Saturday, 2 January 2010
THE SLEEPOVER By Stephen Hill
David stared at Ryan’s back, following his friend cautiously as the two 11-year-old boys tiptoed across the living room. Whatever he was about to see, he thought to himself, it had to be good.
Moonlight filtered through the drapes over the living room window, deforming their shadows across the walls and ceiling. Ryan’s Dad hadn’t made a peep in over an hour, but Ryan was still moving as if the slightest noise might set off a bomb. Even the swish of his pajama clad legs coming together had prompted him to walk in a wide awkward gait that almost made David laugh out loud.
Of course, that wasn’t about to happen.
Over the several minutes it had taken the two boys to walk down from Ryan’s room, Ryan had looked back at David a dozen times, one skinny finger jammed down over his mouth and his eyes narrowed. David had shrugged each time, accepting the demand with mounting frustration. After all, Ryan’s house may have not been that large - it was a lot smaller than where he lived - but David figured it would still take a lot more than the creak of a floorboard to wake anybody at one in the morning.
Then again, the last thing David wanted was for Ryan’s dad to catch them. Even when he didn’t say a word, Mr. Mergel always seemed so furiously PISSED - not surprising considering he was a high school teacher. Worse than that, he was huge. Way taller than David’s dad, and stockier too, with muscles that stretched his shirts to the breaking point. The more he thought about him, the more David figured it wasn’t any surprise that Ryan’s mom had just left him. A short pretty lady with strawberry blonde hair and freckles, she shared Ryan’s strange green eyes and skinny build, and usually spoke so quickly she would stumble on her own words. Even when she didn’t, her soft voice meant David had to strain to hear her. Once, when David and Ryan had been trudging home from school, David had said he couldn’t picture Ryan’s mom yelling. “You should come over late at night sometime,” Ryan had replied quietly, his eyes sweeping the sidewalk grit. He hadn’t said another word all the way home, and - a month later - his mom had moved in with Ryan’s aunt on the other side of town.
In the living room, the boys stood at the base of a massive piece of furniture crowded with numerous drawers and cabinet doors. A bureau, entertainment unit and filing cabinet all in one, it was an excess of hard oak angles fastidiously sanded and polished. Looking at it, David could almost smell the varnish.
Even in the dim light, David could tell Ryan’s eyes were bulging with excitement. “Keep an eye on the stairs,” Ryan whispered.
“Nobody’s coming,” David argued. “And your dad’s been asleep for-“
“Just keep an eye on them!” Ryan fired back. David blushed and wheeled around, fixing his eyes on the staircase. Ryan was almost half a foot shorter than David, yet right now, with his fiery stare and commanding stance, there was no question about who was in charge.
Then again, there usually wasn’t.
In school, David was always one of the first picked for any sport in gym or on the playground, and his good looks already had girls stealing glances for reasons they couldn’t quite pinpoint. Ryan meanwhile, was a frail, nervously twitching body carried by spindly legs and topped by a mop of black, bristly hair corkscrewing everywhere at once. David always stuck up for his friend at every turn though, because after school, Ryan was the man.
Most kids didn’t know it, but Ryan had courage nobody else had, and when he had something to show you, it was always worth your time. Just this year he’d shown David how to scramble onto Ms. Tobias’s roof in less than ten seconds, had cobbled together num-chucks using the ends of broom handles and a bicycle chain, and found a shortcut through Ted Morris’s backyard that gave you a perfect view of Stacey Miller’s bedroom window. And since Ryan’s mom had left, he’d gotten even more daring. It was all -as Ryan so frequently muttered - “too wicked.”
So when Ryan pulled David aside on Thursday afternoon at recess, promising something “unbelievable” if he slept over Friday night, David knew it had to be cool. It was how he said it as much as what he said - with one hand jittering nervously through the mop of his unruly hair.
As David stared at the staircase, he heard a drawer slide smoothly on its rollers behind him, and the rustle of papers. A moment later, he turned to see Ryan gingerly opening a box that didn’t even look big enough to hold a pencil.
Ryan flipped it open, and his eyes lit up. “Too wicked,” he said softly, and David saw the slender outline of a key.
“So what’s it for?”
Ryan ignored the question, craning his neck to stare up at twin cabinet doors on the top tier of the bureau.
“Up there?” whispered David skeptically, following Ryan’s glance. “We’re going to need a chair or something if...”
Before he could finish his sentence, Ryan was shoving an ottoman over from the foot of the living room Lazy Boy. “You’re the tall one,” he whispered,” and pressed the cold metal into his hand. “It’s in the top left cabinet - the only thing in there.”
David stared down at a tiny slice of silver gleaming under a shaft of moonlight, and climbed onto the ottoman. The cabinet door opened easily enough, but when he pulled the sleek metal box out of the cabinet, it wobbled in David’s grasp, teetering off his palm.
“Careful,” Ryan hissed.
David slapped his second hand over it, clutching the container in both hands as he stepped onto the carpet.
“Just put it on the floor,” Ryan whispered, stealing a glance over his shoulder.
David did as he was told, leaving several smudged prints on the steel surface. His eyes settled on a small lock sealing the split between the box’s lid and body. “Do you have another key?”
“Relax,” Ryan whispered, and popped a paper clip from between his fingers like a magician. Stabbing the tiny keyhole, he jiggled it back and forth, and the lock popped open.
They were in.
Ryan’s hands caressed the box’s surface, as if savoring the moment. Licking his lips, he peered at David with a wolfish smile that boosted David’s nervous excitement to the point of pain. “All right,” David said. “Let’s see it already!”
When the cover slid back, and it seemed to glide on its hinges. For a moment, all David could make out was a swath of red velvet cushioning nothing but shadow. Then Ryan pulled the box forward, bathing it in the glow from the window. Polished curves of sleek metal gleamed out at the children - the oily skin of a .357 Magnum revolver.
“Holy shit,” David muttered.
“My dad’s,” said Ryan, scooping the gun from its crimson nest. “We’ve had it for two weeks, but I only found out where he was keeping it Wednesday.” He hefted the gun awkwardly by the handle. “Heavier than it looks.”
David’s eyes devoured the slick metal nozzle, and the handle’s grooved rubber grips. This was not soft plastic or something chipped from wood, this was the real deal. His hands reached out automatically, and Ryan yanked the gun away.
“Come on, I just wanted to look,” David whined.
A tiny smile pulled up the corners of Ryan’s mouth, and he thrust the gun into David’s face.
David’s hands shot up. “What are you doing?”
Ryan’s smile became a sneer, and his thumb arched over the hammer, cocking it back with a hollow click.
“Hey Ryan, don’t.”
Ryan snickered. “Relax, it isn’t loaded or anything.”
“Well in that case...”
David tore the gun from Ryan’s hand, and jammed the nozzle against his friend’s forehead. “Now who’s scared?”
David loved the weight in his hands. It made him feel stronger. Powerful. It was as if the gun had given him six inches of height and 50 pounds of muscle, and the guts that came with them. He swung the gun away from Ryan’s head with a finger curled around the trigger, and squinted down the barrel as his aim swept across living room targets. Past Ryan and the mammoth bureau. Past the couch. Past the chairs. Past the family photos on the walls. Past almost everything, until he was staring down the barrel at Ryan’s father.
Huge and furious, Mr. Mergel’s face was a grey sphere in the darkness, his mouth a black hole. “What the hell are you doing?” he screamed.
The lights snapped on, and Ryan snatched the gun from David, holding it behind his back as his father came for them.
“Dad,” Ryan managed. In spite of the sudden blaze of electric light, his eyes were wider than ever.
So like his son’s, Mr. Mergel’s thick black hair stood out in alarmed spirals, uncoiling like broken springs off his skull. The red lips of his bathrobe hung open over a muscled white slab of torso. “Give me the gun now,” he snapped.
The pistol remained clutched behind Ryan’s back. “Dad, we were just looking at-“
“I said give me the gun!” The tone was firm and steady, but when Ryan’s father held his hand out, it shook.
But why? David thought. Why would Ryan’s father be so scared if the gun wasn’t even loa-?
OH NO. A frigid fist flexed around David’s heart, pumping ice through his body.
Mr. Mergel clamped down on Ryan’s arm, twisting until the pistol was between them, still gripped in Ryan’s hand. Blue veins heaved as the muscles rippled across the back of Mr. Mergel’s forearms. Still, somehow, Ryan wouldn’t let go.
“One more second,” Ryan muttered. His voice was so mild, he could have been arguing for more TV time. “I just need it for a second.”
As they struggled, the gun’s barrel leapt back and forth. One moment it was leveled at David’s chest, the next it was jammed against Ryan’s ribcage hard enough to crack it.
It’s gonna go off, David thought. And when it does…
“Let go,” David finally managed, and the gun responded.
The blast tore through the living room. David’s hands slapped his ears, and his legs scissored backwards, tripping him up and dropping him to the carpet. SO LOUD! his mind screamed in a panic, over and over. SO LOUD SO LOUD SO LOUD!
He stared up at them, and their shapes seemed lit as if by a camera flash: Ryan with the thin limbs of an insect, and his father with the blocky, powerful arms of a lumberjack. A thin haze of smoke settled over them like gauze. The smell of fireworks clogged the room.
Mr. Mergel’s chin sagged forward, and his eyes swam in their sockets until they found David. “I’m sorry,” he murmured, and slumped to the floor. Sprawled on his back, his bathrobe yawned over a red ragged red hole, punched through his gut and drooling gore.
Ryan’s face fell under the shadow of his hair, the gun still cemented to his hand. One of his bare feet trembled, and his heel shuddered out a disjointed rhythm on the carpet.
“Ryan,” David said. “Are you okay?”
“Too wicked,” Ryan whispered. His narrow shoulders pulled back, driving his posture ramrod straight, and he stared up at David with a grin that split his head open. Thin tendrils of grey crawled across his face as he pointed the gun at the front door. “Now let’s go find my mom.”