Sweet Southern Boys
January 15, 1994
Only people who knew him well -- and the two boys with him knew him as well as anyone -- would know how agitated he was behind his stony expression. His nostrils flared to accommodate his rapid, shallow respiration. His hands were not trembling only because they held the steering wheel in a tight grip.
A crescent moon hung in the sky ahead, glowing through a hazy cloud cover. It was eight o'clock. The temperature hovered around forty degrees and the three boys wore lightweight jackets over their jeans and shirts.
Randy's eyes darted to the rear view mirror. In the distance, a dusk-to-dawn light cast a circular glow in the darkness and shone down on the riverside cabin the boys had departed moments before. The cabin and the half dozen vehicles parked around it disappeared as trees closed in behind the car.
The two-year-old white Sable belonged to Randy's mother and the music playing softly on the radio was one of her oldies stations. On the drive to the cabin earlier, the trio had been in such high spirits, yakking and laughing nonstop, they hadn't noticed the radio was on.
Now it annoyed Randy. He turned it off and broke the ensuing silence. "John Mark?"
"Yeah," answered a subdued voice from the shadowy back seat. "I'm okay."
"Shelby." Randy glanced to his right. The dashboard lights dimly outlined his friend slumped against the door, his head tilted back, wedged between the door and the headrest, and his blonde moptop falling away from his face. His eyes were fixed on the headliner.
"I'll be arright," Shelby muttered.
The road emerged from the woods into a scrubby flatland and Randy eased up on the gas pedal. An intersection with a county blacktop road leading into town waited just ahead.
Randy braked at the stop sign and made a left turn. They'd traveled no more than a few yards when Shelby lurched upright and growled, "Pull over!"
The Sable slowed and bounced as its tires hit the weedy, rutted shoulder. Shelby opened the door and hung his upper body out, retching, before the vehicle came to a complete stop.
In the dome light's glow, Randy caught John Mark's gaze in the rear view mirror.
John Mark tilted his head toward their friend. "We need to take him to the emergency room."
"No," Shelby said. He leaned out the door a few moments after his heaving stopped, spit a couple of times, and raised up, breathing heavily between parted lips. He wiped his eyes, glanced at Randy and half turned to look behind him. "No. I'm fine."
John Mark returned Shelby's glare. "Don't be stupid. If that really was LSD she gave you--"
"I didn't swallow any," Shelby insisted. "I rinsed my mouth out four, five times before we left. Besides, I ain't sure LSD makes you puke. Bein' kissed by Tiffany Bratcher is what made me puke."
Randy gave him a quick appraisal. "You done?"
"Yeah." Shelby shut the door and murmured, "Let's go."
Conversation was sparse on the twenty-minute drive to Verona. It was still early on a Friday night and the cinemas, restaurants and convenience stores were doing a brisk business.
"Guess it's time to call it a night," Randy said as the Sable rolled down busy Chilton Avenue, a brightly lighted commercial thoroughfare.
"No, I don't want to go home," Shelby said. He looked much better, sitting upright, his hands clasped around an upraised knee, but his blue-gray eyes were restless, troubled. "I feel like us sticking together a while."
"Me, too," said John Mark.
Randy nodded. "All right. Where to?"
A momentary silence fell as they considered their options.
"My house," John Mark said. "Let's stay there tonight."
"Thought your folks went to Tennessee this weekend," Shelby said.
"They did. But they won't care. I'll call their motel and let them know and y'all can call your folks and tell them where you'll be."
"Works for me," Shelby said.
The light turned green and Randy accelerated, his eyes flitting to Shelby. "I don't like it. What if you have some kinda delayed reaction to that drug?"
"If it even was a drug," Shelby replied. "You know what liars Wes and Tiffany are. I don't feel anything from it. Y'all just keep an eye on me and if I start acting weird, take me to the emergency room."
A lone observer, standing still and silent in the shadows of the cabin's porch, had watched the Sable streak away from the riverside party, its red taillights, clouded by the following dust, finally disappearing into the woods.
The faint smell of beer and cigarette smoke had followed him outside. The thumping rhythm and lower frequencies of recorded music, muffled conversation and laughter reached him through the cabin walls.
After a few moments, he ambled down the steps into the yard, his longish russet hair glinting in the glow of the security light. He followed a path down a slope to a boardwalk edging the inky Oostachula River.
He found a wooden bench, sat down, and pulled a flip-top cigarette box and butane lighter from his jacket pocket. The only cigarette in the box--thin, filterless and slightly crumpled--had not been made in any tobacco factory. With no fanfare and little thought, he lit the cigarette and inhaled deeply.
His three rivals had said nothing to him when they departed; just filed past him with stony faces. But he knew from long experience that they were shaken--by now, he was an expert at shaking them up--and a corner of his mouth curled upward.
Eight years had passed since his first run-in with these three crackers, fisticuffs that had got him detention at school and a talking-to at home. But his father's lecture had ended with a priceless observation:
"...there are other ways to fight, son."
Indeed, there were.
Excerpt is unedited and may differ from published version.