Looking up from our sleeping bags at the trillions of stars in the late night sky, well, it didn’t get much better than that. The four of us spread out, in our bags, hearing the crinkle of plastic when someone moved. I suggested a game of firing our BB guns directly up at the stars, see if the BBs fell back on us, you know, live dangerously. So, we did. Tat tat tat. The cartridge pistols blasting away. Screaming with delight.
Satch wanted to sleep so I shot his sleeping bag. Tat tat tat. Stop he yelled through the sleeping bag. Bob and Dale joined in. Satch screamed louder. So what if we shot his eyes out. So what if his brother’s sleeping bag was peppered with holes.
Dale’s backyard was square and grassy and kind of big by subdivision standards. A wooden fence surrounded the yard. Dale had a dog, Penny, a shepherd. The dog stayed in the house tonight. This was a camp out and we didn’t need a wolf wannabe running about, spoiling the stories we told to try to scare each other.
There were plenty of snacks. Dale’s mom always kept a good refrigerator and pantry. We had chips, popcorn, Milkduds, Mike and Ikes, Snickers, all the pop we could carry and hide in our bookbags. Dale even managed to sneak out a Hudepohl beer that belonged to his dad, oblivious on the couch in the living room. We shared it.
There was a rotten smell that drifted from the city dump several miles away, the slow nostril burning stench aided in the telling of stories that focused on young guys about our age, usually caught and skinned alive in backyards just like this one by an escaped maniac wielding a hatchet or machete, wearing the cloak of decaying skin fleeced from his many victims.
I was real good at telling stories. I launched into my favorite, a story about Riddle, a homeless man familiar to all the kids at school, a quiet man who lived somewhere in the vast woods that separated our subdivision from Oakdale Cemetery.
Dale mumbled he heard the story before but he stayed hidden beneath his sleeping bag, so I guessed it was still an effective story. Satch whimpered and I told him to shut up. He was still pissed about the BB holes in his bag. I pictured trails of fire ants lining through the holes to get at the potato chip pieces and spilled pop inside his bag. Tough shit.
Bob was well hidden inside his bag too, but he didn’t say anything so I figured it was ok to go on. Riddle, I said, lived in the woods because he had nowhere else to go. All his family was in the Oakdale Cemetery.. He visited his mom and dad and little brother every day, usually around dusk, because there were fewer people about. People bothered him. What I mean is, he loved being around people, but people didn’t like him much. He wasn’t right in the head. They treated him poorly. Especially children. Especially kids our age.
Bob, you yourself said you threw crabapples at the poor guy when he knelt by his family’s graves. Snuck up behind him and cracked him good in the back of the head. Dale, you were there too, I think, weren’t you?
Riddle had a bad knee and couldn’t run fast enough to catch you two, but that was how it always was, people just treating him bad. Riddle disappeared not long after that. Some say the police rousted him from his den in the woods and took him out of town, some say he died somewhere in those woods, covered up in leaves and shit, the smell… I let them think about that, with the dump smell strong in the air.
I sipped my warm coke and nibbled on a stale pretzel rod. The night air was cooling. A wind picked up. Far away a train whistle, but other than that the neighborhood was ghastly quiet. It was perfect.
But here’s the thing. You know how people’s pets have been disappearing the past few months? Shit, Satch, your pipsqueak dog, Cracker, he never turned up, did he? Know what I think?
I know what you think, Dale mumbled in his sleeping bag.
I think Riddle is still around. I think he’s been getting even. I think he moves through the neighborhood in the dead of night. Going from one yard to the next. Climbing fences like this split rail fence behind us. If someone has a swimming pool, like the Jennings, he pisses in it, or takes a shit in it, leaves his mark. And if there happens to be a dog or cat he can catch, well, he likely takes them to the woods and skins ‘em alive. I raised my voice just a little at this point for effect. The crescent moon briefly stabbed out of a menacing cloud and darted back in again.
It was dead quiet again. A tree on the other side of the fence shuffled its leaves like a worn deck of cards. Penny interrupted the effect with renewed burst of barking. Pissed me off. I threw myself out of my bag and charged into the house. I almost slipped in the pool of blood by the back door. Penny was locked in Dale’s room. She thumped against his door. When I pounded at the door and screamed shut up she seemed to rustle beneath something, maybe Dale’s mom, and after a long few minutes all was quiet again. I passed his dad on the couch, and was sure I heard some flies buzzing around him. Even at this hour.
I went back to my friends. They hadn’t moved. After I crawled back in the sleeping back I propped my arms beneath my head to stare at the stars, which were fewer and fewer now.
I resumed my story about Riddle and his retaliations.