by Benjamin D’Alessio
1997–98: First Grade
We moved to Short Hills on June 29, 1997, my seventh birthday. Our house stood out from the other homes on West Road because it was smaller or less ornate, or both. But my mother liked that. “At least we won’t get robbed,” she would say, defending the brick split-level as if she had built it herself. But it was a good house, and I was happy there, at least for a while, because next door lived two brothers who quickly became my close friends.
George and Karl didn’t live in a house like mine. Theirs was big and imposing and sat on top of rolling hills that cascaded down to the cobblestone gutter separating the lawn from the street. Karl told me that the old woman who used to live in our house would give him cookies and let him play the piano that stood by the windows overlooking the backyard. We didn’t have a piano, or cookies, and my father only let us drink soda if it was a “party.” But at Karl’s house his mother had drawers of cookies and candies and a stocked refrigerator of Dr. Brown’s and Stewart’s root beer; our refrigerator had 2% milk and a plastic container with Italian Water written across it in red Sharpie. Karl’s house was my refuge. I would always make sure to rinse my mouth out before going home, because the sugar film on my teeth would leave me with a guilty conscience when my father would ask, “So what did you do at the Geigers’?”
Karl Geiger was a year younger than me, and George was four years older, closer to my brother’s age. My brother—or half-brother—Tony lived with his mother in Florham Park and would visit every other weekend. When we lived in our old town, I would cry every other Sunday afternoon when my father would drive Tony forty-five minutes back to his mother’s. Forty-five minutes away for a six-year-old might as well have been Budapest. But Short Hills was much closer to Florham Park, and Tony spent more and longer weekends with us, staying up late playing SEGA Genesis and Super NES in the basement.
When school started in September, Karl and I attended Glenwood Elementary, consistently ranked one of the top elementary schools in the country—or that’s what I’d overhear when my mother would complain about leaving our old town for Short Hills: “It better be the best, considering the taxes we’re paying to live here.” Glenwood was far more diverse than my old school. I met Chinese kids and Ukrainian kids and Indian kids and Pakistani kids, and we even had a student from Lithuania—a land I pictured as mystical and full of wonder and magic. There was a kid from Africa named Silas, but he was white, which confused me. He said there were a lot of white people in NAM-I-BIA, at least where he lived. Glenwood also had Jews. In my old town, Jeremy was the only Jewish boy in the school and he was my best friend. But at Glenwood I met three boys named Jeremy, and they were all Jewish! After my first day of school, I called my mom at work and told her the good news and asked if Jeremy’s family knew these Jeremys. “They don’t all know each other, honey,” she said.
There were also the WASPs, as my brother called them. They were the families of “Old Short Hills.” I suppose Karl and George were technically WASPs too, but they didn’t look like it. There were the Barriston brothers, the McAllister girls, Avery Burnham, Bradford Knight (who went by Brad, despite his mother’s protestations), Maine Ogden, Paxton Shaffer, and Pierce Stone. I hated Pierce Stone.
At school I had five different colored marble notebooks, one for each subject: red was social studies, blue was math, green was language arts, yellow was science, and purple was for Spanish. Plus I had one more notebook, a plain black one for personal use. I was excited to write stories about knights and dragons and orcs, and then make drawings to match those stories. And Karl would help. But I couldn’t write yet. So when Ms. O’Donnell took too long asking about healthy choices for breakfast, I raised my hand and asked when she would teach us how to write. Before she could answer, Pierce Stone yelled from the other side of the group circle, “You can’t write, Ferraro. You can’t even read!”
I wriggled and slumped into my knees, which were pretzeled in the tortuous sitting position we called “Indian style.” The sweat from the creases of my palms dampened the edges of the blue-lined paper.
“Victor, why don’t you give me an example of a healthy breakfast food?” said Ms. O’Donnell.
“How about… pancakes and eggs and…” I started.
Before I could finish, Ms. O’Donnell cut me off. “No, no, no. Those aren’t healthy foods. Someone help him out.”
I was mortified. I couldn’t read and I couldn’t name a healthy breakfast food. I didn’t raise my hand for a month.
On Sundays after church we would pile into my father’s wood-paneled station wagon and drive through the sidewalkless streets of Old Short Hills—I felt like a tourist in my own town. My mother would point from the passenger seat and say “Oh, Tony, look at that one. Look at that one,” and “You won’t see people like Mr. Sci-Fi here.” Mr. Sci-Fi was one of our neighbors in our old town who didn’t maintain his property so the government wouldn’t raise his taxes.
Tony was my father’s name and my grandfather’s name, along with my brother’s, of course. But my great-grandfather was Gerry, or Gerrardo, and he came from the old country and settled in West Orange, New Jersey as a barber. He had thirteen children; my grandfather was the youngest. All throughout Essex County there were Ferraros, or Ferraros who married DiLeas or DeMarcos or Cavallos, many of whom I had never met.
“We come from Avellino,” my father would say. “Very poor, from Southern Italy. They look down on us, the Northern Italians do. My grandfather, Gerry the Barber, was at a wedding, and they called it off because the families discovered one side was from the North and the other was from the South. Can you believe that? Don’t forget where you come from, boys,” he would say, looking at us through the rearview mirror for an uncomfortable amount of time. “Brit, how are you doing back there? Do you hear me? Tell us where our family comes from.”
Britney, my younger sister, had autism and barely spoke. She clutched her stuffed horse and didn’t respond. She never left the house without Marlene.
“Brit,” my father said, again adjusting the rearview mirror so he could see us in the infamous third row of the station wagon, where the two benches faced each other and always made me carsick. “Britney, I asked you a question. Where does our family come from?” She clutched Marlene tighter.
“Britney, baby, where does Daddy’s side of the family come from?” attempted my mother.
“Britney, Nana talked to you about this last weekend.”
“Alright, enough, Tony. Oh! Look at that one,” she said, pointing to a new-age Asian-fusion mammoth like it was the Eiffel Tower.
“Do we still have my mother’s sauce from last weekend?” he asked.
“Yes, and your sister Marie dropped off some more yesterday.”
“When was that?”
“You were at soccer or field hockey. I don’t know. I never know where you are.”
My father was the athletic director at Millburn High School. It was why we moved in the first place, so he wouldn’t fall asleep at the wheel on the ride home.
Millburn Township is divided by Short Hills and Millburn itself, and both funnel into the same high school.
“Oh, that’s great. Hear that, Vito?!”—my father frequently Italianized my name—“You can take some of Nana’s sauce with you to school tomorrow. And some sausage or braciole. Do we have any braciole left, hun?”
“I don’t want to take any braciole,” I said.
“What was that?!”
“Tony, turn the radio down.”
“I don’t want to take any braciole to school!”
“What?! Why? You love Nana’s sauce and braciole!”
“I swear I could eat that sauce with a spoon,” she said.
“I just don’t wanna.”
“Victor, what happened at school?” said my mom as she maneuvered her head to get a look at a stucco monstrosity with a terra-cotta roof.
“Italians live there,” said my father.
“How do you know that?”
“The fountain in the front yard is always a giveaway.”
“Huh? Well then, what do you want for lunch? And stop playing with your hair.”
I had developed the habit of curling and swirling any hair that grew behind my ear or sprouted out from my cowlick—surely it would’ve been my tell had I been an escaped and unrecognizable fugitive from the Château d’If. At times it seemed that breaking me of the habit was my parents’ reason for existing, as if they had signed a blood vow to a deity.
“I don’t know… just not braciole.”
“Sheesh, alright, more for me,” my father said as he turned the radio back up to listen to the Giants pregame analysis.
The truth was I loved braciole, but the last Monday I brought in leftovers from Sunday dinner, Pierce Stone said I looked like I was eating a “brown penis” as I bit into the meat. He even got up from the lunch table and counted the red dots of Nana’s sauce lining my Big Dog t-shirt like a Neapolitan constellation. “Five! Wait… six, seven… nine! Nine spots!”
In class, Michaela Silves walked over to me and pulled a tissue out of her backpack. She licked the part that covered her finger and wiped at the sauce stains.
“Thanks,” I said
“It’s hard to be new,” she said as she dabbed more vigorously at the stains.
“It’s okay. My mom will get them out,” I said, slowly sliding back in my chair.
She licked and blotted again, and while looking down at the shirt, said, “Victor, I think that we should have a playdate.”
“A playdate. You can come over to my house.”
I had never heard of such a thing.
“We will be alone… It will be fun!”
“No way!” I kicked back the chair, and it slid across the floor on its tennis-ball coverings. “I don’t think so, Michaela. I’m sorry, but I can’t,” I said, letting her down easy.
“But Victor…” She spotted Ms. O’Donnell across the room and lowered her voice. “I want to kiss you.”
“Eghh!” I jumped up from the seat.
“Victor, are you okay?” asked Ms. O’Donnell, looking up from a masterpiece finger painting on which Andrius Varnas was putting the finishing touches. “Do you need Mrs. Lydell to walk you to the bathroom?”
“He doesn’t have to poop, Ms. O’Donnell,” started Pierce Stone, leaning back in his chair. “Michaela just wants to suck his face!”
“I’m a girl. I like him,” Michaela pleaded.
I thought I was going to puke.
“I know, Michaela, and that’s fine. But you can’t kiss Victor here.”
“That’s why I asked him for a playdate! Ahhhhhhhhhhhh!” I thought her screech would shatter the windows.
“Calm down. Sit and paint. Victor, your mother always puts a second shirt in your backpack. Go change in the bathroom.”
I went to the bathroom under the auspices of the classroom aide, Mrs. Lydell—any excuse to escape Michaela’s developed licentiousness. Mrs. Lydell was a round woman with hair dyed dark red, which stuck out like she had been electrocuted. Her lipstick was always smudged in the corner of her mouth, and it was that same dark red, like she had selected them both from a swatch.
The first bathroom stall was occupied. The second and only remaining stall had urine covering the seat—there is a spot reserved in Hell for those who don’t clean up after they tinkle on the seat. I pulled off my t-shirt and put on the one my mom had put in my bag for these frequent mishaps. It was too short; it barely covered my waist.
“Are you pooping or peeing?” asked the occupier of the stall next to me.
“I’m not poopin’ or peein’,” I said. “I’m changing my shirt.”
“’Cause I got sauce on it.”
“Oh, okay.” He let out a fart.
“Gross… Wait… Karl?”
“Karl, whatcha doin’ in here?”
I lowered my head until I could see Karl’s light-up Ninja Turtles shoes barely touching the floor.
“Then why are ya sittin’ down? That’s how girls tinkle.”
“I thought I had to poop, but instead I’ve just been farting. Do you even know how girls pee?”
“Yeah, from their butts!”
“Hey, Karl,” I started, attempting to swallow my laughter, “what shirt are you wearing?”
“My Warcraft shirt.”
“That’s a good one.”
“I like it.”
“Is it big?”
“What do you mean?”
“Is it big on you?”
“Karl, we need to trade shirts.”
“Because I got sauce all over mine and this one is too small.”
“But I don’t want a shirt with sauce all over it.”
“No, not that one. My mom packed me another, but it’s too small for me.”
“Well… what’s on it?”
“A T. rex.”
“Hmm… what color is it?”
“The shirt or the T. rex?”
“I like red.”
“Come on, Karl, please? We can trade back before your mom picks us up.”
“Yeah?! Okay, great. Thanks so much.”
“Just don’t get any sauce on it.”
“You know girls don’t pee out of their butts… right?”
After school, Karl and I would wait for his mom to pick us up in her white ’96 Jeep Cherokee. We weren’t permitted to stand on the grass while we waited. Fifth-graders who wore bright orange sashes enforced this puritanical rule; they were called “Safeties.” Denying us six- and seven-year-olds access to that lush green lawn only fed our fervor. When we saw the Jeep approaching the school, Karl and I would dart out across the grass like it was a battlefield, screaming our heads off like berserking orcs. Max Barabander and Eldrige Barriston (the eldest Barriston brother) would chase us until they, too, reached the grass, but they wouldn’t cross and instead would yell, “Just wait until tomorrow, Vic and Karl!” from the blacktop that wrapped around the school. But they could never catch me. Even at seven I was fast enough to evade many of the fifth-graders, especially when I had a head start. Karl was another story. He was short and pudgy, and when he ran his backpack would pop up and down. It was never fully closed, so his notebooks were always on the verge of falling out.
We usually stopped for an after-school snack: Burger King, Taco Bell, or Wendy’s were the typical choices. Man, how I could devour that garbage, I mean really throw it back—and I wouldn’t gain a pound, either. I was a twig. I hated when family would tell me that too: “Vito, you’re skin and bones. Ya gotta eat!”
I ordered the classic chicken sandwich at Burger King—that succulent breaded monster—and met Karl and Mrs. G at the booth after filling my cup with Pepsi. Mrs. G knew about my father’s no-soda rule, but she didn’t tell him. I liked that about Mrs. G.
Before I could tear into the beast, a couple of guys from my class raced over to our booth, practically knocking each other over to get the first word in. It was Paxton Shaffer and Lenny Hooker.
“Hey guys,” I said, tucking my sandwich to the side as if they had come to steal it.
“We’re playing kickball this weekend behind the school. You guys want to play?”
Karl had barely taken a breather from his sack of golden fries. He chomped on them with robotic precision—three chomps per fry.
“I think I can, but I have to ask my dad,” I said.
“Karl?” asked Lenny.
“Karl, answer your friend,” said Mrs. G.
“Yeah. Sure. Okay,” Karl said while picking the pickles off his Whopper.
Our dinner table was forest-green and had indents and etches all over it. Sometimes when I put off eating my broccoli or spinach, I would dig my nail into these etches and run my fingertips along the grooves. I sat at the table while my mother was on the phone; the creaking plastic spiral cord followed her around the kitchen like a sand-colored vine, getting caught in those knots that reminded me of the loops on a roller coaster. The cord was not quite as bright as my mother’s blond hair. I don’t know what her real hair color is; I’ve never seen it.
I was too hungry for my mom to finish getting dinner ready, so I snuck over to the cabinet and pulled down a jar of fruit cocktail from the shelf. From my knees, I fished out the maraschino cherries with my index finger and popped them into my mouth. I heard the garage door clink open and then close with a thud!
“Where’s my family!” my father sang as he walked up the stairs.
“Hold on, hold on, Mom. Tony! Can you get Britney?!”
“Something smells good,” Dad continued his melody.
“Brit!” Mom called. “Victor, go get your sister… are you eating? What are you eating?”
I twisted the jar shut and darted out of the kitchen and into the dining room we only used for special occasions. The china and rows of fancy glassware vibrated with every step.
“Hellooo, my friend,” my father sang as he put out his hand for a low five.
“Not now, Dad. I need to get Britney for dinner,” I said as I sprinted by him.
“Where’s ya mother? On the phone, I see, being a yacyadonne.” (Translation: chitchatter, blabbermouth, rambler, one who prates.)
“No running in the house!” my mother yelled with the phone tucked behind her ear.
Britney was in the basement watching Pocahontas and holding Marlene.
“Come on, Brit, it’s time for dinner.”
“Come on, Brit, let’s go.”
“No. I won’t. I just won’t do it.”
I hit the pause button on the VCR. She launched from the couch and pointed at me with her eyes closed. “I’ll have him hanged for this!”
“No movie talk!” I yelled back. “Mom says you have to use your own words, no movie talk.”
“It would’ve been better if we never met. None of this would’ve happened.”
“Britney! Get upstairs for dinner… fine.” I pretended to start going toward the stairs but made a quick snatch for Marlene and sprinted away.
“Hey! That’s… that’s mine!”
We were having stuffed peppers for dinner, and the smell of cheese melting into rice stuck in every corner of the house. I liked when the pepper itself was a little burnt; I ate that part. If it wasn’t a little burnt, I wouldn’t eat it.
“Vito, put away the cranberry juice and make yourself a glass of chocolate milk. Don’t you want to grow up big and strong?” asked my father.
Like an inmate with toilet-bowl hooch, I had concocted the best alternative to my soda-less occupancy of the West Road split-level: saturated chocolate milk. The key was to swirl the milk as you drank it. This picked up the settled sediment, making each sip better than the last.
I shoveled the powder into the milk with cartoonish fury.
“Okay, high-lows. Okay, okay, Vito, that’s enough Ovaltine. Come sit down so we can do high-lows.”
“Oh, come on, Tone, not tonight.”
“Yes. We do it every night. Brit, would you like to go first? What was your ‘high’ and what was your ‘low’?”
“Britney… come on. What was your ‘high’ and what…”
“I’m going to play kickball this weekend,” I said.
“Oh? With who?” asked my father.
“Paxton and Lenny and Karl… and this kid Andrius. He’s from Lith-U-A-NIA.”
“Oh, sounds exotic,” said my father.
“Mom, have you been to Lith-U-AN-IA?”
“No, honey, but I’ve been to Sweden and Norway… and Denmark. They aren’t that far… I don’t think.”
“Is it nice there?” I asked, struggling to get as little pepper with my rice as possible.
“Where? Denmark? It’s nice. A bunch of socialists, but it’s nice.”
“How about Gianluca?” asked my father.
“He’s not my friend.”
“He should be, Vito. He’s a good kid. I spoke with his mother. She’s from Sicily.”
“Is that in Italy?”
“Ehh… kind of.”
“Yes. Yes, Sicily is in Italy,” my mother corrected.
“Have you been to Italy, Mom?”
“Yes, I have. I spent my twenty-fourth birthday sipping espresso in Piazza San Marco.” She looked off into a time far-removed from the banalities of suburban New Jersey.
“Dad, have you been to Italy?”
“Not yet. I got too much work to do. I’ll make it over there someday. A nice trip when I retire, just me and your mother.” He hoisted his jelly glass half-filled with Valpolicella. “How’s that sound, hun?”
“Oh, just lovely, dear.”
The multi-purpose room at Glenwood, where we ate our lunches and had indoor gym during poor weather, was tan-tiled with beige walls. At the front was a low stage, which had been converted to storage for a sundry assortment of crafts and instruments. At lunch, our tables were long and brown, and the benches folded up and clanked onto the tables themselves. I hated to fold up the benches, because one time Pierce Stone was showing off to Avery Burnham and flung the bench up and it smacked me in the elbow. I didn’t cry, I swear, but my whole arm went numb and I just kept saying “Ow ow ow ow” between fake laughs.
I had to sit at his table too. All of Ms. O’Donnell’s class had to sit at the same table. I wanted to sit with Karl, but we didn’t have lunch at the same time because he was a grade younger. He still got nap time, that sock.
I opened my bulky yellow lunchbox that had the ice compartment in the bottom, adding an extra few inches to the base. I hated that lunchbox. I wanted to bring my lunch in a brown paper bag like the other kids, but my father said it was a gift from my Great Aunt Josephine—she had heard that I liked yellow. I don’t know where she had heard such things, because I hated yellow. I liked red, like Karl, like the Romans, because it was the color of blood. My dad liked that and promised me my next lunchbox could be red. I had read that in a book, that the Romans liked red. I could read! I mean, I was learning to read, at least.
I took out my leftover ruby-red pepper stuffed to the brim with rice and specks of meat. The savory odor wafted down the faux-wood table, and like a domino effect, each kid turned and looked at me, their turkey-on-white-bread sandwich in hand.
“Hey! What do you have there, Ferraro?” Pierce Stone called down the row of boys.
“A… a stuffed pepper,” I said, trying to hide the vegetable behind my yellow giant.
“I’m surprised it didn’t get lost in your lunchbox. That thing is like a school bus!”
I looked to see if Andrius was eating something weird, something from Lithuania, but he was biting into a plain bagel with cream cheese—the excess spread dotted the tip of his nose. He had learned the hard way after Pierce Stone told him his cepelinai dumpling with sour cream sauce “looks like it has cum all over it.” I didn’t even know what “cum” was, but Pierce Stone told us it’s what his brother did to girls in middle school. “He cums them.” He would say, “Trevor is so cool. He always has girls in the basement and he cums them.”
Tony never had girls in our basement. He was only twelve, but I wondered if he’d ever cummed with a girl. When do you start to cum with girls? I wanted to ask Pierce Stone, but I stopped myself. I didn’t want to look stupid.
“I like your lunchbox, Victor,” Michaela said, catching me off guard.
“Yeah. Okay. Thanks.” My face turned as red as the bell pepper as I slouched behind my school bus lunchbox.
At recess we played football. I was the best one, though I was never picked first. The Barriston twins, Chase and Miles, were usually the captains. If Chase picked first, he chose Paxton Shaffer. If Miles picked first, he chose Pierce Stone. If I was on Pierce Stone’s team I never played quarterback.
When I played in the backyard with Tony and George and Karl, Tony would always play quarterback. Tony loved Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins. Everything Tony had was teal or orange or a combination of the two. My dad didn’t like the Miami Dolphins. He had season tickets to the Jets, but he bought Tony Dan Marino jerseys and posters and anything else he wanted because Marino was Italian. But I liked the players who were so fast that no one could touch them, so fast that the white lines on the field blurred beneath their feet as they cut and evaded their opponents. I liked Deion Sanders and wanted to play just like him. One time I even snuck a do-rag in my backpack and wore it at recess. Pierce Stone told Mrs. Lydell, who told me to take it off. “We don’t wear that here,” she said. I didn’t understand the problem. I was outside, hats were allowed outside, but she made me take it off anyway. Pierce Stone didn’t care about the do-rag; he was upset that I scored a touchdown on Paxton’s opening kickoff and cut right in front of him, which made him fall and dirty his corduroys. And right before I reached the end zone, I put my hand behind my head and “high-stepped” the last few feet, just like Deion.
Saturday came and I was supposed to play kickball with Karl, Paxton, Lenny, and Andrius, but Tony was with us that weekend, so I wanted to stay with him and play video games instead. He had no desire to play kickball with us, so my dad brought him to my cousins’ house in Livingston, a town with even more Jews than ours. My dad insisted that I go play kickball and that I would see Tony when we went for pizza later that night. The thing was, we weren’t going to play kickball at all. When Karl and I got to the field behind the school, Paxton and the other guys were waiting behind the chain-link fence with flashlights. They didn’t even have a ball!
I shouldn’t’ve believed Paxton anyway. He was always lying. He called them “white lies,” as if that made them any better. “You can’t get in trouble for white lying,” he would say. For show-and-tell, he brought in a shark-tooth necklace and said his dad caught the shark himself, pulled it onto their boat, and shot it with a gun. He said his dad pulled the tooth out of the shark’s mouth and gave it to him right there on the boat, all bloody and gray. I asked my mother and she said the Shaffers went to the Cayman Islands last December and that they probably bought the necklace in a souvenir shop. She also said the Shaffers don’t have a boat. Paxton was always lying and scheming like that; he was like Tom Sawyer in a cardigan.
“Hey, where’s the ball? How the crap are we going to play without a ball?” asked Karl, who took off his shirt the second my father pulled away in the station wagon. Karl didn’t like to wear shirts or shoes. My mom would watch from the kitchen window as shoeless and shirtless Karl ran laps around the Geigers’ house, their babysitter Anita chasing a few steps behind.
“We’re not playing kickball!” shouted a voice from a distance. A shock shot down my spine and into my pants. It couldn’t be, no way, it just… it couldn’t be. And when I turned around I saw Pierce Stone advancing on us, the sunlight dancing off his bright white smile. “You bozos didn’t know? We’re going to Hell.”
I turned to Paxton with all the rage of Zeus.
“What the crap do you mean, ‘going to Hell’?” asked Karl as he sat in the gold sand and undid his shoes. Karl wasn’t intimidated by Pierce Stone; he wasn’t intimidated by anybody.
“Psshh, jeez, you don’t know? H-E-L-L? It’s back there,” he said, pointing to the woods.
“Everyone knows that. I bet even Ferraro knows that and he can’t even read!”
“I can read,” I said, but Pierce Stone didn’t hear me.
“I don’t even know why you invited these guys, Paxton. They’re just going to hold us back.”
I wanted to punch Paxton right in the face. My father told me to never start a fight, to only defend yourself, and to only punch someone in the face if you really wanted to hurt him. I really wanted to hurt Paxton for his deceit.
“Hey, Karl… we…” I lagged behind the other guys and whispered, “We don’t have any weapons. We can’t go into Hell without any weapons.”
“Don’t be a sock, Vic. Hell isn’t in the woods behind Glenwood.”
“Oh yeah? Where is it then?”
“My dad says Hell is in Penn Station.”
“In the City.”
“Yeah, if we ever go there, we’ll bring weapons.”
I felt more confident going into the woods with Karl there. He was barefoot and shirtless and grunted when he had to leap over a log or thicket of branches—sort of like an orc. I didn’t tell the other guys about my newly acquired knowledge regarding Hell. I wanted them to find out for themselves that this entire trek was stupid—pathetic, even. It made me feel good to know something Pierce Stone didn’t.
Karl and I remained a few steps behind Paxton, Andrius, Lenny, and Pierce Stone. There was a constant buzzing that serenaded us as we trekked along, and the sunlight that crept through the treetops speckled the forest in golden yellow. Lenny picked up rocks and threw them at trees. He called out each one like he was shooting skeet. The rocks would tear off the old bark, exposing the soft, light brown stuff underneath.
He launched another rock that whirled past the target and escaped into the growing darkness. Lenny was a troublemaker—not malicious or anything, more like the kind of kid who would touch wet paint. He lived in the apartment complex behind the woods with his mom and brother. She was from New Zealand and had an accent (I liked how exotic it sounded). But Lenny didn’t have an accent; he sounded like us. Unfortunately for him, Lenny’s last name was Hooker. He tried to explain that in rugby the “hooker” was an important position, but it didn’t matter—Pierce Stone told the entire class what “hooker” meant, and the rest of the guys ran with it.
“Hey Lenny, has your mom been busy at work?”
“Lenny, does your mom work late at night?”
Even Arjun, an Indian kid who was still getting a grasp on English, whispered to Lenny in class if his mom “charges good rate?” I watched Pierce Stone and Bradley Knight snickering in their seats.
Lenny never got mad about it, though. At least, he never said anything back. This one time I did see him stick his pinky in his ear and dip it into Chase Barriston’s Snack Pack pudding—then he swizzled the gloppy brown around with a plastic spoon. That’s why I never made fun of Lenny’s last name. I didn’t have a taste for earwax or boogers, never had. I also didn’t know what a “hooker” was, so I asked Karl.
Pierce Stone trudged through the woods as if he were in a rush to reach Hell. Paxton had remained attached to his heels, while Lenny and Andrius had become preoccupied with throwing rocks at trees. Even from the back of the pack, I could overhear the conversation between Pierce Stone and Paxton.
“Yeah, my father is already a millionaire,” Pierce Stone said, looking over his shoulder. “I bet none of your fathers are millionaires.”
“I think mine is,” said Paxton, “but I don’t know if I ever want to be a millionaire. If you spend one dollar, you aren’t a millionaire anymore!”
“You idiot. That isn’t how it works.”
The buzz and banter from the shops and train station just down the street dissipated the further we ventured into the woods. Karl had fashioned himself a walking stick from a broken branch and punched it down into the soil every few steps. My sneakers suctioned into the soft, damp earth. The mud would pop! when I yanked my knees up to free my feet.
“Hey! If Lenny lives in those apartments behind the woods, then how come he has never seen Hell?” Karl shouted while hopping from stone to stone like a hobbit.
“Yes, that is good question,” added Andrius.
“Because… only a few people know about Hell,” said Pierce Stone.
“Then how do you know about it?” I asked.
“Dammit, Ferraro! Because my older brother told me all about it. He said that when he was in Glenwood he would come back here and smoke cigarettes.”
“Your brother smoked cigarettes in fifth grade?” Karl questioned.
“Yeah! And… and fourth, too.”
“That is such bullshit.”
“It is not! Dammit, Paxton! Why did you invite this kid?”
“Okay, okay, Pierce. Where the heck are we going now, anyway?”
“Just shut up already and follow me.”
I hid my smirk at the back of the group. I liked that we had entrusted our adventure to Pierce Stone and he was failing us. Perhaps, if the timing is right, I’ll stage a mutiny. We’ll go on our way, leaving him behind. Maybe he’ll never find his way out.
“Pssst, Karl. Should we mutiny?”
“There are too many damn bugs,” said Karl, swinging his staff at the mosquitoes like Donatello.
“Put your shirt back on,” I said. He laughed at the idea and kept swinging. “Hey Karl, you think we’ll find a body back here?”
“Eh, I doubt it, but that’d be cool.”
We came upon a wide, meandering brook that separated us from a rock wall. Pierce Stone pointed at an opening in the wall and said, “There. That’s where Hell is, in there.”
“Hell is there?” Andrius questioned, as if he had been expecting demons to be flying around on chimeras shooting fire.
“Yes, it’s in there. Ya know, my brother says that during the Revolution, George Washington and his men hid in there from the British, and then… and then they did a sneak attack at night and WON THE WAR.”
“Wow,” said Paxton, staring wide-eyed into the cave.
“You’re telling me that George Washington hid behind Glenwood during the Revolution?” Karl questioned, again.
“No! That’s not what I’m saying, because Glenwood wasn’t even here yet. Duh! This kid is too young to even know history.”
“Okay, so how do we get over there?” Paxton asked eagerly, sizing up whether he could jump the length of the brook.
“Well, I know I can jump it,” said Pierce Stone, “and probably Andrius too, because he has those long Lithuanian legs. But I don’t know about you bozos. You’re on your own.”
Paxton was not okay with this answer and grabbed Pierce Stone by the shirt collar, which brought a smile to my face. “You brought us all the way out here and you’re just going to leave? Nuh-uh. No way. You’re going to carry me across this brook if you have to. I’m going to see Hell.”
“Jeez, alright. Let go of me… dumbass. I think I know a way across. Follow me.”
Pierce Stone led us along the side of the brook and up through the woods until the cave was out of sight. I was tired and sweaty and really just wanted to play kickball (I still hadn’t forgiven Paxton for his deception). I didn’t care about Hell anymore. I knew Karl and I could always come back to the woods, maybe with Tony and George, and the four of us could go to Hell together. But right before I was going to call it quits and walk back home with Karl, Pierce Stone shouted from up ahead and pointed to a convenient little wooden bridge that traversed the brook where the stream became narrow.
“Ya see there? I told you I knew where I was going!”
Paxton sprinted up to the bridge and crossed it without checking first; Pierce Stone, Lenny, and Andrius followed. I asked Karl if he definitely wanted to do this, putting him in the position to opt out of the voyage and allow me to save face. But he didn’t catch the hint, so we marched across the bridge, too.
We reached the cave, which seemed narrower than it had from across the brook, and stood outside of it, waiting for someone to take the lead. I would’ve assumed it would be Pierce Stone, but I caught him inching back as Paxton tossed a few pebbles into the black unknown.
“Ya think the Devil is actually in there?” asked Lenny.
“It seem quite small,” said Andrius.
“Oh, of course!” shouted Pierce Stone. “We need a key. I remember my brother telling me you need a key for the gates of Hell.”
“Where the heck are we going to find that?” asked Paxton, growing more impatient.
“It’s probably under one of these rocks,” said Lenny.
“I bet it’s black with a skull on it or something,” added Paxton.
“Okay, you flip ’em then,” said Pierce Stone.
The six of us began flipping stones at will, tossing some of them into the brook. I chose a big gray one with moss growing on the side. I knew I could flip it myself, but when I bent down to grab it, Pierce Stone knocked me away. “You can’t handle that, Ferraro. I got it.” He bent down and lifted the rock, but before he could toss it into the brook, he stumbled back and started muttering and mumbling something unintelligible.
In the crater of dirt, a swirling snake uncoiled itself and popped out its black tongue. Pierce Stone dropped the rock and froze. When Paxton and Lenny saw the snake’s head, they sprinted back toward the bridge. Andrius cleared the brook with his long, Lithuanian legs—he didn’t even get wet. I backpedaled but tripped on a root sticking out of the soil like a knuckle. My head slammed into the dirt. My vision blurred, like I was looking through a kaleidoscope—I felt drowsy. I tucked my chin into my chest and saw the serpent slithering over the dead leaves of autumn. I remember thinking that perhaps this was the Devil. We’d talked about the snake and fruit and Adam and Eve in CCD class, but this snake wasn’t speaking.
I shuffled backward, crouched in a crab position, sweating and panting and crying—I will admit it, I was crying. “Stop it. Stop it. Stop it!” I managed to get out, but the snake didn’t listen. I could see Pierce Stone still frozen in my periphery. I blindly searched for a weapon. I knew we should’ve brought weapons. And right when I was getting my feet ready to do battle with the serpent, Karl’s staff came crashing down onto the beast’s head, splattering brain matter onto the dirt.
“Fatality,” he said in a deep, dramatic voice as he looked down at his kill.
I caught my breath and got up from the ground. Pierce Stone’s eyes had glossed over and he still hadn’t moved. He had a giant dark spot in his crotch that was expanding down his khakis.
Karl lifted up his staff and asked if I was okay. I brushed the dirt from my pants and wiped the tears from my cheek. “Yeah. Thanks, Karl.” Karl, unfazed, spun the stick around in his hands, making battle sounds with his mouth. “Let’s go home.”
I passed Pierce Stone, who still hadn’t blinked, and walked back to West Road with Karl, my champion.