First (very rough) chapter of Band of Fallen Princes

While I’ve put Excision on hold for the moment, I’ve begun work on the fifth Rankin Flats novel. Here for your viewing pleasure is the very first chapter, unedited and raw. Keep in mind, I haven’t checked this for errors and some scenes will undoubtedly change, especially that school chase. That said, you can see what I’m going for here. Enjoy!

Chapter 1
1985

The two boys snuck into the hospital room like a pair of thieves, as though the squeaking of their sneakers would break their friend even more. Not that it would have been possible. What the bullies did to Ronnie could never heal. He sat up in bed, pillows propped behind him, another donut-shaped one peeping out from under the thin sheet covering his legs. The buzzing yellow halogen light above his bed highlighted the gleam of tear streaks down his face, though his eyes were red and dry now. He rocked gently, hands interlaced on his knees, and hummed to himself, something tuneless.

This was not the Ronnie Cooperman they’d known, loved, and hated two days before. That boy would have turned and flung out an arm and a heel, smiling as though he were a catwalk model. This boy didn’t even acknowledge them, so lost was he in his own little world. Or maybe it was just them that had changed, their youthful, bombastic naivete now replaced by the reality that this world could and would do horrible things to them, unspeakable things.

Brett took up a spot near the wall. He folded his arms, imagining he was wearing a one-armed leather jacket like the Road Warrior. Mad Max wouldn’t have let this happen to one of his friends. Or maybe the moment called for him to be more of a John Matrix type, getting revenge on the dickheads who did this to Ronnie. They’d only been palling around for a few years now, but Ronnie was always good to go hit the Silver Dream Theater or the arcades. After Ronnie had called and told him what happened, he’d hung up gently, walked three feet, and thrown up the tuna fish sandwich and chips. For the rest of his life, he’d associate the smell of tuna with that day, and it always made him nauseous.

Maddox grabbed a chair and dragged it across the freshly waxed floor. He brushed his long hair out of his eyes – if he didn’t get it cut soon, his dad would whip his ass, but the girl he was just starting to realize he liked said it made him look cute – and smiled tentatively. “Hey, Ronnie.”

Ronnie stopped humming but he didn’t turn to look at either one of them. “Hey,” he whispered. His voice was still ragged and raw from screaming.

Maddox reached out, his hand stopping in mid-air once before he touched his friend on th shoulder. Ronnie jerked away instinctively and Maddox held up his hands, palms out. “S’okay, Ronnie. We’re not gonna let them hurt you.”

“Where’s your mom and dad?” Brett asked.

Ronnie shook his head. “Dad won’t come see me. Told me on the phone it was all my fault for being a f-f-faggot.” His chest hitched but he didn’t cry. “Mom was here, but she was drinking and they kicked her out.” That was a real shocker. Ronnie’s mom hadn’t come out of the bottle since she’d said, “I do.”

“It’s not,” Maddox said. He cleared his throat. “Your fault, I mean. They’re the fuckdicks.”

That got Ronnie’s attention. He broke his gaze from the window and glanced at Maddox, the hint of a smile strumming at the corners of his lips. “Fuckdick?”

“Meant to say fuckstick, but I like that better.”

Brett smiled to himself. Maddox was the kind of guy who knew exactly what he was saying at any given moment. If he’d meant to have said it, he would’ve. That had been to draw Ronnie out. He was the best of the three of them at playing their emotions, something he was grateful for at the moment. “Petition to make fuckdick the official name for fuckdicks all across the world?”

“Motion seconded,” Maddox said, his voice squeaking just a little bit. He was the first of them facing down puberty and it was hitting him hard. He cleared his throat and said in a much deeper rasp, “Motion seconded.”

Ronnie couldn’t help a laugh. “Motion approved.” But his smile was gone just as fast as it had appeared and he started rocking back and forth again.

Maddox scooted closer. “What do you want us to do, Ron?”

For a long time, neither Maddox or Brett thought he’d answer, but finally Ronnie whispered, “I want to kill them.”

“Yeah, no kidding, so do we,” Brett said.

“No.” Ronnie hands were shaking now as he gripped his knees tighter and tighter. “I mean it. I want to kill them. Especially Jared. I’m going to try, I think.”

Brett shot out a nervous laugh, but the look Maddox gave him shut him right up. He cleared his throat. “Uh. Man? You’re twelve.”

“Do you want to know what they did to me?” Ronnie hissed. “What they put in me?”

“No, no,” Brett said, waving his hands. “I-”

Someone knocked on the door. They could hear someone panting even before it swung open. Dash Pendleton, heaving air from the climb up the hospital steps, stood there with a hand in one pocket, like he was playing with his dick. Beyond him was a ludicrously muscled man, maybe in his forties, hair shorn close to his scalp like a soldier’s – probably because he had been one, if this was Pendleton’s dad. Brett sucked in his breath at Dash’s presence, and Maddox gripped the sides of his chair and half-rose to protect Ronnie. Dash hung around the bullies that’d done this.

“You,” Maddox said, finding a backbone he didn’t know he’d ever had. “Get out of here.”

Dash held up a hand weakly. Enormously fat, he was a stark contrast to his father, though he definitely had some of his pop’s muscles in there somewhere. Maddox had once seen him beat up a boy two years older than he was and laugh when he’d been hit by another. “I wasn’t… there,” he gasped. “Would’ve… would’ve…”

Dash’s father shoved his son into the room. “My boy has something he wants to say.” His voice was a low growl, just as intimidating as his frame.

Swiping at his forehead, Dash nodded. “I wouldn’t have let them do that to you. I’m sorry.”

Maddox sneered at him. “Took your dad pushing you down here to say that, though, huh?”

“Nope,” Dash’s father said, this time with a little pride. “My boy wanted to come. But he would’ve had a damn heart attack if I hadn’t given him a ride. I’m here to make sure he didn’t pass out on the stairs.”

“Dad,” Dash huffed, looking at his feet. He scooted over to the unoccupied bed in the room and plopped down. A nurse came into the room and Dash’s father pulled her back outside, letting her know they were friends of the boys. As the door closed, Dash said, “What can I do? I mean it. Anything.”

“How do we trust you?” Brett snapped. “You’ll just run off and tell Jared. Is he waiting outside for us? Huh?”

Maddox shot to his feet. “He’s right, you fuckdick.” He stormed across the room, his fist balled up with his thumb covered by his fingers. “I should beat the tar out of you right now.”

Instead of fighting back when Maddox swung at his shoulder, Dash surprised them all by crying. He brushed aside Maddox’s second feeble attempt at a punch and wiped at his eyes with the back of his arms. “I don’t even like him,” he said. “I just sort of hung around with him because, you know, black kid from California here in Montana, that’s like, that’s like…” He cried harder until he was blubbering. Baffled, Brett grabbed some tissues from the box by Ronnie’s bed and brought them to the big kid. He plucked them out o his hand and blew into them with a great big wet honk. “He wanted me around to beat kids up for him. He doesn’t like me and I don’t like him.”

“Jeez, all right, man, you don’t gotta cry about it,” Brett muttered. To Ronnie, he said, “I don’t know, what do you think? This is kinda your, you know… thing. You want him out of here?”

Ronnie was staring at Dash, his mouth scrunched as if he’d been sucking on a lemon. “You swear you won’t go blubbering to Jared?”

“I swear. I’ll protect you guys. From here on out, even if you guys don’t like me, I’ll never let that turd brain get near you.” The tears slowed and Dash looked up. “All of you.”

Maddox glanced first at Dash, then Brett, and finally Ronnie. “All right,” he said. “Let’s give him a test.”

* * *

“Come on, you fat sack of crap!” Maddox screamed at Dash. “Come get me!”

Dash and Patrick thundered through the halls of the school. On his last legs, Dash gasped, “I’ll… catch up.”

“Fatass,” Patrick sneered. He jerked his head at the direction they’d just come from. “Go back and hit the other hallway. If he double’s back, we’ll grab him between us.”

“Good… thinking,” Dash panted.

The other bully darted after Maddox. What he and Jared had done to Ronnie had awakened something in him, something deeper and uglier than he’d ever known he was capable of. He wanted to do it again. When that dipshit Maddox had called him and Dash out, it was on. He wondered what he could use on Maddox, the same way they had with that mouthy little shit. Track season was just getting started. Maybe one of them had left a javelin laying around. Spurred on by this thought, he raced even aster.

Maddox fled for his life. Brett had volunteered to be the bait but both boys knew Maddox was faster. Brett’s own part in all this was simple, but his timing had to be spot-on. And Ronnie… well… he would again have to take the worst of it, but the promise of revenge fueled him with everything he needed.

The front doors. Everything hinged on this moment, and on Brett. He let loose with a shriek, the loudest he’d ever produced, and hit the crash bar hard enough to send a little shiver up his arm. He grabbed his walkie talkie from his belt and gasped into it, “Almost there, Ronnie.”

“Gotcha.”

Inside the principal’s office, Brett perked up when he heard the shriek, faint as though it might be. That meant Maddox was still free of Patrick. Part one complete. “Holy shit, did you hear that?” he asked the principal.

The old man glanced up from Brett’s file on his desk. The boy had been inquiring about taking some advanced courses sooner in his high school career, and he was buried in the boy’s grades. “I did hear something,” he murmured. “Come on, then. Not leaving you alone here.”

Brett held the door open for the principal and tried not to smile.

Patrick caught the door just as it was closing and streaked after Maddox. “Run all you want, you little bitch, I’m still gonna tear your asshole open like we did with your faggot friend.”

They rounded the corner of the building, passed the gym, and only slowed when they approached the big double doors at the rear of the building. Dash crashed through them, grabbed Maddox before he could react, and growled, “Gotcha,” in his ear, his breath hot and stinking of garlic.

“Nice,” Patrick shouted as he caught up. “Get him down on the ground. I’m gonna go back to the gym, see if it’s locked. Then we’ll-”

“Then you’ll do crap, fuckdick,” Ronnie said as he came out the doors, a knife in hand. His gait was still off, his steps ginger and slow.

“Two on two, huh?” Patrick asked. “More like five on two with Dash here.”

“Actually…” Dash let go of Maddox and grabbed Patrick’s shoulder instead.

“What-?” But Patrick had no time to finish the sentence. Ronnie produced a slim folding knife from his pocket and extended it. “Oh man, no, hey-”

Ronnie lowered the knife until it was at Patrick’s groin. “You’re lucky I’m not cutting that thing off,” he whispered, and jammed himself in the leg with the knife and twisted.

“He’s got a knife!” Maddox screamed. “He cut my friend!” He grabed the knife from Ronnie and shoved it at Patrick. The other boy had no choice but to grab at it. If he didn’t, the blade would have cut his balls.

The principal shouted down the hallway, “You boys! Stop! I’ll have you all expelled!”

“He stabbed me,” Ronnie cried out. “He stabbed me because I was gonna tak to the police about what they did, I’m bleeding-”

Dumbfounded, Patrick shook his head frantically. “They did this, they set me up, I didn’t have anything to do with this.”

“Bull,” Dash grunted. “I tried to stop him, but he was crazy. He wanted to jam that thing up Ronnie’s butt. He was trying to cut his jeans off him. I swear, I didn’t mean for it to go this far, I tried to stop him-”

“Enough!” the principal roared. “The knife. Give me the knife.”

“I’ll kill all you little shits!” Patrick shouted. He struggled away from them and held the knife out defensively. Maddox’s eyes went big. He hadn’t expected this. The others took a step back, suddenly uncertain. “Get back!”

“Just put it down, son,” the principal said, trying to calm the situation down. He stepped forward. “You just gotta calm down.”

Whatever Patrick intended next, they never knew. He leaped forward, though, knife gripped in both hands, and the principal slugged him in the forehead, hard and fast enough to drop him to the ground. The knife skittered across the ground and Dash tackled him. Under his weight, Patrick couldn’t move and lay there snarling half-syllables of profanity.

Standing above them, Maddox glanced between Ronnie and Brett, his eyebrow raised. Brett nodded almost immediately. Ronnie followed only a second later. Dash was now one of them.

* * *

They met that night outside the hospital. Ronnie’s leg wound hadn’t been serious and they’d released him as soon as he was bandaged up. A little spring had returned to his step, but his friends still caught him looking off into the horizon from time to time.

Dash sat astride his big green bike, legs to either side as he chewed on a Clark Bar. “Is it kinda weird for me to say that was fun?” he asked, spraying out bits of peanut butter and chocolate.

“If by fun, you mean pee my pants terrifying,” Brett said, and shrugged.

Ronnie snickered, surprising them all. “You were terrified? All you had to do was talk to the principal.”

“Yeah, but… old people.” Brett shuddered. “The smell alone.”

Dash slugged him on the shoulder. It was meant as playful, but his fist still hit him with a meaty thump. “Sorry.”

Ronnie looked down at his feet. “I’m still serious.”

“About what?” Dash asked.

“Killing Jared.” Ronnie gave him a challenging look. “If you know what he did, then you’d agree.”

Dash chewed on that a while. “We’re not just talking about setting someone up. Killing someone… we gotta be a lot smarter about it.”

Stunned, Brett glanced between the two of them. “Wait. You’re actually thinking about this? We’re just kids. We’re not the Manson family.”

“You’re right,” Maddox said. His grin in the dying light showed only a little bit of teeth. “The Manson family got caught. We won’t.”

Brett took a step back. “No way you guys are serious.”

Ronnie didn’t say anything and Dash just kept chewing on his candy bar. Maddox gripped Brett’s shoulder. “It’s okay. Walk away if you want.”

“Crap, you guys are serious,” he whispered.

Dash tossed his candy wrapper into the bushes. “Jared’s evil,” he said like he was talking about the sun being bright.

“What does that make us, if we kill him?” Brett asked. “No, this is wrong.”

“It’s looking out for us,” Maddox said. “Like we say we always do. Someone’s screwed with one of us. It’s up to us to set things right.”

“Yeah,” Brett said uncertainly, “but murder?” He sighed. “I’m not saying no. But I want to hear what the plan is, first.”

“All right,” Maddox said, and slapped his friend on the back.

Dash grinned. Ronnie stuck out his hand. Brett stared at it for a moment, sighed again, and shook it.

* * *

Thirty some odd years later, Brett tossed a folder on the table between the three remaining members of the Band of Princes. “You won’t want to see.”

Ronnie ignored the comment and opened the folder with his good hand. His yellow-and-gray prosthetic one squeezed into a fist as he took in the sight of what had once been their de facto leader.

Blinking away tears, Dash muttered, “Motherfuckers.”

Headless, Maddox swung by his feet from a rope in front of a heavily graffitied building. The pictures were of different angles. One centered on a tattoo they were all familiar with. They’d been there when he got it, and they’d each gotten one of their own. A jack with no suit, inked into his abs.

“The cartel?” Ronnie asked.

“Looks like it,” Brett said. “We killed some of theirs, they kill one of ours.”

Dash brushed away his tears. “What does it mean?”

Brett settled into a chair and folded his hands. His voice was very quiet, very controlled. He had to lead now. The other two would fall apart if he didn’t.

“War.”

Author: therealcamlowe

Writer, occasional victim of pug crop-dusting.

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