I never understood why, but the Solmons always burned their trash on Friday mornings during the fall months. The smell was awful - hot petroleum, dairy products, yard waste, sometimes even hair; all of it consumed by fire and transformed into weightless, floating plumes of nauseating smoke and ash that wafted through our yard, up Third Street, and probably onto the Nichols' farm at the top of the hill.
"Fire's smellin' good, Mr. Solmon," I said as I walked past him, on my way to school. He grunted some sort of reply and poked at his cow, Daisy, trying to get her retreat into her brick pen. I shook my head and continued walking.
I made pretty good time on Fridays. I had to walk fast to escape the odor that permeated the area around Third Street, so I always ended up at school a few minutes early. I walked straight to my locker and found a large friend hanging around waiting for me.
"Hey, John!" Will said.
"Oh my God," I exclaimed when I saw the shirt he was wearing. Will was wearing a blue size-XXL t-shirt that had been stenciled with the words "Poltergeist II" in red letters. Will's expansive girth seemed to be putting a lot of stress on the fabric.
Will caught my glance and grabbed his own throat and started sinking to his knees. "Oh mom!" he sputtered in a mock-feminine voice. "Help! It's the Poltergeist! HELP!"
"You and your Poltergeist," I said. He lay there, twitching, but I wasn't going to laugh. I grabbed his arm and helped him stand. "Come on, Will, what's new?"
"Not a whole lot. I'm almost done working on my part of the 'Commando' game," he said. "I haven't tested it with your part of the program, though."
"Awesome," I said. "Are you going to bring it to computer class?"
"Yeah, but it still has some bugs I've got to work out," he said. Will glanced over my shoulder and then back at me, his eyes wide. He mouthed something, but I couldn't understand what he was trying to say.
"What is it, Will?"
"It's Branson at 12 o'clock!" he whispered, gesturing behind me.
"Branson?" I thought. "Oh no!"
"Is that my 12 o'clock, or your 12 o'clock?" I asked quietly.
"Uh," Will stammered. He closed his eyes and furrowed his brow for a moment. "Your 6 o'clock and my 12 o'clock, or something. Dammit, John, he's coming from behind!"
I had to act fast. I slammed my locker shut and started walking away. "Talk to you later," I said.
The halls were filled with people moving in different directions, trying to beat the first bell. Even among the sea of junior highers darting to and fro, he was unmistakable. I glanced back only once to confirm he really was back there. It was Branson, a monster among midgets - six feet tall - with teeth that were so white they made me squint and black hair that must have been held firmly in place by two entire tubes of hair goo. He walked briskly, upright and confident, flashing a smile at the girls who had started to blossom and ignoring the rest. He was an eighth grader, a year older than me, and popular.
As soon as I had spotted the behemoth, my mind kicked into overdrive. I pushed my way through the torrent of teenagers, hoping to avoid detection. I apologized quickly as I pushed arms, elbows, and hips aside. I didn't have time to listen to my peers groaning and cursing as I plunged past. After navigating through several hallways I slowed my pace to keep my homeroom teacher Mr. Coffee from yelling at me. I turned the corner and walked right into the chest of my nemesis.
"Hello, Pickle," Branson said smugly. "I haven't seen you all week, have I?"
I looked away from his eyes and instead focused on his dark caterpillar-size eyebrows.
"Still not talking, huh?" Branson said, walking toward me, his arm extended. "It's too bad, you know. We have so much in common."
As he approached, I stepped back slowly. I knew he was shepherding me toward the wall, but I could see no way to escape.
"Yes sir, we have a lot in common. I believe we're both in the same computer class, aren't we?" he asked.
The halls were empty. This school is full of cowards, I thought. Nobody would step up and stop Branson.
In one swift move, Branson clamped his beefy hands around my chicken-bone shoulders and pinned me to the wall. "Listen, Pickle, you better have written that program before Monday, or else. And you better keep your mouth shut like it is right now."
He released me and kept his eyes locked on mine as he retreated a few feet. Then he turned on a heel and walked to his class. I watched him go and waited until he was barely within earshot before yelling, "My name is not Pickle!" Down the hall I saw someone open a classroom door and look toward me. Uh oh, I thought. I hurried off to class, formulating an excuse for my tardiness as I ran.
I stared over the fence at Daisy. The Solmons had built her a brick pen, which was nice I suppose, but it was awfully small. The pen was only a foot longer than Daisy herself, and the walls of the pen rose to the top of her haunches. The pen wasn't very wide, and I wondered how Daisy managed to cope with it. She must not be claustrophobic, I thought.
"Daisy, why do you suppose people are the way they are?" I asked from across the fence. She turned her long face towards me and stared with sad eyes. She couldn't answer.
"Yeah, I guess I don't know the answer either," I said, breaking the silence.
Suddenly, Old Man Solmon rose up from behind the brick pen, a trowel in his hand. "You might as well ask her all the questions that you need answered while you still have time, boy," he said, pushing up a tattered green "Deere" hat on his head. "We're putting her to pasture Monday."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I mean we're getting rid of her," he said. He hiked up his overalls and trudged toward the back door of his house.
I stood there a bit stunned. It seemed a shame to get rid of Daisy, especially when she had lived such a tough life already. She deserved some sort of retirement, perhaps in the company of other friendly helfers.
As I leaned there on the fence, I heard a chorus of rowdy voices screaming "Pickle!" I turned my head, and there they were - Branson and his gang of older friends, kicking up gravel as they drove a modified drag racer down Third Street past my house. Branson had half his upper torso hanging out of the car door window and he was pointing a wicked finger right at me. I watched as they passed, all laughing. All of them but Branson. He had a smug, evil grin that seemed to say to me "You're as good as dead." I walked to the back yard and watched as they turned onto Stone Ridge Road, headed toward the abandoned boat dock and shed a few miles away.
I turned and went inside the house, my stomach ready to eat dinner early. My mom was in the living room, picking up the remains of the Bullard Bulletin, the biweekly newspaper put out by the town's resident journalist, Mae Fay. I couldn't imagine why her parents would name her like that and I also had a hard time believing half the "scoops" she reported in her columns.
"I can't stand those joyriders," Mom said. "They came this close to hitting those wild blackberries on the other side of the street. You'd think they believed there were blackberry plants growing on every street in this town!"
"They just like to go fast, Mom," I said. "They aren't after our berries. Everyone knows you make the best blackberry jelly around."
She smiled and gave me a hug. "Thank you, John," she said. Then her face clouded. "I almost forgot," she said, walking to the kitchen table. "We got your report card in the mail today."
I rolled my eyes and sank into the armchair. "You did?" I asked.
"Yes, sir," she said.
I knew I was in trouble whenever she called me "sir."
"Your grades all dropped. You are making a B-minus in math and a C in handwriting," she said. "Unacceptable."
"Mom!" I moaned. "I can't believe they even make me take a handwriting class! I'm in junior high now! It's not my fault I write bad."
"John, you know very well that you can improve your handwriting. And there is no excuse for grades like these! You can do much better," she said. "I am going to be meeting with your counselor on Monday to figure out what we can do to help you."
I knew better than to argue, since she had already gone to the trouble of making an appointment. "Yes, mom," I said, obediently.
Mom placed the report card back on the table and walked around to the kitchen counter to grab her purse. She shuffled through the mysterious riff-raff and knick-knacks she kept inside it. When I heard jingling, I saw my mom beam and pull her keys out.
"Listen, John, I'm going into Tyler to do some shopping, so I'll be gone a while. Do me a favor and make sure your brothers don't get into any trouble, okay?" she asked.
"No problem, mom," I replied.
She walked out the door and I watched through the front window as she climbed into our old truck. She started the engine, waved to me, shifted into reverse, and pulled away from the house. I waited until she was down the street before running down the hall to the bedrooms.
"Justin!" I exclaimed, as I threw open the door.
"What?" my younger brother said.
"I need you to watch Jake for a little while. Mom is shopping and she'll be gone for an hour or so. Can you do it?" I asked.
"Uh, I guess so," he said. "Where are you going?"
"I've got to call Will. We have big plans to make," I said.
I walked back to the kitchen and grabbed the phone. I dialed the Carsons' phone number and waited impatiently as it rang. Finally his mother answered and offered to put Will on the phone. "Thanks," I said.
"Hello?" Will asked.
"Hey, Will. Look, there's some big stuff going down. Can you meet me at my house?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said. "It will be a few minutes, though."
"Okay, that's fine. I'll see you then."
It wasn't a few minutes. Will's mom wouldn't drive him anywhere, I found out later, so he walked all the way to my house. He had to walk from First Street, across the railroad tracks, through the knee-high grass of our town park, and past the smell of the Solmon's to get to my house. I offered him my sympathy.
"Now what is going on, John?" he asked, still red-faced and breathing heavily.
"Monday is doomsday, Will," I said. "It's going to be like Poltergeist, only a million times worse and with people we actually know."
"You haven't finished your part of the game yet, have you?" he said.
"No, it's not that at all!" I said. I decided to fill him in on the events of the past few days, and when I was finished explaining it all, he agreed with me.
"You can't take all this lying down," Will said. "You've got to fight fire with fire."
As soon as Will said the word "fire," a spark went off in my brain. I pictured Old Man Solmon outside on Friday burning his trash, and then my mind's eye wandered over to Daisy's brick pen. Burnt garbage wasn't the only thing producing a foul smell, I realized.
"I've got it," I said. I explained the idea, and Will loved it. I allowed him to expand the idea into a full-blown plan, complete with charts and a diagram. And it was a doozy. We hurried to finalize The Plan before Mom returned and Will was able to start walking back home 10 minutes before she pulled up in the driveway.
Bright and early, my mom woke me up and herded me into the shower. When I finished, I stepped out into the hall and my nose perked up at the scent of bacon grease and waffle batter. I decided to put on a t-shirt and wait until I finished breakfast before putting on a collared shirt for church.
Dad distributed heaping portions to everyone and we all sat down at the table. We prayed and said our "I love yous" before beginning to eat. My foot twitched with so much nervous energy that Mom had to tell me to stop tapping it several times. I couldn't get The Plan out of my mind. Would it work?
We piled into Dad's large company car and drove to church. We went to Stone Ridge Fellowship, with a small group of people who lived around the area. We pulled up into the giant gravel parking area outside the church. The pastor, Papa Joe Cruse, had converted a bus barn into a building for the Sunday worship service a few years ago, so it looked a bit strange on the outside. Our family walked inside and greeted different church members we knew and swapped stories about what had been happening during the week. Not feeling particularly talkative, I decided not to divulge details of the dilemmas I was facing to any of my friends. They would have to wait until Monday.
After a round of singing some classic hymns and praise songs, we sat down and listened to Papa Joe Cruse preach. We all called him "Papa Joe" to avoid confusing him with his son, Joe junior.
Papa Joe had us read scripture with him and then he began to speak about plans. Somehow his voice penetrated the dreamy haze that was separating my mind from what was going on around me, and I immediately turned my attention to what he was saying.
"You know, when I was young, there were some kids in my life that I wanted to wallop. But Jesus tells us that that's not the right way to do things," Papa Joe said.
Members of the congregation nodded and said "yes" and "amen." Papa Joe stepped back from his podium and began to walk around the tiny stage at the front of the room.
"God says that our ways are not like his ways. He says that his ways are higher than our ways!" Papa Joe said, as he stood on his toes, raised his hands high in the air and wiggled his fingers. "Sometimes we want to get revenge. We make elaborate plans and sketch out all the details, but more often than not, our plans don't work out for our good."
I adjusted the collar on my shirt a few times and glanced at Papa Joe. Did he know about tomorrow? Was he talking to me?
"Friends, Jesus gave us a hard command in the New Testament. He told us to love our enemies and to pray for those who despitefully use us," Papa Joe said. "But he didn't say that and expect us to be able to do it on our own. He promised he would strengthen us and help us to do it. We don't have to do it alone."
As we walked to our car after the service and then drove home, I felt strangely numb. I couldn't feel my toes at all, even when I twitched them and rubbed them on the floor of the back seat. I really loved Papa Joe, I did, but never before had one of his sermons meant much. This morning, though, his words had seemed written specifically for me. What did it mean? Was he trying to tell me not to go through with The Plan on Monday? That would throw a serious wrench into everything.
When we arrived home, I changed my clothes and went outside to help my dad split wood for the winter. He had used his little chainsaw to cut down an old dead tree near the edge of our property, and as the eldest son, I got the distinct honor and privilege of helping him use the wedge and the sledge hammer to split the wood. After we finished, my brothers and I would carry armfuls of the wood to the woodpile between our house and the Solmon's.
"Dad," I said, as he heaved the sledge above his head, "do you think Papa Joe was right about all the things he was talking about this morning?"
He pounded the wedge deep into the block of wood. "Oh, I think so," Dad said, after he took a moment to rest. "When you stop and think about, getting even with someone really doesn't improve your life or solve any problems. It doesn't make a lot of logical sense."
"Hmmm," I said. "Did anyone ever call you a 'pickle', Dad?" I asked.
Dad looked at me funny. "Not that I can remember. Why do you ask?"
"No reason," I replied. "I have a lot on my mind."
"I can tell," Dad said. "Why don't you move your hand so it doesn't get smashed?"
I grinned sheepishly, and stepped aside as he brought the hammer down again with a crash.
As soon as the light came on, I groaned. I looked over at my clock. "7:00," it read. I glanced at my calendar and saw the word "Doomsday" scrawled in my own scratchy handwriting. I sighed and pulled the sheets up over my head.
"Come on, John," Mom said. "You're running late already. You've got to get going or you'll be tardy."
"Can't I just stay home today?" I asked.
Mom pulled the sheet back from over my head. "No, sir, you may not," she said with the authority of a general.
I showered in an olympic-record 2 minutes, threw on my clothes, wolfed down my breakfast, scrubbed my teeth vigorously for 15 seconds, grabbed my backpack, and ran out the door.
I waved to Daisy, scowled at Old Man Solmon, and ran down Third Street, hellbent on making it to school on time, even if it assured me of disaster later on.
Some parents were still driving up to the front door of the school when I arrived, which made me feel good. I hurried to my locker and fumbled with the lock a few times before I got it to open.
"Hey John," Will said, approaching me from behind.
I spilled my books all over the floor, startled by Will's voice. "Hey, Will," I said.
"Don't worry, pal," he said, patting my shoulder, "everything is going to work out fine."
I smiled weakly, unsure how to tell him that I had had a change of heart toward The Plan. "Look," I said, walking away, "I've got to get to homeroom before Branson comes by and I also need to talk to you before computer class."
I ducked through the hallways, employing every secret agent move I had ever read about or seen on television, hoping to avoid Branson on my way to homeroom. When I made it into Mr. Coffee's class unharmed, I felt victorious, and decided that was a good start for the day.
Unfortunately, time seemed to slow down toward the end of homeroom. Mr. Coffee was lecturing us about the history of our home state, Texas, but I was watching the clock. The second hand was merciless, ticking and tocking its way ever closer to the end of the period. I knew computer class was next, and that meant a confrontation with the devil himself: Branson.
I took my time going to computer class. I tried walking heel-toe-heel-toe and running my finger along the cement walls, but eventually I came face-to-face with the door and I had to go inside.
"Hello, Pickle," said Branson, standing at the table in the center of the lab.
"Hello, Branson," I said, my voice quivering. "Look, I don't have-"
Branson slashed his hand through the air, and interrupted me. "Your fat friend gave me a copy of the program you wrote for me. I haven't tried it yet, but it better be good." He sat down at a computer, and then turned around. "Or else!" he said.
I sat there stunned. Why did Will give Branson a copy of the program? I looked around the lab for my friend, but I didn't seem him anywhere.
The bell rang, and Will still wasn't there. Our teacher came in and sat at his "master computer" and began calling out students' last names. He was grading our semester projects one at a time, and I realized that Branson would be going up very soon.
"Branson!" I whispered.
He didn't look up.
The menacing monster turned and cast a withering glare at me. "What the hell do you want, Pickle?"
"You can't use that program," I said.
"What are you talking about?" he said.
"Branson, don't turn that program in," I warned.
He looked down at the disk in his hand and then back up at me. "Pickle, you are really asking for it," he said.
I clamped my mouth shut and turned around. What could I do? To my dismay, our teacher called Branson's name next. It was his turn to demonstrate his program. I rested my head on my desk and covered my face with my hands. I didn't even want to imagine what would happen next.
For a few moments, everything was fine. The sounds of the computer room comforted me with familiar clicks and rattles and occasional beeps. My skin crawled, though, when Branson shattered the peace with a bloodcurdling scream. "PICKLE!" he shouted. "What the HELL did you DO?"
I didn't look up. I couldn't. Our teacher escorted Branson out of the room and down the hall toward the office. He was cursing me the whole way out. Everyone else in the class rushed to the "master computer" to see what all the fuss was about. As I laid there on my desk, I could hear the snickers and gasps. Will obviously had lived up to his part of The Plan.
Wait just a minute! The Plan! Will was still carrying out his part of it, I realized with horror. Right now he was probably on his way to the Solmon's. I could only imagine the chaos that would break out in the school if he was successful.
Fear gripped my mind as I lived through each of my classes. I was anxious, sweaty, and always jerking around at the slightest foreign noise or movement. Lunch came and went, but I sat a table alone in the corner, where I could watch all the doors and hallways. I didn't feel safe anywhere.
Finally, lunch was over and I had to go back to class. A herd of junior highers stampeded through the cafeteria and into the hallways, and I was right in the thick of it, trying to find safety in numbers. As I made my way toward math class, I spotted the unmistakable tall, dark profile of Branson coming toward me. I knew I was in big trouble now, but I could find nowhere to go. The sea of kids parted as Branson made his was through toward me. He grabbed my arm and pulled me off into an empty stairwell.
"That was a stupid stunt you pulled this morning, Pickle," he seethed. "I got in big trouble, and so now you are too."
I winced as he pushed me up against the wall. "I tried to warn you before you-" I began.
Branson kicked me in the shins. "Not good enough, little man," he said. "That's the last time you will ever mess around with me. I'm going to make sure of that right now."
As he prepared to make his next move, I was flooded with peace as I remembered Papa Joe's words from Sunday. "Branson, can we make a deal?" I asked.
The behemoth studied me suspiciously. "What kind of a deal?" he asked.
"Okay, how about this," I said. "You don't call me 'Pickle' anymore, you stop messing around with me, you let me pray for you, and I'll help you write computer programs."
I held my breath and waited for his answer. His eyes remained locked on mine, probing my soul. "What the hell kind of a trick is this, Pickle?" he demanded. "Are you really feeling that lucky today?"
"No, no," I exclaimed. "I'm serious. I'll help you if you'll do those things. Really, I will. I promise! And then you won't get in trouble for using other people's work."
Branson unclamped his hands from my arms and stepped away from the wall, giving me room to move around. "Okay, I'll do it. But I swear, if you so much as-"
"I won't," I said.
Branson did let me pray for him, right there in the stairwell. I couldn't believe it. We did it with our eyes open, though, because Branson said he still didn't trust me. He pushed me out of the stairwell back into the hallway and then went up the stairs. I said a quick thank-you prayer, my adrenaline surging. I couldn't believe what had just happened.
I realized I needed to come up with an excuse for being tardy, and I needed one quick, when suddenly, a large chorus of screams sounded down the hall. My brain ordered at me to run away from the screams, but the curious part of me insisted I find out what the commotion was about. I ran to the intersection of the corridors and nearly had a heart attack. Students were running toward me in a frenzied panic. Behind them, chasing them, was Will riding atop Daisy the cow. Behind Will, I could see Old Man Solmon in his overalls shaking his fist, and poking her head out of the office door was my very own mother.
Well God, I thought, as the onslaught raged toward me, let's see how you take care of this one!
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