June 28, 2015
Every damn day in Religion Class, Sister Anna Banana yapped about the Soviets revving up to start a nuclear war with the new president, Ronald Reagan. She said after the cities burned to Holy Hell, there’d be something called “nuclear winter” that would kill all the plants and food, and it would last a million years. I’ll tell you what, a little bad weather, nuclear or not, wasn’t going to make me go extinct.
I’m already semi-super strong and fast, and I’m the best fighter in the sixth grade. But once World War III kicks off, I’ll need to be impervious to the nuclear wind-chill factor. Even though I was a whole year older than him, my little brother, Jaggerbush, was already immune to freezing weather, drinking sour milk, and the Ten Commandments. I had to practice up. I had a cold war to fight.
I hid out down in the woods behind the Red Brick Alley. The new snow made a gargantuan pillow that Thor’s one-eyed dad held over the Earth’s face and suffocated all the noise out of the woods. Prehistoric icicles swung from the giant tree branches like sea-monster teeth. You could see the smudgy sky up through the trees since all the leaves leaped to their deaths. The clouds were real dingy, dirty-mop dingy, dingier than Ding Dong’s tube socks and Ding Dong was the dingiest, dirtiest kid on the North Side of Pittsburgh. The miniature creek was frozen over. Mom was forever screaming at us not to play in that water. She said it was sewage. It smelled weird, but it wasn’t yellow, so I don’t see how she figured it was sewage.
The snow on the ground was still wet enough that you could pack a solid snowball, so it wasn’t that cold yet. Barely below thirty.
I got undressed.
I built a pyramid out of my jacket, sweatshirt, Toughskins, long underwear tops and bottoms, T-shirt, and my gloves on top. Everything except my Pro-Keds and Fruit of the Looms. Oh, and my Steelers tossle cap. Everybody wore Steelers tossle caps, but most were missing the black-and-gold pom-pom on top because some punk was always tearing them off when you weren’t looking. But not mine. Punks knew better.
Thousands of invisible needles stabbed me in my fingers. My skin got rare-steak red like I lost a bare-chested slap-boxing match with an eight-armed mutant. Every time I felt icy electricity run up my spine, I took a deep breath like when the doctor checks you for the croup. So I didn’t shiver. Not too much anyway. Those stinking Russians better come up with something badder than nuclear warheads to annihilate me off the face of the planet.
“Ringer,” Fantastic Freddie said, trooping through the woods in his blue coverall ski suit. The zipper went from his neck over his gargantuan stomach all the way down to his ankle. He looked like a walking water balloon.
“Your little brother’s committed unholy treason.”
“Again?” I said.
“This is worse than Lucifer leading his rebel alliance against Our Father who art in Heaven. And we know how that turned out.”
You couldn’t call Fantastic Freddie a liar, he was way too religious, he was Saint Augie’s head altar boy. He performed sacraments and everything. Hell, he even performed anti-sacraments. He made Antonio cry his eyes out that time he sat his fat butt on him and poured sand on his head and stuck pepper in his mouth and yelled, “In the name of Almighty God, I un-baptize you!”
The invisible ice needles climbed up my fingers to my hands. I opened and closed my fists to fight them off.
“This isn’t one of Jaggerbush’s regular crimes against humanity,” Fantastic Freddie said, “He’s tipped the scales in the war between good and evil. This one’s a doozy.”
“Jaggerbush doesn’t believe in good and evil.”
“They believe in him! He joined the Killards.”
“Impossible. Even for Jaggerbush.”
Nobody in the solar system knew Jaggerbush better than me, and I still never knew what he was up to until he did it. His brain was an unbreakable code. But, I never would’ve bet that he’d go and join the Killards. Plus, you couldn’t join the Killards. They’re a family. There’s a ton of them, and telling them apart is impossible because they all look like scrawny junkyard dogs with pale skin and red Silly String hair, and their freckles outnumber their normal skin. Nobody, and I mean nobody, dared mess with the Killards. We stayed out of their territory at the top of Veteran Street, and they stayed away from the Red Brick Alley. I don’t know who started this standoff, I couldn’t even remember a time before it existed. It’s just the way it was.
“I’ll get to the bottom of this barrel,” I said.
“In God’s Holy name how?”
“In Killard country? I’ll pray for you. And, uh, Ringer?”
“What?” I said.
“Why’re you naked?”
I put my clothes back on and hiked up out of the woods through Old Lady Tully’s backyard. Her two caged-up mutts barked at me like crazy. I walked down to Perrysville Avenue where the salt-truck salt melted the snow in the street except for the gray soupy slush in the gutter. The snow on the sidewalk was still good packing snow. My Pro-Keds made a Styrofoam crunch with every step.
A bus came zooming down Perrysville, and its back window was open! I made a quick snowball and waited until it drove alongside me. I rifled my white grenade at the open window. The guy sitting in the backseat saw it coming and slid the window closed just in time to shield himself. My snowball exploded against the glass right where face was. He opened his big mouth taunting me and gave me the middle finger, with both hands.
I hung a left and headed up Kennedy Avenue. Its cobblestones were buried under the snow except for the two tire tracks in the middle of the street. Halfway up the steep hill, I had to step around some yellow snow. Some dummy tried to piss their name in the snow. Their wiener cursive was terrible.
I made a right turn on Veteran Street. It was so long and steep you couldn’t even see the top part where it leveled out until you walked up there. Killard territory.
Ding Dong came sliding down the steep sidewalk with his empty newspaper sack slung across his chest. He was taking running starts and planting his feet skateboard-style and sliding across the ice on the sidewalk. Ding Dong was the only non-Killard who was granted free passage on Veteran Street. Old Man Killard needed his newspaper. Ding Dong’s Pic Way tennis shoes snagged a crevice and he launched like a human antiballistic missile. I helped him up off the ground.
“I’m sorry Ringer,” Ding Dong said.
Ding Dong took four steps backwards, “Having a traitor in the family.”
Ding Dong went sliding down the hill faster than before. You couldn’t call him a liar either. He couldn’t figure out how to use soap and water, but he was a mastermind at devising money-making schemes. He’d wheel and deal you out of your own shoelaces. Ding Dong was a businessman, but he didn’t lie.
I headed up Veteran Street, staying low, ducking behind snowdrifts and parked cars in case any Killards where on lookout. The wind whiplashed the back of my neck and made my shoulders scrunch up.
Nobody knew why the Killards were so mangy and nasty. They just were. Some people said their mean old granddad was infected with rabies and never went to the clinic to get the thousand shots in the stomach that saved you from foaming at the mouth like George the Animal Steele. Then the rabies stayed in their bloodline and spread through the whole family tree. Other people said they drank acid-rain water and it burnt them from the inside out and fried their hair red and made all those freckles bubble to the surface. Fantastic Freddie blamed their pure evilness on them not going to church.
I was near the top of the hill and I spotted a small fleet of Killards. Five of them. I crouched behind a wooden salt box. Their red spaghetti hair blew around in the wind since none of them had hats or gloves. They all wore puffy plastic hand-me-down jackets with gray duct tape covering the rips. And there he was, my own brother, Jaggerbush, playing a friendly game of Decapitator Discus with our mortal enemies.
The Killards couldn’t handle his famous throwing style. He’d plant his feet and wind up, twisting all the way around until he faced the opposite direction, and then he’d uncoil his body and whip the garbage-can lid so you couldn’t tell who he was aiming at until it was too late. And he never missed. When people asked how he aimed with such pinpoint accuracy without eyeing up his target, he said, “Psych-out-ology.”
Two miniature Killards came running from between two houses, one carrying a big orange monkey wrench and the other a hacksaw. They looked like first-graders. Jaggerbush palmed the tops of their rag-mop heads and walked them to a telephone pole. He whispered something to them and then gave monkey wrench Killard a boost up to the bottom rung of the telephone pole. The little maniac held on with one hand and hammered away at the bolt that connected the silver guide wire to the pole. Hacksaw Killard went to work on the bottom of the guide wire staked into the sidewalk like a leprechaun lumberjack. A hurricane of wind made me shiver and I couldn’t stop. I retreated back down the hill and headed for the Red Brick Alley.
Fantastic Freddie was lying flat on his back in the middle of the street reciting the Hail Mary waving his fat arms and legs jumping-jack style. His stomach bulged like a beanbag chair. He must have been saying the whole God damn Rosary because the alley was covered with hundreds of chub-a-lub snow angels.
“Have the scales fallen from your eyeballs?” he said.
“Jaggerbush defected,” I said, “He’s even showing them his top secret battle techniques.”
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” Fantastic Freddie rolled over and stood up. “The End Times are here. Quick, make your final confession. I’ll absolve you.”
“Maybe later,” I said, “I’ll talk to Jaggerbush tonight.”
“No, Ringer! Confess now! If he assassinates you tonight, you’ll land in purgatory’s penalty box, and, no offense, it’ll take a billion years to flame-broil all the sins off your soul.”
“He’s still my little brother.”
We slid into our kitchen booth for dinner. Me and Dad on one booth, Mom and Jaggerbush on the other. I went to stab one of Jaggerbush’s canned carrots. I always ate his vegetables when Mom wasn’t looking. He hadn’t eaten a single vegetable in years. His spoon clanged against my fork like a samurai sword.
“Don’t start, you two,” Mom said.
“Ringer’s shoplifting my carrots,” Jaggerbush said.
“What is wrong with you?” Mom said, “Haven’t you tortured your little brother enough without stealing the food out of his mouth? How did I raise such a surly son of gun?”
“Keep it up,” Dad said.
I knew better. Dad wasn’t playing around. He cut his pork chop and looked at me and Jaggerbush like we weren’t the meal he ordered and he was deciding whether to send it back or just eat it.
Jaggerbush shoveled a spoonful of round carrot slices into his gullet, chewed them up, and then the impossible happened. He swallowed them. He didn’t throw up or choke or gag. He didn’t even wince. He just stared me down. Then he ate another spoonful! Now I was worried. This was full-blown Ragnarok. Maybe the End Times were here.
I flicked our bedroom light switch off and got under the covers. I stared up at Jaggerbush’s mattress between the wooden slats on the underside of the top bunk. My eyes wouldn’t stay closed no matter how hard I squeezed them.
“Did you join the Killards?” I said.
“Join?” he laughed.
“I saw you with them.”
“I saw you, too.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Your periscope was showing.”
“The top of your tossle cap was sticking up from behind the salt box.”
God damn it!
“Did you join the Killards, or not?” I said.
He laughed, “How do you know they didn’t join me.”
“They’re our sworn enemies.”
“They still are.”
“What about us?”
“Me and you!” I said, “We’re brothers.”
“This is for your own good, Ringer.”
My own good! After all the times I came to his rescue. I saved him from certain death a million times. I took his side against everybody, our friends, our enemies, the police, the nuns at school, the mailman, Father Morgan the Organ, the whole damn Diocese of Pittsburgh, even Mom and Dad! I stuck up for him no matter if he was in the right or the wrong. We were supposed to be brothers. I wanted to jump up and haul him off the top bunk and perform The Magnificent Muraco’s Hawaiian Hammer and crack the floor open with his stupid skull. But Mom and Dad would hear that for sure.
I squeezed my eyes shut and looked at all the purple voids and orange nebulas in the black galaxy behind my eyelids and tried to dream of deep space. Just me inside my own Cosmos star ship. All by myself.
The orange nebulas darkened and turned into giant freckles. God damn Killards. I always knew I’d have to go to war with those rats someday, but I never thought I’d look across the battlefield and see my own brother standing shoulder to shoulder with our worst enemies. I couldn’t win this fight, not by a long shot, and I didn’t care. The Killards were about to find out there was somebody who wasn’t afraid of them. And Jaggerbush better stay out of my way. I flipped onto my side and thought of battle strategies.
I walked up the middle of Veteran Street between the two tire tracks in the snow. I wasn’t hiding today. Only one house shoveled their parking spot clean and stuck a red kitchen chair in it. The snow under the cars parked on the left-hand side was covered with a sheet of ice. The car tires were ice-jammed. But the right-hand side was just snow. Someone uncorked the fireplug and transformed Veteran Street into an ice mountain. The left side, anyway. The wave of water pouring out of the hydrant was solid like Mr. Freeze shot it with his ice rifle.
The Killards saw me coming. They flanked out across the street like a kick-off team. There were five of them, but I couldn’t tell if they were the same five from yesterday. Jaggerbush was ten feet up the telephone pole. He was cranking away at the guide-wire bolt with the monkey wrench. The bottom was already detached from the sidewalk and the two little Killards were yanking on it, playing tug-of-war with the telephone pole. Jaggerbush acted like he didn’t see me. If he knew what was good for him, he better stay up that telephone pole.
A medium-sized one, a head taller than me, walked towards me. The Killards were famous for never ever talking. Some people said they didn’t talk because when God was passing out voice boxes, the original missing-link Killard thought he said boom box and told God he better keep the racket down. Some people swore they used mental telepathy to communicate since they fought so good as a team. Others said they were just plain ignorant. At least I wouldn’t have to listen to them call my mother names.
The Killard threw a right sidewinder punch at my head. My Steelers tossle cap absorbed the impact and I counterpunched him dead in his freckle face. He fell flat on his back. I pounced on him and punched him in the face so many times his skull dug a crater in the snow. His bloody nose turned the snow pink. The Killards were human after all.
But they were filthy dirty humans. The rest of those redheaded punks collapsed on me like the evil Dallas Cowboys’ Doomsday Defense. So much for a fair war.
A machine gun of freckled fists punched me, ripped my hat off, and pulled my hair. They kicked me in the shins with their ratty tennis shoes. I was known for taking beatings and then pulling off impossible comebacks, but this was a massacre. There were too many fists and feet hitting me at the same time. And they weren’t showing any signs of running out of gas. At least, I defeated one of them and saved the shutout.
I heard a giant Sproing! like Godzilla plucking a banjo. What the Hell was that? Jaggerbush used his nuclear submarine megaphone voice, “Dive! Dive! Dive!”
I hit the deck.
A Swoosh chopped through the air like a flying saucer revving up before making the jump to hyperspace. Then the screaming started. Not girlie screaming-in-terror screams. Wild banshee screams. The punches and kicks sputtered and stalled out. I barrel-rolled away from the maul pit.
A silver tentacle whipped through the air and lashed across their backs. Their jackets ripped open and the white insulation popped through the plastic casings. The whip recoiled and whipped them again and again and again.
“Get along little doggies,” Jaggerbush said, swinging his steel whip like it was the ultimate weapon in the universe. The Killards yelped and yapped and scattered.
I captured one little Killard who kicked the Hell out of my shins. I think it was him, anyway. I clamped both my hands around his pencil neck so the tips of my fingers and thumbs almost touched. He tried to pry my hands away but he didn’t have any Kryptonite. Damn, I was mad. I picked him up off the ground. He gulped and gasped for oxygen.
I said, “I’ll force every last one of you into extinction.”
I let him drop and he landed on his butt and coughed his lungs out like he was choking on nerve gas.
The biggest Killard didn’t retreat with the rest of the pack. He ducked and dodged Jaggerbush’s silvery whip. He looked old enough to vote. Jaggerbush twisted himself backwards the same way he wound up when he threw a Decapitator Discus garbage-can lid. The whip slashed through the air and wrapped itself around the big Killard’s neck. The noise that flew out of his mouth sounded like a mousetrap splattering a mouse.
I blitzed him from behind. I got super low and drove my shoulder right behind his knees. While he was going timber, Jaggerbush yanked his steel whip. I thought his red head might pop clean off. But it stayed on. He laid in the snow with the steel noose around his neck moaning.
I checked to see if the other Killards were mounting a counterattack. The ones that didn’t run home took cover behind cars and snowy hedges. Either monkey wrench Killard or hacksaw Killard came charging at us for one last-ditch attempt. I couldn’t tell them apart. He zeroed in on Jaggerbush. I moved to intercept him.
Jaggerbush gave me a look. The Killards weren’t the only ones with telepathic powers. I knew my brother wanted me to hold off.
The miniature Killard slammed on the brakes in front of Jaggerbush. His voice sounded like a record album after you played Frisbee with it, “Don’t kill him, please Jaggerbush.”
Jaggerbush jerked his whip, “Surrender?”
The big one on the ground nodded his head yes.
We did it! Jaggerbush’s double-decker double-cross won the unwinnable war. He loosened the steel noose.
“Wait,” I said, “Force him to agree to a ceasefire.”
“Demand free passage on this mountain,” I said, “Make him swear to never invade the Red Brick Alley, make him agree to a peace treaty.”
“Ringer, you tell the funniest jokes.”
“But we can end this war.”
“End it?” Jaggerbush laughed, “It’s just getting warmed up.”
He uncollared our foe. The big Killard staggered to his feet, but he was all bent over and crippled up.
“This ain’t over,” he said.
“It better not be,” Jaggerbush said, then barked loud like a dog.
The Killard flinched and limped up the hill. Jaggerbush’s laugh echoed across the ice mountain.
Some kids like to play sports, Fantastic Freddie liked religion, Ding Dong liked money, some weirdos even liked school. I didn’t know what Jaggerbush liked best, but most of all, he hated peace, with all his might. He said peace was the most boring thing in the universe.
Jaggerbush handed my Steelers tossle cap to me. I put it on. It was full of snow! Jaggerbush ran down Veteran Street laughing, swinging his silvery whip over his head. I let him get a good head start before I peeled out after him.
ROBERT ROMAN grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, where he sold newspapers to cars from a concrete island. He worked as a mail carrier, busboy, bartender, and laborer while earning a degree in English Literature from the University of Pittsburgh. He taught GED preparation at a juvenile detention facility, elementary school in the Baltimore City public schools, and English to high school seniors in Howard County, MD. He studied writing at Johns Hopkins and UCLA. He now lives in L.A., where he writes fiction and America’s favorite hangman puzzles.