A small Southern town.
Two young boys looking for things to do,
a summertime of freedom spread in front of them,
Riley was spending the night. We did that a lot in the summer. Actually, we did it most every night. Riley’s ma had no use for him, and I liked him staying with me. I was the only kid my parents had, and it could be lonely at home. It was never lonely with Riley there. He stayed over during the school year, too—and fairly often. In the summer, we’d lay in that bed, just sleeping shorts on and no sheet over us, the fan on my dresser moving warm air over us and making the room almost comfortable.
Riley was just as skinny as I was, and we was like a couple of peas in a pod in other ways. That’s what Ma always said: peas in a pod. The two of us thought the same about most things, but you’d never know it to see us together. Why? Because we bickered a lot. We could argue about anything—and we did. If I said the moon was round, he’d say no, it wasn’t, and point up to where it wasn’t, as if his finger were a laser and could really mark the spot his eyes were focusing at. It was only round once a month, he said, so I was mostly full of crap. “See?” he’d say, as though whatever shape it was in at the moment proved anything, and he’d pretend he was right. Well now, we both knew he wasn’t, but that didn’t stop him from telling me I was wrong and putting up a stink about it. He loved to argue and prove me wrong. I did the same to him, of course. I think we were learning how to be lawyers.
When you’re eleven, having a best friend is about the most important thing there is. Sure, your parents might be more important, maybe, but they were just there all the time, kinda like noise in the background, and you lived with them and they took care of you, and it was just how things were, how they worked. It made no sense thinking about it; it simply was. Except in Riley’s case, but that was weird. But a friend, no, that wasn’t like parents, no way. A friend you could lose. He could move away. Tommy Fenders at my school moved away in the summer two years ago and Benny Dow, his ‘bestest buddy’—which was what Benny had called Tommy—had moped around for better’n a year till a new kid moved into Tommy’s old house and those two paired up. You got to have a best friend when you’re eleven. Got to.
I had Riley. I’d had him since second grade. I hadn’t known him before that, but he was in the same class I was in. We’d had Mrs. Grissom. She was old and not all that nice. She had strict ways, and most of the kids were real careful with her. She was reading a story to us one day and stopped in the middle of a sentence and spoke sharply to this kid I’d noticed but didn’t know. Something about his looks drew my attention. Anyway, she stopped and said, “Riley, why are you fidgeting and making faces?” And he said, “I don’t like that story. It’s stupid. No boy would put up with being in a tea party like that! Why would you read that to us?”
Well, Mrs. Grissom said, “Riley, you’re being very disrespectful. You need to go ask that question to the principal. You need to go now!” She pointed to the door.
I’d never seen a boy get kicked out of class before, and the look on his face—showing both defiance and fear—got to me. He was making his way to the door when I stood up and started walking there myself. Mrs. Grissom looked at me and said, “Where are you going, Travis?” And I said, “I’m also going to see the principal. I thought it was a stupid story, too.”
Riley had given me a great smile when I’d joined him in the hall, and we’d held hands for courage, walking to the office all the way down that long, empty hall.
We’d been together ever since.
We, me ’n Riley, had always figured out how the world worked together. Much of it didn’t make much sense to us. Like why every little kid I’ve ever met called it pasketti, or why last year in school the girls had started coming up to us and asking who we liked, or even why anyone would want to build a wall behind his property. That one we chewed over a lot. Riley got the idea that it was because the guy living there was raising killer dogs and didn’t want them getting loose. I told him he was crazy as a singing hyena because there was no barking going on over there, just dead silence. Riley told me of course it was, because the guy wasn’t crazy like I was. If those killer dogs barked, everyone would know he had ‘em. No one would want killer dogs living there, so he had to keep it a secret. So, the guy had surgically removed those dogs’ barks; yep, that was it, for sure: he was raising silent killer dogs and doing it right behind my house. Made one wonder, he mused, just how high those things could jump.
I had to think about that but then said if that were so, why only build a wall in the back? The dogs would be able to escape through the open sides where there wasn’t any wall, and then they’d be able to kill people any time they wanted to. Riley had a quick answer to that without even having to think on it: the wall guys simply hadn’t got that far yet, but the wall would be all around when they were done, and anyway there was no rush because the dogs were still all recovering from their surgeries and were locked up in cages at the moment.
I had to admit that could all be true, it was a good theory, even if it were a sad one, because I hated thinking about any creatures stuck in a cage, killer dogs or not, but it came to me there could also be another reason, and I threw that out at him. “No, it’s not killer dogs. That wall isn’t being built to keep dogs in; it’s to keep us out! He’s doing something in there that no one’s s’posed to see. Especially us, living right behind him where we can keep an eye on what he’s doing, better’n most folks ’cause we have the time to sit here and watch him. And that explains why he’s building the back part first.”
Riley was dead certain that there were killer dogs, silent killer dogs, involved and didn’t want to let go of that one. So that was just another argument that we never could settle. Not being able to see through that wall and all.
We were talking about other things, laying there that night while the fan was moving back and forth, only blowing air at us for a few seconds every sweep it made. We always looked forward to those seconds, semi-consciously waiting for them, and then almost sighing in delight. Two seconds of our sweaty bodies feeling just a tingle of chilliness.
“What time do we have to be at that bus stop of a mornin’?” Riley asked. He was more worried about this whole middle-school business than I was, which if you’d have thought about it was sort of peculiar. I was the one who overthought things and was sometimes a little cautious. Riley was the leap-before-you-think sort of kid. If it weren’t for him, we wouldn't have done half the things we did. He liked adventure and drama and pushed me into all sorts of things. What he wasn’t, was scared of things. At least things he knew and understood. New situations, though, that was different. Somehow, the thought of being miles away from Lewisville, the place we knew better ’n the backs of our hands, and riding on that bus full of kids, some of them who would be bigger’n us and strangers—living on farms and in other towns and such and not having gone to our elementary school—it got Riley’s imagination going, and he showed it by asking a lot of questions he’d already asked before. I could tell by those questions what he was feeling.
I could have made him more worried by making up answers that would have bothered him more, but that wasn’t what I was like. I tried to do the opposite. Even though we’d discussed this before several times, I answered him again with words meant to ease his mind some.
“Don’t you remember? They explained all that. Seven-fifteen every mornin’ at the corner of Oak and Sycamore. All the kids who live nearby ’round here’ll be there. A whole bunch of us will get on together. I think we two’ll find seats right by where they all do, maybe up front, and me ’n you’ll be all bunched up on that bus with kids we know.”
Riley was quiet then, and I knew he was picturing how that bus stuff would go. He really wasn’t much about thinking things through like that. That he was doing it now showed he was worried. I didn’t bother to tell him once again that that bus ride was still well over a month away and there was no reason to ruin his summer about it. He knew that. And since fretting about things weren’t who he was, I knew he’d be past this pretty quick.
Riley was a little smaller ’n I was. But what he lacked in size, he made up in feisty. The kid didn’t back down from much. Well, snakes. He didn’t have much use for snakes. But most else, he was okay. Better’n I was, truthfully. When Ma said Curious should have been my middle name, well, I thought Cautious maybe was better. Travis Cautious Todd or Travis Curious Todd. Maybe Travis CC Todd? Yeah, that would have been good.
Riley was perfect for me. We were together so much, we knew what each other was thinking, and I had to be careful not to finish his sentences too often. Sometimes was okay. Not that he was dumb. He wasn’t. He was just Riley, and you had to know what he was sensitive about.
My ma and pa liked Riley. Good thing, too, because he was at my house so much more ’n at his. His pa had been a grouch and then had taken off; the only good thing about him before was he was gone a lot, being a long-haul trucker as he was. Now he was gone for good, and Riley didn’t mind that at all. Riley’s ma was more interested in his little sister than in him. I weren’t even sure she knew where he was most of the time. Didn’t seem to bother her none.
“You wanna go fishin’ tomorrow?” Riley asked.
“Sure, but you won’t wanna go ’til eleven or so, and the fish won’t be bitin’ that late. You know that. You wanna fish, we got to get up at like six or so—real early—and you can’t get up that early in the summer. No point in goin’ fishin’ if we can’t even get a bite.”
“Sure there is.”
I raised myself up on my elbow to look at him. There was still light coming in my window from a streetlight down the block a couple of houses, and the night wasn’t that dark yet, neither. Ma made us go up to bed at nine, and it wasn’t full dark. We didn’t put up too much fuss. We enjoyed laying there talking together, just us two.
“Riley,” I said, “you’re just dumb. Fishin’ with no bites is borin’. Even you know that.”
I had to be careful, calling him dumb, and only did it when he himself knew what he was saying was dumb. If I said it when he thought what he was saying made sense, it hurt his feelings. But I knew when he was saying something just to get a rise out of me, like he was right then, and I could call him dumb safely just then.
Being propped up leaning up over him as I was, I could see him smile, see his eyes looking gleeful, like he’d caught me in the trap he’d laid. It was times like this I liked him more ’n a little.
“Not if fishin’ ain’t just what we’re there for.”
“OK, what the holy hell are you talkin’ about?”
“You said ‘hell’!”
“Forget about that. What you on about?”
“’Bout what I heard Jeff and them sayin’. I was at your pa’s store lookin’ at the new comic books, so they didn’t see me.”
I knew what he meant. Pa had a good supply of comic books, and a lot of the kids in town would sort of browse there, reading them until Pa would ask if they thought this was the public library. He’d been asking kids that for as long as I could remember. But the thing was, the comics Riley liked—the ones with vampires and girls who had such large breasts that their clothes didn’t fit right; the top parts of their outfits only about half covered them—were on the bottom of the rack. If Riley was down there, looking them over, anyone in a different aisle wouldn’t know he was there.
“They were talkin’ ’bout skinny dippin’ out at the river tomorrow. So I was thinkin’ we could go fishin’. They’d be out by the tire swing, and we could be by the fallen trees, and we could see ‘em fine. They couldn’t see us at all with the leaves like they are now.”
“And why do we want to do that?”
But I knew why, of course. There was very little about Riley I didn’t know. What this was about was that lately Riley had become very interested in naked bodies. Jeff Tenkers, the boy he mentioned, and his friends were a year older than us; actually, Jeff was two years older. They were already busing to the middle school. Riley probably wanted to see what older boys looked like, skinny dipping. And Riley didn’t mind telling me that’s what he was thinking. We didn’t keep things like that from each other.
And the thing was, the idea of going out there, hiding behind those leaves and watching those boys sort of interested me, too. Seeing boys naked, well, it was kinda exciting. But I could dress it up a little, explain it if I had to so it sounded better ’n admitting it excited me, which I couldn’t say to anyone but Riley. To anyone else, if I had to explain my wantin’ to see those boys, I could put it down to that I already knew what me ’n Riley looked like; seeing boys a year older or more would tell us what we could expect to look like then. Any boy would want to know that, wouldn’t he? And people would believe it for sure and not wonder if I got a little excited looking at those naked boys.
“We’d have to be careful,” Riley said, going on. “But if we’re quiet, they’ll be horsin’ around with each other and we’ll be fine.”
“They say what time they were goin’?” I asked.
“Yeah, Charlie said to all meet up at Jeff’s after lunch and head out. I figure if we’re behind the school, we can see them leave, then follow them out there about five, ten minutes later.”
Thinking about that got me thinking about other things as well. This was all different. I never’d had these thoughts last year. Riley hadn’t either. Now, I had them all the time, even if I didn’t really understand them. I knew thinking about naked bodies, boys’ bodies, made me feel funny. Sleeping with Riley did a little bit, too, just lately. But that was one thing I didn’t talk to Riley about.
“Hey,” I said, this new feeling on me harder ’n usual right then. “That fan’s nice, but I’m still hot. I’m gonna lose these shorts, let that fan play all over me, not just the top and bottom parts.”
Riley didn’t say anything. He just did what I did, shucking out of his shorts. We lay there, and the fan did feel better this way. A whole lot better. We talked some more, but not about our stiffies. We didn’t mention them at all, and then it was morning.
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