Double Acting by Jess Mowry: all rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work by any means except short excerpts for use in reviews. The Kindle edition, to date, is the only legally authorized ebook or web-accessible edition of this work. If you find this book being offered anywhere else, either as a download or to be read online, it is there without the author's permission and in violation of copyright law.
Copyright © 2014 by Jess Mowry
"That's the last of it, dad," panted Mike, trudging out of the small shabby house.
It was only a little past noon, but the day was already hotter than hell and Mike was shirtless in jeans and sneaks, his muscular body shiny with sweat. He was only thirteen, but his chest was a pair of high-jutting bricks, his belly a perfectly sculpted six-pack, and his biceps bulged like baseballs even when relaxed. He was black as a panther at midnight, with a gently-rounded snub-nosed face and long-lashed ebony eyes, and wore his hair like a bushy cap.
His father was closing the doors of the rented U-Haul trailer. The man was almost as dark as his son, thirty-seven and strongly built though a little rolly around the waist -- he laughed at Mike’s gentle urgings to jog -- and also wore only jeans and sneaks. "Welcome to Coyote Valley, son. We should have a beer to celebrate, but there's nothing but bottled water.”
"And that’s not even cold," puffed Mike, wiping sweat off his face. "So, when will they turn on the power?”
His father glanced at a sun-weathered pole out by the road that ran past the house. "They should have done it already. I sent an email a week ago, but people move slower out here.”
"I can see why!" panted Mike, dog-shaking sweat from his hair. "I never knew it could get this hot, even with climate change!”
His father laughed. "It got this hot when I was your age and spent a summer here with my uncle.”
“Wasn’t that kinda boring?” asked Mike. “Since you were raised in West Oakland?”
“At first it was. But it kept me out of city trouble... and at just the right time in my life. But wait until August if you think it’s hot now. This is only the first of June. ...Think you can handle this, son?”
Mike puffed his chest, though it didn't need puffing. "I'm in shape so I can take it. Don't worry about me, just finish your book. It's gonna be a best-seller this time."
His father looked thoughtful. “Wish I could be that sure, Mike. Every black book is a first book no matter how many you’ve sold. ...And don’t push yourself too hard with those weights. You're only thirteen once in this life, so just kick back and enjoy it sometimes. Don’t always feel compelled to do something, or guilty for just day-dreaming sometimes. ‘Getting active’ includes your mind, and dreams are important, too. They help us shape our future... give us ideas of what we could be. You might not understand that now... I didn’t understand it then... but trust me you will when you're my age and remember what you didn’t enjoy when you had the chance.”
Mike smiled. "Like, ‘take time to smell the flowers?’” He glanced around. “If there were any out here.”
“There may not be any flowers, but the desert has its own kind of beauty... though it might take awhile to see it. I enjoyed my summer here. Did a lot of reading and dreaming.”
Mike smiled. “Which might be why you became a writer. But weren’t you worried about getting fat just reading and dreaming?”
“Kids didn’t obsess about weight in those days. But I did a lot of exploring, too.” Mike’s father pointed north. “There was a big copper mine about ten miles up the road... though Uncle Joe wrote that it closed last year, about six months before he passed. He also told me stories about a ghost town over those mountains. I always wanted to explore it, but that would have been a two day trip... you have to hike up an old railroad track.” He laughed. “And I didn’t want to spend a night alone in an old ghost town.”
“‘Cause of ghosts?” asked Mike.
His father chuckled. “To be honest, yes. But now I wish I had.”
“Would you like to go back and be thirteen again? Do some of the stuff you didn’t do?”
His father looked thoughtful. "It's the time to go exploring, physically and mentally.”
Mike laughed. "What if I got obese ‘cause I did too much mental exploring?”
The man ruffled Mike’s hair, scattering jewels. "There would be more of you to love." He poked one of Mike’s jutting pecs with a finger. “Lame as it probably sounds, it’s what’s inside a person that counts; and how good a person you are doesn't depend on your BMI. Some of the so-called ‘healthiest’ bodies have the sickest minds and the smallest hearts.” Then he latched the trailer’s doors. "I have get this into town or they'll charge for another day. Want to come along?”
Mike had already seen the "town" when they'd driven though on their way out here; a sun-baked huddle of ramshackle buildings that looked like an old western movie set. "Nah, that's cool. I'll start unpacking and set up my weights.”
“Going to set up your train again?”
“I don’t know,” said Mike. “Maybe I should have sold it to help pay for gas.”
“We’re not that poor,” said his dad. “And you spent lots of time building that layout.”
“Not to mention money,” said Mike.
“Money is to use, Mike, for things that make you happy. Otherwise what good is it? We had some then, and we’ll have some again. And it’s still my job to worry about it.”
“I was pretty out of shape just working on my train all the time.”
His father smiled. “You’re always in perfect shape to me.” He got into the battered Land Rover, a 1963 Series Two. "Just take it easy at first, son. You're not used to this Arizona heat. Drink lots of water, even if you're not feeling thirsty.”
Mike patted his stony chest. "I wouldn't wanna get dehydrated. You lose mass that way.”
"Okay, Mr. Teenage Universe.” His father glanced at a rusty windmill on a skeletal tower behind the house. It was maybe forty feet tall, and there was a wooden water tank with rusted iron bands, like those in the days of steam trains. “Speaking of water, and if you want to ‘get active,’ climb up there and unlock the vane. It’s chained now so the fins can’t turn.”
“Why is it chained?” asked Mike.
“You chain it when the wind gets too strong, otherwise it could be damaged.”
“But there’s no wind now,” said Mike.
“There’s strong winds here in the Spring and Fall. Uncle Joe passed in February and someone, maybe a neighbor, chained the windmill down. But there’s usually an evening breeze, so it can start pumping tonight. The tank’s probably empty and the planks have shrunk, so it’s going to leak for awhile and probably won’t fill up for a week, so it’s best to get it started now.”
“Okay,” said Mike, eyeing the tower. “That’ll be good exercise.”
His father laughed. “And, speaking of mass, what do you want for dinner?”
"I saw a KFC in town.”
"Regular or grilled?”
"What’s the point of grilled if it’s supposed to be KFC? ...I'm not a freakin' health-nazi, dad."
His father laughed. “Those people are really out of shape in all the ways that matter. ...I should be back in a couple of hours. Stay out of trouble, muscle-boy.”
Mike gazed around at the desolate landscape of shimmering rust-colored desert. It reminded him of pictures of Mars. It was totally flat except for some mountains so far away they were hazy and blue. To the north, a mountainside looked scarred...maybe the old copper mine?Otherwise there was nothing but sagebrush, and cactus bristling with savage spikes that seemed to be daring you to touch them. "To get into trouble there's gotta be some, and I don't think there's any for a hundred miles.”
His dad started the Land Rover's engine, which rattled a bit in the heat. "There's lots of rattlesnakes around here, and they can be trouble if you don't respect them.”
Mike looked around again. "I haven't seen any.”
"But I'm sure they've seen you. I left the snake-bite kit on the table. Check it out and read the instructions. Snakes won't bother you if you don't bother them, but be careful when you're walking around... look before you step over a rock to see what’s on the other side. And don’t reach into dark places."
Mike smiled. “Thanks for all the healthy advice.”
The road was only a twin-rutted trail, and the Rover raised a long cloud of dust as it rocked and rattled away, the empty trailer booming behind. The sound of its engine faded, leaving only sweltering silence. Mike watched from the shade of the house’s front porch until the Rover reached the junction where the trail met a ribbon of two-lane highway, deserted except for a lone semi-truck that was only a speck in the distance. The junction was maybe a mile away, and there was a little general store that looked like an old trading-post in a movie. They had stopped to buy Cokes coming in, Mike gratefully gulping a 16 ounce -- and trying not to feel guilty about it -- and the air-conditioning had felt like heaven after driving all night in the dry desert heat.
He scanned around again: there were only two other buildings in sight. To the south, about halfway to the store, was a tumbledown house of sun-weathered wood that looked like an ancient stagecoach stop. Behind it was a water tank, and there was a rusty windmill tower like the one at Mike’s house, the windmill hanging motionless without a breath of breeze to turn it. In the house’s front yard was a big yellow dump truck. Mike had been dozing when they’d driven past, but now he squinted at the truck. There was something wrong with the perspective; the truck looked almost as big as the house! Maybe it was closer and not really parked in front?
To the north, up the road, was a large mobile home, a double-wide that looked fairly new, its white paint gleaming painfully bright. It was also about a half mile away, and there was a swimming pool in front, one of those above-ground kind. Mike imagined how good it would feel to be in that sparkling water. He wondered if any kids lived there... hopefully around his own age. Then he opened the rusty screen door.
His new home was an old mining shack of wind-weathered board-and-bat -- Mike’s great-uncle had been a prospector -- with four small rooms and roofed with tin. There was some junky furniture in what passed for a living room... a sagging couch, an overstuffed chair that was no longer “over,” a rickety wooden coffee table, and all of it furry with rust-colored dust. A kerosene lamp hung from a rafter beside a single light bulb. The floor was bare boards, also covered with dust, and moving boxes were scattered around, though Mike and his dad hadn't brought very much because they didn't have very much... thanks to Mike’s mother who’d won a big chunk of his dad’s book earnings, still claiming -- despite her new live-in boyfriend and a nice bungalow in Culver City -- she needed financial support.
There was a telephone on a wall, black like all phones used to be. Mike’s grandmother -- his mother’s mother -- had often sadly shaken her head and called Mike “black as a telephone.” Mike’s mother, much lighter than his dad, had never seemed to be sure of something, though Mike wasn’t sure what she wasn’t sure of until she had left a few years ago. He was also sure it wasn’t true; his dad would surely have told him.
The phone had buttons instead of a dial but still looked a hundred years old. Mike lifted the dusty receiver but didn't hear a tone. He jiggled the hook but still got nothing. The swamp-cooler wouldn't work either until there was electricity, so it was hotter in here than outside.
On another wall hung a framed photograph -- an ancient black-and-white faded to yellow -- of a little steam train on a narrow-gauge track. Mike brushed the dust off the glass with a hand. His own model layout was steam, with a Rogers 4-6-0 locomotive... which looked like the one in this picture. That was kind of cool. The setting was in a desert, and he wondered if this was the train that had run to the ghost town over the mountains.
Then he went to his own little room, which also contained a few moving boxes, including one full of books. Mike read a lot, though these days mostly in bed at night because it wasn’t Active. Another box held his H.O. train, though there hadn’t been enough room in the trailer to bring the 4’ X 8’ layout board. He’d have to build another layout... assuming he wanted to.
They hadn’t brought any furniture, selling it all to pay for gas, and Mike’s "new" bed was an iron skeleton with an anorexic mattress. There was a dynamite box beside it fronting as a night table, with a rusty kerosene lantern on top, plus a shabby chest of drawers with a darkly de-silvering mirror above it. A bare bulb on frayed wires hung from a rafter. His weight bench stood half set up in a corner. He would have to find something to use as a desk to put his computer and games on. He was fairly good with tools, thanks to helping his dad with projects on their former house and maintaining the old Land Rover, so he could build a bookshelf.
The room was like a pizza oven. Mike's jeans were soaked with sweat from toting in the boxes, and his shorts felt like he'd gone swimming in them. He stripped buck-bare, then opened the room's one grimy window -- its frame, like all the wood in the house, unpainted and shriveled from desert heat -- which only seemed to increase the heat. He glanced at the tumbledown house in the distance -- the truck couldn’t be that big! -- then studied himself in the murky mirror. His body looked cool all shiny with sweat, like he'd oiled for a body-building show -- not that he’d ever been in one -- but damn it was hot! Maybe he should start unpacking and finish setting up his weights?
But it was too hot for that now. He thought about sweeping the dust from his room, but it was too hot to do anything! He padded into the kitchen at the back of the house. The ancient fridge wasn't working, of course, but he drank a hot bottle of water, one of three left in a six-pack. That reminded him of the windmill.
He opened the back door and studied the tower. There was a rusty ladder, so climbing would be no problem. Would he need any tools? His dad’s toolbox was in the Rover, but he had a small set of his own in his room. He should take a couple of Crescent wrenches in case the chain was bolted.
The tower wasn’t far from the house, maybe a hundred feet, and the ground was open except for sagebrush and cactus with an attitude... nowhere, it seemed, for a snake to hide.
He took the snake-bite kit off the table. The instructions were in pictures, and he winced at the one that showed how to slice. ...But, what if he got bit on his butt? He felt around on his tight behind and decided he could manage. He took it into his room, donned a fresh pair of jeans commando -- boxers were too damn hot wear -- put on his sneaks without socks, and slipped the kit into a pocket. Then he got the wrenches and went out through the kitchen door.
Total silence ruled the desert. Total silence and hellish heat. It was hard to believe people had lived here before there was air-conditioning!
Climbing the tower was harder than he’d thought. Despite being in really good shape, the heat seemed to suck out his strength, and he was puffing and pouring sweat by the time he’d climbed the first twenty feet. His jeans were sodden and slipping low, baring his bottom and part of his shaft, and he paused at the top of the water tank to pull them up a little. The tank had a wooden cover, and there was a small trap door. He opened the door and peered down. Like his father had said, the tank was empty, and there were a few slits of sunlight where its planks had shrunk. He wished it was full so he could have dived in!
Closing the door, he continued his climb, and after a lot of panting and puffing -- not to mention a lot more sweating -- finally reached the top of the tower. It was probably a pretty cool view -- if anything could be cool in the place -- but he only glanced around for a moment before examining the windmill. The chain had been knotted, not bolted, and the fiery sun blazing down on his back made him grateful it only took a minute to untie the links and extend the vane. He figured out how to latch it in place... this was 19th century technology. The mechanism should have been oiled, but he’d do that some other time. Then he climbed wearily down. Reaching the ground and dripping more sweat, he looked back up the tower. It couldn’t be more than forty feet tall, but he felt like he’d climbed four-hundred!
He thought of ice-cold drinks at the store. It was only a mile away.
The afternoon air was even hotter as Mike came out on the creaky front porch, clad again in fresh jeans and sneaks without socks. He wiped a hand across his chest to clear away some of the sweat. It seemed to come right back, and more trickled down from under his arms, the scent of him strong in the blistering air but basically boyish and not really bad. Healthy sweat, he supposed. But he wouldn’t be able to take a shower until the water tank filled up, and how would he smell in a week?
His BMX leaned against the porch rail, but he paused to consider if it was smart to try to ride anywhere in this heat. A shadow swept over the ground as a real Hollywood movie vulture came to rest on the telephone pole and seemed to eye him in speculation as if it was only a matter of time. Would it follow him if he rode to the store?
Looking away uneasily, he scanned the heat-shimmered landscape. The sky was cloudless and brilliantly blue, and the line of telephone poles by the road dwindled into infinity like a drawing lesson in vanishing-points. He shaded his eyes from the glare of sunlight blazing on basically nothing. Like he'd noticed before, the nearest dwellings were about half a mile in either direction. South was the highway, and there was the store. Closer stood the ancient house with its strangely huge truck... it couldn’t be that big! Up the rutted road to the north was the big mobile home with its swimming pool, which looked like an oasis right now.
He imagined a beautiful girl lived there. A girl of thirteen, of course. She would go swimming every day in nothing but a bikini. ...Maybe, since there was no one around, she would go swimming without the bikini! She probably wouldn’t be black, but Mike wasn’t prejudiced... assuming she wasn’t. His dad had a pair of binoculars, so Mike could peep her on the sly... maybe from the windmill tower. Her breasts would be large and perfectly round, and she would have a Hollywood body with everything else that promised. He pictured himself going swimming with her, and maybe doing... other things. Like hugging and kissing at least. She would be smart, but not too smart. At least no smarter than him. And of course she would love his muscles.
Mike had imagined her so well that he forgot he was. How to make first contact, he wondered? Why not ride his bike up the road? The girl would be getting ready to swim, putting on her bikini right now... or maybe putting on nothing. She would be lonely all by herself way out here in the desert. The timing would be perfect! She would come out as he rode by. And he would be all sweaty, so she would offer him something to drink. Maybe even an ice-cold beer.
He started to mount his bike despite the ominous vulture... but then someone did come out on the porch of the distant mobile home!
Mike felt a little shocked, like he'd wished for something and gotten it but wasn't sure what to do with it. He’d always been shy around girls, but, by building up his body, he'd found them to be more attracted to him, which made talking to them a bit easier. Not that it had gotten him much... the ones who wanted to feel his muscles and always begged him to lose his shirt never had anything much to say and only read books when they had to for school. He shaded his eyes with a hand, then frowned... it wasn't a girl, dammit!
It was hard to see in the distance through the wavering ghosts of heat, but it seemed to be a kid; a gawky and awkwardly pot-bellied boy clad only in short cut-off jeans. Maybe he was going swimming? The kid left the mobile home’s front porch, but mounted what looked like an old mini-bike... the kind with small wheels and a skeleton frame probably built in the 1960s. He reached down and pulled the starter rope. There was a burst of blue-tinted smoke, and a moment later came the sound of a chugging one-cylinder engine. The kid throttled up and burned away, skidding sideways into the road and roaring in Mike's direction while trailing a rusty tail of dust. The vulture gave a croak and took off.
Was the kid on his way to the store, Mike wondered? Or was he coming to check his new neighbors? Mike decided to be cool: like his father said, you never got a second-chance to make a first-impression.
Pretending he hadn't noticed the kid, he leaned his bike against the porch rail and walked to the mail box out by the road as if just going to check it. He waited until the mini-bike had gotten close before turning to look, though only a deaf person wouldn’t have heard it miles away in the silence. The boy locked the brake and slid to stop, spewing dust all over Mike.
He looked about twelve with a mop of blond hair that almost covered big blue eyes, and had what Mike had started calling a “gamer body;” not really much overweight, but shapeless and soft, not a muscle in sight, with loose bobby orbs for chest... sort of how Mike had looked last year. But this kid had an appalling belly besides just being out of shape... a wobbly mass like a pillow of pudding that spilled over the bike’s gas tank, its flattened navel a smirk. He was deeply tanned to an old-penny shade, which made his blue eyes look even brighter and his shaggy hair look almost white. He had an open-mouthed impish face with a hint of a small second chin, and huge buck teeth that he didn’t brush much. Low on his hips was a huge leather belt, and there was an old cowboy gun in a holster, so massive it looked like a cartoon cannon, its barrel almost dragging the ground. Most of the blueing was worn off its steel, leaving it silver-gray, and its brass parts were tarnished dull orange. Mike wasn’t into guns, but he’d seen many in pawn shops when his father’s royalty checks had dwindled, and this might have been an old Navy Colt.
"Wuttup, nigga?" asked the kid, over the chug of his idling engine.
Mike was shocked and then felt pissed. “What did you call me?”
"I said it with an A," said the kid, sounding innocent enough despite being heavily armed. “Don’t you call yourselfs niggas?”
“Only retarded niggas.”
The kid smirked. “I think you are.”
Mike decided to stay cool and pretended to check the rusty mail box, which had a huge spider inside. It was only a dumb little kid so why trip? ...Even if he had a big gun.
"It came already," said the kid, over-emphasizing “came.” "It cuuums in the mornin'," he added, as if Mike hadn’t gotten the clue. "Expectin' a Hustler?”
"No!" said Mike, slamming the box.
“I gots a subscription,” announced the kid, which pretty much trashed his innocence. “What's your name? I'm Scooter.”
"Mike," said Mike.
"You smoke, homeboy?”
"Hell no! It's the worst thing you can do to yourself except getting obese.”
"Bullshit,” said the kid. “I smoked since I was ten." He patted his loose sprawl of belly, which quivered to the throb of the engine as if it was its own life form. " An’ I’m healthier than you are, homes.”
"Like shit!” said Mike, puffing his chest. Except for his dramatic tan, the kid looked exactly like a typical gamer who sprawled on a couch or his bed all day, never ate anything but junk, or used any muscles except in his fingers.
"Yeah?” said Scooter. "I ain’t the one all sweaty an’ pantin’ like a dog.”
Mike scowled for a moment. Scooter stank of tobacco smoke, and there was beer on his breath. There was also another scent that proved he wasn’t innocent... at least not with himself. Mike decided the kid was drunk so maybe he should cut him some slack... and he had said it with an A. "I'm just not used to the heat yet.”
Scooter blasted a monster burp, strongly scenting the air with beer. "Ain’t it hot in Africa?”
“Not so much in California.”
"Is there?" asked Scooter.
"Is there what?”
Scooter snickered. "A thousand oaks, duh. Did you count 'em to make sure you wasn't cheated?”
"That's retarded, man.”
“You’re retarded, fool.” Scooter checked Mike up and down. ”How’d you get all them muscles?”
"I work out and eat healthy. And I sure as hell don't smoke.”
"That’s gotta be a boring life. You drink beer at least?”
End of excerpt