Great round bales of hay rose from the field ahead, yellow-brown in the noontime sun. The boys walked carefree through the fresh-mown grass and up the steep hill. Jared relayed fresh intelligence he’d gathered from an older kid–Sammy Jenkins, the neighbor who’d failed fifth grade–who claimed to have had sex with Tina, the hot teenaged girl who worked the cash register at Mel’s Pizzeria. Pudge trailed behind Jared, swinging a stick he’d found shortly after they’d left their grandfather’s house.
“He got to see her boobs,” Jared informed his cousin. “And he says they’re bigger than they look when she has a shirt on.” He spoke with the solemnity of a network news war correspondent.
“They look big to begin with.” Pudge wasn’t sure if he believed this story. Somehow, a high school junior taking the virginity of a 12 year old with a mullet seemed unlikely.
“He said they’re the size of pumpkins.”
“No way,” Pudge said. “Oranges, maybe.”
Jared laughed. “Man, do you know what a bra even does? It holds the boobs down and makes them look small so guys don’t stare too much.”
“Look, Pudge, if you don’t wanna hear this stuff, that’s fine by me. But when Tina and I start doing it, don’t get all jealous.”
“I just don’t believe Sammy is all.”
Jared sighed. “I’m trying to cheer you up.” He had reached the first hay bale, a bundle about six feet high.
“You don’t need to. I’m fine.”
“Maybe Hulk’ll come back.” Jared grabbed the two pieces of twine that held the bale in place and leaped, using his upper body strength and his feet to propel himself to the top of the pile. He stood, stretching toward the sky as Pudge climbed up behind him.
You could see downtown Bradleysburg (such as it was) from where they stood. There was the post office and across from that the B. W. Superette. Mel’s Pizzeria sat next to that–was Tina working now?–and then the Church of the Brethren. Around these were a few old houses. From a distance, Pudge could see the flag flying next to the borough building.
“I don’t think he’s coming back,” Pudge said, sitting down. A slight breeze blew from behind them, although the sun was hot and there were no clouds in the sky. Sweat was running down his spine.
“My cat came back once. Gone a whole week. I thought she was dead for sure, but then there she was.” Jared shook his head. “Somehow she ripped the side of her mouth open while she was away. Dad had to shoot her.”
“Thanks,” Pudge said. “That really cheered me up.”
The two boys sat in silence. It was the end of summer. The new school year began the next day. Fourth grade, the hulking and strangely mustachioed Mrs. Meeder. Neither one of them wanted that.
“You wanna walk back to the pavilion, Pudge?”
About fifty yards to their right, the field gave way to woods. A small ATV path led through the trees to a private picnic area someone had built there decades before. More trails led off in other directions from there. The pavilion sat unused, save for the occasional teenagers dipping snuff and drinking beer in secret. Jared and Pudge sometimes walked back to read the swear words carved into the tables and collect cans for recycling.
Pudge shrugged, but soon the boys were sliding down from the hay bales and heading for the dry mud ruts of the four-wheeler path. They were quiet now. Their new excursion felt to Pudge like his cousin trying hard to find some way to lighten the mood, to help him forget that his dog was missing and probably dead. It wasn’t likely to work.
This end of the trail had not been cleared in some time. The boys had to climb over the rotting trunk of one tree, duck under the low-hanging branches of another, and avoid the thorny branches of an overgrown bush the encroached on their path. As they drew closer to the clearing, the old pavilion came into view.
Pudge grabbed Jared then, pulling him down to a crouch. An ATV sat next to the pavilion, with a lanky teen boy perched on its cushioned seat. Kneeling before him was Tina, her head moving slowly up and down on his lap.
“That’s not Sammy Jenkins,” Pudge whispered.
“She’ll screw anyone, I told you,” Jared replied.
The boys crept off the path, and under a large pine tree, where they laid flat and kept watching. Pudge was scared now. While he wasn’t sure exactly what was happening, he knew he wasn’t supposed to see it. At the same time, he felt an inexplicable warmth rising from his waist.
“I hope she takes her shirt off,” Jared said. “Then you’ll see what a bra does.” Pudge put a finger to his lips. Jared fell silent.
The boy on the quad put his hands on Tina’s head and pushed her off of him. She stood up, gripping his penis with her hand, stroking it slowly. He said something to her that the two younger boys could not hear. She shook her head and tried to kneel down again, but he would not let her. He reached between her legs, trying to work the button of her fly.
“No,” she said, her voice firm enough to carry across the clearing. “I don’t want to. You can finish in my mouth, but I don’t want to fuck you.”
The boy kept at it, pulling at her pants. She smacked his hand away. For a brief moment, they glared at each other. And then he slapped her.
To Pudge, it seemed as if they were watching in slow motion. He could see every hair on her head swing around with the force of the blow, and her head twisted until Pudge could view her in profile, her mouth open in pain and surprise.
The boy grabbed her then, by the arms, and he forced her to the ground, climbing on top of her. She struggled against him, and he struck her again, harder.
“Stop it!,” Pudge yelled, scrambling out from under the pine branches.
Tina and the boy looked at him, stunned, he pinning her to the ground, she staring upside down with an arched neck and tears now running toward her hairline. And then the brute was standing, his erection still exposed, and he charged at Pudge, who froze in terror.
Behind him, he could hear Jared yelling, “Run, you dumbass!” in a voice that receded with the sound of his footsteps. Something in Pudge did not register Jared’s words as a helpful suggestion. It is likely that he would have stayed there to meet his fate had the angry teenager’s pants not fallen down, tripping him.
Seeing the rage-filled face fall toward the ground and hearing the confused cursing that coincided with the tumble broke Pudge’s terrified trance. Suddenly, he turned and ran down the path toward the field. He crouched down to get under the low-hanging branches, and he leapt to hurdle the rotten tree, but the toe of his left shoe caught the jagged stump of a long-broken branch on the log, and he fell with a twist and felt his ankle pop. He screamed.
He heard the teenager shoving his way through the branches. Soon, the older boy was leaping the tree himself, landing on top of Pudge and pummeling him with his fists. He was strong, but not brutally so, and Pudge managed to block a fair number of the shots. Even so, when his assailant finally tired and climbed off of him, retreating to the pavilion, to Tina, Pudge’s face was swollen and blood ran freely from his nose, which he thought might be broken. His ankle definitely was.
Pudge tried to stand up, but the pain in his left ankle drive him back down. He began to crawl, inching his way toward the field. Pebbles and twigs that he had not noticed before ground themselves into his palms and kneecaps. He strained forward, really crying now, until Jared emerged from some bushes alongside the trail and helped him up.
“You look like hell,” he told Pudge.
“You could have helped me.”
“You could have run faster.”
Jared hooked Pudge’s left arm over his shoulders. The two boys staggered home slowly as Pudge wondered what, exactly, he would tell his mother had happened to him.