Frankie got a kick out of killing caterpillar nests. They pissed him off, those white masses of insect thread in the trees. He conquered them. That afternoon he waltzed the yard, snapping off each and every bug-ridden branch. He piled up them up in the driveway. He splashed them with gasoline and watched the flames rocket up. Frankie was the brave kind — he didn’t run far from the fire but stayed close enough to see the baby caterpillars squirm before they died.
Then he put the shears away in the shed. It was there he spotted the can of bug killer. It was an aerosol can, black as night and riddled with warnings in small yellow text. He slipped it into the front pocket of his sweatshirt.
There was a football game that night at Miller High, his school. It was a rural high school in middle-of-nowhere Maine. In late afternoon, Frankie dumped his truck by the side of a field of sweet corn. He went down under the bridge where his friends were pre-gaming. They perched by the slow and poisoned river as they drank.
The boys preferred beer. But they needed a lot of liquid to get good and drunk off it. Instead they hid a few Gatorade bottles filled with vodka and Sunny D.
“Zach, look what I got!” Frankie said. He yanked out and waggled the can of bug killer.
“Bud, I know this shit is rotgut but it’s not so bad that you have to switch to chugging that,” said Zach. Zach was plain-faced, bucktoothed, and cocksure.
“It ain’t for me, stupid. What do you think about spraying it on some Hornets?” The opposing team tonight was Fortin Regional, the longtime enemy of Miller High. Fortin Regional’s mascot was the Hornet.
Zach grinned. “That might be an idea.” Frankie was glad to have Zach on his side. Zach was a mischief maker but not a bragger who got you bagged. He smashed windows and stole beers with an indifferent, unhurried air.
“What the fuck are you three talking about? You’ll get thrown in juvee so quick,” said Misty, a quick-tempered girl with a flat face.
The boys pondered the pink slips of paper taped above every light switch in the school. The slips explained Miller High’s draconian Zero Tolerance policy. How dumb was it to expect perfect behavior of a people whose main pastimes were drinking and shooting and driving reckless? Nevertheless, the boys weren’t keen on getting kicked out.
“That Zero Tolerance shit only counts on school grounds. Those Hornets’ll go into the woods. Everyone does. They have to smoke, don’t they?” said Frankie.
“You still can’t!” said Misty. She chewed on gum as she sipped her bastard screwdriver. “They’ll tell. They’ve got no reason not to.”
“Course they got reason. It’s called not being a pussy,” said Frankie.
“You could blind somebody. And they punish blindings hard in this state. Much worse than chopping off a leg,” said Misty.
Now Serena looked up, came up easy from a squat to a stand. She paused before speaking to push her blonde hair back. It was thin hair, but bright. “I don’t think you could live with yourself if you blinded someone. And if you could live with yourself, I pity you.”
The boys cast glares at the ground that they would’ve much rather cast at Serena.
Misty continued. “Who do you think is gonna get sprayed in the eye with a can of bug killer and not be in pain? Not go to the hospital? That place is full of nurses who’ll needle a kid until they tattle, whether they want to or not,” she said.
“I’m not gonna spray those Hornets in the face,” said Frankie. “Just on their bodies. Sweatshirts and jerseys and such.”
That conversation died and no one mourned it. The sun was down by 5:30 and the game didn’t start until 7:00. They went on bullshitting and drinking.
Frankie snapped at 6:00. The conversation, the noise of yucking it up and the crinkles of plastic bottles suddenly grated on him. It was as if a hail of fire ants fell upon him from the sky.
“I’m gonna go to my house and get my coat,” he mumbled. He stalked to his truck. He knew the coat was stuffed behind the driver’s seat. It was a tan Carhartt, lined with flannel and flecked with motor oil. He drove off anyway. He rolled the windows down and breathed in the cool air.
He barreled down Route 117. He went past a convenience store, the kind that’s got a couple crummy apartments on top. There was kid with sleepy brown eyes pumping gas into a red Jeep. The kid wore a shark tooth necklace. Frankie shook his head at that.
Frankie thought about going home and hanging by himself for a while, but it would likely increase his glowering. His room made his skin itch. The air was bad. The room was too small. He slept on a futon mattress flopped on the floor. It took up three quarters of his room.
For breakfast that morning Frankie had eaten a sandwich – white bread, mayo, mustard, bologna. He’d left it on the counter while he got his schoolbooks together. When he came back a cockroach was crawling up the bread crust. He had frowned at it. Didn’t swat it off or dump the sandwich in the trash, just frowned. He left and went to school hungry.
Now he spit out the window of his truck, thinking about his mom. She called him and the two small kids “my little cockroaches.” The young ones loved it just as he had once, before he got old enough to know she was joking in the kind of way that wasn’t a joke.
He got cooled off in the head and swerved onto the side of the road, risking the soft shoulder. He reached under the seat and pulled out his Carhartt. As he pulled it out something scraped along the floor of the truck. He looked down. It was a DVD case. He picked it up. Marlon Brando embraced a blonde girl on the cover. Text was over them: On the Waterfront. There was a neon green sticker on the upper-right corner declaring it was property of Miller High. He’d swiped it from the library a week after seeing it in History of Film, which was what dumb kids took instead of History of Art. He’d thought about it that whole week, couldn’t help but take it for his own. He looked up into the rearview mirror, scrunching his face up into a Brando pout. “I coulda been somebody. I coulda been a contender,” he quoted into the mirror. It cracked him up. He turned the truck around.
He went back to the river and revved up his boozing. They all drank until a bit beyond buzzed. When it was time, they went to the high school and slapped down a couple moist dollars and joined the crowd. Of course, they never watched the game. Often they had no idea if Miller High had won or lost at the end of it. What mattered were the crowds of kids their age. Most of them were familiar, but some kids were strange ones from the neighboring towns. They seemed exotic like lurid birds of paradise.
The group could tell by the consistent chorus of air horns and stomping feet that things were going well for Miller. It would’ve been better to fuck with a Hornet if Fortin had been winning the game. Frankie found it nice to knock people down from high horses. But now was the night when Frankie had the can of bug killer and friends by his side. So tonight it would be.
The boys took their time. They macked on girls. Misty and Serena stayed with them, but stood behind them and off to the side, waiting for the boys to finish their routines. Frankie flirted with a freshman, then flirted with Misty, then laid out his game on another girl as she wandered by.
Zach looked back at Serena and threw on a too-wide grin. “I’m not going to take her down to the dugout, my man. I could. But tonight is all about the boys,” he said.
Frankie shot a grin back, feigning joy at Zach’s supposed sacrifice. But Zach’s words felt like slime drizzling down his throat to curdle in his stomach. Zach was so smug, so assured of his lecherous success. Frankie was filled with skin-crawling disgust. “I don’t think she’d take you Zach. You didn’t have much between you and you fucked up bad when you got caught making out with that freshman,” said Frankie.
Zach’s face fell and he patted at the pocket containing his Gatorade bottle. Guilt trickled down Frankie’s spine like nervous sweat. His disgust with Zach made no sense. Serena wasn’t much to Frankie. Not to mention he routinely flirted with girls whose names he could only half remember. He and Zach were the same breed.
“You don’t want her to have you. She’s a bitch. Didn’t you see how she was high-horsing about our little plan with the bug killer?” said Frankie. Zach laughed.
“She does have an ass on her. You gotta admit that,” said Zach.
“Man, how much have you had? It’s like two raisins stuck on the ends of pipe cleaners.”
Elsewhere, Dustin Pudwill fingered the leather strap of his shark tooth necklace. He scratched his patchy beard. Hood up, he laughed with his mouth dry from his high. He and Andy Samuelson had ended up at Miller High for no particular reason. They didn’t care to see their school, Fortin Regional, win and felt a little bemused at the possibility of losing. But they were too bored at the Pudwill place. Miller High was supposed to have cute girls, but they couldn’t see any. “People lied,” said Dustin, staring into the stands.
“I’m getting sober,” said Andy. He jerked his head towards the woods. The floodlights reflected off an orange triangle — a snowmobile trailer marker. Dustin grinned.
Frankie stood next to the music club tent and munched on some soggy fries. He watched as the woods line swallowed up two slinking boys in dark sweatshirts – strangers to this town. Frankie recognized Dustin as the kid pumping gas outside the convenience store. He punched Zach on the arm to get his attention then gestured towards the woods. Frankie scarfed his food as they closed in on their quarries.
“Where are you going?” asked Serena.
“No one asked you to come. No one’s asking you now,” said Frankie.
He could sense they didn’t want to go, not now that the crime was so close everyone’s nerves prickled with it. But still the two girls followed, a bit far back from the boys, but drawn all the same.
Dustin Pudwill was two tokes in when four of Miller High’s finest crowded around. “Hey man, no free hits. I ain’t sharin’,” he said to Zach.
“Fuck Fortin. Fuck the Hornets,” said Zach.
“Alright, man. Whatever. Who cares about that dumb football shit?”
“We do,” said Frankie.
“Yeah? Is that so? Then why don’t you head back to your precious game and fuck off,” said Andy.
“Do you know what happens to Hornets that buzz their fucking buzz around me?” said Frankie.
Zach flanked and picked up Dustin’s backpack. He chucked it into the woods, the contents strewing as it flew.
“What is your fucking deal? You better get out there and get my shit back!”
Dustin turned to survey the damage. While his back was turned, Frankie drew the can of bug killer from his pocket. He sprayed the can full bore on the back of Dustin’s head.
“Hey, what was that?” Dustin touched the back of his damp head and smelled it.
“Dude! Dude, I think it’s bug spray,” said Andy, doubled over with laughter.
“Bug spray? What the fuck!” Dustin joined Andy in fits of laughter. Serena and Misty let out anxious giggles.
Frankie thought of the caterpillars. Those bugs destroyed whole forests. But he knew how to get them, how to make them hurt. He tightened his grip on the aerosol can. He swung his arm around as if throwing a baseball. Only he didn’t let go of the can. Instead it smashed into the back of Dustin’s bug killer-covered head. Dustin stumbled a bit. Blood came out of his mouth. “I bit my tongue,” he lisped.
“Dude. What?” said Zach.
The girls backed up. Frankie pulled his arm back and whacked Dustin again. The air horns blared close by. Moms shouted to their sons who scrambled on the field. Andy fled towards the school, soon to be seen.
Frankie wasn’t done, not even now that Dustin was on the ground. He reared up his arm.
“Stop! You’ll kill him!” screamed Misty.
Doesn’t she know? thought Frankie. All bugs ever do is die.