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Chapter 1: True Crimes
My chest was tight and I could barely breathe. I pedaled faster, like I was speeding for my life. The harder I pushed, the more I could pretend it was actually the exertion of biking that was choking me up. I rode on past my house. Wiping my eyes on my sleeve allowed me to see where the sidewalk changed into a bike path on the hill up to Gifford Park without ditching in the gutter.
Gifford Park isn’t a real park: it’s nothing but a big patch of grass and trees where nobody ever goes, because it doesn’t have a soccer field or picnic tables or anything good. Power lines run right down through the middle, so kids can’t even fly kites or play around without potentially running into metal posts. I like it because it has a long slope that overlooks the entire town, and no one bothers you if you go there after dark.
I’m only a little ashamed to say that on that night, I flopped down and cried hysterically on the grass of the slope, gasping for breath. The lights from the housing divisions below twinkled blurrily in my wet eyes while I cursed my existence.
Lissa Hewitt – the true love of my young life and the most beautiful girl in school – had just broken up with me. My life was, in all ways except the actual medical definition, over.
Three important things happened that last week of summer before I started freshman year of high school and stumbled upon the clues that lead me and my friends to pull off a crazy heist: my heart got crushed into pieces; the Twins came home; and Drew got a black eye.
My name’s Angelo. Some people call me Angel. Well, basically only my best friend Drew Wales calls me that, but I’m hoping it catches on because it’s a lot more BAMF than Angelo.
I hadn’t expected to get my heart crushed the day before I started high school, but looking back it was pretty much par for the course for my life up to that point. Middle school had been the worst. Everyone smelled, and kids you’d gone to camp with or been invited to their birthday parties suddenly wanted nothing to do with you. Girls, and dating, were completely off the table. I spent three years as a lonely loser with only Drew to hang out with.
And then, on the day of graduation from middle school, I came to a realization: now that it was over, I didn’t care what these kids thought. A bunch of them would be moving away or going to a private high school anyway, and my new high school Longview was a funnel for three different middle schools of kids. There would be a huge new pool of guys to hang out with and women to lust after. I was sick of being of a middle school loser; I wanted to be a high school winner.
I felt great. I felt empowered. My confidence was so high I took the plunge and asked out Lissa Hewitt – Lissa Hewitt, the girl with the golden curls that I had day-dreamed about during interminable school days and sweaty nights.
And get this: she said yes.
I spent every minute of the next three months with her, or at least every minute her parents would let me, aside from the time I was hanging with my boy Drew. And “hanging with Drew” meant zoning out to video games and talking about girls, so I was pretty much imagining being with Lissa the whole time, anyway. Lissa was my girlfriend, and that was something I’d never had before. I even spent what little money I had to give her a charm bracelet to make it official.
The only things that interrupted our romance were Lissa trying out for the Pom Squad (which of course she made) and my Dad forcing me to take a SAT prep course. It wasn’t as bad as I expected it would be, actually. They definitely made the students do busywork like memorizing word lists, but most of the class was about tricks to improve your vocab over time.
One of the tricks – sorry, ‘techniques’ – they teach you is to underline any words you come across, and then look them up in the dictionary later. You then reword the definition in the kind of way that makes sense to you (for me, that means using a lot of swear words) and think of a picture or phrase associated with the word to help you remember. Frankly, I’m not sure whether the class helped or not, because I’d go to it in the mornings and then bike over to Lissa’s house and basically forget everything I’d just learned while making out with her on her pink and gold bed cover.
But even the most wonderful summers have to end. The last week of vacation, the school makes incoming freshmen attend ‘orientation,’ which is like a sneak preview for how horrible high school will be. I kept hoping to run into Lissa, but I only saw her once in the hallways and we had to rush off before we could say hi. I had meant to coordinate my classes with her, but she had gotten busy and we didn’t have a chance before class selection. In the middle of receiving “pre-homework” from my Geometry teacher Mr. Baraba, she texted me to meet at her house later that night.
I was excited, I’ll admit. I’d been to her house plenty of times, but lately she had been spending more time with her Pom friends, and frankly our make-out sessions had not been progressing at the pace I had been expecting in my long-term projections.
That night I pedaled my old mountain bike over to Lissa’s house. She was waiting on front stoop for me, which she’d never done before. I ditched the bike in her front yard and walked up.
“Hey!” I said, leaning in to kiss her.
She stood up and looked right into my eyes, just like she had when I asked her to the dance.
“Angelo, you know I like you…” she started.
I may be dumb about relationships – not having, you know, had any before – but I’m not mentally challenged. I’ve watched enough chick flicks and/or pornos to know this is not how make out sessions start.
“We’re about to enter into high school and things are changing very quickly…”
Ok – here I wasn’t too sure what she was talking about, but again, this didn’t sound like her leading up to slipping off her bra.
“I think you and I are just very different people…” I started to get a buzz in my ears so I wasn’t sure I was hearing everything, but my junk had definitely shriveled and I thought my face was getting pretty flushed.
“And we have different friends, and different sensibilities…” What – did she mean her Pom Squad snobs? And why did she look at my clothes when she said sensibilities? Suddenly I was very aware of my beat up sneakers and worn out jeans.
“So just to get it out… I just think I can do better.”
I can’t say for sure what my face did then, but I think it must have frozen like a corpse. I was gutted. I couldn’t say a word. This whole time she had been looking at me with this sweet expression, like a parent telling you it would be for the best that you’d spend four years of elementary school wearing braces and head-gear.
She just kept looking at me. Finally, she asked: “Okay?”
I found my voice in the bottom of my stomach. “Yeah, okay. Definitely okay. Alright. Copacetic even.”
“Oh good,” she said matter-of-factly, like we’d just agreed on picking a movie to watch. Lissa flipped her hand and unlatched the bracelet I had given her, placing it in my empty hand. I looked at it in my palm, seeing for the first time how chintzy it looked, like cheap souvenir jewelry.
She turned around and I just stared at the back of her golden hair dancing about in the porch light as she opened her front door. It took me minutes to register the door was shut and she was gone.
I like to think I grandly tossed the bracelet away like an unjustly wronged man and pedaled well out of sight of her house before the tears started streaming down my face, but who knows. I certainly wasn’t thinking it at the time, but hindsight being 20/20 and all – I have to imagine professional heist crews generally frown upon that kind of public display of emotion from their leaders.
I don’t know how long I stayed on the hill at Gifford Park, but it must have been at least a couple hours; it was full-on night, and I was damp and chilled by the time I walked my bike back down the hill. I had just reached my block when I heard a scratchy voice coming from the direction of a dark house with all the lights turned off.
“Shit bike!” I could barely make out a large figure coming down from the porch in my direction.
“Correct. That’s a shit bike, Tim.” Oh no. An answering voice was coming from the sidewalk in front of me. I recognized it.
“Yeah Chad, that is absolutely a shit bike.” Both figures had closed in on me now, stopping me in my tracks. “I don’t think I’d even want it if this kid just, you know, offered it to me very nicely.”
The Trumbull Twins. I hated their identical faces, especially their cavemen jaws and fat necks. These jackholes lived just a few doors down from me, and had basically bullied me every day as I walked to elementary school as a kid; pushing me around with their middle school muscles; always pissed that I had a crappy brown bag lunch instead of money. The torture continued after I graduated to middle school; right up until two years ago, when they got in some trouble with the law and were sent to juvie. I hadn’t ever expected to see them again – especially not on this night that I already wanted to forget had ever happened.
One of them bent down and pushed my bike with his meaty hand. “What the… Are you crying already, little boy?” He laughed like an actual idiot. I swallowed hard and tried to keep walking while the other one put his foot in front of my flat front tire.
Listen – it’s one thing to be a regular bully. I’m sure there are lots of socio-economic advantages to it, and the Twins probably didn’t have much in the way of potential scholastic scholarships anyway. But the reality is that no one could argue that they were anything but the type to really enjoy being dickbags… real certified dickbags, like they literally got a certificate and hung it up on their bedroom walls hoping visitors would notice and start up a conversation with them about their Summa Cum Laude honors in Dickbaggery.
“Hold up, dude,” said the one blocking my bike. “We’re just messing with you. Right, Tim?”
“Yeah, just messing with you. Actually…” The one I assumed was Chad sniffed and rubbed his nose with his knuckle. “You want some pot?”
I want to be clear: I have never taken drugs, but not because I have some B.S. reason like moral integrity, or because it would be detrimental to my future. I have never taken drugs because I am scared the cops or some other authority figure will bust me and drag me off to jail; in short, I don’t do drugs because I am a puss.
“Uhh, nooo thanks,” I stammered.
“Pussy,” coughed Tim in response. Yes Tim – pussy. I was trying to be polite with “puss”, but you make a good point about needless political correctness ruining open dialogue between informed adults. I am a pussy.
“Nah – it’s cool, man.” This was Chad, who had put his ham hock hands on my shoulder in something approximating friendliness. “Look, here, I’ll gift you a bag, like gratis. You don’t got to pay anything, man. We just need a little favor.” His grip tightened. FML!
Before the situation got worse, lights went on from a house down the street – my house. A voice called out “Angelo!” from the front door.
Thank god for my overprotective Dad, enforcing my summer curfew. I looked around. The Twins had already scurried off like the roaches they were. I jogged my bike home, hoping my Dad wouldn’t notice my red eyes and ask me if I’d hurt myself falling off my bike.
My parents don’t have a lot of money; actually, we’re basically poor. My mom manages a stationery store and my Dad is the stay-at-home type. Probably the only good thing about us having no money and a tiny little house was that I had a whole floor to myself. We live in a two bedroom ranch home and my parents have the only real sized bedroom to themselves. My little sister Jen and I used to share the other small bedroom on the main floor (which sucked powerfully hard) until my brother Paul went off to college to study law, at which point I happily took over his digs in the basement.
Calling the basement my “room” is actually a bit of a stretch. Half of it is unfinished, and the walls and floor are this bare yellow concrete. That’s the part where the stairs come down and where my parents do the laundry and stuff. It’s also got an open shower stall with a foot-wide drain that looks like it’s mostly made to wash out paint cans rather than for people to bathe in, but I use it for my own private bathroom anyway. Shower, teeth brushing and shaving all in one. Ok, yes, to answer your question – I have gone #1 on the rare occasion while showering in the morning, but don’t judge me because the water is really hot that close to the boiler and it’s just human nature.
My part is closed off by a curtain and is covered with fake wood paneling wall paper. It gets cold sometimes in the winter, but I’ve got a lot of blankets on my bed and a little radiator so it’s cool. Plus I’ve got a small TV hooked up to an Xbox that Paul bought me last year for Christmas with part of his scholarship stipend.
The best part is that I’ve got my own door to the outside, which opens out onto our back yard. So basically – if I’m quiet enough – I can go in and out undetected whenever I want to. Not that I really have good reason to in most cases, but I’m pretty sure my Dad hates the idea of it anyway. If it wasn’t for my mom arguing for the benefits of me being an independent young man, I’m pretty sure he would have already boarded it up permanently.
After the run in with the Twins, I flopped down on my bed. Luckily my Dad had failed to notice I had been crying and let me off with nothing more than a stern warning that my curfew was SERIOUS AND NOT TO BE TAKEN LIGHTLY. I flipped through channels while my mind tried to deal with my utter reversal of fortune. The girl of my dreams had basically just flipped me off forever, high school looked like it was going to suck even more than middle school, and on top of that I had to deal with those mucking twin bullies again.
“Lissa.” I moaned quietly to myself, over and over again. I was in bad shape, ok?
Tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap. That was the door to the outside, and it meant Drew was about to come in. Drew didn’t have a key to my house, but he knew how to work the lock with these thin metal strips he carries around on him; he learned how to do it back when he was way into magic tricks and escape acts, before he realized how anti-vagina magic is. He basically has the authority to come in to the basement whenever he wants, and my parents don’t even mind.
Another round of tapping. That was my last chance to shout out the safety phrase OCUPADO before he came in. We came up with it to protect against interfering with “private business” which could not be concluded in a short time.
I thought about yelling it. Drew had seen me cry plenty of times, mostly because I had skinned my knee jumping off a ramp with my skateboard or accidentally got hit in the sack by a soccer ball. But I was really messed up right now. My throat was choked up, so I just turned my head into my pillow as he came in.
“Sup,” he said quietly.
“Hey,” I returned. This is the great thing about dudes – you’re not required to look at each other or even really acknowledge the other guy’s presence while you have a conversation.
I felt his legs swing up onto the mattress, using it as a footrest while he settled into the cheap Ikea chair next to my bed. We watched some crappy reality show for five minutes in silence.
“Sucks. Pass the mike,” he ordered. I tossed the remote back over my shoulder and he started changing channels rapidly.
A minute later he offered, “The Twins are back.”
“Yeah,” I confirmed.
“Yeah? You saw them?”
“Yeah.” Nothing more had to be said.
We watched junk for another few minutes, until Drew couldn’t take it anymore. He headed over to the bookshelf and scanned through my dad’s DVD collection. For acting like a mom in a bunch of other cases, my dad had some really violent taste in movies. He was a huge WWII fan and had just about every war movie ever, in addition to other guy movies like James Bond, Schwarzenneger flicks and like different four copies of Time Bandits, which has a bunch of little people dressed in steampunk gear for some reason. Drew and I had watched most of them a few times over.
He grabbed one off the shelf and threw it into the Xbox. This was one of our favorites, The Great Escape. It’s about a group of mostly British prisoners of war interred in a Nazi POW camp. They tunnel underneath the ground for months until they finally break out like 100 guys at once, which actually happened in real life because it is based on a true story. The music is great, and there are some bad ass motorcycle scenes.
The opening credits flashed on screen and we both whistled the theme song together. I wasn’t close to smiling, but for a minute I felt a little less… broken.
Drew’s a good guy. We’d been friends since elementary school and had basically grown up playing videogames and having sleepovers together – always at my place. His family life is kind of terrible. His dad died on a construction job when Drew was seven and his mom never really recovered. She started to drink and – Drew doesn’t know I know this, but my mom told me once – sleep around a lot, going from one guy to another. Eventually she got married to this asshole named Dave who works in Levittown. Dave obviously never wanted to be a step-father, and at best he would ignore Drew and at worst…
Well, last March, Drew’s mom kind of freaked out and split. She just up and left. Drew found a note from her saying she had to find herself or some utter crap like that. Since then, she sends him notes occasionally and small packets of money they still get every month from his dad’s insurance settlement.
The part about his mom being gone is a complete secret. When I found out, I was going to tell my parents and get child protective services (or whatever SVU is) on the case, but Drew wouldn’t let me. He lives in fear that his mom will get in trouble, maybe go to jail, and he says the only real change that could happen is he’d get put into foster care. I won’t let that happen, so my lips are sealed.
According to Drew, it’s not so bad. Dave puts in just enough effort to keep teachers and parents from being suspicious in exchange for “rent money.” Drew is also really skilled at forging his mom’s signature. He hangs out here a lot, so that’s good, but I know it’s killing him that his mom isn’t around.
On the TV, the prisoners were digging in these tiny little tunnels, shored up with wood slats from their beds. It was just as claustrophobic and quiet in my room, as they paused, listening for the sound of an impending tunnel cave-in.
“Lissa broke up with me,” I said, matter-of-factly.
Drew didn’t say anything. I thought I was getting a handle on my emotions, but saying the words almost caused me to sob. I stole a glance back at Drew before the waterworks came.
Drew sat holding up his chin with his hands folded underneath. His face was blotchy and red from tears, and from bruises. There was a black and blue mark under one eye.
I turned back and watched the movie. For the next forty-five minutes, prisoners got loose and roamed the German countryside, trying to escape by train, plane, boat and motorcycle. Just about all of them get recaptured.
“Lissa’s a bitch,” said Drew.
It was cruel and possibly untrue, and I needed to hear it. “Yeah.”
The Nazi camp director was explaining how fifty (FIFTY) prisoners were shot during escape, with none of them wounded. Just shot in cold blood; a crime against humanity. It’s the kind of moment a guy is allowed to cry. I did. So did Drew.
“You got a black eye when we were practicing to join the wrestling team,” I said a minute later. I would never join the wrestling team – who wants some other dude’s sweaty junk pressed against their face? But my mom was so anxious for me to get into organized sports she wouldn’t even question it.
“Yeah,” Drew agreed.
The end of the movie. Three guys made it out. Hundreds of guys trying to escape, and only three guys actually made it. The ending credits came on, along with the theme.
Drew whistled the theme song, and I joined in.