This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
We used to play this game, in my neighborhood, called Dead Man Down. It was simple enough and required very little equipment. A couple of toy guns and a couple of bored kids were all you needed, and in my town, there were plenty of both. If no toy weapons were available, a twig from the nearest tree would suffice, though you would feel pretty lame running around with a maple branch in your arms instead of a nice plastic marksman rifle.
The game went like this: One kid (“the shooter”) would take aim at the other kid (“the shootee”) who would be running, most likely in a zigzag, across the lawn. The shooter would land an imaginary bullet in the shootee’s ribs, at which point, the shootee would clutch his chest and release the most gut-wrenching howl he could muster. After staggering around a bit, he would whirl like a dervish, before finally hitting the deck.
Once grounded, arms splayed across the grass, the shootee would kick his legs violently and thrust his belly up in a series of convulsions. If he was in the mood, he might roll several times to the right and then to the left. The game was pretty flexible. Eventually, the shootee would kick the bucket—or so it would seem. Often, a few seconds later, he would jerk his legs wildly, one final spasmodic time before biting the dust.
Dead Man Down was a spin-off of the better known and more widely played game simply called War. The obvious objective of War, as in the real-life adult version, was to kill the other guy. The thing that we all liked about Dead Man Down was that it actually became a lot of fun to get shot, as we added all the drama into the game.
Not so, however, for Teddy Faltman, a freckle-faced blond kid who lived down the block. The fun ended for him when Jimmy Grendel introduced his dad’s Glock 19 handgun into the game. Unknown to Jimmy (at least one would hope), the gun was loaded with a fresh round of nine-millimeter bullets. He pointed the barrel at Teddy and squeezed the trigger. The deafening bang of the Glock was a clear sign that something had gone terribly wrong.
An ambulance came roaring through the streets of Cold Valley. A crowd quickly gathered to watch the paramedics load Teddy onto a gurney and carry his little body into the vehicle. Within minutes, the red-and-white box van was barreling off to Cold Valley Hospital.
They say there’s no coming back from a bullet to the chest, and such was the case with Teddy. He died within seconds, probably before the EMTs had even arrived.
The tragedy received front page treatment in The Cold Valley Gazette the following day. LOCAL BOY SHOT TO DEATH BY FRIEND. I’m pretty sure The Gazette sold quite a few papers with that headline, at the cost of freaking out half the population in town. And if you were a kid my age, you almost seemed to be guilty by association. Everywhere you went, someone was ready to admonish you on the folly of playing with your parents’ firearms.
“Guns are not toys,” said my English Comp teacher Ms. Stalwether. “I hope we’re all clear on that.” Go tell Fisher-Price, I thought, sitting in class. Ms. Stalwether was slight of build with thinning chestnut hair. She was a solemn type, definitely not the life of the party, but I didn’t mind her. After all, she had given me some good grades over the past year—which, unfortunately, was an exception to the rule.
The only teacher who didn’t seem eager to discuss the shooting was my Biology instructor, Mr. Banks. He was this big African American guy from Rolling Flats, an impoverished town to the south of Cold Valley. Mr. Banks was a bit of a wild card. The kids all seemed to like this about him—the parents, not so much.
For instance, at Cold Valley High, we sat in these things called tablet arm desks—one-piece desk-and-chair units, with little compartments underneath where you could stick your chewing gum when you were through with it. Anyway, if you were foolish enough to give Mr. Banks a hard time—and, incredibly, a few kids were—he would just lift your tablet arm desk about four feet in the air, with you still in it, and ask you to cut the crap.
Most kids cut all varieties of crap after that. A few parents complained, but it fell on deaf ears. Mr. Banks was pretty popular, among both the students and the faculty, which gave him a lot of leverage.
I stayed behind after the bell that day to try to find out why he didn’t say word one about the shooting, in class. “There’s nothing to say in this forum,” he explained. I figured by the word “forum,” he meant “classroom.” Mr. Banks could be pretty poetic for a Science teacher. “It was Grendel’s father who left a loaded gun lying around in his own home,” he added.
I didn’t ask him about any of the particulars, like what good a gun would be if it wasn’t loaded, or whose home you were supposed to leave it in. Soon, Mr. Banks started loading papers into his satchel briefcase, and checking his watch. That was obviously my cue to clear out, so I just fist bumped his hand and went on my way.
Even the guy at the corner candy store, Pete’s Pit Stop, got into the act. Pete’s was on my way home from school, so I stopped in there often. Pete usually wore an unbuttoned sport shirt over a wife-beater tank top covered with yellowish stains. I noticed that the stains were in different places from time to time, so I had to assume that he did change his shirt on occasion.
“What the hell is wrong with the world?” he grumbled, staring at the Faltman article in The Gazette. I was pretty sure that he didn’t expect an answer, so I just stood there nodding. I handed him a bag of Skittles.
“I hope it’s taught you kids a lesson,” he said, staring at me, with the little red bag flopping around between his fingers, like a dead bug. I nodded again, maybe even smiled a little, though I’m not sure why. I guess I thought an idiot grin and a little patience just might get me out of the there before the sun went down. It seemed to have worked. Finally, he took my money and passed back the bag of candy.
Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I didn’t feel awful about the shooting. Believe me, I did. I felt all the sadness in the universe. I kept seeing Teddy’s face in my mind. I had played with him, along with some other kids from that end of the block, quite a few times. He never did anything nasty or hurtful that I could remember. He just seemed like a good, quiet kid, even-tempered and likeable.
When I arrived home that afternoon, my mom didn’t mention the shooting either. She was on the phone when I walked in. Apparently, she was pretty absorbed in her conversation. As I walked by, she just smiled and wiggled her fingers at me. Sometimes you just get lucky.
I would see Mom on the phone, often when I got home, sitting on a stool, elbow perched on the counter. Sometimes, she would cover the receiver and ask me how my day was. I’d always give her the thumbs up even if I’d just returned from the Nine Circles of Hell. I usually just wanted to get to my room.
My mother was still dressed in a blazer and skirt, so I figured she must have just gotten back from the university, where both she and my dad were full professors. Everybody’s parents were probably calling each other like mad that day. The telephone lines must have been lit like Christmas trees.
I headed upstairs to my room, which I shared with my older brother TJ. He was sitting on his bed when I walked in. He had on headphones and was working on his laptop. TJ wore glasses so he always looked very studious when he was in front of a computer, even if he was watching a strip tease or something.
To be honest, I don’t think TJ ever watched anything racier on his laptop than, say, instructional videos about the Italian Renaissance or the structure of atoms. It was a serious character flaw that he’d carried with him for as long as I can remember. His two main interests in life appeared to be school and sports. His favorite music: jazz. I really didn’t understand the man.
I sat on my bed and looked at him, ash brown hair neatly combed, glow of the screen making small reflective pools on his lenses. I got up and pulled one of the ear pads from his temple.
“We interrupt this broadcast for an important bulletin,” I said, then gently let the pad snap back against his ear. TJ turned and smiled.
He returned his gaze to the laptop. He sat, rubbing his chin, concentrating deeply on something: homework, the meaning of life, how to make a fruit salad, who knows. I got up and pulled the ear pad away again and said, “The Earth is on fire.”
TJ took off the headphones and turned to me. “What’s up, Cole?” he asked.
TJ waited for a response, but I really didn’t have one at the ready. I considered bringing up the Faltman shooting but, honestly, it was the last thing I wanted to talk about.
“What are you listening to?” I asked.
He said it was Miles Cavendish, or something, I really can’t remember, some sort of famous jazz trumpet player from the fifties. Soon, his headphones went back on, and his eyes returned to the screen.
I got out my Xbox and started playing Battlefield 1. It’s a war game where you fight enemies from airships, tanks and armored trains. It’s very realistic. Long-range bombers fly overhead amid a barrage of ground explosions. You even see things like guys getting their eardrums blown out from standing too close to artillery guns. Tons of action. More blood and guts than a sausage factory. They basically stick you in the middle of a world war, and let you go ballistic. It’s pretty lame, but it passes the time.
Eventually, I heard my mom calling me for dinner. When Mom calls, she stands at the bottom of the stairs and sort of sings out my name, breaking it into two syllables. “Oh Coe-well,” she croons. I think it’s the G and E above Middle C, but I’m not sure. She sounds like she’s trying super hard to be unobtrusive. It’s pretty annoying.
I asked TJ if he was coming. He shook his head, eyes still glued to the computer. He pointed to a tweed sports coat on the handle of a dresser drawer. “Got a date,” he said, “Good luck down there.”
I’m pretty sure that TJ was referring to my mom’s cooking when he wished me luck. Mom was a Psychology professor; her work at the university was her life focus. Cooking for the family clearly took a backseat. To make matters worse, she was very health conscious, and served us a lot of fish and vegetables, which generally don’t taste very good to begin with.
I should interject here that I’m not insensitive. I realize that Mom juggled a lot between her professional and domestic gigs. But really, that doesn’t make the food taste any better. Could I have done something to pick up the slack? Maybe. But, I mean, do I look like Betty Crocker?
Anyway, tonight, it was fish once again. I don’t know if it was flounder, white fish, tilapia or scrod. They all taste the same and, when Mom gets finished, you could kill someone with the filets. They’re as hard as mallets.
We had a very stylish kitchen—at least it looked that way to me. In addition to the island counter where Mom sat when she was on the phone, a row of dark-wood French country cabinets lined two walls, meeting in the corner. The kitchen table matched the dark wood of the cabinets, and had chairs with wheat-colored cushions for your bum and back.
Across from me, my father ate his meal in what seemed to be perfect contentment, taste buds long since gone. Dad, by the way, doesn’t do a lot to pick up the slack either. He’s a bit of a robot, to tell you the truth. The quiet cerebral type. It’s enough to drive you insane. He looked good, though, for a guy his age; I think he was nearing fifty. His hair had long since gone gray but he was still trim and energetic, probably because of all the bland health food Mom fed him.
My mother had no gray that I could see, though I suspect this had more to do with Lady Clairol than her diet. Her hair was short, and black as midnight. She was always very prim, even in the comfort of our own home. Rarely did I see her without at least a touch of makeup, even when she went jogging.
I watched my father talking to my mom, in between bites of his meal, about someone in one of his Political Science classes. “Sharp. Very promising,” he said, using terse, one or two word phrases to compliment the student.
Mom listened attentively, raising a morsel of food to her lips in calculated intervals of ten to twelve seconds. Up went the fork, hand and utensil at a perfect right angle to her mouth. Then, in a flawless dismount, the fork glided safely to her lips. Houston, the Eagle has landed.
I inherited none of this. Instead I just shoveled the food into my mouth like it was coal into a furnace—which, all kidding aside—is how it usually tasted. Anyway, mom suddenly set her fork down and wiped her hands, which were already clean, on a napkin. I could feel the white heat of her glare on the side of my face. “So honey,” she said, resting her palms on the table, “how are you with all this? With the shooting? With losing your friend.”
“Anything you want to talk about?”
I shook my head.
“I see. Well, I imagine it must be weighing on you heavily, in one way or another. You must have some thoughts about it. Something you want to say.”
Mom placed her silverware down. “Yes, it does, honey. I’ve spoken to many of our neighbors about it, and many of them are having a difficult time absorbing the news. I can only imagine what it must be like for a young person to deal time. I image it’s overwhelming.
I stared at my plate, and pushed some green beans around with my fork. Mom continued with her dinnertime psychoanalysis. “Anything else, sweetheart?” she asked. “Any questions?”
Actually, I did have questions. What would happen to Jimmy Grendel? Would they lock him up? How would it affect the rest of us? Would we have to stop playing Dead Man Down? Give up our guns?
But what I really wondered was why I didn’t feel worse. I mean, I just wanted it all to go away, the sooner the better. Shouldn’t I be walking around in a hangdog stupor, a black cloud trailing me down the block?
“I’m good,” I told Mom.
She sat stoically and nodded. I think she was going for the wise monk look. She picked her silverware back up and started delicately cutting a off a microscopic piece of fish.
“By the way, honey,” she said, “will you be attending the funeral tomorrow?”
That one hit me like a fastball to the nasal bridge. I suspect that Mom had been preparing the question, in her head, for a good ten minutes, waiting for precisely the right time to deliver it, to avoid freaking me the hell out. I really can’t hold onto thoughts for that long. After a couple of minutes, I’ll just forget what it was I wanted to say. Not so with Mom. She has a little chess match going on upstairs. I had been trying to force down a mouthful of tepid green beans when she brought up the funeral. I had to cough them back out.
You see, the thing is, I hate funerals. I’ve only been to one, but I remember it being one big freak show. It was when my Aunt Nina died. My parents were vacationing at the time in Bermuda, or someplace like that, and they had to come all the way back for the service. I was staying with my Aunt Janet, which made matters that much worse. Riding in the car with her, my Uncle Chad, and all my cousins, on the way to see old Nina laid out in her coffin.
Anyway, my mother shows up to the funeral and she’s got this terrible sunburn. Obviously, she fell asleep at the pool or something. She’s crying her eyes out all over her red skin. In fact, just about all the women in the room were crying or worse. My Aunt Alison was screaming something about jumping into the grave with her dead sister, which really gave me the willies. Meanwhile, all the men are standing around looking uncomfortable as hell. Man alive, Shakespeare would have had a party with the whole crew.
Mom didn’t let up. “I think it would be very grown up of you to attend the service,” she said, dabbing her mouth, which had no crumbs on it, with her napkin. I rolled my eyes. It was just a reflex. I really didn’t mean anything by it.
Dad glared at me. My father wasn’t big on threats. Instead he used well-practiced intimidation, a reproachful stare, accompanied by an artful tilt of the head. It’s amazing how effective that stuff can be. You could send an army into retreat with that stare of his.
“You can wear one of TJ’s old jackets,” Mom said, cheery as a day in June. “I’m sure we can find one that fits you nicely.” At that, she started pulling dishes from the table. I took this as my cue to clear the decks, and went into the family room, whose chief furnishings were a wide-screen TV and a four-cushion Danish sofa, measuring about eight feet in length. In a pinch, it could seat the whole family, or a small rock group, minus their instruments.
My father was sitting in front of the television, but he really wasn’t watching. He had a stack of papers on his lap, so I figured he was probably grading exams or something. Dad was wearing a V-neck sweater. In fact, Dad always wore a V-neck sweater even when it was two hundred degrees out.
The local news was on. A couple of guys were discussing the Faltman shooting. Only they weren’t really discussing it. They were sort of yelling at each other, about gun control and the second amendment. I looked over at my dad. He was absorbed in his paperwork. He didn’t seem to notice the whole shit storm going on in front of him. I got up and went to my room.
I sat in bed and tried to play Battlefield 1, but it really bored me. I mean, how many people can you kill in one day? So I put the Xbox down and tried to read. TJ is always trying to get me into the classics, with varying levels of success. The latest one was Lord of the Flies, which is about a bunch of kids on a desert island, who gang up on the smartest kid in the group, while being led around by the dumbest banana in the whole bunch.
TJ started me on the reading kick when he heard that I was doing well in English Comp. The whole thing was actually a big surprise to me. In fact, the first time Ms. Stalwether gave me a good grade, I really thought it was some kind of mistake. Like maybe she had mixed up my paper with someone else’s—Alan Polenza or Sue McPortle— the whiz kids in class. But no, she said, everything was in order. I got an A. Suddenly, I was the Boy Wonder, The Little Engine That Could—Rudolf, after realizing that his nose had more photon energy than an ultraviolet light.
It was an open-ended assignment: write about anything you want. I figured Ms. Stalwether must have been fresh out of homework ideas or was just a little tired of the whole teaching routine. If she was, I couldn’t blame her. I’ve seen some of the stuff that kids write. It’s enough to make you want to bang your head with a lead pipe.
Anyway, I went home and wrote this story called “The Nutcracker Suite.” In its condensed form, it goes like this:
There’s this guy who just cracks nuts all day. That’s basically all he does. Any kind of nut: almonds, walnuts, pecans, you name it. He gets really good at it and starts cracking nuts for everyone in town. He becomes well liked as a result of this. Obviously, nuts are very popular in this place—a town full of nuts, ha ha! Anyway, his neighbors decide to chip in and buy him a luxury apartment in the best building around. The mayor brings him to the place and says, “Step right in, it’s all yours, the Nutcracker Suite.”
I actually felt a little queasy when I handed it in; I thought for sure I was going to fail. Lo and behold, Ms. Stalwether winds up giving me an A. I don’t think Alan Polenza or Sue McPortle saw that coming. They both got B’s.
Anyway, I wasn’t into reading so I just lay on my back and stared at the ceiling. There’s this big crack that runs from corner to corner. Whenever I see it, I always wonder if everyone’s ceilings have cracks, or if the guys who built our house were just a bunch of amateurs. I lay there for hours, thinking about Teddy Faltman and how he would look the next day at the funeral. I mean he was just a kid. To see him all stiff and pale in his coffin, what a nightmare. I never understood why they didn’t just get people in the ground while their bodies were still fresh.
It can get really boring lying flat on your back for hours at a stretch. So I switched positions and sat up for a while. It didn’t do much to liven things up, but I didn’t have time to dwell on it. Suddenly, there was a tap on my door. I guessed it was my mother, though the knock was unusually gentle, like that of a wary leprechaun.
I really wasn’t in the mood, and it showed in my voice. “Yeahhh,” I said, drawing out the word for about a half hour. I’m usually pretty polite, but Mom was sending me off to the death house by myself tomorrow, against my better judgment. And my judgment’s pretty good when it comes to funerals. Stay the hell away. You wanna get freaked out, read a Stephen King novel. At least you can put the thing down, if it gets to be too much.
Mom walked in, wearing a fleece tracksuit. The outfit must have set her back at least a hundred bucks. How crazy is that? Why not send the money to Uganda or something? She sat on the edge of my bed.
“Cole, honey, I’ve been thinking about the funeral tomorrow.” She took a dramatic pause, sort of like they do at Guantanamo Bay in-between waterboarding sessions, and started petting me like a sheepdog. “I think I may have been a little aggressive. I just want to make it clear how much I care for you, how deeply I love you.”
My mother is quite the operator. Said to have a degree in Psychology, but I don’t buy it. I think she spent her early years in the CIA, learning the fine points of enhanced interrogation. She could crack the most hardened terrorist in seconds, just by petting his head. I started to give. I felt an insane urge to throw my arms around her.
She continued her assault. “Sweetheart, I want you to know, you and TJ mean more to me than anything else in the world.”
I’m a sucker for flattery. I started to melt. Someone should have put me in a straight jacket right there and then. I flashed my mother a silly grin.
Mom smiled back. “Listen honey, if you’re not comfortable going to the funeral by yourself, Mommy will go with you, okay?”
A jolt of discomfort shot through me. The word “Mommy” circled in my brain like a vulture, ready to rip out any vestige of pride that I was clinging to, while sulking in my room, having my brain kneaded like bread dough.
“I’ll be fine,” I said. “I can go to the stupid funeral by myself.”
My mother stared at me. She looked like she had just been slapped, lips parted, eyes blinking. “You sure, honey? It’s really not a problem. I would just need to cancel a couple of appointments and—“
“It’s all right, Ma. Really, I’ll go by myself. Don’t worry about it.”
She stood up abruptly, toying with the zipper of her track suit. “Well then,” she said. “Let me know if you change your mind. Okay, sweetheart?”
With that, the master interrogator exited the room, leaving behind her hapless victim. It was over in a flash. Mission accomplished, in seconds. I never even stood a chance.
Night fell, but I didn’t bother to switch on a lamp. I just lay there in the dim light coming through the window from Crenshaw’s department store, which was located behind our back yard. Suddenly, I heard TJ turn the door knob and walk in. “You’re up late,” he said. He sat on his mattress, removed his glasses and placed them on a small night table that separates our beds. “Where’s the Xbox?” he asked.
I shrugged. TJ pulled off his sports coat and shirt. He had a crewneck T-shirt on underneath.
I turned on my side. “How was the date?”
I could still see my brother, courtesy of the glow from Crenshaw’s parking lot. He lay with his hands behind his head, blanket covering him from the waist down.
“Good, actually,” he said, with a tinge of a smile.
I asked him if he got to first base. I don’t know much about sex but I do know that getting to first base is always a good thing and has to do with copping a feel, or at least removing a garment or two from your date’s body.
He turned to face me. “I’m not sure I wanna think of the night in terms of a game.”
I was getting a little confused at this point.
TJ did his best to clarify. “The whole baseball thing,” he said, “it’s very demeaning. There’s a lot more to girls than their reproductive organs.”
He gave me this very thoughtful look. It was a bit overbaked, in my opinion. You see, my brother is quite unusual. He could act very grownup sometimes—although, he was still a teenager himself, at least for a couple more years. I often wondered if it wasn’t just a big act, especially at times like this, when he got into the whole Rodin’s Thinker bit. The Thinker, by the way, is the naked guy with his hand on his chin, the statue. How do I know this? You can thank the guy on the next bed over for that.
Suddenly, TJ clicked on a table lamp and squinted at me. He looked like he was going to say something profound, but instead he just stared blankly, resting his weight on his elbow. Moments later, he flopped down. “Listen, if you wanna use the baseball metaphor, I’d say I got to second base. Maybe even hit a line drive past the short stop,” he said, and switched off the lamp.
tinaasante871: when Max first got introduced to the story I was like#where the hell is sara#...lol... I loved every minute of reading this book... it was fantastic although I would have loved to read more about Sara and Allie's wedding.....Anyways I hope u have more of these books installed for us because you'v...
Alex Rushmer: I just want to say that the writing in this is amazing! I read the first couple chapters and was absolutely drawn in by it, The way you use first person in this story is extremely engaging and does wonders with your character development. I immediately had a picture of the characters and plotline...
ianwatson: The comedy is original and genuinely funny, I have laughed out loud many times reading this book. But the story and the plot are also really engaging. The opening two or three chapters seem quite character-dense but they all soon come to life and there is no padding, filling or wasted time readin...
Jasmine Chow: As I read this story, I was reminded some what of Terry Pratchett, especially some descriptions of politics and economics. The sci-fic setting is quite intriguing. Writing style is quite lovely and grew on me slowly. I was also slightly reminded of Mark Twain, especially his book A Connecticut Ya...
AASTHA SHARMA: really...one of the best novel i've ever read...a very touching story....really loved it...thanks for writing such a masterpeice...the struggle of the narrator but still remaining satisfied is the thing that i liked the most...another nice thing is the concept of talking with god...in short i wou...
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Han Alexander: I couldn't stop reading, it really hooked me in I would have loved to have seen more cute moments between Rye and Thera, but that is just because I love the couple so much! it would be interesting to see how their relationship is after the games whether they stay together or whether Ian causes co...
Kassidy Duncan: This is a really sweet story, and I'm really enjoying the premise! It's cute, but also is put forward well in terms of a TV drama (as in, I could definitely see this being acted out). There were a few spelling and grammatical errors that I noticed, but other than that, it was a great read.
mcase: I really enjoyed this story. Felt drawn to Cami as a genuine person. Great characters with funny honest perspective. Many subplots made this continually interesting. I was never bored and thought the overall plot was intriguing. I do wish that some elements had been excluded, such as some extrane...