he shouted at Rick’s retreating back. But Rick was too busy giggling giddily to reply as he dropped to hands and knees to plow through the bushes.
Ted quickly flicked on his own flashlight and laid out on the couch, angrily flipping through his Spiderman classic comic as he listened to Ricky’s laughter, mingled with intermittent hiccups, fade slowly away.
He had to admit Rick had really gotten him good, the jerk. As if this wasn't hard enough. Just wait till it was his turn. He was going to be sorry he ever messed with Theodore Kelsey, the ultimate master of pay-backs. He wasn't sure how, but he'd get even. Yes sir, he was going to get him big time. And it wouldn't be something as lame as a flashlight in a lamp. No way José. It was going to be something monumental. Something majorly colossal. When the Tedster got through with the Rickster, he'd be running home to mama with his tail tucked between his legs. And he wouldn't be wearing that damned smug grin on his face. Far from it. And he wouldn't be laughing his butt off, either. No sireé. Probably be peeing his pants, is what he'd be doing, and it would serve him right. Then who would be needing that fresh pair of skivvies, he thought triumphantly.
As he flipped through the pages, Ted began to form his own smug little grin as an array of delicious strategies on how to repay Rick roiled around in his brain. There would be no mercy involved here. What was that saying? Paybacks are hell.
* * *
Please see part II