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Little divots and bumps in the road sent the rock skidding at odd trajectories, jumping and bouncing over potholes and rifts in the road. As the rock slowly spun to a rest, Jason kicked it again, sending it skipping through the low, rippling heat waves. He was a good-looking kid, about thirteen or fourteen, still free from the gangly limbs and acne that would soon come his way with puberty. A line of pine trees separated the road from a recreation park on the left. A little league team was having baseball practice on one of the dusty brown diamonds, parents resting on the aluminum bleachers, clapping and laughing. Jason brushed light brown hair out of his eyes and gave the rock another kick. On his right, a ditch with shallow puddles of stagnant water bordered a hayfield. The sun was slanting closer to the yellows and oranges of late afternoon, and the hay-bales stood out in every detail, like a National Geographic photo. Jason thought it would make a nice picture. Another lazy kick sent the rock tumbling off the asphalt and into the ditch. Oh well. Jason continued strolling up the road, shifting lanes every few minutes to let a car drive by. He could feel the warmth of the road through the thin-worn soles of his sneakers. The road had been sunning itself all day and would remain warm into the night, long after the sun had set. Jason turned off the road down a familiar dirt and gravel driveway, and crossed the crabgrass lawn up to a front porch that had needed a new layer of paint for a couple years. Jason rapped on the screen door then leaned on the porch railing, listening to the
2 sounds drifting out from the house. The radio droned the score of the ballgame from the kitchen, it sounded like the Royals were beating the Orioles. The absence of heavy work boots clumping around told Jason that Alex’s step-dad was probably sitting out back, beer in hand, contemplating a half-mown yard. It always seemed to take him a full afternoon to cut the grass up to the vague boundary of their neighbor’s property. It was generally accepted to be somewhere just past the unkempt azalea bushes. Jason opened the screen door just enough to stick his head inside, “Alex, let’s go!” An indistinct response came down the stairs, and the ceiling groaned and shuddered, announcing that Alex had put down whatever book he was reading and was stalking through his room, searching through heaps of laundry for a pair of shoes. Jason made a show of impatience, pounding on the doorframe, but he wasn’t really in any rush. Another indignant reply fell on deaf ears, as Jason continued drumming his fists rhythmically against the house. “Jason, cut that out!” The voice of authority from the kitchen silenced Jason’s antics, and he put on his poster child apologetic smile as he turned towards the unseen matriarch. “Sorrrrry Mrs. Robbins.” “Don’t try that smile with me. The gutters need to be cleaned out, they’re all full of pine needles. Get Alex and do that before you two go.” Jason knew better than to argue. He’d been fed here too many times to claim exemption from household chores. He bounced up the stairs and sauntered into Alex’s room, catching him in the act of tearing through a pile of T-shirts and ragged jeans.
3 “Mom says we have to clean the gutters before we go,” Jason threw himself onto Alex’s bed and picked up the book he had left by the pillow. “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain,” Jason read deliberately, “Isn’t this supposed to be racist or something?” Alex’s dirty blonde head emerged from the laundry, disgust written all over his face. “No, it’s not racist. Also, you’re thinking of Huck Finn, people say its racist because Mark Twain used the word ‘nigger’ a lot.” “Ah, look at me, I’m so smart I can’t remember where my shoes are,” Jason retorted from the bed. He started reading from where Alex had left the front flap to mark his place. Tom and his friends were playing Robin Hood in “Sherwood Forest,” fighting soon-to-be-legendary battles against the Sheriff of Nottingham and his cronies. Jason tossed the book to the foot of the bed and propped himself up to look around the room. “Your shoes are under the desk,” he told Alex. Alex threw up his hands and grumbled in mock exasperation, “Worthless, shoes, what are you doing? Be where I can find you.” He jammed his feet into the sneakers and put his hands on his hips, “So are we going?” “Your mom says we have to clean the gutters.” Another mock-exasperated groan. “Moms. Ugh. Always ruining everything.” Alex pushed up the window by his desk and stepped out onto the roof, “Come on lazybutt, let’s get it done.” Jason made a show of grumbling and whining, but joined his friend on the roof. The roof was only a little slanted here, so the two could walk around easily enough. Pine trees grew within a couple yards of the house, and their needles littered the rooftop year
4 round. Alex and Jason started at the same point and began working their way around the gutters in opposite directions. Jason scooped handfuls of needles and threw them down to the grass. They could rake up the clumps after they got off the roof. The drains at the corners of the roof were packed with needles, farther down than Jason could reach. He started walking around to where Alex was working when he heard an angry shout. “Goddammit… Alex! Get down here!” “It was an accident. Sorry.” “I said get down here now, dammit!” “I said sorry, it was an accident.” There was an edge to Alex’s voice. Jason came in view of the scene and saw Alex’s back standing rigid like a steel beam. Down below, there was a line of pine needle clumps ending right at the lawn chair where Alex’s stepdad must have been sitting. He was now standing, jaw clenched, glowering up at Alex. His shoulders were dusted with pine needles, and a big wet clump appeared to have exploded right on the chair. An overturned beer can was slowly bleeding itself out into the yard. “Alex, you get down here right now.” “I said I’m sorry, Lester.” Alex’s stepdad marched in through the back door, and Jason could hear him stomping through the house towards the second floor. “Les, what happened?” Jason heard Alex’s mom as Lester stormed through the kitchen. Jason looked at Alex, scared for him, but also afraid for himself. Alex just gave a wry-faced wink and lept from the roof, landing on his hands and knees below. “Come on!”
5 Jason swallowed hard. He could hear Lester crashing up the stairs behind him. It was such a long jump. But Alex was fine. Dammit, why did Alex always do these kinds of things to him? Lester slammed open the door to Alex’s room. Jason took one look back at Lester’s red face and then made a flailing leap to the pine trees next to the house. He caught a branch, but it bowed and then snapped, and Jason landed on the ground in a heap. He saw stars and explosions for a minute and tried to shake his head to clear it. Alex was pulling him up and running him through the backyard. Jason’s vision cleared and then he was running beside Alex, hurtling the little brook and then pushing through the line of trees on the way to the road. The pair kept running until they had crested the first hill and come down the other side. Then Jason fell into a panting walk and Alex slowed to a stop a few yards ahead. “Is your shoulder okay?” Alex was hardly winded. Jason bent over, trying to catch his breath. Had he landed on his shoulder? “Why… dammit Alex…” He couldn’t string words together. Jason just focused on sucking in air for a minute. “The guy was being a prick. That’s not my fault!” “You made me jump off the roof!” “You would have been fine if you had jumped like I did!” “You’re an asshole.” “No, you just don’t know how to jump off a roof right. That’s not my fault.” “You’re such a dick.” Alex waved dismissively and started walking backwards down the road. “You coming?”
6 Jason stood up straight and took a few more deep breaths to get his wind back. Alex wore a stoic look. He wasn’t pained or sad, he looked like Jason imagined the soldiers who came back from Normandy might have looked. There was a stubbornness and pride there that wouldn’t leave room for pity or consolation. Jason exhaled heavily and started walking. Alex kicked a rock up from the side of the road and skidded it to Jason. That was the closest thing to an apology Jason would get from Alex. Jason wound up and booted the piece of debris off into the hayfield. It hurt his toes. “What a dick…” Alex jibed, sardonic smile back on his face. Jason allowed himself to snicker at Alex’s mock indignation as his resentment dripped away reluctantly. Alex always got away with this crap. But it was too hard to stay pissed at that allknowing, mischievous grin. Jason kicked up a loose piece of asphalt from one of the potholes. He sent it Alex’s way, and the two passed it back and forth as they walked down the road. ********* “Did you bring money?” “Ahhh…” Alex scratched the back of his head ruefully, looking sidelong at Jason, “It’s in my room.” “You’re such a mooch.” “No, I just have Ivan the Horrible for a stepdad. I’ll pay for you next time.” “Mhmm, always the same old story. And it ends with me flat broke from paying for everything we do.”
7 “Yeah, yeah they’ll call you Saint Penny-Pincher,” Alex had paused alongside the road and started picking up rocks and heaving them as far as he could into the hay-field. Jason stopped walking to join him. “First one to hit the close hay bale owes the other one McDonald’s.” Jason started throwing stones rapidly, trying to find the right distance. The duo scrabbled over promising looking rocks and chunks of cement, filling the field around the hay bale with debris. Finally, Jason managed to hit the bale solidly and he threw his arms in the air victoriously. This gave Alex a perfect opportunity to smack Jason in his unprotected ribs, which he did with gusto. “Shocker, the baseball star wins a rock throwing contest.” “You agreed to it. Now you owe me a big old bacon cheeseburger with fries and a vanilla milkshake.” “Whatever, let’s run the rest of the way, we just wasted a lot of time and we want to make sure we get the good cars.” Alex started jogging in slow motion, and with a grumble of resentment, Jason picked up his pace until the two were running side by side, just fast enough so that talking was uncomfortable. Within ten minutes, Alex and Jason were panting their way up to the gate of Family Recreation Park, a modest entertainment complex with a pool, snack bar, Go-Kart track, and arcade room. Jason bought Go-Kart tickets and he and Alex stood in line at the chain-link fence, waiting for the attendant to come unlock the gate. A guy in his late teens wearing a staff T-shirt with the sleeves cut off was talking to two slightly older guys on the other side of the track.
8 Alex started banging on the chain link gate to get the guy’s attention. Another couple kids a little younger than Jason stood timidly in line behind him and Alex. A painted plywood sign in the median of the track read “Winners ride again!” in black letters. Jason and Alex knew the trick was really about choosing the right car. Some were just faster than others. Alex banged on the gate more emphatically and called out to the guy with no shirt-sleeves, “Hey, you want to let us in?” The guy finally turned around and slowly let go of the fence he had been leaning on, still talking to his friends as he walked over to the gate. Jason caught something that sounded like, “You guys just wanna ride for a while?” and the two older guys, maybe twenty or twenty-one Jason decided, shrugged and hopped over the fence. The staff guy opened the gate and took Alex’s ticket and then Jason’s as they sprinted off in search of the fastest two cars. Jason spotted the car that was generally agreed to be the second best and claimed it, leaving Alex frantically darting between GoKarts, looking for the best one. Jason saw Alex shake his fists in frustration as one of the twentyish guys strapped himself into the good car, leaving only mediocre cars to pick from. Alex threw himself into a car at the front of the line that he and Jason had judged to be decent at least, and prepared himself for the light. The staff worker walked around all the occupied vehicles, making a token examination of the younger kids’ seatbelts, then stood in the median with his hand on the light controls. “Ready?” the guy asked in a sarcastic sing-songy kind of voice. Geeze that annoyed Jason. “Go…” the guy drew out the ‘go’ in an equally annoying way and flipped the switch to turn the light post green.
9 Jason slammed down on the gas and the car quickly accelerated to its top speed of around twenty-five miles per hour. Jason pulled the wheel hard around the turns, intent on catching the handful of cars that had started ahead of him on the track, Alex being one of them. He passed one of the younger kids on the inside of a curve and set his sights on the next car up. It was the older guy in the fast car, and he wasn’t giving Jason room to move around him. He just held the car as tight as he could around the turns and only really accelerated in the short straightaways. Jason tried to swing wide and pass on the outside, but his car didn’t have quite enough speed to make the maneuver. The yellow light signaling one lap to go came on and Jason decided it was time for desperate measures. He hung as close to the inside of the curve as possible and accelerated into the back of the car in front of him as it slowed to take the turn. The trick didn’t work, the guy got a solid bump and laughed out loud, but his car didn’t spin out like Jason had intended. Jason crossed the finish line a few feet back from the other car, and reluctantly unbuckled his seatbelt in defeat. Walking towards the exit gate, Jason looked over his shoulder to see Alex stubbornly gripping the steering wheel of his car and arguing with the sleeveless guy. “I was in the lead the entire time, doesn’t that mean I won?” Alex was clearly irritated. “You didn’t win kid, you were dead last. That guy won.” The staff guy pointed to his friend that Jason hadn’t been able to pass. He was already out of his car and shuffling towards the fence, laughing with the other guy and pulling out a pack of cigarettes. “No, I started ahead of him and he never passed me. I was a fair distance ahead so it might have looked to you-“
10 “Kid, just get out of the car! There’s people waiting.” “I won, that means I get another free race!” “Kid, get out of the car or you’re gonna be kicked out of the park.” Alex glared at the staff guy for a full three seconds, then started unbuckling his seat belt, just as the guy opened his mouth, “Alright, you’re kicked out. See ya later kid.” “Are you kidding me-“ Alex began, but the guy was already on a walkie-talkie, telling his boss to come and escort Alex out. Alex stalked across the track and violently shoved the chain-link open. “Let’s get out of here.” Jason had still wanted to spend some time in the video arcade, and he gave Alex an irritated scowl that probably went unnoticed. He followed Alex over another short fence and back out onto the road that led home. ********** Jason and Alex walked in silence for a while, Jason just listening to the little bits of grit and gravel crunching beneath his shoes, Alex presumably stewing at the injustice of his dismissal from the park. The light had faded and the long shadows of the afternoon had given way to the mute dimness of dusk. Jason could see the remnants of a sunset far west of the town, and behind him, Black Rock loomed darkly atop the ridge of the small mountains. Jason had heard that some kid died there last year, trying to climb the cliffs. Alex’s silence was bothering Jason, it made him feel bad when Alex just got quiet like this. “Hey, let’s go by the battlefield before we go home.” “’Kay.” Alex continued walking at a brisk pace, his eyes boring into the asphalt about six feet in front of him.
11 “Last one there owes the other guy McDonald’s-“ Jason tore off full speed before he finished speaking, and Alex finally responded, breaking into a run a few yards behind. Jason blew in and out, his arms pumping on the uphills and flailing crazily for balance on the downhills. Before long, Alex had caught up to him and after a brief moment where the two were neck and neck, Alex breezed ahead, taking long, gazelle strides and seeming to almost float over the ground. Jason exhaled more heavily and settled into a steady, loping pace. Sometimes he felt like there was no one in the world that could keep up with Alex. Well, no one in Sharpsburg anyway. Jason jogged down the last stretch of cracked, gray road and stood to catch his breath overlooking a downward sloping field, still just barely lit by the orange and purple sky. Alex was sitting astride an old cannon, the barrel painted a thick, protective black. It was probably a fake, Jason decided. “We’ll have them as soon as we can take the bridge, men!” Alex called out to imaginary troops, and waved a deadly stick this way and that, directing regiments. “Capture Lee and the war will be over in weeks boys!” Jason smiled at Alex’s spirited reenactment. Alex loved going to the battlefield. ‘It’s the only place around here where anything’s ever happened,’ he once told Jason. “So what general are you?” Jason asked between breaths, looking up at Alex sitting majestically on his cannon. “I’m McClellan, at the head of fifty thousand Union Jacks, and ready to send Lee and his rebs packin’.” Alex suddenly lept from the cannon and charged down the hill, yelling war cries at the top of his lungs. He looked back at Jason on the hilltop and roared like an old veteran, “Come on soldier, its death or glory!”
12 Jason laughed despite himself and bounded down the hill after Alex, taking aim and blasting grey-coated confederates along the way. After a dramatic and hard fought battle for the old stone bridge, Jason and Alex were victorious and marched across to fortify their positions. Alex paused halfway across and set his stick rifle carefully against the wall. He leaned over and spat into the slowly flowing river below. Jason walked over and followed suit, leaning so far over that he felt he was almost going to tip into the brown water. “You know, over forty thousand soldiers died at the Battle of Antietam,” Alex said, a distant look on his face. “For a lot of them, this river might have been the last thing they ever saw.” Jason didn’t know what to say. He spit slowly into the river, watching the white froth get carried under the bridge and out of sight. “Are you scared about school in the fall?” Jason looked up, but Alex was facing away from him, towards the last bit of color in the sky. The rest had faded to a deep, velvet blue. “Not really. School’s school. Boonsboro High isn’t going to be much different from Boonsboro Middle. The people will be the same, except for the teachers.” “Yeah. I know.” Alex kept his head turned away from Jason. “And hey, we’ll get our class schedules soon, so we can see if we’re in the same ones. Even if we’re not, at least we’ll be around. It’s not that big of a school.” “Yeah.” Alex sniffed loudly and spit a wad of mucus into the river, then turned towards Jason, his face clear. “We’ll be around.”