A Rose, by Any Other Name …


We hated that dog across the street. He was mean, conniving and mangy. He was sneaky, ugly and cunning. But most of all, we hated him because he was so damned loud.

He’d start barking, whether at a passerby or a vehicle or an animal or whatever, and he’d keep on barking for what seemed like hours. He just wouldn’t let up. The people in the house seemed to be blessedly oblivious of the ruckus he raised, but the rest of the neighborhood certainly wasn’t. It was one of the first times in my life that I realized that ignorance truly IS bliss. More ignorant people I’ve never met in my life. Those dirt-smudged, grubby kids and their waddling, ball-cap-wearing old man with his nervous hair-sweeping habit couldn’t have raised their I.Q.’s with a floor jack, and that dog never seemed to bother them.

After beaning the kid across the street with a rock-loaded snowball that winter, I didn’t see or hear much from them anymore for a while. When the weather turned warm, we kept to ourselves except for school, and they didn’t seem to emerge from their den until later either. But the dog let us know they were around. Always barking and yapping about something, he’d eventually be silenced; and he didn’t spend the night outdoors that we could tell, so we assumed those mole-rats across the street were still around.

This particular day seemed different. My parents had gone out shopping and left me with Ryan. They didn’t have to worry, in those days, about someone grabbing us and holding us for ransom. And they couldn’t have paid it anyway, so it made no difference; but things were different then. We could play out in the yard or in the street until late, travel back and forth to friends’ houses (if we’d had any within walking distance), and do kid things without having to worry about some psycho doing something Stephen King to us. So, Mom and Dad left us on our own quite a bit.

We decided to go outside that day. I’ll never forget it; I had on my “Jaws” T-shirt, tie-dyed blue and white to make it look like water, with a big, iron-on decal shark’s head on it from the cover of Peter Benchley’s novel. It came from Universal Studios; my maternal grandmother got it for me when she went there shortly after the movie was released, and it was easily three sizes too big. I was wearing my favorite blue jeans and my black Chukka desert boots. Man, I was the epitome of cool that morning, with my flowing blow-dried locks, geeky, thick-ass glasses and gapped front teeth. Sexy to the core, that was me. So I strutted my bad self outside to show the world what I had going on.

The dog across the street was barking, as usual, and I was hanging around doing whatever 13-year-old boys do when there’s nothing to do. I don’t remember specifically, but it wasn’t anything interesting or productive. Ryan was outside with me a few minutes later, and we were still doing a whole lot of nothing when I noticed something I’d never seen before.

A kid – bigger than the one that threw the snowball at me – was in the yard across the street with the other dirt-child. His hair was darker; almost as dark as mine, but not quite. My hair’s always been about half a hue lighter than Raven. But he was dark-haired, where the others had hair that was light brown or dirty blond. Or just dirty. Anyway, he caught a glimpse of us looking at him, and then leaned over to the kid I drilled with the rock-ball.

I knew something was up and it probably wasn’t going to be good.

Ryan was kicking around, twiddling, but I kept my eyes on those two guys across the street. I tried to do it like I wasn’t watching them, but how sly is a 13-year-old nervous kid?

Not three minutes later, those two barefoot, bare-chested dirt bags started crossing the street.

I stood up. I figured I was in trouble, because the new kid looked like he was kind of muscled-up a bit. Me, I’m a geeky dweeb at 13; I’ve got long hair, thick glasses, badly-stained gapped teeth, and I’m scrawny-armed and thick-middled. Kind of like my mother is built, actually. I wasn’t real athletic or fit, and this guy looked like he’d been playing Pee-Wee football most of his life and spent the rest of his time doing push-ups or chin-ups or something. He was well-defined and sort of intimidating.

As he got closer, I could see he was just a hair shorter than I was, but not much. It didn’t make me feel any better. I was nervous and twitchy. But I had to play it cool. That’s what you do when you’re from California; you gotta act cool. So I just sat down on the concrete slab porch and pulled petals off the wild rosebush that grew about a foot away and to the left of it, while they strutted through the drainage ditch and up to me.

“Hey,” the new kid said. He seemed friendly, but I knew better. Ryan wandered over to us.

“Hey,” I replied. I didn’t make eye contact. I was afraid he’d see I was scared and pounce. Instead, I stood up – real casual-like, so as not to give away being jittery – and walked a couple of feet to my right. Very nonchalantly, of course.

“What’re y’all doing?” he asked. The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife.

They moved to sort of follow me, but not outright follow me, if you know what I mean. Shadowing my movements, keeping me in range. Unfortunately, I’d dug myself a hole and let them get between me and the front door to my house. I’d cut off my retreat.

“Nuthin’,” I said casually, “what about you guys?” I patted myself on the back. Man, that was cool. Then I moved down the walkway that wound around a gargantuan mutant bush of some kind to the gravel driveway. They took another step closer to me; Ryan was between me and the front of the house to my left.

“Nuthin’,” he said back. “Wan’ do sumthin’?” I could barely understand him through his hillbilly dialect. I kept eying that front door, wondering if I could get by them to get in if I had to. I felt like a rabbit surrounded by foxes. Ugly, dirt-smudged, barefooted foxes with thick southern drawls and cut-off shorts.

I shrugged. “How about hide and seek?” my brother spouted.

“Nah, that’s fer bay-bees,” the kid said, sneering at Ryan. I tensed even more. If I got any more tense, I’d be brittle. But I knew something was going to happen; this situation was a kid powder-keg.

“What then?” Ryan said, getting a bit uppity. I inwardly cursed him for being just the type of jackass that would let his mouth write checks my ass would have to cash.

The kid seemed as muscular as a panther to me. He yawned hugely, without covering his mouth so we all got a good, long look at his uvula, arching his back into a great, tiger-like stretch. I couldn’t gauge how old he was, but he had to be around my age.

“I dunno,” the other kid said, “hide-‘n’-seek’s fun.”

“I said it’s for damned bay-bees,” the older kid snipped, and the younger one shrank back a bit.

“You guys brothers?” I interjected quickly – too quickly – trying to ease the pressure of the situation.

“Nah, cuzins,” he said. “You guys brothers? Ya both wear them damned thick glasses and what-not.” He sneered a wry smile at me. My sphincter tightened a little. He was getting to the insulting part; the part where he wanted to start a fight. It was a classic kid strategy: start friendly, become gradually more aggressive and then you have an excuse to beat the other kid up. When the teacher, adult, caregiver or whatever, came to break it up, you could say you didn’t start it. By the time all the explaining was done, it was one big “he-said/she-said” of one kid’s word against the other’s. Neutrality would be forced by the fact that the adult probably didn’t see what happened. It never failed.

“Maybe,” I said before Ry
an could answer. I was a bit peeved by the glasses remark, and it would only be years later that I realized that the hormones that were coursing in gallons through my veins were going to be too strong for any fight-or-flight response I may have had. And that was what was getting my hackles up.

“So you wan’ do sumthin’ er not?” he said again, more hostile, more sarcastic.

“No,” I said quickly.

“Why not?” My dildo brother couldn’t leave well enough alone and was too stupid to know the nuances of the terrorist negotiations taking place here. This was a standoff on par with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he just weakened my position. I gritted my teeth.

“I said no,” I hissed. “Mom and Dad will be home soon. We’re supposed to stay in the yard.” The comment about Mom and Dad was designed to warn the intruders of the arrival of the cavalry.

“We don’t have to leave the yard to do something, it’s boring now!” he whined.

The dog across the street started barking.

The sound burst out sharply as the dog erupted from his rotting-lattice lair beneath the crooked, sagging stairs of their porch. A blur of flying shed hair and spit, he charged to the end of the driveway and yapped so hard his entire body would lift up with the force of the sound. We all looked to see what he was barking at, which was nothing, as usual.

“I hate that dog,” Ryan said absently. He said it every time the dog startled him; we all did.

“That’s his damned dog!” the new kid shouted, and he stepped forward and gave Ryan a shove.

Ryan was what mothers, and clothing designers of the time, auspiciously called “husky.” He was a Butterball turkey, in other words. Plump and pudgy with a round face and the beginnings of man-breasts, his knuckles were always little dents instead of knobby protrusions. I teased him about it mercilessly, of course, and others did too. The one benefit it had, though, was that he wasn’t all that easy to push down. He slid back and toppled, but didn’t go over.

“Hey!” he shouted at the kid, swatting one hand at the attacker while using the other for balance. “Knock it off!”

I don’t know exactly what happened next. I’ve never been a great “big brother” type. I didn’t really like my brother, much less stick up for him. I recognize now that the chemical witch’s brew flowing through my system also contained a magic and powerful ingredient:

Testosterone.

I stepped forward with my jaw set and my brows knit firmly on the rim of my glasses. The kid looked over just in time for me to plant both palms right in the center of his chest, one beneath each collar bone. I stepped into the motion and gave a mighty shove, without stopping to think about how I’d respond to a counter-strike. As it turned out, it wasn’t necessary.

Like I said, I wasn’t a large or strong kid particularly, and wasn’t terribly athletic either, but I was better than I thought I was, because the next thing I saw was the gritty, dirty soles of those nasty bare feet as the kid sailed through the air about two feet off the ground and about six feet back.

Right on top of that wild rose bush beside the porch.

For a frozen, pregnant moment, there was silence. Then, there was a scream that came from somewhere around his belly button and erupted from the tangle of arms, legs, thorns, leaves and petals. His hands twisted into hooked claws of agony as the millions of tiny thorns poked, tore, ripped and shredded naked flesh.

The younger kid gaped with saucer-eyes and slack jaw, but the older one couldn’t move – any way he tried shifting dug some group of thorns in deeper. He stiffened into a statue of pain and rivulets of blood, tears streaming down his face and cleaning a trail on his grimy cheeks. He looked at me with genuine fear in his eyes.

And I liked it.

“Now,” I said over the top of his wails of agony, “get off our property. And don’t come over here again. C’mon, Ryan, get inside.”

I strode like a grown-up into the house, adrenaline pumping and pounding through me, ringing my ears. Ryan waddled right behind me as silent as a mouse through the door. I slammed it shut on the sight of the younger boy trying to pull rosebush branches from his cousin’s flesh so he could stand.

I went into our room and started laughing. Ryan joined me, but he didn’t know why he was laughing. He was laughing because I was, but I was laughing because it was the only way I knew to release pent-up tension.

My parents came home about 15 minutes later. They honked the horn in that high-classed way they had to let us know they wanted us to carry in groceries. When I stepped outside, there was no one around – not in our yard, not in theirs … nowhere.

And the dog was not barking.

-JDT-

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