First Annual Wild Violet
Writing Contest (2003)

Fiction — Third Place

The Boy Next Door

Phil Richardson

We had won the battle, but probably we would lose the war. The Collins gang had a way of getting even. But that would be on another day. Now we were bored. I had brought some comic books up to the hayloft, but nobody was in a mood to read. The redolent smell of cow manure sort of precluded eating any of the snacks we had gathered.

Finally, in desperation I said, "Lets play prisoner. You know, where we lock somebody up and they try to escape and we catch them." Henry didn't like this idea much, because Billy and I were always the guards, and Henry was always the prisoner. It just seemed to work out that way. Henry wasn't too keen, because he seldom escaped, but we promised to leave the comic books and the food with him.

"Okay," he reluctantly agreed. "I just don't want to be put any place where there are rats or anything bad like that."

"We'll use the old chicken roost under the barn," I suggested. "It isn't too likely to have rats in it, since the chickens are all gone." The game began after Henry hid in the loft, and then Billy and I stalked him with our guns (pieces of wood with a nail for a trigger) and we finally found him.

"Up with your hands!" we shouted. Henry came out from behind a bale of hay and stuck his hands in the air. We tied his hands behind his back and led him down the ramp to the lower floor. He stumbled a bit, but that was part of the act. "Don't kill me," he pleaded. "I'm a prisoner of war. It's against the Geneever convention."

"No, you're not a prisoner of war," we chorused. "You are a spy! You are going to be put in a cell until you rot!" We had practiced these lines a lot of times.

"Or maybe get shot at sunrise," Bill added. He always wanted to shoot someone at sunrise.

We herded Henry into the old chicken coop, thrust some pop and Cheezits in with him, and slammed the door shut. Now was the time for him to yell, and he did a good job of it. "Let me out of here. There's rats in here!" (He always claimed that.) Our job was to march around the chicken coop and look fierce, occasionally swatting the side of the coop with a stick and shouting, "Keep quiet!"

Suddenly, as we were marching around the chicken coop pretending to stand guard, we heard the sounds of fire engines coming down the street. Billy and I, forgetting all about Henry, rushed out to the front of the house and then ran down the block towards the Reiber house, where flames were shooting out the windows. It was the biggest fire either of us had ever seen. Two fire trucks arrived and, soon after that, the cars of the volunteer firefighters. Mr. and Mrs. Reiber weren't home so the firefighters had to smash in the door with axes — it was almost like a movie. Other kids started arriving on their bikes, and for a couple of hours we all stood across the street and watched the vain efforts of the fire department as they tried to save the house. The Reibers finally arrived about the time the roof collapsed, and Mrs. Reiber had to be taken to the hospital. It was really exciting.

Most of the other kids had already left and things had quieted down when Billy and I realized that we could hear screaming. It was a terrified wailing sound, and we looked at each other and simultaneously said "Henry!" We ran back to the barn and arrived almost at the same time as Henry's mother. She was frantically trying to open the door to the chicken coop, which was rebounding to the pounding of Henry's fists "Let me out! Let me out!" he was screaming.

Just as we arrived she managed to get the door open, and a terrified Henry burst from the door shouting "RATS! RATS!" He ran around in circles until his mother managed to grab him and hug him to her. She looked at us and shouted, "What have you done to my Henry? You awful boys! What have you done to my Henry?"

I stood there, not knowing what to say. "We were just playing prisoner and there was the the fire..."

"Prisoner! You were playing prisoner with my Henry!"

Henry began sobbing anew. "There was a rat! There was a rat and I was so scared"

This brought a renewed outburst from her. "You filthy rotten boys! How could you put him in a place like that?" She lashed out and slapped me and, pulling Henry after her, ran back to their yard. She stopped for a moment and turned to us. "Why does everyone hate us? Why does everyone hate Jews! Why do they do horrible things to us?" With that she took Henry and ran into their house.

I was left standing there, the left side of my face red from her slap. By that time my mother had arrived, totally unaware of what had happened. By now I was sobbing too, and when she stopped in front of me, I looked up at her and stammered, "Mom, she was so mad. We didn't mean to. We forgot. I don't understand why she was so mad. We like Henry. He's our friend. Mom, what's a Jew?"

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