It's been a lot of years, but I think I'm still afraid of Luke Bradley, because of what he showed me.
I knew him in the first grade, and he was a tough guy even then, the sort of kid who would sit on a tack and insist it didn't hurt, and then make you sit on the same tack (which definitely did hurt) because you were afraid of what he'd do if you didn't. Once he found a bald-faced hornet nest on tree branch, broke it off, and ran yelling down the street, waving the branch around and around until finally the nest fell off and the hornets came out like a cloud. Nobody knew what happened after that because the rest of us had run away.
We didn't see Luke in school for a couple days afterwards, so I suppose he got stung rather badly. When he did show up he was his old self and beat up three other boys in one afternoon. Two of them needed stitches.
When I was about eight, the word went around the neighborhood that Luke Bradley had been eaten by a werewolf. «Come on,» said Tommy Hitchens, Luke's current sidekick. «I'll show you what's left of him. Up in a tree.»
I didn't believe any werewolf would have been a match for Luke Bradley, but I went. When Tommy pointed out the alleged remains of the corpse up in the tree, I could tell even from a distance that I was looking at a t-shirt and a pair of blue-jeans stuffed with newspapers.
I said so and Tommy flattened me with a deft right hook, which broke my nose, and my glasses.
The next day, Luke was in school as usual, though I had a splint on my nose. When he saw me, he called me a «pussy» and kicked me in the balls.
Already he was huge, probably a couple of years older than the rest of the class. Though he never admitted it, everybody knew he'd been held back in every grade at least once, even kindergarten.
But he wasn't stupid. He was crazy. That was the fascination of hanging out with him, even if you could get hurt in his company. He did wild things that no one else dared even think about. There was the stunt with the hornet nest, or the time he picked up fresh dogshit in both his bare hands and claimed he was going to eat it right in front of us before everybody got grossed out and ran because we were afraid he was going to make us eat it. Maybe he really did. He was just someone for whom the rules, all the rules, simply did not apply. That he was usually in detention, and had been picked up by the police several times only added to his mystique.
And in the summer when I was twelve, Luke Bradley showed me the dead kid.
Things had progressed quite a bit since then. No one quite believed all the stories of Luke's exploits, though he would beat the crap out of you if you questioned them to his face. Had he really stolen a car? Did he really hang onto the outside of a P&W light-rail train and ride all the way into Philadelphia without getting caught?
Nobody knew, but when he said to me and to my ten-year-old brother Albert, «Hey you two scuzzes»—scuzz being his favorite word of the moment—«there's a dead kid in Cabbage Creek Woods. Wanna see?» it wasn't really a question.
Albert tried to turn away, and said, «David, I don't think we should,» but I knew what was good for us.
«Yeah,» I said. «Sure we want to see.»
Luke was already more than a head taller than either of us and fifty pounds heavier. He was cultivating the «hood» image from some hand-me-down memory of James Dean or Elvis, with his hair up in a greasy swirl and a black leather jacket worn even on hot days when he kept his shirt unbuttoned so he could show off that he already had chest hair.
A cigarette dangled from his lips. He blew smoke in my face. I strained not to cough.
«Well come on, then,» he said. «It's really cool.»
So we followed him, along with a kid called Animal, and another called Spike—the beginnings of Luke's «gang,» with which he said he was going to make himself famous one day. My little brother tagged after us, reluctantly at first, but then as fascinated as I was to be initiated into this innermost, forbidden secret of the older, badder set.
Luke had quite a sense of showmanship. He led us under bushes, crawling through natural tunnels under vines and dead trees where, when we were smaller, we'd had our own secret hideouts, as, I suppose, all children do. Luke and his crowd were getting too big for that sort of thing, but they went crashing through the underbrush like bears. I was small and skinny enough. David was young enough. In fact it was all we could do to keep up.
With a great flourish, Luke raised a vine curtain and we emerged into the now half-abandoned Radnor Golf Course. It was an early Saturday morning. Mist was still rising from the poorly tended greens. I saw one golfer, far away. Otherwise we had the world to ourselves.
We ran across the golf course, then across Lancaster Pike, then up the hill and back into the woods on the other side.
I only thought for a minute, Hey wait a minute, we're going to see a corpse, a kid like us, only dead . . . but, as I said, for Luke Bradley or even with him, all rules were suspended, and I knew better than try to ask what the kid died of, because we'd see soon enough.
In the woods again, by secret and hidden ways, we came to the old «fort,» which had probably been occupied by generations of boys by then, though of course right now it «belonged» to the Luke Bradley Gang.
I don't know who built the fort or why. It was a rectangle of raised earth and piled stone, with logs laid across for a roof, and vines growing thickly over the whole thing so that from a distance it just looked like a hillock or knoll. That was part of its secret. You had to know it was there.
And only Luke could let you in.
He raised another curtain of vines, and with a sweep of his hand and a bow said, «Welcome to my house, you assholes.»
Spike and Animal laughed while Albert and I got down on our hands and knees and crawled inside.
Immediately I almost gagged on the awful smell, like rotten garbage and worse. Albert started to cough. I thought he was going to throw up. But before I could say or do anything, Luke and his two henchmen had come in after us, and we all crowded around a pit in the middle of the dirt floor which didn't used to be there. Now there was a four-foot drop, a roughly square cavity, and in the middle of that, a cardboard box which was clearly the source of the unbelievable stench.
Luke got out a flashlight, then reached down and opened the box.
«It's a dead kid. I found him in the woods in this box. He's mine.»
I couldn't help but look. It was indeed a dead kid, an emaciated, pale thing, naked but for what might have been the remains of filthy underpants, lying on its side in a fetal position, little clawlike hands bunched up under its chin.
«A dead kid,» said Luke. «Really cool.»
Then Albert really was throwing up and screaming at the same time, and scrambling to get out of there, only Animal and then Spike had him by the back of his shirt the way you pick up a kitten by the scruff of its neck, and they passed him back to Luke, who held his head in his hands and forced him down into that pit, saying, «Now look at it you fucking pussy faggot, this because it's really cool.»
Albert was sobbing and sniffling when Luke let him go, but he didn't try to run, nor did I, even when Luke got a stick and poked the dead kid with it.
«This is the best part,» he said.
We didn't run away then because we had to watch just to convince ourselves that we weren't crazy, because of what we were seeing.
Luke poked and the dead kid moved, spasming at first, then grabbing at the stick feebly, and finally crawling around inside the box like a slow, clumsy animal, just barely able to turn, scratching at the cardboard with bony fingertips.
«What is he?» I had to ask.
«A zombie, » said Luke.
«Aren't zombies supposed to be black?»
«You mean like a nigger?» That was another of Luke's favorite words this year. He called everybody «nigger» no matter what color they were.
«Well, you know. Voodoo. In Haiti and all that.»
As we spoke the dead kid reared up and almost got out of the box. Luke poked him in the forehead with his stick and knocked him down.
«I suppose if we let him rot long enough he'll be black enough even for you. »
The dead kid stared up at us and made a bleating sound. The worst thing of all was that he didn't have any eyes, only huge sockets and an oozy mess inside them.
Albert was sobbing for his mommy by then, and after a while of poking and prodding the dead kid, Luke and his friends got tired of this sport. Luke turned to me and said, «You can go now, but you know if you or your piss-pants brother tell about this, I'll kill you both and put you in there for the dead kid to eat.»