“I don’t know about you guys, but I just about started to drink that day Jason got caught in 6th grade.” I tipped back the coffee for the last dribble and put up a hand to see if Shirley, who was working the counter could get me another pour.
“Yeah, I still can’t believe we sent him on that dare. I always felt like you guys pushed me pretty hard in that first year with the silo dare and some of the others, but this one seemed a little risky even to me.” Brett chimed in with the sun hitting him in just the wrong way and forcing him to put a hand up over his eyes, hiding some of the grey that came down in his long bangs. He was right, he needed a good ribbing before he was one of us and that silo is a pretty good story, but not the one I had my mind set on.
Alcie just sat there, sipping away at his coffee with the drooping cheeks and white mustache he carried these days. He seemed lost in thought and I knew that happened to the best of us at this age. At this point, we all realized we were old and that didn’t really bother us; we even embraced the idea most of the time while sitting in this diner and reminiscing about times gone by. His lips pursed a bit tight and his eyes a bit low in thought, I wondered if he was thinking about Jason. We all thought about Jason; Jason, the football player, a middle linebacker that filled those holes harder than any middle schooler according to his coach; Jason, who would never back down from a dare or a bet, as told by the story that lingered in the back of my mind; and Jason, the enforcer, who knocked out Randy Aldrich’s front teeth and gave him a black eye for messing with Alcie. I still remember Alcie being shoved against the locker repeatedly with a smash, smash, smash and Jason in a full sprint from down the hall, weaving through the crowd and taking Randy off his feet like one of the quarterbacks he struck with so much fear. I remember the blood on the tiled floor and one of the toughest kids in school crying off to the school nurse. We had all patted Jason on the back and he just stood there as cool as ever with the buzz cut and stocky frame that we all remembered. It didn’t take Principal Williams long to get to him though and Jason held that stoic form all the way down to the office. Randy didn’t mess with anyone from that day on and I think that was all because of Jason, the blood had created peace in those halls.
“He wasn’t going to back down. He’d created a reputation for himself and to him a dare was a challenge” My mind slipped back to four bikes climbing a thin cut dirt road and maples that reached down menacingly. We took the trip out that way pretty often, Boone’s Farm being a regular staple of spooks in the county. Stories skipped towns like a flat stone skittering across a lake painted like a pane of glass and all the kids knew them. The stories were one thing, but Brett lived pretty close and we made it a regular occurrence to bring our bikes to his house and then make our way out on that dirt road to see those building peek out on the horizon: that big haybarn wearing its grey weathered wood in vertical stripes, that silo that sat like a lighthouse on a shore, the metal barn that gleamed and winked in the slitting sunlight and the concrete poured walls of the other, and lastly that coop. I have to say the coop and the squawking and fluttering of wings, heard even from the road, gave me the shivers. Stories ran wild about that coop and how Old Man Boone kept all males to keep their spurs sharp for any errant kids that wandered onto his property. The stories said he’d either loose the whole pack of cannibals on you and they’d come in a rush of talons, beaks and frustrated fluttering feathers, or worse than that, he’d grab you by whatever he could and throw you in there locking the door behind and making you face all those jet black eyes and the circling one sees with a predator around its prey. I thought about that angry fluttering and those horrible cackling squawks and it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I imagined the mangy looking males that had plucked bloody feathers off each other or left a weakling dead in the corner to have flesh picked to the bone at a later date.
“I think the scariest thing about the story is it happened during the day.” Alcie broke his silence and leaned in a little. “You know, night’s one thing. We all get scared at night by a hissing toilet or the tink of a baseboard heater kicking on, or the wind clacking the screen door, you guys know what I mean. For something like that to happen during the day though, that’s what really worried me about that one.” Alcie sat back in his seat as Shirley brought over the coffee pot and topped off his paper cup. He nodded his head and said, “thanks.”
We all nodded in agreement to what he said, the daytime was scarier in a sense because everything is out there to see. That statement might be rife with contradiction, but as Alcie said people expect the dark to be scary. My mind slipped away again and remembered pulling up just in view of all those buildings and seeing Boone’s empty truck sitting in front of that oversized hay barn. The truck ran with a rumble whenever you saw it, like the engine could hop right out of the hood and bite you and you wouldn’t even be that surprised. It was all black and sat there in that glistening sun. He must have been somewhere on the farm doing something. He’d seen us pass a few times and his eyes cut darts at us as we peddled by trying not to look. The cap he wore was always pulled just a little too low and smeared with just enough grease and when he opened that mouth his teeth were just yellow enough and with just enough missing to send a shiver down your spine. Boone didn’t even have to give us that stare down to scare us, if he was out front we weren’t stopping for any hijinks or dares.
That day was a little different. The black F100 sat in front of the doors to the opened barn. We knew from previous exploration that the barn was like some cavernous cave and went on forever, seemingly bigger on the inside than the outside. He was probably in some remote corner separating mulch from first cutting, since the summer had been a hot and wet one. The kind of summer that opens doors in the morning to sun painting the eastern sky and closes windows in the afternoon against sheets of rain. I’m not sure what compelled me to dare Jason to do it, but I remember saying, “you won’t grab one of his mangling tools out of the back of his truck, Jason.” I didn’t just say it either, I taunted it and that made me feel even worse. We all knew the countless blades, mallets, chains and other metal that cluttered the back of Boone’s truck in some sort of twisted metal teeth ready to bite. As tough as I held myself on the surface, I regretted saying it immediately because I knew Jason wasn’t backing down, he wouldn’t have if it was only the two of us and that’s just the way he was. All young boys have a sense of recklessness, but Jason’s confidence wouldn’t allow him to be shown up like that, wouldn’t let him refuse a dare and somewhere in me I knew this. I wished I could go back to that day and we could take our bikes right past Boone’s farm without stopping, but some things you can’t undo and some memories will last when you want them to burn off like an early morning fog.
“I will, is that a dare?” I remember his eyes darting over to me, his legs pushing off and his bike gliding up to the black truck. He hadn’t even waited for the confirmation to his question. He looked back at us as he dropped his bike in the dirt and gave a thumbs up. He turned his back again and began going through the bed looking for the most ominous tool he could find. I saw him picking up something and then I’d hear it clatter back down and then he would pick up the next thing and it would clatter back down again. My mind was just hoping he would get a move on before Boone came back out of that barn, he wasn’t going to stay in there forever. Jason wasn’t exactly being quiet either, those clattering noises had to draw some attention. I remember my heart beating, waiting for him to pick something, anything at that point and get back over here.
Finally, I remember him turning around with a pair of pliers that had rusted to the yellow grips. He later swore to us that they had blood on the tips and I didn’t doubt him. I remember him bending back down to retrieve the bike and then it happened. Out of the barn came that lanky frame and hat pulled tight over stern eyes. We all stood frozen as we saw Boone grab the back of Jason’s shirt and pull him to the ground. We watched Jason’s arms jet back and try to release the vice grip held on him as screams cut the air. I could only remember thinking, he’s going to kill him and he’ll come back for us and kill us too. I watched Jason’s feet slide around that corner and still heard the now distanced screams for help. I couldn’t believe Boone’s strength as Jason’s feet beat in rhythm trying to get out of his grip. Seeing his feet turn that corner and knowing he was being dragged out back released us from our paralyzed state and we all sprinted cautiously to the corner of the barn. I remember peeking around that corner and seeing those skidding lines in the dirt and how they met his feet and his eyes welled red already. I could see the muscles standing out in Boone’s arms as he pulled Jason along behind his back with heavy stepping steel toed boots. The feat was impressive with Jason’s size at that age, we all stood slack jawed, frozen in place. I saw that coop looming before them, painted a worn red on T1-11 sheets. It was probably painted in faded blood from the kids he’d caught before. I heard that awful squawking and fluttering inside the coop from where we stood and could only imagine Jason’s mind at that moment. How he strained to break free, but the effort was in vain as I saw Boone deftly unlock the coop, flip a latch and throw Jason like he was a hay bale right inside. All I heard was the slap of the door and the chorus of squawks and feathers going wild. Jason screamed on the inside of the door. For just a moment, I thought about jumping into action, but I knew that if I did that I would be in the coop with Jason because if our enforcer couldn’t do anything against Old Man Boone, how did we stand a chance?
We hid. I’m ashamed we did, but we hid and waited two full hours for Boone to take his truck back up the western bank to his house in the field, his house that overlooks the farm. During that time, I heard Jason’s muffled screams through the boards. When I imagined the scene I always hoped it was Jason trapped with the birds, but I couldn’t be sure. In a way, I hoped the birds were coming at him in flocks, or torturing him by moving in ever so slowly with their violently molted feathers, but I couldn’t be sure.
Boone’s black truck finally receded up the hill with a rumble of the engine, puffs of grey smoke and dirt kicking up against the undercarriage. We immediately sprinted for the coop, hoping Jason was holding on against those cannibals, those bloodthirsty raptors. I heard resigned sobs as I reached the door and then a renewed, “help!” as he realized we were outside. The padlock was done up with a key and there was no way around that. We all heard that fluttering and felt Jason’s raw legs that had most likely been cut to shreds at this point and were caked like a blood-spattered canvas. Alcie brought over a rock and pounded on the lock a few times and it finally gave way. We pulled the latch and Jason pretty much fell in our laps. I remember his tear soaked cheeks and I didn’t blame him; I remember his mangled legs and I felt that flood of guilt that I was the one who sent him to this, but most of all I knew he would remember that awful path his feet cut and how the neck on his shirt hung looser now and I couldn’t take those things back for him.
“I know you really beat yourself up about that day,” Brett cut in, he was always a very perceptive guy, a sensitive guy.
I tipped the coffee back, “it was a bad day…I felt bad for him.” This was something that would have been hard to say back then, even after seeing those deep gashes that streaked blood on Jason’s legs, the collar of his shirt in a bent out of shape oval and those tracks cut like trenches from his shoes to that coop. I felt I’d come to terms with this, a bad day is a bad day, but was it and did I? I still tried to believe if I hadn’t dared him one day, Alcie would have a different day, or Brett would have had the confidence at that point to push him into it? It was really only a matter of time before Jason put that invincibility he always exuded on the line, outside of the walls of school. Still, I wonder if my words, the words of a friend, pushed him along and unlike the scars on his legs, which gradually faded, ones on the inside are always there.
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