A Moment of Silence
by Robert Quinlivan
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
That night, I slept unsoundly on the floor of Pete’s bedroom. My dreams were filled with images of muscles and tendons torn apart by yellow teeth. My jaws tore into hot flesh with an orgasmic joy, spilling blood and entrails as the prey died in my jaws.
I awoke in my sleeping bag, dripping with sweat.
Pete was nudging my prone body with his foot. “Stevey? Hey, uh, Stevey? You all right?”
I blinked sleep from my eyes. I was still enormously tired. I’d been asleep for hours, but I felt as if I hadn’t had a moment’s rest all night. “Yeah, I’m fine,” I said.
Pete was in his pajamas looking down on me with worry. Mrs. Elington appeared in the doorway in her robe and matching slippers, her face bearing an expression of motherly concern.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“You were laughing in your sleep,” she said.
* * *
When I came home, I threw a white pillow cover over the taxidermy wolf and stuffed it into my closet. I reasoned that I was tired and dehydrated from the dry heat that night. Or that I’d caught the flu and needed to sleep it off. But no reason to have the wolf in my room anymore. Yes, the wolf was a thing better left out of sight.
The routine completion of school assignments took my mind off the strange night at the Elingtons’. In the evenings, Pete and I studied together for an upcoming examination and prepared by quizzing one another.
The next week, an idea popped into my head while enjoying a mystery-meat lunch with Pete and the Goldberg twins, Aaron and Adam, in the school cafeteria. I had acquired some contraband fireworks from an unscrupulous gas station attendant while my father was using the restroom at a Shell station in Wisconsin a few weekends ago. It had been another Saturday wasted at the ski lodge, but at least the return trip had been fruitful. All I needed to set them off was a private space where the festivities could commence without interruption, and I suddenly thought of the perfect place. Someplace remote. Somewhere private.
“The landfill,” I proposed.
“The landfill? Why would I want to hang out at the dump?” said Pete.
“Why not?” I said.
“It’s trespassing,” said Pete. “I hear the cops shoot on sight if you break into private property. Not to mention it’s full of garbage.”
“They’re not gonna shoot you, for crying out loud,” said one of the Goldberg twins. It was Aaron, I think, but who could tell them apart?
“Yeah, there are legal presidents that prevent them from doing stuff like that. Even if it’s really illegal,” I said.
“Lincoln, for instance. You know Lincoln was a lawyer, right? Jesus, you guys don’t know anything,” I said. “Anyway, they can’t shoot you. But even if they could, they wouldn’t, because nobody guards the place. It’s abandoned. They don’t even use it for a landfill anymore. Now it’s just hills. Smelly old hills.”
The twins and I shared the dubious fortune of being children of lawyers. The Goldbergs’ father was an attorney for a major firm downtown, and my father was a defense lawyer for the state. We flung misappropriated legal terminology at one another the way other kids threw around curse words and names for parts of the female anatomy.
“So we’re not going to get arrested. I rest my case,” said Aaron Goldberg, nodding at Pete.
“Okay, so say we don’t get shot. What’re we gonna do at the dump? What’s so exciting about smelly old hills?” said Pete.
“Nobody can see you,” I said. “It’s completely private.”
“It’s wild. Untamed. The last wild patch of land in this town.”
“So? What are we gonna do there that we can’t do right here?”
“Take a look,” I said. I passed my book bag under the table to let Pete and the Goldberg twins ogle the fireworks.
“Fireworks?” said the other Goldberg, Adam.
“I’ve got an M-80. They say it can light up the sky brighter than the sun.”
Judging from the hushed reverence that followed, I could tell my pitch had been successful. I smiled gently to myself.
“All right,” said Pete, “when are we doing this?”
“Tomorrow afternoon,” I said.
* * *
The Falls County Municipal Landfill was the closest thing to a wilderness within a ten-mile radius. The mound of decomposed trash lay on the opposite side of a thick curtain of planted evergreens along the highway, an ominous, misplaced mountain of patchy, overgrown grass that rose high over the flat Midwestern landscape.
Decades earlier, before the area was sold for high-end housing developments, the local landowners had made Falls County a choice destination for refuse from neighboring municipalities. As the years passed, the layers of trash began to decompose, and the hills shrank under their own weight, forming an oddly misshapen, alien terrain.
It was geologically interesting, but not exactly beneficial for real-estate values, which is why the Falls Creek development committee had concealed and blotted the landfill from the historical record as much as possible. But if you knew where to look, the landfill was still there, hidden behind the veneer of manicured yards and sports utility vehicles, waiting.
Pete, the Goldberg twins, and I told our parents we would be at a football game after school and would catch a ride home, a simple enough white lie to buy us a few unsupervised hours. We hiked from the school down a dirt path behind the baseball diamond which led along the railroad tracks. The sight of four teenage boys wandering along the highway would have quickly betrayed an intent to transgress the law, so we traveled discreetly, out of view of roads.
We rounded a bend in the tracks, and there ahead of us stood the drooping peaks of the landfill. The four of us scrabbled through a series of drainage pipes, over a pile of cracked concrete slabs, past some thorny bramble, until there we were, inside the landfill, fifteen square miles of wilderness in the midst of suburbia.
A vast prairie of misshapen hills rolled on for miles beneath an azure sky broken periodically by commercial jets on a flight path. The compost had long since decayed into rich, black soil studded with bits of metal and glass.
A faint smell of methane hung in the air, and deer and rabbits pranced across the grassy hills, unaware that they were grazing on decades of decaying garbage. It was as close to idyll as we were likely to come without a Lear jet and a Swiss bank account.
“Weird,” said Pete. “It’s almost like a nature park. Like Yellowstone or something. Only, you know, trash.”
“This is almost too easy,” said one of the Goldberg twins. “Why wasn’t there a fence around it?”
“Like I said, it’s not guarded. The place is closed anyway, so who cares? Now for a little excitement.” I pulled a Roman candle from my backpack along with a plastic lighter I’d taken from my father’s barbecuing kit.
“You fellas ready to see some fireworks?” I said. I expected my audience to be practically jumping for joy, but there was a deep hesitation.
“I don’t know, Stevey,” said Aaron. Or Adam. “What if somebody gets hurt? I mean, you’re talking about an explosive here. Basically a bomb. What if it goes off in your hand?”
“Yeah, or what if a piece of shrapnel gets lodged in your eye,” said Pete, “and then you have to wear an eyepatch?”
“Or in your skin, like in those Vietnam movies. And they have to pull it out with tweezers,” said the other Goldberg.
“I can’t believe you guys,” I said. “You’re telling me you don’t want me to light this firecracker and launch it into the air? Pray tell, why?”
“Dangerous,” said Pete.
“Dangerous?!” I shouted. I was livid. “You’re telling me it’s dangerous? Oh, it’s too dangerous to light fireworks, is that it? Jesus. Of course it’s dangerous! What the hell would be the point if it wasn’t?”
The Goldberg twins and Pete looked sheepishly at me.
“I think I want to go home,” said Aaron or Adam. Whichever.
“Me, too,” said his twin.
“Fine, leave,” I said. “Go home and grow up to become rotten, miserable lawyers in possession of all ten fingers, just like your old man. Stay away from cherry bombs and wild ideas.”
“Fine,” said one of the twins. “This dump sucks anyway.”
I watched them shuffle off over the mushy ground and kicked a rusty coffee can in rage. I couldn’t believe that after all that effort, my partners in crime had slunk off like a pair of scared dogs with their tails between their legs at the slightest threat of injury. As the Goldbergs disappeared over the hills, I began to laugh and taunt them.
“Bunch of mommas’ boys! Go home to your three-course dinner and family game night!”
“Stevey,” said Pete, “what’s come over you?”
“What do you mean, Pete?”
“You’re acting... strange.”
“In what way?” I said. I began rummaging through my book bag. If my co-conspirators were going to wuss-out on me, I would at least burn through a few sparklers before calling it quits.
“You’re just acting... different, that’s all.”
I chuckled and grinned at Pete.
“Say what you’re thinking, Pete.”
“You’re being mean, Stevey.”
At that, I laughed uproariously. “Mean? You think I’m being mean? Jesus, Pete, I’m just trying to have a little fun.”
“Well, I don’t think this is fun.”
“What, are you scared?”
“No, I’m not—”
“You are scared!” I said. I could see it in his face.
“Yes, you are. Little Pete Elington is terrified. Don’t worry, Pete. I wouldn’t let anything happen to you.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“I told you, I just want to have a little fun. Lighten up for once in your life, Pete. This town has you all afraid. Like a bunch of frightened rabbits.”
I pulled the cherry bomb from my bag and held it up. “See? It’s not going to hurt you.”
I raised the lighter to the wick and watched it ignite. Then I tossed it straight to Pete. He caught it nervously.
“Jesus!” said Pete. “Are you crazy?”
“Throw it back,” I said.
Instinctively, Pete tossed the smoldering cherry bomb back to me.
“Who’s gonna get lucky?” I said. I tossed it back to Pete.
“I’m not playing this game,” he said. He dropped the cherry bomb and took a long stride back.
“You have to be kidding me!” I said, howling with laughter. “You’re afraid of a little cherry bomb? Did you actually believe what I said? ‘It can light up the sky brighter than the sun.’ Jesus, Pete, I was kidding.”
“Well, I don’t think it’s very funny,” said Pete. “And if this is how you’re going to act, I don’t think we should be friends anymore, Stevey.”
“Oh, ho ho. Is that a threat? What are you gonna do, go home to your mommy and tell her that I’m a ‘bad influence’?”
“Screw you, Stevey,” said Pete. And with that he walked off, following the Goldbergs.
A moment later, the cherry bomb exploded with a soft pop. Bunch of cowards. I cursed my luck to be born in such a place, where cowardice was bred into every child. Damn this soft-handed, khaki-wearing, golf-playing, landscaped town. They deserved whatever starched-shirt hell they were destined for.
I was about to hike back down to the railroad tracks and ride the rails to New Orleans when I heard a shriek. It was Pete. He was crying for help.
I turned and saw Pete’s hands waving like wild tentacles, his legs jammed in the dirt up to his knees.
“What happened?” I said.
“I don’t know,” said Pete. “I just started sinking. Must be an air pocket or something. It’s pulling me down like quicksand.”
A feeling of panic and guilt jarred me from whatever aggressive trance had come over me. Why was I goading my best friend? What the hell was happening to me?
“Let me find something to pull you out,” I said. I scoured over the grass for a rope or a long stick — anything that could be used to pull Pete up without getting drawn into the stuff myself, but found nothing. Whatever junk had been in the landfill, almost all of it had been either rotted into dirt or else cracked to pieces by erosion.
I could feel my heart pounding in my throat. Finally, in a clearing a hundred yards away, I found a bent metal pole attached to a graffitied stop sign. The pole was heavier than I expected, and it took all my strength to drag it across the grass, holding the red octagonal sign with both arms for leverage.
By the time I arrived Pete’s head had disappeared beneath the landfill. A single pale hand marked where he lay.
“Hold on!” I said. I lowered the metal pole to within range of Pete and he grabbed about until he grasped the pole. I pulled as hard as I could. The soil where Pete had sunk into the dump was soft and yielding, and if I could only pull his face above the mud, he could breathe.
But the pole was heavy, and its weight began to wear on me. I strained and pulled as hard as I could. The metal of the sign cut into my hands, but I winced and pulled harder. Then something was holding me back. I couldn’t breathe. Something had hijacked my throat and lungs.
I dropped the pole and lay down for a moment to catch my breath. After a few seconds of panicked breathing, I realized what was impairing my breathing: I couldn’t stop laughing.
* * *
When the authorities finally extracted Pete Elington’s body from the municipal landfill, they found thirty pounds of trash in his throat and esophagus. He had drowned in compost. The police detective assigned to the case reasoned that a suction effect caused by a ruptured methane bubble burst deep beneath the soil had pulled Pete down. Nobody pressed charges, and the death was ruled an accident, a tragic result of youthful imprudence.
Of course, I was sent for special psychological counseling. No expense was to be spared to ensure that my fragile, youthful mind was unmarred by the experience of tragedy.
The psychologist was a pudgy middle-aged woman in a burgundy pantsuit who introduced herself as “Helen.” In a mauve-walled office, Helen asked me a series of questions about the accident, trying to cajole me into revealing repressed feelings of guilt and remorse.
“Do you feel you were in some way responsible for Pete dying?”
“No,” I said.
“You don’t feel any remorse for what happened?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Stevey, often, when someone we know is in an... accident... we might think that... somehow, we could have prevented it.”
“It couldn’t have been prevented,” I said.
“Who invited Pete to go to the landfill that day?”
“And whose idea was it to go to the landfill to set off the fireworks?”
“It was the wolf’s idea.”
“Yes. The wolf,” I said.
“And who is the wolf, Stevey?”
“A wolf,” I said. “The wolf in my bedroom.”
After the session, I heard Helen discussing with my mother and father in an attached room. I pressed my ear against the door to listen in. My mother was gasping for breath between fits of silent sobbing. I could only make out bits and pieces of their conversation.
“...very common... in response to trauma... not a concern... call if you notice any...”
My parents drove me home from the psychologist’s office. They didn’t say a word the entire drive.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Robert Quinlivan