III Beer Can Flats
III Beer Can Flats
The twins coasted down the gravel drive on their new BMX bikes. The tall, straight birch tree grove gave way to thick, gnarled oaks by the main road. The afternoon, clear and blue, shone slightly through the canopy of twisted branches, now mostly leafless in the late fall. The sounds of birds, squirrels, and other assorted denizens of lightly populated areas had returned, forcing Peter to wonder why it was that they had been absent around Kramer’s place. But the question soon lost its value as they came to a stop together at the end of the drive. They observed the road that crossed before them, Shady Lane. Up the grade to the left about a half mile was home, Dooley Downs. Down to the right led into town.
“I’m scared, Peter.” Priscilla looked at Peter with big doe eyes.
“It will be alright, P. You’ll see.”
“But what if Aunt Gretchen drives back up here? She’ll see us. Maybe she’ll run us over.”
“She won’t do that.” Peter narrowed his eyes, as if he were peering into their Aunt’s thoughts right now. “She wants us, for whatever reason. I don’t think it’s because she loves or cares for us in any great particular way. But she hates Dad. She thinks he… that he killed Mom.”
“But that’s lunacy!” Priscilla shook her head, as if the idea was unfathomable.
“She’s a lunatic,” Peter concluded.
“She’s a trog. She’s probably driving all around town right now, searching for us.” Priscilla looked to the right, down Shady Lane where it curved off out of sight. “What if she’s watching us right now?”
“She’s not. But she has probably told other adults that we are missing… maybe even the cops. We need to be careful. We need to remain out of sight.”
“But we are totally visible on these bikes. We can’t ride through the bushes or fly in the air.”
Peter furrowed his brow, thinking. “Beer Can Flats is just down the road a couple miles. Maybe Bug or Doodle is there.”
“Or Peela,” added Priscilla.
“They’re always skipping school. Maybe they can help us. If we travel with more kids we’ll be less noticeable. Adults will be looking for a boy and a girl skulking around together, being all secretive-like. They might look over a group of kids goofing off, at least until we make it to Red’s.”
“I suppose it’s worth a shot. It’s better than going alone.”
“Come on,” Peter said. “We don’t have a lot of time.”
Beer Can Flats was aptly named, but you wouldn’t know it arriving at two-thirty in the afternoon. A short, brush-shrouded drive off of Shady Lane led to a flat, dirt clearing about half the size of a football field that overlooked the town of Prudence. Older teenagers and college kids came to Beer Can Flats at night, drank beer, and generally carried on in a rowdy sort of way, especially on the weekend. During good weather they burned bon fires, dancing around while hooting and hollering. During bad weather they hunkered down in their cars and vans, looking out over the lighted town. Sometimes the police came and busted up their drunken revelry, but mainly they left them alone. It was more work than it was worth and it never stopped the kids from coming up there. The partiers always left their empty beer cans all over the ground when they finished early in the morning. But by ten ’o clock in the AM each day, the place was clean. Hobos scoured the grounds and picked up the recyclables. You could almost call the relationship symbiotic.
This day, Peter and Priscilla were in luck. Cycling into the flats, they saw their three best friends there together, throwing stones over the cliff and generally just goofing off. All three had skipped school, as they often did, to come up and waste time in unconstructive or innocuous ways. They mostly all came from relatively poor families who generally could care less about their whereabouts during the day, so long as they stayed out of their hair and out of trouble. Each of their situations was slightly different, but they all resulted in a common camaraderie. They were the only kids Peter and Pricilla knew whose friendship arose unconditionally. The word ‘loyal’ came to Peter’s mind.
Skeeter Mcfly was the oldest and tallest. He had been held back in school twice for his lousy grades, but in the end the teachers just moved him on to become someone else’s problem. Of them all, Skeeter’s family showed least concern for his welfare. His father was a traveling salesman of canister vacuums, which left him on the road for weeks at a time. His mother was a housekeeper who entertained other men when his father was away. So the less Skeeter was around, the better for his mother. His father was too tired when he did come home to pay much attention to either of them.
Skeeter stood about six inches above Peter, who was the next tallest among them. His curly red hair floated about his head as if it wasn’t attached to his scalp. Watching it for too long could unsettle one’s sense of balance. He generally wore torn and frayed blue jeans, a tee shirt, and a dark brown terry cloth vest, which appeared to have time traveled forward from some distant past actor’s wardrobe. Skeeter’s singular talent lay in his skateboarding skills. He carried his beat up and bumper sticker slathered board everywhere he went. Among his friends, his gangly stature, odd hair, and equally strange name had earned him the nickname “Bug.”
Doodle was one Abe Bowman, a squat stocky boy with long, straight, greasy black hair who wore round, black-rimmed, coke-bottle glasses. A whole year younger and a whole grade below the others, he was shunned by his own peers, finding refuge only with current company. Doodle was a bit odd by any measurable standard. Highly agreeable to almost any suggestion, he rarely spoke outside of one syllable responses and his usual attire consisted of white long-stockings under cargo shorts held up with suspenders. He always donned a black derby cap he claimed was his late grandfather’s.
Doodle’s family life was almost non-existent. His parents died in a plane crash before he learned to talk and his only known relative, his grandmother, became his legal guardian afterwards. However, Grandma Bowman could hardly take care of herself. She spent most of her days in a wheelchair watching the television, a nurse maid popping in a couple hours a day to make sure the refrigerator was full and things were generally in order. Doodle had all but stopped going to school and the unread truancy notices to his house no longer arrived. Whatever mechanism existed to escalate the situation, possibly to a social worker, had failed and their diminutive friend remained, for the most part, a ward of Beer Can Flats during the day, returning to his grandmother in the evening on his BMX.
The remaining societal and familial outcast of the group was Leela Sparks or ‘Peela’ to her friends. Leela’s situation was largely contrary to her present company of friends. Her parents were fairly well-to-do; her father worked as a highly regarded local general contractor who served on the town council and her mother ran a babysitting business out of their home. Leela kept her grades at reasonably high levels and rarely presented a problem to her parents or the town. However, hanging around the likes of Peter, Priscilla, Skeeter, and Doodle was looked down upon by most, as the townspeople considered them lower class, of poor upbringing, and likely to amount to little in life.
To avoid her parent’s and the townspeople’s scorn in the matter, Leela concocted some rather inventive methods to allow herself to see her friends. Her last two class periods consisted of PE and study hall, respectively. In exchange for tutoring their own children three evenings out of the week, the teachers of these two classes allowed her to spend those periods studying by herself in the library. But Leela never went to the library and the teachers never checked up on her. Instead, she donned a floppy daisy patterned bonnet, an oversized denim skirt, and a knitted shoulder sweater and ducked out of the campus grounds. Apparently, it worked as the casual passer-by never selected to peer further past her disguise, perhaps considering the diminutive, bonneted figure to be some child’s aging grandmother. Once at Swenson Park, she packed all but the bonnet in her shoulder sack, unfolded her portable foot scooter, and made her way to meet her friends at Beer Can Flats. Even when they all went into town together, nobody ever guessed it was her face hidden beneath the cowl of the floppy bonnet.
Leela and Priscilla were best friends, but everyone generally liked each other equally and, of course, Peter and Priscilla had that special bond of not only being brother and sister, but also twins. Because of this, and their similar appearance, the others all congregated around the twin’s lead. They were the “noble elves” of their tribe: charismatic, kind, and curiously wise, though some might label that wisdom as an overactive imagination. Regardless, with the Dooleys it always seemed like an adventure was afoot. Peter and Priscilla rolled up behind them on their bikes as the others took notice of their arrival, turning to greet them.
“All hail the great and magnificent Peter Dooley, wisest and bravest of the high elves,” Skeeter announced in dramatic fashion, one arm outstretched to Peter and one to the sky.
“Hail,” agreed Doodle. Leela just smiled sweetly, happy to see more of her friends arriving.
“All hail the beautiful and fair Princess Priscilla,” Skeeter continued, bowing while swinging one arm back behind him. Priscilla rode to a stop next to him and slugged his arm with her fist.
“Ow, ya squib-knocker!”
“Yeah, I guess so since I hang around you! I told you and Peter to quit that ‘princess’ jibber jabber,” Priscilla growled through gritted teeth, trying to sound mad but only partially pulling it off. She shot darts from her eyes at Peter.
“C’mon, Skeeter, I promised she wouldn’t hear it anymore,” Peter urged, smiling.
“My lady,” Skeeter addressed Priscilla, sounding genuinely heartfelt, “deepest apologies from a fool warrior and his vagabond ways.”
Priscilla giggled. Sometimes Skeeter was so over-the-top that it was sort of cute, especially the way his soft, curly red hair bobbed and jostled around in counter motions to his nog. She knew Skeeter’s crush on her ran deep, but he always remained the chivalrous gentleman, perhaps biding his time until his kind attentions stole her heart. However, Priscilla didn’t feel quite the same way and continued to gently blow him off.
“Oh, you are such a drip, Skeeter! Please.” She giggled some more.
“Drip,” Doodle reinforced. That got everyone howling, until Bo Bo squeezed his way out of Peter’s book bag.
“Bo Bo,” Bo Bo announced. He squeezed his face and upper body out of the book bag’s lip.
“What’re you traveling around with Bo Bo for?” inquired Skeeter.
“Bo,” Doodle called back, eyes widening in surprise and joy. Before Peter could react, Bo Bo had launched himself into Doodle’s arms, purring fervently. Doodle cradled the cat, gently stroking his soft fur. Even though Bo Bo rarely saw Doodle, for some unfathomable reason the cat held a deep affection and kinship for the boy. Everyone watched the two for a brief spell, taking turns to reach in and pet the happy feline.
“So what do we owe the honor?” Skeeter asked finally. “You two never ditch school.”
Peter, ignoring the question, took the cue to address Leela. “Peela, when did you get here?”
“About an hour or so ago,” she stammered slightly, taken aback by Peter’s direct attention, but clearly enjoying it as evidenced by the developing glow in her widening eyes. “I left at one o’ clock, like usual.”
As sometimes happened with good adolescent friends of opposite sex entering the rumblings of pre-puberty, Leela had developed a hard crush on her best friend’s brother, which made things both complicated and exciting. She was insecure about her looks, which aggravated her anxiety in general around most people and social situations, save her present friends. As a result, she kept a low profile so as not to draw undo attention to herself. But if asked to make the observational effort, most people would consider Leela cute, if not fairly attractive. She didn’t possess the delicate, wispy, elf-like beauty of Priscilla, but the bouncy curls of her lengthy brunette hair nicely framed her full and freckled cheeks. Her lips were full and soft and her eyes blazed a crystalline green. Though Leela thought her feelings for Peter remained her secret, they clearly painted themselves across her face in his presence and everyone in present company knew what those expressions meant. Unbeknownst to everyone else, however, Peter harbored similar feelings toward Leela, but was more adept at hiding them. He felt trust would break between his sister and himself should he bring those emotions to the public eye. He never entertained the notion that Priscilla might not mind, and indeed she wouldn’t. The subtle tension of it all intoxicated them, even though nobody spoke of it.
“Did anybody at the school say anything about us?” Peter continued.
“Well, no, not exactly. I mean, I have Math and Social Studies with you and Home Room, English, and Art with Priscilla. When the teachers called roll, they seemed surprised neither of you were there, as was I. The roll does go to the Principal. They probably know your phone is out. I’m sure they’ll just wait for you to bring a note in from your Dad tomorrow. Oh, wait, I did see your creepy Aunt Gretchen pull up in the school parking lot as I was leaving.”
“Aunt Gretchen, she be retchin’!” Skeeter sang, bobbing up and down while his hair did just the opposite. He snapped his fingers to some unknown rhythm.
“Retchin’!” Doodle followed, dancing as he poked his index finger in and out of his open mouth in a gesture designed to imply that he was making himself throw up.
“Stop!” The seriousness of their situation flooded back into Peter at the mention of his horrid Aunt. The others got quiet. “Go on please, Peela.”
“I didn’t get a good look at her because she was in her big dark blue car a ways away from me, but it was definitely her car and I could see her horn-rimmed glasses. But she looked kind of different. She wasn’t wearing that stupid floppy yarn hat and her hair was pulled up or something. I don’t know. I didn’t stop to gander. I just got out of there. What’s going on, Peter?” Adoration and concern coalesced on Leela’s face.
“Look guys, Priscilla and I are in a heap of trouble. So is our Dad; he’s gone missing since Saturday. Somehow, Aunt Gretchen is involved.”
“She means to take us,” Priscilla added.
“Brear!” Skeeter exclaimed.
“Breck!” Doodle deviated, for once.
“Oh, yeah, it’s breck! You got that straight, Doodle!” Peter began to worry. They had come here seeking their friends’ help, yet he had let the cat out of the bag, literally and figuratively, and now he started having second thoughts. These were their friends. Getting them involved seemed wrong, unfair. It would be too easy to get them to help; that’s what ate at his guts. If something happened to any of them because of this situation, the guilt would be unbearable. “Look, you guys, I don’t know about this. It’s really just our problem.”
“Whoa, cowboy, hold the duck,” Skeeter interjected. “You came here for our help, didn’t you?”
Peter nodded, and then quickly looked away. Skeeter reached out his long, thin fingers and gently moved Peter’s face back so that they matched eyes.
“Look, son, we’re going to help you whether you like it or not ’cause we be the only friends you got!” Skeeter was being goofy, but he was also being serious.
“Friends,” Doodle confirmed.
“You see,” Skeeter continued, “Doodle doesn’t have a dad, I almost don’t have a dad, and Peela acts like she doesn’t have a dad.” Leela socked his shoulder and he winked back at her, grinning.
“But you two peas in a pod got a real father who loves the dogalog out of you, hence his name: Dad. Now he’s missing. C’mon, fill us in, pal, buddy-old-boy. Fill us in and tell us what to do. Am I right?” He tossed his head to his left as his hair drifted to the right.
“Right!” Doodle pronounced.
“Absolutely right,” Leela beamed at Peter, grinding her foot in the dirt and biting her lower lip. She quickly put one hand to her lip, pretending there was something on it, while looking sheepishly at Priscilla. Priscilla pretended not to notice, but was nonetheless amused.
“See?” Bug observed with a big toothy grin across his face. “You’re outnumbered.”
“C’mon, Peter,” Priscilla added. “We’ve come this far. Let’s take it through to the answer.”
And for Peter, that final urging from his sister sealed the deal.
They all listened raptly to Peter as he explained the predicament before them. He only briefly touched upon the night Dad talked of what to do if he should go missing, focusing more on what he left for them than what he said. They all knew that Mr. Dooley was, or had been, a source of unique wisdom and love, even if it had abated over the last few years, curled up in a bottle. Peter described in great detail, however, everything that had unfolded that morning up until the present. The twin’s friends were fascinated by Peter’s depiction of the aged and rugged Kramer, since the veteran was a shared source of mystery and conjecture for all of them. Even Bo Bo seemed mildly interested, curled in Doodle’s arms, though he did let forth a hearty yawn now and again. When he arrived at the manipulation of his parent’s Sooth Jewels and the interpretations they surmised, Doodle was the first to offer up a meaning for one of the arrangements.
“Friends!” he beamed.
“What do you mean, Doodle?” Priscilla asked.
“Six!” Doodle explained, rolling his eyes as if he didn’t really needed to say more.
“Of course,” Peter realized. “There are six of us now! That is what the Roman numeral ‘VI’ meant at Kramer’s Kompound. It was showing us where we were about to go, where it wanted us to go.”
“Peter, wait. That’s not what Dad told us.” Priscilla felt uncomfortable inside at that sudden interpretation by her brother. But before she could say more, Peter had bounded over to a medium-sized puddle and was removing the envelope Dad had given them. All their friends gathered around as Peter placed the still assembled arrow on the puddle, where it floated on top of the water just like at Kramer’s place. The kids expressed amazement as the object slowly turned its arrow point to the edge of the cliff.
“See,” Peter said excitedly, “it is showing us where to go.”
“To the park?” Bug screwed up his face in confusion.
“No, past that to Red’s Recovery Room, where Dad hung out after Mom’s death. We have to go there. That’s where we will find out what happened to Dad. We need to go there and speak to Red.”
“Wow, that’ll be a nice trick,” Bug said sarcastically, but not unfriendly. The enormity of the twin’s predicament began to dawn on him. “Look, you said your Aunt the trog is after you.”
“Yeah, and she showed up at school when I was leaving,” Leela interjected, hoping to add wisdom to the conundrum.
“Look Peter,” Bug continued, “she’s no pleeb. No doubt she’s got authority figures lined up against you. Hell, the townsfolk might all be bearing burning torches and pitchforks, like in Frankenstein; stalking up Shady Lane looking for you two’s heads, melon ripe.”
Peter stooped and picked up the arrow from the puddle, still surprised at how light and strong it was. It radiated warmth, too. Peter thought that sitting in that puddle, the metal must have absorbed the afternoon sun. Without letting on, he surreptitiously squeezed the object to see if it would bend. He thought how Priscilla would be furious if she knew, but he couldn’t help himself. The pieces were no thicker than paperclips and yet, surprisingly, all that gave was the skin of his palm. Stopping before it breached his skin he swiftly returned the pieces, still intact, into the fabric paper envelope and secured it in his book bag.
“You might be right, Bug,” he said, slightly peeved, “but as you said, it’s our Dad. What would you have us do, live with Aunt Gretchen and never see him again; never know what happened? You don’t have to help.”
“Hey, hey,” Skeeter backed up, hands raised. “You guys have already prepared for this. I’m in, I’m in! We all are. I’m just trying to see what we’re up against so we can come up with a plan. Look, I get it. As a group, we’ll be less noticeable than if you two were on your own, as strange as that sounds. But it does sound right. Maybe we could disguise ourselves further, you know; put on some mud in camo fashion, like Kramer, and grab some twigs and attach them to our clothes. We could stealth our way into town, all Viet Cong style.” He put up his arms and curved his hands forward into claws, high stepping gingerly around like some bizarre scarecrow that thought it was sneaking. But, to everyone else, he just looked goofy. However, as always, he broke the tension and made them giggle.
“Alright, alright, Bug, I’m sorry. Hey you guys…” Peter started.
“And gals!” Priscilla and Leela put their arms over each other’s shoulders and leaned in, cheek-to-cheek, blinking their eyes wildly.
“Gals!” Doodle piped in.
“Bo bo,” Bo Bo chimed in.
“Okay, okay,” Peter conceded. “I’m sorry I’m a little on edge. You understand. Brear.”
“We do,” Bug confirmed seriously, setting his hand on Peter’s shoulder while his hair settled into some awkward mass atop his head. The others repeated the gesture, even Bo Bo, except his paw rested on Peter’s smiling mouth.
“Thank you,” said Peter, sincerely. “We’ve got a destination; we need a plan.”
Ten minutes later they had a crude map drawn in the dirt of Shady Lane, where Priscilla and Peter had already been, and the portion of the town where they were headed. Shady Lane curved and twisted around the hills for a few miles as it descended to the edge of town, where it became Main Street and intersected with Old Oak Highway. Fast Eddie’s Last Gas was cradled on the opposite side of the intersection. Old Oak Highway ran east several miles until it merged with the primary highway of the region and west winding through the heavy woods until it reached the coastline. Main Street passed through the town gates into the heart of town. Swenson Park, the town’s lush, large and only area of leisure and recreation, lay directly past the main gates on the west side of Main Street. After the park, the bordering Maple Street crossed with Main Street. Directly across from the park on Maple Street rested Red’s Recovery Room, their destination. Each main roadway and building was represented by a line or a square drawn with a stick in the dirt before them, except for their current location, which was drawn as a large half circle facing Prudence. Peter held the stick and pointed to locations as they all hunched around the drawing, attentive.
“Nice map, Peter,” Bug mentioned sarcastically. “You’re a regular Picasso.”
“It’s close enough for government work,” Peter defended, echoing Dad without realizing it. “Here’s Dooley Downs and here is where we crossed our backyard fence line. We made our way over the hill here as we saw Aunt Gretchen barrel down Shady Lane towards town in her stinky steam barge of a car. Man she was gurped. What a trog. Anyway, we blamboozled her and met Kramer outside his compound here.”
“You already told them about this, Peter,” Priscilla interrupted, tapping her foot impatiently. “We are at Beer Can Flats. Let’s talk about where we go from here.”
“Right, sorry,” Peter went on. “Ok, we need to get to Red’s. It is broad daylight, probably about 3:00 or a bit after, and we’ve got a little over three miles to go to get to town. We’ve all got transportation, so by coasting down Shady Lane, we could easily make it in less than twenty minutes, as long as we don’t meet anyone out to get us. If we do, we can still duck into the brush and cross the Wooded Fields, but it would slow us down. Still, if we can get to Red’s before he opens at five o’ clock, we might be able to talk with him for a few. He’s got a storeroom my Dad used to sleep in on occasions. That’ll give us privacy and a place to regroup to think about our next move, if there is one.
“So as I see it, the biggest problem is getting into town unsuspected. As you know, Prudence is gated, with only four entrances, and the Main Street entrance is the closest one to conserve time, as well as being the most direct route to our destination. We cross Swenson Park and then we’re at Red’s. Now school doesn’t get out until three-thirty, about the time we will be arriving, and other kids won’t be filling the park until three forty-five or so. They would make great cover for us, but we’ll just have to take the risk. We need to leave now.”
“Whoah, son,” Skeeter said. “Why don’t we just kick it for a few here, and then duck in when the park is full? You said it yourself, it’s perfect cover.”
“Because, you nob, we need all the time we can get with Red before he opens, in case we need to go somewhere from there. Once he opens, he’ll be busy serving drinks and we won’t be allowed in there anyway. If there are adults out there scouring the land looking for us and we need to backtrack or otherwise alter our path, we will need every minute we can spare, which is why we need to leave NOW!”
“All right, crackerjack,” Skeeter got to his feet and kicked down his skateboard into riding position. “Let’s get a move on, squibs.”
The rest of the crew clambered onto their own vehicles, Leela on her scooter and the other three onto their BMX bikes. Doodle was struggling to get his bike up as he carefully positioned Bo Bo onto his shoulder and leaned over, grasping for the handles. The further he leaned down, the farther up his shoulder Bo Bo crept until he sat square on Doodle’s back. Now with handle grips firm in his grasp, Doodle couldn’t stand up for fear of knocking off the feline.
“Uh,” Doodle managed. The others giggled, except for Peter, who began to get irritated at the time they were wasting.
“Doodle, what are you doing? Bo Bo, what are you doing? C’mon, Doodle, gimme that cat.”
Skeeter smirked. “A cat is a cat!”
“I’ll second that,” Priscilla confirmed, rolling her eyes at the ridiculousness of it all.
“Well it isn’t a rat,” Leela stated the obvious, but saw where the banter was going.
“You should stand pat,” Skeeter advised, “because a rat is more like a bat.”
“You’re mad as a hat!” Leela leaned forward on her scooter and leered at Skeeter.
“It’s only a fact,” Skeeter shrugged. Peter sighed, beside himself over the sudden lapse of focus in the group.
“You’re falling flat,” Priscilla observed. “That doesn’t even rhyme.”
“It sounds similar,” Skeeter countered, still grinning widely, hair still bobbing to its own cadence.
“Oh no, it’s Max,” Leela whispered, eyes turning into crystal saucers.
“Now you guys are really stretching it,” Peter finally chimed in.
“No, over there…” Leela visibly curled in on herself, pinching up her arm to point as if only those around her would see. “It’s Max the Axe.”
“On no,” Doodle managed with a squeak. He placed his hand on top of his derby to keep it from falling off, still in his compromised position with Bo Bo on his back. Bo Bo dug his claws in, arched his back, and emanated a low, crescendoing growl. Doodle grimaced with pain.
Leela pointed, a horrified expression melting her good cheer. “He’s got his pet, Monkey, with him!”