Short Fiction - Retribute Lane

©2011
Benjamin Britworth

The summer was a hot one, so hot in-fact that the kids of Denton were routinely seen testing that age old theory of frying an egg on the pavement. Each day the sun beat down, forcing the people of the small town closer to their clattering air-conditioners. It was hell, burning and wild, setting everyone on edge.
“God'z out to seed this summer,” one old resident muttered some Sunday after a sweltering session in church, “Only the devil'z gut work in Denton now-a-days.” Not two steps more and she keeled over beside her car, dead in the street. Dehydration and too many doughnuts is what the doctors blamed, while her bible group cried 'reckoning' from the rooftops.
Somehow everything had tensed up in the heat, there were grumblings and bickering where none had been before. Fights sprung out where they had no business being. As the case may be, one of these unusual disagreements is the subject of this little tale, a fight which took a rather nasty turn...

Jimmy Turnthel was not the type of boy to usually stray from under his parent's watchful eye. Truth be told he rarely ran across Main Street without getting a slap on the wrist. Mr and Mrs Turnthel were attentive folk with careful minds. The pair had experienced enough trouble in their time to know looking both ways when crossing the street payed off more often than not, and were keen to pass such cautiousness along to their child. Mostly they were making sure he was just “doin alright,” as his mother often said to the pastor.
Naturally then, it would stray incredulity for him to be running along the outback track by his lonesome. Stranger still were he set on this sprint at the behest of the town troublemaker, Tommy Long, and his gang. Nonetheless, it seems that were the case. So far Jimmy'd got a good lead on the boys, yet seeing as the outback track was the only clear pathway cut through the thorns Tommy's troupe didn't have much trouble keeping pace. This were redoubled some seeing as they all saddled motorbikes, a mighty challenge even for one so quick as the Turnthel lad.
Jimmy, well and truly focused on escaping from Tommy, had been lucky thus far, however even the best do stumble sometimes, and Jimmy was no different. The outback track was littered with stones and pebbles, one of which slipped his left shoe just as it came pounding down. The jaunty angle his foot hit the ground unseated his step and with a single shock he came crashing down to slide along on his front. A grit-chugging skid peppered him with rocks and he spun into a frenzied roll that left him beat and finished with the sun glaring in his eyes.
God darn outback, he thought, waves of faintness gliding over him. His vision beat to the tune of his heart, each ba-dum ba-dum of rushing blood flashing unnatural colours across his eyes. In the distance he could hear the bikes flying closer, the grinding engines nothing less than a rodeo roar. He couldn't move, or even think about moving, that was a luxury spent with the tumble he'd taken. The race was over as far as he was concerned. Tommy's gang had won. They'd beat him up like they planned and he'd crawl home, broken and bleeding, to his shocked parents. That'd be the end of it. Done and dusted.
The first bike arrived and screeched to a stop. Stones bounced from its tires, biting Jimmy like angry fleas. The engine idled, then cut. The rider, wearing a thick high school jacket (despite the heat), cawed. A mean grin slapped across his chops and he hollered, “We caught him! We caught him! Look'y here! Look. at. that... Given up ya burner? We're gunna make ya pay for what ya did ta Jessie. That's Tommy's girl n'you know it! The whole darn school knows it so there ain't no excuse!” He swore, jumped off his bike and whacked the kickstand with one beat-up boot.
The rider was a stupid kid named Ricky Bowler. He was a lazy, good-for-nothing lad who kept getting held back in school for lack of brains; some dumb sucker who'd end up dead after a shoot'em-up with cops two years down the line, but none on that now.
Jimmy wound up his tongue and spat dust. He would have told the kid he was “stup'd” if his mouth wasn't dryer than the Nevada. “... Aww Gawd...” was all he could rasp, that and “Gawd” again.
Ricky glared through his shades and mop of greasy black hair. Jimmy knew he was being glared at as Ricky'd stopped dancing and shouting; at least that was something to be thankful for. Ricky's mouth turned up at one corner in a snarl. He might've been stupid, but he still knew when he was being insulted. He raised a boot, ready to kick grit, when the three other bikes pulled by and shot their engines to silence.
There he was, Tommy Long, the trouble of Denton, in the flesh. He sprung off his bike, his Oakroad blacks grinding the gravel, and cast a mean grin down at Jimmy. His thick brown hair sprung from its gel, standing in wild curls, while a heavy sweat beaded his forehead. He wiped a hand across his chops and popped his teeth. Each step he took revealed his boozing.
“This it,” he asked, his redneck routes caught in a hound dog slur, “This sad sap really the son of a gun what stupped my girl?”
“That's him,” Ricky confirmed, “Otherwise he wouldn't have run now, would he?”
The two other boys, James and Brad, cocked their bikes and joined them. They were a gang of four, just like at the movies.
Tommy stepped forward, his mouth turned down like the godfather. For a moment a wicked spark lit his eye and he looked like he wanted to pop Ricky's lights out, then it passed and he clapped his shoulders instead. “Well done,” he said, and smirked, “You caught the burner.”
Tommy released Ricky and sidled over to where Jimmy sprawled in the dirt. He stunk of cigarettes and whiskey. “Hey dummy,” he spat, then made a concerted effort to leer over his prey, “Ya tired of running yet?” His words were thick and drenched in alcohol, “Jus-when we were about-ta call off the chase you gone done something so dumb as tripping?”
All the boys laughed. The fact that Tommy wasn't making much sense didn't seem to bother any of them, except Brad that was. Not that anyone saw but his laugh looked fake, like it was a well rehearsed facade.
Jimmy was scared, he didn't know how far the gang would go in beating him up, nonetheless he didn't want to let them drag it out longer than necessary. Better to infuriate them and get it over with quick rather than tease the pain out over a couple of hours. As such, before he gave himself time to think, he launched himself up and head-butted Tommy's still leering face from below.
Thwack!
Tommy cried out in shock and alarm. He stumbled, clutching his smashed-up face. Just in time James and Brad caught him under the arms and stopped him from tumbling onto his backside. A shame really. Such an embarrassment might have knocked some of the wind from his sails.
Jimmy fell back to the ground, his own head reeling. Breaking Tommy's nose may have been a stupid move but it still felt good. As he watched he saw a satisfying duel trickle of blood dribble from Tommy's nostrils. Good, he thought, That'll get them right riled.
Ricky, the dumb chuck, jumped forward, screaming, “Hey! What ya playing at!?”
“Whoa.... Whoa!” Tommy grunted, regaining his feet. He touched the blood as it reached his lip and brought his fingers up to eye level. His pupils crossed, focusing the rusty red into vision. A darkness bridged his face, and then his expression went strangely blank. “Ricky, leave him,” he said, entirely composed. It was scary; worse than the drunken mess he was before.
“You alright Tommy?” Brad asked. When he got no reply he stuttered on, “Don't get mad. The burner's just screwing with ya.” He sounded calmer than the others. It didn't seem like he'd drunk so much, or maybe he just had a cooler head?
Tommy looked up at the sky, kissed his teeth and looked back down at Jimmy, that same empty expression strung on his face. “This is between you and me, ain't it,” he said. It wasn't a question.
Jimmy stared up at him, not moving so much as a muscle. They glared it out.
A couple of kicks and the beating could have ended right then and there, but something pushed it further. It was a strange something that pervaded all of Denton that summer. Undoubtedly, were that weird haze not there, Tommy might have turned around and walked off. Instead he said, “Take a ride boys. I got business, and it ain't doin' with you.”
The blood on his lip has gone a musty rotten copper. He looked deranged, and dangerous.
Jimmy's blood ran cold and he remembered what Tommy was like before the gang had got together:

There had been a kid in the school two years previous; a nice kid from a nice family. One day he'd accidentally tripped up and dropped his lunch on Tommy, well not strictly 'on Tommy', more like near enough to splash his boots. He had apologised profusely, yet a week later he'd been found mashed up in the boy's bathroom so badly he had to be carted off to the local hospital. The mangled kid'd said a dog had done it; a big ass dog with a mean bite.
Nobody ever actually laid the blame on Tommy but everybody knew it was him. That'd been before Tommy'd had his gang, back when he was just the wild school bully. Since the gang had come together they'd still beat up kids, but something within the group stopped Tommy from ever taking it so far again. Looked like that was about to change...

Jimmy slung back to the all-to-real present, glaring up at Denton's trouble himself.
“....But Tommy, that ain't fair-” Ricky whinged.
Tommy cut him off, “Take a drive. I'll see ya later.”
Ricky screwed a huff.
“But...” James said more seriously, he looked worried. Tommy slugged him a glare and he fell silent.
All of them knew Tommy's history, they all knew what he was capable of when left to his own devices. Oblivious to James's mumbled plea Tommy stuck his hand into a pocket and drew out a switch blade. It clicked wide. That was enough of a sign for the other guys and they slowly backed off to their bikes, their tails between their legs. Jimmy pleaded to each of their retreating backs, willing them to return. This really wasn't funny anymore, not that it had been to begin with, but the knife added a new dimension of fear, one that was palpable. Tommy's pressing attitude was serious, life threateningly so. The others were going to leave him with this maniac and his knife. Oh God, he thought, and muttered a silent prayer.
Jimmy searched each of them as they clambered onto their motorbikes, willing them to stop the madman. He caught Brad's eye. For a second Brad returned the gaze. His expression was indifferent. That was all. Jimmy prayed louder.
Like critters in a cartoon the boy's hightails kicked up a cloud of dust as they drove off. Except this wasn't a cartoon. Not at all. There was no bleating bad guy, no madcap scheme for survival, and no bouncing back after the dagger struck. This was real, all too real, and Jimmy knew it.
Tommy grasped the knife tightly, his knuckles white as bone. He spat blood, and said, “It's jus' you and me.... How'd ya wanna-play this?”
He stumbled but managed to keep upright. He'd really plastered himself with alcohol. Finding focus again his face twisted into a snarl, “You gone touched Jessie, didn't ya? She told me about it. She said that's why she's splittin' with me. You got to her man, and now she don't want me no more- Hey, burner? You listening?!”
That was when Tommy struck the first blow. He kicked Jimmy hard in the stomach, releasing him of any breath he'd recovered in the while since the run. Jimmy rolled onto his side, curling into a foetal position and gasping for air.
“Too right you heard!” Tommy shouted, and gassed a cruel laugh. There were tears in his eyes, he really meant this; behind all the anger, bluster and alcohol he was genuinely upset. Tough break. Tough for Jimmy.
“No... I never, Tommy... I promise!”
“Don't lie to me boy!” Tommy retorted, echoing his father's sickened tone, “Don't you dare lie ta me! I already know the truth... I KNOW!” His hand curled to point at his own chest, “There ain't no other reason she could'a split with me. Me, of all people!? Why else could she? There ain't none in HELL!”
The knife tantalised in the sun.
Jimmy didn't say anything, instead he recouped his breath for the second time that day. This time his lungs hurt a lot more, not only because of the kick, but because he had actually kissed Jessie, well to be exact she had kissed him. It was one of those in-the-moment things behind the bike shed, and Jimmy'd just gone along with it. Only afterwards had he realised what the consequences would be, and now here he was playing them out. Jimmy would have felt a lot more sorry for Tommy if the knife'd stopped flaring back and forth.
Tommy wiped his nose. He seemed to have sobered again. That cold look was back in his eye. The one that was more controlled, and more deadly. “Hold out your hand.” he said, showing no sign of pleasure.
“What...? Why'd ya want my hand?” Jimmy replied, recoiling.
“Hold it out dummy, or I'll stick all six inches of this here blade into your eye.” He made a stabbing gesture to show he meant it.
Jimmy obliged, against his better judgement. What else could he do? Loose an eye? His hand shook as he stretched it out. Tommy snatched out and took a tight hold of the hand, pulling himself round so that he landed sitting between Jimmy and it, with Jimmy's arm wedged awkwardly under his armpit.
“You know,” Tommy hissed, “You stole m'girl.”
“I didn't Tommy! I promise! I didn't! She kissed me-”
Tommy erupted, “She what? She kissed you?! IS THAT RIGHT?! Y'know she gave me that dung-bog story too! 'Like hell' I said, 'Like hell you kissed him!'”
Jimmy tried to loosen Tommy's grip, but the maniac was having none of it. If anything Tommy tightened as he spat out more bile, “YOU KNOW YOU STOLE M'GIRL? Well, I don't like ta have stuff taken from me! She was my property! My right! And I want something in return for your little party! I want you to suffer like you made me suffer in loosing her!”
Blood pumped. Tommy flushed with rage as the devil screeching out of him. His eyes popped, and he screamed, “I want something in return and I want everyone, EVERYONE, t'know! And you, especially you, to remember not to screw MY GIRL, EVER AGAIN!” A frightening quiet fell, and that biting evil struck into Tommy again as he said, “Ye'know what they used to do to thieves in the way back when? They used to cut off the hand that stole. Well, we're going to have ourselves a little history lesson. We're going to give you that there same treatment that those scum buckets got before. Right- on- three!”
Jimmy yelled as his hand went numb. Pain screamed through his flesh and the blade bit the cartilage of his wrist. This was it, this was the end. Bye-bye hand! So long! Sayonara-!
Wham!

***

Someway along the outback track, and heading towards Denton, the three boys rode their bikes at a pace. Brad was out in front, while James and Ricky rode along tight behind. All three knew that tomorrow they wouldn't be hearing about a simple beating. No, it'd be rougher - something only Tommy Long could possibly dream up. The knowledge sat uncomfortable with at least one of the boys, Brad, and his face showed his discomfort. Without warning he pulled his foot off the throttle and trundled to a stop. The two others passed him by and whacked on their brakes, throwing up dust. Their engines idled.
“Yo Brad,” Ricky called, “Some'in up?”
Brad peered at the ground, trying to make up his mind. A single bead of sweat dripped from his forehead onto his bike's metal casing and evaporated, leaving only a small salt ring behind. A strange guilt rose up from his gut; he couldn't let this happen. Riding away was wrong and somewhat cowardly. Sure the burner was a worm for making out with Jessie, but did that mean he deserved torture at Tommy's hand? No sir, he didn't think so.
“What's beating ya?” James asked, confused at Brad's silence.
“It ain't right,” Brad muttered.
“What's that you say?” James drawled.
Brad repeated himself louder, spelling out each word.
Ricky's response was expected. He spat on the ground and said, “So you've suddenly developed a conscious? Forget it man. Ain't worth it. That burner's cooked already. Besides, why now? Didn't stop to think when we was working on that scumbag last week, did you know?”
Brad breathed heavy and scuffed a boot against his bike. “There's no doing worrying over that,” he said, “At least we know where you stand. How about you, James?”
James was silent.
“You seriously can't think what's being done is right?”
James cast his verdict, “It ain't our problem now. We were never there. Nothing on us if this goes belly up.”
Ricky stared Brad out, saying, “I won't stop you goin' back... but I can't guarantee there won't be consequences if ya do.”
Brad nodded slow.
Ricky's engine revved and he rode off towards town. James watched Brad with one eyebrow cocked, then, making up his mind, he too turned about and let his bike carry him home.
Brad sat a minute, watching the dust settle where his two friends had been. “Good riddance,” he muttered, and spat. Sitting astride his bike he wheeled it round, kicked the gearshift and drove off back the way he'd came. Maybe it was too late? Maybe he'd get back and find a dead body? Maybe Tommy'd stomped Jimmy to mud? Or maybe there was a chance...

***

Lucky for Jimmy Brad arrived back just around the time Tommy was about to slice his hand off. Two seconds is all it took for everything to change. The bike hit a rock and bounced, the front wheel rode into the air, its brake plate spinning like a saw blade. Had Tommy not been so engrossed in his act of mutilation he would have been able to duck the oncoming vehicle. As was the case he was hit hard, and with an almost comic grace he sailed through the air to sprawl in one of the thorn bushes by the side of the track. Unconsciousness found him before he hit the ground.
Brad spun out the bike and stopped, flicking down the stand. He saw blood leaking out of Jimmy's half cut wrist and dashed over. Thinking quick he tore a strip from his shirt and wrapped it tight round the wound in a knot. Jimmy, who had blacked out from the pain, came to. He sat bolt upright, his eyes wide and his lungs screaming for air. Where's my hand? Who's that? What's going on? his brain panicked in a stream.
Brad looked sullen.
Jimmy saw his hand, the makeshift bandage was already soaked red.
“Hold your hand high and get on the back of m'bike,” Brad instructed, “I'll take ya to the hospital. It's a long way back t'town and I don't know if I can keep riding if you pass out, so don't.”
Jimmy nodded and held his hand above his head. Brad pulled him to his feet.
The two of them climbed on the bike and after a wobbly start managed to push-off towards town. Nether looked back. Nether cared.

***

Ten minutes passed. Then twenty. The sun begun loosing its luster, starting to sink down the horizon, its strange hot-hold on the day's affairs seeming to break. Tommy awoke slow. There was an ache in his chest, and as he moved it grated. He swore. Something was broken in there; “Something Gawd darn expensive!” as his dad would no doubt yell when he got home. He felt a twinge in his hand; an itch of sorts. Probably a bug or something climbing on it. What was important was getting to the hospital for his chest, and then, he thought, I gotta catch the little burner wherever he's sprung off to and finish this. He picked himself from the thorn bush, wincing as the spikes scratched his flesh. His head spun and he thought, Jeeze! Booze wearing thin already?
He swung about twice, catching glimpse of his bike in the bushes on the second swing. It must have fallen over in the struggle; whatever struggle that might have been? He limped over to it. Hell, his chest really hurt. His hand wouldn't stop twinging ether. Maybe it was a bite from a rattler that ached? That would explain why he blacked out too. Never mind, if he was standing it couldn't be that bad, could it?
Approaching his bike he reached down to pull it out the thicket. That was when things got strange. The handlebar seemed to pass right through his fingers. He tried again, yet he couldn't grab hold at all. It was uncanny. Why the hell wouldn't his hand grab? And then he looked at his hand...? He looked at his...?
Tommy goggled at the bloody stump protruding from his jacket sleeve. The pulsing muscles, stringy tendons and jagged bone were too much of a Halloween gag to be serious. He felt woozy again, and a sick like acid in his throat. He threw up all over his bike and passed out a second time.
Lucky for him he awoke soon after. The alcohol he'd swallowed dampened the pain enough for him to crawl to Denton General. Or maybe he wasn't so lucky given the beating he got off-of his dad for all the medical bills. It was a beating that darn near killed him.
Irony is a funny thing, ain't it? Especially when dealt to the deserving sort of a person. I figure Tommy Long was a deserving sort of a person, don't you agree?


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