Russell J. Armstrong (russelljarmstrong.com) lives with his wife and daughter in Chicago. He is a high school administrator who currently spends his days as a stay-at-home dad. When he isn't changing diapers or reading books about letters and numbers, Russell is working on his first novel. His work has been published in The Evening Theatre, The Drabble, and Scarlet Leaf Review.
A PICKPOCKET, PONIES, & PICKLEFANGS
Sam Lenten plowed mid-order from the Dairy Queen stand through three jam-packed lines. Although average height for an eighth grader, he was wide for his age, which made path-clearing easy. Dimwiddy flung his Cookie Dough Blizzard to the pavement and sprang onto his bike the moment he glimpsed him coming. With a mop of disheveled hair pitched low over the handlebars and butt riding air, he power-pedaled like crazy.
“Dimwiddy, I want it back!” Sam yelled in pursuit, but his shorts and basketball jersey clung to his thick-boned build like a latex glove on a butternut squash. Already losing ground, he snatched a random bicycle from the rack and took a running start down the sidewalk.
A blue-eyed girl in a dress darted from the crowd. “You steal that?” she said, her long, blond hair tied up on her head, save a few sweaty face-framing strands. The coastal Georgia sun had yet to surrender its grasp on the mid-May evening.
Sam groaned at Casey, his nosey grade-younger stepsister. “Borrowing. Go away.”
“Who’s that?” she said, as Dimwiddy pedaled into traffic and honking horns, knee-high, tube-socked calves rising and falling.
“Sixth grader. Stole my wallet during passing period this morning. Couldn’t catch up to him.”
“Kinda like now.” She matched Sam stride for wheel, courtesy of leg muscles, his, which resembled a pair of brown Twinkies.
Dimwiddy turned a corner onto a country road famous for its towering moss-draped magnolias and old-money mansions.
“He kept poking around the seventh-grade wing after that,” Sam said. “Between periods. Like he was looking for someone.”
“Yeah, and each time I went after him, he took off.”
They closed to within half a block of Dimwiddy when a convertible jeep screeched onto the street, radio blasting. Two high schoolers in costumes sped toward them. Gandhi drove, and a priest, arms raised, bopping to the music, rode shotgun. The car swerved at Dimwiddy, missing, but causing him to almost wipe out on the gravel shoulder. When the jeep passed Sam and Casey, Gandhi leaned out and hurled a half-eaten peach. The fruit left a stinging, sticky mark between Sam’s shoulder blades, and he flipped off the cheering occupants as the vehicle turned and disappeared down a driveway.
The siblings paused ahead at the edge of a side road. Face flush, Casey jabbed her finger at a sign nailed to a post: DIMWIDDY ESTATE. PRIVATE PROPERTY. DO NOT ENTER! Francis Dimwiddy II faded into the distance where a three-story manor’s columns gleamed.
Sam gulped air, the bike propped between his legs. “Man, he’s fast.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that was Dimwiddy?” Casey said, as he massaged the sore spot on his back.
“I’m fine, by the way — and why’s it matter?”
“His family’s supposed to be, like, connected or something.”
“Connected. So they’re what, dots?”
“So am I.”
“You sure it was him? There’s a billion people in the halls during passing periods.”
“Why would he take your stupid wallet? Look at that place.”
“Because self-entitled rich people think they can do whatever they want.”
“Okay, Mom. And what’s that other thing she’s always saying? ‘If you set —’ ”
“ ‘You can do anything you set your mind to.’ ”
“Yeah, so watch and learn.”
“Oh, puh-lease! It’s Friday. Find him Monday in school. What’s the big deal?”
“I need it now’s the big deal.”
“Well we don’t have permission to go — Sam. Samuel!”
But he ignored her and pedaled past the sign.
* * *
Sam swept the mansion’s southern and western perimeter. Casey, back from scouting the northern and eastern windows, ducked beside him in a shady peach orchard west of the house.
“No sign of him inside,” she said. “But I saw a purple wallet on the kitchen counter.”
“And something else … like a flying poodle or something.”
“A flying poodle?”
“We should go.” Casey turned, distracted by faint neighing from stables beyond the orchard’s edge. “Horses! Ooh, I love — Sam!”
But he’d already charged toward the house. Dangling over the rooftop, a detached cable ran alongside a second-floor balcony down to the ground. Sam jumped up and grabbed the line, slowly scaling the exterior, hand over hand, feet pressed to the wall until positioned to the balcony’s right. He pushed left with enough force to propel over the railing. But as he swayed forward, the cable went slack and sent him crashing into the rail, clinging to the top as something scraped the roof, then swooshed the length of his body and thudded to the lawn. With arms straining, he heaved headfirst over the rail and collapsed gasping to the deck.
His phone rang. It was Casey.
“Are you insane? You dragged a satellite dish off the roof! Get down —”
Sam clicked off and switched the cell to vibrate. The sliding glass door was unlocked. Inside, the AC alone made the climb worth it. He crept through a bedroom and out into a hallway where far-off static led down a winding staircase toward what he hoped was the kitchen. Instead, an entrance hall opened into a curtain-drawn dining room that exited into a corridor where the noise grew louder. At the far end, the ear-piercing sound blared from within an even darker study. A sharp odor inside, mildew and old cigar smoke, forced his nose to scrunch up. The glow from a television’s frozen NO SATELLITE SIGNAL message cast a recliner in shadow.
“Grandpa!” From behind, Dimwiddy’s voice entered the hallway. “The TV stopped working upstairs.”
A profile stirred in the recliner, sending Sam’s skin left and his skeleton right.
“That’s so loud!” Dimwiddy clomped in and lowered the volume.
Grandpa snorted and snored in the chair. Sam, who’d flattened beneath a sofa, felt his phone vibrate as a hairy towel sailed from the hallway onto the couch. When the towel sank below the cushion’s edge, he flinched, realizing it was an upside down monkey’s head.
“Kinda busy,” he whispered into his cell.
“Get out of there!” Casey said. “That jeep — the one from before? It just pulled up front with two nuns. They’re all headed inside. Get your chunky —!”
Sam hung up. His chest tightened as he inhaled cheese on the monkey’s breath. Its howling head bobbed, flashing greenish teeth.
“Grandpa, wake up — Mister Picklefangs, stop it! Off the couch.”
“Hel-looo!” someone called from across the house.
Sam’s heart pounded even faster as Dimwiddy’s legs ran out a second door.
“What’ve we got here?” the voice said as Sam followed to the end of another hall and peeked inside the kitchen.
Across an island counter, Gandhi held Sam’s wallet above Dimwiddy’s outstretched arms, laughing and pushing him by his face.
“Idiot, you almost ran me over!” Dimwiddy said.
The taller of the two nuns elbowed him into the priest who shoved him to the floor. He climbed to his feet, arms clasped around Gandhi’s waist.
“Get off me, freak!” He turned to his companions. “There’s a stocked bar in the upstairs parlor. Third floor. Next to the glass case in the hall.”
“Why’re you in my house?” Dimwiddy demanded.
Gandhi adjusted his robe and glasses. “I need a quick word with my cousin.”
The priest winked and followed the nuns through double doors off a breakfast nook.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” Dimwiddy said, as Sam crawled into the kitchen. “And how come you’re dressed like that?”
“Your parents won’t be back for another week, and I need a few bottles for a costume party if you must know, which you don’t.”
“I’m telling when they get home.”
Something small skirted the center counter, and something fleshy and larger slammed into the wall. Sam recognized both sounds. His arm snaked low up onto the granite and snatched down the wallet. He rifled through the fold.
Yes, still there!
Two Braves-Cubs tickets for tomorrow’s baseball game in Atlanta. His dad had entrusted him with their safekeeping, and as far as he’d ever know, Sam could be trusted.
He swung around to leave when Dimwiddy cried out. Sam’s eyes cut to the hallway, but his body stayed put. Not because he felt compelled to try to rescue Dimwiddy from some moron twice his size. But because he felt compelled to get even with that same moron for chucking a peach. Sam peeped over the counter. Dimwiddy, pinned cheek to wallpaper, whimpered, his underwear’s waistband stretched halfway up his spine.
“You better keep your mouth shut or you’ll get worse than this,” Gandhi warned.
“Okay! Ow, ow, ow! Stop, please! Grandpa!”
Gandhi chuckled, his arm tensing tighter until a glass soap dispenser smashed into his head hard enough to knock off his glasses. Of the swear words that followed, Sam recognized three as Gandhi spun and ripped off his bald cap. “Blood?” he shouted in hysterics, fingers pressed to his skull. “That stupid monkey! Where’d it go?” He flung the cap to the counter and wrenched a paring knife from a holder. “I’ll skin that ugly chimp alive!”
Gandhi stormed clockwise around the island, and Sam, on elbows and knees, scurried to maintain a 180-degree buffer. Dimwiddy limped from the kitchen, calling for Grandpa while Sam parted the nearest door and crawled inside. By the walk-in pantry’s rear wall, Mister Picklefangs sat chomping Cheetos. He yowled and bounced up and down when Sam shut the door and crept beside him.
“Shhh! You’ll get us both killed —!”
The door whipped open.
Sam snatched and flung the Cheetos bag at Gandhi’s nose. Mister Picklefangs lunged through the air onto his face and chomped down on the pacifist’s ear. Gandhi, screaming, staggered backward and lost hold of the knife. He zigzagged blindly, struggling to dislodge the monkey who’d wrapped around his noggin like a wooly squid. Unseen, Sam tore from the kitchen and Gandhi’s wails, but as he crossed the foyer, footsteps descended the staircase. He ducked into a nearby closet and waited for the trio to pass before darting out.
Sam reeled from the front door. Dimwiddy barely came up to his chin.
“It was you, wasn’t it?” he said.
Sam scoffed. He turned, opened the door, then turned back. “Why? Why would you need to steal anything? Ever?”
“I … I tried giving it back. To your sister.”
“To Casey? For what?”
“To tell her you lost it but —”
Shrieks crescendoed amid a staccato of crashing glassware and cutlery in the kitchen.
“But you kept stalking me every time I tried to go up to her.”
Sam puffed. “Stalking you? You didn’t find my wallet. I saw you running off. You stole it!”
“Ugh.” Now it made sense. “You like her, don’t you?” The glow in Dimwiddy’s cheeks gave up the truth, and Sam moaned. Why anyone would want to get to know his stepsister better eluded him.
“Here.” Dimwiddy pulled a set of keys from his pocket. “To my cousin’s jeep. A peace offering. Sorry. And thanks.”
“Are you crazy? I’m not stealing a — Jesus!” Sam recoiled as Mister Picklefangs leapt from the dining room onto Dimwiddy’s shoulder.
“You better go,” he said, and stroked underneath the monkey’s chin. “And we better hide, Picky.”
“Do me a favor,” Sam said. “Stay out of people’s pockets from now on. Especially mine.” Then the corners of his mouth curled up and kept curling. If he told Casey all this was because some kid with a pet monkey — a sixth grader, no less! — believed she would reciprocate his crush? Combine Christmas morning with the best birthday he’d ever had, and the mirth would still pale compared to the glee swelling through him. Halfway out the door, he wheeled around. “She likes horses.”
His relieved-looking stepsister held up caps to the jeep’s deflated tires when Sam returned to the orchard. “Just in case,” she said, and he held up his wallet.
“Told you — anything you set your mind to.”
And he left it at that.