Riley’s family was not your average family, that’s fair to say. Too many of these stories begin with a “normal” family that’s excited about moving into a new house in a nice neighborhood; they’re usually well-to-do, and each member is pretty much likable.
If that’s what “normal” is, Riley’s family was certainly not normal. Riley’s family was, in fact, moving into a new house, but they weren’t excited. John, Riley’s father, had recently been fired from a high-paying construction management job that had taken them around the world for as long as Riley could remember. He had lived with his family in places like Hawai’i, Costa Rica, Germany, and India while his father managed the company’s construction sites. Most of the projects had to do with large-scale utilities sites. They built a dam in Germany that could supply water to half the country—or some crap like that—and they built a huge recycling center in India. Beyond that, Riley had never paid too much attention.
Anyway, when John was fired from the company, it was decided that they would return to his hometown, which he had been away from for over twenty years. Supposedly he still knew lots of people there and there would be plenty to do. By that, he evidently meant plenty of work, not plenty for Riley or his little brother, James, to do. John’s hometown was a small farming community in the center of the country. The closest movie theater was forty-five miles away on an interstate. The closest mall was farther. Riley was not happy.
To top it off, there evidently weren’t as many people left that John knew, or at least there wasn’t any work left, because John quickly decided to move them to another town, an even smaller one, farther away from everything. John, who had spent the last twenty or so years managing billion-dollar construction sites, was now sorting mail in the mornings and stocking shelves at the local three-aisle grocery in the afternoons. He was always working, always tired, and always unhappy—though he tried to hide his unhappiness.
Riley was more than unhappy. He was pissed. There were thirteen people in his class, and only three of them were girls. All of the boys were either football or basketball players, or in wrestling or track, and they all had reputations for being athletes. Riley had never gotten along with their type. They were too aggressive and too one-track-minded. That’s why he spent most of his free time alone.
It was after school one day during that first week that the balloon thing happened. It was his third day of school. He was beyond the part where teachers asked him to tell the class about the different places he’d lived, and he’d had to stand, uncomfortably, in the front of the class and answer questions. Zachary, the big kid in his class, asked him if he was gay and laughed with his buddies about the clothes he wore. They were fifteen and sixteen year-olds and had been blessed with an early burst of hormones. Riley had not been. He was skinny and squeaky and dressed like a city kid. It was clear he didn’t fit in.
In his third day of school, he was beyond the stares that always accompanied a new kid in school. They were scrutinizing stares that, if you acknowledged them, only earned you more scrutiny. On the third day, a new kid was just “the new kid” and didn’t warrant any more stares.
The third day was the dangerous day. Riley knew he’d been judged and categorized, and he knew that he was a city kid in a country town, he was smaller than the other boys in his class, and he could in no way relate to the football discussions, the hunting discussions, the harvesting discussions, or any of the discussions that constantly went on among the boys there. On the third day he would be singled out and harassed as an outsider or a weirdo. Depending on how aggressive and mean the boys were, he would either be verbally harassed or physically beaten. He had experienced both before thanks to his dad and his dad’s job moving them about.
Yes, Riley was pissed, but he was smart, too. He had learned. After the first and second days of school, he had scoped out what he thought would be the fastest and least visible route home. He only lived five blocks from the school, though that was halfway across this small town. When the final bell rang, he swung his already-packed backpack over his shoulder and casually bolted to the door.
As one of the first students outside, he let his eyes scan the attached elementary school’s playground and the grassy field beyond to ensure there were no obstacles in his path. Then he walked at a quick pace across both until he found the sidewalk stretching along the street that formed the north edge of this part of town. There were houses on his right as he walked but only the street and an empty field on his left.
Four blocks to go. He noticed the increased traffic as moms picked their kids up from the elementary side of the school. There was no high school traffic on this street because it was on the far side of the school from the parking lot. The kids in his class, most of them anyway, had farm permits and were already driving to and from school, another local standard which Riley had no chance of living up to. He would not drive for another year when, hopefully, his dad would let him get his Learner’s Permit.
Three blocks to go, and then two. He could see his house, older but large, on the corner ahead. Behind the houses on his right, he could hear the deep rumble of a pickup with loud pipes. Riley’s eyes darted left and then right, searching for someplace to disappear, but it was too late. Around the corner in front of him came the 1985 yellow Chevy truck with Zachary behind the wheel and two of his friends beside him on the bench seat. They turned in Riley’s direction and Zachary swooped the pickup across the center of the street and came to a stop next to him.
“There you are, Riley,” Zachary said, a big smile on his face. “We were looking for you. Come on, get in. We’ll show you around.”
So, it would be the old “show you around” routine this time. Riley knew it was a ruse to get you off by yourself where any number of outcomes was possible. None of them were positive. The worst part was, he knew that if he balked here, they would use it as an excuse to act offended and angry, and they would push him around, and then it would go on forever. If he just went with them and didn’t hesitate or show any fear, maybe they would leave him alone after today. He surrendered.
Zachary’s smile widened and he turned to his cronies. “Will, get in the back,” he shouted and shoved the boy sitting next to him. The passenger door opened and both of the cronies got out. The one who was sitting in the middle, Will evidently, planted a foot on top of the back tire and boosted himself up into the back of the pickup. The other boy motioned to Riley.
“Come on. Get in.”
Against every instinctual alarm going off in his head, Riley walked calmly around the pickup and climbed in. He scooted into the middle and Zachary gave him a stiff wallop on his shoulder and rested his arm on the seat behind him. The second boy hopped in and slammed the door.