The … raccoon kid,” CJ repeated quietly back to Rick. She immediately thought about the kid she and Jay had seen at Risky’s Pond. “Do you mean, like, he was wearing a raccoon mask or something?” she asked.
Rick nodded. “Yeah,” he whispered, “a raccoon mask.” His expression looked desperate. “He was following me. Being a creep. Do you know who he is?” Rick sounded hopeful as he asked the question.
Jay was looking away from them. CJ was pretty sure that he was paying no attention to their quiet conversation. “Shit, shit, shit,” Jay said.
“No – no, I don’t know who he is,” CJ said. CJ thought about the way Rick was behaving. It had to be the same kid Jay and CJ had seen … didn’t it? But, then again, CJ could see that something about that kid in the raccoon mask had really shaken up Rick Boyle – bad. This wasn’t how Rick Boyle would react to just some kid in a mask following him. A kid following Rick Boyle would probably just get a punch in the gut about the unwanted attention. It didn’t make sense to CJ. The kid that she and Jay had seen earlier at Risky’s Pond hadn’t looked scary; that kid had just been kind of dancing around between the trees. But Rick was acting like he might never be right after what he’d been through today. That was a feeling CJ shared, though. So maybe it was that, she decided. She wasn’t content with that explanation, though. She knew there had to be more to it. As she thought about that, CJ saw over Rick’s shoulder that Victoria and Falke were still engaged in discussion. CJ didn’t like how the adults were handling things. She thought about her father, and how he’d handle a situation like this. It made CJ sort of disgusted. Kevin Sweet owned a drugstore, and she was certain he’d handle dealing with these escalating crises lot better than any of the adults around her now were handling them. She felt like the police were making some big mistakes. Like not separating her, Jay and CJ. But she also understood why things were going so poorly. What had happened today – murders – wasn’t what happened in Drodden. And a quick survey of the adult confirmed a lot of her thinking: Victoria looked seriously ashen, while Jeff looked like he’d been putting on his best face earlier but was getting more and more worn down by the second. The adults were losing control of themselves, right along with the situation. Her father would’ve taken command and known the protocols and thought ahead. It’s how he’d gotten by, as he often told her. She’d learned to think that way, too. It wasn’t like CJ didn’t feel sick, too. The smell of burning skin and muscle had spread so far; CJ felt like she could taste it every time she took breath. It was sticking to the back of her throat. CJ wanted to retch, but she forced her body to stay under her control as best she could – because she knew it was up to her to take charge. She felt exhausted. She didn’t want to be the one of the three of them to have to take control, either. But someone had to, and she knew it would fall on her to be the one who handled things; that’s just how it worked out, a lot of the time. She turned her gaze back toward Jay.
“Shit. Shit, shit, shit!” Jay continued to say. Then, Jay’s focus suddenly shifted toward Rick: “You shit. Did you know? You should’ve stopped him, Rick.” Jay’s voice was angry, but quiet — barely above a whisper. “You fucking shit. Did you know?”
Even though Jay wasn’t advancing on Rick, CJ instinctively reached out and took a hold of Jay’s arm in her hand. She squeezed – hard –just below his shoulder, and came around behind him to slide her other hand across his shoulder, wrapping the fingers of that hand over the one that was squeezing him. It was the second time since they’d reached Dog Run Trail that she’d had to hold on to Jay to calm him. But this time called for more than a hug. Things were getting out of control, and CJ decided that a more serious response was necessary. She knew she had to take control of Jay. Over the years that she’d known Jay, she’d used her knowledge about her friend’s reactions a lot, to keep the boy out of trouble. She knew what things consoled him, like a hug. Or made him happy, like a playful punch in the arm. But she also knew that there were ways to outright pacify him – like the forceful embrace she was giving him now. She hated that she sometimes felt like she had to do that; it always made her feel a little bit repulsed to calm him down like that, like she was taking advantage of something in Jay’s nature instead of appealing to his better judgment as a person. That was exactly it, in fact; when she pacified Jay, she was treating her friend more like a scared animal than a person. That went against a lot of her beliefs. Treating anyone like that. But sometimes — like now — she was sure that there wasn’t any other choice — or at least, there wasn’t time to come up with anything better. To that say CJ Sweet didn’t trust the police in Drodden to do all of this right was an understatement, but she also didn’t want to become a center of attention that diverted people from their jobs. Which was likely for a ton of different reasons, CJ could tell. There were distractions all over the crime scene, herself and her friend being just two. Fire, bodies — and the Raccoon Kid, whoever and wherever he was. She thought about how Jay had passed out at Risky’s Pond, and she held onto Jay’s arm a little tighter, drawing his eyes to hers. “Don’t, Jay. Not now,” she said, keeping her voice quiet as Jay’s was. “These people running the show right now are kind of some serious fuck-ups, okay? The more we dick around, the more they’ll pay attention to us — instead of figuring this out. So, let’s keep it together, huh? And not get ourselves arrested or anything, okay?”
Whether it was her words or her grip on Jay’s shoulder and arm, CJ’s efforts finally worked. Jay’s shoulders went limp even as his lips were still curled back in rage as he returned his gaze toward Rick. Jay was still livid, swearing a streak under his breath, but at least he was just standing there and not advancing toward Rick. Finally, he stopped the torrent of curses and simply said “Fine.”
“He was following me,” Rick said. “He moved weird. All … jagged.”
“Huh? Who?” Jay said, confirming CJ’s suspicions that he hadn’t been paying attention earlier.
“Hold up, guys,” CJ interrupted them. She didn’t want the conversation to freak either of them out any further. “Later, okay?” CJ looked back toward Rick before the other boy could respond. “We’ll talk about it later, okay? We’ll compare notes. But right now – Rick – I need you to keep it together, too.”
Rick made a quiet, whimpering sort of sound. It was something CJ had never heard him do. It was kind of pathetic.
“Rick – look — you’re not stupid,” CJ said. “You’re probably the smartest one in Mickey’s crew.”
“Fuck that,” Rick said. “I’m not in his crew.”
“Well, yeah — I know. Nobody is, now,” CJ said. “Nobody will be any more. But everybody in town knows that you guys hang out together. Like, a lot. If you’re acting weird, you’ll be more suspicious. So – seriously — keep it together, okay? We all need to calm down, before things get really fucked up … or worse. Okay?” CJ knew the prospect of getting into worse trouble would get through to Rick.
It did. “Yeah,” Rick said. “Fuck. Okay. Yeah. We’ll talk about it later. And I didn’t know, Jay. I swear”
“Okay, so we’re all cool now.” CJ didn’t wait for Jay to answer. She could tell he was calmer. She released him from that pacifying hold. Rick’s shoulders just seemed to relax a little, Falke and Victoria took that moment to break off from their conversation; the two adults were walking back toward the three of them. “Are you kids still doing all right?” Victoria asked.
CJ had just gotten Rick and CJ calm. She didn’t want the adults to mess up the work she’d done. She put on her most self-effacing voice — the one she used when she wanted certain kinds of authority figures to go along with what she was saying. “We’re all doing a lot better.”
“I don’t need a shot,” Jay said, suddenly. He started trembling. “I don’t want a shot.” Jay had a big fear of needles, CJ knew. She’d seen him in the hospital, going into a panic about injections and IVs.
“Nobody’s going to give you a shot,” CJ immediately assured him. She wasn’t sure if she was lying or not, but she hoped she wasn’t. “But we’re gonna need to go to the police station with the cops. They want us to explain what happened.”
“Wait – fuck!” Jay’s voice got squeaky: “We’re not going to jail, are we?” Jay took a few cautious steps toward CJ. “We didn’t do anything.”
CJ nodded, and looked toward Jay and Rick. “We’re fine, right guys?”
Jay and Rick both nodded silently.
“And Jay – it’s cool. We’re not going to jail, okay? They just want to ask us some questions. Come on, man.” She lifted her left arm, gesturing to suggest to Jay he come up under it so they could walk back to the police car.
“There’s just way too many dead people today,” Jay said, tears beginning to stream down his cheeks along with the drool from his lips. He started sobbing, but he kept walking until he was under CJ’s arm.
“I know,” CJ said, moving her hand down from Jay’ shoulders to rub at his back, leading him back to the police car. “And we’re gonna go down to the police station with Rick. You know Rick’s okay now, right? You know he’s here to help us. You trust me, don’t’cha? Well, right now, I trust Rick. I think he’s telling the truth that he didn’t know. We’re all gonna get together and we’re gonna figure this out. We’re all gonna work on it, together, you know?”
“Yeah,” Jay said, rubbing the flat of his right palm across his wet face, the act accompanied by gooey sounds that repulsed CJ all over again. He lowered his hand and looked sideways toward CJ as they walked. “Like a case.” He blinked a few times, hard, as if trying to force final tears from his eyes and get himself together.
CJ dared to think it was a good sign. It hadn’t exactly worked out when she’d thought that a moment ago. But she believed in remaining optimistic about Jay whenever possible. “Exactly like a case,” she told him. “We’re going to help the police solve this.” CJ moved her arm to bring him into a sidelong hug. She knew that, under normal circumstances, Jay would reject such a gesture, but she knew it was exactly what he needed. CJ felt Jay lean hard into the hug as they walked. She also caught grateful looks from Victoria and Falke. The policeman she knew was the one who ended up getting into the front seat of the car they were talking toward as the paramedics walked behind CJ and Jay, helping them into the seats. Rick was already inside, and CJ took the middle position, giving Jay the police car window. The policewoman CJ didn’t know shut the door. Everyone in the backseat was silent as the car pulled back and turned around on the dirty road back toward town, away from the sickening smoke, away from the burning house and the panic-stricken adults running around so clueless. And — most importantly, for all three of the kids in the back seat — away from the dead.