They asked for a story about a “First.” First what: Kiss? Too embarrassing. Date? Forget it.
Then that summer memory slips under the transom. But why? It’s not an example of a First, is it? Well maybe. The first and last of many things.
You know that trick where someone gives you a picture that’s supposed to hide Jesus Christ—but you only see blobs of ink splashed on white paper? Then you come at the photo from a different angle, and a face emerges. But it isn’t Jesus, it’s Denny Roberts, the bearded guy who lives in a tumbledown shack on your road, with a sign nailed across his front door saying, “Keep Ta Hell Outta Here.” Once you’ve seen Denny’s face, you can’t go back to ink on a page.
This story about Kyle Van Buren is like that.
There are rules about writing stories. One is Chekhov’s: if a pistol appears in Act One, you’d better discharge it in the final scene. Just so you know, there’s no pistol—at least, not in Act One. I make no more promises about a gun.
4. More about rules
I was drawn to Kyle because he broke the rules. He was contagious, in both senses of the word. You know, the gleam in the eye, the playful wink, the “look what I’ve got up my sleeve” smile. And the other side of contagious. As in: Bubonic Plague. World War I Influenza Pandemic. Ebola virus.
5. Evil twin
“We’re reverse twins,” Kyle said.
This was in the early days. Before the shotgun summer.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Our birthdays. Yours is May First, mine’s November First.”
“So, we’re born on the other’s half birthday. Second, our eyes. Yours are blue, mine are brown—”
“Green,” I said. “My eyes are green. Yours are hazel.” Since when was brown the opposite of blue? And Kyle’s left eye wandered.
Kyle paced, slamming a fist into his open palm. “You live in the city, I’m from the country.” He was ranting now. “Our names! Get it? Even our names are opposites. Kyle Van Buren. Vera Kingston. Reverse initials! Even better—you’ve got King in your name—and I’m a former president!”
“A king is the opposite of a president?”
“Whatever,” he said. “A president’s elected. A king is like a dictator.” He reached out to slap me five, but I dodged his hand.
“You forgot something,” I said.
“I’m a girl. You’re a boy.”
“Yes,” he said. “There’s that.”
Flash forward to an August morning, a few years later. I was reading in bed when the phone rang.
Kyle didn’t even say hello. “Just steal it when they’re not home,” he said.
“The car. You know how to drive, right?”
“Kyle, I don’t get my license until next summer.”
“So? I need a car now.”
“What about your sister?” Kyle’s sister Meg, just sixteen, drove us to the quarry, the Dairy Queen, the drive-in. This was before the thrill of having her license wore off. Before everything else.
“Meg’s no good. She’ll tell. And they’ll find me.”
“Tell what? Find you where?”
The line went dead.
We sat in the shade, waiting for a free court. I bounced a tennis ball in the dirt, but it hit the ground with a dead thump. “What’s he up to?” I asked.
“Who knows.” Chantal knew I meant Kyle. After all, he was her cousin. “He jogs past our house every morning. Disappears into the woods; stays there all day. Yesterday he carried an axe.”
Just then, a boy I’d never seen ran by. Tall, with black hair flopping into his eyes, wearing crisp tennis whites. Chantal tucked her legs under her in one quick motion. She was vain about her legs.
“Who’s the prep?” I asked.
“B.J. He’s so cute. I met him at a party. He’s seventeen.”
“And you’re fourteen.”
“So?” Chantal’s eyes followed B.J. as he ducked into the golf pro’s shack.
“Anyway.” I nudged her bare knee. “About Kyle. Where was he going with that axe?”
“To kill a runt pig?” Chantal laughed. She knew I loved that book.
“Into the woods, I assume,” she said. “What’s it to you? Do you like him or something?”
“Of course not.” What Kyle did was nothing to me. He could disappear, for all I cared.
8. The first shotgun
Kyle claimed he’d seen the gun that Leonard Wilcox used. “It’s a shotgun,” he said, “locked in a glass case. I could pick the lock easy.” He snapped his fingers.
“Liar,” Chantal said.
We sat on the threadbare couch in the clubhouse. Rain sheeted onto the tennis courts. Chantal rummaged in her pocket for coins and went to the soda machine.
“You mean—Leonard’s parents still have the gun?” I asked Kyle.
He cackled. That’s the only way to describe Kyle’s laugh—like someone faking a witch. “Guess they don’t mind that their kid is a murderer.”
“Kyle! It was an accident. He didn’t mean to kill his own brother.”
Kyle’s eyes were too bright. “An accident. Vera, you are such an innocent.”
Chantal stood over Kyle, holding a Coke. “Will you shut up?” She kicked his ankle.
The door to the men’s locker room opened and Leonard Wilcox stalked past. His hair was slicked flat and his face was pasty white, even though it was August. He wore a clean undershirt and stiff, new jeans.
The room went silent. Leonard strode to the screen door, pushed it open and ducked into the rain. He ran alongside the plate glass windows at the front of the clubhouse, past the side windows, then across the putting green. He disappeared, but in a few seconds, he was back, passing the front windows again. He circled the building a second time, then a third. With every round, his T-shirt became more transparent until the fabric dissolved against him, revealing his nipples and concave rib cage. He gave us the finger, then veered away from the building and took off on a zigzag course across the fairway.
For once, Kyle had nothing to say.
We were going on a double date: B.J. and Chantal, Kyle and me. At least, that’s what Chantal told me. Kyle hadn’t mentioned it. “Don’t worry,” Chantal said. “It’s all set. B.J. can drive. He asked his mom.”
It took me all day to talk Dad into it. “What kind of fool name is B.J.?” Dad asked.
“Bryan Jones Delgado Junior,” I said. “Same as his dad. He has a nickname, so people can tell them apart. Is that a crime?”
“Watch your mouth,” Dad said.
“It’s just a movie,” I said.
The first lie. According to Chantal, we were going to a party by the river.
How had she managed to get a date with B.J.?
Chantal was vague. It wasn’t really a date. She’d only asked him to give us a ride.
“What time will they pick you up?” Dad asked now.
“Eight,” I said. “We’re going to the drive-in.” (Second lie.) “It doesn’t start until dark.”
“I don’t care when it starts, you’re home by eleven,” Dad said.
Mom intervened. “Let her go,” she said. “She needs to have some fun. It’s been a dull summer.”
If only she’d never said that.
Dad and I waited in the house for B.J. and Kyle to show up. It was almost nine. No sign of a car. Don’t ask me why, but neither one of us bothered to turn on the lights.
“Movie must have started by now,” Dad called from the living room. I stood at the screen door. I’d been watching the road for an hour, willing B.J.’s car to hurtle down the hill. Traffic was almost nonexistent: Six pickups, a couple of station wagons, an old VW.
Dad reeked of cigarettes when he came through the kitchen. He tapped his watch. “Five more minutes and you’re not going anywhere.”
“Dad, it’s not that late—”
“For the movies, it is. Unless they have something else in mind.”
The phone rang. I dashed to answer it, fumbling for the receiver in the dark. “Party’s off,” Chantal said. “Someone squealed. And Kyle has disappeared.”
A guy’s voice called Chantal’s name in the background. “Where are you?” I asked.
“At B.J.’s. We’re going to stay here. His parents went out.”
“Thanks a lot.” I hung up.
Dad’s dark bulk hovered in the doorway. “What was that about?”
“B.J. couldn’t get the car.” It seemed easier to keep on lying.
“Enough of this crap. Come on.” Dad took me by the elbow and piloted me into the kitchen. He snapped on the light and grabbed the keys.
“Where are we going?” My mouth felt dry. Dad’s eyes looked too big behind his glasses.
“To the movies. We’ll pick them up on the way and catch the late show. I won’t have your night ruined—”
“Have you lost your mind?” I yanked myself away. “The date’s cancelled. Kyle never showed. Okay?”
Dad gripped the keys. “No, not okay. We’ll drive to Kyle’s house. Tell him he can’t treat you this way.”
“Dad—Kyle is a jerk. Just leave it.” I glanced down the dark hall. Where was Mom?
“You’re my daughter,” Dad said. “If a boy can’t respect you, he needs to accept the consequences.”
I tried to laugh. “What are we going to do? Beat him up?”
“Let’s go.” Dad reached for me but I ducked under his arm, ran for the bathroom and slammed the door. I twisted the lock just in time. Heavy footsteps, then the latch rattled. “Vera, act your age. Open the door.”
Act my age? Huh. I crossed my arms, waited.
“If I ever see you with Kyle again, you’re grounded for the rest of the summer,” Dad announced. “That boy has a screw loose.”
And Dad was normal? “He’s just rude,” I said.
Dad’s breath rasped on the other side of the door. “Vera, open up,” he said. “I mean it. We’ll talk about this like adults.”
Enough. I peered into the medicine cabinet. “Good stuff in here!” I yelled. “Aspirin.” I threw the bottle at the door. “Sleeping pills.” What a lie: just a metal box of Band-Aids. “Razor blades!” They chattered on the tile floor.
Dad pounded on the wooden slats. The door shivered, but held. “I’m going for an axe!” he called. “I’ll break the door down!”
An axe again?
No question: My dad, who sulked but never raised his voice, never hit anyone, had gone insane. I snapped on the light and backed away from the door. I couldn’t jump out the window—the house sat over the garage, a long drop to the driveway.
“Harry!” Mom’s voice keened from the front walk, then her footsteps clipped down the hall. “What are you doing? For God’s sake, calm down!”
“She’s talking suicide!” Dad yelled. “Because of that bastard, who stood her up—”
Talking suicide? Was I?
“I’ll handle this,” Mom said. “Vera?”
I put my mouth to the door. “Dad’s scaring me. Tell him to go away.”
Silence. Dad’s footsteps along down the hall and the screen door slammed. “It’s all right,” Mom said. “Turn the lock now, honey.”
I did, but slowly, to give myself time. When Mom reached me, I was huddled in the shower stall. She cupped my chin in her hand. “What on earth happened?”
I shook my head. Believe me, if I’d known—I would have told her.
11. His mark
A week later, I spotted Kyle at the hardware store. He stood in line at the cash register with his back to me, carrying a staple gun. I whirled around but too late: he’d seen me.
“Vera.” He stepped out of line, grabbed my wrist, and encircled it with his thumb and forefinger—much too tight.
“Let go,” I said.
He glanced behind him and dragged me into the electrical aisle. “If anyone asks, you never saw me here. Get it?”
“Fine.” I faked a smile.
Kyle’s dark eyebrows pulled together. “Sorry about last week. I was in the middle of things. Took me three days and nights to pull it off, but I’m almost finished.”
“What are you talking about?”
Kyle tightened his grip. “Just forget I was here.”
“Gladly.” I wanted to scream. A tall man came in and the bell jingled above the door. The staple gun fell with a clatter and Kyle stalked out into the parking lot where he grabbed his bike and pedaled away. I held up my wrist. The press of his fingers had left raspberry-red stains on my skin. He’d branded me.
12. The lean-to
The phone rang early the next morning. “Kyle just went past,” Chantal said. As if we’d never fought. As if she hadn’t ditched me to hang out with B.J. “He was carrying a shovel—and a huge backpack.”
“Maybe he’s leaving. Good riddance.”
“I’m going to follow him,” Chantal said.
“Suit yourself.” I wasn’t giving an inch.
“All right; have it your way. I thought you wanted to see what he was up to.”
“Not now.” But I dug my nails into my palms. I felt myself wavering.
“Okay,” Chantal said. “I’ll go on my own. There’s nothing better to do.”
“Give me fifteen minutes. I’ll bike over.”
It was insane, but I couldn’t stay home. What was I trying to prove? Maybe the rumors about Kyle were true: that he was adopted; rescued at birth from evil parents.
I dressed for an expedition: hiking boots, jeans, an old T-shirt. I left Mom a note—“gone hiking with Chantal—” and pedaled hard all the way to the village. Chantal sat on her front steps in the sun, eating a bowl of cereal. “Any idea where he is?” I asked.
She squinted at me. “He takes that trail up Orchard Hill. Remember?”
“Of course.” We’d had a picnic there last summer, watched a doe and her fawn eat green apples. Now everything had changed. I studied Chantal’s outfit. White shorts and tank top, clean white sneakers, rhinestone barrettes twinkling in her dark hair.
“You’re going like that?”
“Sure. Why not?”
So, this was how it would be. Fake friends. Silent fighting. I could do that, too. “Let’s go,” I said.
We rode our bikes to the beginning of the trail, tucked them under tall grass, and started up the hill. Raspberry canes choked the ancient trees in the abandoned orchard. The trail snaked into the woods, passed through birch and aspen, then sugar maples. The sun disappeared in a stand of spruce where the trail narrowed.
“Wait up,” Chantal called, but I kept going. I’d started this; now I needed to finish it. Whatever “it” was.
We climbed higher. Brambles caught at my jeans and I thought of Chantal’s bare legs without much sympathy. A saw rasped in the distance.
The woods opened and we stumbled into a clearing. The frame of a lean-to stood in front of us, its open roof half covered with pine boughs. The sawing continued. I stepped toward the shelter, ignoring the skull and crossbones painted on a crude sign. The lean-to roof was steep and sloped toward the back, nearly touching the ground. Three red gas cans sat at the low end of the shelter. A plastic crate at my feet held small flat boxes.
The sawing stopped and twigs snapped. “Well, well.” Kyle stepped out from behind the lean-to, carrying a handsaw. Sweat streaked his brow. His wandering eye lit on my face, then flickered away. “Look who’s here. A pair of suckers, just when you need them.”
13. A final note on rules
They say an endowed object should appear in a story at least three times. In case you were counting, we’ve reached that point now, with the gun.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” Kyle said.
“Why not?” I asked. “Is it your property?”
He smirked. “Wouldn’t you like to know.” He beckoned to me. “Get out.”
I stepped from the lean-to into the sun. A sour taste burned my throat.
“So this is what you’ve been doing.” Chantal’s voice surprised me; I’d almost forgotten she was there.
“You were watching,” Kyle said. “I should have known. Pair of busy-bodies.” He dropped his saw. “Wait here. I need to show you something.” He ducked behind the lean-to.
Chantal peered into the shadows. “It’s cozy in there,” she said. “Too bad we didn’t bring lunch.”
“Time to go.”
We turned around. Kyle stood facing us, legs apart, arms raised. In his hands, a gun.
Sunlight glinted off the barrel. He swung it slowly, sighting it at me. I ducked.
“Don’t move,” Kyle said. I froze.
Chantal’s voice shook. “Kyle, quit it. That’s not real, is it?” she asked.
“The real thing,” Kyle said. “Cleaned, oiled, and loaded. Told you I could get one. You didn’t believe me.” He pointed the gun at Chantal’s neck. “One flick of the finger and you’re gone, cousin.” The barrel’s cold mouth swung toward me again. “Another flick—and poof! Vera is toast.”
“Kyle, don’t.” Chantal clutched her neck. As if that would protect her.
I took her hand. “Come on. Let’s go.” I edged backward, hoping I wouldn’t fall. If we turned, would he shoot us in the back?
“That’s right, girls.” He tucked the gunstock against his shoulder. “Go home to Mommy. Now march down the hill, single-file. I’ll be right behind you. A one. And a two …”
We stumbled forward into the woods. I saw every leaf and twig. Every blade of grass. Each partridge berry, sitting in its whorled crown. And ahead of me, Chantal, her back shaking with silent sobs.
The bullet would get me first. My jeans felt wet. Had I peed my pants? I was too scared to feel disgust.
The orchard opened in front of us. Behind us, silence. I dared to turn my head: no Kyle. Was he hiding behind a tree, taking aim at us from the shadows? “Chantal—go!” I cried. We ran.
15. Unanswered questions
“Was it loaded?” Chantal asked later. After it was over.
“No,” I told her. But I didn’t believe it. The flat boxes stacked in the crate were ammo.
And the gas cans? The secrecy? The paranoia? Why?
We’d never know.
16. First—and Last
The shotgun summer had its firsts. First time threatened with a gun.
First time I admitted my father was right. (Though not to his face.)
First time I took charge (with Chantal).
And the shotgun summer had its lasts. Last time I climbed Orchard Hill.
Last time I fought with Chantal.
Last time I saw Kyle Van Buren.
But the last time I was a fool?
Not a chance.