I liked to roam around the woods outside of Broadway after school, instead of going home. This was common practice; Dad didn’t seem to realize school ended the same time every day, so unless I showed up at the trailer he didn’t start bothering me.
The forest—Kingwood’s namesake—bordered a marsh, and the soil always flooded. Only fresh ferns and towering trees sprouted from the earth, and I stepped around both as I wandered through the woods, wasting time.
A loud metallic snap clapped in my ear. A blackbird began screeching from the ground behind me—a distress call, same shrill note played on repeat. I followed the sound: one of the iridescent birds, a male grackle, struggled on the ground. One wing flapped, the other stuck extended; the bird pivoted on the wrecked wing, incapable of understanding its body was broken, or determined to fight anyway.
It struggled doubly as a chubby, pale young boy approached, air rifle in hand, serious look on his face. The grackle’s frantic calls sped in rhythm, sporadic squalling, as the boy’s foot lowered on its head.
A muffled pop. The bird fell silent.
Shocked, I studied the boy. The landlord’s son. Our age, but he didn’t fit in with the rest of our friends. For one, Kent’s dad tortured our parents—and us—regularly. Kent was an outcast twice-over, lonely prince of a place no one wanted anything to do with.
Kinda weird, too. Short blond hair, big angular head, chubby body like something half-melted off an ice cream cone. Eyes squinted into angry slits, like the bird wronged him somehow; or, maybe angry at himself for killing the grackle.
I started to back away, planning to avoid a conversation.
"Hey, Jacob." No luck.
“Hey,” I said. “What are you doing?”
“I have to kill grackles,” Kent answered, voice thick and all mumbles like the words were mauled by two tongues.
“Dad says they’re keeping customers away.” My strange neighbor stared at the still bird below us. “I hate when they don’t die fast. Come on, I gotta go get the shovel."
Kent started walking back to the trailer park; I followed. I always had trouble saying 'no' to the kids I knew. In my mind, it was worth any cost to keep them together.
“I have to kill three grackles a day.” He sounded sad.
We stopped at the corner of the Broadway property, where the nicest trailer on the lot sat. The home of the landlord, hulking and squat, white plastic glistening in the sun.
Kent’s dad slept under an awning. Rolls of fat spilled out from the sides of the lawn chair. Dad once warned me to stay away from Mr. Gimble—fairly easy advice to follow, because the landlord seemed violent and pissed off at all times.
A sweaty thatch of faded blond hair gave way to fat cheeks and thick jowls. What struck me most was how sad Kent’s dad looked. Not mad at all. Just a defeated frown, like he was about to start bawling in his sleep. Like dreaming was torment. Like it hurt to be.
I could guess the cause of his nightmares: the landlord hated being alone with himself.
Kent motioned for me to follow him into the trailer; I did so, creeping over the grass and up the steps. I held the door for Kent then closed it gently behind me, relieved to be safely inside. My companion flipped on the lights, revealing the glistening surfaces of a high-quality mobile home, full kitchen and untarnished living room. He leaned the air rifle against the corner and motioned for me to follow to his room.
A knock on the door. The entire trailer shook; the sound came from the opposite side, away from the slumbering landlord. Kent crossed the living room and opened the back door.
One of the other trailer park kids—one of my friends—stood in the doorway. A young girl, lips pressed tightly together, stress evident in the lines on her forehead. Cameron stood with her hair an angry mess of strawberry blond curls and a package of sugar in her hand. The paper bag of sugar was unopened but looked ancient and dirty.
“Mom sent me to give your dad this,” Cameron said, voice listless and tired. “Hi, Jacob.”
“Hey, Cameron,” I responded.
“My dad’s asleep,” Kent said. “You should go before he wakes up.”
Cameron nodded, tension released immediately, smooth complexion returning. A sound came from the opposite end of the trailer; the creaking of a lawn chair and cursing, a steady low mumble like the idling of a diesel truck. “Go!” Kent said, yelling at her. She turned and hurried away, sugar still in hand.
Just as Cameron left, the landlord pushed the front door of the trailer open, dark figure forming a silhouette in the sunlight, dimensions too grotesque to be a proper human. The steady stream of curses was broken up by three real words: “Who was that?”
“Just Jacob,” Kent said, pointing his thumb at me.
Mr. Gimble stepped inside, twisting his body slightly to fit through the door, fat gut so prominent it might be the egg from which he was still emerging. Once inside, he stopped and judged me with two eyes, beady dots guarded by tall mounds of flesh. “No friends over,” he declared between heaving breaths.
Kent shrugged helplessly.
“I said no friends over!” Mr. Gimble shouted a moment later. I jumped, shocked by the sudden outburst, fear rising within my chest. Kent pushed open the back door and put another hand behind my back, forcing me through. I didn’t argue, hurrying out instead. Kent followed, sighing in relief the moment he stepped outside.
A symphony of squawks sent me staring at the sky. Grackles swarmed the area, flocks dividing and uniting like warring nations across the trees, the history of the Earth played out at a million times the speed. They seemed to love Mr. Gimble’s trailer. Perhaps they kept an eye on their stalker.
“Goddamnit Kent!” a voice roared from inside the trailer. The steady stream of curses renewed; I turned to Kent, who turned ashen.
“What’d you do?” I asked.
My neighbor shrugged, bottom lip trembling, eyes wet. The answer was obvious, the question redundant: he’d done something, somewhere—or maybe nothing, nowhere—and would be punished.
I grabbed Kent’s arm. “Come on. Come with me.”
He shook his head no and brushed my hand away. No escape from one's own parents. The door of the trailer opened; the snarling creature emerged, face blood-red. Survival instincts kicked in: I ran, leaving Kent to his fate.
I jogged out of the park. Strange how even the open air made me claustrophobic.
The paths within Broadway were rough gravel; thick white shale shifting under my feet as I walked. There was a special way you learned to move on this kind of rock, always expecting the ground to slide out from under you, for pebbles to shoot out under your step from a clumsy kick or shifting weight. No going barefoot. Where the path ended, a slick black road connected Broadway to the rest of Kingwood. The road, property of Kingwood County. Broadway? Mr. Gimble’s.
The way was lonely; Broadway was situated pretty far away from anything people would be interested in; especially Kingwood people. A crisp white Suburban flew down the street, gleaming in the morning light. Baby on board. Child seats and DVD players. Smiling moms, perhaps Pamela returning from vacation to find she was a musician again.
YOU ARE READING
[sic]Mystery / Thriller
Six teens are devoted to a game with one rule: If a player gets tagged, they must change their life within the next fifteen minutes. The better the player, the bigger the change. One might give their car away, or punch the school bully. Another migh...