The Popinjays Die Lightly

Caroline Misner

Three days. It’s been three days now and people are starting to ask questions.  David Jones is no longer a name on an attendance sheet; he’s no longer a member of the computer club; he’s no longer one of the blank-faced rabble that pass through the corridors of Hederton High in preparation for a lifetime of obscurity. David has risen above all that. He is now officially “the boy who went missing.”

I sit at the dinner table with my family and prod a mound of tacky mashed potatoes with my fork, trying to look indifferent to the conversation hovering over the plates. Dinnertime is important to my mother. Both she and dad work, but she always makes it home in time to prepare an evening meal for the three of us. We all have to be there with napkins in our laps and proper silverware on the table and the TV off. It’s a ritual performed with the same protocol as a religious rite.

“His mother must be frantic, poor thing,” Mom says and shakes her head and clicks her tongue in sympathy.

“Don’t you know her?” my father asks.

“I know of her. She’s a single mother. It’s just her and David.”

“No word on the boy?”

“None.” My mother turns to me and says, “Gary, you go to school with him. Did you see him anywhere the day he went missing?”

“No.” I try not to look at her but I know she’s looking at me.

“Maybe he ran away,” my father says. “Kids from broken homes tend to do that sometimes.”

“Can’t we talk about something else?” My voice is harsher than I intended and my fork clatters against the plate. I want to flee the table, flee the conversation. But I know better. According to the Rules of the Table, I have to wait to be excused.

“What’s the matter with you?” Dad asks.

“Nothing, I just don’t want to talk about it.” I look to my mother for a grain of support. “Can I be excused now?”

She stares at me, a salt shaker poised over her plate, the machinations of suspicion rolling through her mind. Oh, God, what if she finds out?

“I suppose so,” she says.

A grab a few rolls from the platter in the centre of the table and stuff them in my pockets before dabbing my mouth with my napkin—a feckless exercise since I haven’t eaten much.

“Where are you going?” Dad calls after me as I leave the dining room.

“Out!” I call. “Jim’s having a get-together at his place. I’ll be home late.”

“Don’t forget your key!” Mom calls at my back.

I find my bike in the garage and pedal out past the blocks of proper houses nestled on manicured lawns, past the shopping plaza with its gas station and convenience mart, past the rows of older, more decrepit houses—part of the original neighborhood built before our subdivision encroached on it. Out beyond the twisted roads of the residential area lies the rural communities. Only a few of the farms are still active. Dilapidated houses over a century old squat on fallow land with crumbling barns in the back yard that now house old cars on cinder blocks and broken tractors instead of livestock. I veer to the right and head down Township Route Number 8 toward Jim’s house. The journey takes me a good half hour, even when coasting downhill with the wind at my back. But I don’t mind the ride. The tepid evening breeze whisks the sweat from my face and the exercise energizes my mind, allowing me to think.

We still haven’t decided what to do with him. I want to let him go. Fun is fun, after all, and he’s suffered enough. At first Bryan agreed with me—he agrees with everyone no matter what they say, but Jim promptly shot the idea down. Jim already has three strikes against him and even though he’s a few months shy of his eighteenth birthday, he could still be tried as an adult. He hasn’t set foot in school for months, not since his suspension for threatening the math teacher. He quit, saying the whole school could suck him dry before he sets foot in its halls again.

But that doesn’t stop him from hanging around the property, especially after three when classes let out. Other than me and Bryan, I don’t think he has many more friends, and he waits for us in the parking lot across the street, smoking and eyeing the kids over the rim of his steering wheel. He drives his father’s beat-up old Chevy pickup with rust stains around the bumper and a muffler that sounds ready to drop off. I usually don’t hang out with guys like him. They’re bad news and Jim has already done time in juvenile for break and enter. But he has wheels and I can usually get a ride home if he’s in a good mood. First, though, we have to sit and watch the other kids swarm from the school doors, backpacks swinging from their shoulders. I know most of them and they’re generally a good bunch of kids. But Jim has other ideas and he holds nothing back.

Bryan is his little crony. He always sits wedged in the seat between us, readily agreeing with whatever Jim has to say. He’s not too bright, either. He goes to a special education class for slow learners and there are rumours that he’s borderline autistic. (It’s not nice to say someone’s retarded anymore).

I’ve gotten myself in too deep with these guys. To be honest, I’m a little afraid of them, especially Jim. I know he’s somewhere in the depths of his house. I can hear dishes clattering amid the loud music blasting from the opened kitchen window as I park my bike against a dying oak. The house is like any other in this area: peeling paint stained grey from neglect, sagging porch, missing shingles and a broken upstairs window patched with a sheet of jaundiced newspaper.

A shed stands on a cracked foundation at the opposite end of the weedy property, right at the edge of a neglected field that once produced acres of alfalfa and potatoes. It’s never been painted and the wood is drab and splintered. The door is bolted shut with a chain and padlock. There are no windows except for a cut-out in the shape of a parrot on the door. Jim calls it a popinjay. The shed was built decades ago by his late grandpa, a man who, according to Jim, could do no wrong. He was an old Navy man, served in World War II, a hunter, a marksman, a real man’s man. He even used live birds for target practice, calling them his popinjays. He not only built the shed and the house, but he also single-handedly cleared the land that we now stand upon. We can say whatever we like about the kids in school, the people at the mall, our own parents, even Jim’s drunken lout of an absentee father, but no one—absolutely no one—had dare say a thing about Saint Grandpa.

The shed is quiet for now. David must be sleeping, or more likely passed out. I creep toward the door, hoping no one will see me from the house, and push the dinner rolls through the parrot cut-out on the door. They thump against the floorboards and all is silent again. I turn to head toward the house when I hear the shuffling inside, the sound of dirty denim brushing against wood, the sound of fingernails clawing against the floor.

“Hey!” The voice is as dim and far away as if it came from the bottom of a cellar. David must be getting weaker.

“Hey!” he calls again, his voice a little stronger this time. “Who’s there? Get me out of here!”

He pounds feebly against the door and the padlock jumps. The door rattles and the chain jangles like a ring of keys whose locks have long since been forgotten. I want to turn back and rip the padlock from the bolt but Bryan has already seen me. He’s sitting on the sagging porch steps, gnawing a sandwich and watching me with all the fascination of a toddler at his first circus. I wave and head toward him, trying to ignore the pounding behind me.

“What are you doing?” Bryan calls. Crumbs dribble from his chin and scatter across his lap. He chews with his mouth open and I can see the masticated mash of ham against his tongue.

“Just checking.” I cock my head toward the shed.

“He awake?” Bryan asks.

I nod and wonder if he saw me drop the rolls through the popinjay. For three days I’ve been sneaking whatever food and drinks I could into the shed—half cans of flat Coke, crumbled candy bars from my pocket, broken cookies, whatever I could spare. Jim has forbidden it, at least until he decides what to do with David, but I can’t leave him in the shed like that. If Jim and Bryan suspect anything, they don’t show it.

“He’s banging at the door,” I reply.

Bryan nods and looks past my shoulder. His eyes are so crossed I wonder how he can see anything. It doesn’t matter anyway. The light in his eyes is a dim as a candle on a mountaintop. He shoves the remainder of his sandwich in his mouth and stands up to dust the crumbs from his jeans. He’s so thin he wears a belt cinched at the waist with a few extra holes bored through the leather. His jeans bag against his scrawny hips; they’re faded at the knees and caked with dust.

Jim steps out of the house and looks down at me. For three days now I’m swallowed by a cloud of dread whenever I see him. I used to feel pity for him, but not anymore. After all, he’s had a rough life. You can’t expect much from a kid whose mother abandoned him as a baby and who was raised alone in this ramshackle homestead by his alcoholic father. When I first met him he already had a homemade blue tattoo of a die on his left forearm, pocked with little round scars that looked suspiciously like cigarette burns. He said he gave himself that tattoo during his first stint in juvenile when he got caught shoplifting hockey cards from the Mac’s Milk. He won’t talk about where the scars came from.

“Hey, Gary,” he says. He doesn’t smile much anymore. Only when he goes back to the shed to check on David. Even then, there’s no humor in it.

He steps off the porch and the boards whine under his scuffed boots. The chains around his belt jingle. I want to back away and run, ram the door open with my shoulder and drag David out behind me. But I can’t. I have to look cool. I have to look aloof. If he can do this to David, God knows what he can do to me.

“Hey, Jim,” I say.

“You’re early.”

I shrug, not knowing what to say. Bryan watches us, completely nonplussed by our conversation.

Jim nods his head toward the shed. “What were you doing back there?”

“Nothing.” I kick at the dusty ground with the toe of my running shoe. “Just checking on him.”

“How is he?”

“Awake, I think.” I can’t look at him but I have to do something with my eyes so I look back at the shed.

“You weren’t feeding him, were you?” Jim demands.

“No.” I feign a snicker to hide my disgust. “I just wanted to see how he’s doing.”

“Good.” Jim nods. “Don’t waste food on him. He ain’t going to need it where he’s going.”

“Where?” Bryan pipes in.

Jim grins wickedly. His teeth are stained and the one in the front is dead and black. He won’t say how that happened, either.

“We’re going to have a bonfire at the party tonight.”

Bryan’s eyes spark to life and he smiles stupidly at Jim, who turns and heads back into the house. Bryan trails after him, giggling and begging Jim to tell him more about the party and the bonfire. Who’s going to be there? Where’s the wood for the fire? Can he help light it? Jim won’t answer. He never tells anyone anything he doesn’t want him to hear.

My heart beats so hard I’m afraid it will boom across the yard, afraid David will hear it all the way in the depths of the shed, afraid it will divulge his fate. I can’t believe Jim would even consider such a thing. He always said he’d rather die than go back to juvenile. He’s been pretty good at covering his tracks these last few months, too. From a distance it looks like he’s keeping his nose clean, staying out of trouble, even looking for a job. If only they really knew.

I stand numbly at the foot of the porch and watch Jim and Bryan push through the battered screen door. This has gone far enough.


Sometimes I feel so sorry for all those kids. They don’t know what they’re in for in life. Most of them look downright miserable, or at the very least indifferent. They go through the motions like animated marionettes, oblivious to what’s in store for them. I sometimes wonder what their lives are really like. Are they really happy? Are they loved? Who is waiting for them at home?

Jim and Bryan and I would sit in the cab of his truck in the gas station parking lot across the street and watch the kids pour out of the school. The guys walked in groups, their eyes to the ground in front of them, as though eye making contact would violate some unspoken social taboo. A lot of the guys walked alone, or at the most in pairs, their knapsacks swinging against their backs. These guys weren’t afraid to look one another in the eye. They didn’t care about the conventions of intimacy that eye contact suggests. They didn’t seem to care much about any protocol; they did what they wanted. Those are the ones that pissed Jim off the most.

Jim had an opinion about every one of them and he held nothing back. The girls in their short skirts and thick makeup and expensive shoes were all whores and skanks; the quiet girls in clean fitted jeans and bags bulging with homework were all cock-teasers and Miss Prissy Goody-Two-Shoes. The guys were pigeon-holed into two categories: the jocks and toughs or the nerds and geeks. Those were the ones who travelled in groups. The loners like David Jones were Gweebs, a term Jim made up and used liberally. He despised them the most.

Only a few of us could pass muster in Jim’s book and I was surprised that Bryan and I were among them. I really don’t know what he sees in me. After all, left on my own, I’d probably be a loner like David. Jim once said he liked me because I was always fair and non-judgemental. Perhaps I am. I don’t really see it in myself. Now I’m starting to doubt that. I see a lot of things to judge. Bryan has no other friends and I guess he figures it’s better to be Jim’s ally than his prey.

Jim always has a stash of contraband cigarettes in the glove compartment and the three of us sat smoking and watching the customary parade of kids stream from the school doors. Jim was in an especially foul mood that afternoon. It was Wednesday and the weekend seemed a long way off. He leaned into the steering wheel, sneering insults at all the kids that passed us. A few of them avoided the truck. They had been targets before. The radio was on and Bryan fiddled with the dial, hoping to catch a song that Jim would approve.

“Like this one, Jim?” he kept asking. Jim grunted and shrugged; his eyes narrowed as he peered through the smudged windshield.

We’d been sitting there a long time and I was considering climbing out and heading for home on my own. It was a warm spring afternoon and I didn’t need a ride that badly. The parking lot in front of the school had pretty much emptied by then. A few stragglers loitered under the lamppost and the sign that warned of upcoming exams in only two weeks, smoking and chatting, their heavy backpacks sagging over their shoulders. I didn’t know any of them.

David stepped out of the main building, tucking his hands into his jacket pockets. He stepped toward the curb and checked the traffic in both directions before dashing across the street. He must have not seen Jim’s truck idling in the parking lot. If he had he never would have come so close to it. Jim had tormented him for months prior to his expulsion from school and David knew the avenues of avoidance. After all, he was a pretty smart kid. I guess that’s what made him a scapegoat.

Jim’s eyes lit up like headlights when he saw David. He grinned maliciously and slipped out of the truck before I had a chance to ask him what he intended to do.

“Watch this!” Jim muttered.

Bryan gleefully jumped out and followed him. I could have joined them. Perhaps if I had, I could have prevented it, but I didn’t want to be a part of Jim’s little game. Besides, I never thought he would take it that far.

Jim stepped directly in David’s path. Bryan crept up behind him and the two of them circled David like a pair of predators, blocking any chance of escape. At first David tried to ignore them and walk past, but Jim kept jumping in front of him. Finally, David stopped. I couldn’t hear what he said through the windshield and the drone of engine. He threw up his arms and raised his voice a little higher, probably asking what Jim wanted from him now. Jim laughed and crossed his arms in front of himself. David tried to walk past him but Jim grabbed him by the shoulders and pushed him back. David stumbled over his heels and nearly fell. He regained his footing just as Jim moved toward him. He shouted back at Jim, who only laughed harder.

I was out of the truck by the time David crumpled to his knees. There is an unspoken code of combat that no matter what, no matter how badly you want to kick your opponent’s ass, you do not under any circumstances kick a guy below the belt. Jim’s thick-toed boot hit David’s groin with a thud so loud I could hear it through the windshield.

“Hey!” I called, waving my arms as I ran up to them. “Cut it out! That’s not fair!”

David was on his knees, clutching his crotch and groaning between heaving breaths. I was sure he would throw up. Jim looked up at me, his laughter inviting me to join the fun.

“What?” Jim said. “I shouldn’t kick him there? What about here?”

Jim hauled his foot back and kicked David square in the face. David flew backward, knocking his head against the pavement. Blood spurted from his nose and a deep cut in his upper lip. He hoisted himself up on his elbows and scrambled backwards like a crab.

“You fuck!” he screamed, and blood sprayed from his mouth. His eyes held the desperate fear of a caged animal. He looked up at me beseechingly. He knew I had never deliberately attacked anyone and that I might be his only salvation.

I didn’t know what to do. If I physically tried to stop Jim, he would turn on me, and Jim is almost a head taller and outweighs me by fifty pounds. I looked back at the school. The kids who had stood under the lamppost had scattered and the parking lot was deserted. A few cars trolled by, oblivious to what was happening right there in front of the Shell station. My only hope—David’s only hope—was to calmly try to talk Jim out of whatever he planned to do next. A distraction might be good.

“That’s enough!” I said. “Leave the guy alone. Let’s go hang out at the park. There’s probably some guys drinking there.”

If Jim heard me he didn’t show it. Bryan was excited, bouncing from one foot to the other and flapping his arms like some flightless bird, egging Jim on.

“Don’t be a pussy,” Jim said. I didn’t know if he was speaking to me or to David.

“Leave me alone!” David hollered.

He tried to toddle to his feet but he was still in too much pain from the first blow. He looked desperate, ready to cry. By then Bryan was laughing too

“Like this, Jim?” he squealed.

Just as David managed to stagger to his feet, Bryan grabbed his arm and swung him against the cinderblock wall that separated the gas station from the vacant lot next door. I never would have guessed that Bryan had that kind of strength in his scrawny body. Perhaps it was because David was already weakened from the last two blows. David hit the wall with an audible “oof!” as a rush of air escaped his lungs. The back of his head hit the wall with a crack that sounded like breaking plastic. Something red bloomed against the dry grey brick behind his head. David’s eyes widened as though he’d just been hit with a lightening bolt. His pupils rolled up in their sockets until only the whites were visible. He fell face first into the pavement. He didn’t crumple or slide down the wall with his back against it. He dropped like a tree cut down at the roots and lay with his face in the pavement, blood streaming from the gash in the back of his head. Both arms were splayed and the fingers twitched against the gravely asphalt.

Bryan was still laughing, skittering around David and pointing.

“Shut up!” I screamed. Even Jim had stopped laughing and stood staring down at David.

I’ve never really seen anyone badly hurt before. Once, when I was a kid, we drove past an accident on the highway between a small car and a semi tractor-trailer. The car was charred black and three paramedics were hoisting a gurney with a body on it draped in a white sheet toward the ambulance. I knew whoever was under that sheet was dead and the thought brought a ripple of fear and guilt through my gut, as though I could have somehow prevented the accident, saved that person from dying.

I dropped down beside David’s body. His hair tangled in the wound in his head. Thankfully, the gash wasn’t as deep as I’d feared but the blood kept flowing and soaking the back of his jacket. I nudged him and his head wobbled loosely. His fingers curled into the pavement, the nails scraping up bits of loose stone and dust.

“Oh, shit!” I’d never been so scared in my life. “He’s hurt bad. What have you done?”

“He’ll be okay,” Bryan snickered and rocked David’s body with the toe of his Nike. “Hey, you. Get up. It was just a goof.”

I looked up at Jim. His face had paled into a mask a panic and regret. He backed away, his whole body trembling. I thought he’d puke.

“He’s not okay,” I said. “What are we going to do?”

“Oh, shit!” Jim pulled away and began pacing the sidewalk, shaking his head and smacking his balled fist into the cup of his other hand. “Oh, shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!”

David groaned and rolled his head from side to side. His arms reached out in front of him as though he was trying to crawl away from us. I looked up at the convenience store behind the gas pumps. It was deserted except for an attendant mesmerized by a baseball game on a small TV over the counter. He’d seen nothing.

“I’ll go get help,” I said and got to my feet.

“No!” Jim stopped pacing. The fear had dissipated. He was back in charge.

“He needs to go to a hospital,” I said.

“We’ll take him,” Jim said. “I don’t want nobody else involved.”

“Are you crazy?” I shouted. “It’s too late for that.”

“Help me get him in the truck.” There’s no use trying to talk Jim into doing anything he doesn’t want to do.

David was a lot heavier than he looked. We hoisted him to his feet. His eyes were at half mast with nothing by milky white between the slits of the lids. His head lolled back and fresh blood dripped into the pavement. The slash in his upper lip had already begun to clot into a jammy scab. He moaned again and tried to stand but his knees bent awkwardly under him.

“It’s okay, buddy,” Jim cooed as though David was suddenly his best friend. “You’re going to be okay. We’ll get you to the hospital.”

On the count of three we lifted him into the truck bed littered with garbage and grit and empty jerry cans. The straps of his backpack slipped off his shoulders and Bryan pulled it off.

“Aren’t we going to put in him in the cab with us?” Bryan asked.

“No room,” Jim said.

We slipped into the cab and Jim gunned the engine. We sped through a yellow light in the first intersection. Cars in the turning lane screeched and blared their horns at us. I sat wedged between Bryan and Jim, who drove too fast, his chin propped on the top of the steering wheel and his jaw clenching and unclenching. I kept looking back at the rear window, half expecting to see David make a miraculous recovery and leap from the truck bed into the streaming midday traffic. A part of me hoped he’d do it.

Bryan rifled through David’s knapsack. There wasn’t much in there: some dog-eared notebooks and homework sheets stuck between the pages of a math textbook, a plastic water bottle with some warm water still sloshing near the bottom. And a cell phone.

“Hey, look at this!” Bryan said and held it up to show us. Jim couldn’t have cared less and ignored him. I snatched the phone away from Bryan.

“Give me that!” I said and stabbed my thumb into the buttons, hoping to find the directory. Maybe we could call someone and let them know what had happened to David.

“What are you doing?” Bryan asked.

“I have to call his parents. Let them know.”

“No!” Jim barked and jerked his chin from the wheel. “I don’t want nobody knowing what happened.”

“They have to know!”

“Not yet!” Jim growled and pressed his rigid chin back into the steering wheel. “Now shut up and let me think.”

“There’s nothing to think about.” I looked out the window. We were speeding past the strip mall at the edge of town, out toward the country.

Bryan noticed it too and said, “Where’re we going? This isn’t the way to the hospital.”

“Change of plans,” Jim said. “We’re not going to the hospital.”

“But we have to; he’s hurt!” I said.

“We don’t have to do nothing!” By now Jim’s cheeks were flushed, and globes of sweat leaked down his brow. “If we take him to the hospital, they’re going to ask all kinds of questions I don’t want to answer. I’ve got my two strikes. One more and I’m tried as an adult. Not juvenile. The real thing. And I ain’t going. I don’t care what I have to do. I ain’t going.”

I really thought Jim had lost his mind at that point. I didn’t know what to say. I tucked David’s phone into the front pocket of my jeans and slumped in the seat, one eye on the rearview mirror, hoping David would sit up and wave to a passing car.

Jim turned down the two-lane road leading up to his property.

“What do you plan to do?” I asked.

“We’ll keep him at my place,” Jim replied. “The old man’s out on a job for the rest of the week and I got a shed out back we can keep him in till I figure something out.”

“You’re out of your mind,” I said. “People are going to start looking for him.”

“Shut up and let me think!”

A dog barked from some distant place as we rolled to a stop on the grassy patch that separated the house from the shed. Jim had driven right over the gravel laneway and across the yard to the back of the house. We slipped out and peered into the truck bed. David was still there, coated with dust and road grit. But at least his eyes were opened and staring fearfully at us. He lay on his back, one arm bent around him and cradling his head. He panted like a wounded animal, his bloodshot eyes darting from Jim to me to Bryan.

“Help me.” His voice was strained and a gurgle echoed in the back of his throat. “I’m hurt bad. I think I have a concussion.”

“You’ll be okay.” I tried to sound reassuring but I only came off sounding stupid.

Jim didn’t say anything. He rounded the truck and pulled a string of jangling keys from his belt. He used one to unlock the shed. The door swung open and a beam of sunlight shot through the popinjay cut-out, casting a golden silhouette against the dusty ground.

“You can stay here for a bit,” Jim said to David as he and Bryan lifted him from the truck.

David’s feet wobbled beneath him but he managed to stand on his own. He looked behind him at the dark yawning shed and a shot of panic froze in his eyes.

“No!” he wailed.

He tried to run away but Jim and Bryan held him fast by both arms. They half carried, half dragged him toward the shed, David’s legs flailing and dragging in the ground like a drunk being tossed from a bar. They pushed David headfirst into the shed. David tried to make a run for it; he put his head down and charged like a wild bull. Jim smacked him with the door and shoved him back in.

“Get in there, you fucker!” he hollered.

David kept wailing “Noooooo!” and throwing himself at the door, making it difficult for Jim to secure the bolt and snap the lock into place. We stepped back and watched. I don’t know where David found the strength. He screams were muffled and the door shook; the lock jumped under the force of each blow.

“Let me out!” he screamed, and the door thumped again.

We watched for I don’t know how long. A few times I thought he’d actually break the door down. I could hear wood splinter near one of the hinges. But it held its place. David’s screams gradually grew duller and weaker, and the thudding against the door dwindled. It was nearly dark by then. David was sobbing and scratching at the wood. White fingertips poked through the popinjay and clawed at the edge. Finally we heard him collapse. The sobs in his throat were coarse as grains of sand.

“You swear you won’t tell nobody?” Jim demanded when we walked back to the house and stood on the porch.

“I swear!” Bryan held up two fingers like a dutiful boy scout.

Jim looked over at me. His face hung whitely in the encroaching dusk. “What about you?”

“Jim….” I stammered. How could I swear allegiance to something like this?

“Swear it!”

“People are going to be looking for him….”

“Swear it, you fucker!” Fury blazed in his voice. “Swear it now, or I’ll kill. I’ll hunt you down like an animal and kill you.”

“Okay. Okay.” I held up both hands defensively. There was no doubt in my mind that Jim would do it.

“Just till I figure out what to do with him,” Jim said and held out his hand. “Now give me the phone.”

I was hoping Jim had forgotten about that. I reached into my pocket and gave it to him. A smile splayed across Jim’s lips as he toyed with the buttons, the screen illuminating his face in pale green light. He tucked it into his own pocket and went into the house without saying another word to me or Bryan.

It took me two hours to walk home that night.


Jim toyed with that phone over the next couple of days. We gathered around and checked the messages every time that phone rang. I pretended to laugh along with Jim and Bryan, but my heart wasn’t in it, especially after the second day. Most of the messages were from his mother and grew increasingly desperate. A girl named Amanda sent a couple to him, and some guy who only signed off with the name JB wanted to know why he hadn’t shown up for class Thursday morning:

Wednesday 5:45 pm:
David. I’ve been trying to reach you all afternoon. Call home soon as you can. Mom

Wednesday 7:16 pm:
David. If you’re not home by curfew, you’re in big trouble, mister. Call and let me know where you are. I’ll pick you up. Mom.

Wednesday 9:04 pm:
It’s getting late. Call me. Mom.

Wednesday 11:17 pm:
Ok. It’s past curfew and you are now officially grounded. Get your ass home now!

Wednesday 11:42 pm:
Hi, Dave. Your mom called asking if I knew where you were. Haven’t seen you all day. Call me or your mom. Amanda

Thursday 12:12 am:
This isn’t funny, David. I’m getting worried. Call me now! Mom

Thursday 1:37 am:
I got you this phone for a reason. You can kiss that field trip goodbye. You are in big trouble. I have no intention of waiting up for you all night. I got work in the morning.

Thursday 6:18 am:
You are really trying my patience, buddy. If you don’t call in an hour, I’m going down to the school. Mom.

Thursday 7:59 am:
Time’s up. You are in so much trouble! Just wait till I get my hands on you!

Thursday 9:27 am:
Hey, Buddy! Missed class this morning. Big test. Mr. B says you can make it up tomorrow. Your mom’s been calling wanting to know where your at. Call me. JB

Thursday 11:03:
David, if you don’t call me right now, I’m calling the police. I mean it. I don’t have time for this nonsense. Mom.

Thursday 2:11 pm:
I called the police. School is looking for you too. You better have a good excuse! Mom

Thursday 5:27 pm:
No one’s seen you. Where are you???? Mom.

Thursday 6:51 pm:
Saw your mom crying in the school office this pm. Cant find you nowhere. Call. JB

Thursday 8:55 pm:
Everybody looking for you. Police asked me if I saw you today. Told them no. Better call soon. Amanda

Thursday 11:49 pm:
David. Please come home!!! Love, Mom.

Friday 8:14 am:
Still no hear from you. Call. JB.

Friday 10:45 am:
Oh, god! David where are you????

Jim started to panic. He threw the phone across the yard and it landed in the weeds in a plume of dust. We’d skipped school on Friday and met at Jim’s place. I knew we’d be in big trouble for truancy, but it would be nothing compared to the trouble we’d be in once David was found. Besides, there was a cop at school now, interviewing all the students. I didn’t want to be a part of it.

“I told you they’d come looking for him,” I said. I pushed some of the stalks aside, brittle and dry as shredded wheat. I found the phone in a nest of tangled weeds and shoved it into my pocket. “Great, you broke it.”

“Good,” Jim snarled. His lip curled like a caged pit bull. He kicked at the ground and started pacing in his customary way. “They won’t be able to trace him.”

“What do we do now?” Bryan asked.

Jim pushed him aside and refused to look him in the eye. “I don’t know. Let me think.”

“You’ve been thinking for three days now,” I said. “We should just let him go.”

“No!” Jim slapped his fist into his hand. “Not with the cops involved. They’re not taking me in!”

“We have to do something.”

“Tonight.” Jim straightened his shoulders and stared down at me and Bryan, his grin widening with growing malice. “I’ll figure something out by tonight. Meet me back here after supper.”

What kind of supper would Jim have? Perhaps a can of cold beans; if he was lucky, a stale sandwich from whatever he could scrounge in the mostly empty fridge. At least it would be more than David got.

Jim stomped into his house, slamming the screen so hard it bounced back a couple of times on its hinges. I boarded my bike and headed home, hoping to catch the message on the answering machine from the school. With any luck, my parents would never know. No one would ever know.


People have started to arrive. Most of them are older than us. They’re all Jim’s friends, the ones he met in juvenile or at the bars he frequents using a fake ID. They arrive in old cars with crippled mufflers and pick up trucks like the one Jim drives. They’re out in the far field now, smoking and drinking from the cases of beer they lugged from their vehicles. I doubt they know about David. Not even Jim would be that stupid, even when he’s drunk.

I can see the apricot glow of the bonfire in the far field. The partiers are whooping and laughing and piling splintered boards onto the flames. Bryan is with them, probably feeling like an insider for the first time in his life. He’s not much of a drinker and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before he gets sick. I wonder how long it will be before those people turn on him, make him their sacrificial lamb. It doesn’t take much. They prey on the weak and Bryan is the weakest person I know.

I can’t bear to join them. I don’t know them and I don’t want to know them. I turn away and head out to the yard. Stars are scattered like paper glitter across the sky, smoky now from the bonfire. The shed is eerily quiet. Surely David must know what’s going on. The music and the noise are echoing off the still night. I tap at the door.


There is a low shuffling inside the shed but David doesn’t speak. I pull his phone from my pocket and turn it on. There are more messages waiting for him but I don’t read them. They’re personal. I dial 9-1-1. The phone barely fits through the popinjay but I manage to push it through. It lands with a thump inside.

More shuffling behind the door, then a weak voice:

“This is David Jones. Help.”


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