I don't take the money. Though I consider it. One dollar is 3 comic books.
Instead, I stare at it mutely until a breeze lifts it away and drops it into a thicket of bushes just as the final school bell rings down the hill. Dill watches it go, looks one more time into my eyes as if searching for a response to his offer, then turns on his heels and runs toward the bell and through the school door.
Part of me expects him to disappear into a flash of yellow light. I envision a cryptic message written on the back of a dollar bill from the future. But Dill remains solid as he pushes through the door, into the school, and off toward the elementary classrooms on the right, and when I manage to retrieve the dollar bill from the bushes, it's just a dollar bill. 1971.
And then there's the birds. They seem no louder or quieter than usual.
I shove the dollar bill into my pocket and follow Dill through the door, turning left instead of right. I run to my locker and then my homeroom, dropping winded and sweaty into my desk just as Mrs. Finnigsmier begins her morning roll call.
It's Mrs. Finnigsmier who taught us to control our classroom fidgeting by wiggling our toes beneath our desks, and my toes wiggle uncontrollably as I reach repeatedly into my pocket throughout the day to confirm the reality of the crumpled bill inside.
I sweat my way through football practice, finally having achieved at least enough fitness to not feel like each step is my last. As I drain a gallon milk jug full of water during a rare break, I see a shadowy form in white t-shirt and jeans watching us from beneath the short row of bleachers on the sidelines. When I look, it ducks back out of sight and coach Bard whistles us over for another round of torture.
"I can get another dollar," He says. He's waiting outside the door as I leave. I'm freshly showered and aching for a triple peanut butter sandwich and a carton of milk. "You should have picked it up. It's money" He's sitting on one of the high school kids' car, and all I can think is that he'll be dead soon if I don't get him off of it.
"Who are you?" I ask as he slides off of the freshly waxed hood, and I reflexively cringe, scout the area for high-schoolers, and reach to somehow levitate him from the car to avoid scratches.
His feet hit the ground. "I told you."
"Don't call me that!" The tone of his voice stabs me with the fear that "Dill" might be yet another mysterious ethnic slur.
"I'm... I... Sorry."
"It's OK." When he stands, he stands perfectly, unnaturally still.
"Who are you?"
"'Dill' is a pickle. You know?"
"Call me 'D.'" Then, as an afterthought, "Please."
We stand quietly for a moment as my stomach rolls over like a cranky, insomniac tiger.
"Thanks." His stillness makes me want to reach out and give him a shove. "Do you know what irony is?" he asks as I reach instead into my pocket for his dollar.
"Irony. Do you know what it is."
"Um. Sort of?"
"I'm actually allergic to pickles." He says. He looks like he's just told me that someone's killed his family, and I nod knowingly. My stomach screeches like a rubber duck being slowly crushed beneath a steam roller. "That's irony," he says.
"Yeah. I have to go," I say, and I hand him his dollar. "Here. I'll, um... See you. Tomorrow. D." I turn to run home, but my legs won't move that way until I've slept for at least 12 hours, and I can feel his silent eyes on my back as I walk slowly away down the wide gravel driveway, past the school, across the street, and toward the familiar comfort of, milk, television, and peanut butter.
The back door is the only one we really ever use, but I enter the through the front door. The back door is too close to the glowing menace of The Thing. I don't want to think about The Thing.
Dad is in his recliner, pipe in hand and ashtray at his side. The ashtray resembles some sort of 3-tiered chess board from Star Trek. It extends from the floor to exactly the height of his right hand. Arrayed on a side table to the left is a mystifying assortment of pipe-smoking implements.
"How was football?" he asks.
He probes the bowl of his pipe with what might be an alien cylinder of death. Metallic and bullet-shaped, it would enter through the victim's ear and send spiky talons through his brain.
"Good. He run you hard?"
"Yeah." He tap-tap-taps the pipe into the top ashtray releasing a gritty residue: the remains of his victim's freeze-dried brain. "You mowed the lawn."
"I did." A small silver blade scrapes the walls of the bowl, no doubt collecting samples for later study.
"The back too?"
"Mm-hm. I figured you'd be tired enough after football."
"Thanks." He pops open an industrial-sized can of tobacco.
"Mom has dinner for you."
"I'll make a sandwich."
I head toward the kitchen. Stop. "Dad? Did you see anything? In the back?"
Scooping into the can with his pipe, "When?"
The pipe emerges, overflowing with alien plant-life. "Like what?"
"I don't know."
"Did you lose something?"
"No. Just... nevermind. I was... thinking of something else."
Tamping cherry-scented tobacco into his pipe and firing up his Nebraska Cornhusker table lighter, "Well, I didn't see anything,"
I walk into the kitchen. Everyone else is upstairs. The light is off, but I can see just fine as I spread half a jar of peanut butter onto two slices of bread.
The yellowy glow of The Thing floods out from behind the mulberry bushes, lights up the back yard, and pushes in through the kitchen windows like a drunken sun that doesn't realize it's time for bed.
The Thing is a constant beacon in the night.
But it only lights the way for me.
"Was that a 'no'?"
He's standing beneath the tree that he'd dropped from just the morning before. Waiting for me as I round the corner on my way to school, even though I left 10 minutes early just to miss him.
"When you gave me the dollar back? That's a 'no'?"
"It's... No. It's your money. You don't have to give me money."
He stares at me skeptically. He's dressed like yesterday, only this time the scribbled message on his t-shirt is "what fools these mortals be." It seems familiar, somehow, and I just assume I heard it once on Bewitched.
He stares at me, a perfectly still totem as the rest of the world swirls around him. "Puck," he says to me as if he's read my mind. And, when he sees my reaction, "PUCK! With a P. Puck." He points to his shirt, spitting as he enunciates.
"I'm going to be late," I say.
"No you won't. So, you'll be my friend?" he asks.
"I've got a test," I say as he stares into my eyes. We stand for what seems like 20 minutes. "I don't know. I don't know," I say. "I... I've got a test. I'm going to be late."
The first bell rings. He stares another moment then turns toward school without a word and falls in beside me as I walk past.
"You need to read more," he says. As we walk, I can see that the ink bled through to the back of his t-shirt when he Pucked it.
"I do read."
"Yeah," he says. "Not the right stuff, though." We walk a bit in silence.
"Yeah," I say. "I know."
"Do you even like football?" he asks.
"Hi, D." He's sitting on someone else's car this time.
"'Cause you look like you hate it."
"Yeah. It's better now." I start walking, and he jumps down to join me.
"Better than what?"
"It's..." I falter. "I..."
"No, I know what you mean."
We round the corner from the parking lot to the driveway just as "WHO THE FUCK'S BEEN SITTING ON MY CAR?" rings out from behind us, and I try to pick up the pace.
"Football's stupid, anyway. Why do you do it?" he asks.
"It's good for me," I recite by rote. And before he can reply, "where do you live, anyway?"
"There." He points behind us, to the right.
"We're talking. And they don't care. As long as I do my homework. And homework's a joke."
At the street, I turn left.
"Don't you live up here?" he asks.
He looks from my street to me and toward my street again.
"Oh," he says. "Yeah, I heard what you said to Keith," he says.
"Yeah?" I imagine that I must be blushing with shame as he watches curiously.
"You didn't even know, did you?"
I shake my head. "Huh-uh."
"That's what I thought." We resume walking. "Read more."
We round the block, circumventing Keith's house, and arrive at the driveway by my back door.
"So..." I say. From behind me, The Thing shines like an aura around my garage.
"You never answered my question," he says from the street as I turn to walk to the door.
"You're not that stupid. Your test is over. So?"
We face off. Him in the street, me in the driveway. His feet are nailed to the asphalt.
"Why do you do that to your shirts?" I ask.
"Because it annoys people."
He pauses. "No."
"Self defense," he says, and for a moment the breeze seems to actually move him.
"What?" I say.
He's still once again. "I have a problem not telling people when I think they're stupid."
"Bullies are the stupidest. They beat me up when I do that."
"Yeah." I nod.
"If I put it on my shirt, I don't have to say it. And the bullies are too stupid to know it's about them."
"Huh." I smile.
"It doesn't work." He says.
"But I like it better than normal shirts."
I nod. The Thing shifts color slightly as The Thing is wont to do.
"Why do you want to be my friend?" I ask.
"Because I think you're smart," he says. "I don't know a lot of smart people."
"So, will you?"
My stomach, sensing the proximity of dinner, purrs lightly beneath my shirt.
"Probably," I say. "I don't know. I'm not good at friends"
"Yeah." He nods solemnly. "OK. I'll see you tomorrow, then."
"See you tomorrow." I turn back and push my way through the light and toward the door. I can feel him still looking at me from behind.
"Hey," he says.
"What?" I turn back.
"Doesn't anybody ever complain about that light behind your garage?"
Another breeze nearly knocks me over, and my body starts to tremble.
"Yes," I say. "Yes, I will. I'll be your friend."