"Get the hell back before this blows us to hell!" yells Jasper Toblé, tossing the M-80 into a fifty-five gallon drum. He runs from the small hill through the tan, tall grass, his lanky body moving awkwardly in frayed blue jeans, skinned knees just visible. Dwight Howard and Thad Pencilton have predicted his warning and are huddled down in a ditch several hundred feet away, exchanging looks as Jasper runs with wide-eyed terror and excitement. They don't know what he's placed in the drum; judging from his speed, the drum is filled with something that will react violently with the firework and possibly produce shrapnel. Dwight is thinking how Jasper runs like a wounded man, with a slight limp caused by a knee that doesn't quite go as high as it should; Thad is seeing the coming explosion, which causes him to think back to the previous night, when he achieved an important milestone in the development of any young man: his first impromptu orgasm, occurring prematurely in the presence of a female. Thad has not told his friends about his nascent relationship with Pamela Jean Harvey; Dwight Howard is too scared around girls, and Jasper Toblé shows little interest in the opposite sex. In Thad's opinion, Jasper is either gay or asexual. He doesn't particularly care.
The fifty-five gallon drum shoots into the air, rusty pieces of metal flying out in all directions, the drum clearing twenty feet before falling back toward the earth. Jasper is hit as he jumps for the ditch; Thad sees a shard of metal lodge itself into the boy's calf muscle as he soars through the air. Dwight makes a face like he has been shot; Jasper is still grinning, crooked teeth visible as he lands hard on his chest in-between his friends, the smell of gun powder and burnt grass reaching their nostrils.
"That was pretty good, wasn't it?" says Jasper.
"You weren't even facing the right way to see it," says Thad.
"I'll watch it on the camera," says Jasper, pointing toward the large black camcorder he's installed atop an old basketball goal. It stands forlornly in the field, its patch of concrete cracked and overgrown with grass. Jasper and his brother have no interest in traditional sports.
"Dude, you're wounded," says Dwight, pointing to the leg. Jasper's calf is bleeding through the thin material of his pant leg.
"I just got a tetanus shot," replies Jasper. He rolls up the pant leg, and after examining his wound, pulls out a thin sliver of rusted metal.
"What did you put in that drum?" says Thad.
"Kerosene and some of Jimmy's junk," he says. Jimmy is Jasper's frequently tormented younger brother.
"You're lucky you didn't set the field on fire," says Thad.
"It's been on fire before. That's why the extinguisher is close at hand." He points toward the single-story metal garage that houses Jasper's tools and experiments. "Come on, I'll show you guys what I've been working on."
Dwight considers Jasper to be a budding mad scientist, albeit a hillbilly one; his main interests lie in figuring out ways to make things explode. They follow him into the garage, stepping around scattered pneumatic tools and ancient CRT monitors. A go-cart rests disassembled in one corner; an automobile engine sits propped up by thick boards stretching across two metal sawhorses. Chains hang from the ceiling; the whole place is soaked in the odor of gasoline, and it will always smell that way, no matter how much cleaning is performed. In the center of the floor, illuminated by large hanging lights, is a curious structure made out of PVC pipe. It looks like a cannon or some other homemade weapon of war, the kind of creation a terrorist might utilize in some desperate scenario, if left with only a bit of cash and the resources of a small hardware store.
"I put it together with pipe cement," begins Jasper. "There's a main chamber with a female adapter for connecting to my air compressor. I installed one with a pressure meter so that I don't go over one-hundred and twenty PSI, which I've deemed to be just under the maximum safe load. When that level of compression is reached, and a projectile loaded down the barrel," he points to the tip of the cannon and a broom stick that is lodged within it, "you only need to aim and press this button, which will open the solenoid value, almost instantly releasing the air and propelling the projectile at high velocity. I've been meaning to buy a radar detector, but suffice it to say that I've buried six inch nails into the trunk of an oak tree on the corner of the property, so this thing's pretty powerful."
"Jeez, man, really?" says Dwight. He steps toward the cannon. "This is more impressive than the old potato cannon."
"Jasper burned his eyebrows off too many times with Aqua Net hairspray," says Thad.
"That old combustion launcher was cool and elegantly simple, but this thing is better." Jasper picks up the cannon and cradles it in his arms. "We'll have a lot of fun with it."
"You're not thinking about using it in the war, are you?" asks Thad.
Jasper doesn't say anything, but the right corner of his mouth rises slightly.
"The war" Thad refers to is an annual event called the stick war, a wild occasion that has become a simulation of forest combat, its violence escalating every year as the boys grow older. The first Stick War occurred sometime around '96 or early '97 on the Toblé property, and it consisted of two teams of three, each approaching from different corners of the woods, the boys armed with both heavy and light tree branches, the former for throwing, the latter for striking with whip-like slashes. The objective of these early battles was nebulous; rules were not defined, there was no way to win or lose (although Jonas McClain certainly lost a lot of blood when his lip was split by an oak branch thrown by Douglas Murray). Then the boys obtained paintball guns; Jasper commenced building a crude structure out of posts, two by fours, and plywood that he simply referred to as "the fort." Each year he's added on to the building, giving it a second story and dual turrets, and now there's the rumor that he's wired the fort, providing it with electricity, powering it with car batteries and a homemade generator. Wires are strung through the trees, leading back to the barn. He hints at booby-traps, plans for an underground tunnel system, and an electrified fence. Dwight and Thad are not on Jasper's team; they have not seen the fort for almost a year. Each has expressed concerns to the other that Jasper is taking the simulation a bit too far.
"Let's fill it up and shoot it," says Jasper, grabbing the air compressor's hose and plugging it into the cannon. The compressor kicks on loudly, and Thad and Dwight step out of the dark metal barn and into the sunlight. Sweat streams down both boys' faces. Jasper is used to the heat. He never wears shorts, only jeans.
They follow him back out into the field, passing the exploded drum, still smoldering, and walk down a steep hill, digging their heels into the earth. Jasper cuts through the brush, his free hand grasping onto tree trunks for support. At the bottom, they cross a trickle of a creek, hopping from large stone to stone, their feet standing on the fossilized remains of ancient sea creatures, mollusks, worms, and trilobites. Dwight likes the smells out here, the scents of grass and wild foliage, the slight fishy stink of the creek. They step carefully around a rotting carcass, little more than a skull and dried up bits of skin. They are climbing another hill now; the forest thins somewhat, giving way to tall grass and stunted pine trees. At the top, Jasper stops and points straight ahead.
"There," he says, "You can see it from a distance."
Standing twenty feet above a tangled wall of dried vine and thorn stands a boxy structure with two elevated towers, small, square platforms like deer stands. It has been painted a dull white with red streaks running randomly across its front like trails of blood. There are only slits for windows and no visible door. A ditch lies around the wall of debris, spikes jutting up from the earth. Thad thinks it looks like a prehistoric castle, the kind of thing cobbled together by hulking cavemen and their captives, built with brawn and human sacrifice. There is a flag billowing from a pole extending from the top of the fort. It is the American flag, but a black x has been spray painted across it.
"Doug did that," says Jasper, pointing to the flag. "You know how he is."
"He's a weird hillbilly albino scarecrow," says Thad, "full of hippie shit."
"You're going to kill somebody," says Dwight, pointing toward the spikes.
"It's just decoration," says Jasper. "All right, who wants to shoot this thing?"
"You should shoot it. You built it," says Thad.
"I'll shoot it," volunteers Dwight. "What should I aim at?"
"We could wait till Jimmy finishes jacking off in the house," says Jasper. "He'll come wandering down here sooner or later. He's curious about the fort."
"To be your younger brother. I don't know how he's managed to live this long," says Thad.
"I swear he won't live more than a couple of months," says Jasper. Dwight looks in his eyes, black and almond-shaped, and knows that he's serious.
"Isn't there a glass house down that way?" says Dwight.
"I've caused enough damaged to it," says Jasper. "Hit that scrubby pine about one-hundred yards ahead."
Dwight crouches down and steadies the cannon across his knee. Jasper shakes his head and pulls the broom stick out of the barrel, and then pulls a six inch nail out of his pocket and places it in the cannon.
Thad looks at the long, lean piece of two inch PVC and thinks about Pamela Jean's long, lean legs. You need to buy her something, he thinks. Within the wallet lies the way to third base.
Dwight presses the button and the nail shoots out, lodging into the tree. "Cool," he says, simply.
"Too much air is escaping around the nail. I need to buy some with larger heads," says Jasper.
Thad looks up toward the ridge and sees a little shape moving along, spying on them. On the ground a centipede moves, orange and black like Halloween candy. He can't take his eyes off of it, as his friends move back up the hill. It looks like jewelry, he thinks, as it scurries beneath a rock. Back among the cool, the wet, and the dark.