Less than six days until book day, and it’s time for a final preview of What Boys Are Made Of!
Yeah, I know. This time next week, I will officially be a published author. Well, okay, yes, my short story was published last fall, but now I will have a book for sale! Oh, wait, Suiko and the Puzzle Box, okay, okay, but my first real novel will be out! Yes! Talk about things to celebrate.
And with that excitement, we move to your final glimpse of my novel before its official release date on Tuesday, March 15th.
They buried the cholera dead in the old park four, five years back, the spring the river flooded people’s wells. The Market guards piled the bodies in the sunken skate park, ’cause concrete doesn’t leak too quick, and filled it over with rubble from the bombed-out houses near the center of town. Since then, the rest of Buchell’s left this place alone. People think it’s haunted, think ghosts will stalk them if they set foot on hallowed ground. That suits me just fine. I been training Simon here for four years now, storing our gear in the crumbling shelter house, and no one’s bothered us yet, even though we meet every morning these days and most afternoons.
Simon shows up just after dawn, blank-faced and distant. We go about stretching, then I outline the drill, something simple, strike and defend. I put up my arms and take a stance, leg back. Simon stares somewhere past my right ear and takes his.
“Start when you’re ready,” I say.
A bird calls nearby, and bare branches scrape in the wind. I wait. He knows what he’s doing.
Simon strikes without warning. I block it too easily. “Come on, kiddo, put some oomph into it.”
No reply. Big surprise. He didn’t talk after the fight yesterday, either. I half wondered if I’d broken his mind.
The next punch is weak, the third’s off target, and he’s yet to meet my eyes. What a freaking joke. I flex my fists and take a new position. “Come on, Simon, this is pathetic. Unless you seriously hurt your hands, you better start taking this seriously. Try again.”
Simon mutters something that I don’t catch.
“Excuse me? What was that? Something you wanna say?”
He talks to his feet, but his fingers curl into fists, so maybe I’m getting through. “No.”
“No. Right. Why are you flinching?”
“Don’t give me that crap. Is this about yesterday? That why you’re acting weird today?”
Now we’re getting somewhere. I sneer, cruel to be kind. “Why should I? This is training. You’re here to get better, and how are you supposed to do that if you’re not willing to give a hundred percent?”
“Then I don’t wanna train today!” The words seem to echo through the clearing.
Gotta lance a boil, not let it fester. “Why? ’Cause you think killing someone means you don’t have to work hard anymore? Is that it? You’re too good for this now, huh?”
Simon freezes for all of a fraction of a second as rage writes itself all over his face. Then he leaps at me.
I kick the muscles in his thigh to knock him down, but he’s straight back up, murder in his eyes, and it’s a real fight now. I’m still blocking him, but only barely, and if I don’t start hitting back, he’ll have me down. I swing and miss, and he uses my momentum to grab onto my shirt and come around with a hook that stops just short of my jaw.
He’s not looking at me. He’s staring at his fist, at what he was about to do. We both are. Jesus Christ, he weighs twenty pounds more than I do, and it’s time to end this before he actually does kill me. He’s out of control, totally out of control.
Palm meets knife, knife meets the hollow under Simon’s ear, pressing just hard enough to get his attention. We stare at each other for long seconds, his fist still hanging in the air. His pupils are huge, dilated with fear. Fear of my blade, or of himself?
Get it together, Simon. Come on, kiddo.
He blinks and drops his fist. I lower my hand and touch my cheek where he was gonna hit. I don’t let on, but my heart’s beating fast. That could’ve broken my jaw, and there would’ve been nothing to stop him after that. Jesus Christ.
Simon snatches the knife from my hand and sticks it in his pocket. It’s the switchblade I stole off the dead boy after the fight when no one was looking. Wonder if Simon recognizes it?
“No,” he growls.
His voice doesn’t catch or anything, but his jaw is clenched. “No, it don’t mean anything,” he grinds out. “Killing that guy don’t mean a goddamned thing.”
And it doesn’t, not really, not in this godforsaken world. One more man dead, and who will notice or care?
But firsts break barriers. First kiss, first fuck, first kill. You can’t go back, and you can’t stop once you start, because if you’ve done it once, you can do it again.
I shoulder my bag. I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but maybe today’s the day. “Come on, kiddo. We got someone to see. About time you learned how to use a knife.”
“What, baseball bat not make ’em dead enough?”
Christ, that was bitter. “No, because that trick only really works once before they figure it out, and you’ve done it. Bunny’s out of the hat. Time to learn a new one, should they wanna try it again.”
“So you’re gonna learn me.”
I glance at him. He scowls back, shoulders hunched. A tear runs down his face.
Oh Simon, oh kiddo, you’re all guff and tough guy, but a week ago you were only fifteen, and don’t look at me like that, please don’t look at me like that.
I take him in my arms, muffle his face against my shoulder. He doesn’t cry, and I don’t hear him as the sun rises over the old park where only weeds grow and boys turn into men the hard way.
Fear has to be met head-on, and there’s only one way to do that. I give him five minutes’ grace, time enough for him to wipe his nose on his sleeve before we set out. I can’t teach him knives, but I know a guy who can.
After both militaries cleared out of the foothills, Mick Perry dumped his uniform in a ditch, stole a truck full of ammo, and drove back here to set up shop in his old family home, a two-story that opens straight onto the street. The sign on the front of his place says it’s a pawnshop, but what Mick deals is arms.
He also headlined the first knife tournament Buchell ever had.
I bang on the door as we enter, bell ringing above our heads. Mick’s hunched over his counter, staring into a cup of coffee. His eyebrows go up when he sees who it is.
“Hey lookie, if it isn’t the new angel of death and his handler.” He gives a whistle between his teeth that I could kill him for. “What are you doing in my humble little establishment, Saint Flaherty?”
“I got a boy here who needs to stay alive next time someone pulls a knife.”
“So you thought of your good friend Mick, huh? Knew you’d come by sooner or later. It’ll cost you a pretty penny, but yeah, I’ll give your boy knife lessons. That is why you’re here, isn’t it?”
Simon looks to me and I grin. “Mick and I go way back. We fought together, played high school football together.”
“Haven’t seen you in a long while, Artie. Must’ve been, what, couple months? Forget where I live?”
“Yeah, well, I been busy getting Simon here into winning shape.”
Mick looks Simon up and down, theatrical to a fault, taking in everything from the enormous old army boots to the T-shirt stretched tight across his shoulders. “Jesus, you sure have. And now you wanna arm him?”
“Can you do it?”
He moves before I’m even finished with the sentence, the knife coming out of nowhere. Steel flashes for a brief second and then gleams, stopped mid-plunge as Simon’s biceps strain. Eyes lock, will against will, as he slowly pushes Mick’s weapon away from his heart.
Simon doesn’t see the second knife until it’s up against his neck.
Mick grins like a wolverine before stepping back and dusting his hands off. Who knows what Simon’s thinking. If he thinks.
“Always wanted to try that. Not half-bad reflexes, good strength. Yeah, I can do it. Get him over here every day, and don’t let him fight for at least a month, regulation or otherwise, not until I’ve got him in shape to defend himself. Has he got a knife?”
Simon begins to shake his head, then pulls out the dead boy’s jackknife that he took from me. Not that he knows what it is. “Yeah. I do.” It’s the first thing he’s said since we left the park.
“Then bring yourself and that here when you’re done with—you’re still in school, yeah? Yeah, knew I’d heard something like that. Three o’clock, be here. Now scram, Artie and I gotta talk.” Mick watches him go. “Hell of a boy there.”
“As of five days ago.”
“And you’ve never brought him to learn in all these years because…?”
I stare at the white-shirted figure outside, tramping over the broken sidewalk, going home to clean up before class. He barely fits in the desks anymore, but still he goes.
“’Cause I didn’t think it’d come to killing so soon.”
“Hey now, just because you can use a knife—”
“Save it, Mick. I’ll see you this afternoon, alright?”
He grins, almost leers. “What, you don’t trust me and your little pet alone?”
“Course not. He’s already killed one man this week. Wouldn’t want to make it two, now would we?”
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