Chapter Ten

X  -  a Boy and a Ball


Right there, on its kickstand.

a brand new bicycle.

"Gosh," I said as I got out of the pickup. That's all I could say. I walked up the porch steps in a trance, and I touched it.

It was not a dream. It was real, and it was beautiful.

Dad whistled in appreciation. He knew a good-looking bike when he saw it. "That's some piece of work, huhi"

"Yes sir." I still couldn't believe it. Here was something I had desired in my heart for a long, long time. It belonged to me now, and I felt like the king of the world.

In later years I would think that no woman's lips had ever been as red as that bike. No low-slung foreign sports car with wire wheels and purring engine would ever look as powerful or as capable as that bike. No chrome would ever gleam with such purity, like the silver moon on a summer's night. It had a big round headlight and a horn with a rubber bulb, and its frame looked as strong and solid as the biceps of Hercules. But it looked fast, too; its handlebars sloped forward like an invitation to taste the wind, its black rubber pedals unscuffed by any foot before mine. Dad ran his fingers along the headlight, and then he picked the bike up with one hand. "Boy, it hardly weighs anything!" he marveled. "Lightest metal I've ever felt!" He put it down again, and it settled on its kickstand like an obedient but barely tamed animal.

I was on that seat in two seconds. I had a little trouble at first, because the way both the handlebars and the seat tilted forward I felt like my balance was off. My head was thrust over the front wheel, my back pressed down in a straight line in emulation of the bike's spine. I had the feeling of being on a machine that could easily get out of my control if I wasn't careful; there was something about it that both thrilled and scared me.

Mom came out of the house. The bike had arrived about an hour before, she told us. Mr. Lightfoot had brought it in the back of his truck. "He said the Lady wants you to ride easy on it until it gets used to you," she said. She looked at Dad, who was walking in a circle around the new bike. "He can keep it, can't hei"

"I don't like us acceptin' charity. You know that."

"It's not charity. It's a reward for a good deed."

Dad continued his circling. He stopped and prodded his shoe at the front tire. "This must've cost her an awful lot of money. It's a fine bike, that's for sure."

"Can I keep it, Dadi" I asked.

He stood there, his hands on his hips. He chewed on his bottom lip for a moment, and then he looked at Mom. "It's not charityi"


Dad's gaze found me. "Yeah," he said, and no word was ever more welcome. "It's yours."

"Thanks! Thanks a million times!"

"So now that you've got a new bike, what're you gonna name iti" Dad asked.

I hadn't thought about this yet. I shook my head, still trying to get used to the way it held my body forward like a spear.

"Might as well take it out for a spin, don't you thinki" He slid an arm around Mom's waist, and he grinned at me.

"Yes sir," I said, but I got off to chop the kickstand up and guide it down the porch steps. It seemed an indignity to jar the bike before we'd gotten to know each other. Either that, or I feared waking it up just yet. I sat on the seat again, my feet on the ground.

"Go ahead," Dad told me. "Just don't burn up the street."

I nodded, but I didn't move. I swear I thought I felt the bike tremble, as if with anticipation. Maybe it was just me.

"Crank 'er up," Dad said.

This was the moment of truth. I took a breath, put one foot on a pedal, and pushed off with the other. Then both feet were on the pedals, and I aimed the bike toward the street. The wheels turned with hardly any noise, just a quiet tick... tick... tick like a bomb about to go off.

"Have fun!" my mother called as she opened the porch door.

I looked back and took a hand off the handlebars to wave, and the bike suddenly lurched out of my control and zigzagged wildly. I almost went down in my first crash, but I grasped hold again and the bike straightened out. The pedals were smooth as ice cream, the wheels spinning faster across the hot pavement. This was a bike, I realized, that could get away from you like a rocket. I tore away along the street, the wind hissing through my newly cut hair, and to tell the truth, I felt as if I was hanging on for dear life. I was used to an old, sluggish chain and sprocket that needed a lot of leg muscle, but this bike demanded a lighter touch. When I put on the brakes the first time, I almost flew off the seat. I spun it around in a wide circle and gave it more speed again, and I got going so fast so quickly, the back of my neck started sweating. I felt one pedal-push away from leaving the ground, but the front wheel responded to my grip on the handlebars seemingly even as I thought what direction I wanted to turn. Like a rocket, the bike sped me through the tree-shaded streets of my hometown, and as we carved the wind together I decided that would be its name.

"Rocket," I said, the word whirling away behind me in the slipstream. "That sound all right to youi"

It didn't throw me off. It didn't veer for the nearest tree. I took that as a yes.

I started getting bolder. I sideslipped and figure-eighted and curb-jumped, and Rocket obeyed me without hesitation. I leaned over those handlebars and pumped the pedals with all my strength and Rocket shot along Shantuck Street, the pools of shadow and sunlight opening up before me. I zipped up onto the sidewalk, where the tires barely registered the passing cracks. The air was hot in my lungs and cool on my face, and the houses and trees were whipping past in a sublime blur. at this instant I felt at one with Rocket, as if we were of the same skin and grease, and when I grinned, a bug flew into my teeth. I didn't care; I swallowed it because I was invincible.

and such ideas inevitably lead to what next occurred.

I hit a patch of broken sidewalk without slowing down or trying to miss it, and I felt Rocket shudder from fender to fender. a noise like a grunt ran through the frame. The jolt knocked one of my hands loose from the handlebars, and Rocket's front tire hit an edge of concrete and the bike bucked up and twisted like an angry stallion. My feet left the pedals and my butt left the seat, and as I went off into the air I thought of something Mom had said: The Lady wants you to ride easy on it until it gets used to you.

I didn't have much time to ponder it. In the next second I crashed into a hedge in somebody's yard and my breath left me in a whoosh and the green leaves took me down. I had nearly ripped a hole clear through the hedge. My arms and cheeks were scratched up some, but nothing seemed to be skinned up and bleeding. I got out of the hedge, shaking off leaves, and I saw Rocket lying on its side in the grass. Terror gripped me; if this new bike was busted up, Dad's spanking hand would be finding work. I knelt beside Rocket, checking the bike for damage. The front tire was scuffed and the fender crimped, but the chain was still on and the handlebars straight. The headlight was unbroken, the frame unbent. Rocket had been bruised but was amazingly healthy for such a nasty spill. I righted the bike, thanking whatever angel had been riding on my shoulder, and as I ran my fingers over the dented fender I saw the eye in the headlamp.

It was a golden orb with a dark pupil, and it stared at me with what might have been a brooding tolerance.

I blinked, startled.

The golden eye was gone. Now the headlight was just a plain bulb behind a circle of glass again.

I kept staring at the headlight. There was no eye in it. I rolled Rocket around, from sun to shadow and back again, but the image did not return.

I felt my head, searching for a lump. I found none.

It's crazy, the things a boy can imagine.

I got back on the seat and started pedaling along the sidewalk again. This time I took it slow and easy, and I hadn't gone twenty feet before I saw all the glass from a broken Yoo-Hoo bottle scattered across the sidewalk in front of me. I swerved Rocket over the curb and onto the street, missing the glass fragments and saving Rocket's tires. I hated to think what might have happened if I'd gone over that glass at high speed; a few scratches from a leafy hedge were mild compared to what could have been.

We had been very lucky, Rocket and me.

Davy Ray Callan lived nearby. I stopped at his house, but his mother said Davy Ray had gone to the ball field with Johnny Wilson to practice. Our Little League team-the Indians, for whom I played second base-had lost our first four games and we needed all the practice we could get. I thanked Mrs. Callan and I aimed Rocket toward the field.

It wasn't far. Davy Ray and Johnny were standing out in the sunshine and the red dust, pitching a ball back and forth. I rode Rocket onto the field and circled them, and their mouths dropped open at the sight of my new bike. Of course they had to touch it, too, had to sit on it and pedal it around a little. Next to Rocket, their bikes looked like dusty antiques. Still, this was Davy Ray's opinion of Rocket: "It don't handle so good, though, does iti" and Johnny's: "It sure is pretty, but the pedals are stiff." I realized they were not saying this simply to rain on my parade; they were good friends, and they rejoiced in my happiness. The fact of the matter is that they preferred their own bikes. Rocket had been made for me and me alone.

I rested Rocket on its kickstand and watched while Davy Ray threw high fly balls to Johnny. Yellow butterflies flew from the grass, and overhead the sky was blue and cloudless. I looked toward the brown-painted bleachers, under the signs advertising different Merchants Street stores, and I saw a figure sitting at the top.

"Hey, Davy!" I said. "Who's thati"

Davy glanced over and then lifted his glove to snare Johnny's return pitch. "I don't know. Just some kid, been sittin' there since we got here."

I watched the guy. He was hunkered forward, watching us, with one elbow on a knee and his chin propped on his palm. I turned away from Davy and walked toward the bleachers, and the kid at the top suddenly stood up as if he meant to run.

"What're you doin' up therei" I called to him.

He didn't answer. He just stood there, and I could tell he was trying to decide whether to take to his heels or not.

I got closer. I didn't recognize him; he had short-cropped dark brown hair with a wiry cowlick sticking up from the left side of his head, and he wore glasses that seemed too big for his face. He was maybe nine or ten years old, I figured, and he was a real beanpole, with gawky arms and legs. He wore blue jeans with patched knees and a white T-shirt, and the buttermilk pallor of his skin told me he didn't get outside very much. "What's your namei" I asked him as I reached the fence between the field and the bleachers.

He didn't reply.

"Can you talki"

I saw him tremble. He looked as scared as a deer caught in a hunter's flashlight.

"I'm Cory Mackenson," I said. I stood there, waiting, with my fingers grasping the fence's mesh. "Don't you have a namei"

"Yeth," the boy answered.

I thought he'd said Seth at first, and then it dawned on me that he had a lisp. "What is iti"

"Nemo," he said.

"Nemoi Like Captain Nemoi"


a student of Jules Verne he was not. "What's your last namei"

"Curlith," he said.

Curlith. It took me a few seconds to decipher it. Not Curlith, but Curliss. The new boy in town, the one who had a traveling salesman as a father. The boy who sat on the horse to get his hair cut at Mr. Dollar's. The pansy.

Nemo Curliss. Well, the name suited him. He looked like something a net might drag up from twenty thousand leagues. But my parents had taught me that everybody deserved respect, no matter if they were pansies or not, and to tell the truth, I was nothing to write home about in the physical looks department. "You're new in town," I offered.

He nodded.

"Mr. Dollar told me about you."

"He didi"

"Yeah. Said"-you sat on the horse, I almost told him-"you got a haircut."

"Uh-huh. 'Bout thaved me baldheaded," Nemo said, and he scratched the top of his scalp with a thin-fingered hand attached to a white, bony wrist.

"Heads up, Cory!" I heard Davy shout. I looked up. Johnny had put all his strength into a fly ball that not only overshot Davy's glove, but cleared the fence, banged against the second row of bleachers, and rolled down to the bottom.

"Little help!" Davy said, smacking his glove with his fist.

Nemo Curliss walked down from the top and picked up the ball. He was the littlest runt I think I'd ever seen. My own arms were skinny, but his were all bones and veins. He looked at me, his dark brown eyes magnified owlish by his glasses. "Can I throw it backi" he asked.

I shrugged. "I don't care." I turned toward Davy, and maybe it was mean but I couldn't suppress a wicked smile. "Comin' at you, Davy."

"Oh, wow!" Davy started backing up in mock terror. "Don't scorch me, kid!"

Nemo walked up to the top bleacher again. He squinted toward the field. "You readyi" he yelled.

"I'm ready! Throw it, big hoss!" Davy answered.

"No, not you," Nemo corrected him. "That other guy out there." and then he reared back, swung his arm in a circle that was impossible for the eye to follow, and the ball left his hand in a white blur.

I heard the ball hiss as it rose into the sky, like a firecracker on a short fuse.

Davy cried out, "Hey!" and backpedaled to get it, but the ball was over him and gone. Beyond Davy, Johnny looked up at the falling sphere and took three steps forward. Then two steps back. One more step back, to where he'd been standing when the ball was thrown. Johnny lifted his hand and held his glove out in front of his face.

There was a sweet, solid pop as the ball kissed leather.

"Right in the pocket!" Davy shouted. "Man, did you see that thing flyi"

Out toward first base, Johnny removed his glove and wrang his catching hand, his fingers stinging with the impact.

I looked at Nemo, my mouth agape. I couldn't believe anybody as little and skinny as him could throw a baseball over the bleachers fence, much less half the width of the field and into an outstretched glove. What's more, Nemo didn't even act as if it had hurt his arm, and a heave like that would've left my shoulder sore for a week, even if I could've gotten that kind of distance out of it. It was a major league throw if I'd ever seen one. "Nemo!" I said. "Where'd you learn to throw a ball like thati"

He blinked at me behind his glasses. "Like whati" he asked.

"Come down here. Okayi"

"Whyi" Nemo looked scared again. I had the feeling that he was well acquainted with the bad end of the stick. There are three things every town in the country has in common: a church, a secret, and a bully ready to tear the head off a skinny kid who couldn't fight his way out of a paper bag. I imagined that Nemo Curliss, in following his salesman daddy from town to town, had seen his share of those. I felt ashamed for my wicked smile. "It's all right," I said. "Just come on down."

"Man, what a throw!" Davy Ray Callan, having retrieved the ball from Johnny, jogged up to where Nemo was entering the field through the players' gate. "You really nailed it in there, kid! How old are youi"

"Nine," was the answer. "almost nine and a half."

I could tell Davy was as puzzled as I was about Nemo's size; there should have been no way on earth for a runt like that to drill a baseball into a mitt as he had. "Go stand on second base, Johnny!" I shouted, and Johnny waved and ran over to take the position. "You want to throw some, Nemoi"

"I don't know. I'm thaposed to be gettin' home thoon."

"It won't take long. I'd kinda like to see what you can do. Davy, can he wear your glovei"

Davy took it off. The glove swallowed Nemo's left hand like a brown whale. "Why don't you stand on the pitcher's mound and throw Johnny a fewi" I suggested.

Nemo looked at the pitcher's mound, at second base, and then at home plate. "I'll thand right there," he said, and he walked to the batter's box while Davy and I stood dumbfounded. From home plate to second base was quite a toss for guys our age, much less anybody nine-and-a-half years old. "You sure, Nemoi" I asked, and he said, "Thure."

Nemo took the ball out of the glove with what might have been reverence. I watched his long fingers work around it, find a grip on the seams, and fasten themselves. "Readyi" he called.

"Yeah, I'm ready! Let 'er ri-"


If we hadn't seen such a thing with our own eyes, none of us would ever have believed it. Nemo had wound up and pitched in a heartbeat, and if Johnny hadn't been extra quick, the ball would've caught him right in the center of his chest and knocked him flat. as it was, the sheer power of the pitch made Johnny stagger back off second base, dust smoking from the ball in his clenched glove. Johnny began to walk around in a circle, his face pinched with pain.

"You okayi" Davy shouted.

"Hurts a little," Johnny answered. Davy and I knew it must be bad for Johnny to admit it. "I can take another one." We were too far away to hear him say, under his breath, "I hope." He threw the ball back in a high arc to Nemo, who stepped forward six paces, watched the ball speed downward toward his face, and plucked it out of the air at the very last second. The kid knew what economy of movement was all about, but I swear he'd been an instant away from a smashed nose.

Nemo returned to the plate. He wiped dust off the tops of his brown loafers by rubbing them on the backs of his jeans legs. He started to wind up, and Johnny braced for the throw. Nemo unwound and put the ball back in his glove. "Throwin' ain't nothin'," he told us, as if all this attention embarrassed him. "anybody with an arm can do it."

"Not like that!" Davy Ray said.

"You guyth think thith is a big deal or thomethin'i"

"It's fast," I said. "Real fast, Nemo. The pitcher on our team's not even as fast, and he's twice your size."

"Thith ith eathy thuff." Nemo looked out at Johnny. "Run for turd bayth!"


"Run for turd bayth!" Nemo repeated. "Hold your glove anywhere, just keep it open and where I can thee it!"


"Run as fath as you can!" Nemo urged. "You don't have to look at me, jutht keep your glove open!"

"Go ahead, Johnny!" Davy called. "Do it!"

Johnny was a brave fellow. He showed it right then, as he started pounding the dirt between second and third bases. He didn't look toward home, but his head and shoulders were pulled in tight and his glove was down in front of his chest, the pocket open and facing Nemo Curliss.

Nemo pulled in a quick breath. He drew back, his white arm flashed, and the ball went like a bullet.

Johnny was going full out, his gaze fixed on third base. The ball popped into his glove when he was still a half-dozen steps from third, and the feel of it wedging solidly into the pocket was so startling that Johnny lost his balance and went down on the ground in a slide that boiled up yellow dust. When the dust began to clear, Johnny was sitting on third base staring at the ball in his glove. "Wow," he said, stunned. "Wow."

I had never in my life seen a baseball thrown with such amazing accuracy. Johnny hadn't even had to reach an inch for it; in fact, he hadn't even known the ball was coming until it hit him in the glove. "Nemoi" I said. "You ever pitched on a Little League team beforei"


"But you've played ball before, haven't youi" Davy Ray asked.

"Nope." He frowned and pushed his glasses up with a finger because the bridge of his nose was getting slick with sweat. "My mom won't let me. Thays I might get hurt."

"You've never played ball on a teami"

"Well, I've got a ball and glove at home. Thometimeth I practith catchin' fly ballth. Thometimeth I thee how far I can throw. I thet up bottleth on a fence potht and knock 'em down. Thuff like that."

"Doesn't your dad want you to play balli" I asked.

Nemo shrugged and scuffed the dust with the toe of his loafer. "He don't have much to thay about it."

I was struck with wonder. Standing before me, in the shape of a skinny little runt with thick glasses and a lisp, was a natural. "Will you pitch me a fewi" I asked, and he said he would. I got Johnny's glove-which he gave up gladly from his sore hand-and I tossed the ball to Nemo. I ran to second base and planted myself. "Put it right here, Nemo!" I told him, and I extended my arm and held the mitt level with my shoulder. Nemo nodded, wound up, and let fly. I never had to move my hand. The ball smacked into the glove with a force that jangled the nerves all the way from my fingertips to my collarbone. When I threw it back, Nemo had to run forward and dart and weave to catch it. Then I backed up some more, out toward center field, where the weeds were sprouting. I lifted the mitt up over my head. "Right here, Nemo!"

Nemo crouched down, almost on his knees. His head was bent forward, as if he were trying to squeeze himself into a tight knot. He stayed that way for a few seconds, the sunlight glinting off his glasses, and then he exploded.

He flew up from his crouch like Superman bursting out of a phone booth. His throwing arm whipped back and then forward. If anybody's jaw had been caught by that flashing, bony elbow they'd have been spitting out a mouthful of broken teeth. The ball left Nemo's hand and it came at me like gangbusters.

It was a low ball, and it almost skimmed the dust between the batter's box and the pitcher's mound. But it was rising as it passed over the mound, and it seemed to be picking up speed, too. It was still rising as it zipped over second base. I heard Davy yelling at me, but I don't know what he was saying. My attention was riveted to that flying white sphere. I kept the glove up over my head, exactly where it had been when the ball was thrown, but I was prepared to duck to keep from getting plastered. The ball entered the outfield, and I could hear its hissing, full of steam and menace. I didn't move my feet. I had time to swallow-gulp-and then the ball was upon me.

It popped into the mitt's pocket, its impact strong enough to make me step back a couple of paces. I closed my hand around the ball, trapping it, and I could feel its heat throbbing like a pulse through the cowhide.

"Cory!" Davy Ray was shouting, his hands up to bracket his mouth. "Cory!"

I didn't know what Davy was hollering about, and I didn't care. I was in a trance. Nemo Curliss had an unearthly arm. How much of this had been a gift and how much he had trained himself to do, I didn't know, but one thing was clear: Nemo Curliss possessed that rare combination of arm and eye that elevated him above mere mortals. In other words, he was a humdinger.

"Cory!" This time it was Johnny yelling. "Look out!"

"Whati" I called.

"Behind you!" Johnny screamed.

I heard a sound like scythes at work, slicing wheat. I turned around, and there they were.

Gotha and Gordo Branlin, grinning astride their black bicycles, their peroxided-yellow hair aflame with sunlight. They were coming at me through the knee-high grass beyond the mowed outfield, their legs pumping the pedals. Green grasshoppers and black field crickets leaped for their lives under the grinding wheels. I wanted to run, but my legs were locked up. The Branlins stopped with me between them, Gotha on my right and Gordo on my left. Sweat glistened on their angular faces, their eyes cutting into me. I heard a crow cawing somewhere, like the devil's laughter.

Gotha, the oldest at fourteen, reached out and prodded the baseball mitt with his index finger. "You playin' ball, Coryi" The way he said it, it sounded dirty.

"He's playin' with his balls," Gordo snickered. He was thirteen, and just a shade smaller than Gotha. Neither one of them were very big, but they were wiry and fast as whippets. Gordo had a little scar between his eyebrows and another on his chin that said he was no stranger to either pain or bloodshed. He looked toward home plate, where Davy, Johnny, and Nemo stood. "Who the fuck is thati"

"New kid," I said. "His name's Nemo."

"assholei" Gotha stared at Nemo, too, and I could see the wolfishness in the Branlins' faces. They smelled sheep's blood. "Let's go see asshole," he said to Gordo, and started pedaling. Gordo hit the bottom of my mitt with his hand and made the ball jump out. as I bent over to pick it up, he spat a wad into my hair. Then he pedaled away after his brother.

I knew what was going to happen. It was bad enough that Nemo was so small and skinny, but when the Branlins heard that lisp, it was going to be all she wrote. I held my breath as the Branlins approached Rocket. as they passed, Gotha kicked Rocket to the ground with supreme indifference. I swallowed my rage like a bitter seed, not knowing that it would bear fruit.

The Branlins pulled their black bikes to a halt, with the three boys between them. "You guys playin' a gamei" Gotha asked, and he smiled like the snake in the Garden of Eden.

"Just throwin' the ball around some," Davy Ray told him.

"Hey, niggerblood," Gordo said to Johnny. "What're you lookin' ati"

Johnny shrugged and stared at the ground.

"You smell like shit, you know thati" Gordo taunted.

"We don't want any trouble," Davy said. "Okayi"

"Who said anythin' about troublei" Gotha uncoiled from his bike and stood up. He rested the bike on its kickstand and leaned against it. "We didn't say anythin' about trouble. Gimme a cigarette."

Gordo reached into a back pocket and gave his brother a pack of Chesterfields. Gotha produced a matchbook that had Zephyr Hardware Feeds across the front. He put a cigarette into his mouth and held the matchbook out to Nemo Curliss. "Light one."

Nemo took it. His hands were trembling. It took him three scrapes to make the match flare.

"Light my cigarette," Gotha ordered.

Nemo, who perhaps had seen many other Gothas and Gordos in many other towns, did as he was told. Gotha drew in smoke and exhaled it through flared nostrils. "Your name's asshole, ain't iti"

"My... name ith... Nemo."

"Ithi" Gordo sprayed spittle. " Ithi What's the matter with your mouth, assholei"

I was picking up Rocket from the grass. Here I faced a decision. I could get on Rocket and ride away, leaving my friends and Nemo Curliss to their fates, or I could join them. I was no hero, that's for sure. My fighting ability was a fantasy. But I knew that if I rode away from that place and point in time, I would be forever disgraced. Not that I didn't want to, and not that every fiber of good sense wasn't telling me to haul ass.

But some good sense you listen to, and some good sense you can't live with.

I walked toward a beating, my heart pounding on its root.

"You look like a queer," Gordo said to Nemo Curliss. "Is that what you arei"

"Hey... listen, guys." Davy Ray managed a frail smile. "Why don't you guys-"

Gotha whirled on him, took two strides, planted a hand on Davy's chest, and shoved him hard, knocking him to the ground by hooking a sneakered foot around Davy's ankle. Davy grunted as he hit, dust pluming up around him. Gotha stood over him, smoking the Chesterfield. "You," he said. "Just. Shut. Up."

"I've gotta get home." Nemo started to walk away, but Gordo grabbed his arm and held him.

"C'mere," Gordo said. "You don't wanna go nowhere."

"Yeah, I do, 'cauth my mom thays I've gotta-"

Gordo howled with laughter, the sound startling birds out of the trees around the field. "Listen to him, Gotha! He's got shit in his mouth!"

"I think he's been suckin' too many cocks," was Gotha's opinion. "Is that righti" He aimed his hard stare at Nemo. "You been suckin' too many cocksi"

What made the Branlins the way they were was anybody's guess. Maybe the meanness had been born in them; maybe it had developed, like the pus around a wound that will not heal. In any case, the Branlins knew no law but their own, and this situation was rapidly spiraling into the danger zone.

Gordo shook Nemo. "That righti You like to suck cocksi"

"No." Nemo's voice was choked.

"Yes he does," Gotha said, his shadow heavy across Davy Ray. "He likes to suck big fat donkey cocks."

"No, I don't." Nemo's chest shook, and the first sob squeezed out.

"Oh, momma's little baby's gonna cry now!" Gordo said, grinning.

"I... wanna go... home..." Nemo began to sob, the tears flooding up behind his glasses.

There is nothing more cruel in this world than a young savage with a chip on his shoulder and anger in his soul. It is worse still when there is a yellow stripe down his back, as evidenced by the fact that the Branlins never went after boys their age or older.

I looked around. a car was passing the field, but its driver paid us no notice. We were on our own out here, under the scorching sun.

"Put the baby down, Gordo," Gotha said. His brother shoved Nemo to the ground. "Feed the baby, Gordo," Gotha said, and Gordo unzipped his blue jeans.

"Hey, come on!" Johnny protested. "Don't!"

Gordo, holding his exposed penis, stood over Nemo Curliss. "Shut up, niggerblood, if you don't want some rain in your face, too."

I couldn't take any more of this. I looked at the baseball in my hand. Nemo was crying. Gordo was waiting for the water to flow. I just couldn't take it.

I thought of Rocket being kicked over. I thought of the tears on Nemo's face. I threw the baseball at Gordo from about ten feet.

It didn't really have a lot on it, but it made a solid thunk as it hit his right shoulder. He wailed like a bobcat and staggered away from Nemo just as his fountain arced. The urine wet the front of his jeans and ran down his legs, but Gordo was grasping his shoulder and his face was all screwed up and he was yelling and sobbing at the same time. Gotha Branlin turned toward me, the cigarette clenched between his teeth and smoke whirling from his mouth. His cheeks flamed, and he propelled himself at me. Before I could think to dodge, he rammed me full force. The next thing I knew I was flat on my back with Gotha sitting on top of me, his weight crushing my chest. "I... can't... I can't... breathe..." I said.

"Good," he said, and he hit me in the face with his right fist.

The first two punches hurt. Real bad. The next two about knocked me cold, but I was squirming and yelling and trying to get away, and the scarlet blood was all over Gotha's knuckles. "Ohhhhh shit, my arm's broke!" Gordo moaned, on his knees in the grass.

a hand grabbed Gotha's peroxided hair. Gotha's head was jerked back, the cigarette fell from his mouth, and I saw Johnny standing over him. Then Davy Ray said, "Hold him!" and he smashed his fist into Gotha's nose.

The lump of flesh burst open. Blood streamed from Gotha's nostrils, and Gotha roared like a beast and got off me. He attacked Davy Ray, hammering at him with his fists. Johnny went after him, trying to grab Gotha's arms, but Gotha twisted around and swung a blow that crunched against the side of Johnny's head. Then Gordo was up again, his face a blotched rictus of pure rage, and he ran in kicking at Johnny's legs. Johnny went down, and I saw a fist bust him right in the eye. Davy Ray shouted, "You bastards!" and flung himself at Gotha, but the older boy grabbed him by the collar and swung him around like a laundry bag before throwing him to the ground. I was sitting up, blood in my mouth. Nemo was up and running for his life, but he tripped over his own tangled legs and fell headlong into the grass.

What followed in the next thirty seconds I don't like to think about. First Gotha and Gordo left Davy Ray crumpled up and crying, and then they pounced on Johnny and worked him over with brutal precision. When Johnny was gasping for air, the blood bubbling from his nostrils, the Branlins advanced on me again.

"You little piece o' shit," Gotha said, his nose dripping. He put his foot on my chest and slammed me down on my back again. Gordo, still holding his shoulder, said, "Lemme have him."

I was too dazed to fight back. Even if I hadn't been dazed, I couldn't have done very much against those two without a spiked mace and a broadsword and fifty more pounds on my bones.

"Stomp his ass, Gordo," Gotha urged.

Gordo grabbed the front of my shirt and started to haul me to my feet. My shirt ripped, and I remember thinking that Mom was going to tear me up.

"I'll kill you," somebody said.

Gotha laughed like a bark. "Put it down, kid."

"I'll kill you, I thwear I will!"

I blinked, spat blood, and looked at Nemo Curliss, who stood fifteen feet away. The baseball was in his hand, his skinny arm cocked back.

Now, this was an interesting situation. I'd been lucky in hitting Gordo's shoulder; in Nemo's hand, however, that hard round sphere was a lethal weapon. I had no doubt that Nemo could hit either one of the Branlins right between the eyes and knock their brains out. I had no doubt, either, that he would. Because I saw his eyes magnified behind those glasses. The fury trapped in them, like a distant conflagration, was terrible to behold. He was no longer crying or trembling. With that baseball in his grip, he was the master of the universe. I really think he was ready to kill somebody. Maybe it was the rage at being born a runt, of having a lisp, of attracting bullies like a weak calf makes a predator's mouth water. Maybe he was full to the gullet with being shoved and taunted. Whatever it was, it was there like a deadly resolve in his eyes.

Gordo let me go. Lip-ripped and shirt-ripped, I sat in the grass.

"Look at me shake," Gotha said silkily as he took a step toward Nemo.

Gordo fanned out a few paces from his brother. His penis was still hanging out of his jeans. I wondered if that would make a good target. "Throw it, chickenshit," Gordo said.

a Branlin was very close to death.

"Hey, you boys! Hey, there!"

The voice came across the field at us, from the road that ran along its edge. "Hey, you boys all righti"

I turned my head, my face as heavy as a bag of stones. Parked on the roadside was a mailman's truck. The mailman himself was walking toward us, a pith helmet shading his face. He wore shorts with black socks, and sweat stains darkened his blue shirt.

Like any animals, the Branlins knew the sound of the hinge on a cage's lid. Without a word to each other, they turned away from the carnage they had created and ran to their bikes. Gordo hurriedly pushed his penis back in and zipped up his fly, then he swung himself up in the seat. Gotha paused to kick Rocket over again; I suppose the temptation to ruin was just too great. Then he got on his bike and the two brothers started pedaling frantically back the way they'd come. "Wait a minute!" the mailman shouted, but the Branlins listened only to their inner demons. They raced across the field, dust swirling up behind them, and then they hit the trails they'd carved through the brushy grass and were gone into the patch of woods that stood beyond. Some ravens screamed in there: scavengers, welcoming their own.

It was all over but the cleaning up.

Mr. Gerald Hargison, our mailman who delivered my monthly issue of Famous Monsters magazine in a plain brown envelope, reached me and stopped when he saw my face. "Good God!" he said, which told me it was bad. " Coryi"

I nodded. My lower lip felt as big as a goosedown pillow, and my left eye was swelling up.

"You okay, boyi"

I didn't feel like twirling a Hula Hoop, that's for sure. But I could stand up, and all my teeth were still in their sockets. Davy Ray was all right, too, except his face was a mass of bruises and one of the Branlins had stepped on his fingers. Johnny Wilson, however, had been the hardest hit. Mr. Hargison, who had a fleshy, ruddy-cheeked face and smoked plastic-tipped cheroots when he was walking his route, winced as he helped Johnny sit up. Johnny's Cherokee hatchet of a nose was broken, no doubt about it. The blood was dark red and thick, and Johnny's swollen eyes couldn't hold a focus. "Boyi" Mr. Hargison said to him. "How many fingers am I holdin' upi" He held up three, right in front of Johnny's face.

"Six," Johnny said.

"I believe he's got a-"

and here was a word that never failed to frighten, giving images of brain-damaged drooling.

"-concussion. I'm gonna take him to Doc Parrish. Can you two get homei"

Us twoi I saw Davy Ray, but where was Nemoi The ball was lying on the ground next to home plate. The boy with the perfect arm was gone.

"Those were the Branlin brothers, weren't theyi" Mr. Hargison helped Johnny stand, and he took a handkerchief from his shorts pocket and held it against Johnny's nostrils. In no time, the white was spotted with blood. "Those fellas need their butts kicked."

"You're gonna be all right, Johnny," I told him, but Johnny didn't answer me and he walked rubber-legged as Mr. Hargison led him to the truck. Davy and I stood watching as Mr. Hargison got him in and then went around and started the engine. Johnny leaned back in the seat, his head lolling. He'd been hurt bad.

after Mr. Hargison had turned the mail truck around and sped off in the direction of Dr. Parrish's office, Davy and I rolled Johnny's bike up under the bleachers, where it wouldn't be readily seen. The Branlins might come back and tear it to pieces before Johnny's dad could come get it, but it was the best we could do. Then it dawned on our foggy minds that the Branlins might be in the patch of woods still, where they'd been waiting for Mr. Hargison to leave.

That thought hurried us up some. Davy retrieved his baseball and got on his bike and I picked Rocket up again. I saw, for a brief instant, the golden eye in the headlight. It seemed to regard me with cool pity, same to say, "You're my new masteri You're gonna need all the help you can get!" Rocket had had a rough first day, but I hoped we'd get along all right.

Davy and I pedaled away from the field, both of us hurting. We knew what was to come: horror from our parents, indignation at the Branlins, angry phone calls, probably a visit by the sheriff, an empty promise from Mr. and Mrs. Branlin that their boys would never, ever do anything like this again.

We knew better.

We had escaped the Branlins for now, but Gotha and Gordo held grudges. at any moment, they might swoop at us on their black bikes and finish what they'd started. Or what I had started, by throwing that danged baseball.

Summer had suddenly been poisoned by the Branlin touch. With July and august still ahead, we were not likely to have all our teeth by September.

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