Clint’s sleeping body takes a breath, stretches and rolls over. The large man wearing a white coat scribbles notes on his pad while the dim sunrise light peeks through the window. Clint’s body rolls back to its original position. The white coat checks his watch and then checks off a box on his notepad.
Clint stands on top of the living room sofa, floor lamp in hand, ready to repel invaders.
“Get back! All of you! No one come closer!”
Clint swings the floor lamp around the room. Most people find it difficult to mount a defense with a floor lamp from atop a sofa with one’s back literally against the wall. But fear for one’s life is a strong motivator and Clint manages his defense with aplomb.
“Clint baby, just come down off the couch and put down the lamp. I can explain everything.” His mother waits in the doorway of the living room holding a plate full of fresh, steaming pancakes. Behind her stands the white coat, his hand always scribbling.
“I’m not coming down until he leaves!” Clint points the floor lamp at the white coat and the white coat’s scribbling increases.
“Kevin’s not going to–“ his mother turns back to the white coat and whispers, “You’re not going to hurt him are you?” The white coat takes a break from scribbling to adjust his glasses and shake his head no.
“See Clint? He’s not going to hurt you. He’s just here to record what you do during the day. He’s not going to hurt you. It’s like he’s your friend.”
“I don’t need friends.” Clint pulls the lamp up, holding it like lance or spear. “Jake’s my friend and that’s all I need!” Clint steps back. But his foot slips out from under him and Clint falls into the empty space between the wall and the sofa.
“Oh dear, he’s done it again.” Clint’s mother holds out the plate of pancakes to Kevin. “Would you hold these please?” But Kevin taps his notepad with his eraser and shakes his head no. “Oh right, we’re supposed to act like you’re not here. Well, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Clint has noticed you’re here. Take these pancakes so I can help my son.”
“I think I broke my leg,” comes from behind the couch.
Kevin scribbles even faster.
“He’s faking it. He says he breaks his leg every other day.” Clint’s mother leaves the plate in Kevin’s hand and then pulls Clint out from behind the sofa. “Are you ready to calm down and eat breakfast?”
Clint and his mother sit at the table finishing breakfast. Clint sops up the last of the syrup with his final bite of pancakes. The remaining pancakes sit to his right and Kevin stands against the opposite wall to Clint’s left.
“Are you sitting like that so you can protect the pancakes from Kevin? Because it’s pretty strange how just a few minutes ago he scared you and now you’re willing to sacrifice your body to protect the pancakes.”
“They’re really good pancakes mom.”
Clint twists to grab another pancake but instead slaps the plate and sends it sliding across the table, towards Kevin and the edge, where it drops off.
With speed his girth belies, Kevin kneels to the ground, rolls over the linoleum, and pops up the catch the plate of pancakes. He then places the plate of pancakes on the table and retreats back to his note-taking corner.
“Did you see that Clint? Kevin just saved your pancakes. What do you say when someone does something nice for you Clint?”
Clint grabs another pancake and douses it with syrup. He stuffs an enormous bite (“Not that big Clint! You’ll choke!” Kevin’s pencil scribbles frantically.) into his mouth, chews, swallows, and washes it down with milk.
“Yeah, I guess Kev’s OK.”
“Go straight to school. And don’t talk to Jake. He’s just trouble. Take the school bus. Don’t walk to school anymore Clint.”
“Mom, why won’t you just let it go? That won’t happen anymore. I promised. C’mon Kev.” Clint pushes Kevin down the steps, down the path, and through the gate.
Clint and Kevin arrive at the bus stop on Pine and Redding just as the school bus pulls away. Kevin gives Clint an uncertain look.
“Naw. We’re not allowed to run after the bus anymore. One time the kids in back opened the emergency door for me and Jake and everyone got in trouble.”
Kevin keeps writing.
“You’re not so bad. You just scared me this morning. But I got you something.” Clint pulls a pair of socks out of his pocket and stuffs them in Kevin’s white coat pocket. “They’re my dad’s. One thing dad taught me, you never know when you’re gonna need a dry pair of socks.” Clint pulls off his backpack to open it and shows Kevin the inside. “See? I got a pair too.”
Kevin makes another note.
“Looks like you got a scientist too.”
Clint looks up to see a dark haired boy his age emerging from the early morning shadows. “They said I didn’t need one.” The dark haired boy stares into Kevin’s face. “They probably think I’m too dangerous to get my own scientist. Probably think I’ll damage my own scientist.” He leans over and spits on the ground next to Kevin’s shoe. “Whaddya think about that Mr. Scientist?”
“Stop it Jake!” Clint pushes Jake down. “Stop being mean to Kevin!” Clint looks back at the white coat. “Sorry about that. Jake likes to act like he’s mean but he’s only 12 like me.”
Down on the ground, Jake lands back in the shadows and his body loses some of its form in the darkness. But his voice loses none of its strength.
“Oh ho, looks like Tubby’s got some fire in the belly this morning. You’re gonna pay for that son.”
From the time Jake arrives until the time Jake gets back on his feet, Kevin fills up three pages in his notepad. Kevin’s notepad isn’t very big.
“So this is Jake. He’s not really that mean. He likes to call me Tubby and he says that’s my nickname but I don’t really like it.”
Kevin pauses writing to slap his largish belly.
“Yeah, I noticed you got one too. Think that’s why they paired us up together?”
Kevin keeps writing.
Clint keeps talking.
“I’ve never had a scientist. Everyone says it’s because I’m boring. But I guess I’m not that boring huh?”
Peering over the edge of his notepad, the white coat gives Clint the quickest of winks.
Jake limps over to them but the shadows follow him and it’s hard to see his back. “Tubby, that fall sure did mess me up. My legs are all kinked up.”
“Whatever Jake. We gotta go to school. C’mon Kev.” Clint starts walking the same direction as the bus that left the two boys.
“Actually Tubby, we’re going a different way. You owe me for pushing me over. We’re taking the Death March to school.”
“But mom said-“
“I don’t care what mom said Tubby. We’re taking the Death March to school. And so is Chuckles.” Jake points at Kevin. Kevin’s eyebrows rise into his forehead.
“Don’t worry Kev. No one has ever died on the Death March. I mean, Jake hasn’t died and I haven’t died.”
Kevin makes a final note and uses his pencil to point at his chest and then at Clint’s chest and then points at Jake’s back marching off proud and strong in the sunlight, walking away from Clint and Kevin.
“I guess we have to go. I mean, he’s my only friend.”
Clint and Kevin follow Jake.
The two boys and the scientist arrive at the top of a grassy slope that slides down into the river coursing through the town. Each person carries a piece of cardboard scavenged from behind a grocery store.
“Chuckles? This here is Dead Man’s Last Drink. We slide down the hill on these here cardboard sheets. But you gotta make sure you smash into that rock or tree down there.” Jake points at the rock and tree at the slope’s bottom. “That’s the only thing that’ll keep you from shooting off into space and down into the river below. You might not die but you’ll get wet and cold.”
Everyone examines the slope again.
“Now, while you lovebirds talk, I’m gonna show you how a real man does it.” Jake slaps his cardboard down on the ground, lays on it face first, and uses his hands to push onto the hill’s slope. Soon gravity takes over and the cardboard slides over the tall grass still wet with dew. Jake picks up speed and turns his board so his feet point downhill. He gives both Clint and Kevin the middle finger. Jake rotates back to the river, turns to the left, and comes to a gentle stop against the tree.
“See you soon suckers!” Jake runs down the path and into the woods following the river.
“You want to do it together?”
In answer, Kevin places his cardboard on the ground and kneels on it.
“That’s weird a position Kev. We usually lay down.”
Kevin mimes writing.
“Suit yourself.” Clint lies down on his board. “On three, right? One-two-three.” The scientist and the boy push off together and start sliding down the slope. Clint lets out a war cry as they gain speed and Kevin, still on his knees, takes notes. Soon both scientist and boy realize their sleds point at the gap between the tree and rock and the empty space beyond that gap.
Clint leans to the left and leans to the right but his sled never changes course. He tries again but nothing happens again and the gap between the tree and rock comes closer.
“Kev! Kev! I can’t steer. I can’t turn. What do I do? What do I do Kev?”
Kevin lifts his pencil from pad to eyeball the distance from sled to gap. He consults his list of rules on the front of his pad and crosses out first one then two directives not in agreement with him. Then Kevin tucks both pencil and pad into his white coat pockets and tenses his body.
Kevin launches off his sled and into the air. As he soars over Clint, he grabs the boy’s outstretched hands and the two tumble into the rock, Kevin’s body absorbing most of the shock.
Both sleds slip off the edge and into the river below.
After checking on Clint, Kevin resettles his glasses and takes out his pad and pencil.
Clint takes a deep breath and then another deep breath and realizing that won’t be enough starts full blown panting. He tries to talk.
He takes a few more breaths and Kevin scribbles. “We should do something like that again. I mean, maybe not the exact same thing. But something. Something that cheats death. That would be fun.”
A dark shadow pokes out of the wood then stops. Jake’s voice comes from the stand of trees. Kevin and Clint can barely see Jake. The trees obscure his form.
“Are you love birds gonna lie around all day? We’ve got a Death March to finish and we can’t stand for whatever it is you two are doing.”
Kevin starts taking notes about Jake. Even from his hiding place, Jake sees what Kevin writes. “You know the rules Chuckles. You can only observe your person. You can’t observe me. Hell, around you I’m practically invisible.”
Kevin goes back to making notes about Clint, whose breathing has slowed down, whose cheek color has changed from red to peach, whose worried look in his eyes has softened but not totally gone away because when you almost die you come out the experience a little bit different and start thinking maybe you should have a second helping of spaghetti and meat sauce because who knows?
Clint and Kevin jog up the path and deeper into the woods, Clint looking ahead for Jake and Kevin always taking notes. After a few seconds, Jake’s back comes into view. Two follow one on a path turning back to the river and following its banks.
“It’s like a game of Simon Says. Whatever Jake does we have to do.”
Kevin scribbles another note.
Up ahead Jake leaps over a fallen log, zigzags between four trees, and vaults over a tree stump like it’s a pommel horse. Clint mimics Jake’s movement perfectly; when Jake passes directly under the sun, his shoulders and back look firm and strong. Kevin manages to do everything without interrupting his note taking.
The gap between them closes and the three run as one, dodging rocks, leaping over trees, swinging from branches, no one talking, footfalls and pencil scratching the only sounds.
“We’re going to Dead Man’s Last Fall!” Jake speeds ahead to the lone tree on the river bank, grabs a vine, and swings across the river to the other side. “You guys ready?” The sun shines on Jake, catching his face and eyes. He looks bigger than the twelve year old that fell in the shadows earlier this morning.
Jake swings the empty vine back across empty space to the other bank where Clint catches it.
Clint tugs at the vine. “I’ll go first and then you can follow me.” But Kevin stows his pad and pencil in his white coat pocket and finds his own vine. He tugs at it, grabs it with both hands and leans back on his heels. After a few seconds he stands back up and gives Clint the thumbs up.
“So we’re going together?”
Another thumbs up.
“I’ve never done Dead Man’s Last Fall with someone. This’ll be fun. This’ll be just like Dead Man’s Last Drink.”
Kevin grimaces at Clint’s last words.
“Well, hopefully not just like Dead Man’s Last Drink.” Clint looks across the river. “We should go or Jake’s gonna get mad at us.”
Clouds drift across the sky and cover the sun, blocking the light falling on Jake’s shoulders, sending Jake back into the shadows.
Clint and Kevin, holding onto their vines, back away from the riverbank as far as their vines allow them. Together they run at the river and just as the bank gives way to the water’s edge, man and boy hoist themselves up the rope, pull up their legs and do their best impression of Tarzan.
Actually, Clint swings across the river with both feet peddling madly, looking for purchase in the air, finding none, and peddling faster.
Kevin swings in parallel with Clint; Kevin’s legs extended forward with heels together, his entire body approaching a ninety-degree angle. The scientist holds himself with one hand; the other hand has already found his pencil and takes notes on the cuff of his white shirt.
Man and boy look up when a snap comes from above and both see Clint’s vine sliding out of the trees. Kevin puts his pencil in his mouth and acts.
He reaches for Clint and grabs the back of his shirt. The weight of Clint’s body drags Kevin’s arm down. The useless vines dangles from Clint’s hands just as Clint dangles from his shirt help by Kevin. Once they swing over land, Kevin drops Clint and then releases his vine so he can land close to Clint.
“That was amazing. I thought I was dead.” Clint looks excited but in reality he starts shaking. Kevin pulls out his pad to take notes but thinks better of it. Instead he draws Clint close so that both of Kevin’s strong arms wrap themselves around Clint’s body. Clint buries himself into the white fabric of Kevin’s coat and shakes some more.
Another cloud passes across the sun and the entire riverbank falls into shadow.
“Hey Chuckles!” Jake runs over to them. “What the hell do you think you’re doing trying to kill my friend?” Jake tries to punch Kevin in the arm but Kevin brushes him off and sends Jake sprawling.
“I’m tired off following him. But what if he gets hurt?” said Clint. Once again, Kevin and Clint follow Jake’s back through the shadowed forest.
Kevin and Clint enter a clearing to see Jake mounting the large rock standing close to the glade’s center.
“Hey Chuckles! This is the talking rock! Only the brave can climb it. When you get up here you have to tell your secrets. Secrets about your father. Are you brave enough? Are you man enough?”
Clint and Kevin plod through the tall grass, following Jake’s disappearing trail. “Don’t listen to him Kev. He’s just jealous. You make him feel weird. I, umm, I’ve never had another friend before. I’ve only had Jake.” The two shuffle through the grass.
“Mom always tells me to hang out with other kids. But that doesn’t make sense. I mean, I know Jake is bad. But since I already hung out with Jake, the other kids think I’m bad too. Don’t they?”
“Friends are weird because they say they’re your friend but if you don’t want to do what they want to do, you get in trouble and they say they don’t want to be your friend.”
“And when my father is not at home because he’s driving his stupid truck, I take care of my mom. I make sure she knows when there’s no food in the house and I make sure she knows when she needs to clean the bathroom.” Jake, standing atop the rock, puts his hands on his hips. The clouds part and let the sun shine on him.
“Really?” says Clint behind him. “That doesn’t sound nice. When we don’t have food in the house and Dad isn’t there, Mom says ‘real men go to the store’ and then she gives me money and a list.”
Clouds sweep across the sky and take away the light shining on the rock. Kevin takes notes.
“Chuckles! I told you no note taking about me!” Kevin stops and points his pencil at the sky and then keeps writing. “You’re taking notes about the weather? Whatever.” Jake tries to stomp away from Clint but runs out of rock and stops. “When my dad is gone, I protect the house.”
Jake smiles and the sun shines on him again.
“That makes no sense Jake. You’re 12. Who are you going to stop?”
“What’re you talking about? It’s home defense. What do you do at night when your dad’s not at home?”
“Usually mom and I play board games or play Legos.”
“Why don’t you watch TV?”
“Mom says it’s bad for me. She says me hanging out with you is bad enough. That I don’t need other bad influences in my life.”
Clouds cover the sun again and plunge the entire glade into darkness.
“I don’t like the way you’re acting Clint. Take it back.” Jake turns to face Clint. Clint has a hard time seeing his arms, legs, and shoulders in the darkness.
“I’m not taking it back. You always want me to do bad things. And I’m tired of that.”
Jake screams and runs at Clint to shove him off the rock. But instead Jake’s body passes through Clint and he runs off the rock and lands next to Kevin, always taking notes.
Clint climbs down the rock. “It’s time to leave Jake. We have to go to school.”
Kevin and Clint walk out of the glade and Jake straggles behind.
Two boys and one man stand atop a slope. A path follows the ridge of the slope. Down the path in one direction lays the school; they can see its roof from where they stand even though tall trees cast their shadow on the entire building. In the other direction waits an open field full of sunlight, daffodils, and butterflies.
Kevin sketches the path on his notepad, taking care to draw the shadows surrounding the school and to illustrate the field bathed in sunlight.
“C’mon Jake. We gotta get to school. We’re not that late.” Kevin and Clint start walking down the path.
“Don’t leave Clint. I need you.” Clint stops and looks back at Jake still waiting under a tree. He looks small and frail, like someone needs to watch out for him. “Just come with me one more time, just come with me. I need you Clint. Come with me and we’ll have such a good time.”
Clint turns back to Kevin but Kevin points to the school.
“We’ve been friends for such a long time Clint. Don’t leave me like this. I feel broken. Broken and run down. You wouldn’t leave a friend would you??
Clint looks from Jake to Kevin and back again. Then he pulls off his backpack and runs up to Kevin.
“Take this. He’s my friend, right?” He puts the backpack in Kevin’s hands. “And take care of mom. Tell her not to be worried.”
The two boys walk off in the sunshine.
“I’m gonna show you Dead Man’s Last Home.”
Banner Image: Plate of Pancakes By Renee Comet (Photographer) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons