A Halloween Short Story

October 30, 2019

 

 

We Are All Dead, But Especially Kenny Briggs

by Staci Layne Wilson

 

 

Things to Do Before I Die, by Elijah Goldschmidt

 

1. Ride a horse

2. Drink beer

3. Kiss a girl (Katie Fitzpatrick if possible)

4. Eat all the ice cream I want

5. Get the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle

6. Do the Cherokee Rock jump

7. Prank the President

8. Kick Bruce’s butt

 

      “But shouldn’t a bucket list have, like, ten things on it?” Kenny asked, handing the crumpled college-ruled notebook paper back to Elijah. “Also, are they in order? You don’t have much time left, you know. Maybe put the more important things first, just in case.”

      The boys sat cross-legged—they called it “Indian-style” to seem cooler—on a patch of grass just beyond the perimeter of Kenny’s backyard. Two empty Coca Cola bottles lay beside them. Kenny couldn’t decide if he wanted to set them up on the fence to practice his aim with his slingshot or if he wanted to take them in for the collective ten-cent deposit. Tough call.

      “What would you put first?” asked Elijah, scrutinizing his list. He didn’t see anything wrong with it. He looked back at his friend with an expectant frown.

      “Well, if I were alive, I’d put the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle first,” replied Kenny, running his hand over his short military haircut. He hated it and just couldn’t get used to the spiky feel of it on his palms or how exposed it made him feel. Dad had taken him to the barber that very morning. He loved his long hair, which he’d grown and styled to look just like David Cassidy’s, and he missed it already. Then again, he thought, what difference did hair-length make when you were dead?

      It was frustrating for Kenny that no one believed him when he told them he was dead. They had all kinds of arguments against it—Why am I talking to you, then? Why do you get hungry? How come you still want to go outside and play?—but he just knew it in his bones. His dead bones. Perhaps this was the afterlife, he thought, and the people who were with him just didn’t realize they were gone yet. If he wasn’t a spirit in heaven, then maybe he was zombie or a Dracula or something like that. But he knew he was dead.

      Being dead wasn’t without consequences, however. He still got his summer buzz-cut and he still got his whippings, followed by a splash of stinging horse liniment.

      That reminded him: “I know where we can find a horse,” he said.

      “See?” Elijah grinned. “My list is in the right order!” He popped his gum in triumph. “Where?”

      While Rebel Creek, Idaho wasn’t exactly New York City, it wasn’t a hick town either. It was a midsized suburb with a shopping center and a supermarket, a few restaurants, a coffee shop, two taverns, a motel and a post office. No Department of Motor Vehicles—that’s where Kenny’s mom worked, in the next town over, when Dad had met her—and no arcade. There were a few wooded areas surrounding their neighborhood of cookie-cutter tract homes and there was even a stream and a pond with tadpoles and frogs in it if they wanted to have a real adventure.

      It was late April and with the longer days and summer nights ahead, a small fair was being set up on the edge of town. Kenny was surprised Elijah hadn’t seen it. Of course, he had other things on his mind. Like his bucket list. “I’ll bet they’ll have pony rides, same as they did last year,” said Kenny, tugging at the hem of his polyester shirt.

      “Ponies?” Elijah almost choked on his gum. “I don’t want to ride a slow, stupid pony being led around by some loser. I want to ride a horse!”

      Kenny remembered something his mom used to say: If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. He never really understood what it meant until now. But he didn’t repeat the phrase to Elijah. Elijah was a whole year older than him (if Kenny even had an age; he wasn’t sure if he was still the age he was when he died or if he was the age he would have been if he’d lived) and so Kenny agreed. “Yeah, ponies are for little kids. But maybe there’s a real horse there somewhere. Let’s go see!”

      In truth he didn’t care all that much about horses, ponies, or any other type of barnyard animals. What he really wanted to see—and he knew it was kind of girly—were the Chinese sky lanterns, which were sort of a cross between a candle and a hot air balloon. They were so pretty, floating gently up into the night sky. His mom had loved them; she would squeeze his hand as they watched the colorful ascent and tell him to make a wish. They were an opening-night tradition at the fair.

      “I can’t, right now,” Elijah responded, pulling a face. “Fatso”—that was his nickname for his stepmother—“told me I have to rake the leaves in the yard before I can go anywhere.”

      “She’ll be smithereens by next week, so who says you have to obey her?” Kenny sneered with bravado while remembering he submitted to the dreaded Dad-ordered buzzcut that very morning.

      Everyone was saying there was a gigantic asteroid on a collision course with Earth but… what if there wasn’t? Oh, well. He’d learned it’s always better to err on the side of caution. “Nah, I get it. Meet at the fair an hour after it opens?”

      Elijah shrugged. “I guess. But I’m not riding a pony.” He had no time for compromises, that was for sure.

      “Maybe Katie’ll be there,” said Kenny brightly. “It’s opening night. Bet the whole class’ll be there.”

      “Yeah,” Elijah said, rising to his feet. He wore coastal cruisers with slick white soles, even though the nearest beach had to be hundreds of miles away.

      Kenny followed suit. “Secret handshake. Triple scoop,” he said, slapping his thighs.

      The boys mimed each other in their elaborate ritual, culminating in a dramatic thumb-wrestle. Kenny pinned Elijah’s thumb, laughing. “I win! Again!”

      “Whatever,” sighed Elijah. “Later, man.” He waved and made his way toward home.

      Kenny headed back into his house. The air-conditioning was on, which was a treat. His dad said the electricity bill didn’t matter anymore. Nothing much mattered anymore. (Except, apparently, the totally lame buzz-cut routine.) 

      Hank Briggs was sitting in the living room and the television set was on. The news. Again. Still. It seemed that’s all that was on now. All of Kenny’s favorite shows were pre-empted by Special Bulletins and tests of the Emergency Broadcast System. What a drag.

      “Hey, boy-o,” Hank said. He was wearing cut-off jean shorts, and that was all. He hadn’t gone to work that day. Or the day before. He probably wouldn’t be going back. “Grab me a beer, will ya?”

      Kenny ambled into the small kitchen, his flip-flops flopping. He put the two Coca Cola bottles on the counter and opened the fridge. There wasn’t much inside, but there was beer. He called out to his dad, “Can I have one too?”

      “No!” came the swift reply.

      “Can I have your empty bottle when you’re done, for the deposit?” the boy asked, dutifully taking the amber lager over to his father.

      “Sure,” Hank muttered absently, taking the cold one and knocking back a slug. He belched. He patted the sofa next to him. “Sit down. I want you to watch this.”

      Kenny rolled his eyes. “Do I have to?”

      “This is important, son.”

      “Okaaaaay,” Kenny conceded with a put-upon groan.

      It was a Special Bulletin about—surprise, surprise—the Chameleon Asteroid. Some scientist in a suit was standing in a desert dotted with satellite dishes and spiny metal towers and talking into a long, skinny microphone with a big fluffy top on it. Kenny thought it looked like an afro and imagined the man was talking into a shrunken head. The lower-third read: Dr. Percival Edwards, Ph.D., reporting from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

      The screen cut to the anchorman, Walter Williams, who was asking a question. “And tell us, Dr. Edwards—with your esteemed knowledge of astrophysics, stellar and planetary physics, galaxies, cosmology, interstellar medium and optics—what exactly is an asteroid and does the Big Blue really have only eight days left to prepare?”

      Kenny realized that Elijah’s eight-count bucket list was actually dead-on. (So to speak.) He pondered the word cosmology and wondered why astronomers had to know about makeup. Then he thought about what he could buy with fifteen cents in bottle returns. A comic book maybe, or cotton candy at the fair.

      He half-listened as the stuffy scientist reeled off his credentials, then finally came to the point. “Well, look at it this way, Walter. The first asteroid we know of was Ceres, discovered by Giuseppe Piazzi in 1801. There are currently over 600,000 known asteroids in our solar system. Most asteroids are found orbiting in the Asteroid Belt, a series of rings located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter…”

      Kenny zoned out again for a moment, picking at a hangnail. Hank elbowed him. The egg-head—who wears a three-piece suit in the desert?—was droning on, “Look at it this way, Walter: Asteroid Bennu, which is estimated to be larger than the Empire State Building, safely skims past the planet every six years or so. But astronomers know that the prospect of a skyscraper-sized asteroid slamming into Earth would be catastrophic. Impact would come at 30,000 miles per hour and carry power three times that of all nuclear weapons detonated throughout history. For comparison, the fission bombs used in World War II had an energy release of roughly 20 kilotons of TNT each and the most powerful nuclear weapon ever ignited, the Russian Tsar Bomba, had a yield of 50 megatons.” Dr. Poindexter or whatever his name was, was enjoying this, Kenny thought. “But Bennu is a peanut compared to what’s headed for us.”

      “And for those just tuning in,” said Williams, “Why are we calling this body the Chameleon Asteroid?”

      “This is where it gets interesting,” answered the scientist.

      Then there was a loud ZAP! And everything in the house went off.

      “Dammit,” Hank muttered, putting his beer on the end table. “Let me check the circuit-breaker.”

      Kenny seized his opportunity. “May I be excused?”

      “Sure,” said his dad, padding toward the basement.

      Kenny ran the carpeted stairs to his bedroom, taking them two at a time. His door was closed, just like he’d left it. Taped to the front was a crookedly scissor-cut sign showing the universal symbol for radiation in yellow and black, and a stern handwritten warning: Kenny’s Room. Do Not Enter. Toxic!!! He went in, shut the door, and flicked on his transistor radio. He prayed there would be some music playing. He was so sick of the news.

      Besides, he already knew why the Chameleon Asteroid was called that. Sort of. It was something about how the asteroid was disguised, or looked like something else, until it was so close to us that it was too late to do anything about it. Not that anything could be done anyway. Even President Nixon said that. Some people from NASA had a few ideas and a rich guy in the Middle East said he could explode it in the sky with his missiles. But then the electricity started to go haywire and other stuff that affected computers and calculations. Kenny didn’t fully understand all that. He was just trying to enjoy what little time was left, in spite of being dead and all. He tried to tell his dad and Elijah and one of his teachers that being dead wasn’t so bad and not to be scared, but nobody listened to him.

      Kenny fiddled with the radio dial until he heard faint, scratchy strains of “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” by Jim Croce. He sat on his bed, then fell back with his arms spread wide. He looked around his room. He would miss it. He had posters of cool cars, Charles Bronson, and The Partridge Family (Susan Dey was cute) on the walls. There was a mobile of the planets hanging from the ceiling. He had a shelf above his homework nook with his walkie-talkie—Elijah’s completed the pair—some Hardy Boys novels, a book on monster movies, a piece of quartz, and a miniature urn on it.

      The vessel contained his mother’s ashes. Well, some of them. The rest were in a crypt in a cemetery in California. That’s where she was from. After she died—it was cancer, two years ago—his dad gave him some of the ashes in that small bottle, which was made of delicate hand-blown glass. It was the nicest thing Hank had ever done for his son.

      But there were times, especially late at night and when the moon was full and cast light into his room from the window, that the bottle spooked Kenny. It cast a dark shadow against the wall that was shaped like a woman’s torso. When the curtain fluttered, the torso seemed to be moving. Kenny wondered what part of his mom was inside that bottle. Her ears? A finger? Couldn’t be much, the bottle was so small. Maybe it was her eyes… watching him sleep.

      Kenny had never been a good sleeper. He remembered his mom had said he was “colicky” as a baby. She said after he was born, she was terrified he would die of something called “SIDS” and that she would wake him up every twenty-minutes. Turned out, he later learned, SIDS stood for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Crib-death. Nobody knew how or why it happened.

      The night Mom passed away, Kenny realized she had been right all along: he was dead. He did not exist. Instead of being scary, he thought it was pretty cool. It was kind of like a super-power. Especially now. While everyone was all scared of the end of the world, Kenny knew nothing could harm him.

      He let his flip-flops plop to the shag carpet and turned to his side. “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” by Vicki Lawrence was playing when he heard the hum of the air conditioner and sound of the television return. He hoped the electricity would last through the evening, though he figured the fair’s rides were powered by generators anyway. Then he hoped his dad would let him go at all. Dad was iffy these days. Not as mean as he used to be, but he was unpredictable now. Sometimes he would reach out and hug Kenny for no reason at all. Or he’d yell at him. It was weird and disconcerting.

      Before the song ended the DJ came on. “Gentleman Jim here on K-AOK on the A.M.! And that was the vivacious Vicki Lawrence for all you southern boys and girls out there! Watch out for falling asteroids and don’t forget to set your clocks ahead one hour this weekend. That’s right! We lose an hour! They all matter now, don’t they, boys and girls! Ha, ha, ha! I’ll be back right after these important words from our sponsors!”

      Kenny sat up. He was getting hungry. At least his dad didn’t make him eat healthy. He had eaten more tofu—or “toe-food” as he called it—and alfalfa sprouts than he cared to remember when he was little. Sometimes he wondered why his parents ever got married. Dad was a typical small-town mechanic and mom was a bona fide San Francisco hippie. Oh, well. He didn’t think about that beyond the next growl of his stomach.

      He went downstairs and saw Hank was still parked on the sofa watching the news and into his second beer. At least now he was wearing a shirt.

      He paused in the doorway. “Dad, can I make macaroni and cheese… with hot dogs?”

      “Sure,” Hank said, not taking his gaze from the screen.

      “And can I go to the fair? It starts tonight.”

      “Sure.”

      “Dad…?”

      “What?” Hank snapped. “Can’t you see I’m watching this?”

      “Sorry. Do you want me to make some dinner for you, too?”

      “Nah,” Hank waved in his son’s general direction. “I’m good.”

      Kenny boiled a pot of water on the stove and when it was bubbling good, he poured the dry macaroni crescents from the box. Even though he stirred and stirred, the pasta still clumped together. He strained it, then returned it to the pot and added the bright orange powder, a clump of margarine, and a splash of milk. He mixed the ingredients, then added a cold frank from the fridge. He sliced it into pieces with a fork. He ate right there in the kitchen from the pot. Then, leaving the leftovers on the stove, he returned to his room.

      He looked out the window and saw that all the leaves in Elijah’s yard were raked up. He got his walkie and called his friend to confirm their rendezvous.

 

      Forty-five minutes later, Kenny and Elijah were walking under the arch that read Fun Fair, torn admission tickets in hand. Both boys had changed into their Sears Toughskins jeans and Keds sneakers. Kenny wore a plain baseball jersey, while Elijah was rocking his new Bruce Lee “Enter the Dragon” tee. They looked cool.

      There was a surprisingly large turnout for opening night, considering the world was ending and all. Then again, maybe folks just wanted to forget all that for a while. Songs were sung, popcorn popped, and barkers barked. The air carried the smells of cologne, goats from the petting zoo, and rotisserie hot dogs. There were games of chance, sideshows, prizes for the best flower, pie-eating contests, fried food, cotton candy and a few rides. There were swings, whirly-gigs, a baby rollercoaster, a Ferris wheel and a rickety six-horse carousel.     

      “Look!” Kenny pointed, nudging Elijah. “There’s your trusty… I mean your rusty steed!”

      “Shut up,” replied Elijah.

      “Come on, admit it. That was funny.”

      “Okay, it was.” Elijah stopped and looked around, getting his bearings. “Do you see anyone from school here?”

      The boys scanned the crowd. They saw a few older kids, but none of their classmates. Yet. They were bound to turn up. If Katie and Bruce were here, Elijah could check two to-dos off his list in one night. That would be awesome sauce.

      “What’s the plan?” asked Kenny, falling into step with his friend, who was already moving toward the nearest cotton candy concession. The cloying scent hung heavy in the air. Kenny pictured a vaporous pink hand beckoning them, just like in a Porky Pig cartoon. His mouth began to water. Then he remembered he forgot to take his bottles into the store for the deposit.

      Elijah stopped and looked around, scanning their surroundings. He was a man on a mission. His gaze honed in on the nearest beer bar and he saw exactly what he was looking for: an unattended brew. A guy was flirting with a girl, not even looking at his drink. In fact, his back was turned to it. Elijah elbowed Kenny, then brought his slightly spread index and middle fingers to his eyes and pointed at the target—just like in a war movie. Kenny stayed silent and nodded. The boys headed toward the lone lager in total stealth mode. When they got close, they paused. Was the man looking at them? Did he seem thirsty? Had the girl spotted them? No, the coast was clear. Elijah swooped in and with one fluid hand-grab, he snatched the beer and ran. Kenny was on his heels, eating his dust. “Hey!” they heard someone yell. “My beer! You little shits!”

      Weaving through the crowd, the boys finally came to a breathless stop underneath a short set of bleachers. Half the beer had been spilled, but there was enough left to drink. Kenny had tasted his dad’s beer before and while he didn’t like the taste of it, he still took sips whenever he could. “Drink it,” he said, “it’s good.”

      Elijah grinned. He took a swig, then coughed. “Yuck!” But that didn’t stop him from finishing almost all of it. “Want the last sip?” he asked.

      “And drink your backwash? No way,” Kenny said, pushing the proffered clear plastic cup back to his friend, who promptly swallowed the rest and belched. The boys laughed. Burps were hilarious, but not as funny as farts.

      Just then, twelve-year-old Katie peered down from her bleacher seat. She smiled and waved. “Oh, hi Elijah. Hi, Kenny.”

      Elijah turned crimson. Had Katie heard him burp? He smiled back, an awkward monkeylike grimace, and noticed she was wearing corduroy pants. No skirt to look up, while he had the best possible vantage point. Just his luck.

      “Hi,” Kenny said. “What’s happening?” He thought Katie was cute, but she was no Susan Dey.

      Katie’s head disappeared from sight, and the boys heard her muttering something to her parents. “Okay, but only for a half an hour,” her mom said.

      Katie ducked back into view. “Wait up, I’m coming down.”

      Within seconds, the trio was standing to the side of the bleachers deciding on their next move. Katie had her cat, a calico, with her. She took Miss Beepers everywhere with her, except for school. The cat was on a leash just like a little dog, and Kenny thought that was pretty cool. Katie was wearing Keds, skintight white cords and a pink sparkly shirt with a unicorn iron-on, which Kenny thought was kind of babyish. “Have you guys gone on the Ferris wheel yet?” Katie was asking.

      “No, Ferris wheels are for girls,” Kenny declared.

      “I’d like to ride it,” Elijah said, sidling closer to Katie. If they sat together in one of those little buckets, it might be the best time to steal a kiss. He was getting good at stealing.

      “Whatever,” Kenny said. “Let’s go.”

      A loud bray stopped them in their tracks. “Where are you going, weasels?”

      It was the class bully, Bruce Hazeldine.

      Bruce was a big kid, several inches taller and wider than his classmates. He had an ample gut, which was at odds with his delicate, even handsome, facial features. His white-blonde hair was worn long and slightly feathered at his temples. Behind his back, the boys had made up elaborate stories about him using his mother’s rollers. “I wonder if his toenails are painted red?” they’d giggled on more than one occasion. Never to his face, though. Still, their outward show of respect hadn’t saved them from being the targets of his wrath on a daily basis. Bruce had pulled Katie’s hair in class, tripped Kenny in the cafeteria while he was carrying a tray full of food, and he’d chased Elijah home several times—often brandishing a stick and threatening to wallop him with it.

      Katie took a step toward the bigger boy and jutted her nose up. She wasn’t afraid of Bruce. “We are going to ride the Ferris wheel.” She nodded toward Elijah and Kenny in a show solidarity. “Wanna come?”

 

 

      Bruce blinked. He hadn’t been expecting an invite. “Um,” he hemmed. “Uh, okay, sure.”

      Katie led the way, Miss Beepers on the leash at her side. The boys fell into step.

      Bruce started in with his customary bragging right away, sucking all the air out of the atmosphere. “My dad made us a bomb shelter in the basement,” he said. “My family is going to live. There’s only room for us,” he added with glee. He then went on to describe, in detail, how disaster-proof it was and how much food and drink they had. “I feel sorry for you,” Bruce smirked unapologetically. “They say when the ass-roid comes—get it? Ass, ’roid! Ha!—everyone will vaporize because it’s so hot. Before you die, your skin will melt and your blood will boil in your veins. Your hair will catch on fire and your eyes might even pop out!”

      Kenny was already dead, so he didn’t care. He figured Elijah would rather die than survive with Bruce and his redneck kin, and he had no idea how Katie felt… so he asked her. “What about you, Katie? Are you scared?”

      She glanced down at her cat. “I am. I feel sorry for the animals. My mom said it might not be as bad as they say, but… what if I die and nobody’s around to take care of Miss Beepers?”

      Bruce went on, “You know an ass-roid killed the dinosaurs, right? It was really hot and there were tidal waves and everything. All the water spilled off the planet and the whole sky was ashes. Then it got really cold and everything froze and died. Yup, you’re all dead. Especially you, Kenny Briggs. Can you die twice? Guess you’ll find out!” He laughed that bellow of his and kicked up more dust.

      “Well then, what kind of world are you and your family going to have, even if your shelter does keep you alive?” Katie speculated. “Sounds like you’ll come out to an Ice Age, with nothing and nobody around.”

      Bruce said nothing. Apparently, he hadn’t thought of that. “It’s probably not even real anyway,” he muttered, continuing to shuffle and kick at the fine dust as he walked.

      Elijah spoke for the first time. He was beginning to relax, considering no carnage had come his way yet—not even a single threat, for that matter. “There’s a chance it might not hit us. I saw it on the news.”

      Kenny hadn’t seen that, but like his mom used to say: Hope springs eternal.

      Bruce turned his attention to Kenny. “Hey weirdo. Don’t you think you’re dead? Don’t you think it’ll hurt anyway when you burn up and explode?”

      Kenny had considered this, of course. He still felt pain, which seemed like a raw deal. There weren’t all that many upsides to being dead. “Not as much as you’ll be hurting when your oxygen runs out in that bomb shelter of yours.”

      Bruce blinked again. “Do you really think that could happen?”

      He looked scared and Kenny felt bad. “No, I don’t think so,” he said.

      They walked a few strides in silence. “I’m sorry,” Bruce mumbled. Then he cackled, “Not sorry!” He slapped Kenny upside the back of his head, but not too hard. “Jarhead!” he jeered.

      Elijah saw his opportunity to fulfill #8 on his list. “Hey!” he said, perhaps emboldened by the three swallows of liquid courage. “Don’t hit my friend.” Then, before he could talk himself out of it, he pushed Bruce with both hands.

      Bruce stumbled. He righted himself, then looked at Elijah with pure rage.

      “Oh, shit!” Elijah ran off as fast as his legs would carry him.

      “Pussy,” shouted Bruce, taking off after him. “You’d better run!”

      Kenny and Katie stood, looking at each other. Miss Beepers wended her way between Kenny’s feet, wiping her feline scent on his new Sears jeans. The kids shrugged and continued toward the Ferris wheel, which had just been lit up and stood like a beacon against the dusky twilight sky.

      As they walked, Katie took Kenny’s arm. He tensed up, not knowing what she meant by that. She didn’t “like” him, did she? If Elijah lived through Bruce’s beatdown, he’d surely be pissed if he saw this. Kenny shook himself free. The last thing he needed was to lose his best friend before the end of the world—and definitely not over a stupid reason like a girl.

      Katie didn’t seem to mind the brush-off. She held the cat’s leash in one hand and twisted the ends of her long chestnut hair in the other. “Kenny,” she began tentatively.

      Just then a balloon popped, startling them both. A very warm breeze kicked up, seemingly out of nowhere. Throughout the fair, the lights flickered. But then they came back on, and Katie went on. “Is it true you’re dead? I mean, like, it’s not just, um, like you’re crazy? Because you don’t seem crazy to me.”

      Kenny hadn’t told many people he was dead, but of course word traveled fast in a small town. His dad knew about it first and while Kenny realized the revelation coming so quickly after Mom’s funeral may not have been the best in terms of timing, Kenny thought his dad was pretty mean about it. He had gotten whippings before—with dad’s belt or a hand-picked willow switch—but never like the ones he got after refusing to say he was making it all up. The worst was when Dad actually buried him in the backyard to show him what it’s “really like to be dead.” It was just a shallow grave of leaves, but still.

      That was within the first year of his demise. Once Dad realized that punishment didn’t have any effect, he sent Kenny to a child psychologist. At first, Kenny thought it sounded funny: like a child who was a psychologist. But then he learned it was no laughing matter. Really boring, in fact. So boring, he wanted to cry. After a few appointments, Dad didn’t want to pay anymore and he and Kenny had simply agreed to disagree on his life status.

      “I’m not crazy,” he told Katie. “I’m dead. It’s not so bad.”

      “Okay,” said the girl. “I’m glad you’re not crazy.”

      Kenny wanted to change the subject. “Elijah likes you.”

      “I know,” she said with a slight smile.

      Kenny didn’t know what else to say, so he said nothing. Katie was okay, for a girl with a cat on a leash. They walked in companionable silence until they got to the back of the short line to ride the Ferris wheel.  

      As they got closer, they were able to see the faces of the riders. Most looked as though they hadn’t a care in the world. But maybe they looked a little too happy. Kenny had seen a lot of reactions to the news of the Chameleon Asteroid’s impending impact. Some people, like his dad, dithered between depression and duty to keep things going just in case it was some horrible miscalculation. Others forced cheer, while some fell into depression. Some refused to believe it, while others declared the Bible and Nostradamus had predicted this apocalypse all along. He heard that one of his teachers, Mrs. Schultz, had left her husband and took a plane to Europe. Two people in town, that he knew of, committed suicide. Overall, people were nicer to each other. Well, except for Bruce Hazeldine.

      As if on cue, Kenny heard Elijah shouting. Uh-oh.

      He and Katie looked up in amazement to see their scrawny friend astride a magnificent white steed, galloping right at them!

      It was more like a slow trot, but it was still pretty impressive. Elijah was bouncing all over the animal’s bare back and he tightly clutched handfuls of mane. But he was riding a horse! Kenny was impressed.

      Elijah pulled on the reins, bringing his mount to an abrupt halt. The horse’s mouth gaped open in protest of the bit. Katie picked Miss Beepers and held the cat protectively. Those stamping hooves looked like cat-crushers to her. Kenny stepped forward and took a hold of one of the thick nylon reins. The horse jerked its head up, spooked. The whites of his eyes showed. Elijah slid gratefully to the ground, then patted the horse’s neck. “Whew!” he sighed.

 

 

      “What happened?” said Kenny and Katie in unison. Kenny let go of the reins and the horse started nibbling at a rather tough-looking patch of crabgrass.

      Elijah was wiping horse hair off his behind. “Well, it’s the craziest thing,” he said, getting in line. “I was hauling ass and,” he paused, glanced at Katie and said, “I was looking for a good place to fight Bruce, when I realized he wasn’t behind me anymore. So then I saw the pony rides. And there was this guy holding a real horse by the bridle, that horse,” he pointed at the still-grazing gelding. “He works here and he was um, what do you call it, supervising. So I just asked if I could sit on the horse. He said no at first, but then, well… you saw.”

      “Did he say you could take the horse?” Katie asked, eyes narrowed. “Did you steal him?”

      “More like borrowed,” Elijah said. “These things are like homing pigeons. He’ll go back as soon as he eats that grass.” They advanced a few more steps in line. “Have you seen Bruce?”

      “No,” replied Katie, setting the calico back to the ground. “We thought you were a goner.”

      “I didn’t,” Kenny interjected.

      “Well, anyway,” Katie went on, looping her free arm around Elijah’s. “You’re just in time to ride the Ferris wheel.”

      They looked up at it, its soft, twinkling lights seeming to grow brighter as dusk vanished into night. Calliope music played from somewhere in the center of the circle and there was a din of voices as people enjoyed what would more than likely be their final fair. Katie would have to get back to her parents at the bleachers after this, so Kenny hoped Elijah would get his kiss. It was all ending too soon.

      The ride made one more revolution, then it was their turn. The candy apple red bucket came to a swinging stop near the ground and the attendant helped Katie into her seat. The teenager looked at the pet cat but didn’t protest. The rules could be broken. Elijah settled in next to Katie. The attendant gestured Kenny to the opposite seat but he shook his head. “I’ll take the next bin,” he said. But it was the last seat to be filled, so he took it.

      As the ride creaked into its first revolution Kenny said to Elijah, “So that’s how many on your bucket list?” His friend shot him a “shut up” glare in reply. Oops.

      “What’s a bucket list?” asked Katie, holding Miss Beepers on her lap, stroking the cat’s orange, black and white patchwork coat absently.

      Elijah winced. “It’s stupid.”

      “I want to know,” the girl persisted. Then she smiled. The sweet kind, when you don’t show your teeth.

      Elijah sighed. “Well, it’s a list of things to do before I, uh… die. You know, kick the bucket.”

      Katie put a hand on his shoulder. Kenny looked away.

      Elijah laughed hollowly. “It’s stupid.”

      “Bet it’s not,” Katie said. “I don’t even have one.”

      “What would you put on it?” Kenny asked, hoping to shift the conversation in another direction and correct his blunder.

      Katie said some girly things about loving her family more and praying and letting Miss Beepers have all the chicken she wanted. “I guess I’m already doing those things,” she said with realization. “But there is one more thing.” With that, she leaned over and gave Elijah a kiss on his cheek.

      Kenny examined his shoelaces.

      Nobody said anything for a long moment. “That was one of the things on my list,” Elijah admitted, blushing.

      Kenny thought his friend would be happy but he saw Elijah blinking back tears. “I don’t want to die,” the boy whispered faintly. Then Katie started crying. But she was tough for a girl wearing a unicorn on her tee-shirt, and so she wiped her face with her sleeve and quickly stopped. Kenny didn’t cry because it didn’t seem like a very dead thing to do.  

      The Ferris wheel paused when they reached the top, swaying gently in the night breeze. The children looked down. It was an amazing vantage point. They could see half the town, such as it was. They could see how small the fair really was. There was a vast, grassy vacant lot to one side which was just starting to bloom with spring flowers. Kenny guessed they’d never grow now. Only a few days left. But maybe more… or less. Nobody could give an exact date but of course with mathematical calculations, the scientists could give good guesses. Their guesses all pretty much agreed it would be less than a week until the world ended. The Ferris wheel began its descent.

      “What’s that?” Katie asked, gesturing to the general area of Kenny’s groin. Kenny wondered if it was a trick question. “There’s something sticking out of your front pocket.”

      Kenny patted at his right hip. “Oh, that…” He hadn’t meant for anyone to see the urn. “It’s nothing.”

      “No it isn’t,” Katie insisted. She could be pretty annoying when she wanted to. Girls were so nosy.

      Elijah was cocking his head, looking. “Is that your mom?”

      Katie’s expression was quizzical.

      Kenny slowly pulled the narrow glass bottle, about the size of a perfume container, from his pocket. “Yeah. It’s some of my mom’s ashes.”

      “Why?” asked Katie. Then she quickly said, “I’ll bet you miss her, huh?”

      Kenny shrugged. “I guess.”

      Their car came to a stop on the ground, and the attendant helped them exit. The first thing they did was to look for Bruce, but he was nowhere to be seen. With a collective sigh of relief, the trio headed back toward the bleachers.

      Katie’s parents were watching a concert, holding hands and maybe even crying. Kenny thought so but couldn’t be sure. He watched as Katie clambered up the wooden steps, Miss Beepers leaping nimbly in tow. She joined her parents, and waved goodbye to her friends. Her mother said something to her, and Katie nodded. Then the girl went to the far end of the bleachers and leaned down, “Come here,” she called.

      Kenny and Elijah approached. Katie was holding two one-dollar bills out to them. “My mom said it’s for ice cream.”

      Elijah was incredulous. “Ice cream? How did she know?”

      “Know what?” Katie asked as Elijah took the bills.

      “Nothing,” said Elijah. He realized his bucket list probably wasn’t all that unique. What eleven-year-old boy didn’t want lots and lots of ice cream? “Thanks, Mrs. Fitzpatrick,” he called, tilting his head up.

      “Thank you,” Kenny echoed.

      Katie’s mom said they were very welcome, then turned her attention back to her husband and the live music.

      Katie leaned down further and although she was poised above Elijah’s head, he stood up on his tiptoes and they kissed. On the lips. Kenny grimaced, looking away. Good thing the world is ending, he thought, I can’t take too much more of all this mushy stuff.

      A few minutes later, the boys were enjoying enormous scoops of handmade chocolate-malt ice cream on waffle cones. They walked aimlessly, no longer worried about Bruce or anything else. There wasn’t much to talk about, but there was some conversation about how the rest of Bruce’s to-do list could be accomplished.

      “The Cherokee Rock Jump should be last,” Kenny offered. “Just in case it kills you.”

      “Right,” Elijah agreed.

      Kenny knew Elijah wasn’t scared of the jump; he just hadn’t done it before because before he didn’t care about it. It was something the big kids did. Cherokee Rock was a short walk from Inspiration Point, where teenagers parked and fogged up their car windows. But the boys agreed that Elijah was a big kid now, especially after checking off #2 and #3 on his list.

      Kenny decided right then and there that he was scared of the jump. It was off the rocky point of the kind of cliff they made in the “Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner” Saturday morning cartoons. Well, maybe not that tall. But pretty tall, and the drop went right into a deep watering hole that was kept full by three running creeks. Still, he’d go along with Elijah for moral support. Maybe he’d even take a Polaroid, even though he had only four pictures left in the camera.

      Once they’d relegated the jump to last on the list, they discussed strategy for the rest.

      “Pranking the President is an easy one,” Elijah said. “The address to the White House is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. Everybody knows that. So, I’m going to send him something.”

      Kenny raised his eyebrows. “Like what, a letter-bomb?”

      “No, of course not. Where would I get one of those? No, I have these scratch-and-sniff stickers that say they smell like roses and bubblegum, but when you scratch them they really stink like skunks and garbage and stuff like that!”

      “That’s perfect,” Kenny decided. He pictured Tricky Dick’s ski-slope nose wrinkling in disgust and chuckled. “Okay, so what about getting an Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle? Does it really have to be brand new?”

      Elijah considered. “Maybe not, but I don’t want an old used-up one with busted tires or anything.”

      The hard part about this particular bucket list item was the fact that there was no toy store in Rebel Creek. The nearest Playtime Bonanza was in Boise and it was quite a trek. The boys didn’t drive, and they were pretty sure their parents wouldn’t make the journey for a toy motorcycle. Hitchhiking was an option. They decided to put #5, #6, and #7 off till tomorrow. And they figured that #8, kick Bruce’s butt, was mostly fulfilled since Elijah did indeed stand up to the bully and no one had seen him since. Kenny almost asked if Elijah had come up with more things to do but remembered something his mom used to say: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. His friend seemed satisfied with his list, so Kenny didn’t say anything about it.

      Elijah smiled and finished the last bite of his waffle cone. “I’m not so scared to die anymore,” he announced, wiping his sticky fingers on his jeans.

      Kenny finished his cone as well but said nothing. He hadn’t told Elijah, or anyone, but he had a bucket list too. Well, there was only one item on it, so he was not entirely sure if that qualified as a list. But there was something he wanted to do, and he had to do it tonight.

      It was getting late and was dark enough for the ceremonial sky-ride of the Kongming lanterns. They were gathered and lit at the same time and place every year—toward the exit of the Fair which showed off a great array of prize roses.

      Kenny remembered back to two years ago when Mrs. Schultz had won for a great big white rose with blue edges. He wondered if she was as happy now as she had seemed then. Her husband had been there with her and had given her a big kiss and squeezed both of her hands in his after the blue ribbon was pinned to the large terracotta planter that housed her rosebush. He didn’t remember now what the husband looked like, but he conjured up an image of the man moping around alone at home waiting for the world to end with no one there to squeeze his hand.

      The boys headed in a straight line for the opposite end of the entrance, pausing only once in a while to watch people trying their luck at games of chance. They didn’t talk, as each was lost in his own mindscape. While Elijah’s step was light and springy, Kenny’s had turned into a trudge. What if I’m not really dead? He wondered for the first time in a long time. I want to live.

      Before long, Kenny and Elijah made it to the place where the lanterns were. They stood in line for their lanterns, which were forest green this year. Last year they were yellow, and the year before that they were pearl-white. A woman was handing them out, along with a single matchstick, as she explained that green is the color of life, renewal, nature, and harmony. It was the most hopeful color she could think of for this year’s ceremony.

 

 

      The dainty lamps were made of oiled rice paper and were attached to a bamboo frame; within that frame was wedged a slender white candle. When the wick was lit, the housing would illuminate with a soft glow and slowly rise into the sky with its comrades, making a dramatic, yet gently beautiful display of suspended, colored light before disappearing into the dark.

      Kenny, remembering how much his mom had loved this annual tradition, decided that it was only fitting her ashes went with his lantern into the night sky. Surreptitiously, he removed the bottle from his pocket and, without anyone—not even Elijah—seeing, Kenny sprinkled the silty cremains onto the waxy finish of the lamp. Most of them stuck. He then said a silent prayer and lit the candle.

      One by one, the shimmering, buoyant lanterns rose and ascended. Kenny felt a tear slide down his cheek. A warm hand slipped into his. At first, he thought it was Elijah trying to do their secret handshake. But then he realized, or at least imagined, it was his mother saying thank you. He looked up, watching with wonder as his lantern caught fire.

      There was an odd emerald blaze up high. The inky April sky was dotted with radiant green for a few moments, then fully filled with the color as the Chameleon Asteroid blasted through Earth’s fragile atmospheric barrier.

      It was a light brighter than Kenny ever could have imagined. His mother squeezed his hand and the tears in his eyes dried as the heat consumed him. He made his final wish.

      And then everyone was dead… but especially Kenny Briggs.

 

 

 

 

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