Michael B. Tager


Reason? There is no reason. He’s not rich or poor, cute or ugly. He’s just a regular kid: fourteen like us. Brown hair, yellow sneakers. Who needs a reason? He was the new kid.

During the first day of Physics class, Mary discovered he liked adventure stuff. Swashbucklers, pirates, hidden treasures. She told us at the picnic table in the quad. “He’s reading Treasure Island,” she said, eating jelly beans. “What a dork.”

We ate our sandwiches like that signified.

We got to know him, a little here and there. He wanted to be friends with us, hung around during study hall. Darren mocked his southern accent and lisp whenever he left the room. “Y’all hanging out thooon?” Darren minced around and we belly-laughed.

Did we take advantage of him? That’s a weird question. Oh, why did we?

Felix realized the new kid was lonely. They had gym together and, before we decided we hated him, Felix was—no, not nice—but pleasant toward him. He praised the new kid’s jump shot. “He would do anything I asked,” Felix said between cigarette puffs. He crushed the cigarette beneath his sandal, “He’ll do anything if you pet him first.”

Where did it really begin? Why do you ask? Does it matter?

A couple weeks into the semester, Rachel made sure she was next to the new kid and wearing a cute brown skirt when she ‘realized’ she ‘forgot’ lunch money. He offered half his brown bag and when she said, “I guess it’s enough food,” he gave her everything but the banana.

Once he was out of sight, she threw it all away. It all came from there. The beginnings of, no, not a plan, but escalating pranks? Like in movies and stuff.

Would we still do it that way? No, we aren’t crazy.

Where is everyone, anyway?

A few weeks later, Benny asked to copy the new kid’s English homework. Benny’s tall and broad, like a lumberjack and the new kid stumbled over himself to offer his homework. Benny never returned it. Benny gets all As. He didn’t need any help. Help wasn’t the point.

There were other little tests, to see what he’d do. He lent his jacket during a snowstorm, stood guard while we pulled fire alarms. He wanted to be our friend. We don’t know why. We’re not the cool kids, not the clique everyone wants to join. We’re not all buddy-buddy.

Yes, we told him he was our friend. We told you that. No, he was never going to be our friend. We just wanted him to think so. Not that we ever agreed. I told you, we’re not a collective. We just hang out together. Some of us kind of liked him, some didn’t. But he was “other” and we didn’t forget it.

Yeah, there were others he was friendly with, but he thought he was in with us, so why try? Felix cut school with him once, had some beers in the park. He said they talked about girls, mostly. How the new kid missed his girlfriend, back in Charlotte.

We made sure he kept his distance from others. We weren’t planning anything specific—not then—but we knew we were going to do something big and didn’t want, um, collateral damage. Mary said that when we talked about “cooperating fully” Her dad’s a lawyer.  Why are you writing that down? Don’t write that down.

Halfway through the semester, Dustin found an old trunk in his attic. “My dad brought it back from the war,” he said, holding a long, bronze key in stubby black fingers.

Someone asked, “Does it look like a pirate’s chest?” We don’t know who asked. No one will admit it, but we all grinned.

Plans? Who plans? It’s not like the movies, with diagrams on a blackboard and tension rising and rising until something bursts. It was just one thing leading to another. Someone thought it’d be funny (Darren maybe, on Hawaiian Shirt Friday) if we played a “real” trick.

Mary made a map using Photoshop and planted it where the new kid would see. Then Benny told him about the burned down mansion in his documentary-narrator voice. “It’s on the edge of town, down a long dirt road. It used to be a plantation house, but it’s all cinders now.”

We thought he’d be skeptical but if you want to believe, weird stuff kind of makes sense. The new kid wanted to believe. He figured out all the clues. But he might not have done it without prompting. Someone said, “Finding real treasure, that’s cool.”

No, not one of the girls.

Once he committed, we cut school and took turns schlepping the trunk to the ruins. And we waited. It took all of Wednesday. No, no one noticed we weren’t there. With all the shit that happens in schools these days, no one pays attention to people like us. We weren’t school shooters or assholes like that.

We live in a suburb. People cut school and go to the forest.

We hung out in shifts drinking, in what used to be the sun room, watching through the hole of a window. He had a flashlight. It was raining. He had a sandwich without crust. We saw it lying on the ground, after.

We’d hidden the chest. Dug a hole next to a pine tree in the front yard, thrown branches and burnt two-by-fours on top. The map led right to it. We had a perfect vantage point. He had a shovel and started digging in the mud. At one point we thought he heard us laughing, because he cocked his head. He had a habit of looking like a confused bird when he listened really hard. Mary once said, “It’s cute, in a little kid way.”

We figured he didn’t hear us, ‘cause he went back to digging. He had crappy headphones.

What was he listening to? How would we know?

When he finally dug it out, we stopped laughing and watched. He was smiling. And then he opened it. We waited a second.

He said, “Shit.” He said, “What is this?” Did he say something else? We were laughing too hard to notice.

We bum-rushed him, everyone. We didn’t bother doing it quietly, so he heard us coming. He punched someone in the nose, kicked someone under the chin when we picked him up and shoved him inside.

No, we didn’t know about his broken ribs. How could we? He was locked inside.

We stuffed him in the chest and slammed the lid shut. Everyone was yelling. We hung out for an hour or two, knocking on the top, pouring beer in the keyhole, shaking the chest, stuff like that. Then we left. Somebody (Mary, maybe? Dustin?) wanted to let him out, but we said that one night wouldn’t hurt him.

Dustin—it was definitely Dustin—insisted we let him out. “It was funny, but come on.” We talked him down for the one night. We were clear: only one night. The next day—yes, Thursday, he said, “Someone needs to let him out,” during last period.

Mary agreed. “We should do it now,” she said. We decided Rachel should let him out; she lived close, in one of those developments where the cul-de-sacs are named after flowers. Even though we didn’t see her Friday, we assumed she let him out. Why didn’t we check on him over the weekend? We had homework. There was a party. Rachel was supposed to have been taken care of it. It wasn’t our responsibility anymore.

After the weekend ended, when we found out Rachel had the flu, we asked about him. First thing in the morning, when we saw a police car in the parking lot. Once we saw that, we knew it was serious. We aren’t animals.

Felix said, “We have to let him out right now.” Dustin and Mary were too busy freaking out. We left school while it was still really cold. You remember the cold snap, don’t you?

The chest was oak or something, all frozen over. We couldn’t have known the chest would freeze over; who prepares for that and we couldn’t find the key. None of us could kick it open. “I think I broke my toe,” Mary said when she finally gave up. That’s when we called.

 No, Felix didn’t call. Dustin might have called if he hadn’t been crying. “We messed up.” I won’t tell you who called. We promised. Don’t you trace them? That’s how cops do it on TV.

Look, we didn’t mean to hurt anyone. He wasn’t a bad kid. We already said that he didn’t deserve it, but it’s still not our fault. We’re sorry it went wrong, but he should have been fine. He’s OK though, right? We weren’t there when the cops—when you guys—opened the chest.

Reason? We didn’t have a reason. We told you that, too. No reason at all. Are you going to tell us if he’s OK?

What do I think? It’s not about me. It’s us. We—

What do you mean we can’t go home? But we told you everything.

Won’t you tell me anything? We know it’s not our fault. You know it isn’t our fault. We said we’re sorry. Why should we be punished? Why can’t we talk to each other?

Why can’t I go home? Say it isn’t our fault. Say he’s OK. He’s OK, right? You haven’t said.

Please. Please say it’s not my fault.

© Michael B. Tager

Michael B. Tager is a writer and editor from Baltimore, MD. He is the Managing Editor of Mason Jar Press. Recent work has appeared in Barrelhouse, Electric Literature, Hobart, and The Collagist. He does not approve of the Oxford comma.

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