Fair Trade

He stumbled through the woods, a muddy streak smeared under his nose, tripping over his shoe strings. A sticker bush ripped a tiny tear in his sweat pants, and he could almost hear his Mom accusing him, “Again? Do you think money grows on trees?” He always thought, ‘well, yeah, ya dumbass, it’s made of paper!’ But if he said it, she would have another reason to smack him.

He stood silently, listening, but they weren’t back there anymore. He hoped they’d given up. If only he’d had his Dad’s ‘smoker!’ He’d show them. He hated the way it smelled when they shot at squirrels, but that was yesterday, and they were after him today. David, ‘the Jew king, my ass!’; his idiot little brother Derrick, who’d jump off a cliff if he told him to, and Scary Terry. Scary wasn’t the word, it was more like insane! He pulled the wings off birds; flies were baby stuff.

They had a giant fishing net, and had chased him for two miles into the woods, screaming they would ‘filet his ass’ when they caught him. He should’ve never called Terry a ‘psycho!’ He didn’t know he was around on the other side of the wall, standing in the alley smoking a cigarette. But he had the ears of an eagle. He’d popped his head up over the wall, his toes gripping the stones, and saw who’d said it. He was dead. He knew it. Either tonight or tomorrow when he went back to school. Sooner or later, he was dead meat.

He looked around, noticed the sun was sinking behind the hills and knew he’d never make it home in time. His Dad would use the belt. Dinner was sacred, of course beating your kids wasn’t. The log was muddy and covered in moss, but he sat on it anyway, wiping his nose on his shirt sleeve. He was dead meat, no matter what he did now. If he could just sneak into the house, grab his backpack and the smoker, he’d take off. Head anywhere, ‘Anywhere but here. How hard could it be, to live on your own?’ He knew how to camp out, he could make a fire, fish, live off the wild, never go back to school. ‘Yeah,’ he figured, ‘I’ll just head north, maybe Canada, or Alaska.’ He just needed to get his stuff. His boots, fishing pole, sleeping bag, make a few peanut butter sandwiches, ‘yeah, I could do it.’ He’d have to wait until morning, when his Dad went to work, and Mom went to work out. But where could he sleep tonight? ‘Shit, it’s almost dark,’ he told the forest.

Jimmy’s modified van popped into his mind. He lived next door, and he knew the van was always unlocked. They’d slept in it off and on all summer. It was their hideout, where they pretended to drive to California and meet chicks, hot blonds in bikini’s, neither of them would ever get near. It had a tiny refrigerator in it, he hoped there was still something edible in it. Through the woods, peering into the twilight, quiet as a mouse, walking on the sides of his feet like an Indian. Watching to make sure he didn’t step on any branches, listening every few steps for any noise.

He could hear some kids shooting be-bee’s at cans by the river, but they were just echo’s of ‘way to go’, and ‘damn it’, ricocheting off the hills like the be-bee’s.

Jimmy’s house was next to the alley, backing up to the woods. The grey walls flaking paint, screens ripped out at the corners. His Mom was a bartender at the classy Tap It. She’d be gone by now, so he hopped up onto the tire resting against the house, and looked inside. Jimmy was watching Hot in Tijuana, a Spanish soap opera, because the chicks let their boobs hang out. “Psst. You alone?”

“What the fuck, man, you scared the shit out of me! What are you doing?” Jimmy asked.

“I’m hiding out. Can I come in?” Kris asked.

“Back door,” he pointed, like Kris didn’t know where it was. Inside Jimmy said, “You’re Dad’s gonna kill you, why aren’t you home?”

“Fuckin’ Scary Terry tried to kill me. Heard me call him a psycho. I’m dead. I can’t go to school tomorrow. He’ll flush me. Drown my ass.”

“Ya know you’re Dad will be here any time now lookin’ for ya. He’ll come right in, man, rip through my house.”

“I know. I’m gonna stay in the woods, ‘til I see him leave, then maybe stay in the van. That cool?”

“Better wait ‘til late, he’ll come more than once.”

“I know. Can I use your sleeping bag?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

“Got any chips, or anything? A beer would be stellar,”  he laughed.

“Sure, buddy. There’s tuna casserole if ya want. I’d add ketchup.”

“Cool. I’m starving.” He grabbed the sleeping bag from Jimmy’s room and dropped it in the kitchen, while he scooped up as much tuna casserole as he could get into a red plastic beer cup. Dug in a drawer for a plastic spoon, and said, “Thanks man, hey, will ya call me and wake me on your way out?”

“You’d better be back in the woods by morning, you know he’ll come by again.”

“Yeah, maybe I’ll just sleep there instead. Safer.” He stood there, wanting to tell his best friend what he was going to do, but figured his Dad would find out by scaring the shit out of him until he told him, so he kept his plans to himself. He sprinted across the back yard, and paused to look back, making sure his Dad wasn’t coming, and followed their worn out trail to their old tree fort.

The trail stopped 50 yards before the fort where you had to crawl under sticker bushes before climbing trees that intersected with their branches to reach it. It was almost 100 feet off the ground, and no one had ever found it. It was built up in the top branches of an old giant pine tree, where one massive branch curved out like an arm with an elbow. It had taken them an entire summer to build it, but it was completely hidden from below. He knew the trail through the trees like the back of his hand and arrived just as it was getting dark. He pulled out his cell phone.

“Hey, Mom.”

“Where the hell are you… your father is going to beat your ass!”

“I, uh, just wanted to let you know I’m ok.”

“Oh no you’re not. You get home now, or you’re gonna be grounded until Christmas!”

“I’ll be home tomorrow night,” he lied. Thinking to throw them off the trail.

“WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU? YOU ARE NOT STAYING OUT ALL NIGHT!”

He only thought for a second before he disconnected the call. They didn’t care. They never said they loved him. He was done with them. “I’m on my own. Always have been,” he said to the bird who landed a few feet away. It looked at him, tilting it’s head, and chirped. “You got it easy, dude. Wish I had wings.”

He unrolled the sleeping bag. He heard sirens later, saw red lights reflecting off the houses down by his and Jimmy’s house. “Please, don’t let Jimmy tell them where I am,” he begged the sky. But no one came looking for him in the woods, so he snuggled down in the bag and went to sleep.

A huge crow scared the bejeezus out of him in the morning, sitting on a branch above his head and “cawing” loudly. He sat up, disoriented a moment, and shooed the bird away. His phone vibrated against his leg, and he saw it was Jimmy and answered, “Yeah?”

“Ok, I’m on my way out; man you missed it last night. The cops showed up, questioned me for like half an hour.”

“You didn’t say anything did you?”

“Hell no, you’re old man was ready to have me arrested. But I told em I hadn’t seen ya, but heard you saying you were going to hitchhike to Jamestown the day before. They believed me, but man, they put out an APB on you. So stay off the roads!”

“Shit. Ok. Thanks Jimmy! I owe ya.”

“Yea, no worries. Your Dad left earlier, and your Mom just peeled out, spitting rocks at me, the bitch.”

“Ok. Well, if they don’t catch me, I’ll give ya a call sometime… later,” he said, not able to say he’d miss his best friend.

“That’s cool. Yeah, call me sometime. Hope ya make it. Oh, I heard this one asshole cop say they can trace your phone, but they gotta get a court order, so better not call for a while. I left something for ya on the back steps.”

“Oh, ok. Well, bye.”

“Bye.” He made his way down, and watched Jimmy’s house for a few minutes, to make sure it was safe, before bolting across the yard. He quietly opened the back door and set the sleeping bag inside before looking in the grocery bag on the steps. Jimmy had left his Bowie Knife, two peanut butter sandwiches smooshed together in one baggie, and a box of matches. ‘Wow!’ he thought, ‘his knife.’ For the first time in years, tears came to his eyes; he blinked them back. Not at the thought of leaving his parents, but his best friend. They’d grown up together, crashed their bikes together, sailed through town on their skateboards, evading the mall cops almost daily, and dreamed of kissing girls for the first time. Jimmy had always been there for him, even bandaged up his bleeding legs the last time his Dad got pissed.

He took off, sneaking every inch of the way, and slid across the siding along the back of his house, taking quick peeks inside the windows to make sure his Dad wasn’t inside hiding. Waiting to whoop his ass. He’d do that, he knew. Drive away, and sneak back to be waiting. But maybe he believed Jimmy, and had went to work after all. He couldn’t hear a sound inside, so he snuck in the back door. He ran for his room, and shoved everything he might need into his school backpack. Pulled his own sleeping bag out of the the closet, along with his winter coat, shoved his feet into his hiking boots and threw on the coat. He stopped in the kitchen and grabbed two bottles of water, a bag of chips, a package of bologna, and a chunk of cheese. Dug in the top drawer for a can opener, and then tossed two cans of tuna and two cans of chili into the bag with the knife. Then before he left, he took his Dad’s 45 and a box of ammo, tucked them deep into the bottom of his backpack, and said, ‘fuck you both.’ He ran back to his room, grabbed his and Jimmy’s favorite CD, The Beasty Boys, and left.

Sprinting across the back yard once again, he opened Jimmy’s back door, and laid the CD on top of the sleeping bag. Jimmy loved that CD. It was his way of saying thanks for the knife.  Fair trade between best friends. As he head back into the woods, deciding Canada sounded like a plan, the tears fell unchecked, blurring his vision as he looked back once more… at Jimmy’s house.

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