Chapter 6

Halloween in the Hollow

 

I

            My algebra grade was still on the rise, coming up from the depths of hell, and was in danger of breaking into above-average territory.  Mr. Buttworst knew Roman would help me, but even he was surprised at my recent performance.  I was in uncharted waters here.  The word "student" was never one I would have used to describe myself and although it felt really good, in the back of my mind I wondered if it was too good to be true.

            Johnny sat next to me tapping his foot at a very annoying pace, looking straight ahead with the look of a bull ready to charge.  I didnít even ask.  I was more concerned in getting some questions answered at lunch.  I hadnít seen Roman since Friday.  Sally hadnít talked to Heather.

            I didnít get the chance.  By the time I got to lunch Heather and Roman were in deep conversation.  They were sitting closer than usual.  Iíd just sat down when the Killer walked up.  I knew this wasnít good news.  Johnny skipped the lunch line and came directly to our table.  In a second, Johnny picked Roman out of his seat and slammed the slim janitor against the wall.  Although Johnny was a good four inches taller than Roman, they were now eye level.  The Killer had him propped up, holding Roman up off the ground with his arm sideways across Romanís neck.  I went from sitting to a dead sprint until Brunno grabbed my arms.  Heather stood up like a jack in the box but was sat back down by Jackís hand on her shoulder.  The cafeteria went silent.  People stood on their chairs to get a view, some walked over to get a ringside seat.  Jack and Brunno had their stupid little smiles on.  I wondered if their faces would eventually get stuck like that.

            At first Johnny was smiling too, his face an inch away from Romanís, but the more he talked the more the smile faded.  Roman just hung there, not wiggling or trying to get free, arms steady against his side, eyes unblinking.  Johnny spoke so softly that even in the silence I had to turn my ear to hear.

            "Iím not going to do anything to you here.  I know that before I could give you the ass whippiní Iíd be happy with, the teachers and your janitor buddies would be all over me.  But Iíll have my chance soon enough.  I go to bed every night dreaming about it, doze off in class thinking about it.  Iím calling you out.  Iím calling you out to the Hollow."

            A gasp went through the crowd.

            "On Halloween.  Thatís two days from now in case you donít know.  Two oíclock.  That gives you plenty of time to get out there.  I know you wouldnít miss your sorry ass job to fight me.  You can wear your janitor outfit or a clown costume for all I care, but know thisóyou will be there and I will fuck you up."

            The second Johnny finished his sentence the prison guards were on him.  As they took him away he held up two fingers and mouthed the words "youíre mine".  I yanked my arm away from Brunno.  Roman sat down in his chair like nothing happened.  The cafeteria began to swarm again.  Our table sat in silence for a good five minutes.  Roman didnít hesitate to start eating his applesauce again.  I wanted to say something but was at a loss for words.

            Roman finally spoke.  "Whatís the Hollow?"  He continued to eat throughout the conversation.

            Heather hesitated at first and then said, "Hawthorne Hollow actually.  Itís a dry riverbed on my great grandpaís old property.  We donít own it anymore but people still call it Hawthorne Hollow, the Hollow for short.  Itís out in the country about five miles northwest of Collingston."

            "People go out there to fight," I cut in. "Because itís real secluded and the cops wonít be able to break it up in time, even if they did hear about it.  People have used it for decades; hell, all our dads and grandpas have stories."

            Scotty spoke up, "My granddad said he seen a guy get killed there one time.  Big Jim Geoffries threw one punch and killed the poor bastard.  It knocked his nose up into his brain.  They supposedly buried the guy right there in the Hollow."

            I knew the story well.  "Big Jim fought the guy because the guy was screwing one of his daughters.  The police never did a thing, even though they knew.  We could go on for hours with these kinds of stories."

            Roman seemed unimpressed.

            "Are you gonna go?  You gonna fight him?" I asked.

            Roman paused staring into nowhere.  "No," he said.

            The table was silent again.  The only one happy to hear that news was Heather.

            I broke the silence once again. "I know you donít want to fight him, hell I wouldnít want to either.  Heís never lost a fight, and most of his victims walked away because he allowed them to.  He could have killed every one of íem if he wanted.  But win or lose, you could end this thing once and for all.  You could end it in two days."

            Roman looked me directly in the eye.  "If I go and fight him, heís already won."

 

II

            Roman ate supper at Carlís that nightóthe dirty carp we caught.  Carl had fixed it up, supposedly cleaning the mud vein out.  I would have never eaten that shit, because I heard how bad it was, but also because I thought half of everything that came out of Carlís mouth was bullshit.  Roman tried it without hesitation.  He trusted Carl, maybe more than he trusted anyone.  Later Roman assured me it tasted good.  Like cod, he said.

            After their meal, Roman and Carl sat in his living room, listening to a call-in program on the radio.  Countless callers claimed they had either seen an alien or been abducted.  The host of the show agreed with everyone.  Carl listened with fascination drinking one beer after another.  Roman sat in silence with other things on his mind.

            Carl peered through the candlelight at the janitor sensing his young friend was troubled.  He turned down the radio and drank again.

            "You look as though the bear stole your honey pot.  What weighs on your mind fella?"

            The prepared mind is not often taken off guard, but Roman snapped out of his trance, surprised by Carlís observation.  He wiggled his way up from being slouched over to a more proper sitting position.

            Carl took a big swallow of beer and turned the radio completely off, interested in what troubled his young friend.  He waited as a patient grandfather would, gray and all.

            "Just some silly school stuff thatís all."

            "A mind such as yours is not pestered by gnats in the night air.  Iím sure ítis not.  Some fellas tryiní to get at ya?"

            "Yes," Roman responded.  "Iíve taken more mental abuse from this guy than most people take in a life time.  After everything Iíve been through itís actually comical.  Iíve shrugged it off this long and Iím confident I can do it for as long as he keeps it coming.  I just think if I fight him Iíve already lost the battle."

            Carl picked up the pipe from the stand next to him, put it in his mouth, and lit it.  "A better man than I, you are," he said as the smoke rose in front of his face.  "After they shot Jack and LBJ took over, they sent us fellas across the Pacific.  I had been over there once with Korea.  Three hundred men sat underneath me; some looked like they were only days past the teat.  We killed innocent people, and we killed them that were far from it.  When we came back, they spat on us.  A man asked me at the Tavern one time, was I sorry we fought a war we didnít win?  Sorry? No I wasnít sorry we fought.  I was sorry the day we left this beautiful land.  We lost before we ever landed on that rice cake.  But did we fight? Ah, we fought hard.  Was there a good reason to fight?  No, I say, but sometimes you must stand and fight nonetheless."

 

III

            The next night, D-day eve, I got in bed around ten and stared at the ceiling for two hours.  I wanted to talk to Roman and see what he was thinking.  I told Pops I couldnít sleep and was going to do some studying at Romanís.

            Heather must have had the insomnia too, because she pulled up the same time I did.  Roman was walking down the steep hill toward his house.  We waited, not saying a word.  The reason was understood why we were both there.  The three of us walked up to the porch.  Roman got out his key, but before inserting it, noticed the door was ajar.  He pushed it open.

            The living room looked like the aftermath of a tornado in a small Oklahoma town.  The floor was covered with torn out pages of Romanís books to the point you could no longer see the polished hardwood floors.  The unread books that were usually neatly stacked in the corner were scattered across the room.  The couch was overturned, the bedding twisted in every direction.  Heather covered her mouth.  I looked at Roman.  He was still as calm as the lake at sunset.  He looked around the room, slowly taking in the destruction of the place he called home.

            In the second room the bookshelves were overturnedódominoes that clung against each other and then the wall.  There were a few books hanging for dear life to the edge of the shelves, but the majority lay on the floor.

            I donít think any of us noticed at first because we were fixed on the number of papers on the floor, but finally Heather pointed toward the wall where what was left of Romanís bed lay.  Sprayed in black paint over the wall and the baseball cards were the words "faggot janitor."  On the wall to the right of the front door were the words "fuck you."  Directly in front of us where the couch used to sit, in giant letters spanning the length and width of the wall was the word "tomorrow."

            "I canít believe Johnny would do this.  Itís low even for him," Heather said.

            "One person couldnít do this by himself," I said.

            "Jack and Brunno," Roman responded.

            "They set out to ruin every single card didnít they, Roman?" I said looking at the graffiti.

            "They may have set out to ruin them, but they didnít," he answered.

            "How could they not be ruined?" Heather asked for both of us.

            Roman walked over to the wall with the "tomorrow" and touched it.  "Paint is already dry."  He pulled one of the cards off the wall.  The plastic it was encased in was completely black.  He reached in the casing and pulled out the card, which was in another clear plastic sheath.  He peeled back the second sheath and held Sandy Koufax in his hand.  The card was in the same condition it was the day it came out of the factory.  "I triple wrapped them.  Thereís no way the paint seeped through all the layers."

            I let out a sigh.  Heather didnít seem to be so relieved, but she also didnít know that Romanís walls were made of money.

            Roman walked over to the door looking at the splinters on the floor.  He rubbed the spot where the doorframe and the doorknob mechanism met.

            "Howíd they get the door open?" Heather asked.

            "Probably pried it with a crow bar or something," I responded.

            "No," Roman said. "There was some force behind this.  One of them put a shoulder into it several times."

            "Mother fuckers," I began. "Really got some balls breaking in the front door donít they?"

            "Too often ignorance is mistaken for courage," came a voice from the porch.

            Carl walked through the doorway, with his shirt torn across the chest and his green pants smudged with mud at the knees.  Dead fall grass hung from his long gray goatee.

            "Three of them there were," Carl said, seemingly unharmed.  "I saw the bastards leaving and decided to ask them what the hell they were doing.  The cowards took off running so I chased them.  Caught one I did."

            "You caught one.  Whadja do with him?" I asked.

            "I gave him a few good wallops and then drug him back to the house," Carl responded.

            Roman gave a brief smile, like he wasnít surprised at all.  "Where is he now?"

            "Iíve got the little prick down in the basement."

            "What did he look like?" I asked in disbelief.

            "There was a big tall one, a real skinny one, like our friend here." Carl nodded toward Roman. "And a stocky one about your height Tony.  He was slower than the other two.   I ran to the side of him and tackled the son of a bitch like one of those line backers."

            The image I got from the story short-circuited my brain.  Here was Carl, a man at least in his seventies, fragile looking, lucky to be a buck-fifty soakiní wet, wearing galoshes, not only chasing down but also taking down a nineteen-year-old kid who just happened to be the state runner-up in wrestling last year.  I shook my head hard back and forth trying to come back to reality.

            "Letís have a look at him," Roman said.

 

IV

            Carl opened the basement door and pulled on a chain, illuminating the wooden stairs.  "Careful mind ya, these little boogers arenít the sturdiest."

            The stairs cracked and creaked on a couple of occasions.  I felt the weight of my foot press the board below to the point just before it snapped.  The basement was a junkyard.  Box after box cluttered the floor, and unlike Romanís books, there seemed to be no sense of order.  A rusted bicycle with two flat tires sat in the corner.  A stop sign hung from one of the walls, pink instead of red from fading by time.  A pile of contraptions lay cluttered with the boxes.  The ones I could make outóan antique sewing machine, a typewriter, and a pair of ice skates that Abraham Lincoln himself might have worn.  They were all covered with dust and cobwebs.  At the far end of the room the junk seemed to recede a bit giving way to a large glass box.  Inside the box were smaller wooden boxes with several wire screens inserted vertically into each.  I meant to ask what they were, but a sight to this day Iíll never forget caught my eyeóBrunno sitting in a chair with his ankles duct taped as well as wrists and mouth, and his hands laying in his lap.  Streams of tears washed away the blood that soaked his face in the corners and under his eyes.  No sound came from his mouth because it was taped shut, but Brunno was bawling like a little baby.  Roman walked up and yanked the tape off his mouth.  The sound was like the tearing of thin cloth.  Brunno closed his eyes, his chest pumping hard for oxygen.

            "Damn, Carl, you worked him over pretty good," I said.

            "A little accident," Carl began. "I strung him up in the living room and laid him down at the top of the stairs.  In my old age I didnít have a plan to get the son of bitch down to the bottom, so I gave him a brief nudge.  He rolled a lot faster than I thought he would."

            "Whatís that smell?" Heather asked pinching her fingers against her nose.

            I lifted my nose, sniffing in all directions.  The rank smell led me to the heap sitting in front of me.  " Oh man, the asshole shit his pants.  No pun intended."  I smacked Brunno on the back of the head.

            "What should we do with him?" Roman asked, looking at Carl.

            Carl produced a switchblade from his pocket.  A click of the button and the blade was exposed.  "I think we should kill the bastard."

            Brunnoís crying increased in volume.

            "Heís the same age as us Carl," Roman said back.

            "And old enough to know the difference between right and wrong," Carl countered.

            "Actually," I butted in. "Heís a year older.  Brunno flunked third grade.  Right asshole?"  I slapped the back of his head again.

            Brunno swallowed hard, trying to regain composure.  "P-p-p-lease Tony, Roman, donít let this crazy fu-fu-fu-cker kill me."

            I head-popped Brunno one more time.  "Shut up, you big goof."

            Roman bent down so he was eye level with Brunno.  His hand lifted Brunnoís baby-faced chin, so he could see Romanís eyes.  "I am going to give you a simple true or false question Brunno. If you answer right, weíll let you go."

            Brunno didnít seem to be too thrilled by the idea, but he didnít have a choice.  Letís face it on the list of things Brunno was good at, answering questions would never even have been on the page.  Nonetheless he focused on Romanís face like he was trying to answer a question on a college entrance exam.

            "True or false, Brunno will not be at the Hollow tomorrow night at two AM."

            Brunno cried hard and lowered his head.  "True," he whispered.

            Roman nodded toward Carl.  As if he read the janitorís mind, Carl walked up to Brunno, holding the blade outward.  Brunno tried to squirm away in a pointless effort, shaking his head back and forth.  Carl bent down cutting the tape first on Brunnoís ankles, then on his wrists.  Brunno sat in the chair in relief.

            "Get the fuck out of here."  I slapped him one more time for good measure.

            Brunno shot out of the chair, like a bull being let out of the gates, stumbling over stairs and missing others all together.  I could almost hear the shit swishing in his pants.

            "Do you need a ride to the Hollow tomorrow?" I asked.

            "No," Roman replied.  "Just tell me how to get there."

            I told him.

 

V

            Halloween at Collingston High was like most schools I imagine.  If you wanted to dress in a costume, you could as long as you didnít break any of the precious school dress codes of course.  A couple of dumb asses would always get sent home.  Hookers and the like were still frowned upon.  There were the usual Freddies and Jasons walking the halls.  For most students, like myself, it was just another day.  Some teachers like Mr. Buttworst gave out candy.  Hard to believe that candy at this age of our lives could spice up the day.

            There was a little extra vibe in the air, not because of trick-or-treaters, or jack-o-lanterns, but because of what was to happen later that night.  The battle lines were drawn, the majority on Johnnyís side, a handful of us loyalists on Romanís.  The only thing left now was time.  It was in the hands of fate, and with each tick of the clock we came closer.

            I felt pretty good about the situation until I sat down at lunch.  Roman wasnít there.  I used the pay phone in the cafeteria to call him.  No answer. Our table, the table that over the last month or so had grown into a good group of friends, the table that stole some of the lost souls away from Johnny, was now withered down to twoóme and Heather.  Sam Peterman, Pick, Scotty, the cheerleaders all jumped ship.  So much for the loyalists.  I expected Pick to pull his usual disappearing act, and I guess I wasnít surprised at the rest of them.  Everyone wants to be standing with the winner when the smoke clears.  The only bright spot was that Brunno wasnít at school.  He probably figured it best to stay away all together.  He could always tell Johnny that he was sick.

            "I guess itís just me and you today, sister," I said with my best fake smile and confident voice.

            Heather was a visible wreck, no make up and hair pulled back.  She played with her food the entire lunch period, speaking only when spoken to.  "I donít want him to go Tony.  I know heís good.  I know heís smart.  But the odds are stacked too high.  Johnnyís gonna have everybody there teaming up against him."

            Heatherís words hit home.  "Heíll be fine.  Even if he gets his ass beat, this thing will be over tomorrow.  Johnny just wants to stay high on his pedestal thatís all.  Once he proves himself, heíll be happy.  I just hope Roman shows."

            "I donít," Heather said.

            I fought the temptation to skip the rest of the day and go to Romanís, reminding myself that it was his fight, and he would handle it the best way he knew how.  After school the Pinto took me over there.  Nobody home at Romanís or Carlís.  My stomach began to hurt.  It was out of my hands now though.

 

VI

            The forecast was for rain, but the full moon seemed to pick the Hollow as the only spot on earth it wanted to brighten.  It shone overhead, cloudless, as bright as the lights that lit Collingston County Stadium.  Maybe even the moon wanted to watch this one.

            Dead trees hung over the Hollow at an angle, the long ragged fragile fingers of a thousand skeletons shielding us from the rest of the world, opening up only at the top for the moon.  The dry riverbed went on for miles in either direction, its floor like cracking pottery clay.  The Hollow widened at one certain point, becoming at least fifty yards wide at the point where the decades of scores were settled.  The embankment, steep and high on both sides, created almost a bowl effect, like the Coliseum in ancient Rome.  And although there were no lions and tigers tearing the flesh from slaves who wanted only their freedom, there were gladiators tightening their armor and warming their muscles.

            The Pinto got me there at one-thirty, a good half-hour before the fight was supposed to begin.  I parked a half-mile away.  That was just about as close as a vehicle could get, because of the forest.  After the longest walk of my life, I stood at the top of the Hollow.  The sight below me was something to behold.  I thought I was early but at least two hundred people were already in attendance, filling both hills and the north side of the riverbed.  On the hills people sat or leaned against the dead trees.  At the bottom they stood, bustling about, talking in a theater before the opening credits started to play.  Because of the crowd it took me several minutes to get down the hill.  Once there, I scanned the crowd getting a read on the situation.  Roman was nowhere to be found.  Johnny was standing at the front of the crowd.  In back of him stood his small army.  By the look of it I counted between fifteen and twenty guys that were there for Johnny.  That was actually about ten more than Iíd thought.  Johnny had really rallied the troops this time.  Jack stood to his right.  Left of the center, facing Johnny were familiar facesóHeather, Sally, Scotty, Sam, Pick, the rest of the cheerleaders, and a few other seniors that I recognized.  My heart was pounding even though all I had to do was watch.  I walked over and stood with them at the front of the crowd.  I continually looked at the top of the hill on both sides, hoping to see a shadow, a dark figure, anything.  Several times I thought I saw Roman.  Several times I was wrong.  It began to mist.

            Johnny stepped out in front of the crowd, his face blue in the moonlight.  "Can I have your attention please?  Please, let me talk."  Johnny raised his arms up and put them down several times, his palms facing the clay of the riverbed.

            Eventually the chitchat and the laughter died down, and the waiting stopped.  I could feel the cool breeze blow against the back of my neck.  It was in the fifties but felt much colder.  A shiver ran down the length of my spine, ending at my toes.  I scanned for Roman, again in vain.

            "By my watch itís two oíclock," Johnny the Killer said.

            I looked at my own, finding Johnny was about ten minutes fast.

            "The janitor is a coward my friends, heís as yellow as that fucking bird we used to watch on Sesame Street.  I called him here out of respect between two men, giving him a fair chance to prove that there is something between his legs other than a mop stick.  But instead he spits in your face as well as mine.  He mocks us by not showing.  My friends Iím sorry to say the janitor is not coming.  He never was."

            The entire crowd, except the group I was standing with, booed.  Even though we needed boots on because the shit was getting deep, Johnnyís speech was very well spoken.  Ironic that in normal life he was a babbling idiot, but in competition and violence he was a poet.  He held his hands up, quieting the crowd once again.  He gave Jack a nod and immediately the right-hand man was by my side with several others of Johnnyís soldiers.  They grabbed me and took me out to where Johnny was standing.  Half way there I broke loose of their grips and walked on my own.

            "Iím not one to waste your precious time," Johnny preached again. "There will be a fight tonight.  Tony, who was a good friend to me growing up, has stabbed me in the back.  Heís taken up with the piece of shit janitor instead of the brother that stands beside him, and because of it Brunno lays broken in bed at home from an ambush he suffered at Tonyís hands."

            The boos echoed again in the Hollow.

            Heather yelled over them, "Thatís bullshit and you know it Johnny."

            The Killer ignored her.

            The moon still provided light, though the mist was turning to legitimate drops of rain.

            Johnny spoke louder to combat the sound of the water.  "Friends, I know that Tony will not take the place of the janitor, not even close, but I ask, do you want to see him pay?"

            The crowd roared with approval, "Kill him, kick his ass Johnny, do it for Brunno".  The chants went on.

            In the pit of my stomach I finally understood how Jesus felt when they let Barabas go.  I looked at my watch.  Still five minutes until two.

            I looked around frantically.

            No Roman.

            Before Johnny did anything I charged, wrapping my arms around his waist.  We fell to the ground.  I lifted my fist, but before I could lower the boom, Jack kneed me in the back.  A second later, Johnnyís goons were all over me.  They worked me overókicking and punchingóuntil Johnny got to his feet.  I stood up only half the man I was before.  My right arm was useless.  I threw a left.  Johnny leaned back and when he saw I had no right to go with it, the onslaught began.  In a matter of seconds I was on my knees in front of Johnny.  He held me up by the neck of my shirt, delivering blow after blow to my face.  My eye sockets throbbed.

            Heather somehow managed to slip through the wall of Johnnyís soldiers.  She grabbed Johnnyís right arm.  Without turning he backhanded her with a closed fist, knocking her backward at least three feet.  In my daze, I still heard her head thud against the ground.  Sally and the other girls pulled her off to the side.  Johnny gave her a brief look of regret.

            Johnny let me fall to the ground and then the kicks began.  Kicks to the stomach, the chest, the legs, one to the chin.  At one point I heard him say, "You know, it didnít have to be this way."  I was sure one more kick would have ended me.  And then there was a voice.

            A voice that shouted, but was so far away I could barely hear it.

            "Iím disappointed you started without me, Johnny."

            I lay in the dirt, which was quickly turning to mud.  Between the blood and the raindrops in my eyes my vision blurred, but a hundred yards down the length of the Hollow stood the dark silhouette of the man I had been looking for.  Roman stood in the moonlight casting a shadow in front of him.  I tried to turn my head toward my watch but only my eyes responded.  I shook off the raindrops as best I could.  My watch read two oíclock.

            "Youíre not a very good host, telling a person one time, and then starting before," Roman yelled.

            "Kill this mother fucker," Johnny said to the boys.

            They took off down the Hollow in a dead sprint.  The night had cooled considerably and their breath rose in the moonlight and rain.  My count from before was off quite a bit.  There were at least thirty of them, filling the width of the ravine, stampeding like buffalo over the open range.  Johnny and Jack jogged behind like cowboys ushering in the herd.  People on the hills filtered down, and the crowd slowly began to follow.  Scotty and Pick scooped me off the ground by my armpits, throwing my arms over their respective shoulders.  As we moved, my feet dragged in the mud.

            Roman stood with his arms loose, hanging at his sides, unmoving.  The herd gained momentum.  Fifty yards away Roman stood his ground.  Rocks and sticks were picked up off the riverbed, as the horizontal wave of soldiers ran closer side by side.  Roman stood his ground.  At thirty yards the width of the Hollow decreased substantially, reducing the distance between the two sides to about half of what it had been.  The herd adjusted, becoming three horizontal rows, instead of just one.  Roman stood his ground.

            The attack was close now and looked ready to devour the janitor.  Roman stood his ground.  Snarls and grunts of anticipation came from the pack.  Last minute yells of camaraderie and encouragement could be heard throughout the ravine, like the ancient chants of centurion soldiers.  Twenty feet away Roman stood, unmoving.  Just before the slaughter reached the point of no return, the legs of the mass were cut out from under them, the front row of soldiers abruptly tripping to the ground, the second row falling on top of the first, and the third row smashing both underneath.  Johnny and Jack stopped in confusion, watching their handpicked army crumble in front of them.  Stones and dead tree branches flew up in the air at the sudden stop, landing not on Roman, but on Johnnyís troops.

            Roman had skipped school, not because he was a coward, but to prepare his defense.  He had fastened a length of metal cable from one side of the Hollow to the other.  Though it was thin and invisible at nightóespecially to a bunch of sprinting adversariesóthe cable was stronger than any rope or string could ever be.  Roman had deliberately set it up where the Hollow narrowed, forcing Johnnyís thugs into a bottleneck, ensuring that it took out all of them.

            And take them out it did.  When they hit the cable at the speed they were going, their momentum went from full speed to full stop, much like a car hitting a brick wall.  The cable was less than a foot off the ground, positioned to catch the brood between their ankles and their knees.  The trampling sound echoed through the Hollow, along with the noise of heads cracking together and primitive weapons thudding against bodies.  A couple of guys on the first line were running so fast that when they hit the trip wire their momentum kept them rolling like bowling balls.

            Out of the thirty soldiers, not one was left standing.  Romanís trip wire had done what it was put in place for.  After Johnnyís troops awoke from the initial impact, they did several things: some ran as well as they could, for the hills and their escape, others were too injured to continue and crawled off to the side.  When the chaos cleared, there were only five of Johnnyís members left willing to fight.  They charged as well as they could, stumbling mostly.  Roman walked into the melee, blocking punches, sweeping legs out from under them, using their force against them, sometimes misdirecting movement by smashing two of them together, other times ducking and weaving in and out, catching arms and flipping the aggressors over his back.  When it was over two of the five limped off; three of them crawled.  Roman had made quick work of it, never throwing a single punch.

            Johnny and Jack walked over to the tripwire.  Johnny gave Jack a shove in the back as if to say it was his turn.  Jack walked up, still with a smile on his face.

            "All right, janitor, itís..." Jack started as he took a step forward.

            Those were the only words Jack got out.  Roman gave a quick kick to Jackís knee, buckling it instantly.  There was a loud pop.  Jackís kneecap was now in the back of the leg where the crease is, instead of in the front.  He grabbed it, yelling in that high-pitched yelp of his.  It was dislocated for sure, if not broken.

            The rain was coming down in sheets now, but instead of the crowd leaving, they formed a circle, putting the two fighters in the middle.  The chants and cheers had dropped to silence, everyoneís gaze focused toward the center.  Only the rain made noise.  Romanís head was steaming from the heat he generated.  He took off his flannel and dropped it to the mud.  His white T-shirt was soaked and stuck to him like painted-on body art.

            "I canít think of a more fitting end for you," Johnny said, his face red with anger.

            Roman said nothing.

            Johnny put both fists up and charged.

            His strong right came overhead.  Roman moved into it, blocking with his left arm, and returning three quick blows with his right.  Blood shot from both of Johnnyís nostrils from the first punch.  The second punch knocked his wind out.  The third smashed his scrotum.  Johnny staggered gasping for air, trying to decide between holding his nose, lungs, or nuts.  Johnnyís four-inch height advantage eclipsed Roman, but it made no difference.  Roman backed a couple of steps away, arms at his side.  Johnny walked around like an ogre holding himself.  When he regained his breath, Johnny charged, throwing another right.  A second later Roman had Johnnyís arm twisted up behind his own back.  He walked Johnny a couple steps forward, and then tripped him.  They fell, Johnny smashing against the ground, and Roman on his back.  Keeping hold of the arm Roman lifted Johnnyís head and repeatedly squashed it into the floor of the muddy Hollow.  Roman jumped off to the side.  Johnny lay face down for several seconds in the mud.  Finally he got to his feet, wiping the mud from his eyes.  Roman stood with arms down giving Johnny a chance to give up.  The Killer refused.  And as if out of ideas and desperate, he ran with both arms outreached, maybe in attempt to strangle the janitor.  Roman met him with an upper cut that snapped Johnnyís head back so far I swore the top of his head touched the middle of his back.  The Killer did not fall though.  Roman continued with a tornadic flurry of punches and kicks so quick it would have taken a high-speed camera to capture them all.  Each punch and kick was stronger than the last and Johnny was forced from one side of the circle to the other.  Roman ended the bombardment with one final upper-cut.  Johnny fell on his back and Roman landed on top of him.  Both of them were unmoving until Roman crawled up the Killer and straddled his stomach.

            Johnny the Killer lay motionless in the mud with his right eye swollen shut.  Blood gushed from his nose and showed on his gums above his teeth.  His good eye flickered with the rhythm of the raindrops.

            "Finish it," he said to Roman.  His voice was soft and broken.

            Roman clinched his right fist raising it to the sky.  Johnny could see the moon behind it.

            I still hung between Scottyís and Pickís shoulders, my legs unable to hold my weight.  It took all of my energy to speak.  "Donít do it Roman.  Donít do it."

            Whether it was my voice or the tears coming from Johnnyís fading eye, Roman unclenched his fist and rolled off of the Killer.

            The crowd began to disperse; by the time only a few were left, Johnny was still laying in the mud.  Jack was on the ground thirty feet away and he was still writhing in pain, his knee still pointing backwards.  Roman walked over to Jack and bent down.  Jack tried to wiggle away.

            "Hold still," Roman said.  He grasped Jackís distorted leg by the ankle with his right hand.  He put his left hand on Jackís thigh as if to steady it.  "This is going to be painful, but itís going to fix you.  Okay Jack?"

            Jack stopped crying, and nodded with fear.

            Roman gave a hard yank.  A loud pop came from Jackís knee, the same sound it made when it was dislocated.  Jackís leg was straight again, but he continued to bellow.

            Roman turned toward Scotty and Pick.  "Heather and I will take care of Tony.  Make sure he gets home safely."  Roman pointed toward Johnny, a blood and mud-soaked carcass.

 

VII

            Romanís door was already open when we got there.  The disaster area I expected to see did not exist.  The book pages were all picked up exposing the shine of the hardwood floors.  The splintered pieces of the wall were replaced and already painted.  Johnnyís artwork was already replaced with new transparent covering, every baseball card still intact and in its respective place.  Romanís anal-retentive nature got the best of him on his day off from school.  Not only did he build the perfect ambush at the Hollow, but he also played janitor and maintenance man at home.  Most people would have said there werenít enough hours in the day to accomplish both feats.

            Heather stopped me once we were inside the door and propped me up against the wall.  She took off my shoes, pulled my shirt over my head, and stripped me down, careful to get mud only in the bare minimal spots of the room.  In the end I stood in my boxers and socks.  Heather retrieved a warm washcloth from the bathroom.  She wiped the grime from my ears, eyes, and mouth.

            "Youíre still bleeding over your left eye," she said, looking concerned but unattached, like I was the last patient of the day.  "Youíve got a cut on your stomach too."

            She moved the cloth down to my stomach, and dabbed the blood.

            "Iím really hurting a little lower than that," I said smiling and patting my crotch lightly.

            Heather opened the palm of my hand and slapped the wet rag on it.  "Only a man could think of sex while heís on his last leg."

            I tried to laugh, but the slightest vibration made my ribs feel like they were going to pop out of my torso.  Heather helped me to the couch.

            Roman entered, followed by Carl who was carrying a tackle box.

            "I know fishing is good for a lot of things, but I donít think itís gonna help me this time," I said looking at Roman.

            Carl set the box on the table in front of me and opened it.  It was actually a tackle box, but instead of containing the usual hooks and lures, it was filled with thread, needles, and little cans.  Carl handed one of the needles and cans to Roman.  Roman walked off not asking what to do with them.  I heard the stove ignite.

            Carl laid me down on the couch and then bent down to his knees.  He took the rag out of my hand, and touched up the area directly over my left eyebrow.

            "The fuckers got at you pretty good, eh?" Carl asked.

            "Eh," I said back.

            "No worries, Carl will fix it," he said.

            Roman returned with a fire hot needle, four aspirin, a small glass, and a bag of frozen peas.  He gave me the medicine and the glass.  Carl took the needle.  Heather got the peas and held them up to her jaw.  I swallowed the aspirin and threw back the liquid in the glass, expecting it to be water.  The liquid in the glass was warm and tasted awful.  I fought off the sensation of gagging.  I looked in the glass to see the green tea.

            "Thatís fucking awful," I said.

            "Tell me about it," Heather pitched in.

            "Drink the rest of it now," Carl said as he threaded his needle.

            "Youíre not serious?" I blabbed.

            "Just do it," Roman said in an unsympathetic tone.

            "It gets better as you drink it," Heather said.

            "Yeah, because it eats away your taste buds," I said.  "What the hell is this shit anyway?"

            "A little of this, a little of that," Carl answered.

            I forced myself to finish it.

            "Now this will hurt a bit my friend, donít move," Carl said, opening his eyes wide as if to make sure they were working properly.

            Heather walked around to the end of the couch, and put both hands on the sides of my head.  My left eye was swollen shut, so I didnít have to close it.  Carl began to stitch the gash above it.  The needle wasnít as painful as I expected.  With my good eye, I could see sweat forming on the crevices of Carlís wrinkled forehead.  The perspiration was no doubt caused by his unwavering concentration.  After the eye, Carl stitched the cut on my stomach.

            He put the needle back in the fishing kit, and pulled out two cans and a small bowl.  Carl began to pour the contents of the cans into the bowl.  Yellow powder flowed from one container and dark blue from the other.  Roman bent down to the bowl and splashed a very small amount of water into it.  Carl produced a short flat wooden spoon and began to mix the ingredients together.  It reminded me of the spoon that came with the chocolate malt ice cream I used to eat at the ballpark when I was a kid.  Carl stirred.  Roman put in the droplets of water, but only at Carlís request.  The result was a dark green slime, much like the stuff that was put on Romanís arm.  This was thicker though.  Carl put a good amount of it on the flat spoon and then spackled it above my eye.  The shit burned.  Did I just drink that stuff?  I think the answer was yes, only a thinner, toned down version of it.

            After he was done spackling my eye and stomach, Carl stuck band-aids on both places.  He packed up all his tools into the tackle box and stood at the door.  He was some warped distortion of a doctor holding his little medical bag, visiting the house in the 1800s.

            "No worries," he said. "Good as new in a day."

            I wondered if that was the standard prognosis for all of his patients.

            Roman went to his dresser and grabbed a pair of sweats for me.

            "Who the fuck are you?" I asked.

            Roman looked at me like I was joking.

            "Iím serious; who are you?" I needed to know.

            "I donít understand the question?"

            "Yeah you do Roman," I said.  "You understand just about everything.  Youíre a human calculator.  Youíre a master mechanic.  Youíve got patience that makes Job look like a whining baby.  You read by the book, not the page.  You speak God knows how many languages.  You live by yourself even though youíre only in high school.  You never talk about your past.  And most important, you made beating the shit out of Johnny the Killeróa guy mind you that has never come close to losing a fight, a guy that is almost a half a foot taller than you and outweighs you by a good seventy poundsólook like a stroll in the fuckiní park.  People donít just wake up one day and do the things you do.  Weíre your friends.  We deserve some answers."

            The tone in my voice even scared me a little.  Roman could see I was serious.

            "Youíre right," he said. "People donít just wake up that way, not in their entirety anyway.  Some parts of who I am are best left alone."

            For the first time since meeting him, Roman was visibly shaken.  Heather noticed it immediately.  She put her free hand in his.

            "Look Roman," Heather said as she took the frozen peas from her face. "Tonyís right.  We are your friends.  And that means friends through the good and the bad. Friends no matter what.  Everybody makes mistakes.  Everybody has skeletons."

            "Skeletons." Roman repeated the word, the look on his face a smile but Iím sure it was meant to be a frown or maybe something worse.  "You have no idea.  But you are right.  We are friends, and in being so, you deserve to know the whole story."

            Roman, still grasping Heatherís hand, led her over to the couch.

            Heather sat down next to me; we were two kindergarteners about to be read a story just before naptime.  We never took our eyes off the janitor.  Roman gazed toward the front window

imagining and remembering, like it was being shown to him through old home movies. He began to tell his story.

 


 

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