Of course, Penny didn’t answer him. Instead, she just stood there, staring and blinking. Like always. She did that way too much. Gunny found it really weird. And you could always count on Penny to be all baffling like that by constantly doing weird things. “Hello, the Penny!” he called to her. He was teasing her; he usually teased her like that when he felt uncomfortable with her. Penny seemed to be in a fog, and Gunny’s dad had once told him that’s how people on boats would talk to each other in the fog before there were phones and stuff; they’d say ‘hello, the ship,’ supposedly. Gunny didn’t really understand what the ‘the’ in that was for, but he thought it was cool.
And it kind of worked. As soon as Gunny had called to her, Penny’s shoulders had jerked back. She looked confused for a long moment, like she wasn’t sure where she was. Then, she just looked annoyed. And then angry. Doing that thing girls’ faces do where you can tell they’re feeling one thing at a time. But, finally, apparently settling on on anger, Penny answered him: “I wasn’t yelling. You’re yelling. I didn’t yell. I didn’t ask for your help,”.
Gunny made a stupid, big-eyed face at her; he was trying to get her to laugh. “It wasn’t you?” he asked, straddling his bike, balancing his weight back and forth. “Well, it sure sounded like you.” He got an idea, and it turned up the corners of his mouth. “Did you maybe lose your pet parrot? Your voice kinda sounds like a pet parrot.” He grinned. “‘Rawk, help! Help!’”
“I don’t have a pet parrot, Gunny Marsh.” Penny sounded offended. “And you’re making stuff up. I didn’t say ‘help.’ Nobody yelled. I didn’t hear anybody yelling.”
“That’s cuz I have zombie-dinosaur hearing,” Gunny replied, pretending to brush dust off of his left shoulder with his right hand. Then he acted like he was considering a deep thought, before adding “Maybe the parrot followed you from the big parrot store in Manhattan. Maybe it loves you. ‘Marry me, Penny!’ Rawk!’”
Penny shut her eyes tight, and her arms and shoulders started to shake a little. Gunny wondered if she was about to go into a tantrum. She huffed through her nose and then opened her eyes again. “I don’t have the time for you,” she said. “I just need to go, Gunny. I got stuff to do. I have to go do important stuff.”
“What’re you trying to do?” Gunny was forced to admit to himself that he was getting kind of interested in whatever had managed to get Penny so worked up. She’d screamed for help and she was trying to deny it, and he wanted to know why. He was a little worried about her, too. Penny could be okay, depending on the situation. When Gunny was staying with his mother, Penny was as close to a neighbor of his own age as he had; at least, during the summer, she was. He knew Penny and her sisters only came around for the summers, and always left right before school started. But when she was here, she was at least okay to have around when you were bored. It wasn’t like he hated her or anything. He just didn’t like it when she freaked out on him. And, besides all that, she was a girl. So, she was always freaking out about something.
But whatever was bothering her today, she didn’t seem interested in sharing. “Just some stuff. None of your business. Just go.” She stood there for another long moment, as if waiting for Gunny to respond. Her face got a little red. “Go home,” she huffed. Then, she quickly smoothed down the sides of her denim skirt like she did when she went anywhere, and just started walking away from Gunny like he wasn’t even there. He watched her as she wobbled and stumbled up the path that Gunny knew led straight out of the woods, toward the Old Yellow Store.
He found himself feeling kind of bad for Penny in that moment, thinking of her having to live in there. He knew the Old Yellow Store had a house attached to it, where the local Greenlees lived. That place was gross — both parts — and Penny’s grandparents were even weirder than she was, in his opinion. There was a part of Gunny that wanted to follow her and apologize, even though he wasn’t really sure why he would need to do that, but he also knew he couldn’t go after her that morning. He had something else to do, and what he had to do actually was important. And really couldn’t wait much longer. He pulled out his cell phone and looked at the time. His phone said it was 8:06 AM, according to the lock screen. But the lock screen was flickering, going in and out like the phone was shutting off and then turning back on every so often. And each time it came back on, the time was different — 12:06 AM, 6:06 AM. Gunny’s shoulder slumped. The phone was a recent gift from his grandfather, and he worried that he’d have to reset it when he got back home. That was always a pain. But the 8:06 AM time when he’d first looked at it had sounded right, so he assumed it was correct — and that he wasn’t late yet. Annoyed, Gunny shoved the phone back into his pocket. Then, he pushed off on the pedals of his bike, turning to go down the worn trail that led northwest through the woods — away from the Old Yellow Store, toward the Dirt Clod. It was, as far as Gunny knew, the fastest way to get there; about a thirty minute trip by bike. As he pedaled, Gunny tried to think of all the different things that Penny had told him. He was working through her words, hoping that he could maybe figure out what she was up to and why she’d been out in the woods — because he was absolutely certain that what he’d heard earlier couldn’t have been anything else but a girl screaming for help. And yet, Penny had completely denied it.
Of course, the denial made sense to Gunny in and of itself. Penny was one of those kinds of girls who tried to do things all by herself, even though she was mostly bad at everything. She didn’t even like for her sisters to help her, let alone him. But he knew what he’d heard. Even so, Gunny couldn’t come up with any clues from their conversation. It was a dead end. He shifted his focus and concentration on maintaining the steady, rhythmic movement of his legs as he turned the pedals of his bicycle. “Auuuuugh — girls are so stupid,” he said to himself. “They’re awful!” He was daydreaming that he was Grimdark Fang, Chief Hunter from Nekrozoik, picturing himself tearing through the woods at his current speed — but running on powerful dinosaur legs. Zombie dinosaur legs that never got tired. Gunny hated feeling tired almost as much as he hated sleeping. He began to list off different invectives every so often. “And they’re boring,” he said, a little louder, and pumped his left foot into his left bike pedal. Gunny liked how he was feeling. He imagined the word ‘boring,’ pictured the letters as if they were made of stones all piled up into columns. He imagined himself roaring through the columns of stone, shattering them into tiny pebbles. “And CREEPY!” he yelled, his voice cracking a little on the middle sound of the word. He pedaled harder and faster, as he exploded through that word, too, in his mind. “DUMB!” This time, he yelled out the word as loud as he could, thinking of Grimdark Fang’s sonic roar obliterating the stones, sending out shockwaves through the woods like in a movie he’d seen about an atomic bomb blowing up some houses and trees. Gunny had found that movie to be awesome. He then got stuck on the letter E, and stayed stuck, skipping on to F and cursing monotonously until he reached the Dirt Clod, his exaltation at pretending he as Grimdark Fang blending with his giddy joy at swearing. His bicycle came to a quick stop as he squeezed the handlebar brakes. He hopped off the bike and carelessly allowed it to fall onto the packed dirt.
Seven other kids were already gathered around or near the Dirt Clod. Three of them were busy riding around the dirt trails that had been worked into the big piles of earth. Those trails deviated up and down all across the piles, but all of the paths ended at plateaus of various heights. The other four were sitting in metal folding chairs. Of those four, two were smoking cigarettes. A number of other folding chairs sat empty next to the smokers on either side. The taller and older-looking of the two smokers was dressed in tight denim blue jeans that were cinched with a belt that had a snakeskin pattern on it. He also wore a leather jacket over a plain white shirt, and biker boots. Gunny first recognized the outfit, before getting close enough to confirm that it was indeed Mickey Laddow, the one he’d come to see. Walking over toward the boys in the chairs, Gunny puffed out his chest as best he could, trying to look taller and tougher. “Uh, hey, Mickey,” Gunny said, trying to keep his voice as flat as he could. That’s how Mickey always seemed to talk — never sounding too excited, always sounding cool. Like nothing mattered. So, that was how Gunny always tried to sound, too.
“Hey, Gun.” Mickey leaned forward in the folding chair, puffing cigarette smoke through barely-opened lips. He threw the mostly-spent cigarette onto the ground close to where Gunny was standing. He glanced to his left. “Jay?” He looked toward his right. “Rick?” He looked back toward Gunny. “Stick around, guys. This, here, is Gun.” Mickey turned both of his hands sideways and shook them toward Gunny. “Gun is gonna help us.” At that, the kid that Gunny hadn’t heard Mickey call by name immediately got up without a word, loping away from the chairs toward a dirty white bicycle that was leaning against part of the Clod. Next to the bicycle, Gunny noticed a trio of worn metal shovels. The unnamed kid picked up the white bicycle and biked away from the Dirt Clod.
“Yeah,” Gun said, after realizing he’d taken too long before replying. He quickly added a one-shouldered shrug, trying his best to manage to sound as disinterested and bored as Mickey did when the older guy was being cool. Gunny was nervous, though, and found it hard to keep a quaver out of his voice even on that one single word.
Mickey clearly noticed, and smirked. But the older boy didn’t say anything about it. Instead, he gestured toward the chairs. “Take a seat, Gun.”
Gunny grabbed the top of a metal folding chair and pulled it over toward him, turning it so he could sit backward in it and face Mickey. Somehow, having the back of the chair between himself and the other boy made Gunny feel a little bit less nervous.
“Glad you could join us, man,” Mickey said, his voice still sounding flat despite the words. Mickey moved his hands onto his knees as he considered Gunny. “You get something we can use?” The other smoking boy chuckled quietly before taking a long, slow drag on his cigarette.
“Yeah,” Gunny repeated, trying to keep his right hand from shaking as he reached into the pocket of his blue jeans. He pulled out a folded pocket-knife and handed it toward Mickey.
“How’s it look, Rick?” Mickey asked.
The non-smoker of the remaining boys — and Gunny was sure this had to be Rick — reached out and took the knife from Gunny, inspecting it. Rick looked like he was a year or two older than Gunny, and had a messy, uneven hairstyle — kind of like Rick had maybe cut it himself, from how it looked to Gunny. As Rick contemplated the pocket-knife from a few different angles, Gunny also noticed that Rick had a bunch of long, streaky scar-marks down the right side of his neck that Gunny could see even from where he was sitting. They were big, and they went up to just below Rick’s cheek. They were weird scars, unlike any Gunny had ever seen before, and Gunny couldn’t tell if they were burns or cuts. They looked, somehow, sort of in-between. “Looks okay,” he advised Mickey. “We’d sell it for, like, maybe, like fifty bucks at the shop.” Rick handed the knife over to Mickey, who took it.
“Well, thank you, Rick,” Mickey looked back toward Gunny. Gunny couldn’t help but hear the emphasis Mickey put on the words ‘thank you.’ But, even though Mickey said that, there was no warmth in those words. In fact, the way Mickey said them seemed especially cold to Gunny, for some reason. It was like Mickey didn’t want to use those words, and you could tell.
Mickey kept hold of the knife, but held it up for Gunny to see. “This really your dad’s?”
Gunny nodded. “Yeah.” He honestly couldn’t think of anything better to say. He sniffled, scratched at his nose nervously, rubbed his chin during a too-long silence that followed.
“Well, okay,” Mickey finally said. “That’s good. That’s good for Secret Mission One, like I told you. You did okay, getting this from your dad’s place.” Mickey lifted himself up off of his own chair and took two steps forward, then put his hands on the back of Gunny’s chair and leaned down until the two were at eye-level with each other. Even though he was looking right at Gunny, it was clear that Mickey was addressing Jay and Rick: “Y’all think he’s ready for Secret Mission Two?”
Jay, the other boy who’d remained, yanked the cigarette out of his mouth and turned his head to spit on the ground. Jay looked really short, probably a head shorter than Gunny; he could tell, even though Jay was sitting in a chair. “Seems kinda-” Jay started, and then stopped, shrugging.
“Gun’s gonna be okay,” Mickey blandly assured Jay. He let go of the back of Gunny’s chair, standing up straight and turned toward the Dirt Clod. “I think he’s ready for Secret Mission Two. I have faith in him. You guys need faith.” He took three steps, and then looked back over his shoulder. “I believe in you, Gun.”
“Cool,” Gunny said, moving to stand, himself. “So — what do I have to do?” he asked.
Mickey gestured again, toward the Dirt Clod. “You’ll see. Come around,” he told Gunny; he motioned for Jay and Rick to follow him, with his other hand. “And we’ll let you in on the Big Secret. We’re all making up some fun for Sheriff Marsh.” He nodded in the general direction of the shovels. “Oh, and grab a shovel. You’re gonna help us bury some bodies.”