When Mom dropped me off, I went inside and found Joel standing over the stove frying eggs while his mother lay on the floor nearby. Her body was wracked with spasms, convulsions, and her hands were curled up near her chin. I could hear her teeth grinding through blue lips; her glasses slipped off her face, and when she shook they almost poked her left eye.
I jolted forward to do something but Joel waved me off.
“No worries, man. It’s just a seizure,” he said. “You like eggs?”
My heart motored in my throat.
Jeremy, his younger brother, having just come from upstairs, was suddenly there too. He almost tripped over her.
“Jesus, Joel, were you even gonna help?” He fell to one knee, put his small hands beneath her head, found a towel hanging from a chair nearby and folded it into a pillow. Jeremy replaced his hands with the towel and glared up at us. Joel plated the eggs.
I wanted to make sure she was okay, but Joel took me away. We walked through stacks of unlabeled video tapes cluttering the living room. An entire wall was dedicated to old records. Joel had said before how his dad was a hound for movies and things, which was totally rad and completely the opposite from my Dad, an accountant, but the way Joel had said it made me think maybe he didn’t agree. Still, there was something strange and wonderful to me about the clutter, though I would have had a coronary had Joel somehow read my thoughts on the matter. Something about the contrast to my own house’s sterile conformity and spotless, Sears catalog design felt both right and rebellious somehow.
Upstairs, he drew a black curtain across his doorway, the only separation between his room and Jeremy’s. The walls, which followed the roofline, were covered in Marine Corp flags and posters of Brook Burke hiding her nipples in a wonderfully half-hearted way. She smiled from the poster, her head tilted slightly, her long hair brushed with sand. Opposite his doorway was an opened window where a sealed mason jar rattled on the sill. He handed me my eggs and we flopped on his bed to eat.
“My mom’s got epilepsy.”
“She has a seizure every couple days, but they’re no big deal. Jeremy’s still young. They scare him I guess.”
“Understandable,” I said.
“They’re not scary though. Like, at all. They’re basically natural. Her seizures are like sneezing to someone else. You know?”
The image of her twitching limbs, the violence of those clamped-shut eye lids, was still wracking my body with waves of adrenaline and shame, but I nodded, forked a hunk of fried egg into my mouth, and looked toward the open window.
“What’s in the jar?”
Joel smiled as he chewed, though I realized the effect was more sneer than pleasure when the mangled shape of his teeth crept through his chapped lips. His long face and short, coarse hair gave him a horse head’s silhouette. Not an ounce of fat showed on his body. His high metabolism put off the impression that Joel spent a lot of time pumping iron, but in truth, his physique bordered on the painfully gaunt. Kids at school called us the Odd Couple. Joel pinballed around the halls, a guise of wild unpredictability, while I teetered about in his shadow, mumbling salutations and dreaming of acquiring superpowers that would render me invisible.
“Homemade napalm,” he said after swallowing his food. “You make it with gasoline and Styrofoam plates.”
“What are we going to do with it?”
“Burn shit,” Joel said.
After we ate, Joel placed the napalm and a lighter inside his backpack and snaked his body into a camo army jacket. We went downstairs through the living room and kitchen. His mom sat smoking at the table in a lifeless bathrobe that gave everything away. When she saw me she drew the robe shut and ran fingers through her red, curly hair, which was wet from a recent shower.
“Oh, you must be Ryan. I didn’t realize you were already here. And look at me? All done up for you.”
“She can’t remember anything afterward,” Joel said under his breath, dragging me outside by an arm before I could reply.
As I disappeared out the door, she gave me a flat, sheepish look. I felt sorry for her, but at the same time was also relieved to have escaped her shame.
We walked to a nearby elementary school, hopped a fence into the yard and on Joel’s orders set about collecting leaves and twigs, piling them beneath the lip of the merry-go-round. Joel knelt to start the fire once we had enough debris.
“Couldn’t we go to jail for this?”
The light took; a small flame bloomed on the twigs. Joel took the napalm from his bag, unscrewed the cap and began emptying white goo onto the smoking fire. The flame sparked me as well, as if my fear were a wick for burning. I booked out of there as fast as I could, jumped the fence, stood huffing against the brick building waiting for sirens. Joel ambled around the corner minutes later.
“Are you crazy? Shouldn’t we call the cops?”
“No, idiot. Besides, it didn’t work anyway.”
“Wasn’t that stuff pure gasoline?”
“Let’s get out of here.”
For a while we walked on in silence, the disappointment of Joel’s failed napalm stretched between us like a taut chain. The imminent fear of almost getting arrested vibrated all the way up to the tips of my hair, but part of me wanted to know what would have happened had the napalm worked as designed. Would we have gone on the run together like Bonnie and Clyde? The thought made me want to race home to pack my bag and conversely find a paper bag to puke in, both at the same time.
Our next stop was in the Big Lots parking lot a few blocks away. Together we scoped out a flea market where I unsuccessfully prevented Joel from stealing a knife off a display table. The Veteran peddling gear wore an army jacket like Joel’s, only he was in a wheelchair and missing a leg.
“Semper Fi, bro,” Joel said. He gave the Vet a fist pump, his other hand in his pocket clutching the newly acquired knife. As we walked away, Joel removed the knife from his pocket and handed it over to me.
“Happy Birthday,” he said, not bothering to look at my hand, which was a shaking mess, as I turned the weapon over to examine the possibility of its lethal application.
“It’s not my birthday, though. So maybe we could take it back? Do you think?”
“You’re so stupid. I know it’s not your birthday. I was just -” but he didn’t say what it was he was trying to do. Instead, Joel swiped the knife from my grasp and slid it back into his pocket. He shook his head and muttered under his breath.
“What?” I said. “Did you say something?”
Joel stopped and looked at me with that mix of irritation and pained concern, like he knew I wouldn’t make it in this world for two seconds if I didn’t have someone like him to look out for me.
The wind was wicked, like getting stung by a hive of bees. I pulled the collar of my coat up around my throat and tried to duck into whatever warmth my body housed for itself. I was not greatly successful. Joel blew on his hands and crammed them deeper into his pockets. He looked every which way, scanning the streets and alleys for surprises or something. He didn’t really say.
“You okay to go one more place?” he asked, though I knew he wasn’t seeking my approval. We would go wherever Joel wanted. It was how we always did things. Joel commanded and I followed, which was well enough. If it wasn’t for Joel, I’d be back in my room reading Dune or practicing my trumpet or something.
We crossed through a scraggly row of hedges into a small parking lot scattered with cars. Across the lot was a black and orange marquee for the local movie rental.
“I know all the chodes who work here, so just don’t say nothin’ stupid, okay?”
I nodded, clenching and unclenching my fists inside my jacket pockets.
Once inside, Joel spoke to a guy at the front counter who glanced at me for a split second before shrugging and showing us into the back room. There were videos lining the walls; it took me a second to realize what they were. Joel gave the guy ten bucks. He pocketed the money and left us alone. A TV/VCR combo sat on a folding chair. Static scrambled the screen.
“Pick one,” Joel said.
I looked at the titles, the naked flesh.
“This one,” I said, handing him the first one I could reach. Joel popped the movie into the player. I tried my best to seem nonchalant, like seeing a naked woman was an everyday thing for me, but the sad truth was that up until then I hadn’t even seen a rated-R movie. I gawked as the quartet on screen began groping and taking off clothes. Their rubber-looking flesh and breathy talk made the small room sway around me. Before anything got too heavy though, the desk clerk poked his head through the door.
“Hey, scram. Now.” He looked hard at Joel. My heart sank.
Joel nodded, took my arm again, and led me through another door, this one releasing out the back.
“That was amazing,” I said once we were outside again.
He laughed. “My dad’s there. He’s going to be in that room in a minute.”
“How do you know?”
“Where do you think I learned about it?”
We trekked back to Joel’s house, my sneakers skittering beneath my frozen legs like useless blocks of ice. I wanted something hot to drink. If I was home, Mom would have made me hot cocoa. I didn’t even think of mentioning this to Joel though. He would have never let me hear the end of it.
Once we were back in his room, Joel removed the padlock from an old trunk he kept hidden beneath his bed. He took the knife from his pocket and tossed it in. I saw other knives inside, a hand held bb gun, two stacks of Playboys, and a tattered notebook overflowing with loose bits of paper.
Joel held it up.
“That’s my book.”
“What’s in it?”
“Shit I learned. Like how to make napalm, how to blow up a toilet, how to get a chick off with your tongue.”
“You can do that?”
“You didn’t see that part of the movie.”
He handed me the book. I flipped through its pages trying to find the orgasm thing but that wisdom eluded me. On the last page I spotted a list – People to Kill.
“What’s this?” I showed Joel the page.
When he saw where I was he said “Don’t look at that,” but as I scanned the list he didn’t try and stop me. Mom, Jeremy. I saw Hillary Watson’s name there, the girl from school I knew he liked. I was there too, toward the bottom, my name scrawled in black ink. Joel wrote in all caps, as always, sure of everything, even this.
I looked at Joel, wondering what I had done to join those ranks. Could it be nothing? Could it be prophecy? The stare he returned challenged me to ask, but I couldn’t open my mouth. He took back the book, dropped it into the trunk, and secured the lock into place before kicking it back beneath his bed.
We heard his dad’s car pull in to the drive way a moment later before his mom started hollering for us to come down for supper. Joel rolled his eyes and motioned for me to follow again. I walked in Joel’s wake downstairs, watching the flex of his back beneath the shoulder loops of his wife-beater, fairly sure now more than ever that he loved me.