The triple dog Derrick threw in was totally unnecessary. I’d already agreed to be the test subject, and it’s not like I wanted to be humiliated for chickening out in front of all my friends.
I searched the expressions of the gathered crowd, growing more confident by the second. The excitement, the enthusiasm . . . hell, even the fear in Sean’s eyes gave me an adrenaline rush. I offered him one of my trademark smirks, then reached out and took hold of the rope.
It seemed secure enough. We’d just tied it up ourselves, to the best of our twelve-year-old abilities. The real worry was whether we’d chosen a sturdy enough branch. It wasn’t the thickest, but it was the only one we could use without a ladder and a longer rope.
I really hoped I wouldn’t break a bone or something, because the vacation had only just started. It would have been a shame to waste it.
I backed up before launching into a run. When my toes touched the rocky edge, I sprang forward, clutching onto the rope for all I was worth. It arced beautifully over the lake and I let go just in time to plummet straight into the middle of the murky waters.
For a moment, I couldn’t tell up from down. I flailed around, shaking my arms and legs violently in the instinctual urge to break free of the darkness, and fast. But the bubbles settled after a few seconds, and once I calmed I could make out the lighter brown water that indicated the sunlight above me.
I broke the surface to triumphant cries. “Yeah Mark!” “Whoo!” “Yeah, all right!”
Pumping my hands up and down a few times, I settled into an easy tread, then began goading the rest of them to follow. “Let’s go, ya bunch of cowards!”
A couple other boys followed in my now-famed footsteps, but none quite as gracefully. They held on to the rope too long, waiting until it swung back before dropping. The rest scurried down the hill and entered from the shore.
Sean was one of the chickens, as I’d known he would be. He was lucky he happened to be bigger and older-looking than the rest of us, or he’d have been out of our group for being such a wuss for sure.
But as soon as we were all in the water, it didn’t matter how we’d gotten there. Sean swam up to me and pushed me under.
“Did you see that?” I asked after breaking free, still grinning from my success. “Pretty awesome, right?”
Sean laughed and dunked me again. “Yeah, I saw it.”
Some of the other guys seemed more impressed, and Phil wanted to know if I’d been scared, or if I’d thought I might drown.
“Nah,” I told him. “I wasn’t scared at all. Next time you guys think up a dare, let me know. I can handle it.”
We play-wrestled in the lake until the frogs started croaking, enjoying the long, carefree days of summer.
“I’m telling you, the house is empty,” Derrick reassured us. “That old cat lady died last month, and no one’s been here since.”
Sean scratched his head. “What if she left the house to her family or something? They could be in there now.”
Derrick rolled his eyes and Phil coughed out chicken under his breath.
Raising his light golden eyebrows, Sean sneered right back at them. “I don’t see either of you two breaking in there.”
He was right to call them out—they’d spent our entire eight-grade year daring me to do one thing or another while cleverly keeping the pressure off themselves. Sometimes I wondered why I still hung out with those losers . . . but then I remembered I loved to be the guy with all the glory.
Phil shrugged. “I bet there’s just a lot of dead cats in there.”
That was my cue. Pulling off my jacket, I tossed it at Sean. “All right, ladies. Let the professional handle this.”
I approached the rickety porch while the three cowards waited behind a tree. One of the windows was already cracked open, and I squirmed my fingers under it and gave it a good shake. It rattled a little, then slid right up.
With a wave towards my adoring fans, I climbed into the living room.
Plastic sheets covered some pieces of furniture, and there was a lot of trash on the floor, but other than that the place was empty. I turned back around to give the guys a thumbs up, and within a few seconds they followed.
“Shit, this place smells,” Derrick announced.
It really did. I wouldn’t have been surprised if there was a decaying cat body somewhere in there.
We checked all the cabinets, hoping for some liquor or something, but didn’t find a thing. The place was pretty well picked through, and we were just about to leave for more exciting evening fare when Phil called out to us from the second floor.
“Shit, I think we can climb onto the roof from here!”
We all scrambled up and found him leaning out the bathroom window.
“The roof? Awesome.” Derrick gave Phil a high-five for his discovery.
“You think it’ll hold us?” Sean asked, a note of apprehension in his voice. “It didn’t look so great from the outside . . . and I think I saw a crack in the ceiling.”
“Seriously?” Phil elbowed him. “You are like the biggest wuss. Maybe it won’t hold your big butt, but the rest of us should be fine.”
Sean did not have a big butt. He was just taller than us, and probably more muscular. I’m pretty sure Phil was jealous.
“Mark, go test it out,” Derrick demanded.
“Why do you always make Mark to do everything for you?” Sean exclaimed, throwing up his hands.
I, of course, was already two steps ahead, planning to make myself master of the roof.
“I dare ya to do it,” Phil went on, ignoring Sean.
With a smile and a nod I accepted, pulling my upper body out the window and grabbing onto the gutter.
“Wait, Mark,” Sean pleaded. I caught his worried hazel eyes with mine. “Be careful.”
“Be careful,” Derrick and Phil repeated, only they used squeaky-high voices and broke into snickers. “Granny says be careful.”
I personally thought they were lucky Sean never turned on them, ‘cause he could have whooped their asses in a second.
The rain gutter held my weight and I managed to get a leg up and crawl onto the roof. I stood gingerly, keeping my arms spread for balance.
“So far, so good,” I shouted back at them.
Shouting probably wasn’t the best thing to have done when climbing on a roof late at night. Even though the house next door wasn’t all that close, the neighbor must’ve heard me, ‘cause the next thing I knew someone was yelling.
“Get down from there before I call the cops!”
I instantly crouched to hide myself from view, and my foot slipped on the uneven ground. I grabbed onto anything and everything as I fell—loose shingles, the rain gutter, and an awning, then crashed into one of the cat lady’s overgrown bushes.
“Don’t move, kid, I’m gonna call 911!” the neighbor screamed.
“Holy shit!” I heard Derrick’s frantic voice, and a few seconds later all three of my friends were running out the front door. “Shit, Mark, can you move?”
With the rush of adrenaline, I managed to stand, but my ankle was killing me. “Damn, I think I broke something!”
“We gotta get outta here, the cops are gonna show up!” Panic stricken, he and Phil scrambled off into the darkness.
Sean put his arm around me, letting me rest my weight on his broad shoulders. “Lean on me, Mark. We gotta book it.”
He practically carried me home, saving me from the brand of juvenile delinquent. Too bad he couldn’t save me from my dad’s lectures when we found out I really had broken my ankle.
But it all worked out for the best. Once word spread that I’d braved the cat lady’s haunted house and survived a fall from the roof, there wasn’t enough space on my cast for all the signatures.
“Let’s play truth or dare,” Sally said. She’d tied two pink bows in her auburn hair, which, in my opinion, looked totally ridiculous.
The new kid Billy tossed another log on our campfire. “That’s for girls.”
I kind of agreed. I wasn’t so sure about letting girls join in on our weekend hangouts, but we were high school freshman now, and it was just something we had to do.
“Not with Mark here,” Phil informed him. “He’ll take any dare. He’ll make it way more fun that that stupid truth crap.”
“What’re you, his boyfriend?” Billy taunted.
I really did not like that kid. Where did he get off, upsetting our balance? I was the celebrity of our group, and I didn’t mind the praise.
Sean rolled his eyes, then stared down his straight nose at Billy like he could see right through him. “I dare you to not say anything stupid for a whole ten minutes. Think ya can manage that?”
Billy pursed his lips and glared.
Mel, the chunky brunette, giggled. “I dare Mark to play spin the bottle.”
“We’d need a bottle, first,” Derrick reminded us.
“Well, then I dare Mark to go steal us some alcohol,” Billy interjected. “This town is pretty lame. We need something to make it more fun.”
“If you’re so cool, why don’t you bring your own?” Sean countered.
“”Cause my dad keeps it locked up . . . but one of you has to have something we can get to, right?”
I thought for a moment. My parents didn’t really drink much, but I was pretty sure there was a bottle of wine in a kitchen cabinet.
“Sure.” I shrugged.
All the guys followed me to my house while the girls stayed to watch the fire. I made them hang back on the street, though, as I traipsed into my living room.
My parents were downstairs watching T.V. I knew they'd be surprised to see me.
“Back so soon, Mark? You didn’t break anything, did you?” my dad asked.
“Ha ha,” I replied, slipping into the kitchen.
This wasn’t really a dare. I found the bottle, shoved it under my jacket, and was about to head out again when a thought struck me. Hadn’t my parents made martinis for that dumb block party a week or so ago?
Sure enough, I discovered two bottles—gin and vodka—under the kitchen sink, and they were nearly half full. Jackpot. With any luck they’d be forgotten about, or I’d get Derrick’s sister to replace them later.
But how to get them past my parents? One thin bottle of wine I could mask beneath my jacket, but two bottles of hard liquor was another story.
Thinking quickly, I grabbed the gallon of milk from the fridge. It was almost empty, so I didn’t feel all that guilty pouring the rest down the sink. Then I replaced it with the alcohol—hoping it didn’t matter that I was mixing two different types—and wrapped the jug in one of the grocery bags my mom kept for recycling.
I headed back out, waving to my parents as I went. “See ya later.”
My mom sat up and looked over at me with parental curiosity. “What do you have there, Mark?”
“Milk.” I held up the bag so she could see the shape of the gallon container. “For the s’mores.”
She settled into her recliner again. “Oh, okay. Don’t be too late tonight.”
“I won’t,” I replied, even though I pretty much knew I would be.
“Ugh,” Sally grimaced. “That’s awful!”
She passed the container on, wiping her mouth with her arm.
“It’s supposed to taste awful,” Billy said with his air of superiority. “But after you have enough it feels nice.” He downed his swallow with considerably more composure.
“Well, I’ve had enough,” she declared. “Weren’t we gonna play spin the bottle? Can’t we just use a coke bottle?”
We all ignored her.
Billy passed the container to Sean, who took only the smallest taste, I noticed, and then Sean handed it to me.
“You’re the last person. You gotta finish it,” Billy informed me.
I’d never heard of that rule, but then again I’d only ever had few sips of wine before. “All right.”
Sean nudged me. “Don’t, Mark. That’s like a quarter of a bottle. You’ll get sick.”
“I thought you guys said Mark takes any dare,” Billy challenged. He stared at his fingernails, looking unimpressed.
Well, that sealed it. I really couldn’t back down from a dare. I gave Sean an apologetic shrug of my shoulders and did what I had to do.
I’m pretty sure I kissed all the girls that night, if only because I was too drunk to resist. Most people left at midnight, but Sean stayed behind to help me home. I threw up twice on the way, with Sean holding my head so I didn’t collapse into my own pool of vomit. I can’t really remember, but I think he carried me up to my bedroom, too, ‘cause that’s where I woke up the next day with the worst headache of my life.
Thank god Sean left some water and aspirin right next to the bed.
“Okay, this one’s for the big screen!” Phil yelled out. He had his brand new camcorder—a present for his fifteenth birthday—perched on his shoulder and a goofy grin on his face. “Show us whatcha got, Mark!”
“Make sure your helmet is strapped on right this time,” Sean added.
Derrick snickered. “Right, ‘cause if you get another concussion, we’ll never be able to record this stunt.”
“Do you even know how to work that thing?” Billy asked, rolling up on his own skateboard and trying to snatch the camera from Phil’s hands.
“Don’t!” Phil yelled. “My dad’ll fuckin’ kill me if I break this! It's like the ones the professionals use.”
I yawned. “Gettin’ bored up here, guys. Are you gonna say ‘action’ or what?”
“Right, right.” Phil straightened up, fiddling with a few buttons. “Action!”
I licked my lips and peered at the banister, trying to gauge exactly how high I’d have to jump to land on it safely and maintain some sort of balance. In the end, though, there was no substitute for experience, so I just slammed down my skateboard and went for it.
I hit the rail just fine; it was landing part that got me. I veered a little too far to the right and ended up falling on my side, twisting my arm in the worst possible way.
“Holy shit, this is so cool!” Derrick giggled rather childishly. He shone his flashlight along the rows of empty desks in our eleventh grade English class, then up at the blackboard.
“Yeah, right,” Sean responded, his voice laced with sarcasm. “The coolest thing we could think of doing is to come back to school after we’ve been let out.”
I was the one who’d snatched the spare keys from the principal’s office while she was out at lunch. Usually Sean had some good points, but right now I was siding with Derrick. There was a ton of mischief we could do all alone in the building.
“Let’s go through the desk and see if we can find any tests.” Billy didn’t waste any time, as he’d already started rifling through drawers.
“We could put syrup on Mrs. Butner’s chair or something,” Phil suggested.
“Yeah, if we had syrup, and if we were eight-year-olds.” Derrick laughed, slapping him on his back.
We ended up tagging some lockers and rearranging the furniture in a few rooms. I didn’t really want to do anything too big, though, ‘cause then the administrators would know we’d been in there at night and change all the locks.
But Billy had other plans.
“And now, for the crowning glory.” He pulled off his backpack and held out something wrapped up in what looked like several layers of trash bags.
“What’s that?” Phil asked.
“A homemade stink bomb.”
“Jesus . . . I think I can smell it a little.”
“We gotta put it in the principal’s office,” Billy announced, and began leading the way.
“Damn!” Derrick groaned. “It’s locked . . . must be a different key. Should we just stick it somewhere else?”
“No way!” Billy shook his head violently. “That bitch gave me a whole day suspension for saying the word ‘ass’.”
“You called the teacher an ass,” Sean clarified.
Before Billy could get out his retort, Phil interrupted. “I got it! We can get in through the vent, and leave it right on top of her office.” He pointed to the grate above us.
“Yeah, yeah!” Billy cried, excitement taking the place of his earlier sourness. “Sean, let Mark climb up on your back so he can reach it . . . I got a Swiss army knife to get the screws off.”
“I think this is a stupid idea,” Sean said.
“Yeah, what’s new, pussy.” Billy scoffed. “Fine. You know what, Mark, you can climb on my back. I’m not that much shorter than Sean.”
He looked a lot shorter to me, but maybe that was just because he didn’t have Sean’s lean frame.
Billy moved against the wall and gave me a foothold with his hands, so I went ahead and climbed up to complete the task. The unscrewing part took quite a while, and at some point Sean wandered off.
He reappeared just as I was dragging my body inside the duct and tossed something up to me.
“For your nose,” he said. “For when you unwrap that thing.”
I stared at him for a moment, watching the way his mouth quirked up in a little Mark will be Mark smile. Even when he disagreed, he was always thoughtful like that.
“Yeah, why don’t you two girlfriends make out later.” Billy crossed his arms. “Let’s get this over with . . . I’m fucking hungry.”
All in all, we considered it a well-executed prank, until the next day.
We’d forgotten about the air-conditioning.
The whole school was shoved into the football stadium while the principal gave a lecture on the bullhorn and people in hazmat suits tore through the building. She assured us that if they discovered the stench to be the result of some kind of prank, they’d find out exactly who had done it and expel them . . . not to mention possibly turn them over to the police.
And then because they needed time to air out all the classrooms, school was cancelled for the remainder of the day.
Billy could not stop laughing. “Fucking awesome!”
I was much less thrilled. “Shit . . . my fingerprints are probably all over that air duct.”
“Whatever, man!” Billy slung his backpack over his shoulder and started trotting away. “I’m gonna go back to sleep. See ya later, criminal!”
Phil gave me a more encouraging pat on the back. “Don’t worry. Let things cool off a bit, and then once they do you can tell people you’re the one that got them a free day . . . you’ll be a living legend.”
He had a point, but I didn’t like to wait to be appreciated . . . and I certainly didn’t like the threat of law enforcement.
Sean wove his way over to me through the departing crowds. “You okay? You look really pale.”
“I’m too young to go to jail,” I muttered.
He put an arm over my shoulder, hazel eyes bouncing with laugher. “Come on, Mark.”
Sean’s older brother Scott had given him a little pot, and the two of us lay on the floor of his bedroom to smoke it, staring up at the ceiling.
A tiny spider was weaving a very intricate web in the corner of the room. It held my interest for a while, but eventually I started to panic about being caught again.
“Will you visit me in jail?” I asked, turning over to look at Sean.
The green and brown flecks in his eyes seemed to shimmer with new dimension as I stared at them.
“They don’t have your fingerprints on record, Mark, so even if they did find them, there’s nothing to compare it to.”
“Fuck, that’s really logical,” I responded. “But if I did get arrested, would you visit me?”
Sean laughed—a gentle, rolling laugh that for some reason made me feel ticklish. He chewed on his lip and leaned forward until I could feel his breath. Any closer and we’d have been kissing. “I’m always lookin’ out for you, Mark.”
“Yeah you are,” I said. His lips were really red, and I wondered if mine were the same. Maybe it was from the pot. “Shit, you may be my best friend.”
“Fuck yeah . . . but you might have to grow up some day,” he added. Then he reached out and stuck his fingers into my hair, messing it about. “Grow up, little Marky Marky.”
I giggled and then he giggled and I’m pretty sure that’s all we managed to do for the rest of the afternoon.
I glanced at my watch. It was getting late, and I actually did want to make my next class.
I was fine with cutting English, though, especially since Billy had told Derrick to tell me he had some brilliant dare planned. I agreed to do it, so long as it didn’t involve getting arrested. Derrick pointed out that I’d never gotten caught for any other prank, so there was no reason to suspect I would be now. And it was my senior year, after all. I had to make sure I went out with a bang.
Billy came dashing over to our meet-up spot behind the school, with Phil and Derrick close on his heels. He had a bundle of clothing in one hand and a spray paint can in the other. “Okay man, come on, we gotta move fast.”
“Well what the fuck do you want me to do?”
“These are Roy Herrick’s . . . he’s inside the gym right now. We’re gonna paint ‘em and string ‘em up the old flagpole by the softball field.”
“Seriously?” I frowned. “I thought it’d be something more adventurous.”
“It’s a perfectly good prank,” Billy shot back. “He’s a fucking fag and everyone knows it! He fucking looks at me when we change clothes!”
Phil shifted his eyes. He looked a little uneasy. “So that’s why the pink paint, then.”
“Why, you think a rainbow would be better?” Derrick asked, trying to keep a straight face but then bursting into laughter. “The guy is queer. He’s even told people.”
“Anyways,” Billy hissed, trying to get us back on track, “I dare you, Mark. You gotta do it.”
Sean joined us then, jogging in from around the corner. “So what’s going on, guys? Sorry I’m late . . . I almost got caught by Mr. Campbell.”
“Aw, great, who invited the fucking boy scout?” Billy moaned.
“I did.” Phil shrugged. “Sean always comes along for a dare.”
Derrick took it upon himself to fill Sean in. “Mark’s gonna string up Roy Herrick’s clothes while he’s in gym class.”
Sean blinked a few times, then scanned Billy’s hands, his eyes landing on the spray paint. “You fucking asshole.”
“Here we go.” Billy threw up his arms. “C’mon, boy scout, tell us why we shouldn’t do it. You’re such a fucking queer.”
Sean ignored him. He turned to me, and his hazel eyes burned. “Don’t do it, Mark.”
“You are a fag, aren’t you,” Billy went on. “I bet you fucking love Roy Herrick. I bet you’d love to stick your dick in his ass, you fucking queer.”
“So what if I was gay?” Sean spat at him. “Would you take my clothes and ruin them because you’re too fucking stupid to come up with anything better to do?”
Billy crossed his arms. “I knew it. I fucking knew it.”
Derrick tried to be the peacemaker. “It’ll be funny, Sean. It’s not that bad. Everyone already knows he’s gay.”
Sean looked back at me. “Don’t do it,” he said again.
I was torn. “He does have his gym clothes to wear,” I ventured quietly, only to see Sean’s eyes blaze even fiercer.
“You know what, Sean? You’re too late.” Billy wore an evil grin. “I already dared him, and Mark never backs down from a dare.”
Sean’s chest was starting to heave. I don’t remember him ever appearing more flustered . . . or more unwilling to give in. “Then I dare you not to, Mark.”
“Fag.” Billy sneered.
I looked at the ground for a moment, and when I glanced back at Sean the shine in his eyes almost seemed like it could become tears.
“I dare you to be your own person . . . make your own fucking decision,” he said. “But if you do it, don’t fucking kid yourself . . . I will turn you in.”
With that, he turned and ran off.
“Shit, glad he’s gone.” Billy sighed with relief. “You know he won’t tell, he’s a fucking coward. Anyways, we don’t have much time.”
Phil and Derrick both seemed a bit shell-shocked. Sean usually objected to our crazier stunts, but he’d never done anything like this before.
Billy put the clothing in my hands. “We’ll spray it when we’re out by the softball field.”
I looked down at the bundle—small pants, because Roy Herrick was a small kid, and a nice white polo. “Billy, this is not the kind of dare I usually do.”
“You take any dare, Mark. The whole school knows that. Or do you wanna lose your reputation a few months before you graduate? You wanna be called a pussy?”
I cringed a little, because no one called me that. They called me maniac, or crazy fucker, or daredevil, but never coward or pussy.
I was a legend in these parts—the kid with no fear, the guy who’d do anything. Sean was the chicken—always had been.
That chicken had just stood up to me and my craziness, and he’d sure picked a strange time to do it.
I found him later, sitting on the curb with his head lowered.
“Did you do it?” he asked, not looking up.
I took a seat beside him. “Nah, that was a stupid prank.”
“It was more than a prank, for Billy,” Sean muttered. Still, I could tell he was relieved, and he lifted his head a little to make eye contact. “Thanks for listening to me. You never listen to me . . . I’m kinda surprised.”
“You don’t usually seem that determined.”
He nodded slowly. “Yeah.”
“Besides,” I nudged him, “you’re supposed to be my best friend. I know I’m a fucker, but I really do appreciate all the times you’ve tried to save my ass.”
Sean gave me half a smile. “I’m glad you remembered that now.”
We grew quiet for a while and I kicked at some dirt, somehow sensing that Sean wasn’t done with all that he had to say.
But when he remained silent, I said it for him. “So, are you really like him? Like Roy, I mean.”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
He looked into my eyes, waiting for a reaction. I don’t think I gave him any.
“Have . . . have you ever thought about being like that?” he finally asked.
I shrugged. “I dunno. I sometimes think about how you’re the best looking guy I hang out with, what with that pack of mongrels.”
Sean laughed. “Best looking, huh? Well do I look good enough to fuck?”
I thought about it for a moment, then met his hazel eyes with a cocky grin.