This story is included in Reaps, available on Kindle.
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© 2011 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 big-jeans and sneaks, his muscular body shiny with sweat. He was only thirteen but his chest was like a pair of bricks, his belly a perfectly rippled six-pack, and his biceps bulged like baseballs even when relaxed. He was black as a panther at midnight, with ebony eyes in a snub-nosed face, 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 suggestion 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!”
His father laughed. "Wait till August! This is only the first of June." Then his expression turned serious. "Think you can handle this, son? I feel kind of guilty for bringing you here.”
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."
The man looked thoughtful. “Wish I could be that sure. 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. We’re here for a good time, not for a long time. You might not understand that now, but trust me you will when you're my age and remembering what you didn’t enjoy when you had the chance.”
Mike smiled. "Would you like to be thirteen again?”
"It had its good times along with the angst. There's no other time in your life when the world seems so big and waiting for you to be anything you want to be. It's a time to find out what you like in life, and that includes yourself.”
Mike laughed. "What if I got obese ‘cause I enjoyed my life too much?”
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. Its tiny theater -- which may have once been a livery stable -- was showing a film that Mike had seen three months before. "Nah, that's cool. I'll start unpacking and set up my weights.”
“Okay," said his dad, getting 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. ...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. “Don't join the calorie-counting KKK either. ...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. 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 with 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 had 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 about a mile away, and there was a little general store that looked like an old trading-post. They had stopped to buy Cokes on their way in, Mike gratefully gulping a 16 ounce, 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 big water tank like in pictures of old-time railroads; and there was a rusty windmill tower, 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. 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 right now. 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 with four small rooms and roofed with tin. There was some battered furniture, not old enough to be antique but more than old enough to be junk... a sagging couch, a ratty chair, a homemade wooden coffee table, and all of it furry with rust-colored dust. 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 -- she needed financial support.
There was a telephone on the 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 have surely 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.
He went to his own little room, which also contained a few moving boxes including one full of books. They hadn’t brought any furniture, selling it all to pay for gas, and his "new" bed was an iron skeleton with a starving mattress on rusty springs. There was a dynamite box beside it fronting as a night table, plus a junky chest of drawers with a darkly de-silvering mirror. 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, 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, 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 competition -- 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 -- it was like an indoor desert, and his feet made potato-chip sounds -- but it was too hot to do anything! He padded into the kitchen. The rusty fridge wasn't working of course, but he drank a hot bottle of water. Then he took the snake-bite kit off the rickety 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.
Total silence ruled the desert. Total silence and hellish heat. 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 only in jeans and sneaks without socks... boxers were too damn hot to wear. He wiped a hand across his chest to clear away some of the sweat. It seemed to come right back again, 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 there was sure a lot of it. His BMX leaned against the porch rail, but he paused to consider if it was smart to try to ride 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 rusty windmill and strangely huge truck... it couldn’t be that big! Up the rutted road to the north was the 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. 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 little easier. Not that it had gotten him much... the ones who wanted to feel his muscles and always asked him to lose his shirt never had anything intelligent 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 long-limbed but awkwardly pot-bellied boy wearing only short cut-off jeans. The kid left the mobile home’s front porch and mounted what looked like a mini-bike, the kind with small wheels and a skeleton frame. 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 long 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 wall 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 desert 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 bright blue eyes and was at the worst stage of young adolescence with huge hands and feet on long wiry limbs, a tight little chest but a huge clumsy belly that looked like he'd swallowed a basketball and rested atop the bike’s gas tank half flattened between his straddled legs as if it was low on air. 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 a V-jawed impish face and huge buck teeth that he didn’t brush much. Low on his hips was a wide 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.
"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 mail box, which had a huge spider inside. It was only a dumb little kid so why trip? ...Even if he had a 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 for getting obese.”
"Bullshit,” said the kid. “I smoked since I was ten." He patted his cartoonish belly, which wobbled 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 like a typical gamer who 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 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. 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?”
“Maybe there’s hope for you yet, my man. Gots any?”
Mike was starting to get really pissed... but the kid had a swimming pool. “My dad will probably bring some back. He went to drop off the trailer in town.”
"Does he smoke?”
"What's his game?”
"What do you mean?”
"You sure you're black? What’s he do for green, dumb-ass?”
"He writes books.”
"No, goddammit! Ghost stories.”
"That's kinda cool,” Scooter admitted. “Are they full of blood an' guts, an' people gettin' their faces ripped off?”
"They're the classical kind, with ghosts and haunted houses.”
"Boring," said Scooter. "I don't read much, ‘cept when they make me in school.”
“Big surprise,” said Mike.
“We gots a dish. Gets 200 channels. You gonna get one, bra?”
"Ya better, dawg. ‘Cause otherwise there's only two channels an' both of 'em suck like crack ho's. ...Does your dad make lots of money?”
Mike shrugged. "Enough. But writing's not a steady income.” He thought of his mother demanding a chunk, but that was nobody’s business... especially a drunk little kid’s. “That's why we came out here,” he added. “A friend of his sold him this house really cheap.”
"Yeah," said Scooter wisely. "It's mostly losers who end up out here.”
“You’re out here."
Scooter shrugged. "My mom's a cocktail waitress at the Rattlesnake Saloon in town... that’s a steady income, doc. She gets big tips an' buys me stuff.”
"That's nice," said Mike. He wondered if he should blow the kid off... but he had a swimming pool.
"What kinda car you gots?" asked Scooter.
"A Land Rover.”
"Like a Jeep?”
"Way better," said Mike.
"How much it cost?”
"It's an old one, a classic. Like in African movies.”
“Figures,” said Scooter.
“You always a smart-ass?” asked Mike.
“Better than bein’ a dumb-ass like you. Jeeps are better, my mom gots a new one. One of her boyfriends gave it to her.”
“One of her boyfriends?” asked Mike.
“Hell yeah, pimp, get down with what’s up. An’ another one gave us the mobile home, an' another one gave us the swimmin’ pool.”
“That’s nice,” said Mike again. The kid really pissed him off... but he had a swimming pool. "You have any brothers or sisters?”
"I murdered 'em all," said Scooter. "Popped a cap in their bitch ho asses. Then I cut off their heads with a chain saw an' drank their blood with fava beans an' a nice chianti. Then I chopped 'em into little pieces, burned the bodies an' buried the evidence. Then I said a prayer to Satan.”
“Didn't that piss off your mom?”
"I told her they ran away on a bus an' went to Hollywood. They changed their names an' became porn stars. Had sex-change operations in Sweden so she'd never recognize 'em.”
"Guess you do get 200 channels.”
"I'm gonna be a porn star,” said Scooter. “An’ have a bunch of rich boyfriends.”
"Um?" asked Mike. "Are you gay?”
"Nah. But rich gay boys will buy me stuff.”
"Why not rich girls?" asked Mike.
"Boys are more desperate. That's what mom says. ...Bet I could get you to buy me stuff.”
“I’ll never get that desperate,” said Mike.
“Give it time. ...Gots any games?”
"A few," said Mike.
"No!" Mike was really getting pissed... but Scooter had a swimming pool.
Scooter revved his engine. “I'll cumm over later an' check 'em out. I ran outta smokes, an' since you don't... which is pretty retarded... I gotta go to the store. I usually drive my Hummer, but it's in the shop this week.”
Mike frowned. "They sell you cigarettes?”
"Or duh. But they won't sell me beer, goddammit, an' I wanted to get real drunk today. There's nothin' else to do in this suckhole.”
“Not even with 200 channels?” asked Mike.
“I seen it all before.”
"You could go swimming," suggested Mike.
“I dropped my Ipod in the water this mornin' when I was whackin’-off. I lay on a air raft an’ do it a lot, but I do it all the time anyway.” He reached obscenely under his belly. “I might let you watch if you pay me.”
“That would be desperate,” said Mike.
"I'll stop on the way back," said Scooter. "You gots a computer?”
"Yeah, a Mac.”
"PCs are better. I gots a new one. You gots an Ipod?”
"Can I borrow it?”
"It's still packed.”
"That sucks. Well, see ya later, pimp. When I cumm back to check out your games.”
“What about swimming?” asked Mike.
"Could happen, homes... if you’re nice to me.”
“Okay," said Mike.
"See ya, mac-daddy.”
"Um?" asked Mike, as Scooter throttled up the engine. "Anybody else live around here?”
"Just that rattlesnake by your foot.”
Scooter laughed. "Never jump, retard. Just stand still. ...See, you made it coil up an’ rattle. Now it’s pissed at you.”
"Aren't you going to shoot it?"
"Why? It ain't botherin' me."
“...Um... what should I do?”
“Kiss your ass goodbye.”
"That’s not funny, asshole!”
"I thought it was... asshole. Just stand there an’ it’ll go away. It can't stay out in the sun very long. ...Hey, what if it bit my dick? Then you'd have to suck it.”
"Oh shut up!" Mike forced himself to stand very still when every instinct screamed to run. Watching the rattling snake, he asked, "So, there's nobody else around here but you?”
“I’m all you need, but...” Scooter jerked his chin toward the weathered old house with the big yellow dump truck in front. "There’s Little Coyote.”
"Little Coyote?" asked Mike, thinking that something else might attack but scared to look around. He kept his eyes on the coiled snake, which had stopped rattling but was still watching him.
"He's an Indian an’ you won’t like him.”
The snake was uncoiling very slowly and Mike was staying very still. “Why wouldn’t I like him?”
“’Cause he’s obese an’ you hate obese people.”
“I never said I hated them, I just don't want to be one."
“You gots all them muscles so you gotta hate 'em."
"'Cause you work your ass off tryin' to look cool, an' we can be cool without doin' nothin'."
Mike had never considered that and wasn't sure he wanted to. “You're not obese, just out shape."
Scooter patted his belly again. "I'm in perfect shape for bein' me, an' I like who I am... which is more than you can say."
Mike felt his heart begin to slow down as the snake finally slithered away. “I like being me."
"If you really liked bein' you, you wouldn't be so full of yourself."
Mike couldn't work that out, but decided not to argue. "How old is Little Coyote?”
“'Bout your age,” said Scooter. “But he don’t gots a swimmin’ pool. Or 200 channels.” Scooter blinked his big blue eyes. “An’ he ain’t as cute as me.” He scooted forward on the bike, baring more of its old leather seat behind his tight little bottom. “Wanna cuuuum with me to the store? Maybe they’ll sell you beer ‘cause you’re black an’ might pop a cap if they don’t.”
“I doubt,” said Mike, wiping new sweat from his face as the snake glided over Scooter’s bare foot and disappeared across the road. "And I don't have a gun."
"Thought all you thugs packed steel."
"You watch way too much TV."
“They gots a few games at the store, an’ a lotta good shit to eat. You can start buyin’ me stuff.”
Mike was tempted to go, thinking of air-conditioning and another 16 ounce soda... after this shit he deserved one! But, what if he got pissed at Scooter -- more than he already was -- and had to walk back in this heat? ...With vultures watching him. “Nah... but thanks. I gotta start unpacking. Set up my weights.”
"Weights are for retards like you. I gots a new Wi.”
“Let me guess, one of your mom's boyfriends bought it?”
"Or duh. If he’s nice to me then mom’s nice to him, so I play him a lot.”
Mike thought darkly of his mother who seemed to be playing that game... except it was "tricking" when women played men, which sounded even worse. Scooter throttled up his engine again and burned away in a cloud of blue smoke, spewing more dust over Mike. "Stay chilly, homeboy!”
Mike watched him go with very mixed feelings. A few minutes ago this had been an adventure like Indiana Jones & Son, but now he was stuck in a desert suckhole with no one around but a smart-ass punk and some Indian dude named Little Coyote... who was allegedly obese and didn’t have a swimming pool.
He looked down the road at Scooter’s dust. Maybe he should ride to the store? Scooter was better than having no friends... and he had a swimming pool. Maybe if he took it slow he could get there and not have a heat stroke. He searched the sky for vultures, but maybe Scooter had scared them away... he’d probably make a nasty meal, even for a vulture.
He walked back to the house, carefully scanning for snakes on the way. Then he thought he saw a shadow dart away from the door... a dog? ...Or something else? He froze, suddenly wishing he had a gun, but nothing was there... probably just a heat ghost.
His jeans were soaked with sweat again -- after almost stepping on a snake he was lucky that’s all they were soaked with! -- so he peeled them off in the living room. He drank another hot bottle of water to prime himself for the ride to the store, then put on another pair of jeans, mounted his bike and pedaled slowly down the road. A horned-toad scuttled out of his way, and he saw several lizards and one brown snake... which fortunately didn't rattle or he would have fled for home.