Since junior high, the boys had only referred to each other by the nicknames they had given themselves. It was a closed group with no other admissions. Ever. They were a family. Exclusive.
Ghost arrived before the others and sat on the floor with his back against the wall, waiting as the July sun melted behind the horizon. He wore a red tank top, naturally distressed jeans, and Converse sneakers. He lit a cigarette, took a deep drag and held it. The others would be along soon.
Stretcher, Bull, and Sugar entered through the back door at dusk. Ghost heard them coming, heard them talking as they drew near and turn quiet just before entering the abandoned house. Now no one said a word, leaving it up to him to bring the meeting to order.
The bond between them had been stronger in the past. After five years, they were still together, but he could sense the pressure that maturity and life put on teenage loyalty. They still differed to him, however, but he could sense their discontent, their individual desire to explore beyond the boundaries of this small band of brothers.
He was the oldest. Stretcher and Sugar were eighteen, same as him but a few months younger. Most of them were dark-headed, except for Bull, whose blond hair fell in waves down to his collar. Bull had just turned seventeen but was bigger and stronger than all of them, but his commitment to the group had been waning. Ghost didn’t like it. They sat down in a semi-circle in front of him.
“What’s this about?” Stretcher asked.
Ghost held his answer and looked at each of them for an unusual amount of time. “It’s been a while since we were on a mission,” he said.
“We were kids,” Bull said. “We don’t do ‘missions’ anymore. It’s time to think about keeping our shit together.”
Stretcher nodded his agreement with Bull. Ghost rested his eyes on Sugar. “You feel the same way, Sugar?”
Sugar looked at his shoes. He was wearing a smaller version of the Converse tennis shoes Bull wore. It looked as if he was trying to mimic Bull’s wardrobe. Problem was, it looked silly on Sugar’s stick-thin frame.
Sugar bunched up his narrow shoulders. “I don’t know.”
“What a bunch of pantywaists!”
“Bull is thinking about joining the navy,” Stretcher said.
“He’s right,” Bull said. “I can’t screw anything up.”
“One more time,” Ghost said. “Nothing big. It’s not like we’re going to rob a bank or anything. Just something fun. He walked over to a window that had long since had the glass broken out. The light will be just about right tonight. Enough to see by but not too bright.”
“What do you have in mind?” Stretcher asked.
Ghost turned and faced the group. “Silent intrusion. We sneak into people’s houses while they’re sleeping and steal something expensive but not big. They won’t even know until a day or two later when they’re looking for it. Hell, they might never know.”
His three friends stared at him in silence. He stared back until each looked away. He knew none would jump at the opportunity to do something so thrilling and bold. It would take some serious nudging. The good times were literally gone for them as a posse, or a “family,” as they had dubbed themselves.
Thinking of themselves as family had been Bull’s idea, although Sugar and even Stretcher had bought into it. None of them had honest-to-goodness families, which was why they spent so much time together. Bull’s parents were killed in a car crash when he was ten, and he went to live with his uncle. The uncle paid him little attention. Bull fended for himself most of the time and had been eager for the day he could strike out on his own. Hence, Ghost assumed, the desire to join the navy.
Stretcher had some hidden demons, Ghost had always thought, but his tall friend had never entirely confided in him. Ghost knew Stretcher’s father had deserted him and his mother, left her with two kids and nothing but a minimum-wage job to support them. If she wasn’t working, she was in the bars looking for a man. He’d sure love to know what deep thoughts were playing out in Stretcher’s mind, but he talked little about his home life.
And then Sugar . . . Sugar had always been the perfect complement to the others, simply because he was so physically different from them and tried so hard to fit in. Ghost liked that about Sugar. What Bull and Stretcher had never realized was that he and Sugar had done some of their own “missions.” Sugar was a sneaky devil and loyal! He had too many secrets he shared with Ghost. Ghost liked that, too.
Ghost lived with his dad, had even considered trying to hook Stretcher’s mom up with him. After brief consideration, he decided he liked the freedom he had now. Thinking ahead, a stepmother would cramp his style.
Ghost felt strong satisfaction with his insight into people. He moved like a ghost, not only in the physical world, but freely among their thoughts and motivations.
Sugar smiled when Ghost named the mission “silent intrusion,” undoubtedly because he and Ghost had already done it themselves a few times. Sugar knew what it was about, and he was eager to play. Ghost winked at him but couldn’t control the catch in his chest when he saw that Bull noticed what played out between them.
“What’s going on between you two?” Bull asked. He stood and walked over to Ghost, stared down at his shorter friend.
“We just thought you’d be afraid to go,” Ghost said, looking for a way to satiate Bull. “Just a joke, man.”
Bull frowned. “I’m not afraid of anything you cook up.”
Ghost reached out and patted Bull’s right arm. “Good, then you’re with us, I take it?”
“What about you, Stretcher? You want to come along?”
Stretcher unfolded himself and stood. “If the rest of you are going, then I’ll go.”
Dusk had melted into night by that time. The four friends had time to kill before they started. It was always better sneak around after two o’clock in the morning but before the paper carriers hit the streets. Too early, and the night owls were out lurking around. Too late and the early risers were heading to their cars for work. But hit the sweet spot, and you could get away with murder.
Ghost watched his friends as they walked toward an all-night convenience store for smokes and to steal beer for the celebration later. They didn’t banter as much as they used to. It seemed Father Time was dealing a death knell to their small band.
Inside the store, Ghost talked to the clerk. He smiled, leaned on the counter, told her she was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on. It was a line of crap and they both knew it, but Ghost liked the game, and she liked the attention. And, truth be told, she was pretty. A blond. “A true blond?” he asked and said he knew of only one true way to tell. She blushed and acted offended, but he could tell she rather liked that he was so impudent and naughty. In the meantime, his friends were pilfering cases of beer.
“I hope you don’t think I was being rude,” Ghost said to the girl. He dished out his best penitent expression and begged for forgiveness. Women loved to forgive; it was in their nature. He noted her name tag said her name was Ruth. He gave her an encouraging smile.
Flustered, Ruth said, “You caught me off-guard, that’s all.” Emboldened by Ghost’s apology, she tipped her head and flashed her big blue eyes. “But handsome young men like yourself shouldn’t act that way. It’s no way to get attention from a woman.”
Ghost acted sufficiently chastised. “You’re absolutely correct,” he said. He also mused at how, although she was at most only two years older, she talked down to him while referring to herself as a woman. He wondered where she lived and if she lived alone. And then he had an idea that went beyond what his friends had been doing while he was distracting Ruth.
Ghost turned around and leaned against the counter, the heels of his hands helping to support him as he stood on his tippy toes and looked over the shelving at the beer coolers. “Where did those three guys go that came in ahead of me?”
Ruth said, “I don’t know. I thought they were with you.”
Ghost shook his head and walked over to the double glass doors. “Nope. Never met them.” Making a show of peering outside, he said, “Looks to me like they boosted a few cases of beer.”
“What! Why those rotten hoodlums!” Ruth came around the counter and went outside for a better look.
“Want me to call the police?” Ghost asked.
“Most definitely! I don’t think they have a car, so they won’t get far.”
Ghost said, “Keep an eye on them.” He rounded the counter and picked up the phone. While he was on the phone with the dispatcher, he dug his hand into Ruth’s purse, which he had noticed during their flirtatious banter. He gave the dispatcher the 411 about the beer theft while committing Ruth’s full name and address to memory. It took less than a minute and he had everything he needed.
Ruth Kaster was only outside a few moments, but when she returned, she looked at Ghost as if she had committed an unpardonable sin. It was very possible she could be fired for leaving a customer in the store alone, but Ghost assured her he had called the police and they were on the way. He realized he might have to put in some effort to regaining her confidence.
“I’ll stick around until the police get here. I don’t imagine they’ll come back, but just to be safe.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
Ruth stood in the doorway. She glanced outside then back at him. Her eyes intrigued him, and he gave her a shy smile and looked down. That always seemed to get the girls. When he looked back up, she tucked loose strands of hair behind her right ear and returned an equally shy smile. It made him a little giddy, simply because he had known exactly what she would do.
When she took her place behind the counter, they passed each other, and he made it a point to brush her arm with his, ever so slightly. Pale baby blues, a bump on the bridge of her nose, 5’5″ probably, straight blond hair, tiny bit of a belly, small breasts. Not all that confident, but trying. She was probably afraid to work in a convenience store alone but did it because she thought it was best to face her fears.
A few customers came in, made purchases and left. Ghost stuck around until a police officer lumbered through the door, the fellow’s gut hanging over his belt. Ghost suppressed a snicker. The night he had begun planning looked easier and easier to pull off.
After answering a few questions for the officer, Ghost bid adieu and left. He had talked Ruth Kaster up to the officer and made it sound as if she had done everything right. He thought she appreciated this, and she gave him another smile and small wave when he left.
Ghost walked back to the abandoned house and found his three amigos sucking down cans of Budweiser, bathed in the light of a kerosene lamp they had stolen and then hidden under the floor for their night rendezvous. They were laughing and joking like conquering heroes, apparently forgetting all about the mission for tonight and that celebration came after the mission, not before.
Ghost felt anger boil inside him. He set his foot to kick an old paint can into the cadre of friends, but instead took a deep breath and brought calmness back to his soul. Maybe it was better this way. He thought about Ruth, her innocent look and sweet face. She wanted the world to think she was tough and wise, but inside she was a scared little girl. Maybe that’s why she seemed to have reservations about him; he had a way of knowing those things.
Bull saw him and waved him over. He grabbed a can and tossed it to Ghost. “Drink up,” he said. “Good plan.”
Ghost thought about hucking it at Bull’s head, but it wouldn’t do any good now. He tossed the Budweiser back.
“What?” Bull asked.
Ghost motioned with an arch of his hand. “This wasn’t the mission.”
Bull grinned stupidly and sucked down a third beer, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Guess we changed the mission, huh?”
Motioning with his hands, Ghost said, “Bull, stand up.”
“Stand up! Because I’m going to knock you back down!”
Bull shrugged and stood. He didn’t even get his hands up before Ghost stepped in with a right jab, setting Bull back on his heels. Ghost followed with a strong left that connected, and Bull tripped over a case of Bud. Reeling from the blow, he hit the floor flat on his back.
“What the hell?” Stretcher said.
Ghost didn’t pay him any attention. He jumped on Bull, swung his leg over and mounted. The switchblade he always carried in his rear pocket flashed in the dim light. It was a well-made French blade. Not cheap, but not expensive, either, since it was stolen. He took pleasure at the sudden fear in Bull’s eyes. He leaned forward and pushed the point of the blade underneath Bull’s chin until there was trickle of blood.
“Ghost, put the knife away and let him up,” Stretcher said. He and Sugar were on their feet. “Come on, man. We’re sorry.”
Ghost leaned back and cleaned the blood off the knife point with his thumb and index finger. It was a slow, fine gesture. One you could afford to make when people feared you. He looked from Bull to Stretcher and then to Sugar as he dismounted. The looks they gave him were priceless: mouths open, eyes wide. Bull sat upright and touched his throat where the knife had drawn blood.
“You’re crazy! You didn’t have to do that! We screwed up. Thought you would understand. Besides, we thought you had something going with that girl back there.”
“Yeah, well we had bigger plans for tonight, I thought. But you go ahead and go back to your party.”
Ghost backed away from his friends, put the knife away in his pocket and escaped into the night. They were right, he had developed something with the girl at the convenience store. If that’s how they wanted to be, he didn’t need them. Those buffoons could get plastered if they wanted, but he was after bigger thrills.