On Thursday morning, Deputy McAdam again forgot his spy thriller in his desk drawer. When he had parked behind the billboard to catch unwary speeders, his mind turned once more to the enigma that was his son.
It wasn't just the food. There was all that other vegan crap. A few months after David had stopped eating meat, Pete had noticed something. He was loading the thrift box into their SUV to take to the charity store in the mall. The thrift box often held something the boy had outgrown, but this time it contained far more of his clothes than usual. Every time Doreen marked his height on the kitchen doorframe, it seemed he was an inch taller, but this charity box held the kid's belts, shoes, latest wool suit, and the backpack he used to carry his schoolbooks. Underneath the pack was a sweater Pete's mother had knitted for her grandson. She'd made it especially for the boy as a Christmas gift that year and knitted it a size too big, so he could wear it for a year or two before he outgrew it.
Pete pulled the sweater out of the box to examine it. He wanted to see if there was a tear, or a stain, or something wrong with it. It was in perfect condition. His mother knitted like a pro, as good as a machine. It was a great sweater.
He could feel himself tilting towards anger. So, when Doreen joined him in the SUV, he asked her, "Why is the thrift box full of David's stuff that isn't even worn out, especially his new suit and that sweater my mom knitted for him?"
"It's wool," she said. "He won't wear or use anything that comes from an animal."
"Well, why not? We don't have to kill the sheep to get the wool."
"That's what I told him," said Doreen. "He said the wool belongs to the sheep. Somebody stole it from the sheep, and when the sheep is not growing good wool anymore, then it's sent to the slaughterhouse. He looked it up, online, and showed it to me. You know, Pete, he's smart and he's tough, same as his dad."
"Oh, for Christ's sake!" groaned Pete. "And what about that backpack? It's got years of use left in it."
"Leather straps," said Doreen. "Same with the shoes and the belts. All his shoes were leather, and his runners used some kind of glue made from animals. All he's got right now are some plastic flip-flops. We ordered some vegan shoes online. They should be here next week."
"Vegan shoes!" grumbled Pete. "Well, I suppose that means we can eat them when we run out of money buying all this crap."
"Yeah," said Doreen. "They're made out of mushroom leather. Fried up with a little nut butter, I'm sure they'd be quite tasty." She poked him in the ribs as she spoke, and their laughter defused the situation.
"Do you want fries with that?" choked Pete, and that set them off again.
"But look," said Pete, when he had caught his breath, "we can't throw that sweater away. He has to wear it when she comes to visit us, and he has to explain to her why she can't use wool for anything she makes for him. It's his decision, so he's the one who has to explain it to her. You know it'll hurt her feelings."
"Maybe," said Doreen. "But you know, as far as she's concerned, he can do no wrong. He's the only grandson she's got and, in her eyes, he's half-way between JFK and Mahatma Gandhi."
"In your eyes, too, I think," said Pete.
"You don't need to be jealous, Dummy. But yeah, I love him totally," she said. "He's a good kid, and though he's got some funny ideas, they all come out of that goodness that's inside him. We're lucky, Pete. He's smart and he's kind. And you know, my dear husband, I have a terrible feeling he's right about this animal thing. It's cruel, the way we treat animals. We don't like to think about it, but it's not good."
"People need to think about the way the world is going. Animals are going extinct, and we've messed up the climate. People need to think about that. That's what David's doing. He's thinking about things and trying to decide what's right. And then he follows through."
Pete had grunted and pulled out of the driveway. At least that exchange hadn't ended in a fight. He was glad that he and Doreen still loved each other though it was twenty years since they married. That was something to be proud of.
When the vegan shoes had arrived, and the boy was wearing them, Pete had said, "Hey, they look just like normal shoes. What's the point? Nobody'll know you're wearing vegan shoes."
David said, "But I know."
Derek was a year older than River, so they didn't see much of each other in school. River hung out at lunch and between classes with Jude. The two boys rode the same school bus. Like River, Jude's parents operated a massive factory farm outside of town. They produced chickens instead of pigs but there was no real difference. A similar sense of humor drew the boys together, so they usually sat at the same table in the cafeteria.
At lunch on Wednesday, Jude pointed to a nearby table and said, "There's that McAdam kid. You know he's a vegan? Little Mr. Prissy-pants won't touch chicken, or fish, or beef."
"Or bacon, or milk, or eggs!" said River. "Fucking ridiculous!" River laughed. "My brother Nicky says, 'If God didn't want us to eat animals, why did he make them outta meat?'"
Jude laughed so hard some of the cola he was drinking squirted out of his nose. When he had wiped himself off, he said, "He's queer, too!"
River said, "You think he's queer? How come?"
"Well, he's vegan. That's a good start. And if he hangs out with anybody, it'll be a bunch of girls, like he's one of the girls. It's not just him and one girl, like he's tryin' to fuck her. It's always a couple of girls, like they're pals or something. And then, just look at him. He's so fuckin' pretty!"
River glanced at Jude's face. Pimples and blackheads vied for space on his greasy forehead. Then he looked over at David spooning an avocado into his mouth. David still had the unblemished skin of a ten-year-old, and he seemed to glow with health. "Yeah," said River. "You're right. He's way too pretty for a boy."
"He's stuck-up, too," said Jude. "Like, if you say something to him, he answers. But that's all. It doesn't go anywhere. It's like he thinks he's too good to talk to us farm boys. He needs to suck some hard, farm-boy cock. That'd bring him down a few notches."
"Yeah," said River, imagining what it would be like to have his mouth around David's penis.
"Listen," whispered Jude and leaned over the table.
River bent his head near Jude's and listened as he laid out a plan to help David develop some humility.
On Friday morning, David woke up feeling happy. He didn't know or care why. Opening his eyes and seeing the sun shining onto his bedroom floor seemed wonderful. He lay on his side watching a few dust motes tumble in the faint breeze from the open window. A dark shadow on the floor made him look up. A crow had landed on his windowsill. He and the crow regarded each other for a moment. The crow hopped onto the floor and over to the bed. Then he jumped onto David's bedside table. David saw a slip of paper in his beak. The bird bent his head and put the paper down on the table. He tapped it once, gave a low croak, spread his wings, and flew away through the window.
David shot up in his bed, grabbed the piece of paper the crow had left, and unfolded it. The paper was a strip of cheap newsprint, something that might have been torn off a piece of junk mail.
Dear Boy who was hiding,
Thank you for the bar and the fruit. It was too good.
I want to see you, please. When you come again can you please bring me some oatmeal? I love oatmeal.
David leaped up and whirled around. The note must be from the boy in the forest. How did he know where David lived? David didn't care. It was enough that he had received a note from a crow who had flown through his bedroom window. Nobody but the forest boy could have engineered that. Zhiv. That must be his name. Zhiv. Zhiv. Zhiv. David hugged himself and spun in circles. He read the note again, then held it against his face and sniffed it in case he could smell the sender. It smelled like paper, musty paper.
David danced in and out of the shower, then dressed. He was thankful that both his parents departed for work before he needed to leave for school. They would have noticed his excitement, and if anyone had questioned him right then, he would have exploded and told them everything. It was too amazing. A crow! Inside his room! A note! That amazing boy! It hadn't been a dream.
He wanted to shout it out to the entire world. At the same time, instinct told him it had to remain a secret. By the time he walked out to his school bus stop, he had calmed himself.
All day at school, he could feel the note in his pocket like it was glowing. He took it out and re-read it a half-dozen times, to assure himself that it was real. When the final bell rang, he walked towards where the school-bus kids assembled.
"Where are you going?" said a voice behind him.
David looked over to see Jude Bedford on his left side. The boy grabbed David's arm like he was a good friend.
"Home," said David.
"We're afraid you're not eating enough," said another voice, and he felt someone clutch his right arm. He looked over and recognized River Jameson.
"Yeah," grinned Jude. "We're afraid a little vegan queer like you is not getting enough real food."
The two boys pulled David behind a dumpster and pinned him against the school wall.
"Don't worry about me," said David. "I'm fine. Leave me alone. Let me go!" David struggled but was no match for the two heavier and stronger boys.
"We're just gonna to help you with a little protein we brought for you. As soon as you eat it up, you'll be free to go," said Jude.
River brought a plastic bag from his pocket and pulled out a strip of fried bacon. "Open up now," he said.
"No!" David renewed his struggles. Jude used his free hand to pinch David's nostrils, so he had to open his mouth to breathe. As soon as he did so, River stuffed the bacon into his mouth. Before David could spit it out, Jude forced his jaw shut.
"That's a good boy," said Jude. "That's a good little vegan-queer boy. Just chew it up now and swallow it down. It's good for you. You'll feel more like a real man right away. C'mon, swallow now. Let me see those throat muscles working. Good practice for when you deep-throat me. As soon as it's down in your tummy-tum-tum, you can go and catch your bus. Next time, I'll let you suck my big cock."
"What's going on here?" barked a commanding male voice.
Both boys relaxed their grips on David. He bent over and spat out the bacon.
"We're just playin' a little game," said Jude. "No problem. Right, River?"
"Yeah," said River, patting David on the shoulder. "Just playin' around."
David stood up and wiped his mouth. "Yeah," he said. "No problem."
Although Mr. Davis, the playground supervisor, suspected he'd interrupted a bullying event, it didn't look like anyone had hurt anyone else, and the school year would be over in a week. He was reluctant to start the tedious and lengthy administrative process that a bullying report would require. He gave the three boys a stern look and said, "I don't want to see any more of this kind of behavior. Now you'd better get to your buses, or you'll be walking home."
Jude and River rode a different bus from David, so he was able to recover on the ride home. For the other students on the bus, unaware of what had happened to him, it was a normal Friday afternoon. The relaxed atmosphere they created helped to calm him, but even after his heartbeat had slowed, he felt like Jude and River had violated him. It wasn't the force-fed bacon that bothered him so much as the hate. Where did the hate come from? Was there something hateful about him?
As soon as David got home, he brushed his teeth, thankful that the minty toothpaste left a clean, fresh taste in his mouth. Then he changed into a pair of worn jeans and a loose, comfortable T-shirt. He had some time before either parent would be home, and he needed to make some preparations for his meeting the next day with the forest boy, Zhiv.
In the pantry, David filled a large jar with scoops of oatmeal from his mother's bulk bins. Brown rice went into another jar. His mother bought all their staples like oatmeal, flour, and rice in bulk. She wouldn't notice a few scoops of oatmeal or rice missing. He added a half-dozen vegan bars to his pack, then made up a little jar of sea-salt and another of coconut sugar. His pack was not half-full, but he decided not to add more. He could make some sandwiches in the morning. If Zhiv needed anything else, David could bring it on Sunday.
As he stashed his pack in his room, he heard his mother arriving home from work. He ran down the stairs, three at a time, and hugged her.
"Wow!" said Doreen. "I love it. And I love you too," she added, as she returned the hug. She pulled back then and looked at his face. "What's up?" she asked. She and David were always affectionate, but he seemed more enthusiastic than usual.
"Oh," he said, "I just feel really good, and it's Friday. How was work today?"
"Busy, busier than usual. A lot of people are afraid this new strain of COVID is going to mean another lock-down and more shortages." Since COVID arrived, the supermarket where Doreen worked had faced supply chain problems. Those and shopper hoarding resulted in empty shelves and customer complaints. "How was school?"
David followed her into the kitchen. "Okay." He paused and then admitted, "Well, actually, not so okay as usual."
His mother turned and looked at him. "What?"
David related an expurgated version of the incident with Jude and River.
As she listened, Doreen grew ever angrier. "Who was it? Who did that?"
"It doesn't matter who it was, Mom. I'm okay. I didn't get hurt or anything."
"But the school has got to punish those kids. They've got to learn not to do that. That's bullying, and it has to stop."
"Mom, if you make a big deal out of it, it's just gonna make it harder for me at school. Nobody likes a fink. And a vegan fink? I might as well just put a sign on my back saying 'Kick me, Please.'"
Doreen had faith in her son, in his ability to think things through. He was more mature than most children his age. Now she looked at him and said, "So?"
"I don't mind much what they did. I'm more bothered about why they did it. They seemed to hate me, and I don't understand why. I never did anything to them. Why would they hate me? Getting back at them, getting them punished, is not gonna answer that question — probably make them hate me more. How come they hate me, Mom?"
Doreen forced herself to relax her fists. She sat down at the kitchen table. She had no answer. "I don't know, David. Maybe just because you're different."
"Everybody's different," said David.
"You ever have anything to do with those kids?" asked Doreen. "Any fights or arguments?"
"No, nothin'. We're in some of the same classes, but we don't hang out together or have anything to do with each other normally."
"David, Honey," said Doreen, "I don't have a good answer to your question, but that doesn't mean there isn't an answer. Let's you and me put that question on the shelf and keep looking for an answer. I'll tell you what I think right now, though. That hate comes from somewhere else. It's got nothing to do with you. You were just a convenient target where they could dump some of the hate that's inside them."
David absorbed what she had said, then leaned over and hugged her. "Thanks, Mom. I hope you're right."
Doreen hugged him back and said, "Me too, but listen, I've known you for a long time, and there is nothing, nothing hateful about you. You're the best."
"You've known me for a long time? Really?"
"Almost fourteen years now," said Doreen.
"I'm only thirteen, Mom."
"Yeah, but you and me go back before that. I started to know you when you were about as big as a peach."
"Ew, can we talk about something else now?"
"Okay, but let's not tell your dad right now about this bullying thing. He'd go ballistic. He'd be down at the school Monday morning to get some answers."
"He would?" said David, surprised.
"Yeah," said Doreen. "I know things have not been good between you two for a long time, too long, but you should always remember that he loves you more than anyone on earth, except me, maybe. If he knew someone laid a hand on you, he'd make sure they regretted it."
"Wow!" said David. He felt as if huge wheels were revolving in his head. He'd never imagined his father would defend him like that.
"Yeah," said Doreen. "He's never gonna tell you, not in a million years, but I know it's true, and you should know that too." She paused to let her words sink in. She wished she had said it years ago, instead of believing that her two males would work things out. All they had managed was an uneasy truce. As a result, Pete was missing a lot of David's boyhood, and David wasn't getting all the good fathering she knew Pete could give. She also worried that David was on the verge of puberty, if not already over the edge. There was some advice and information she knew should come from Pete rather than her.
Doreen continued, "Okay, I'll let this go for now, but if those boys do anything else or get physical with you again, we're gonna follow it up with the school. They may be terrorizing other kids who are not as stable and confident as you are. They need to learn that bullying is not acceptable. Okay?"
"Okay," said David.
Pete was clocking some overtime on a hobby farm near Jana Mountain. Richard Wilkins, an elderly male resident, was dead. The report said some horses had trampled him to death. It was routine that a deputy attended when anyone called in a 911 accidental death. He pulled into the yard and walked over to the Emergency Medical Technicians sitting on a wooden paddock fence, waiting for him. They pointed him to the blanket-covered body inside the fence.
When he lifted the blanket, it was a gut-wrenching sight. The man's head was mush. Judging by the hoof prints, it was clear it was horses that did the trampling. The gaudy pair of western boots the man wore drew Pete's eyes. The uppers had fancy silver inlays, and his spurs were gold plated. The stiletto-sharp points of the stainless steel rowels gleamed in the sun.
"Anybody see what happened?" he asked, as the ambulance crew gathered up the body.
"The wife called it in. She saw it. She seemed to take it pretty calmly. But maybe it hasn't registered yet. Sometimes a sudden death is like that. It takes time for people to realize someone just got snuffed out. She's in the house," said one of the ambulance attendants. He gestured to the other. "Jeff here called the daughter. Lives in town. She's on her way here now."
"Where's the horses?" asked Pete.
"Never saw 'em," said the ambulance driver. "They musta lit out after they done it."
Pete signed the documents that released the body to the EMTs and walked over to the house. He knocked on the back door and went inside.
An elderly woman sat at a worn kitchen table with her elbows on the table and her head in her hands. She looked to be seventy-five or eighty.
"Mrs. Wilkins?" said Pete, as he sat down.
She nodded, and Pete expressed his condolences. Then he asked her if she could tell him what had happened. It took a while to get the story. Her husband had entered the paddock to get one of his four horses to go for a ride, like he did every afternoon. While she was washing their lunch dishes, she watched him through the kitchen window. He was bridling his favorite pinto gelding when the bay mare came up behind him. The mare bit him on the shoulder and toppled him onto the ground. All the horses surrounded him, reared, and stomped on him.
Afterwards, they raced around the paddock screaming. She said it wasn't like normal horses neighing. It was a wild shrieking. Then they raced towards the fence and leaped over it as if it wasn't there. She had no idea where they had gone, but she hoped the sheriff would round them up soon.
"There's a lot of money tied up in those horses," she said. "There's four of 'em, a bay mare, a gray gelding, a black stallion and a pinto. When you get 'em back for me, I can sell 'em. It'll pay for his funeral, at least."
Pete asked her if her husband had a lot of experience with horses.
"He was a rancher, spent half his life on the back of a horse. He was a great rider," she said. "He used to say he could ride any horse ever foaled. He never took any nonsense from a horse and let them know who was boss from the get-go. He always said, 'If you want 'em to respect you, you gotta whip 'em until they learn who's boss.'"
A well-dressed woman entered the kitchen, and the two women embraced. The visitor proved to be the daughter. A few minutes later, Pete left.
River dropped his school bag on the floor and crashed onto his bed. That Jude was something else. They had sat together on the bus and talked about what they had done to David. They laughed at how stupid he had looked, and how he had been afraid to rat on them to the playground supervisor.
Jude said, "We can do anything we want to that kid. We own him!" He said they would have David sucking their cocks in a couple of weeks. It was just a matter of breaking him down bit by bit, training him to obey them, like a slave. They had made a good start on it today.
River remembered how good it felt to hold onto David's arm, to feel that silky skin and not worry about anything. Pushing that bacon into his mouth was perfect, such a great way to treat a vegan. Next time they grabbed him, he wouldn't even bother to cook the bacon first. Just raw bacon! Make him cry! He imagined pushing the greasy bacon into David's mouth and noticed his penis had grown hard, as hard as stone. He shucked his pants and underwear, and stroked himself. His hand was a blur, and he climaxed in less than a minute.
A minute later he felt sad and stupid. He didn't want to be mean like that. He wondered what was the matter with his brain.
Jude raided the fridge when he got home. There was always some fried chicken there. He wolfed down a leg and a breast while recalling his and River's after-school adventure. That was what life was supposed to be like. It was exciting to force someone to do something they hated. It was fun to grab them and hold them and make them do it, to treat them like an animal.
He fantasized how he and River would get David naked and make him do dirty things — suck their balls; lick their assholes; suck their cocks. They would cum all over him and piss on him too. They could even fuck him in the bum. Jude lost himself in this fantasy. He stuffed chicken into his mouth while he leaned against the fridge.
His father came into the kitchen for his afternoon coffee break. His arrival interrupted Jude's daydream. "Great, you're home," he said. "I need you in the barn as soon as I've had a cup of coffee. Go change. We'll go in twenty minutes."
There was no discussion. Jude had learned long before that when his father said what they were going to do, that was what they did.
A half-hour later, he was in the vast chicken barn. The throat-catching stink of ammonia nauseated him. The incessant clucking and squawking of fifty thousand chickens deafened him. He put himself into robot mode, where nothing bothered him.
His job was to start at one end of the barn and find any dead, dying, wounded or sick birds. He had to pick them up, wring their necks if they were alive, and chuck them into a wheelbarrow. When the wheelbarrow was full, he emptied it into a dumpster. After he got bored, he tried new ways of killing the sick chickens, like crushing their heads under his heel, or strangling them with one hand to strengthen his finger muscles. It kept him busy until they clocked out before supper. At least his father paid him for his time.
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