by Bryce Berkowitz
Before we could smoke cigarettes in the bat cave we had to get past Stitch, the man who killed birds with a hammer. From the woods, we could see him on the north side of the property near a collapsed barn. He held a hammer in his hand and wore a burlap bag over his head, the mouth of the bag was composed of black netting and looked like a frozen scream.
In order to get to the bat cave from our trailer park, we cut through Stitch’s cornfield, a long, narrow stretch of cropland, prone to flooding, in the valley between two large wooded-hills that grew on either side of the property. If we made it past Stitch in the field, we had a twenty-foot embankment to scale down, a muddy creek to cross, and another bank to climb. It was worth the trouble to get to our smoke spot, our hang-out place: the bat cave.
“You see him?” I asked.
We stared across the November farmland to where the overcast pulled like a gray conveyor belt. Stone-colored clouds dragged tentacles of rain across the valley to the wooded highlands in the east. The rainwater kicked up spores and left behind a strange bacterial smell. Stitch disappeared around the corner of the fallen barn.
“He ain’t that far off,” Ratchet said.
“Yeah,” Grady said. “But he’s far enough. For now, anyway.”
Across the harvested cornfield, the bat cave’s shadowy entrance hung behind a row of wet, leafless sycamores. The cave had rock lips made of limestone, an underbite caused by erosion, and it hung over Wolf Creek with a bulldog shaped jaw.
“You got smokes?” I asked.
Ratchet smirked and reached into the band of his camouflage hunting cap, which was the only new school clothing item his parents bought him at the start of seventh grade, and, from its tucked away position, revealed a Spirit—his dad’s brand. Having a Spirit always put Ratchet in a better mood than when he had a Slim—his mother’s brand.
“Nice,” Vikki said, and reached into the collar of her V-neck shirt and pulled a Blue Crown from the cup of her bra, a bra that she didn’t necessarily need, but wore, you might say, in hope. “My brother said the space at the end of the filter is for coke. You sniff it or leave it and let your tongue go numb.” Vikki held her cigarette between her teeth and ran her fingers through her chopped red bowl cut. She looked at my empty hands and asked, “Your parents still quit?”
“They’re sticking to it this time,” I said. “All the butts in the driveway were wet.”
“You can have puffs off mine.” She threw her arm over my shoulder like we were buds, but I always wanted more than that.
“Thanks, V,” I said. Kids at school called Vikki a tomboy. But I called her V, and whenever I did, she’d smile real big like it was just for me.
“Nah, I got you,” Grady said, and pulled a crumpled pack of menthols from his back pocket.
“Dang!” Ratchet said, “A whole pack?”
Grady tapped out two and handed me one. “Stole’em from the chick my dad brought home last night.” Grady still had the faint shadow of a black eye leftover from the week before when he stole his dad’s Reds. He was tough like that.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Don’t mention it,” he said. “OK, if we see Stitch coming?”
“RUN,” we said.
“Let’s go.” Grady said.
We hurried across the cornfield. Stitch’s ranch house was built on the back of the property next to the old collapsed barn. A gravel driveway split the cornfield in half and ran alongside a row of short, fat silos.
None of us knew why Stitch killed birds. We didn’t know if he fed them to his cats, ate them himself, or ground them up like fertilizer to ward off other birds. We didn’t know why he wore a mask either. But we all had theories.
“I bet he’s got a huge red scar,” Ratchet said.
“Nah,” Grady said. “He was born with the mask.”
“I heard he clawed his own face off,” Vikki said.
We all agreed he was probably a demon.
We crossed the halfway point. Stitch was nowhere to be seen. I guess we felt comfortable, daring.
Vikki said, “Hey,” and pulled a Frisbee out of her backpack. She waved it and Grady ran for a long one. The Frisbee sailed UFO-style over the field, leaving fog spirals in its wake. Grady stutter-stepped, leaped, and caught the Frisbee one handed. But his foot came down sideways. He slipped, fell, and landed: chin-smacked into a puddle of mud. He curled up and started gasping for air. The fall knocked the wind out of him.
Vikki patted his shoulder and said, “Hey, at least you caught it.” Her hand on his shoulder made me jealous that she wasn’t touching me. A horrified look crossed her face like she could see jealousy in my eyes, but Ratchet’s face was twisted in the same horrified way. They weren’t looking at me but through me. I turned around and saw Stitch hustling across the cornfield in our direction. He was maybe four feet tall with a chest wide as a hay bale. He had thick shoulders, brawny forearms, and butcher’s hands. Rain had soaked the seams and darkened the edges of his mask. He had two glossy buttons for eyes: one was black, the other baby blue. A shoelace tightened the bag around his neck and fluttered against his chest. He clutched a hammer in his fist. He let out a guttural shout.
“Get up,” Vikki said. “Get the fuck up! Run!”
There was no turning back. Not from where we were. Grady scrambled to his feet.
“Go to the cave!” Grady yelled.
With our hearts slamming inside our chests, we dashed across the field to the other side. Stitch rushed after us with his blocky boots and stubby legs. He chucked his hammer and it thrashed through a nearby puddle. We slid down the muddy embankment and crossed the algae-encrusted rocks that poked out of Wolf Creek like plates on a stegosaurus’s back. At the top lip of the cave, Grady grabbed rocks and threw fistful after fistful across the creek at Stitch. The stones ricocheted off the tree branches and sent Stitch running back into the field, back to his house.
“Ha!” Grady said, “Showed that mother fucker!”
“What about getting back home?” Ratchet said. “He’ll be watching for us.”
“If he comes for us, I’ll beam him.” Grady shoved a hefty rock into his pocket.
We entered the cave’s mouth, climbed down the long black throat, and into the dark belly. The rocks were cold, dark, and damp. The only light coming from the entrance was swallowed by shadows before reaching where we sat on the rocks. The cave was also a breezeway. We’d never crawled all the way through it, but, once inside, we could hear the echo of cars whooshing by, coming from an exit at the back end.
We went to the bat cave not only to smoke, but to listen to rainwater drip from stalactites into the small pools of water and because, until now, we never saw Stitch out in the rain.
“Guys,” Vikki said, “I wanted it to be a surprise, but I pinched a joint from my brother.”
“If Stitch comes back and we’re high? No way,” Ratchet said.
“He ran home. We all saw him,” Grady said. “Don’t be lame.”
Vikki had been trying to steal a joint from her brother for weeks. Ever since she brought up that he smoked weed, Grady had been hounding her about getting some for us.
Grady lit up. The joint sizzled and popped. The bright, red cherry swelled in the dark. He took two hits and passed it around.
“I got a bad feeling about this,” I said.
“Me too,” Ratchet said.
“Relax!” Grady said.
The joint rotated to me and Vikki said, “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.” I took it anyway. Feeling like I wasn’t included was worse than just doing it. The smoke slid down my throat like hot soda.
We sat around for a minute, letting time pass, avoiding home. This was the only place we could go where we weren’t crowded by crazy neighbors, dogs barking, and families fighting. The cave was our serenity. I imagined the wind blowing hard enough to lift our trailers off their cinderblocks and fling them into Stitch’s field. I wondered if my parents would ever move away. They’d been saying, “We’ll move next year” for years. I thought I was dreaming when Vikki slipped her hand into mine. Her fingers locked with my fingers.
“This feels good,” I said, and squeezed tighter.
“Yeah, it does,” Grady said.
“Shh,” Vikki said, and pulled my hand to her lap.
Ratchet clicked on his flashlight. The light beam cast long teeth-like shadows on the cavernous walls of the dangling bats and pointy stalactites. I put my hand on Vikki’s knee. I wanted the guys to see. But Ratchet clicked off the light when a long dragging metal noise clattered across the rocks outside the cave.
We sat still and listened for the sound again. The wind hurled itself against the cave’s mouth and a howling whistle skirted across the entrance, off into the surrounding trees. The dragging got louder and continued for another minute.
“Don’t panic,” Grady said. “It’s probably not even him.”
“Of course it is,” Ratchet said. “Who else would it be?”
“The cops, stupid,” Grady whispered, and then he shushed us.
There was the gentle sound of boots scuffing against rock. A voice shouted, “Fire in the hole!”
A large, bright spark jumped into the mouth of the cave and danced down the decline. There was a loud bang followed by a flash of white. The cave filled with smoke and a high-pitched ringing swelled in my ears. I coughed and felt tiny lightning bolts strike through my lungs. My heart barked wildly in my chest. A flittering sensation pattered across my arms and legs, something furry, and alive. Hundreds of screeching bats flew in a black cloud into the light. Warm liquid sprayed my face. When I licked my lips, I tasted iron.
Ratchet clicked on the light. His camouflage cap was wet with blood. “Follow me,” he said. We crawled on our hands and knees through the damp cave and climbed out the small opening on the far side, about a hundred yards from the main entrance.
In the woods outside the cave, Vikki asked, “Is anyone hurt?” We checked ourselves for wounds, but the blood was from the bats.
“Let’s get him!” Grady said, and pulled the rock from his pocket. The ringing in my ears had faded, but voices remained a little fuzzy.
“What are you nuts? He could’ve killed us!” Ratchet said.
“He did this to us!” Grady pointed at his blood-smeared face. “Since when are we the type to run home? Is that what you wanna do? Run home, pussy?”
Ratchet kicked at the grass with his Chuck Taylor’s. He finally shook his head. “No.”
“Let’s go!” Grady said. He clapped his hands together and we followed him from the cave’s exit, through the woods, back to the main entrance on the other side of the hill.
As we walked Vikki tried wiping the blood from her chest, but there was no use. I took her hand and her eyes filled with tears. I nudged her hip with mine, but she kept walking like I wasn’t there. I wanted to whisper, “V,” but saying her name felt wrong somehow. I squeezed her hand tighter until she slowed down to walk with me. Grady and Ratchet glanced back and saw us holding hands, but it no longer felt like something to be bragged about.
“I’m scared,” she said.
“Don’t be.” I said. “We’ll get him.”
We found strands of barbed wire crisscrossed over the cave’s main entrance. A severed wing, pierced by a barb, twitched over the cave’s mouth like a waving hand. Blood dripped from the wire into the dark hole below, where a column of grey smoke eased out.
The flurry of bats had flitted across our bodies, glided into the complicated mass of barbed wire, and exploded out the other side, wet with blood. A few survivors flopped on the ground around our feet.
We stood on the embankment, where blood dripped from the cave’s chin. Stitch was crossing the stepping stones in the creek. Grady shushed us, crept closer, wound up, and pitched the rock. It nailed Stitch in the spine. He buckled backwards in pain and fell into the water. Grady and Ratchet slid down the embankment. They ran, as Stitch crawled for the shore, and they piled on top of his back.
“Help us!” Grady yelled.
“Don’t!” Vikki grabbed my hand.
I pulled away and ran down the embankment. Stitch thrashed around and Grady pinned a knee into his back. Ratchet straddled Stitch’s stubby legs, holding them underwater. They grabbed at his clothes like they were trying to rip something out of him. The violence became contagious. My adrenaline bordered hatred. I twisted Stitch’s arm behind his back.
“Let me go!” Stitch yelled. He bucked and tried to wriggle free. Grady snatched the hammer from the loop on Stitch’s pants and chucked it into the creek where it became swallowed by a cloud of muddy water.
Vikki screamed, “Let him go!”
“Listen to her.” Stitch said. “Kid, I’m sorry.”
“You could’ve fucking hurt us!” Grady said, and squeezed the back of Stitch’s neck.
“He isn’t sorry,” Ratchet said. “He’s only saying that because he got caught.”
“Turn him over,” Grady said.
We rolled him on his back. Grady and I kneeled on his arms. The black and blue buttons on Stitch’s mask held our reflections like fish eyes. Grady stared him down, cocked back his hand, and ripped off the mask. Stitch’s face reminded me of muscle diagrams in science textbooks. His skin was melted on the left side and what remained was a blotchy, pink second degree burn. Once the mask was off, his muscles softened. He bit his bottom lip and tucked his face into his shoulder, as if he was trying to protect a scar that had come to define him.
Vikki kneeled in the mud and asked, “What happened to you?”
Stitch let out a few ragged breaths and shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.”
“We heard you kill birds,” Grady said.
Stitch sneered at Grady. “Did the bats tell you that?”
“Bite me,” Grady said, and he spiked the mask on the ground. He rifled through Stitch’s overall pockets, pulled out a crushed pack of Humps, and stuffed them into his own back pocket.
“Grady, stop it,” Vikki said.
Grady leaned into Stitch’s face, and then he whispered, “You’re a freak.”
“Enough!” Vikki shoved Grady aside and leaned closer to Stitch. “What’s your name?”
Stitch laughed, and asked, “You think that’ll change anything?”
She picked up the mask and draped it over her hand like a puppet. She ran her fingers over the damp threading. She set the mask on Stitch’s chest.
In a sharp voice, she said, “Let him go.”
Grady narrowed his eyes. He looked at Stitch. After a long pause, Grady nodded and we turned him loose.
Stitch pushed himself to his feet. He looked around as if he might say something, but he didn’t. He collected his mask and hobbled up the path to the field. The sound of his footsteps faded. The trickling sound of water in the creek grew louder. Vikki started up the path to the cornfield.
“V,” I said, and reached for her hand.
She flinched away. “Don’t,” she said, and rushed up the path.
We drifted across the field, highs lingering. Rain crackled like static against the dead cornhusks.
“Don’t you want to walk with her?” Ratchet said.
“I think it’s over,” I said.
Ratchet, Grady, and I trudged through the field, side by side, while Vikki vanished into a patch of fog as if she were a mirage, a girl swallowed by steam.
Vikki told her parents what happened and they called the sheriff. Stitch was arrested and sent to jail in Southern Illinois. The newspaper indicated the blast was from an m-80, a quarter stick of dynamite used in sets of two to blow out tree stumps. Stitch quoted, “I was trying to kill the bats, not hurt those kids.” But we heard him yell, “Fire in the hole!”
My parent’s pinned the “Stitch incident” on my friends and a few months later we finally moved away from the trailer park. Grady’s dad beat him so bad he was taken to the emergency room. Children and Family Services took him away. I sent him a few letters, but never got anything back. Maybe he never got them. Ratchet’s parents started homeschooling him. Vikki never spoke to any of us again. After a while, I heard she started dating a girl.
The following summer, my parents let me go to Bum’s Beach with Ratchet and his mom. While she sunbathed, we strayed along the water’s edge. Once we were out of sight, Ratchet pulled out a couple Slims from the pocket of his swim trunks. He lit one and handed me the other. I ran the cigarette beneath my nose and sniffed the sweet smell of tobacco.
I pitched the cigarette into the tea-colored waves lapping at the shore.
Ratchet took a few silent puffs from his cigarette. “You could’ve just said you didn’t want one,” he said.
We drove home into a sunset blotted with blue-pink clouds. Ratchet’s mom grabbed his fingers and sniffed them. “You’re still smoking?” she said, and eyed me in the rearview mirror like it was my fault.
Ratchet nodded to a box of Slims on the dash. “So are you,” he said and pulled away.
She glared at me in the rearview mirror. But I pretended I didn’t see. I kept staring out the window until the woods and fields turned into a dull blur.
The tires peeled across the hot chip and seal road that ran alongside Stitch’s farm, where cornstalks sprouted from tilled dirt and, in the half-light, a figure with outstretched arms waded in the gentle waves of green. It was a scarecrow posted in the field with Stitch’s mask stuffed for the head. Two cats were perched on the scarecrow’s arms. One was asleep. The other batted at flies.