The bus was filled with grandmothers. Its brakes let out a yelp as it pulled into the station. Road salt and winter grime were caked on the bottom of the vehicle, giving the leaping Greyhound dark, sooty paws. As the door opened, a pungent, homey smell of Vaseline and baked goods escaped, and the procession began to exit.
Two of the bus’s occupants were not grandmothers. The first, an old transient wino with hungry eyes, stumbled down the stairs, gripping the hand rail desperately, but only half realizing the need to hold on. He peered around the station for a second, trying to find a good spot to beg for bottle money. The last grandmother turned to help him down, but he just continued muttering about fruit cake and paid her no mind.
Behind the old drunk, watching him navigate the five bus steps, a twelve-year-old boy adjusted his backpack. Tyler had ordered the olive drab sack from the back of Boys Life when he was ten. All boys wanted to be soldiers, real boys anyway, and his army bag had made him worshiped by the neighborhood gang. Whenever they played war, Tyler always got to be Lance Corporal. The boys knew that lance corporals were not the most powerful army men, but they had the coolest name. The lance corporal led the charge against the girls playing house, and hunted the horrible beasts and stray dogs that “terrified” their neighborhood.
The backpack hadn’t seen much use when he first bought it with hoarded ice cream truck money and a birthday check from his aunt in California. It had granted him power in the backyard stick wars, and occasionally he would carry rocks in it. Now it was filled with clothes and a toothbrush, which weighed just as heavy on his shoulders as his rock collection. He used to carry it as if the backpack itself was the treasure, not the rocks and sticks and interesting bits of garbage he hauled in it. That day it was just a backpack.
His parents and his sister were waiting for him, by the door. His mother ran up to hug him, crying a little and talking a lot. His father also embraced him, but said nothing. His sister interrupted their mother.
“Are you better yet?” Some of her was glad to see him. Most of her wasn’t.
Tyler looked past his parents and immediately found what he was really looking for. Ren was leaning against one of the station walls, kicking dirt. He had grown a little taller since Tyler was last in town. Tyler had grown more.
“You boys must have a lot to catch up on,” his father said. His mother protested, but gave in to his father.
“We’ll see you at home for dinner in an hour, Sweetie,” she said. “I’m making your favorite.”
Sloppy Joes were not Tyler’s favorite dish, but he had missed it. He followed Ren down the road towards the stream they liked to throw rocks into. They removed their gloves, since most of the rocks were wet.
Ren picked up the first one, a smooth, slate colored stone. He threw it down at the water, and it skipped twice and then sank. Tyler followed, arcing a dark one up and into the stream with a resonant plunk. Each cold, slimy rock chilled their hands and brought them closer to going inside.
“What was it like there?” Ren said as he threw another stone.
“The food was bad.”
“But, what was it like?”
“They made us run a lot. That’s why I’m skinny now.”
Tyler was no longer the chunky blond the whole town knew. He had grown four inches since he had left, but it was his weight loss that had really propelled his body into adolescence. He could also run without getting out of breath, and could lift heavier things. The St. Regis School for Young Men had done that much for him.
Ren was still smaller than he was. At school, the teachers saw each one as a foil for the other. Small, dark haired Ren gave big blond Tyler the confidence and side kick he needed, and Tyler’s creativity and penchant for mischief gave the reserved but intelligent Ren the validation he so desperately desired. Most had welcomed Tyler’s departure, citing that he was a bad influence on poor Ren.
“Did you have a roommate?”
“I did at the start. But he had a panic attack and needed to be taken home.”
“Was anyone there your friend?”
“Not really. They really only wanted us to be friends when we played sports. Other than that, they just wanted us to study.”
“So, did you get better at baseball?” Ren always wanted to play baseball.
“No,” Tyler responded curtly. “Baseball’s still a stupid sport.”
“Oh,” said Ren.
Tyler brightened up. “We did get to play paintball once, though. It was sweet. Way better than pretend.”
“Did you get to shoot anyone?”
“Yeah, I shot the most people. I shot so many people, they had to stop the game.”
Ren was impressed.
“Did you win?”
“No.” Tyler pawed at the ground. “I started shooting my own team, so they had to stop the game.”
The boys continued to throw rocks into the creek. Ren could always skip rocks. In Tyler’s absence, he had gotten even better. Tyler just lobbed the stones into the water, sometimes trying for a splash, other times just for a funny noise.
“So am I still your best friend?”
“Quit being gay. You’re still my best friend.” With that, he picked up a large rock, walked it to the edge of the water, and dropped it in, splashing the two with cold water. It was too cold out to be wet, so they went home, walking together until their paths split down either ends of Devoe Street.
“You want to sleep over tonight?” Ren said. Tyler and Ren had always spent Friday nights at one or the other’s house.
After six months eating in a cafeteria filled with unhappy boys, his return to the small family table was comforting. His mother and sister did most of the talking. Tyler had always joined in the banter. His father was the one that normally kept quiet for most of dinner. That night, Tyler was also quiet, only answering with short sentences when he was asked something. His parents figured he was tired, and the bus ride had tired him out.
When he asked if he could spend the night at Ren’s, his parents were hesitant at first.
“Don’t you want to sleep in your own bed?” His mother asked? “Haven’t you missed it?”
Tyler actually missed his bed at St. Regis. Somehow the cheap dormitory mattress had been worn in better than the one in his bedroom.
Realizing that his bed wouldn’t keep him at home, his mother said,
“Are you sure you’re okay to be away from us, honey?”
His father put his hand on his mother’s shoulder, and her worry faded.
“Okay, just be good for Mr. and Mrs. Faber,” she sighed. Tyler grunted in acknowledgment.
Ren’s house was a little smaller than Tyler’s. He figured it all evened out though, because Ren had cooler stuff inside. Ren had a pinball machine and an air hockey table in his basement. His parents worked on the weekends, so they turned in early on Fridays, leaving the boys to watch R rated movies and say bad words until all hours of the night.
Every Friday, Ren’s parents ate pizza. They would always order one for them, and one for the boys.
The four would sit around the kitchen table and eat. That night, they had ordered a spinach pizza for themselves, and a plain, cheese pizza for Ren and Tyler. Tyler was a picky eater. Ren’s parents would eat their whole pizza in one sitting. Tyler and Ren would each have two slices, and then save the other half pizza for when they’d inevitably end up in the basement watching Terminator 2 for the eleventh time. They claimed they liked it cold anyway.
Ren’s parents didn’t care about what Tyler had done to get sent to St. Regis. They knew he was a good kid, and that society was probably more to blame for what he did than Tyler himself or his parents. Society or wrestling.
That night, Mad Max was on. Tyler was excited; violent movies weren’t allowed at St. Regis, and he hadn’t seen a single good movie in his 6 months there. But after the first 15 minutes, after Ren’s parents had gone to bed, Ren looked preoccupied. Reaching behind the couch, he pulled out his backpack, a small green Jansport.
“Check out what I got.” His eyes were filled with nervous excitement, and Tyler could see his legs trembling faintly.
He pulled out a small bottle of brown liquid, a fifth of Jim Beam whiskey. Tyler had only seen the brand in the supermarket, in the aisle his mother would always hurry through.
“Where’d you get it?” Tyler was intrigued.
“I stole it from Rite Aid,” Ren said in a matter of fact tone that worried Tyler.
“They sell alcohol at Rite Aid?”
“They started to a few months after you left.”
Ren pulled two Styrofoam cups out of the backpack and placed it on the coffee table between the couch and Mel Gibson projected on the screen. Ren’s basement had a small bar off to one corner. They only used it for their annual New Year’s party. Tyler glanced over at it and immediately looked back. That was off limits.
Ren filled both cups halfway. He looked up at Tyler.
“What do you mix whiskey with?” Ren said.
“I dunno.” Tyler had no idea.
“Water?” Ren looked as if he had made a terrible error.
Tyler took a gulp of the whiskey and almost wretched.
The two filled the remainder of their coffee cups with water from the bathroom sink and sat down in front of the TV. Ren took a swig of the drink and held it down.
“It tastes terrible,” Ren spat.
“It’s not supposed to taste good.” Tyler snorted. Ren barely stomached another gulp.
It had begun to snow. The boys, now feeling the effects of the whiskey, watched it fall in clumps from the small basement window. It was thick and weighty and would definitely stick. It was good snow. They could tell.
Ren told Tyler what he had been doing while he was gone. He had failed to make the soccer team, but had tried track and liked it. He had made some friends on the team. None of them were as fun as Tyler. He went to a summer camp for gifted students. He called it nerd camp. He had started to act out there, playing pranks and getting into scuffles with other campers. He never got in any trouble for it though. No one believed he could ever start a fight.
Tyler didn’t say a word. Ren had a question in the back of his throat.
“Why did they send you away?” The whiskey was making him slur his words.
Tyler couldn’t muster a response. He downed the drink, which screwed up his face.
“Let’s go see the snow,” Tyler said excitedly. He tore off towards the basement stairs, giggling and staggering. He felt strange. Ren finished his cup, made a terrible face, and chased after him.
The boys hastily put their shoes on and jumped outside without their coats. There was no wind outside, but the air was thick with snow. Tyler’s red flannel shirt was soon covered in snow. Ren’s blue sweatshirt was also covered in white. They skipped and kicked at the snow, now five inches deep. One of the neighborhood dogs heard them and barked. The sound went nowhere, dampened by the snowy air.
They were soaked, but the cold was the last thing on their minds. The whiskey was doing its job. Ren launched a snow ball at Tyler. It hit him square in the nose and splattered over his face. His eyes watered and his cheeks, already rosy from the drinking, flushed. In a playful rage, he charged at Ren, lifting him up and dropping him in the snow. The two laughed and Tyler collapsed next to his friend.
The two lay in the snow for a minute, not saying a word. Not needing to. Tyler was back and Ren no longer needed to act out. Tyler had his sidekick back, with his Friday pizzas and stupid late night movies.
Ren was catching snowflakes on his tongue. Tyler was watching them spiral down from the dark but comforting gray sky, feeling them land on his numbing cheeks.
“I killed a squirrel.” He was ashamed that it took this strange new warmth in his head to open up to his best friend.
“That’s why they sent me to St. Regis. I killed a squirrel in the woods behind the church.”
Ren didn’t believe him.
“They sent you to boarding school because you killed a squirrel?” He was swinging his arms and legs, making a snow angel.
“They sent me to boarding school because of the gun.”
“I found a .22 rifle somewhere in the woods. It was a ¾ scale. It was a child’s gun.”
“And they sent you away because you shot a squirrel with a training rifle?”
Tyler nodded, still looking at the sky. Ren grinned in disbelief.
“They sent you away because you shot a squirrel? What, was it not squirrel season?”
“Father Finseth saw me. He told my parents and said that he was worried about me. That serial killers get their start killing animals in the woods. My parents flipped out and decided I needed discipline.” His “needing discipline” was a phrase he had heard often in the past months.
Ren couldn’t tell if Tyler’s face was red from the snow, or the whiskey, or if he was crying.
“I don’t know why I did it. Finseth caught me while I was burying the squirrel. I felt so guilty. I was trying to pay the squirrel respect. He thought I was trying to cover up what I had done.”
They remained in the snow in silence. They said nothing. Tyler whimpered once, but caught himself and suppressed any crying. After an uncomfortably long moment, Ren stood up.
Tyler wiped the snow off of his face and sat up, just as a perfect, fluffy snow ball hit him in the face. He leaped up and chased Ren inside. They stumbled down the basement stairs, leaving water stains all over the carpeted floor. Tyler collapsed onto his sleeping bag on the floor, still in his soaked clothes. Ren slumped on the couch without removing his shoes. The TV was on playing infomercials.
The next morning, the Faber parents walked downstairs to check on the boys. They noticed the darkened, wet marks on the carpet from the night before, leading to the sleeping boys in front of the TV, still playing infomercials. Ren’s mother sighed, but smiled.
“I’m a little surprised they let him come over, as soon as he comes back,” Ren’s father said.
“They know what’s important to him,” she said.
Ren’s father spotted the half empty bottle of Jim Beam on the coffee table. His wife, shocked, raised an eyebrow. They stood in silence.
He reached for his son, but his wife stopped him.
“Maybe they were right about Tyler all along,” she whispered.
She picked up the bottle and the two walked upstairs, not sure what to think. They needed to eat some breakfast.