Page 8 of Mystic River

His partner, the Greasy Wolf, had smiled. "I like a little fight."

Big Wolf shook his head. "He'd bite your thumb off just pulling him into the car. Clean off, the little fucker."

It helped to give them dopey names: Big Wolf and Greasy Wolf. It helped Dave to see them as creatures, wolves hidden under costumes of human skin, and Dave himself as a character in a story: the Boy Taken by Wolves. The Boy Who Escaped and made his way through the damp woods to an Esso station. The Boy Who'd Remained Calm and Crafty, always looking for a way out.

In school, though, he was just the Boy Who Got Stolen, and everyone let their imaginations run as to what had happened during those four lost days. In the bathroom one morning, a seventh-grader named Junior McCaffery sidled up to the urinal beside Dave and said, "Did they make you suck it?" and all his seventh-grader friends had started laughing and making kissing noises.

Dave zipped his fly with trembling fingers, his face red, and turned to face Junior McCaffery. He tried to put a mean look in his eyes, and Junior frowned and slapped him across the face.

You could hear the sound of it echo in the bathroom. One seventh-grader gasped like a girl.

Junior said, "You got something to say, queer? Huh? You want me to hit you again, faggot?"

"He's crying," someone said.

"He is," Junior McCaffery shrieked, and Dave's tears fell harder. He felt the numbness in his face turn into a sting, but it wasn't the pain that bothered him. Pain had never bothered him all that much, and he'd never cried from it, not even when he'd crashed his bike and sliced his ankle open on the pedal as he fell, and that had taken seven stitches to close. It was the range of emotions he could feel pouring from the boys in the bathroom that cut into him. Hate, disgust, anger, contempt. All directed at him. He didn't understand why. He'd never bothered anyone his whole life. Yet they hated him. And the hate made him feel orphaned. It made him feel putrid and guilty and tiny, and he wept because he didn't want to feel that way.

They all laughed at his tears. Junior danced around for a moment, his face twisted up in rubbery contortions as he aped Dave's blubbering. When Dave finally got it under control, reduced it to a few sniffles, Junior slapped him again, the same place, just as hard.

"Look at me," Junior said as Dave felt a fresh burst of tears explode from his eye sockets. "Look at me."

Dave looked up at Junior, hoping to see compassion or humanity or even pity? he'd take pity? in his face, but all he saw was an angry, laughing glare.

"Yeah," Junior said, "you sucked it."

He feinted another slap at Dave and Dave dropped his head and cringed, but Junior was walking away with his friends, all of them laughing as they left the bathroom.

Dave remembered something Mr. Peters, a friend of his mother's who slept over occasionally, once said to him: "Two things you never take from a man? his spit or his slap. They're both worse than a punch, and a man does that to you, you try to kill him if you can."

Dave sat down on the bathroom floor and wished he had that in himself? the will to kill someone. He'd start with Junior McCaffery, he supposed, and move on to Big Wolf and Greasy Wolf, if he ever ran into them again. But, truth was, he just didn't think he could. He didn't know why people were mean to other people. He didn't understand. He didn't understand.

After the bathroom incident, word seemed to come down from on high or something and spread through the school, so that everyone from the third grade on up had heard about what Junior McCaffery did to Dave and how Dave had responded. A judgment was arrived at, and Dave found that even the few classmates who'd been his sort-of friends after he'd first returned to school started treating him like a leper.

Not all of them muttered "Homo" when he passed in the hall or used their tongues to push against the insides of their cheeks. In fact, a good number of Dave's fellow students just ignored him. But in a way, that was worse. He felt marooned by the silence.

If they ran into each other as they left their houses, Jimmy Marcus would sometimes walk silently alongside him to school because it would have been awkward not to, and he'd say, "Hey," when he passed him in the hall or bumped into him on the line heading into class. Dave could see some odd mix of pity and embarrassment in Jimmy's face those times their eyes met, as if Jimmy wanted to say something but couldn't put it into words? Jimmy, at the best of times, never having been much of a talker unless he was suddenly itching with some insane idea to jump down on train tracks or steal a car. But it felt to Dave as if their friendship (and Dave wasn't sure, in truth, that they'd ever really been friends; he remembered with a small shame all those times he'd had to press his companionship on Jimmy) had died when Dave climbed in that car and Jimmy had stayed planted on the street.

Jimmy, as it turned out, wouldn't be in school with Dave much longer, so even those walks together could eventually be avoided. At school, Jimmy had always hung out with Val Savage, a small, chimp-brained psycho who'd been kept back twice and could turn into this spinning, whirling dust storm of violence that scared the shit out of just about everyone, teachers and students alike. The joke about Val (though never spoken if he was around) was that his parents didn't save for his college fund, they saved for his bail fund. Even before Dave had gotten in that car, Jimmy had always hung with Val once they reached school. Sometimes he'd allow Dave to tag along with them as they raided the cafeteria kitchen for snacks or found a new roof to climb, but after the car Dave was even shut out of that. When he wasn't hating him for his sudden exile, Dave noticed that the dark cloud that sometimes seemed to hover over Jimmy had become a permanent thing, like a reverse halo. Jimmy just seemed older lately, sadder.

He'd finally steal a car, though. It was almost a year after their first attempt on Sean's street, and it got Jimmy expelled from the Looey & Dooey and bused halfway across the city to the Carver School so he could find out what life was like for a white kid from East Bucky in a mostly black school. Val would get bused along with him, though, and Dave heard that the two of them soon became the terror of the Carver, two white kids so crazy they didn't know how to be scared.

The car was a convertible. Dave heard rumors that it belonged to a friend of one of the teachers, though he never found out which one. Jimmy and Val stole it off the school lot while the teachers and their spouses and friends were having a year-end party in the faculty lounge after school. Jimmy was driving, and he and Val took it for a hell of a spin around Buckingham, beeping the horn and waving to girls, and gunning the engine until a police cruiser spotted them and they ended up totaling the car against a Dumpster behind the Zayres in Rome Basin. Val twisted an ankle getting out of the car, and Jimmy, already halfway up a fence that led to a vacant lot, came back to help him, Dave always seeing it in his mind as part war movie? the valiant soldier going back to rescue his fallen buddy, bullets flying all around them (though Dave doubted the cops had been shooting, it made it seem cooler). The cops got both of them right there, and they spent a night in Juvie. They were allowed to finish sixth grade, since there were only a few days left in the year, and then their families were told they had to look elsewhere for the boys' schooling.