The Dead Kid
Recognized as “Notable Story” in 2008 Million Writers Award
Received “Special Mention” in 2010 Pushcart Prize series
“The Dead Kid” is currently being adapted into a short film.
Gillian King has a BA in film production and an MFA in creative writing from Southern Illinois University. She has written several short stories, screenplays, and technical guides, and is currently at work on a novel. She lives in the middle of nowhere in Wisconsin, with her husband and her husband’s dog.
Frankie Thomas was a kid we all knew, a kid we all picked on at recess because he was slow and fat and lousy at kickball. He lived on the same street as me and my very best friend Jean. Our street was like this: my house, the mean boys’, the Thomases’, Jean’s.
The mean boys were Jimmer and Ted, eleven and thirteen. They were the kind of kids who always looked dirty. They smoked, swore, shot bottle rockets at me and Jean, and always tried to look up our skirts and down our shirts, even before there was anything to see. I pretended I wasn’t afraid of them, but Jean and I made wide arcs to the other side of the street when we went back and forth between our houses, that was if we could keep ourselves from breaking into a sprint. Jimmer and Ted chased people sometimes, and when they wanted to catch someone, they did.
They always caught Frankie.
. . .
In fifth grade, Frankie disappeared. His body was found about a year later in the town dump. This was back before our town had curb-side trash pick-up, before we even had curbs in most places. The dump was an adventure. There were no rules about what could be thrown away and what couldn’t. There was no recycling, no eco-awareness, just two big holes in the ground: one for things that would burn and one for things that wouldn’t.
Mr. Dunbar was the dump keeper. He always wore the same pair of denim coveralls. They were the color of summer thunderheads from grit and the soot of burning garbage. His face had pocks, craters, and dark permanent ripples of wrinkles, and looked like it had been left out in the sun too long and picked at by crows. A face that couldn’t smile. Kids said Mr. Dunbar stayed out all night on the porch of his leany shack, sleeping with his eyes open and his shotgun cocked, to guard the dump from trespassers. Whatever he saw, wild dogs or bear or drunk teenagers, he shot and threw into the fire pit.
Jean and I could make it to the dump in twenty minutes when we took the path through the woods. Ten minutes if we were running away from our mothers or the mean boys.
If we got to the dump early enough, we’d get to see Mr. Dunbar start the trash fires with gasoline. This was my favorite part: the rush and whoosh of the first fire ball, the hot blast reddening my cheeks and blowing back my hair, the black garbage bags being licked open by flame, the wavy swirls of heat and smoke flying up past the garbage, over the treetops, to heaven.
Sometimes Mr. Dunbar singed himself—got too close and came away with blacker sleeves and shorter char-tipped hair. He’d climb out of the fires, eyes cold and coaly, coveralls smoking, and he’d cuss, “Hot shit.” Jean and I would scurry out of his way.
Six to four the dump was like a flea market without tables. There were treasures around the pits you could take if you paid old Dunbar a dollar a haul. I found one roller skate and Jean found a bike without a seat. She had to ride it standing up, but it was a good bike. There were other good things there, too, like board games and jigsaw puzzles with most all their pieces, and doll parts: heads and limbs and torsos that sometimes fit together right like the pretty new dolls in shop windows, the kind me and Jean were saving up to get. Once we found a shoebox full of kittens, still blind and hairless. Jean and I gave them all names and warm milk. We longed for the time when their hair would grow in, when they’d look like real cats we could hold and brush and love. But they died during the night and my parents made me take them back to the dump.
. . .
Everyone thought Frankie had been kidnapped by some child-rapist, or eaten by a pack of dogs, or just wandered away somewhere and didn’t have sense enough to come home. People combed the woods and sent rescue divers to the bottoms of all the lakes around town, and the Ben Franklin on Main Street sold out of blue ribbons—blue was Frankie’s favorite color—because everyone wanted to show their support for the Thomas family.
And even though our parents were paranoid about curfews and stray dogs and white vans, they were extra nice to us for a while too: talking sweeter, hugging tighter, buying more ice cream.
The Thomas family kind of fell apart without Frankie. He was their only child, and they loved him even if he was fat and slow and lousy at kickball. For weeks, Mrs. Thomas stopped going to her job and stopped leaving the house for fear her baby would come home and she wouldn’t be there to wrap her arms around him and feed him cookies and assure him he’d been missed. She was constantly baking batches and batches of oatmeal raisin cookies, one pan after another, from the time Frankie went missing to well after his funeral. And no one was allowed to eat the cookies. Frankie’s cookies. But Jean and I could smell them baking from the street when Mrs. Thomas opened up her kitchen windows and the breeze blew right.
Mr. Thomas spent as much time out of the house as he could, wandering around town with rumpled clothes, wet eyes, and quivering lips, asking everyone he passed, “You seen Frankie? You seen my boy?” Most people tried to avoid him after the first couple weeks when the searches were called off and it was widely assumed Frankie was dead.
. . .
Frankie had been gone maybe four months, and his blue ribbons were fading to gray on the trees around town. Jean and I were playing in the stretch of street between our houses. We decided to put Frankie’s ribbons to better use and gathered them up from every yard except the Thomas’s to decorate Jean’s seat-less bike.
“We’ll be princesses,” Jean said.
“We’ll be older,” I said, “like seventeen.” So we laced ribbons through the spokes and tied ribbons to the handlebars so they’d fly out like streamers when we rode. We tied bows to the bike’s steel stump where the seat should have been. We braided ribbons into each other’s hair. Then we were all dolled-up and ready to ride.
The bike was beautiful. And we were beautiful, too.
I sat on the bike’s handlebars, Jean peddled standing up, and we paraded around waving the cupped-hand stiff-wristed wave of county fair queens.
We didn’t think anyone was watching, but Mrs. Thomas was watching. She was always watching, waiting for Frankie. We heard her front door open and slam shut and we heard her crunching up the gravel driveway. She was running at us. Jean tried to push back on the foot brakes and stop the bike. I tried not to fall off the handlebars.
Mrs. Thomas wore a pink robe and a pair of her husband’s slip-on loafers. Her red hair was matted up in piles on her head. She came up on us quick. Jean couldn’t stop the bike. We couldn’t get away from Mrs. Thomas and we couldn’t go around her. She sidestepped us, grabbed onto our shoulders, and pushed. I fell off the handlebars. The road rushed up and jarred against me. Jean was pinned to the pavement, half on and half under the bike. Then, Mrs. Thomas was on us. Scratching, slapping, tearing, trying to rip the ribbons off bike and bodies, out of hair and spokes.
“These are Frankie’s ribbons,” she said. She seemed to have more than two hands. She was hurting me everywhere, but I didn’t try to stop her. I just squeezed my eyes shut and lay there in the road. Jean was crying somewhere behind me. Mrs. Thomas was screaming over us. “Frankie’s going to see these and come home.”
She stopped clawing and stood up. I opened my eyes. Mrs. Thomas blotted out the world. She was huge, pink, and heaving. Her hands were filled with hair and ribbons. She turned and left us whimpering on the pavement.
. . .
Mr. Dunbar is the one who found the body. He was at the dump digging around in the pit—the one where things weren’t burned—looking for scrap-metal he could use or sell. He found Frankie in an old refrigerator. Frankie must have crawled in not knowing the door would latch. Not knowing he wouldn’t be able to crawl out. There were no signs of struggle or foul play, just dead decaying little Frankie curled up, thumb in mouth, waiting to be found.
We played together when we were babies, Frankie and me, before it mattered who was friends with whom. I’d like to say that I stuck up for him, that I was brave when he couldn’t be and helped him when he couldn’t help himself or, at the very least, that I left him alone. I didn’t.
I made fun of him, too. I tripped him sometimes and flicked his pink earlobes when it was cold out, and laughed when other people laughed at him.
I wasn’t proud. I wasn’t fast or pretty or rich, either. And I didn’t have many friends except Jean. It could have been me who got beat up and pushed down all the time, who most days went hungry because bullies stole my change, who pissed in my pants so I wouldn’t have to face whoever was waiting for me in the bathroom. But it wasn’t me, because it was Frankie.
. . .
There was a dare, after Frankie was out of the dump and in the ground, in his coffin that was so much like his refrigerator I wanted to put magnets on it at the funeral, after his mom and dad moved away because they couldn’t bear being called ‘the dead kid’s parents’, after every K through twelver in town found out how he suffocated alone in the dark in the pit in the Kenmore 500 Koolmark T.
This dare couldn’t be done in Frankie’s particular refrigerator. That one was thrown into the fire pit. All the men, all the fathers in town gathered to watch, and when all that could be burned had burned away, they pulled the refrigerator’s metal carcass out of the pit and let Frankie’s dad beat it with a sledgehammer. Mr. Thomas’s hands were blistered and bloody. He screamed at the refrigerator, not in any kind of words, just in pain, until somebody dragged him away and took him to the tavern to drink, to forget for a while, and, hopefully, to pass out. Mr. Dunbar had the pieces of Frankie’s refrigerator hauled off to some other town’s dump to be buried with some other people’s garbage.
This was the dare: get to the dump at night, the later the better, find a refrigerator, a stove was okay too, depending on what had recently been thrown away, leave your friends outside, close yourself in, and give yourself over, temporarily, to death.
. . .
We were tent-camping one night in Jean’s backyard. The bonfire had gone out so we curled up in our sleeping bags and tried to pretend the night noises and the darkness pushing in around the yellow circles of our flashlights didn’t scare us. We thought about Frankie and talked about ghosts.
“They suck out your breath when you’re asleep,” Jean said. “They sucked out my cousin Sandy’s breath when she was eighteen months old.” Jean hunkered down lower in her sleeping bag so she was just a strip of pale skin and two shining yellow eyes. She never was so brave, unless there were boys around to impress.
“You lie,” I said.
“She died in her playpen. They got her.” Jean’s voice was muffled by the sleeping bag. I covered my mouth and nose up, too.
Something scraped against our canvas roof, with that hissing noise of fingernails against fabric. Jean must have heard it too because she’d turtled herself up in her sleeping bag. I couldn’t hide though. I wanted to see what it was. My breath seemed raspy and louder than it had ever been, and I had to go to the bathroom, but I waited for the sound to come again.
Something banged against the tent’s zipped-flap front door and the wall bowed in toward us.
“It’s Frankie,” Jean yelled. “He’s come back to kill us!” I was scared. Maybe it was Frankie. Maybe it was something worse. The door banged and banged again. I had to know. I reached out to the shaking wall and grabbed the door’s zipper. I looked back at Jean.
“No,” she said. I turned away and unzipped the zipper, one metal tooth at a time. Jean covered her eyes. Halfway to the top the zipper shot away from me up its metal track and the flaps snapped open.
There was nothing outside, nothing but darkness.
But then the darkness came alive, jumped at me, tackled me, and pushed me onto the tent floor. I thought it was Frankie coming for me, maybe for taking his ribbons, maybe for nothing at all.
I kicked and punched my way out from under the thing, and when I got free I realized the thing was Ted and just outside the tent, laughing his butt off, was Jimmer.
“Jerks,” I said. My muscles were all tight and my heart was going too fast and I think I peed a little when I thought a ghost was mauling me, but I couldn’t let them see that. I wasn’t cute like Jean, so I had to be tough. Jean heard my voice, knew I wasn’t dead, and came out of hiding. Now she wanted to be brave, too.
Scaring us must have been Jimmer’s plan, everything always was. Ted was the muscle of the two, the stout silent threatening mass of thirteen-year-old, who did his younger brother’s bidding, punched when Jimmer said punch, scared when Jimmer said scare. Ted had huge round eyes that seemed to take in everything, but understand nothing. Understanding was Jimmer’s job.
Jimmer was short and thick and fast. He had blonde hair, blue eyes, and reminded me of these kids I saw in a history book, the Hitler Youth, but by way of Middle America. Most of all the brothers were mean. Ted was mean because he didn’t have sense not to be. But Jimmer had sense; he was mean because he liked it.
They rolled on the ground laughing. Jean and I still trembled, but tried not to show it, not in front of the boys. They were unpredictable. I never knew if they were going to try to hit us or kiss us, and I couldn’t decide which was worse. Which I wanted.
Jimmer crawled into the tent and wiggled up to Jean. He fluttered his eyelashes, puckered his lips, and spoke in a high girly voice.
“It’s Frankie. It’s Frankie. Oh, help.”
Ted grabbed my flashlight, held it under his chin, and made a gurgley choking noise at Jean. She giggled a flirty giggle. Jimmer stretched out across the middle of the tent and drew a long breath to get our attention back from Ted.
“Do you know about the dare?” Jimmer said. I looked at Jean. She examined the strings of her sleeping bag. We couldn’t not know about the dare. “We’re going,” Jimmer said.
“To the dump,” Ted said.
“Now,” Jimmer said. He took my flashlight away from Ted and shined it in my eyes. “You coming?” He scooted up next to me, close enough I could feel his words hiss out and hit my face. He was paying attention to me now, not Jean, and I liked it. “Or are you scared?”
I was scared. Jean was scared. I bet Jimmer and Ted were scared, too. But it was a dare. What was I supposed to say? I’m afraid of the dark. I’m afraid of the dead kid. I want to be punched instead of kissed for the rest of my life. I couldn’t say those things. I said this:
Don’t tell,” I said. Then I zipped the zipper shut.
. . .
Jimmer took us to the edge of the pit where things weren’t burned, then he took us past it, down below the last safe ledge that Mr. Dunbar always yelled at us to back our asses away from. We slid down through the sand and junk to the bottom, but there was no solid ground here. We were standing on and surrounded by garbage.
It didn’t smell like I thought it would. The rotten food, the soiled diapers, the dead pets parents said they were going to bury in the back yard, all those things could be and were burned in the fire pit. This pit smelled like rust and garage sale and grandparent’s attics and fumes I couldn’t really place but knew I shouldn’t breathe in.
“There,” Jimmer said. But we all saw it at the same time. White like the moon and the smoke against the grays and browns and blacks of the rest of the night. A rectangle, jutting out of the clutter of the pit, slightly rounded at the corners, a latching handle on one side. A Koolmark T. Just like Frankie’s.
The refrigerator door came open quietly. No screaming creeks of rusted hinges like in the movies. Jimmer reached in and slid out the metal racks so there would be room to sit.
Then we stood there, staring at the empty inside of the refrigerator, and the refrigerator seemed to be staring back, like it had been waiting for us, like it wanted to be filled.
I could already feel the air squeezing out of my lungs and the total black closing in around me. “Ted,” Jimmer said, “you go first.” I sighed and breathed again. Ted looked at Jimmer like a puppy who’d been kicked in the head, but he didn’t say no. He nodded. Jimmer pointed the flashlight into the refrigerator. Ted followed the beam and crouched down inside. “Shut the door,” Jimmer said. So I locked Ted in. Jimmer and I stared at the closed door and waited. The moon glared down on us like a giant pupil-less eye.
. . .
“How long’s he supposed to be in there?” I said.
Jimmer shrugged. “Don’t know.” There was a faint sound from inside the refrigerator. Ted was knocking.
“Can we let him out now?” I said. Jimmer’s lips curled up at the sides.
“Wait,” he said. It had been a long time, I thought. I didn’t really know, though. But it seemed like hours. It seemed too long.
“I’m opening the door,” I said. I reached for the handle. Jimmer shoved me out of the way, opened the door himself, and shined the flashlight on his brother.
Ted was huddled up, his arms clutching his chest, his eyes clenched shut. He gasped when he realized the door was open and half-fell, half-crawled out. He laughed and spit and looked up at us. He was shaking.
“That wasn’t so bad,” he said. Now Jimmer turned the flashlight on me.
“Your turn,” Jimmer said. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to be back with Jean, safe in my sleeping bag, but I had to pretend to be brave. I wanted the boys to like me.
“Get in,” Ted said. I sucked my last breath of free air, stepped in, and crouched down like Ted had. The inside of the refrigerator was smooth painted metal. The tracks from the shelves dug into my back. I looked out at Jimmer and Ted. They looked down at me, laughed, and closed the door.
. . .
I was completely alone in complete darkness.
I knew if I reached my arms out, I should have been able to touch the walls of the refrigerator. But the emptiness around me was so thick. I didn’t want to try for walls and find nothing.
And I didn’t want to think about Frankie. I thought about the food people used to put in this refrigerator. I was sitting where milk had sat, eggs, shaved thin slices of deli ham, pickles. Not Frankie. Cheese, orange juice, pie someone’s mom had baked. No. Not Frankie. Butter, macaroni salad, that other salad with the marshmallows that’s not really salad at all, mustard, bacon. Not Frankie. Not Frankie. Not Frankie.
Something soft and warm and wrinkly rubbed against my leg. My stomach caved in on itself. More warm things wriggled around me. They climbed up my sweatshirt. I closed my eyes and opened them and shut them again until I couldn’t tell what blackness was which. The things had tiny claws, not for scratching, but for gripping, holding on. One of them made it to my neck and licked and nuzzled. I craned my neck away until my forehead pressed against the back wall of the refrigerator. I heard the things meowing.
The meowing was drowned out by something like giggling. I think I opened my eyes then, or maybe they’d been open the whole time, but I saw through the dark. I saw my dead pet kittens. And I saw doll heads smiling painted white smiles through molded plastic lips. Floating around me were plastic legs, arms, and torsos with smooth round nippleless breasts. The pieces tried to put themselves back together, but thighs were where heads should have been, arms were in leg holes. Heads were just bobbing and laughing at the confusion of parts. Nothing fit right.
And a baby was at my face, gripping my ears with tiny fists. Small lips on my lips. The baby breathed in and in and in and in. Never out. My lungs deflated, dried out, crumbled away.
Then there was Frankie. Curling up next to me. His cheeks were pink, his eyes blurry with sleep. His chubby hand found mine and he squeezed tight.
“Rest with me here,” Frankie said. “Hide with me here.” I didn’t care anymore that I wasn’t breathing, that I couldn’t get away from the darkness. I was warm and comfortable. “We’re safe here,” Frankie said. So I leaned against him and I slept.
. . .
Mr. Dunbar was the one who found me. Much sooner than he found Frankie; I wasn’t quite dead. “Just in time,” he said later. He’d heard noises and taken his shotgun to investigate. He shot twice in the air to flush any intruders out. Jimmer and Ted scrambled up from the pit. Jimmer and Ted left me down there. But Jimmer and Ted got caught and told Mr. Dunbar about the dare and the refrigerator and the girl they’d accidentally left inside.
Light came in and air came in and Mr. Dunbar was standing over me. Frankie was gone.
“Good Christ,” Mr. Dunbar said. He lifted me out of the refrigerator. “You fucking kids.”
Jimmer still had my flashlight. He led Ted and Mr. Dunbar through the woods and back to our street. I was in and out, between waking and dreaming, but I remember Mr. Dunbar carrying me in his arms, keeping me tight against his chest. He smelled like fire. He was looking straight ahead over Ted and Jimmer and kept stepping on Ted’s heels. He said over and over, “fucking kids, stupid fucking kids.” And there were tears in his eyes. They twinkled when the moonlight caught them but never spilled out or down his cheeks.