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Authors: Max Doty

Tags: #Contemporary, #Young Adult

Almost Kings

BOOK: Almost Kings
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Almost Kings

 

by

 

Max Doty

 

 

Copyright 2012 by Max Doty

 

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblances to real people are accidental.

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only and should not be copied or given to other people.

1.

 

Hornets buzzed in a black mass, crawling from the log's pores. I watched their small bodies through the rifle's sight as I fingered the trigger. My skin, clammy from the heat, was wet against the metal. Truck put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Twenty bucks, you choke.” It was a bet he wanted to lose.

I took the shot. The recoil bit into my shoulder, and the bullet sailed high, shaking the needles of a small pine ten feet back of the log. Birds scattered from the highest branches. Truck laughed and took the rifle.

“You didn't hold it close enough to your body, not like I told you to,” he said. “You got to lock it in tight, like a football.”

My shoulder stung, and I wanted a second chance, but Truck wouldn't give it to me. He leveled the gun at the target and gestured for me to step back.

“Okay,” he said. “On the count of three. Run.”

Truck held a breath, like our dad told us army snipers do. His big chest went still under his letterman's jacket, and the sound of hornets filled the air.

“One.”

I tensed my calves and curled my toes in my sneakers. The sun hung just over the treeline, forcing us to squint. I didn't doubt Truck would hit the nest.

“Two.”

Even carrying the rifle, he would outrun me. He was six inches taller, his legs huge from preseason daily doubles. I wouldn't hit my growth for another year.

His shot broke the air and burst the log into wood chips. I took a step backward and turned to run, but by the time I'd gone ten steps down the hill, Truck had already disappeared into the trees ahead. Hornets buzzed, and my brother's laughter surrounded me, echoing off the hillside, the trees, and the soft earth. I followed his voice until I found the road.

*

Ten minutes later, we drove down Tollman toward home, tucked into my brother's Ford. The hills' reds faded to dark grays as we descended into the valley. Two stings, side by side on my right hand, throbbed whenever my pulse hit them.

Truck asked me if I was okay, and I said yeah. Then he told me to look inside the glove compartment. When I did, I found a tiny package, neatly wrapped—Lizzie must have helped him with it.

I held it up to the window, checking for a note, and asked, “What's this?”

“Open it.”

I unstuck the scotch tape from both ends of the box and carefully unfolded the paper.

“Come on,” said Truck. “It's not a girl on Prom Night. Just rip it open.”

I set the unfolded paper on the floor and opened the box. Inside was a Swiss Army knife.

“You can't,” I said. “Dad gave this to you.”

“So what?” asked Truck. “You think he remembers? It's yours now. Happy birthday”

I squeezed the knife tight in my sore hand.

“Thanks.”

He motioned to a pack of cigarettes in the armrest and told me to light one for him. I put one in my mouth and sucked in as I held his Zippo to the tip. When I tasted smoke, I handed him the cigarette, rolled down the window, and spat.

“Just so you know, when the baby comes, I'm quitting these,” he said. “But until then, I'm smoking as many as I can.”

The Ford curled down the mountain roads and into the valley. The trees lining the roadside shifted from firs to oaks as we descended, and the air got hot. Soon the leaves would go red and yellow, but for now everything was still green, glowing under the streetlights.

 

Our house was a squat two-bedroom below the Boulevard, rented from a friend of our father's who'd made better money than Dad after high school. Truck kept the lawn short, and we'd painted in June, but there was no use trying to fix the inside. The carpet had gone yellow, and the whole place stunk of sweat. Truck vacuumed, sometimes. The furniture was old, our TV topped with ancient rabbit ears and no cable, and the couch sunk permanently in the spot where our father spent his days watching staticky daytime TV, sports when he was lucky.

Dad had wheeled his chair over to his spot at the table when we walked in. He huddled over a quesadilla and listened to a Giants game, turned up way too loud on the radio. As the announcers called balls and strikes, he scribbled furiously in a notebook, annotating each statistic through a private shorthand. He didn't notice we'd come in until Truck pulled a carton of orange juice out of the fridge.

Dad asked us where we'd been but didn't look away from the radio. The Giants were losing again, and I wondered if he'd break out another Juan Encarnacion story. The announcer called a strikeout, and Dad marked a tick under Matt Cain’s name. When Truck poured the juice into two glasses and handed me one, Dad told me to grab him a beer out of the fridge, and I did. I set it on the table, and he grabbed my wrist, holding the swollen stings up the his face.

“Where'd you get that?” he asked.

“Wasps.”

When Truck opened a cupboard and pulled out pasta and a can of Ragu, Dad said, “I asked you where you been.” His hands curled around the arms of his wheelchair, and the blood went out of them. An angry tremble had entered his neck, just under the whiskers, and I was glad again for his accident.

Truck filled a pot with water and put it on the burner. I said, “He took me out to shoot.”

“The hell is wrong with you, James?” Dad asked. He was the only one who still called my brother that.

Truck poured the sauce into a bowl, covered it with a plate, and stuck it in the microwave. As he punched in a time, he said, “It's his birthday.”

Dad looked at me. He cracked his beer and, less angry now, said “You must be a god-damned idiot. Cops catch you, they take my rifle. And you're buying the replacement.”

Truck nodded. He checked the water to see if it was boiling.

My dad went on, “Don't go behind my back again. I swear you're like a bitch sometimes. Where's that gun?”

I fetched the rifle from where we'd left it at the door and brought it to him. He took it from its leather case and turned it over in the light. When he'd satisfied himself that we hadn't marked it, he turned to me and said, “How old?”

“Fourteen.”

“Fourteen, and you still look like your mother.”

 

Later, after Dad had fallen asleep in the cold glow of the Tonight Show, I sat on my bed playing Madden in the dark while Truck finished the dishes. I paused a couple of times to check the number of pens, subject-divided binders, and notebooks in my backpack, but mostly I ran up the score against the Patriots and waited for Truck.

When he walked in, I asked him if he wanted to play, but he said, “Can't. Last night of summer.” He pulled a handle of rum out from a duffel bag in the closet and transferred it to this backpack. “Go on,” he said. “I'll watch til the guys show up.”

I unpaused the game and played for a few more minutes as Truck changed his jeans and shirt. For a second, I caught a glimpse of his bare back and the brand burned there. His skin stuck out in thick pink lines to form a crown without a king, its ridges dull and imprecise like a deformed Pac-Man.

A pair of headlights from the driveway lit up the room, and we turned to see Reggie’s jeep. Truck grabbed his backpack as I walked to the window. Hass hopped out the passenger side door and called over to me, “Hey! Bug!”

Even in silhouette, I could tell Hass had put on muscle in the last month. He wore a tank top and jean shorts, revealing the bumps of his scabbed knees. The headlights pouring out from behind him illuminated patches of unevenly-shaved hairs on his scalp, sticking out above their neighbors like the highest trees on mountain ridges. He held a can of beer in each hand and took a sip from both of them.

Truck opened the window, and said, quieter, “Shut up, Hass. You'll wake my dad.”

“Then get your ass out here! We've got three cases of shitty beer, and we're not drinking it without you.”

Truck slung his backpack over one shoulder and quietly walked out the bedroom door and into the hall. Hass offered a toast to the air, then shotgunned one of the beer cans and set it on the roof of Dad's station wagon. Truck came out the front door of our house.

“Hey,” he said. “Get that off of my dad's car.”

Truck turned to see me watching him from the window and walked up to me.

“Almost forgot,” he said. “You got that yearbook?”

I found it for him on my shelf. I'd gotten the yearbook on my last day of eighth grade and spent a few hours walking around the middle school, getting everyone to sign it. There must have been fifty signatures in there, mostly from girls, and almost all of the white space was taken up with “see you in high school” and “stay cool this summer!” Sam Moon had drawn a pair of tits on the inside cover, and Kallea had written that I was, “the sweetest, smartest kid I know. Don't you dare let the summer go by without calling me.”

Truck looked up at me through the window.

“What's it for?” I asked.

“Recreational use.” He was buttoning up a collared shirt. I handed him the yearbook through the open window, and he stuffed it into his backpack. I knew he and the rest of the Kings would read the inscriptions, that they'd laugh at them. But Truck had asked for the yearbook, and I couldn't deny him.

“Can I come?” I asked.

He shook his head and said, “It's a school night.”

“For you too.”

He looked back at the jeep. They were playing an old Metallica song, and a mess of shadowy arms and heads moved with the music. I couldn't tell if they had girls in there or not.

“Please,” I said, handing him the yearbook.

He stared past me, into the dark of the house and said, “Next time, don't tell dad where I took you.”

He turned and walked to the jeep, where Hass handed him a beer as they got in. Then the driver screamed a woo-hoo, gunned the engine, and reversed onto the street. The music faded into the distance, and when everything was still I closed the window. Our room was dark, except for the glow of the video game. When I’d finished, there'd be nothing to do but lie in bed and imagine where my brother had gone.

 

2.

 

I stood between two orange cones and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. At the far end of the field, a knot of guys and a couple girls kicked at a soccer ball. From time to time, the ball came loose, and the clump of players ran after it, only to get tangled in one spot again. Kallea stood next to me, pretending to play defense. She'd pulled her hair back into a ponytail, exposing the darker-red roots where the summer sun hadn't hit.

“I can't believe you touched your brother's 'gun',” she said. “Gay.”

“You sound jealous.”

“Maybe a little. He is pretty hot.”

She turned her head to look at a nearby field where Truck, Hass and Wood were playing soccer with a handful of other senior guys. Only freshmen were required to take PE, but older students were allowed to sign up for it as an activity. That meant the classes were packed with guys like me on the one hand and older jocks like the Kings on the other.

Truck and his friends stood in a cluster, arguing over a hand-ball and pointing their fingers into each others' chests. Suddenly, Wood kicked the ball off into the distance and gestured after it. The guys stood around for a few seconds until one of the smaller ones ran off to get it.

“I can definitely see why you want to hang out with them,” Kallea said, still staring in their direction. The back of her t-shirt was speckled with a mist of wet, and I took a step toward her. What would she do if I put a hand against the small of her back? I stuck my hands in my pockets.

At the far end of the field, the ball came loose again, and the herd of players charged toward us. Zack Curtis, who should have been playing with Truck and the other seniors, broke loose from the crowd, dribbling the ball in front of him. Kallea was smart enough to get out of the way, but I held my ground between the cones. Zack didn't kick the ball. Instead, he put his shoulder into me, knocking me to the ground, and tapped the ball in for a goal.

Zack looked down at me, grinned, and said, “That's two to zero.” He wore a Nike track suit, and his baggy shadow fell over me. Kallea stood a few feet away, looking at her sneakers. The grass under me, still wet from the morning sprinklers, felt cold against my hands as I started to get up.

Then someone hit Zack hard in the back. He tumbled over to the ground right next to me, his elbows digging into the mud beneath the grass. He breathed in hard, trying to catch the wind that had been knocked out of his lungs. I looked up to see Hass staring Zack down.

“The problem with fucking with someone you don't know,” said Hass. “Is you don't know who you're fucking with.” He stared down at Zach with a smirk: Hass never looked happy when he smiled, only satisfied. The sun lit up white marks on his arms and face from his years working on the ranch and now the auto shop. Even at eighteen, his skin looked like it barely had room for one more scar.

Zack got to his feet, slipping once on the torn-up grass. Flecks of blood dotted his lower lip, and the knees and elbows of his track suit were caked in mud. He told Hass to go screw himself, and Hass jerked forward as if he was going to knock Zack's teeth in. Zack flinched, but the punch never came, and Hass laughed.

“Go play volleyball in the gym with the other chicks,” he said. Zack backed off, his eyes never leaving us. After he was ten steps back, he turned and walked up to the locker room.

“You okay?” Hass asked.

I told him I was, and that he didn't have to do that.

“Course I did,” he said. “You're Little Truck.”

He turned and walked back to the older guys on the nearby field. They'd all stopped playing and were looking at us. As I got up, Truck gave me a little wave. He put an arm around Hass's shoulder as he returned to the field.

“Little Truck?” Kallea laughed.

“At least it's better than when they call me 'Bug',” I said. “You know, like a Volkswagen. Like a Truck, but smaller.”

“That's actually kind of funny.”

I walked to get the ball.

 

At lunch, I found my brother and his friends sitting on concrete benches beneath the towering sequoia at the center of the quad.

The school consisted of four large buildings surrounding an interior courtyard of grass and cracked cement. Even on days when the winds picked up, everything in the courtyard was perfectly still, except for the top of the massive tree, its needles bending high above us. Groups of friends huddled together, holding up their schedule slips to see what classes they shared.

Truck sat in the center of the bench, one arm around Lizzie, the other buried in a brown paper bag. He pulled out a PB and J and finished a third of it in one bite. Lizzie had big Bose earphones pressed over her ears, flattening her wavy blonde hair. Her eyes, usually alert, focused on the air in front of her as she mouthed words to a Lady Gaga song. The other Kings and a pack of younger football players surrounded him, telling stories and removing their white-and-red letterman’s jackets to show off new summer scars.

“You doing okay?” he asked. “Anyone bother you?”

“Nah.” I stood there stupidly, waiting for him to invite me to sit down. He took another bite of his sandwich.

As Lizzie finished mouthing the last few words of her song, she noticed me for the first time and smiled. She pulled off her earphones.

“You want me to scoot over?” she asked, starting to move, but Truck put a hand on her leg.

“Don’t you have, you know, clubs and stuff at lunch?”

“Sure,” I said. “Kallea said something about Quiz Bowl in one of the English classrooms.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Good. You do good.”

 

BOOK: Almost Kings
8.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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