First Annual Wild Violet
Writing Contest (2003)

Fiction — Third Place

Phil Richardson is a retired professor of modern languages and has been married for over forty years to Joyce Richardson, a fellow writer. His publications have appeared in Elf: Eclectic Literary Forum, Fantasy, Folklore and Fairytales, and The Storyteller.

The Boy Next Door
Phil Richardson

There were three of us in our gang. Henry lived two houses down from me and was a lot smaller than I was. He had black hair, tended towards being pudgy, and was the smartest kid in school. We both liked to read a lot, except I read comic books and Henry read real books. We spent a lot of time together, either up in my room playing with my toy soldiers or out in our tobacco barn telling ghost stories. His mom did not like for him to play in the barn. She really didn't like him to be out of her sight. Funny, my mom wanted me out of her sight. The other member, Billy, didn't live in my neighborhood, but we got to know each other in school and became good friends. He was bigger than either Henry or I and he never read anything — not even his schoolbooks. He listened to radio, and that's how he knew what was going on in the world. They were good friends and, except for a few run-ins with Henry's mom, we seldom had any problems.

We often played war then, because it was towards the end of World War II, and that's what all the kids did. Most had lost some relative or knew someone who had a gold star in their window to show that a son had died. The war was very close. We saw it in the movies, read about it in comics, and heard about it on the radio. On one muggy, summer's day we were walking in my uncle's cow pasture, trying to watch for cow manure, snakes and other thing on the path while staying alert to a chance of ambush by the Collins gang. We were at war with them. It seemed like we had always been at war with them. Not real war, of course, just a kids' war.

We usually went barefoot in the summer and yet seldom ever stepped on anything that hurt too bad — an occasional briar that had fallen on a path or a piece of glass that was hidden in the weeds, but nothing to make us run home. Each of us carried our ammunition in a bag slung over our shoulders. The ammunition was round balls shaped, as near as we could make them, like hand grenades. The stuff we made them from, cow manure, didn't shape too well unless it was relatively new, so we always had to gather a fresh supply. Our hand grenades didn't really explode, but given the material they were made from, they had a devastating effect if you caught someone just right.

"Bet we get 'em good today," Billy said excitedly. "We got lots of ammunition, and they don't know we're coming."

"I can't wait to catch old Tommy with one of these grenades," Henry said. "I'd like to catch him with his mouth open. Boy would he yell!"

"Tommy's so rotten he probably wouldn't notice." I pointed to my teeth. "You ever notice how yellow his teeth are? He probably eats this stuff."

Our talk of what we would do to them when we caught them escalated and would have continued if Billy hadn't suddenly been struck by a grenade that splattered all over the front of his shirt. Henry reached in his sack, grabbed a handful of grenades, and prepared to return fire, but there was no one in sight. He caught one on the knee, just as another one hit me in the top of the head. Our thoughts of slaughter suddenly turned to thoughts of survival, as we scrambled to hide behind the nearest bushes. Shouts of glee erupted from on top of the hill. We looked at each other dumbfounded — no one could throw a grenade that far. What was going on? Billy ran over to a crabapple tree and quickly climbed up so he could see.

"They've got a cannon up there," he said. "It's got rubber bands, and they can just lob those grenades down on us. Let's get out of here!"

We tossed our bags aside and took off amidst a hail of grenades and more shouts from up the hill. When we finally escaped, we did our best to wipe our clothes clean.

"Those damn Collins'!" said Henry as he kicked at a large stone. "They always get the best of us. Maybe we need a new leader."

I shoved him playfully and asked, "Do you want to be the leader, Henry? You couldn't lead your way out of a paper bag." Henry shrugged, tossed his head, and slugged me on the arm.

"Nope, I guess I'm a better follower than a leader. It's just that sometimes you don't think too far in advance. You don't remember that things don't always turn out good like in those comic books you're always readin'. Sometimes the good guys lose." Henry had always had a dark side to him, but we didn't pay too much attention because we all had our faults.

"We need to get those guys, Henry said. "We need to get even. Let's do something just as bad to them." Henry always believed in getting even. I couldn't quite understand this, but I did my best to convince him to just let things go. He finally came up with a plan. We would tell the Collins gang that we had a fortress that they better not try to assault. We wrote a note "Danger! Do not approach the tobacco barn on Vine St. It is now official Strikers' territory! Off limits! Especially next Sunday afternoon!" Henry delivered it to Jim Collins, the head of their gang. It was a brave thing to do and, predictably, Jim punched him in the stomach after he had read the note. He punched everybody in the stomach. (I still emit an "oof" when someone comes close to punching me there.)

We spent two or three days getting ready for the big battle. It was to take place on Sunday, because Henry said Saturday was a religious day — I couldn't figure out what kind of church he was going to that met on Saturday (I had asked him once if he was a Catholic, but he just grinned and laughed at that). I had earlier managed to convince my mother that sending me to church was a waste of time, and so I didn't have to worry about doing anything on Sunday. Billy didn't either; no one in his family went to church.

All week long we gathered our ammunition: more cow manure and some rotten eggs. We had our own cannon now, and we had rubber bands made from inner tubes for our rubber guns, and, of course, some things for the siege — candy bars and some Coke. The big day came, and we gathered in the barn early on Sunday afternoon. Henry's mother had told him she wanted him home before 3 p.m., but otherwise it looked like our plan was going to work. We waited and waited, but the Collins gang must have been scared off (or too smart) because they didn't show up.

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