The black hash was a lot stronger than the blonde stuff I was used to. One little chunk in my pipe and I was flat on my back in the woods by Van Allen's field, pine needles prickling through my t-shirt.
It occurred to me that I should slide my newspaper bag, still heavy with half my route to go, under my head like a pillow, but I was just too stoned to bother. Staring skyward through the kaleidoscopic pine trees, I pretended I was dead, keeping perfectly still, and soon even the prickling sensation became something faraway. Like something I was watching happen to someone else even though I was that someone else at the same time.
The stiller I kept, the cooler the sensation became until I wasn’t me any longer, just a nothing without a body, flying through the droning hum of outer space like the Voyager probe.
Until I was jerked out of it, spitting pine dust and needles out of my mouth, squinching my eyes against the onslaught, snorting to keep my nose clear.
“What the fuck you doing in our woods?”
I scooted backwards, but someone grabbed my shirt and pulled me back. The strained cotton burned into my arm pits, smarting something awful.
“Answer me, you little prick, before we smack the shit out of you!”
Another handful of dry dirt and needles hit me in the face. I rubbed my eyes, blinking my vision clear. Some dust had gotten through, but I acted like it was a lot worse, dreaming like a fool that would make them leave me alone.
Joey Pastori and Bitchy Mitchy, Joey’s little tag-along slave, a pimply punk with stringy black hair. They were only a couple of years older than me, high school assholes that nobody liked. Nobody.
Their woods. Right. If I had a big brother – Danny had three! – these dickwads wouldn't dare touch me. But I had no one, and they knew it.
Then they were on me, stuffing pine needles and dirt in my shirt and down my shorts. My balls and ass crack burned and itched and it was all I could do not to cry out.
Suddenly, they stopped.
“Well, what do you know!” That was Joey.
“What? What is it?” That was Bitchy Mitchy, looking extra greasy in a dirty Blue Oyster Cult t-shirt.
“Little prick was holding out on us.”
That hash had cost me five bucks and the pipe about the same, but fuck it. They could take both. I just wanted to get away in one piece, and the sooner the better.
“Jeez, Joey. He was holding out on us,” Bitchy Mitchy echoed.
We all feared Joey, a big guy with muscles and tight t-shirts and a hard look, but we reserved a special hatred for Mitchy, a scrawny runt who hid behind Joey and picked on us with Joey’s protection.
Joey treated him like shit, too. Once at the pizzeria, he smacked Mitchy, an actual slap across the cheek, when Mitchy put too much garlic powder on Joey’s slice. The whole place got quiet, and I remember wishing the jukebox was still playing.
“Nah, I'm sure he wanted to get high with us. Isn't that right, little prick? You wanted to party with us?”
“Sure, Joey, but look. I gotta get going. My paper route.” I grabbed the strap of my bag and dragged it closer.
Joey stepped on it. “You're not refusing our hospitality, are you?”
Some hospitality, with my dope.
Before I could answer, Joey barked orders at Mitchy, who then jerked me to my feet.
“This way, let's go.”
When I hesitated, Mitchy shoved me hard. Fresh hatred flashed through me because I knew I could kick his ass in a fair fight. Any of us could, even if he was a couple of years older. He was scrawny as a girl and had no muscles at all.
They marched me deeper into the woods. The dark pines gave way to lush trees, the light coming through and making all the fat leaves bright green. I usually liked this part of the woods, but right then I was thinking about how I might get away before something really bad happened. We came to a big thicket of sticker bushes and I froze up. I wouldn't be the first kid tossed into the stickers by older kids.
But instead we cut around behind the thicket to some overgrown bushes. Suddenly, Mitchy came around ahead of me, dropped to his knees, and scrambled inside.
Joey shoved me forward. “Go on, now you.”
I slipped my newspaper bag from my shoulder and scrambled into the rift. It was scratchy, but quickly opened up into a large blue space like an igloo. I was still high, and it felt like I'd fallen into a hobbit hole.
They'd cut away a bunch of branches to open up a space in the middle of the bushes. The blueness came from a tarp staked up against the stickers on the side across from the entrance. I knew because I brushed up too hard against the plastic and got poked by thorns, a hundred little needles against my back.
Joey scrambled in after me and Mitchy passed around cushions, the kind from patio furniture. We sat crouched like Indians in a teepee.
Joey peeled off his white t-shirt and laid it on the dirt floor. He set my little chunk of black hash on top and set about peeling away the aluminum foil.
“Sweet! Check it out!” He held it up to Mitchy's nose.
Mitch closed his eyes and smiled, inhaling the fragrance like it was the sweetest thing in the world, instead of stinky black hash.
“Fire it up, Joey!”
“Shut up!” Joey already had my pipe out. He broke off a big chunk and crushed it into the pipe with a house key. The house key was tied with a piece of blue yarn. Or maybe it just looked blue in that humid space, where everything was blue from the light bouncing against the tarp.
Wayward bits of hash landed on his t-shirt. Better that than falling into the dirt.
They smoked first and when the pipe came to me, I kept my hits shallow and avoided inhaling when I could help it. Maybe the hash would kick their asses as hard as it had kicked mine, and I could get away. I might even be able to get away with the rest of my hash, it was sitting right there.
“You know, Mikey, you're all right,” Joey wrapped his arm around my neck and pulled me into a loose headlock. “For a little prick!”
That sent Mitchy into a sputtering laugh right in the middle of a hit. Which in turn made Joey crack up. Despite all the asshole bullshit, maybe these guys weren't so bad. And it wasn't like I hadn’t ever picked on any of the smaller kids in the neighborhood.
Joey looked at Mitch. “So....”
Mitch shrugged. “So?”
“He seems cool.”
I got that bad feeling again. “What?”
Joey's arm was still around me. He pulled me closer.
“You like dirty magazines?”
I relaxed. It was all I could do to not sigh out loud. “Sure. Who doesn't?”
He and Mitchy exchanged another round of telepathic glances, and Mitchy turned away, digging something out from deep in the branches. An old briefcase, the fat leather kind with a big flap that closed with straps and buckles, except the straps and buckles were long gone.
Joey barked at Mitchy. “Let's go already. What the fuck is the hold up?”
Still holding me in a soft headlock, he grabbed the case with his free arm and flipped back the flap. Mitchy pulled out a rectangular bundle wrapped in a black plastic trash bag. He unwound the layers and presented it to Joey.
“Here we go!” Joey smiled, then suddenly fixed me with a grave look.
“What?” He was freaking me out.
“Have you been a good boy this year, Mikey?”
Oh, right. Of course. Santa Claus. “Yeah, sure. I guess.”
“Ho ho ho. That's close enough!” He drew out a stack of magazines and plopped them down in the space between us, crowding our knees and shins and feet. Then the smell hit me, that ripe stink of mildew and glossy pages. I was expecting Playboy, Penthouse, or even Oui, if I was really lucky.
But not RAMM. A new one on me, but of course I acted all casual, like I'd had a subscription my whole life.
The images were altogether new to me, too.
Instead of girls with perfect skin stretched out on blankets in a field or soaping up in the bath, here were men, big men with blue tattoos as indecipherable as hieroglyphics, fucking women in pickup trucks and on the backs of motorcycles. The women weren't even that pretty. In one picture, a fat man as furry as a bear was gripping a woman's head by the hair and ramming his dick, which looked thicker than my arm, into her mouth. She looked she might be choking, her face all tense lines.
Even before I could fully absorb those images, Joey said, “What do you think of this one?” and slapped another magazine on top of mine, open to a picture of a man, and just a man. He was built like the guys in my magazine, only there was no woman. Just the guy, and not even his head or legs. Mostly just his hard dick, bigger than I could ever think dicks could get, not looking like anything human, fat blue veins wrapped around it like tree roots.
“Mitchy, show him that one.” Another open magazine landed on my lap. More men, this time together, gripping each other's dicks.
I pushed the magazines away, not wanting to see any more. My whole body shivered and I thought I might throw up. I shifted backwards, my head pressing against the tarp, thorns stabbing into my scalp. Joey's arm tightened around me again, Mitchy's elbow pressing down on my thigh.
Then they were on me again.
Joey shoved his dusty t-shirt into my mouth. Mitchy tried to grab me around the waist. I rolled back and brought my knees up, trying to tuck into a ball. My left knee caught Joey good in the jaw, clonking like hollow wood. That slowed him down and I started winging dirt into Mitchy's pinched little face as fast as my hands could tear it from the ground. He choked and hacked, giving me a shot to lurch forward between them, but Joey had my legs.
I squirmed and twisted and kicked until my right leg broke free, and I just kept kicking at them until they let go, and I was free, exploding out the entrance in a tangle of torn magazines.
I made a grab for my newspaper bag, coming up with a magazine instead, the nasty one with the two guys. There was no more time but this was worth something, something that could fuck them over for good. I sped back through the woods, gripping the magazine like a relay baton, the emerald green of Van Allen's field visible beyond the dark trunks of the pine trees, getting closer and brighter by the second.
But Joey was close behind me, his grunts right in my ear.
I broke out into the open field, sprinting like Bruce Fucking Jenner, but nobody was there, nobody, so I cut toward the Tomasini's side yard, which sloped down to the street. Cars and neighbors and maybe friends. Safety.
“Mikey! Mikey!” It was Joey, not sounding so close any more. “I got your bag! I got your fucking bag!”
I halted at the top of the slope, but only because there was Danny and some of the other kids, down on the street, clustered on their ten-speeds and dirt bikes, beach towels around their necks, no doubt fresh from the lake and wondering what was next.
I was safe.
“Mikey!” Joey was back at the trees, holding up my bag like a catch of fish and smiling. “You want this, don't you?”
I looked down the hill at Danny and the others. They couldn't see Joey from their angle. Danny spotted me and waved with both hands. “Yo, Mikey!”
I stood up straight, pretending I wasn't gulping air. I still had the magazine, my hand frozen into a claw that wouldn't let go. I waved back at Danny with my other hand.
Joey shouted again, a hushed shout now that others were nearby. He dangled my bag again. “Come on, let's trade. Okay?”
I relaxed. With the magazine, I had that asshole by the balls. Mitchy was behind him, deeper in the shadows. He was hunched over and looked like he was maybe crying.
“So bring it over,” he said.
“No,” I said. “You bring it over.”
Joey hesitated but nodded. He walked quickly, still shirtless, pine dirt stuck to his chest. When he got closer, I saw his cheek was bleeding just below the eye. I must have caught him pretty good.
“Close enough,” I said when he was about fifteen feet away. “Put the bag down and step back.”
“No, you come halfway.”
I thought I might have been wrong about having him by the balls and had a rush of fear, letting him getting so close. But we both knew that one shout would bring Danny and the others to my rescue. One shout.
I stepped forward.
He crouched down and set my bag on the grass, fist tight around the strap. “Put that down next to the bag and we'll switch.”
I crouched down, too, extending the ragged magazine with my left hand and reaching for my bag with the other. I dropped the magazine and grabbed my bag, but Joey didn’t let go. I pulled, he pulled back. A tug of war.
I pulled hard, but he wasn’t letting go.
“I'll shout for help.”
“So?” The asshole was smirking.
“So I’ll tell.”
His face tightened but the smirk came right back.
“Go ahead, tell your little shit friends. And I’ll tell them how you sucked my cock and begged me to fuck your ass the way you like it.” He switched to a girly voice. “Oh, Joey, give it to me, Joey! Oh, Joey.”
A cold wave washed over me. I knew all the words he was saying but had never heard them put together like that before. It felt unreal, a bad dream.
“I’ll tell them you like sucking cock so much, maybe you want to suck theirs, too. I’ll tell the whole fucking neighborhood.”
Another cold wave, but then I thought about how his face had lost its smirk, if only for a second. “Bullshit. They won’t believe you, and you know it.”
He shrugged. “You want to find out?”
There was nothing else I knew how to do. He let go of my bag and loped back to the woods, magazine in hand.
As I came down the slope, Danny fired a Frisbee at me. I snagged it out of the air and fired it right back.
“What happened to you?”
My shirt and shorts were still smudged with dirt and dripping pine needles. “Shit, nothing. Just a run-in with Joey and Bitchy Mitchy. You know.”
Everyone laughed. Most of them had had their run-ins, too. Nothing like mine, though.
Everyone was laughing, except the new kid, Scotty ,who’d just moved in a couple of months before. He kept to the back of the group, his eyes avoiding mine.
I could almost see the blue light of the tarp coloring his face.
I looked back up the hill, toward the darkness of the pine forest, then back at Scotty. He was a runty kid, scrappy blonde hair, younger than most of us, and with no big brothers, either. Easy pickings.
Fuck Joey, I thought. Fuck Bitchy Mitchy.
“Hey, guys,” I said. “You know what?”
They all leaned toward me.
“Did you know Joey and Mitchy have a secret fort up there?”
“Yes, way,” I said. “And I know exactly where it is. And I mean, exactly.”
“Well, shit, man,” Danny grinned. “We gotta go and wreck it when they're not around.”
The group murmured with excitement. The motion was seconded and thirded and fourthed. Someone said Joey and Mitchy wouldn't be around on Wednesday, we should do it then.
I looked at Scotty, and I think he knew what would happen when we wrecked the fort, what would be discovered, and the price Joey and Mitchy would pay. I wanted to think that made him feel happy, but I couldn’t tell.
All this should have made me feel good, too, the best, the idea of those fuckers getting theirs, getting found out, getting their asses beat down. But instead I just felt spent, squeezed dry. I wanted to lie down and disappear into space again, maybe for a hundred years.
But my bag was still heavy with undelivered newspapers, so I had to keep moving.
Andrew O. Dugas' work has appeared in 100 Word Story, LITnIMAGE, Mixer, Instant City, and elsewhere. His novel Sleepwalking in Paradise was published in 2014 by Numina Press. He recently snail-mailed 1,001 original hand-inscribed haiku postcards to as many randomly selected recipients, and he still doesn't know why.