Back to the List
Oliver's foot slipped in the mud, and he toppled backwards onto
the slick bank. Lesstin grabbed the boy's hand without thinking,
pulling him back from the edge. The older boy laughed as he dragged
himself back toward stable ground.
“Nice grab Less!” Oliver said once he was safely atop the
cliff. “I almost went for a swim!” He laughed again and kicked a
fist-sized rock off the edge. They watched it fall and fall then
splash into the river. “Hey, not too far, is it?”
Far enough down to make Lesstin feel ill. “I don't like it,”
Lesstin admitted. As soon as he said it, he knew he shouldn't have.
Oliver's smile changed from friendly to wicked. His mouth hooked
down, and his eyes grew wide and happy.
“Lessie doesn't like it?” Every word was punctuated with
barbed laughter. “Is he afraid of the height?” He put Lesstin in
a headlock and dragged him toward the edge. Behind them, Chase was
laughing too. He always laughed when Oliver laughed. Today was
supposed to have been different; they asked him to come along, and
not because their mother had forced them to. But then Lesstin had to
go and open his big mouth.
“Lay off Oliver.” The voice of a hero. Chase Million was the
only boy who could tell Oliver what to do. Sometimes. “He just
pulled you back from falling in the river.”
Oliver flung Lesstin onto the grass, and spun to face Chase. “So
what? I aint fraid of the river. I'll jump off, right now. You think
I won't?” He started fumbling with the buttons on his cuffs.
“Give over Ollie. Your pop would slap you purple if you came
home with wet clothes, so aint the same with you stripping.” Chase
offered a hand to help Lesstin back to his feet. “Crud, you ripped
your jeans. Look at that Ollie, bet his pop will throw him through a
Lesstin's father would never do such a thing. His mom might click
her tongue about the grass stains. But he was learning; he didn't say
“Hey,” Oliver said. “Yeah, no deal, right?”
“No,” Lesstin said. The whole day had been a whirlwind. What
had he done to make them want him along all of the sudden? He didn't
know, and didn't really care. For once, they were glad to have him
Chase slapped Lesstin on the back, maybe a little hard. The voice
of reason, maybe, but Oliver was his best friend, and the two were
more alike than they were different. He laughed as Lesstin stumbled
toward the cliff. “I know that look. We all got dads man.”
“He's a good sport, aint ya Less?” Oliver asked. He looked
more relieved than cruel, but Lesstin stayed wary. The boy could
switch from prancing to pouncing without notice. “I've always said
so, haven't I Chase?”
“Sure have,” Chase agreed. Lesstin had never heard them say
anything of the sort.
They turned and marched up the cliff side, toward the old train
bridge. Rusting beams still connected the old cement pylons, but most
of the suspension had been removed or collapsed long ago.
“We were thinking,” Oliver said, resting his arm around
Lesstin's shoulder. “Some of the boys pick on you, don't they
Lesstin? Call you baby, all sorts of stuff. Nah, nah, you don't need
to answer. They're jerks. But Chase, me, our guys, no one says that
to us. Do they Chase?”
“What?” Chase asked, as if he had never thought of such a
thing. “If they said that, I'd pop them in the face, that's what
I'd do. Did someone call you something Ollie?” Chase was the
biggest boy boy in the sixth grade. Even the junior high kids left
“Nah,” Oliver said. “They know I'm too hard for that. But I
was thinking, Lessie here, he might need some help. Cover from
No one had ever talked to Lesstin like this before. He was the
butt of the joke, the pincushion for everyone else's bad day.
“What do you guys want?” He asked. That big stupid mouth of
his, running off again.
Oliver put his hands up. His cruel eyes were dancing, but his
face looked insulted. “Hey now, we're trying to help you here.”
“You want to help me? Leave me alone.” He shrugged Chase's
hand off his shoulder. He should have run right away when he saw
them. They'd been following him for an hour now, but right then he
had a chance to leave. He was fast and knew places to hide. He could
have got away, but he had blown it. Stupid.
Chase grabbed Lesstin by the back of the neck. “Look runt, aint
no one gonna leave you alone. You know that, smart boy.”
“Lay off Chase,” Oliver said. He looked friendly now. Lesstin
had never seen that look before, and liked it less than the cruel
dance by far. “We're not saying 'lets be friends.' But we're
saying, hey, you got brains, and we got brawn. Mrs. Haden's watching
us two close, so maybe we can't do much if you won't give us answers.
But you want to, right?”
Lesstin hated giving answers to people, but it was better than
getting thrown in the mud every day.
“I guess?” Lesstin said. “Why do I want to?”
“There's a clever one,” Oliver said. He grinned, pleased with
himself. “Chase was telling me he doesn't like how Kib and Nate
treat you. Weren't you Chase?”
“It aint right,” Chase said. His grin was wide as Oliver's.
“But way I see it, they're only half the runt you are. I'll thwop
them a bit, and tell em, leave Lesstin alone.” Chase pounded hand
“Course,” Oliver said, “you'll still have to help them
pass. Call it tutoring or something. But you charge them, right? Like
you used to, before everyone figured out you were a little twerp.”
Lesstin winced. He had come up with the idea the previous year,
but it hadn't quite gone the way he had planned. “And you don't
have to pay, right?”
Oliver laughed. Different than normal. This was more shock than
deviousness. “Son, we don't pay now. No, you give us half what you
get. And we're the muscle, see? Anyone doesn't pay...” Chase pounded his hands together again.
And for a moment, the idea seemed alright to Lesstin. “And
you'd keep them from...” He couldn't say it. His big mouth had done
enough work for the day. But Oliver understood. And his eyes
glimmered, horrible as ever.
“We'd be in business,” he said. “I'm not saying we'll stick
our neck out for you. Run to Lady Haden if you want. But you can sit
with us at lunch.”
Oliver had thought hard about this. He sat with the nerds at
lunch, and it only made things worse. If he could sit by Chase, that
alone would save him most of his trouble.
“All right,” Lesstin agreed. Once again he wondered what he
had done to earn their sudden friendship.
“Of course 'all right,' runt. Hey Chase, he thinks we're
“For a smarty,” Chase said, slapping Lesstin on the back of
the head, “you sure are stupid.”
“But we aint doing this to just help a poor soul, profit
aside.” Oliver picked at his teeth with a piece of paper. “See,
Benny Gads made this bet with me. Said, no one would walk across the
old track, to the other side. Fifty bucks even. Wave to Benny,
Lesstin.” Oliver pointed to a figure on the far side of the cliff.
Benny's orange hair marked him even at a distance.
“See, we figure, everyone knows you're a chicken-shit.” Chase
guided Lesstin up the gravel hill toward the old rails. “So this
Lesstin's knees weren't quite shaking. He couldn't stop looking
at how the rails ran out over the air, mounting the pylons. They were
narrower than his wrist. Occasional wooden boards spanned the bridge,
but over the seemingly endless gap between his side and Benny's,
there were stretches with only the iron, and a rail at his side.
“So, you walk across,” Oliver said. “And we're in
“What if I don't?” Lesstin thought he knew the answer.
Oliver's brow dropped, and his mouth twisted. This was the look
Lesstin dreaded, the angry, and delighted grin of evil itself. “It's
funny Chase. He thinking we're asking again.”
Back to the List