A small Southern town.
Two young boys looking for things to do,
a summertime of freedom spread in front of them,
We got to Tommy’s house eventually. It was across town from the hospital. We knew where he lived. We knew where everyone lived. I had walked dogs in his neighborhood and seen him at his house. No, it wasn’t a bad neighborhood. We really didn’t have one of those in our town except for about five or six houses someone had nicknamed Shanty Town. Maybe we didn’t really have any poverty there because it was so small, and everyone there had jobs. Some people were richer than others, but no one was really poor.
I started feeling anxious about what we were going to say, but Riley dropped his bike on the lawn and simply marched up to the front door and rang the bell. I was there right beside him by the time the door opened, anxious or not. It’s what we did for each other, just how we were.
Tommy opened the door. I wasn’t surprised. His folks both worked, and he didn’t have any brothers or sisters. He looked better than Johnpaul had, but he had worry and sadness in his eyes, too.
“Hey,” Riley said. And then he didn’t beat around the bush; that wasn’t his style. “How come you haven’t been to visit Johnpaul?”
Wow! That set Tommy back some. He looked like someone had slapped him. I expected him to get mad. I thought he might even have taken a poke at Riley. But he didn’t, he simply looked sadder, his shoulders slumping, and he turned his face away from us.
I sort of pushed Riley to the side and reached out and grabbed Tommy’s hand, gently. “Hey,” I said, much less confrontationally than Riley had. “Can we talk? We’re on your side, Tommy. Don’t mind Riley. He just gets a little pushy at times. You know that.”
Tommy looked up, then nodded. He stepped back and aside, so I assumed he meant that as an invitation to enter. I grabbed Riley’s arm, and we went in.
Tommy took us into the living room. He pointed at the couch, and we both sat down. He chose a chair at right angles to it. The furniture was all pretty new-looking, and I glanced around and saw the house was really decorated well. It was a lot fancier than ours or Riley’s. Well, he had two parents working. Maybe that was why.
I figured I’d better start this off. No telling what Riley would say. “We just went to see Johnpaul. He’s been feelin’ really bad about what happened, even feelin’ guilty, and I think he’s worried he won’t have any friends any longer. We straightened him out on both accounts. When we were leavin’, Riley asked if you’d been to visit, and I could see how unhappy he was when he said you hadn’t. So we thought we’d come and check on you, too, to see if you were okay and maybe ask you if you could go visit him.”
I expected Tommy to look ashamed. I was shocked to see him smile, instead, and regain some life in his eyes. “Really?” he asked. “He really wants to see me?”
“Yeah. Why wouldn’t he?” Riley said, still sounding a little angry.
“I thought he’d hate me! I’m supposed to be the strong one. I’m supposed to help him. And I didn’t. I allowed that guy to do what he wanted. I was sure Johnpaul would never speak to me again.”
“But how could you have stopped anything?” I asked. “He was big, wasn’t he?”
“Yeah, and he told us he’d kill us if we didn’t do as he said. I believed him. I thought maybe we would survive if we just followed his orders. I knew the first two boys were let go. I tried my best to be gentle with Johnpaul. But I think I hurt him anyway, doing . . . uh, doing what the man said to do. I felt awful about that. I don’t blame him for hating me.”
“He doesn’t,” Riley said. He seemed to have understood what Tommy was saying and wasn’t mad any longer. I could even see his sympathy. “He feels bad you haven’t been there. We told him we’d bring you back with us. How about it? We could go now.”
Tommy was smiling again. “Yes! Let’s go. I’ll get my bike. You sure he wants to see me and not just to yell at me?”
“No, he won’t do that. I think seeing you, you two talking, is all he’ll need to be let out of that place. He needs you, Tommy,” I said.
We rode back to the hospital, and it didn’t take long before we were back in Johnpaul’s room. He was still studying that wall, but when we came in and he saw Tommy, he jumped up, hurried to him, and wrapped him in a gigantic hug. He started crying again, and I figured that was our cue to leave. I motioned to Riley, who seemed to want to stay and watch. I shook my head and gestured toward the door, and so we left them to it.
Riding home, Riley asked me if I thought Johnpaul would be alright now. I told him I thought so. Then he asked if I thought they were fooling around like we were. I thought about that and about Johnpaul’s church and shook my head. But that made me think, maybe Johnpaul hadn’t ever even jacked off before this. Maybe this was his first time with anything having to do with sex. No wonder he’d been confused!
The wall was complete by now. It went all around Mr. Condon’s backyard. It was about six-feet high, cinderblock, and I thought it was ugly. Ma did, too. I could tell by the way she frowned when she was looking at it, but she wouldn’t say so. Me ’n Riley talked about it some.
“I still don’t know why he needs a wall,” I said, sitting in the grass with Riley in our backyard. We were making whistling noises by holding long blades of grass tight between our two thumbs and blowing through them.
“I don’t think it’s killer dogs anymore,” Riley said. He rolled over so he was laying on his stomach looking at the wall, his knees bent and his lower legs hanging over his back.
I sprawled next to him the same way. “What is it, then?” I asked.
“I think he needed a private place. Somewhere that no one could see into. So he built a wall to give him a place like that.”
Riley nodded, like he’d just figured it out or proved his theory or something. “I’ll tell you why. He’s the one taking those boys.”
I shook my head, countering his nod. “That’s just nuts, Riles. He doesn’t need a wall for that. He can take them into his basement and do whatever he does there. It would be quieter, too, if they yelled or something.”
“You’re forgetting something, Travis. You’re forgetting the videos he’s taking. When you take videos, lots of videos, you don’t want the same background all the time. You want to sell them, and to do that, you need a variety of settings. Outdoors is good. But outdoors needs secured privacy. So he built a wall. Remember, these things didn’t happen until he moved here.”
I heard all that, but one part I heard more than anything. “What do you know about videos like that? You sound like you know a lot about them.”
“Well,” he said, then rolled over and stood up. “About time I was going home,” he said, and grinned his provocative—OK, so I looked it up already!—grin at me and started walking away.
I jumped up and tackled him, and we rolled around awhile, wrestling and laughing and groping just a little because Ma could have been watching, and then I pinned him down and asked again about those videos, and he told me that, yeah, he’d seen some, and what he’d see had been of some naked guys outdoors.
“Where’d you see them?” I asked, and he said a name.
“When you were away. I was just over here, hanging, and he came by with the paper, and we got to talking, and he told me he had some videos I might like, and then I went to his house and he showed me some. Man—”
He stopped and was remembering what he’d seen because I could see him getting hard, and then he was squeezing it through his shorts.
“Tell me about them,” I said, and he did. He told me what the boys in the video had done, and I guess maybe my eyes got big and something else, too, and then he told me he’d done some stuff with Sam after watching, nothing like what had been in the videos but some stuff, and I guess I got a little jealous, but he assured me it was only stuff we’d already done together, and he much preferred doing it with me than with Sam. I could tell from his eyes that he was telling the truth. So I felt better after that.
He slept over that night. Ma might not have liked it, but I think Pa spoke to her, and Riley slept over. For the first time, we did more than feel each other. We stroked and made each other have that feeling that Pa called an orgasm; we just called it ‘the feeling’. We also talked, when we were done, talked about lots of things, and eventually we got back to Mr. Condon. I told him I didn’t think Mr. Condon was the molester. He disagreed. We argued some about it. Yep, that was me ’n Riley all right, doing what we did.
The next day, Riley was still sure Mr. Condon was the one catching and molesting boys. We were sitting in my room, having gotten up late and not really feeling up to going out in the heat. Riley was playing video games and me reading. Yeah, reading. Ma poked her head into the room unannounced a couple of times, and all she saw was Riley at the desk and me on my with a book. She didn’t say anything, just turned and walked away, but she came back more than once. I wanted to grin at her but remembered the last time I was cocky with her; it had ended up with me visiting those two cousins; I kept my feelings to myself.
Riley put down the controller and got up and stretched. Ma peeked into the room, and he sat back down again. Then he started fidgeting, a sure sign he was bored.
“Quit it,” I said. “You’re botherin’ me.”
“What you want to read for? You read too much. My ma says it’ll ruin your eyes.”
I snorted. “They used to say that about TV, not readin’. Readin’ is good.”
“No, TV is good. If they use words you don’t know, they’re gone a second later and you can forget about ’em. In a book, when the sentence makes no sense unless you know what the word means and it’s a good sentence like someone is getting’ stabbed or somethin’, then you have to look it up. You don’t have to on TV. You can just watch them getting’ stabbed an’ know just what’s happenin’.”
That’s the kind of thing I had to put up with. Jeez!
“You’re full of it, Riley. Books are way better than TV.”
“What’re you readin’, anyway? Another of those Hardy Boy books? You’re always reading them.”
I scowled at him. “They’re good.” My pa had a whole collection of them when he was a boy, and he lent me the first one, and I’d been reading them ever since. I really liked them, even the old-fashioned parts.
“Hah.” Riley was unconvinced. “I’ll bet you just read them because there aren’t any hard words!”
“Sure there are. Some. Hey, how about this one. Sleuth. You know that word?”
“No. You’re making it up.”
“Nope. You want to know what it means?”
Riley stood up again, then peeked out the door to see if Ma was around. She wasn’t, so he climbed up on the bed and lay next to me. “Not really,” he said, “but you’ll fret and fuss if you don’t get a chance to tell me, when what you’re really doin’ is showin’ off how smart you are. So—and this is just me bein’ kind—tell me.”
“How smart I am? That’s not true! I might just want to educate you a little, but how smart I am has nothin’ to do with it. Just for that, I’m not gonna tell you.”
“Fine with me,” Riley said—and yawned.
I looked over at him, and he just lay there with a cryptic smile on his face that got broader as the seconds passed. I knew what he was doing; he was waiting for me to tell him what the word meant anyway. He thought I couldn’t hold out.
Well, I couldn’t, but not because I wanted to show him I was smart or because I couldn’t outwait him. No, it was because thinking about the word had given me an idea, and it was too good to waste.
“Okay, I’ll tell you,” I said, “and somethin’ else, too. Sleuth is both a noun and a verb. You know what those are, don’t you?”
Now it was his turn to scowl at me. “’Course I do. What? You think I’m stupid?”
“No, just checking is all. Don’t want to confuse you. OK, a sleuth is a detective, and ‘to sleuth’ means to do detective work, but more figurin’ things out by followin’ a suspect and watchin’ what he does and usin’ your head and like that. So, how about this? We become sleuths, and we tail Mr. Condon and see what he does, and if he catches any more boys, we can report it to Officer Lodge.”
That got Riley excited as I knew it would. We talked it over and made plans, and Ma stuck her head in the door and saw us on the bed. She frowned.
“What?” I said, keeping most of my exasperation out of my voice.
Ma studied us for a couple more seconds, then said, “Nothing,” and walked away.
Jeez! You’d think two boys couldn’t lay on a bed together! What was wrong with her?
It was funny, though, sorta, because after that I heard her humming a song a lot, one I knew she liked, but one she hadn’t hummed for a long time. It was Que Sera Sera, and I knew what the words meant and everything because I’d seen the movie. But if that was how she was thinking now, that was fine with me.
We got to talking and figured out a plan. We knew something about Mr. Condon because we’d ridden our bikes by his house a lot the last few days, mostly because we were curious about that wall and thought maybe we’d learn something by seeing delivery trucks, or him carrying things into the house, like spiked dog collars.
Hey, Riley still hadn’t completely given up on silent killer dogs. That was his backup theory if the molester one didn’t pan out.
We didn’t know what time he left in the morning, but we’d seen him driving an old pickup truck, and we’d seen him coming home several times. Not at the same time each day, but at odd times during the day. He’d use a garage-door opener, open the door when he was in the driveway, drive in and shut the door before even getting out of the truck. It was almost like he was trying to hide something. Or not. He did wave at us as he passed us. Would a molester do that? Would a trainer of killer dogs do that? Riley said he was covering his tracks.
We figured we had to try to follow him when he went out, see where he went. That was hard because he had a truck and we had bikes, but Lewisville was a small town, and we knew everything that was there, so we thought maybe we could just go out in the morning and scout out the town for his truck. That might give us a clue. The Hardy Boys were big on gathering clues.
This seemed a good way to start, because Riley’s idea, to get up at dawn and watch for him to drive out and then tag after him, didn’t really appeal. Neither of us liked to get up before 10, 10:30 or so. Maybe 11. The idea of finding his truck was a much better plan. I came up with that one.
It was also something we could do right then. Well, right then after lunch. First, we went down to check what kind of sandwiches Ma had made for us. Actually, for me. We didn’t have to check for him because she always made PB&J for Riley. He said that was what he liked bestest. I think he said that just to make me mad because he always grinned when he said it, then laughed when I corrected him. I couldn’t help myself, and he knew it. Which is when the mad happened.
After lunch, we rode out, rode all over town, even though it was about ninety, both temperature and humidity, and we were tired after five minutes. But Mississippi kids are tough, and we stuck with it and biked all over town and never once spotted his truck. It wasn’t a wasted day, however, as we passed by some kids playing soccer and ended up playing with them. Ever play soccer when it’s too hot to spit? We had fun, anyway.
The next day, we set out earlier and spent hours riding around town, both before and after lunch, but still never found his truck.
“Where you think he is?” Riley asked me when we were sitting in front of Connor’s Ice Cream Parlor under the awning and out of the late-afternoon, fry-an-egg-on-the-sidwalk sun and licking our cones. “We rode all over this city how many times? I lost track! He’s not here!”
“Well, then,” I answered, my sleuth hat firmly on my head, “he’s one of two places. He’s home, or he’s off out in the country somewhere.”
Riley nodded. “Let’s check his house.”
I thought about that, then asked, “How you gonna do it?”
“Don’t you mean ‘we’? How’re we gonna do it?”
“His garage has a side window. It’s up high, but you’ll boost me up, and I’ll look in.”
“Why you? Why not me?”
“Because I thought of it and because you’re bigger ’n me, so you can boost better.”
That made sense, so I agreed, even if I only was five pounds heavier. We rode back to his street, then up and down it a couple of times. We didn’t see any activity at all. So we rode back and stopped in front of the neighbor’s house next to Mr. Condon’s garage. We lay our bikes down on the grass out by the street.
“Let’s go,” said Riley.
“What if he’s in there? What if he sees us? We need to think up a reason for peekin’ in his garage.”
“We could just say we were lookin’ to see if he was home.”
I shook my head. “He’d ask why we didn’t knock on the door. That’s the polite way to do it.”
“Well, how ’bout this? We’ll say we’re lookin’ for a cat, that some kid said he’d seen one around here, and we thought it might have got into his garage. Its owner is worried.”
I considered that. “Well, it has possibilities. We need to figure out what kid, what cat, and what owner. You know, the cops always put their suspects in different rooms and question them to see if their stories match up.”
Riley was looking at me like I had a hole in my head. “You know, Travis, you overthink things. First, we’re not going to get caught, and second, we wouldn’t be separated to say why we were peekin’ in his window. Don’t be a pussy. Let’s go.”
Maybe my caution had pissed him off. He wasn’t cautious a bit; that was my job. But he had to be pissed to call me a pussy. So I just went along with him. If we got questioned like happened in the books I read, I’d just tell them Riley was crazy and my account was what had really happened. That would cover it.
We got to the side of the garage, and I folded my hands together and Riley put his foot in them and scooted up along the side of the garage to the window. He looked in and grunted, so I let him back down. That was exactly when Mr. Condon’s pickup truck turned into the driveway. He was looking right at us.
Riley whispered to me, “Why didn’t your plan include a lookout?”
That was Riley, for sure. It had been his plan to look in the window. See why we were always bickering? It was all his fault.
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