“Hark ye, you Cocklyn and la Bouche, I find by strengthening you, I have put a rod into your hands to whip myself… ” —Captain Howell Davis, Welsh pirate, 1719, stated upon ending his partnership with Thomas Cocklyn and Olivier ‘La Bouche’ Levasseur.
Fat Boy Frankie was NOT a popular seventh grader. Although, out of all the kids in the Helen Thackston Charter School he was definitely the one with the most… the most acne, the most body odor, and of course, the most fat. The few friends he did have, like Drew and Tony Miller, didn’t really like him. They fraternized with Frankie because he had a few assets they found appealing. Assets such as parents who worked long late hours; a deteriorating yet still functioning above ground pool, a hot older sister who constantly perfected her tan; and a living room equipped with a monster-sized TV and the latest bloodiest video games.
For better or worse, Fat Boy Frankie was fully aware of his low-ranking social predicament, and if something in his life didn’t change soon he’d be doomed forever. The thirteen-year-old misfit had taken the beginning steps of a life long journey to become at best, a full-fledged doormat.
But he didn’t want to be a doormat. Instead he longed for adventure, serious adventure. Like the ones in the old books his grandfather had given him just before he died. Frankie had secretly been reading the well-worn yellowed books, being careful not to let anyone know. After all, he already took enough beatings. The night before last, he’d finished Great Expectations—a long novel that had been extremely difficult to read. It had taken him an entire year but he got through it. Abel Magwitch had been his favorite character. He didn’t find him a brute or all that vicious of a criminal. Something about the coarse man had felt strong and protective.
On an ordinary York City late Saturday afternoon in Pennsylvania, Frankie and the Miller brothers lazily sprawled their limbs across the steps of his front porch. They had just finished a pepperoni pizza bought with money Frankie’s mother had placed on the kitchen counter for milk, juice, and cat food, but as usual, Drew and Tony had coerced Frankie into spending the cash on them instead.
Suddenly, without warning, Drew punched his host’s bulging stomach.
“Cut it out!” yelled Frankie as he defensively lunged forward, hugging his abdomen with both arms. “The doctor told me to be careful!”
Drew laughed and tried punching him again.
“Quit it! My incision could open back up and get infected!”
“My incision! My incision! You’re such a baby. It ain’t gonna open back up—it’s healed already.”
“Not all the way!”
“It’s been three whole weeks since you had that appendix out. You’re just being a wuss.”
“You’re signed out of Phys-Ed for the rest of the year, plus I heard you fake-fainted the other day to get out of taking the vocab test.”
“I didn’t fake-faint—that was for real!”
“Yeah, right. You got to spend the rest of the day sleeping in the nurse’s office.”
Frankie lifted his shirt to check his bandage for oozing blood. “I made up that vocab test—got 8 out of 10.”
Flashing lights and a whirring siren pierced their attention as they watched an oncoming ambulance fly down South George Street toward the hospital. Its appearance was officially the most exciting thing that had happened all day.
“I’m bored,” said Tony.
“Me too,” said Drew.
“Let’s do something.”
“Let’s go somewhere.”
“The mall?” proposed Frankie.
The brothers laughed, “We got kicked out of there last weekend.”
“Why you wanna know?” was Tony’s quick prickly response.
“No reason.” Frankie knew he’d probably pay for what he said next, but a curious current stirred from deep within his fathoms. “Did you guys get caught stealing?”
One brother elbowed Frankie’s forehead as the other punched his upper right arm.
Drew barked, “So what if we did?”
Frankie got up from the steps and moved to a plastic chair in a far corner of the porch. He had learned to take pain—was used to it. And since he had already suffered a few blows he felt entitled to another question. “What did you take this time?”
“I needed new headphones,” said Drew.
Frankie checked his forehead to see if a lump were forming. “But you stole new headphones a month ago.”
“Yeah, sold them to Cameron last week, so I needed new ones.”
Tony picked up a rock and threw it at the house across the street. “I’m serious, guys, I’m bored. Let’s do something! Let’s go somewhere!”
“Like where?” asked Drew.
Emanating from his core, the curious new current grew stronger, and Frankie suddenly felt the lift of an anchor. He grinned as he cleverly eyed the horizon then boldly suggested, “Let’s go check out the Old York Jail.”
For three full seconds the Miller brothers found their nerves choked by a not- so-subtle hollow cessation of all usual outdoor sound.
The Old York County Prison, dating back to 1906, was a six story Italian Renaissance brick and limestone building. Although sizable in appearance, by 1979 the county’s inmate population had outgrown its walls, so a new, larger prison was built further away. The Old Jail closed and ironically became its own final victim—an inmate whose bars were that of total abandonment and owner-neglected inactivity. For nearly four decades its bricks were hardened and weathered by empty silence, and now the frighteningly alive entity emitted a low unspoken signal saying, “Since for so long you didn’t want me, I now definitely don’t want you.” It was a deserted fortress—a lone standing ominous rectangle of dark terror… and everyone in town knew to stay away.
The Miller brothers looked at each other with expressionless faces. Drew gulped hard, but Tony, the eldest, was the first to snap out of reality and back into his tough guy act. “Yeah right, Fat Boy—you wouldn’t go into the Old Jail. Last month you got freaked out on the Haunted Mansion ride at the Fair.”
“That’s because I saw a rat!”
“Liar, we had you blindfolded!”
“Yeah, well while you weren’t looking I peeked. I saw everything through the whole ride—it was super fake, not scary at all. But the rat was real, and I don’t like rats.”
“Whatever.” Tony threw a rock at an oncoming car, but missed.
Tiny tremors of courage rumbled inside Frankie. “I’m serious, guys. Let’s do it.”
“Betcha that place has rats,” warned Drew.
“Big ones,” added Tony.
Frankie, whose legitimate fear of rats had prompted him to do some research, replied, “Nope. Rats are pretty smart. Where there’s no food or water there shouldn’t be any rats.” He checked the time on his phone and squeezed his round body up and out of the plastic chair. “The bus should be coming by soon. I’m gonna go stuff my backpack with some flashlights.”
As Frankie ran inside the house Drew shot his older brother a fearful glance then stuttered, “You don’t think he’ll really go in there, do you? I mean, it’s the Old Jail!”
Tony hopped down to the sidewalk in search of a half-spent cigarette. “Nah, he’ll chicken-out at the last second. Don’tcha remember him bragging about how he once rode the Viper five times in a row?”
“Oh yeah, that’s right! Then this year the wimp puked his guts out while we were in line and never even made it onto the ride! He had runny funnel cake all over the bottom of his jeans and Converse. Then he called his sister to pick him up, what a classic Fat Boy moment.”
“See? And that was just a stupid ride. The Old Jail’s ten times scarier than the Viper.”
“Yeah, he’ll never go in that old place—he’s so full of it!”
Frankie reappeared onto the porch then turned and locked the front door. With his backpack slung over his shoulder, he smiled and announced excitedly, “I’m ready!”
The boys boarded the 8S bound for the Transfer Center and made their way to the back of the bus.
Drew whispered to his brother, “Did you see him?”
“Yeah, I saw him.”
“Saw who?” asked Frankie.
“The crazy guy.”
“What crazy guy?”
“The crazy old guy sitting up front.”
Frankie’s eyes searched through the passengers then landed on a scrawny old man sitting as motionless as a skeleton. His spine was curved, his head was bent down, and his thin lips quivered in silent speech.
“That’s Nancy’s friend,” whispered Tony.
“Who’s Nancy?” asked Frankie.
“Don’t know, but that’s who he’s talking to whenever he talks to himself.”
“What kind of stuff does he say?”
“Weird stuff,” said Drew, “old military stuff.”
“He looks homeless.”
“That’s because he IS homeless, stupid. He sleeps under the bridges along Codorus Creek. I’ve seen him catch carp down there.”
“Yeah, he’s a real loner-freak. Just walks around downtown all day and rides the busses. He’s always talking to himself—sometimes he yells.”
Tony smirked maniacally. “Hey Frankie, I dare ya to go sit next to the guy.”
“What? No way!”
“Then prove it—go sit next to him, I double dare ya!”
Tony and Drew elbowed their victim continuously until he had no choice than to get up and move away. His stomach muscles were getting sore from cramping-up all afternoon. Slowly Frankie shuffled toward the front of the bus, and although there were several seats available he eyed the empty one next to Nancy’s friend. He had a feeling the seat next to this man was usually empty. He thought about just standing for the rest of the trip, but a final glance back to the Miller brothers yielded insistent gestures for him to proceed with the dare.
Cautiously, he sat down next to the grizzled stranger who smelled like old guy sweat and stale cigarettes. Long straggly white hair dangled around the man’s bent head, acting as a loose shield between him and the rest of the passengers. His voice could barely be heard over the engine of the bus, so Frankie had to listen closely to hear the man’s hushed mumblings:
“I’m telling you, there’s a lot of money out there—I’m talking a hydrogen bomb amount of money! And Mr. Nixon doesn’t plan on anyone getting their hands on it. But you know what piss poor planning produces, right?”
Frankie’s first freaked-out reaction was to run away, but there was nowhere to run. Thankfully the ride from his house to the Transfer Center was short.
“Duty, duty, I did my duty, but blind faith’s dangerous. They pay; I spend so they can pay again. Cycle of poison and cesspools. That’s not me. It’s all wrong, Nancy. Be sure to tell Mary it’s all wrong! Stay away from them, Nancy, they’re bad. And they rape, Nancy… they rape!”
As soon as the bus came to a full stop at the Transfer Center, Frankie leapt from his seat and was the first passenger down the front door steps. The Miller brothers darted out the bus’ rear exit and all together they ran to catch the 1E.
“So, what did he say?” Drew asked Frankie.
“Stuff about rape, and money, and Nixon!”
“Mr. Nixon the Math teacher?”
“I don’t know, but it was crazy!”
“Did he say Nancy?”
“Yeah! You were right—that’s who he was talking to!”
“See, told ya!”
As the boys stood in the long line to board the 1E, a tall bullheaded beefy kid shouldered his way through the crowded Transfer Center then cut in front of Tony and Drew who gulped hard with fear at the sight of Mean Manny Milford.
“Well, well, well, if it isn’t Dumb, Dumber, and their dog,” said Mean Manny.
Manny Milford was a ninth-grader who should’ve been a junior in high school but had been held back a couple of years. He had a black belt in bullying and tormenting the Miller brothers seemed his favorite pastime. He towered over the three boys and blocked out the sun as he held out an open palm. “If you’re gonna ride my bus, you’re gonna have to pay. Gimme what you got.”
Tony nudged Frankie, who quickly dug in his pockets. A chubby clammy hand produced change from the earlier pizza delivery and Mean Manny snatched it up. Drew involuntarily licked his lower lip in remembrance of a punch it had received three days prior because Mean Manny had needed to take a ‘practice shot’ for the next time he got mad.
“If you guys going to my mall you’re gonna have to pay me for that too.”
“We ain’t,” said Tony.
“Then where you headed?”
“I can make you pay for lyin’.”
“We’re going to the Old Jail,” Frankie boldly announced.
The bully glared down at Frankie for a few seconds then rolled his eyes in Tony’s direction and laughed, “Best tighten his leash—that dog’s gittin’ bigger than its owner!” Manny Milford boarded the 1E and roughly brushed by passengers as he made his way to the back of the bus.
The coach was packed with people headed to the York Mall, so after the three boys scanned their monthly passes through a slot in the cash box, there was standing room only behind the yellow line at the very front.
The driver closed the vehicle’s door and as she slowly eased the bus away from the Transfer Center she asked Frankie, “Did I just hear you say you’re going to the Old Jail?”
“Yup, Miss Steph, that’s where we’re headed.”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
“Well, for one thing you could get in trouble for trespassing.”
“Not if no one sees us.”
Lately Steph Reidy was the driver assigned to the dreaded raucous afternoon pick up from the Helen Thackston Charter School. Frankie stood out from the other kids for obvious reasons, and she felt bad for him. “Look, if you’re doing this kind of thing on a dare, you should think twice about it. Sure, it’s an interesting building to look at, but you’re not actually going to go inside are you?”
“What’s the point of going if you’re not going inside? Would you be afraid to go inside?”
Steph took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, shook her head from side to side then warned, “I wouldn’t be afraid of going inside, Frankie. I’d be more afraid of what’s gonna follow me home when I leave.”
Frankie and the Miller brothers exited the bus at Broad Street, crossed Market Street then proceeded to walk in the direction of the old titanic structure that dominated 319 Chestnut Street.
“This is a stupid idea,” said Drew.
His brother agreed, “Yeah, Frankie. You know you ain’t gonna go in. You’ll wimp out and run away. Then we’re gonna laugh at you.”
Drew teased, “I can’t wait to tell everyone at school how you chickened-out at the last second.”
Frankie didn’t respond. Instead he kept his eyes fixed on the road ahead and focused on putting one foot in front of the other.
“I hear there’s a good picture of Jimi Hendrix somewhere in the old place,” said Tony, trying to suppress twitches of anxiety as their destination neared.
“I heard that too,” said Drew. “An inmate drew him on a cell wall.”
“Betcha he never got credit for it neither.”
Once the ominous red brick building was in sight, the Miller brothers grew silent. The neighborhood itself was quiet—too quiet. No one was mowing a yard; no kids were playing in the rarely-trafficked streets; not even one person sat swinging on a porch swing. Each step closer to The Old York Prison bore the intense weight of what they were about to attempt.
Every pore on Tony’s body began to sweat as his panicked eyes darted around, desperately searching for someone to burst from a house, commanding them to stop!
Drew’s heart began to race. “Where is everybody? Why isn’t anyone outside?”
A chain link fence had been erected around the prison many years prior, but it was obvious to all on-lookers that it had never been properly maintained. The boys walked as close as they could to the fence, crushing imposing weeds beneath their feet. Wild wayward small trees and thick green-leaved vines had grown along its grey links, reinforcing them in places while consuming them entirely in others.
In search of a weak spot, Frankie pressed his hands at various points along the intertwined steel and vine. It didn’t take long for him to discover a spot where links in the fence had previously been cut, bent inward, and only overgrown foliage stood in its place.
“Guys, look!” he said, excitedly. “We can get in here!” Frankie squeezed his short rotund body through the opening and the Miller brothers followed, pushing through until there was no more protective barrier between them and York’s most infamous edifice.
Tony was the first to reach out and touch the building’s dark stone base. Immediately he felt something odd in the pit of his stomach—not as if he had eaten something spoiled, but as if he had never before in his whole life eaten anything at all.
“Okay, I’ve touched it,” he said, “that’s good enough for me. Let’s go.”
Drew copied his brother’s actions then quickly pulled back his hand. “Let’s get out of here!”
But Frankie stood still, in awe of the building and stared upward at its grand stark immensity. With a strange affection he smiled and said, “It’s beautiful!”
Tony pulled on the boy’s backpack for him to retreat through the fence, but Frankie jerked away.
“Come on, guys—let’s see if we can get inside!” He started walking along the perimeter of the building but when he noticed the absence of footsteps behind him he turned, stared deep within Tony’s eyes and asked, “You’re not wimping out, are you?”
Tony stared back then blinked several times, gulped hard and answered, “No, Frankie. I’m not wimping out.”
“Then why’d you pull on my backpack?”
“Just thought I’d give you an out in case you were afraid, that’s all.”
A devilish smirk slowly spread between two fat rosy cheeks, and the boy felt a twinge of what Max must’ve felt like when he became king in Where the Wild Things Are. Frankie wanted to lead a wild rumpus of his own. “Well, I’m not afraid. So come on, let’s go.”
Tony looked to Drew, who shrugged his shoulders then they both followed behind.
“What’s got into him?” Drew whispered.
“Don’t know, but I don’t like it.”
Soon Frankie found a spot where a section of the structure’s base had crumbled from decay, creating a rubbled opening that was concealed to anyone passing by on the street, but once inside the fence of vine and steel it was easily found. As he carefully crossed the threshold, a recollection of Lewis Carroll’s Alice going down, down, down through the rabbit hole flashed inside his mind—he eagerly anticipated what sort of wonderland of sights now awaited him.
Although the evening sun graciously illuminated most of the interior, Drew took a flashlight from Frankie’s backpack before nervously entering through the hole.
Once inside, Tony cupped his mouth and nose with his hands to avoid directly breathing in the dank mildew-infused stench of preserved pain. Drew thought the place smelled like old body odor mixed with decaying flesh. But Frankie breathed deeply as his lungs willingly drank the ancient air. It was heavy with humidity and a hoard of mixed memories. This is where the best laid plans were laid to rest; where action ripened into old age, and where the nectar of revenge had been cultivated, refined and purified. A fresh invigoration breezed through Frankie’s veins as his previously unfurled sails were hoisted for the first time.
To the Miller brothers, the walls were sick, but to Frankie, the walls were alive. He ran his fingertips along their faded white tiles and felt a flood of emotions from stories demanding to be remembered: stories of the grift, the pull, the gag and ruse. Stories of fire, stitches and scars and blood spilled. So many stories, so many years, so many souls had passed through these walls and some never made it out. Some had felt guilt, some pain and shame. Some were innocent and some felt no remorse at all. Some had been forgiven and some were beyond all saving. But it was the memories of the ones who vehemently held onto hope beyond all hope whom Frankie identified with the most.
His wide eyes scanned the rooms of the first floor and assumed it had served as the receiving area for new inmates, a waiting room for visitors, and a place for the warden, his guards and various laborers to go about their work. He couldn’t wait to see the sights in store on the floors above.
“I don’t feel so good,” whined Drew.
Tony almost reached out to reassuringly hold his younger brother’s hand, but he stopped himself. Instead he turned to Frankie and said, “Okay, Fat Boy, you made it in here, now let’s go!”
But Frankie knew his time spent within these impenetrable walls he’d just penetrated was only beginning. “Not yet,” he answered Tony, and with his new sails of courage extended, took off running up a metal staircase to the next floor. He allowed his eyes to briefly dart around at the rows of cells before running up more stairs to the third floor. The Miller brothers shrieked in horror, calling out for him to stop! But Frankie kept on running. Most explorers would have taken their time, examining everything with care, but not him. No way! He wanted to feel the waves of adventure crash over him as he impulsively ascended from floor to floor.
As he reached the base of the staircase leading up to the very top sixth floor, his lungs and legs forced him to stop to catch his breath. A full minute went by before the panting Miller brothers were able to join him. Once reunited, Drew popped Frankie on the back of his head. “That’s it—you’re officially mental! What do you think you’re doing, running around like that?”
Tony agreed, “That was really stupid, man. You could’ve fallen through a floor or been attacked by squatters or something!”
Frankie shook his head then swallowed and panted, “There’s nobody here—just us.”
“How do you know that?” asked Drew.
“Because the building doesn’t want anyone here.”
“What do you mean?” asked Tony.
“Can’t explain it, I just know.”
Tony rolled his eyes and Drew sneezed several times.
Once their lungs and limbs had recovered, the three boys stepped about cautiously and surveyed their surroundings. The building’s centralized staircases gave access to its vast floors, each housing four separate but identical blocks. Frankie and the Miller brothers explored the front right block of the fifth floor. To their right were barred windows whose panes of glass had long ago been broken. A line of floor to ceiling bars stood in the middle of the block, separating the windows from a row of rusting metal cells to their left. Faded yellow paint peeled from the top half of the walls and green paint peeled from the lower half—their fallen chips along with crisp shards of rust crunched beneath the visitors’ feet.
Upon absolutely every metal surface were cut outs of 8-sided stars. Frankie counted two rows of 12 above each cell for a total of 24; then six rows of 7 on each cell door. Their peculiar pattern repeated itself on the metal staircases with 6 star cut outs appearing on the face of each riser. He wondered what it meant, if anything at all. The cells themselves were very small and each contained two metal cots attached to a side wall, a small toilet in one corner, and a small sink in the other. Some of the metal cots were in a folded up position, perhaps to give inmates more room to move during the day.
Frankie shuffled toward the last cell in the long row of eight. On the floor, just outside its entrance he noticed something unusual peeking out from underneath a long dirty strip of fallen yellowed paint. He didn’t know what it was, but it definitely stood out from its surroundings. As he knelt to the floor to check it out, Drew and Tony walked closer, wondering what he had spotted. Delicately, Frankie slid out a twenty dollar bill from underneath a thick pile of dust.
“Cool!” he whispered.
“Wow!” said Drew.
“Give me that!” said Tony as he plucked it from Frankie’s fat little fingers.
“Is it real or fake?” asked Drew.
Tony crinkled and examined the old bill, and even though it didn’t have a magnetic strip, he spotted tiny blue and red threads embedded within its paper. “It’s real.”
“Alright!” yelled Drew.
“We can split it three ways,” said Frankie.
“Don’t be stupid, you can’t split a twenty three ways.”
“How about you two each get five and I get ten ’cause I paid for pizza earlier.”
Drew didn’t like that idea.
Neither did his brother. “You paid for pizza ’cause we were guests at your house. That’s what you’re supposed to do when you have guests, Fat Boy.”
Frankie thought for a few seconds then suggested, “How about we each get five then spend the other five on sodas and chips on the way back?”
The Miller brothers thought that a more reasonable suggestion, especially since the words ‘way back’ had been included, meaning they could all now clear out of the place.
Tony nodded sharply as he stuffed the bill in his front jeans’ pocket. “That sounds fair, now let’s go.”
Drew followed his brother’s lead to the top of the staircase, but as Frankie rose, something struck him, and he remained in front of the end cell, staring intently at its interior.
“Come on, Fat Boy,” said Drew as he wiped sweat from his face. “Let’s get outta here, I really wanna go home!”
“Guys, I see something, come back.”
As a rule, the Miller brothers’ budding criminal curiosity usually got the better of them even in the face of obvious danger. But on this occasion, overwhelmed by feelings of intense foreboding, the circumstances almost proved to be the exception… but they didn’t. The boys pivoted and walked the length of the cellblock back to where Frankie still stood.
“What now?” Tony complained.
Frankie pointed inside the cell. “Look.”
Tony and Drew looked but saw nothing of importance.
“Alright, genius, what’s the big deal?”
“There’s a mattress.”
“Yeah, there’s a mattress, so what?”
“It’s the only mattress in any of the cells.”
Frankie walked slowly inside the compact space, never taking his eyes from the tattered, stained, musty mattress lying atop one of the wall-mounted metal cots. Along its side was a small slice in the faded blue and white fabric. As if by a strange instinct, he cautiously put his hand inside the opening to feel around.
“Gross, man!” yelled Drew. “You’re gonna catch something for sure!”
But a grin appeared on Frankie’s face as he grabbed hold of what met his fingertips. When he withdrew his hand, his closed grasp revealed a fistful of money—not twenties, but fifties and hundreds!
“Hooolllyyy—” whispered Drew in disbelief.
“What else is in there?” asked Tony as he scuffled closer to the cell but refrained from actually entering. He was nervous something might force the door closed behind him if he did.
Frankie placed the wad of cash on top of the mattress as he plunged his hand inside a second time. Sure enough, another handful of money appeared. He repeated this action over and over again as the Miller brothers’ mouths hung open in shock and their eyes widened with sheer amazement at the sight of such a fortune.
The entire middle section of the old mattress was stuffed with cash. There was way too much to estimate when it had finally all been dug out, and the boys definitely weren’t going to take the risk of sitting down and counting it in the middle of the cell block’s crispy floor. Frankie remembered what had happened when the Englishmen in King Solomon’s Mines finally discovered the treasure they sought. They suddenly found themselves tricked and locked within the mine’s stone interior, and Frankie didn’t want to risk the same thing happening to him on this particular day.
Quickly they worked against the encroaching sunset, stuffing Frankie’s backpack with dozens upon dozens of bills—all large denominations.
“Who do you think put it in that mattress?” asked Drew.
“Maybe it’s been in there for a really long time.” said Frankie.
“Nah, someone would’ve found it by now. It’s probably drug money,” said Tony.
Thirty shaking fingers stuffed the backpack full until their happy work was completed. The pack’s latches barely closed against the bulk of its new bulges. Then the boys quickly walked to the staircase leading downward, but as Frankie passed the metal staircase leading to the very top floor, he eyed its upward path with longing.
Only one more floor to go, he thought.
But the Miller brothers were insistent on leaving, and Tony was now the one wearing the backpack.
I’ll save that top floor for another day, another adventure, Frankie assured himself.
Just as fast as they had ascended the star-adorned metal stairs, they now swiftly descended.
“I heard this place is gonna be turned into a bunch of restaurants,” said Drew on their trip down.
“Nah, that was a long time ago. Now a group of investors are gonna turn it into apartments,” said Tony.
“Investors?” questioned Frankie, disturbed at the very thought of anyone imposing, inflicting anything onto the old prison that it itself didn’t want. “But how can you invest in something that’s already priceless?”
The light on the main floor was growing dim as they exited the hole through which they had entered. Cautiously, three sets of eyes made sure no one was looking as they emerged through the cut opening in the fence and reentered a familiar York concrete landscape.
Too full of nervous energy to wait for the return bus home, the boys decided to walk. With each step they talked about their plans for spending their shares of the money. There was no need to quibble over amounts now since there was plenty to go around.
“I’m gonna buy me a brand new Mustang!” announced Drew.
“You don’t even have a license yet,” laughed Tony.
“But I will someday! What are you gonna buy?”
“I’m gonna buy a Harley. Then I’ll ask Katie Carmichael to go for a ride.”
“Katie Carmichael won’t go with you!”
“She will if I have a Harley!”
The sunset lit its last fiery match along the horizon as the boys walked down Gas Avenue, one of York’s many narrow backstreets. Just as an excited Frankie was about to announce plans of using his share of the wealth to finance great epic adventures at sea, a lone looming figure turned the corner from George Street and arrogantly walked toward them. The boys quieted as their eyes strained to confirm what their bellies already knew.
Dead ahead was Mean Manny Milford, and the distance between them was growing shorter with each approaching step. Total panic filled their insides as Mean Manny’s voice boomed through the air in a relaxed unhurried way afforded only to bullies of his caliber.
“Where’ve you guys been?”
“Nowhere,” Tony answered a little too quickly.
“Now that sure sounds like a lie. And if you’re gonna be walkin’ down my alley, you’re gonna have to pay.”
“You already took our money at the Transfer Center,” said Drew as they met up in the middle of the deserted street. “We don’t have any more.”
Mean Manny scratched his head in mild confusion. Something had changed about the three of them from when he’d seen them earlier in the day. “Something’s different about you guys, I can tell. What’cha been doing?”
“Nothing,” said Tony, trying to steady his shaking vocal chords.
Mean Manny hocked-up a phlegm ball and spat downward with perfect aim, hitting the top of Tony’s left Nike. “Thought you guys were gonna check out the Old Jail.”
“Well we didn’t. We just hung out on the train tracks—that’s all.”
”What you got in that pack of yours?”
“It’s nothing, Manny, honest. Just a bunch of flashlights.”
But Mean Manny wasn’t buying it. “I’d better check. Give me a look—open it up.”
At first Tony Miller stood still, not knowing what to do. But then out of sheer panic he blurted out, “No!” But before the single syllable had fully left his lips, Mean Manny punched him deep within his stomach, causing a sharp pain to reach far back to Tony’s spine. He instantly doubled over and Manny reached down to yank the pack’s straps from his shoulders.
Drew screamed like a frantic toddler and darted forward to intervene. “You can’t have it, it’s ours! We found it!”
“Um, y, yeah.”
Just as an addict knows well the scent of money, a bully does too. “Don’t make no sense to be guardin’ a bag full of flashlights.” He backhanded Drew across the face and the boy fell down hard to the cracking pebbled macadam. Mean Manny snatched up the pack and unclasped its latches. One look inside verified his nose’s suspicion. “You guys don’t got no money, huh? Like I said… you know if you’re walkin’ down my alley you gotta pay! Plus you know what lyin’s gonna git ya, right? RIGHT?” Mean Manny kicked Tony hard in his side. “That’s for lyin’ ’bout having no money!”
Tony shrieked in pain then cried out in terror, “It’s not my pack—it’s Frankie’s!”
“This is Fat Boy’s pack?”
“So this is Fat Boy’s money?”
Tears squeezed out from the corners of Tony Miller’s tightly-shut eyes.
Mean Manny pulled back his leg to thrust it forward again, but before he could follow through, Tony opened his eyes and screamed, “Yes! It’s Frankie’s money—it’s all his!”
Frankie stood motionless, terrified of what would come next.
Manny ceased the action of his leg then turned his attention to Frankie, grabbing his hair and yanking his head backward to full attention.
Just as Frankie desperately needed all hands on deck, Tony crawled to his brother, peeled him up from the ground then the two of them retreated away down Gas Avenue toward Queen Street.
“So this is your pack?” Mean Manny asked.
“Yes!” Frankie’s eyes welled up with tears which Manny promptly slapped away.
“So this is your money?”
“Wrong—it’s mine. Where’d you get it?”
But Frankie’s lungs only responded with short shallow gasps.
Mean Manny slapped him again. “I said… where’d you get it?”
Frankie forced himself to inhale enough to exhale madly, “None of your business!”
Manny Milford tightened his hold on his victim’s hair with one hand then formed a fist and drew back his opposing elbow. “Wrong answer.” He was anxious to see how doughy the boy’s gut would feel against his knuckles.
Frankie’s eyes widened in horror and just as he began to scream out about his incision, out of nowhere, a bony fist struck Manny hard in the side of his skull. As the monster of the Helen Thackston Charter School fell, he let go of his victim’s hair and lost his grip on the unlatched backpack, hurling it into the air—its contents flew out and scattered all around. With one hard deliberate blow, Mean Manny Milford thudded to the ground.
Frankie looked to see who had thrust the rescuing fist, and to his surprise, there stood the tall skeletal figure of Nancy’s friend. The old man didn’t utter a word or even make eye contact with Frankie. Instead he calmly pushed away straggly white hair from his eyes to get a better look at the motionless figure lying on the ground. Once satisfied the thug was rendered immobile, the old salt stepped away from the scene, indifferently treading on the numerous fifties and hundreds that were strewn about. As he walked away, he mumbled to himself, “You know me, Nancy, we’ve met before… stand up; take me through the night… there’s a rubber man standing in the middle of the bus… ”
Frankie glanced downward to make sure Mean Manny was at least still breathing, and he was. Good, not dead, just knocked out. Then he worked quickly to stuff the money back into his pack, latched it, pushed his arms through its straps, wiped away tears from his face then continued walking toward George Street.
After five minutes most of his fear had left him, and with each step he felt better, freer. Then the sudden realization hit him that Tony had said it was his money—all of it was his! And he wasn’t about to let the Miller brothers go back on it either. His life was going to change now, he could feel it. He was free—nothing but open seas ahead in sight. Where should he set sail to first? The Caribbean? The Mediterranean? Or perhaps the Gulf of Guinea along the west coast of Africa!
The weight of the backpack forced his posture erect as he pushed out his chest and lifted his chin higher than ever before. He had gone through the looking glass, been cut, but not to pieces, and had proven brave enough to keep on going.
But as he confidently walked on, one literary line began to whisper itself over and over again inside his mind. It was a new line, although obviously twisted from a favorite tale of old. He couldn’t quite make out why it had begun, or if were something good or something bad. But nonetheless, for whatever reason, there it was… and it was steadily growing louder:
Up, up, up, and then the white rabbit followed Alice…