The Good Kids
See, the first thing you’ve got to understand is that small towns can get extremely dull. And the long lull at the end of summer is the worst, sweltering in the heat of August, after the excitement of rodeo wears off and before the dread of the next school year sets in. It’s easy to get into trouble at that time, and a lot of kids do. Mom always blamed the high teen pregnancy rate on the boredom of late summer.
My friends and I were the good ones. We didn’t drink or fool around or anything like that. Not like my older brother when he was in high school; it’s a miracle he made it out of his teens. The wildest my friends and I ever got was making the drive up to Bend and staying with Jake’s cousins for the weekend. Always with our parents’ permission of course. Mostly though, we would just hang out in the Safeway parking lot, pressed against the walls of the building to stay under the shade of the red and white awning.
You see, in small towns, you have to pretend to stay busy. If they don’t think you’re busy, small-town parents will make you be busy. As my parents said, If you’re bored, I can make you not bored. I’d gotten caught in that situation more than once in those lazy days of summer. Just the day before, I’d been leaning against the frame of the back door, pressing my forehead to the screen and trying to catch some of the breeze on my face. The past three days had been a steady summer downpour, and the air was cool and moist for once. I guess I had a glazed look on my face, because the next thing I knew, Dad was saying, “Get your boots on, kiddo.”
That only means one thing. But, there’s another thing about small-town parents you should know--they don’t take sass. So I grudgingly pulled on my work boots and followed Dad out to the Chevy. I laced my ponytail through the back of my Beavers ball cap while Dad plunked his gray Stetson onto his equally gray hair; my dad’s about as small town as it gets. He started up the antique truck, and the thing coughed and hacked like a smoker before finally rumbling to life.
“Where we going?” I asked as he turned around to look out the back window to reverse down the long, narrow dirt drive.
“Jeb Riley’s place,” he answered. “He called me up today, said he’s got a downed fence on his far pasture. None of the horses have gotten out yet, but he’s worried they’ll do just that if it don’t get fixed.”
I sighed, instead of saying, “Well why doesn’t he fix it himself?” and just stared out the window as we drove the three miles to our nearest neighbor’s house.
Jeb Riley was probably about ninety years old, with founder’s family blood in the blue veins under his pale, wrinkled skin. His wife had passed maybe twenty years earlier, his only daughter married and moved up to Portland. There wasn’t much he could do for himself, much less his eight horses. My dad’s generation had taken it upon itself to make Mr. Riley the town’s charity project. My generation had taken it upon itself to just do as our parents told us, so we were out on Mr. Riley’s property pretty frequently, mending fences and barns that were as old and decrepit as their owner.
The truck’s big tires squelched as it slogged through the thick mud of his drive up to the rusted gate, which hung crookedly on the rotting wooden posts. Mr. Riley’s house was quiet. If I hadn’t known that he never left, I would have thought that no one was home. Dad glanced at me expectantly, and I obediently hopped out of the truck, sinking up past my ankles in mud. I groaned as I tugged the heavy gate through the mud, opening it for the truck. Dad rumbled through, then stopped and waited for me as I heaved it back into place. With the mud struggling to remove my boots for me, I waded to the truck, pulled open the door, and climbed back in.
Most of what should have been a field was mud now. Even Dad, who usually wouldn’t even wag his finger at a convicted felon, shook his head in disappointment. The eight horses turned towards us curiously as the truck rattled its frame past them. Mud caked their coats, clumped their manes and tails together. I could only imagine what shape their feet were in. They looked like they probably hadn’t been tended to in weeks, much less that day.
We pulled up to the fence--three pieces of barbed wire between tall wooden posts that had probably been solid at some point. Now they tilted in the mud like slumping drunks, their cores rotted with moisture and gnawed by termites. Dad pulled the supplies from the truck bed and tossed me a pair of gloves. I pulled them on, then grabbed my wire cutters and a pair of pliers. We worked on the fence for hours, a horse occasionally coming and nosing at us curiously. We cut off the old, rusted wire and I coiled it in the back of the truck, trying to keep the rusted barbs from scraping along my bare arms and failing. We straightened the posts, knowing that they would tilt again by morning, and strung new, taut wire between them. By the time it was over, my white tank top was sticking to my back and stomach, I was slathered in mud, and the barbed wire had left its fair share of marks on my arms.
“Thanks for helping, June-bug,” Dad said as we climbed back in the car. “You’re a good kid.”
I didn’t feel like much of a good kid right then. None of that righteous pride that should come from selfless service. I just felt resentful. As I let the truck back out of the gate and shut it behind us, I looked up at Mr. Riley’s house one more time. There was still no sign of him. He didn’t even come out on his porch to give us a wave of thanks. After supper, I met Jake, Danny, Emma, Luke, and Megan at the Safeway to avoid the evening chores. We clustered together beside the automatic sliding doors, catching a burst of air conditioning with every passing customer.
Danny lazily tossed a baseball between his hands, and we all watched him as if it were the most fascinating thing in the world. He was the only jock in the group, the star of the high school’s baseball team. Not that that really means much when your mascot is a Honker. But he didn’t fit in with most of the other jocks, because he was one of the good kids. His dad was one of the six cops that our town had, so he really didn’t have much of a choice but to be one of us.
After several minutes of watching the baseball jump back and forth between Danny’s hands, Jake sighed. We looked up at him immediately. He was the leader of our group, the youngest member of one of the founding families. His parents owned the door factory, which was still the biggest company in town. He met our expectant gazes and asked, “Can we please do something for a change?”
“Well, we could go catch a movie,” Emma offered in her usual soft-spoken voice. She didn’t speak up very often. She was still new to our group and unusually new to town. She had come with the brief influx of workers when they built the prison a few miles outside of town. We had fought for that prison to be built nearby. Before the construction workers and their families had shown up to break ground, our town had been dying. It seemed like every week another shop on Main Street closed its doors for the last time. Emma’s dad was a corrections officer at the prison, so she and Danny had hit it off from the beginning, and he had brought her into the group.
Luke shook his head. “I’ve already seen the one they’ve got on this week. Not that great.” His parents ran Pizza Villa, the biggest restaurant in town. It was the usual hangout for kids our age in town. Arcade games, air hockey, a jukebox, and the best pizza around. But Luke didn’t like to spend too much time there, because his mom could be a little overbearing. I guess I wouldn’t want to be hanging out with my friends on my dad’s ranch, so it’s hard to blame him.
“We could go get some ice cream,” Megan offered. Her dad was the post master in town, just like his dad before him. She was another legacy kid, like Jake. But unlike the rest of us, she wasn’t happy with just our town. We all knew that once she graduated, she wouldn’t be sticking around like the rest of us planned to. She would go on to bigger and better things while we took over our ancestral farms. And we were all fine with that.
“The Polar Bear closed at seven,” I answered.
The list of things to do in our town was short, so we were quickly out of ideas, and we lapsed back into silence. I looked away from the white ball flitting back and forth between Danny’s hands and down at my arms. I turned them over, studying the long, angry scratches. I smiled to myself, and looked up at my friends, the rest of the good kids.
“I’ve got an idea,” I said.
They quickly agreed. I think at that point we were so bored they would have agreed to anything I offered. We jumped into Jake’s truck and drove over to Luke’s house, where he retrieved a large pack of firecrackers from his garage, left over from the Fourth of July. It was getting dark by the time we drove out to the west side of town, passing the old one-room school house and the door factory before turning onto the long, single-lane road that my house was on.
We were all just excited to have something to do. Just some innocent fun on a dull summer evening. There were worse things we could have been doing. We didn’t mean any harm. Jake cut the lights as the truck crawled up Mr. Riley’s drive. There were no lights on in the house, still just as still and silent as when Dad and I had been there earlier that day, as if no one lived there. The engine hissed as Jake turned it off. He turned to where I sat in the passenger seat, and his white grin flashed in the moonlight through the windows.
“Ready?” he said.
I grinned back and nodded. “You bet.”
We climbed out of the cab of the truck while Luke, Emma, Danny, and Megan hopped out of the bed. Luke was already unwinding the bundle of firecrackers, twisting their fuses together into two long strings of tiny explosives. Jake, Emma, and I strung one of them along the railing of the front porch, while Luke, Danny, and Megan strung the other along the back porch. We were all shaking with excitement, suppressing our giggles at the rise this would get from Mr. Riley. Jake struck a match against the aged wood of the porch, shielding it from the wind, which had picked up after sunset. He held it to the fuse. It caught quickly, and we took off at a dead sprint for the truck, Luke, Danny, and Megan just a few steps behind us, the fuse on the back porch lit as well.
The explosive pops started going off before we even reached the truck, and we laughed as we ran, looking over our shoulders to see the bright flashes of flame streaking from one firecracker to the next. Their sound echoed from the back porch. We didn’t bother to jump into the truck and drive off right away. We reveled in the moment, laughing and hooting at our prank until the last firecracker went off with a snap.
It echoed into silence. We waited for something, anything. A horse snorted in irritation from the field in back of the house. But the house itself remained dark. No light flicked on. No furious geezer limped out onto the porch, waving his gnarled fist at us and rasping out foul words. The house was silent as a grave.
“I thought I heard something…” Emma said, her eyes narrowed at the dark windows, like she might be able to see into the blackness inside the house. “But maybe I was wrong.”
Jake looked down at me with an irritated expression. “Is he even home, June?” he asked.
“Of course he is,” I said. “He just called my dad this morning. And you guys know as well as I do that he doesn’t ever go anywhere.”
The rest of my friends began to mutter under their breaths, and I caught words like “waste of time,” and “totally pointless.”
“His daughter must’ve come and picked him up,” Luke said. “Where else would he be?”
“We usually hear about her being in town though,” Megan said.
Danny shook his head with a scoff. “Well it ain’t doing us any good to stand here and figure out where he went. Point is, he ain’t home. Let’s go.”
They turned their backs on me and climbed into the truck. I looked back at the house, still dark and still silent, crouching in the mud that should have been grass. Stray bits of burnt paper fluttered in the wind and tumbled off the porch into the mud. I turned and yanked open the passenger side door and stepped up onto the tread.
“Well it’s not like I knew he was gonna be gone,” I snapped, feeling the need to defend my botched plan. They ignored me. I didn’t blame them.
It was two days later that Dad noticed that the feeder in Mr. Riley’s field was empty. His eight horses were nosing at the last pieces of hay strewn on top of the mud. But that happened sometimes. Jeb Riley was old, and he forgot things. So I helped Dad haul some of our own hay out to the field and tossed it into the high feeder, and we left, still without any thanks from the old man. Two days after that, the watering trough was dry, and the hay was dwindling again.
Dad was the one who found him. He told me that Mr. Riley was crumpled on the floor beside his bed like a bag of sticks. People said he’d had a heart attack. It looked like he’d tried to get out of bed, but had collapsed and died there, unable to get to a phone. The news spread quickly. Jeb Riley was practically a historical figure in our town, so it was sad to see him die so suddenly, but everyone knew it was to be expected. He was old. Old people die. That’s just the way things go.
But I saw the looks my friends gave me. We exchanged quick glances as our parents talked. None of us said anything, but I know we were all wondering the same thing. Had Emma really heard him shout when the firecrackers went off? Or had the house been just as silent when we arrived as when we left? The questions were in all of their eyes, as well as the accusations. Your idea. Your fault.
Mr. Riley’s daughter wouldn’t be able to come down for a few more days, so it was up to the town to take care of things until she arrived. No one was surprised when Danny, Jake, Luke, Emma, Megan, and I all volunteered to clean the filthy house or empty the fridge of the rotting food. We were the good kids. People expected it of us.
As I climbed the three creaking wooden steps up to Jeb Riley’s house, I glanced at the railing. The wind had carried away the singed firecracker papers, but there were faint black marks on the wood. Dad didn’t seem to notice and I didn’t want to draw attention to it, so I looked away. He pushed open the door and stepped inside the house. I hesitated on the threshold, looking in at the floral print furniture and the ruffled curtains that his wife had picked out when they were still fashionable. An eerie feeling crept across my skin, making the hair rise on the back of my neck. Dad paused and looked over his shoulder at me. “You comin’, June-bug?” he asked with a curious expression.
I nodded and stepped into the house. It smelled faintly of dust and mold, and my nose wrinkled instinctively with distaste. I forced it to un-wrinkle. My friends and their parents trickled in one by one throughout the day. Our moms went through closets and our dads sifted through the cluttered attic and barn loft. We were the cleaning crew. Emma and Megan were on dish duty, scraping old dried food into the garbage can and trying to wash the pots and pans around the pile of filthy dishes. Danny got stuck with the vacuum. Jake swept and mopped the kitchen floor. Luke washed layers of grime and cigarette smoke off of the windows. I dusted the shelves, cluttered with ceramic figurines and ancient pictures. We didn’t talk much. I could still feel their eyes on my back from time to time, and Emma and Megan would occasionally exchange hissing whispers over the crusted plates.
I did my best to ignore them, but for the first time I felt like I was outside of the group. I paused in my dusting and lifted a framed photo from the shelf. It was an old black-and-white picture showing a young couple. The young woman’s hair was carefully curled under her chin, a small hat perched crookedly on her head. The man had his arms wrapped around her waist and they were both smiling at the camera. He wore a military uniform, his chest pinned with several medals, his cap resting on a head of wavy dark hair.
“I didn’t know he served in the military,” a voice said.
I looked over my shoulder at Jake, who had momentarily abandoned his mop and broom to see what I was looking at. I turned my eyes back to the picture in my hand at the man smiling back at me, young and handsome and happy. “Me neither.”
The others were watching us curiously. Danny glanced around the room. There was no sign of our parents, so he shut off the vacuum and stepped closer to me and Jake. The others followed and, for a moment, we all looked down at Jeb Riley’s youthful face.
“It’s weird,” Megan whispered, as if the man in the photo might be listening. “I’ve always just seen him as an old man. It’s weird to think that he was young once. Like us.”
“Do you think…?” Luke let his words drift off with the dust motes. We all glanced at one another. The unfinished question crawled down my spine, making me squirm with discomfort.
I set the photo back on the shelf and looked away from it. “No,” I answered. “My dad and I didn’t even see him when we came to fix his fence. He was probably already dead.”
I didn’t convince myself, much less my friends, but we didn’t discuss it any further. A feminine voice called from the top of the narrow stairs, “Danny, I know you’re not already done vacuuming down there.” We scattered back to our jobs, Danny turning back on the vacuum cleaner, the hum filling the room and eliminating the need for further conversation. I ran the feather duster over the figurines and frames, trying not to look at any more of the photographs
Dad volunteered to take care of the horses until Mr. Riley’s daughter decided what to do with them, and I offered to help him bring them back to our ranch. I sat in the passenger seat, leaning out the window and holding a pair of lead ropes in one hand as the truck crawled slowly along the road, the last two horses of Mr. Riley’s herd plodding beside it. I watched them, quiet and docile, apparently uninterested in where they were going. They were old, and they’d probably be sold for glue. But they didn’t seem to care. I guess once you get there, it doesn’t matter any more.
I felt Dad pat the leg of my faded Wranglers, and I turned to look at him. He had half a smile on his tanned face, which was as much as there ever was; Dad never had a whole smile. “Thanks for helping today, June,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “No problem.”
“You know I’m proud of you, don’t you, hun?”
“Yeah, sure. I know.” I dropped my eyes to a deep gouge in the dash in front of me.
He patted my leg again. “You’re a good kid, June-bug. A real good kid.”