Flying sprays of orange sparks from the back of the dilapidated shed in
One-Finger-Burke’s back yard intrigued Breed.
Although One Finger-Burke was a crooked cop and it was dangerous to
trespass onto his property that looked like a radioactive waste land, Breed had
to see what was making those sparks.
Running his fingers through his long black hair and acting as if he were
not concerned about the danger, he walked closer. The sound of grinding met his ears. He peeked around the corner of the shed. Flashing a fiendish rotten-tooth smile, the
crooked cop’s son, Burkie, held a long pointed knife on a rotating emery wheel
attached to the back of the shed. He
removed the knife from the wheel. The
sparks quit. He picked up a piece of
newspaper and ran the blade of the knife down it. The ease at which the knife sliced through
the paper signaled to Breed that the knife was razor sharp.
When Breed placed his hand on the side of the shed, a splintered board
Surprised, Burkie jerked his long, sickly pale face back and slapped his
hand over his rotten-tooth mouth. Before
Breed could do or say anything, Burkie lifted the knife. “My dad’s a cop.” A menacing look filled his face. “I can do anything I want.” Towering over Breed, he lifted the knife to
slice. “I’m gonna cut your ears off.”
Not sure if Burkie was serious, Breed grinned.
“You think that’s funny?” Burkie
swung the knife down.
Breed jerked out of the way. The
knife swished right next to his face. He
thought the knife had missed, but a sharp pain came from his ear. He reached up and felt his ear. It was warm and wet.
Watching Breed, Burkie lifted the knife and held it high.
In defense, Breed held his hand in front of his face. When he did, his palm was splotched with
blood from his ear.
Smiling, Burkie jerked the knife.
“Let me cut the other ear clean off.”
Breed dropped his bloody hand and took off running. Swishing the knife and viciously cutting the
air, Burkie ran right behind him.
Breed felt the air from the knife swish past his back. He ran faster. The knife scraped down the back of his
arm. It was only a scratch, but Burkie
was much bigger and faster than Breed. The
next time the knife swished down it would cut deep. Breed took a sharp right into a
garbage-can-lined alley. Burkie couldn’t make the turn as quickly as Breed had. Breed had room to maneuver. He grabbed a garbage can, threw it behind
him. Burkie’s knees hit the can. He fell.
The knife stabbed deep into the foot-hammered, dark ground.
Breed escaped to safety, this time; but he needed to get out of Traptown,
and he hoped he knew a way to do it.
A while later, after his pounding heart had settled down from being
scared, and his ear had stopped bleeding, Breed walked along Rat River. Cloaked in the spooky movement of the steel
mill’s swarming smoke shadows, he searched the shores for a drifting boat that
could deliver him from the knife threats and the stench of Traptown. He didn’t find a
boat, but high on the riverbank, somewhere close to the Pennsylvania Railroad
tracks, puppies yelped. He hoped it wasn’t what he thought it was. Faster than a kid on a shelving board flying
in a tornado, he raced along the railroad tracks until he cut into the tall
weeds where he crouched down and listened.
Whap! A sickening sound of wood
smacking something filled the humid air.
He cringed but stayed down.
Hunched over, he cautiously walked closer. When he lifted his head for a look, tall,
green weeds stuck against his sweating forehead. He couldn’t see who
was making that hostile noise. Holding
his breath, he lifted his hand and carefully parted the weeds.
Older kids, he had never seen before, were tossing puppies around like
they were baseballs. Breed gasp. They were the puppies a stray dog had hidden
in a hole next to the railroad tracks.
When one of the kids caught a puppy, the puppy yelped. When one of them missed a puppy: Thump!
It hit the hard ground and let out a painful yelp.
A pimple-faced kid, with a barrel chest, waggled a bat over a flat rock
and yelled, “Pitch it right over here.”
The pitcher set his bottle of beer on a flat rock and picked up a
puppy. Breed didn’t
believe the pitcher would throw a little puppy over the plate. The mills and alcohol may have replaced God,
but Breed didn’t believe anyone would be that
cruel. But he watched anyway.
The pitcher wound up and let the puppy go. It sailed toward home plate. The pimple-faced batter swung the bat. Whap!
He slammed the puppy. It yelped
once and slammed onto the ground. The
kid on third base ran to the puppy and stopped.
The pitcher held out his hand. “Don’t
just stand there, Flat Top. It belongs
to the flats gang. Make sure it’s dead?”
Flat Top rubbed the top of his flattop haircut and kicked at the puppy
with the toe of his shiny shoe. The
puppy didn’t move.
Flat Top lifted his arrogant face and smiled. “It’s dead.”
The pimple-faced batter walked back from first base. “Foul ball,” he yelled. “That’s another one Rat Boy and his buddies
will get blamed for.” Laughing in short
grunts, he picked up his bottle of beer and tilted it to his thick lips.
Breed stood up for a better look.
A lone puppy lay at the picture’s feet.
On the makeshift field, the bodies of six other puppies lay motionless. Breed wanted to dash out, grab that last
puppy, and run. but he wasn’t sure he could do it.
Long dirty-blond hair covered half of the batter’s purple pimpled
face. Shirtless, his muscular body
rippled under greenish skin. He looked
drunk enough to swing the bat in Breed’s direction. It would be dangerous, but Breed decided to
take the chance.
He stood up and took one step out of the weeds. The pitcher picked up the last puppy. Without warning, he threw it at the
batter. While the puppy was in the air,
the catcher snorted a big hollow nosed laugh and yelled, “Here it comes,
With one hand holding his beer bottle and the other hand on the bat,
Purple swung. Sling! The bat hit the puppy with a grazing
blow. It flew high into the air.
Breed ran onto the makeshift baseball field. Like an outfielder, he ran under the airborne
pup. The sun blocked his view of the
falling puppy. Holding out both hands,
he prayed he would catch it. With a soft
thud, it landed in his hands.
With beer spewing out of his mouth, Purple yelled, “Get that black-headed
Trying to earn a little money, Breed had tried to trap muskrats on Rat
River. But poison sludge that had choked
the current and killed most of the fish had been absorbed into the soil and had
killed most of the river plants the muskrats needed to survive. He had only managed to catch river rats. He was going to try upriver, but the older
kids took his traps, told him he was stupid, and called him Rat Boy.
Purple threw his beer bottle onto the ground. “We’ll kick Rat Boy’s ass up to his shoulders
so bad that he’ll have to take his shirt off to shit.”
With the nightmarish baseball players right behind him, Breed took off
Along the river, at the bend in the path, he turned; and even though they
would be able to see him, he slipped behind a stand of head-high itch weed
stocks and stopped.
Huffing and puffing, the players ran up the path and slowed to a jog.
They were about to jog past the itch weed.
Breed yelled, “Hey, you big dummies.”
They continued to jog, but in unison, they jerked their heads in Breed’s
direction. Usually, when they came after
Breed, they would plow through or over just about anything in their paths. This time was no exception. They crashed right through the tall canes of
Holding the puppy, Breed sprinted away.
Behind him, in a whining almost crying voice, Purple cried, “It’s itch
Slowing to a walk, Breed looked back over his shoulder. Being in unfamiliar territory, Flat Top and
the pitcher had stopped too late. They
were in the middle of the six foot high canes of itch weed. The prickly nettle on the plants caused skin
irritation on contact. They would have
to slowly weave their bodies around the canes.
After that they would be itching for the rest of the day.
Standing in a tangle of itch weed and with its spiny-toothed leaves
stinging his knees, Flat Top jerked his fist at Breed. “When we get out of here, your little rat ass
Breed carried the puppy home. It
was still alive, but its one back leg had swollen.
There was never enough food at his house.
A puppy was the last thing he would be allowed to bring home, so he hid
the puppy under the floor of the wooden back porch. The little food he could sneak from the table
caused him to be hungry for weeks, but he had fed the puppy.
The puppy matured and its leg healed, but it constantly wandered out from
under the porch. It followed Breed
wherever he went. He loved the dog he
had saved. He hoped it had grown enough
to run away from those baseball players, but there were other threats: Burkie had been seen hiding in the bushes
with his long knife, and bullies from the flats gang had been hanging around,
too. If Breed could find a boat drifting
downriver, he could go upriver with his pals.
He could go to Shell Island. He
could take the dog, too. Burkie would
never find him there, and there would be no bullies on Shell Island.
In the night, an immature growl woke Breed. He prayed it wasn’t
his dog. To be sure it wasn’t, he sat up, let his feet drop over the edge of the
bed, and listened. Outside his open
bedroom window, painful howls echoed into the black night. His mind jerked to a state of immediacy. It was his
dog. It was his best friend. His sleepy body jolted into a state of
alarm. Now he was wide awake.
It would take too long to run down the stairs, rush through the kitchen,
open the door, go under the porch, and see what was wrong with his best friend.
He stepped out the bedroom window and crawled onto the front porch
roof. When he bent over and grabbed the
edge of the roof to swing down to the ground, his hands slipped off the
slippery slate. Although it was dark, a
dull thud told him he had landed on the grassless ground.
A short yelp came from between two houses. His dog wasn’t under
the porch and it sounded like it was in pain.
Breed ran toward the sound.
In the dark, he tripped over an empty beer bottle, stumbled, but caught
his balance. When he ran past alcoholic
Toney’s dilapidated shack, as if he were under a spell, Toney yelled out the
only window that hadn’t been boarded up “Hey, where you goin’? Back that way again. Hey!”
And his voice reverberated off the rusty tin roof of his shack.
When Toney drank too much, his frayed baseball cap would be turned to the
side. Sitting in a stupor, he would nod
off, jerk his head up, and say, “Hey!” open his eyes, droop his head and say,
“Back that way again,” over and over.
Breed didn’t have time for his drunken
ranting. He kept on running.
He ran out of Toney’s yard, across the road, stopped at the edge of a
wooded lot, and searched the darkness.
Beneath the leaf-laden trees, it was deep dark. His dog wasn’t
yelping, and he couldn’t see it. He
rubbed his eyes to try and make them adjust to the dark. When the moon slipped out from behind a
purple cloud, his eyes focused on one thing:
A rope thrown over the branch of a tree.
On its end, his dog hung by its neck.
Breed ran up to it, wrapped his arms around his little friend, and
slipped the rope from around its neck. Kneeling down on one knee, he lowered his dog to the
ground. It wasn’t
moving. Dim light from the moon revealed
the dog’s eyes were glassy. Breed placed
his ear to the dog’s side and listened.
No heartbeat. His dog was dead.
Behind him, out on the road, the doors of a car bammed shut. He jerked his head around. A kid stuck his head out the window of a 1940
Ford and yelled, “Hey, Rat Boy, how do you like us now?”
Breed couldn’t believe they had hung his
dog. He put his ear to the dog’s side
again. He thought he heard a faint
heartbeat. Maybe there was still a
chance. He placed the dog on the ground,
tried to make it stand. It fell
over. He stood up and looked down at its
lifeless form. All hope faded.
As the motor of the Ford roared into the night, and drunken laughter
faded down the street, Breed held the rope in his hands. He wanted to take it and wrap it around those
flats gang kids’ necks. If he were
bigger and stronger, he would send them where they belonged, and it wouldn’t be dog heaven.
He dropped to his knees, picked up his dog, hugged it; and with tears
forming in his eyes, he rocked back and forth.
He couldn’t understand why those older kids did
what they did. They had no reason to
kill his dog. It was friendly. It never bit anyone. Now, what Purple hadn’t
done with a baseball bat, these flats gang kids had managed to do with a rope.
Flats gang kids had stolen things and beat him up so many times that he
expected it. But they had never done
anything like this. He had to get away
from them. He had to get away from the ignorance of Traptown.
He would keep searching the river for a drifting boat, but now he had a
new plan. He was going to build a
motorbike. Then, anytime he wanted, he
could ride out of Traptown.
Before he could finish the motorbike, he needed more parts. But he didn’t have
The next day, with tears in his eyes, he dug a deep hole, laid his dog
in, and shoveled the dirt over it. He
said the prayers and asked God why he had let his dog die. No answers came. Feeling like a filthy rag before the holiness
of God, he hung his shoulders in defeat.
Then he cussed at himself for being a crybaby. He straightened his shoulders, and the fury
raged inside him. He knew what he had to
Going in alone would be dangerous, but now that his dog was dead, he didn’t care if wild dogs charged out of the heaps of filth
that stretched across the horizon. He
was too mad to be scared. What ever
happened in there couldn’t be any worse than what had
He slipped past the wild dogs and snuck into the arena of sacred
stink. He snuck into the Traptown dump.
Slogging between two mountains of garbage, he tripped over an old washing
machine. He held out his hands to break
his fall and just missed having the palm of his hand slit open with a broken
piece of green canning-jar glass.
Something tumbled down the pile of garbage. It could be a rat or a wild dog. He stiffened and looked up. A broken gasoline motor rolled next to his
head. He stood up, brushed himself off,
and picked up the motor. Now, he had an important
part. But he would need more.
While he searched, clouds ran away from the sun and let its hot rays beam
down on the dump. The sleeping stench of
the garbage awoke. Like an enormous
whoopee cushion with a real smell, the stench suffocated all the good air; and
freshly hatched flies buzzed happily in the sickening air.
When Breed used a splintered board to separate heaps of rotting garbage,
the lung-menacing malodor of the rotting garbage intensified. He wanted to quit. He wanted to get away from that rancid
smell. He needed to suck in at least one
breath of good air. But he needed one
more part for his motorbike.
He covered his face with the front of his T-shirt and dug out an old
bicycle frame. Now he had everything he
He threw the frame onto his shoulder; and with the greasy motor in the
crook of his arm, he lugged the parts back to his slum neighborhood.
Every day he worked in his secret workplace under the porch floor. In a few weeks he had pieced together a
motorbike. In his neighborhood this was
something that only a rich kid could have.
He wasn’t rich, but he had a motorbike. If it started, he would be the richest
fourteen-year-old kid in the world.
He knelt next to the motorbike, tightened the last bolt, and checked the gas
tank. It was almost empty. As usual, he didn’t
have money to buy more gas, but he wasn’t worried about that. He had enough for a test run.
The flats gang usually prowled the neighborhood looking for something to
smash or steal. Breed crouched and duck-walked
out from under the porch. Outside, he
stood up and looked around. He didn’t see Burkie’s rotten-tooth face, his long knife, or
any of the flats bullies.
He crawled back under the porch, put his hands on the crossbar of his
motorbike, and dragged it out into the bright sunshine. As he pushed it across the street and into
the tall grass of drunken Toney’s backyard, the front wheel smashed down the
tall grass and made a path. Out the
other side of Toney’s yard, skinny, scrappy weeds stuck up out of the dead
ground and struggled to live.
He jumped on the seat, coasted past a small mountain of topsoil, stopped,
and looked across the spatter of dusty-yellow land his friends called the
vacant lot. If his motorbike would
start, he could ride to his favorite place.
He could ride to Shell Island.
The motorbike didn’t have a kick-starter. It didn’t have a
clutch. But it didn’t
matter. He could push it with the engine
engaged. But would it start? He gripped the handlebars and muscled the
heavy motorbike around in a big oval.
Looking down over his right shoulder, he watched the engine turn. Gas vapor puffed out the exhaust pipe, but
the engine did not start. No spark.
He stopped pushing, took the broken-handled screwdriver from his back
pocket, bent over, and turned the points, just a tad. Then he jammed the screwdriver into his back
pocket and pushed the motorbike. Running
alongside, he tilted his head and listened to the little motor for signs of
life. His legs tired, but he kept on
pushing. Deep inside the motor, stubborn
steel teamed up with the strong compression strokes. It resisted his every movement. His breath came in short gasps. He pushed more. When he felt his blood pounding in his ears,
His buddy, Screwball, rode up on a pedal bike and stopped at the edge of
the lot. He jerked his head and flipped
his long blond hair out of his eyes.
Breed looked beyond him. A 1940
Ford cruised down the street and stopped.
A skinny arm hooked out of the passenger side window and a flung a beer
bottle in Screwball’s direction.
From inside the Ford, someone yelled, “Hey, Rat Boy, catch.”
The beer bottle sailed straight for the back of Screwball’s head. “Watch out!” Breed yelled and pushed
Screwball to the side.
The flying beer bottle swished past Screwball’s ear, smashed on the frame
of his bike, and scattered onto the ground.
Screwball looked toward the Ford.
Breed expected him to yell back at the kid. Instead, using a carton voice, Screwball
talked out the side of his mouth. “Ha-ha,
you didn’t get me.”
The driver in the Ford revved the engine of the car and popped the
clutch. The back tire on the driver’s
side gripped the hot pavement.
Skeek! Echoed above a stutter of
drunken laughter, and the carload of beer-bottle-sucking bullies thundered
If the kids in the Ford knew something agitated someone they would do it
every chance they could. Screwball acted
as if the skeeks didn’t bother him, and Breed didn’t
want to admit that they bothered him either.
But they did.
He suppressed his feelings, pushed his motorbike next to Screwball, and
looked at the shards of glass. “I don’t
need a flat tire.” With one hand holding
up the bike, he bent over to pick up the glass.
Screwball held up his hand like a traffic cop. “I’ll get it.”
Breed straightened up. With the
side of his tennis-shoed foot, Screwball scraped the spikes of broken glass
away from the tire of the motorbike.
With both hands on the handlebars of the bike, Breed looked down the
road. The ‘40 Ford was gone. “Rotten bastards.” He took a deep breath, dug his toes in the
yellow dirt, and pushed. Ratchet-ahh!
Ratchet-ahh! Ratchet-ahh! Thrashed deep in the engine. Mists of blue smoke huffed out the
exhaust. He pushed and pushed. The little engine sounded like it wanted to
start, but did not.
Breed stopped and gasped for breath.
His body told him to quit, push the bike back under the porch, work on
it some more. His mind said, “One more
He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, forced his last reserve of
strength into his legs, and strong-armed the bike around the lot, again. The engine sniffled and cracked like an angry
In his mind, Breed pictured what was happening inside the little
engine. It was getting enough gas. It was getting enough spark. There was no reason it should not start.
He kept on pushing. Finally, the
little piston sputtered and bucked with uneven bursts of energy. It was running.
As its revolutions increased, strong spurts of power jerked the back
wheel around and around. The bike moved
forward on its own power and caused the handlebars to pull from the palms of
Breed’s hands. He re-gripped and hung
on. The bike jerked erratically and
picked up speed. He loped alongside. Yellow-blue flames licked out the
exhaust. The little motor stuttered and
Blue-black smoke rolled out the exhaust pipe. The engine beat into a triumphant
rhythm. Exhaust smoke smoothed to a
steady white color. Like the heart of a
running tiger, the engine purred with positive power.
“Yeah, man!” Breed yelled over the Thump!
Thump! of the engine. He hopped
on the seat and pulled the white cotton string that was tied to the throttle on
the leaking carburetor. The worn belt
rotated around the back wheel and put power to the ground. With the wheels churning over the dirt, Breed
raced around the vacant lot. The
motorbike worked. He had a way to get
out of Traptown. He was going to ride to
Shell Island. He was happy.
Up ahead, an empty beer can sat in the wheels path. “Nothing can stop me now!” Crunch!
Screwball pointed at the can and laughed.
“It’s flat now,” he said over the beat of the engine.
Looking over his shoulder, Breed held the string to the carburetor and
motored around the lot. His long black
hair waved in the wind. Behind him, a
tail of dust wagged in the summer air and drifted toward Screwball.
With an offhand flip of his hand Screwball waved the fine dirt-filled air
from the front of his face and yelled, “It works.”
Breed wanted Screwball to know the thrill of riding the motorbike. He let the string to the carburetor go
slack. The engine slowed, he motioned to
Screwball. “Come on, Screwball, take it
before it stalls.”
Screwball ran next to Breed and yelled over the sound of the engine. “This thing don’t slow down for nothin’.”
Breed dismounted and loped alongside his motorbike. He motioned with his head. “Come on.
Screwball grabbed the handlebars and the pass was completed. He jumped on and pulled the string. It looped around the sharp edge on the chrome
headlight and broke. The engine
stuttered and stopped.
An unexpected silence surrounded the lot.
Screwball lowered his head and looked at the bike. “Ahh, man.”
Breed came alongside. “Nice try,
but it’s probably out of gas.”
The sound of a truck motor grew loud.
Then, Bang! . . . Thump! Thump!
Breed snapped his head in the direction of the sound. Screwball’s pedal bike lay in the middle of
Screwball jumped off Breed’s motorbike and looked toward the road. “He ran over my bike!”
Breed grabbed his motorbike and looked down the street. A dull-black panel truck was driving
away. The truck’s manual transmission
whined like it needed oil. The truck
Breed pushed his motorbike a few steps toward the road. “Maybe he’s going to stop.”
The truck’s transmission gears ground into second gear. The clutch clunked on the floorboard and the
driver stepped on the gas. Blue smoke
poured out the rusted tailpipe. The truck
sped off; and like a bad joke, the smell of burnt oil filled the air.
Breed gave Screwball a bleak smile.
“That was on purpose.”
Screwball stormed across the lot, jumped over the sewage ditch, and
looked down at his bike. Cussing, he
shook his fist at the disappearing truck.
Breed pushed the motorbike next to him and stopped.
Screwball’s voice quivered as if he were about to cry. “Rotten no good, Lard Man!”
Breed felt a line of tension form on his mouth. “That fat ass is always doing something to
us. I wish we knew where he hides that
Like a kicked dog, Screwball’s eyes misted over. He turned his head away and wiped his
eyes. “I’d like to fix that truck for
good. That bike was the only thing I
ever had that wasn’t junk.”
Staring at the bike, Breed nodded.
“Your bike was almost new.”
“It ain’t now.”
Running his fingers through his shiny crow-like hair, Breed studied
Screwball’s run-over bike. “The frame’s
bent,” he said low and then suddenly talked upbeat. “But you still might be able to ride it.”
“It figures,” Screwball said. “I
finally get something decent and some elephant-ass has to run over it.”
“It’s a good thing you weren’t on it.”
Breed forced a smile.
Screwball didn’t smile back.
Breed held onto the handlebars of his red motorbike and looked down. The sun gleamed on the chrome drainpipe he
had rigged up as an exhaust, and reflected like a bright curved mirror. He raised his head. “Maybe we can scrounge some more parts at the
dump and fix it.”
“I’m tired of working with stinkin’ junk.” Screwball bent over, grabbed his bike, pulled
it upright, and ran his hand over the frame where it was bent. “We’ll never find anything like this.” He wiped the beads of sweat from his
forehead. “In this heat that dump stinks
“I don’t mind working with junk,” Breed said. “But I hate it when a bunch of jerk-offs ruin
everything we make.”
“Maybe I can straighten it
out.” Screwball placed his foot on the
frame of his bike, grabbed it with his hand, and pulled. It didn’t bend. It didn’t
budge. He gave up. “Anyway, I don’t think we could hold our
breath long enough in that dump to find enough parts.”
As if he were in the dump, Breed breathed in shallow breaths. “I can smell the place just thinking about
it.” As if he were trying to force the
smell of the dump out of his lungs, he shuddered and shook his head.
Screwball put his hand on his own rear end. As if he had just been bitten, he rubbed
it. “Those dogs ain’t too friendly,
“They say those wild dogs get rabies in the summer. It’ll be tough to get past them and find
parts like the ones we found when we made these bikes.”
“That dump smells like someone died.”
Screwball made a face. “Dead
bodies give me the creeps.”
Breed let out a nervous laugh.
“Maybe someone did die, and they threw the bike parts away.”
“I guess it’s better than not having any parts at all,” Screwball said,
and his voice gained a businesslike edge.
“It doesn’t really matter where they came from.”
Breed patted the gas tank on his motorbike. “We still got a motorbike.”
“Yeah, all we got to do is keep it away from the flats gang and