Dillon McLaughlin was born in Delaware in the United States and, growing up, split time between Wilmington, Delaware and Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City. He is currently taking the Writing MA at NUIG. Some of his short fiction has been published in Caesura, the Main Street Journal, and on the Delaware Humanities Forum website. He is a frequent contributor at Cool Material, a men’s lifestyle website, and Out & About magazine, a cultural magazine in Wilmington.
The Finders of Rodney Park
By Dillon McLaughlin
“The big kids can stuff it.”
The sixth grade boys had just crested the far hill and Luke Williams was talking the talk again. He had to make it snappy. The hill was only about five hundred yards away and his group’s back was to the woods. The way Luke figured, if he could get enough of the third graders riled up in the next three or four minutes, they stood a chance of retaining the Rodney Park baseball diamond for longer than it took for a few sixth graders to make an example of a nine-year-old.
“I don’t remember agreeing to that.” Danny Gleason had better instincts for self-preservation. He was also a bigger fan of indoor activities, so having field privileges forcibly revoked by boys on the cusp of puberty wasn’t the same Armageddon it was for Luke. If Danny had to head inside and play a few hours of chess against his stay-at-home mother (or himself, as often as not), so be it. There were worse ways to spend an afternoon and one was descending on them a few hundred yards from center field.
“That’s ’cause you’re a wuss.”
Twelve other nine-year-olds watched what was quickly becoming the battle of wits that would define this summer break.
“You’re the wuss.”
“I’m the one who wants to stop them.”
The logic was airtight. Danny tried a different tactic. “This is dumb.”
“No it’s not. We have plenty of guys for two almost full teams. They only ever play home run derby with five guys. It’s not fair. We outnumber them by, like…” on the fingers “… nine.”
A tiny voice piped up from the background. “Where do the rest of them go?” Twelve heads nodded in agreement. This past school year (the one where they’d discovered the insurmountable difference between third and sixth graders), the class above them was full. Now, in the summer, they were only being beaten up by a fraction of the school year’s opposing force. Why the difference? Surely the rest of the class wanted to beat them up too. Why didn’t they? Was there something better to do during the day?
Danny turned to face the crowd. “The YMCA runs camps during the summer.” Privately, he thought of sleep-away chess camp. It was his highest aspiration. “A lot of them get sent there, especially if their moms have jobs.”
The tiny voice again. “Do they have baseball camp?”
“Yes, but you have to be ten.”
“That seems arbitrary.” Tiny Voice’s dad had a word-a-day calendar.
“It’s when you’re legally considered an adult.” Danny’s answer satisfied the crowd. They had a big year coming up.
Luke was feeling left out. “That’s not what’s important right now. What we have to figure out is how we’re going to stop these jerks from kicking us off our field. Finders keepers, losers weepers.” The crowd turned contemplative. They’d never considered the concept of field ownership.
Danny pointed out the discrepancy. “Then how come we’re always the ones crying?” To borrow language from Danny’s indoor passion, Check.
Memories of past weeping flooded their minds. It was true. Dirt kicked and thrown, balls pegged, bats shaken threateningly above heads. No child could think of a single instance where the finders hadn’t been the ones reduced to reluctant, indignant tears by the end.
“If we’re always the ones crying, we must be the losers.”
The crowd sagged. Luke came to their defense.
“No, we’re the finders.”
The crowd bristled. Yeah, they were.
“Your mom’s a loser.”
Danny choked. “No she’s not.”
Luke looked down at his feet and shuffled a bit. Soon, a mumble came. “She makes good bologna sandwiches.”
“Yeah, the best.”
Danny wiped his eyes and looked away, sniffling a bit. When he looked back, bologna brotherhood replaced chess. “We’re finders.”
Bill (not Billy) Keegan led the small group of sixth graders over the hill, fully expecting to see a pitiful group of stupid third graders squatting on his baseball diamond. He wasn’t disappointed. In five hundred yards, he and his gang were going to have do some serious dirt-kicking.
Truth be told, they were looking forward to it. That way they didn’t have to stretch before they made Hank Aaron proud.
They began their descent, shifting their bats to their shoulders and sticking another heap of Big League Chew into their bottom lips. If you could get a good intimidating snap on the bubble, most of the kids scattered before you could pull the gum back into your mouth.
Bill (not Billy) addressed his troops. “Alright, dudes. Looks like we gotta teach a few pukes another lesson.” Involuntarily squeaky laughs and self-conscious coughing greeted his battle cry.
They tilted back their heads and slowly advanced.
Luke eyed the top of the hill once more. The sixth graders had stopped at the peak to say something to each other, then slowed their pace as they descended. It bought them a bit more time. At least enough to explain his vision for retribution.
On an outdated map of local roads his parents kept for emergencies, he’d drawn up plans for an offensive against his (slightly more) mature adversaries. Agonized hours had been spent on this map, poring over details, memorizing elevation changes, and conducting his own personal surveys of the woods, map in hand. This was the plan of a man twice his age.
He put Tiny Voice on lookout and, from memory, scratched it out in the dirt. He divided his friends into specialized groups of three while he and Danny partnered up to conduct the operation from a wooden platform deeper in the woods, ready to lend their help to any group that needed it. Everyone knew their assignments, tailored specifically to any aptitude they’d shown at recess, sports, or in general recreation. They were the elite squads of the third grade. They were the tree-climbers, stick-throwers, quick-runners, and jerk-trippers, each and every one of them ready and willing to sacrifice their unbruised skin and unbloodied noses to a cause greater than themselves.
Satisfied, they pulled Tiny Voice back into the group and deployed.
Bill (not Billy) scoffed. As the sixth graders came within a hundred yards of the field, the third graders scampered into the woods.
“Like squirrels. I guess pukes aren’t retarded after all.” The forbidden word brought an unnaturally deep chuckle from the boys.
As soon as they hit the infield, Bill reached down and rubbed dirt in his hands, a gladiator returned to the arena that made him. The sixth graders took up their usual positions and began the requisite game of warm-up catch.
“I kind of wish those pukes had tried to fight, guys. My punching arm’s feeling a bit rusty.” Bill put his hand on his shoulder and dramatically rotated his arm. He boxed the air a bit and laughed.
Confident approval came from those who deserved neither . “Sweet punch, Bill.” “They’re so soft.” “If they stayed, we’d hit them so hard.”
On their way to the platform, Luke and Danny moved between their squads muttering encouragement. “Wait for the signal. Let them get comfortable. Don’t rush yourselves and get set before you move. Keep your eye on the ball. Remember, we have to split them up. Wait for my signal before we hit them. You’ll know the signal when you hear it.”
Luke heaved himself onto the wooden platform and offered a helping hand to Danny. “Do you still have those spy binoculars your mom gave you?”
Danny smiled and nodded. He pulled them out, expanded them, and steadied himself against one of the trees supporting the platform. He peered through the blurry lens to the baseball diamond. “They’re just playing catch. They’re not even using the whole field.” He handed the binoculars to Luke, who was laying flat on the platform and putting sticks in his hair.
“What’s with the sticks?”
“It’s how you get camouflaged.”
“Good point.” Danny started putting sticks in his hair too.
Luke took the binoculars. “Why’s he doing that with his arm?”
“Probably something to do with punching.”
Luke handed the binoculars back to Danny and pulled out a duck call. Danny’s eyes widened. “Oh man, that’s so cool. Does it work?”
“It sure does.”
“How’d you get it?”
“My dad said he’d take me hunting one weekend this summer. We’ll have to wake up real early, but I think it’ll be cool. We made duck burgers one time.”
“I wish I could go.”
“You probably could. I’ll ask my dad.”
Danny beamed. “I’ve never had a duck burger.”
“They’re really good.”
“Cool.” Danny looked back through the binoculars. “They’re getting to batting practice right now. Billy’s up because he thinks he should always go first.”
“It’s not fair. He should take turns.”
“He’s a jerk.”
“Let’s let him swing at a few…”
“And miss ’cause he sucks.”
Around them, the tree-climbers, stick-throwers, quick-runners, and jerk-trippers sat in ambush, patiently waiting to avenge a year’s worth of tears.
Three quick duck calls emanated from the woods. One of the sixth-grade infielders looked for the source of the noise. “Was that a mallard?” He asked, as a stick flew from the woods and hit him full in the face, dusting dirt and bark across his head and shoulders.
“Oh, crap! It’s in my eyes, you guys. You guys, it’s in my eyes!” He fell to his knees, hands leading him back to the dugout and his water bottle.
Danny smiled. “One down.”
The second stick from the stick-throwers’ volley missed Bill by a hair and he felt the wind as the stick spun past. “What the hell? Are they throwing crap at us?”
The infielders still on their feet looked blankly at their leader.
Danny frowned. “So close.”
A third stick poked one of the dumbfounded infielders in the shoulder. “Ow! Hey! Quit it!” He charged into the woods, breaking the stalemate.
Luke’s order came quickly and decisively. “Quick-runners!” Tiny Voice was the first to his feet, followed by his classmates in a fraction of a second. As soon as the sixth grader saw them, he changed direction for the chase, crashing through the woods, tripping over fallen branches and large rocks.
The quick-runners sprinted deftly through the undergrowth in a classic V pattern. They dodged low hanging branches, vaulted vines, and spun around tree trunks, tossing sticks and acorns behind them as they ran. Every piece of debris that hit kept the sixth grader focused on his attackers and cemented his fate. The quick-runners led him to the poison ivy.
Seeing their friend’s impulsive charge and knowing exactly what happens when you split up in Scooby-Doo, the other sixth graders lined up shoulder to shoulder and moved into the woods together. Danny watched them through the binoculars. “Two out of five already. How can it be this easy?”
Luke laughed as he watched the quick-runners heading deeper into the woods. “Stick-throwers got theirs and the quick-runners are getting theirs. Tree-climbers are up.” He and Danny re-positioned on the platform to get a better view.
The sixth graders advanced in the direction of a small pocket of spruces, thinking they’d heard a short shouted order come from somewhere inside the pocket. They scanned the edges of the pocket, watching for signs of more of the quick-runners who’d lured away their friend. The trees and bushes around them had barely a breeze to rustle the branches. Somewhere far away, a hawk screeched.
“Billy, where’d they go?” The question came from Bill’s right, in a voice on the edge of quivering, from a boy who was only just starting to learn why the forest had so terrified early man.
A tree-climber on a tire swing came screaming out of the canopy, thudding into the sixth grader on Bill’s left, knocking him off his feet and sending him flying back. The two other tree-climbers cheered from their perches, making the kind of hand gestures expected from kids their age.
Bill and his last accomplice looked up and snarled at the tree-climbers. “You guys are gonna be sorry when”
A jump rope buried under the spruce leaves sprung up, tripping both of them and snaring the last sixth grader. Screaming, he was dragged out of the pocket, into the undergrowth, and silenced.
“And the jerk-trippers’ surprise attack.” Luke stood to his feet. “Our turn.”
Billy ran from the pocket, shooting panicked looks in any direction he could twist his neck. This was not how baseball practice was supposed to go. He found a small path and followed it, hoping against all semblance of hope that this would be what led him back to the field.
Instead it led him to a small clearing. Patches of sunlight broke through the dense forest canopy and danced along the ground. The wind was picking up.
“Hey, Billy!” Luke’s voice echoed through the woods.
The addressee twisted in the small clearing, trying to find where the voice had come from. “Bill, not Billy!”
“They’re all down, Billy! No one’s coming to help you.” Danny this time, but still impossible to find the voice in the greenery. Wind broke it and bounced it off the trees.
“You pukes.” His voice was getting weaker. He started to back out of the clearing, his eyes darting through the tree tops and the undergrowth.
A stick hit him in the back. He whipped around and strained to see a small human shape in the bushes. An acorn flew from where he was staring and forced him to shield his eyes. “Stop it. I’m going to tell my dad.”
Luke’s voice again. “No you won’t. You’d never live down getting your dad to help you with a bunch of third graders.”
Another stick hit him on his left and he heard rustling in the undergrowth all around him.
“Just… stop… come on guys.” His voice turned to a whimper. “Please.”
The sixth grader who’d been taken out by the tire swing stumbled into the clearing, fear splashed across his face, his shirt smeared with fresh dirt. He grabbed his leader’s sleeve and pulled. “Billy, come on, we gotta get out of this place. Our dads can’t help us here.”
The third grade quick-runners, led by Tiny Voice and fresh off their poison ivy victory, flew out of the undergrowth and collided with the sixth grader. They rolled off and crouch-ran back into the bushes, leaving the sixth grader on the ground, doubled over in pain and gasping for air. “Twice?”
Billy stared at the body.
“See? He’s no tattletale.” Danny’s voice was closer this time, but the direction was still difficult to identify.
“And we guess you aren’t either.” Luke was even closer.
The bushes around Billy began to rustle as a small hurricane of third-grade male indignance blew through the clearing. Billy swung wildly around, eyes pleading for some section of the clearing’s wall to stop shaking and let him out.
But when it finally stopped, Billy found himself frozen in place. His legs couldn’t move, his arms wouldn’t wave, and his voice could only squeak out pathetic whines. The paralysis wracking his body gave the third graders the exact opportunity they’d planned for. Luke, Danny, and Tiny Voice slowly emerged from the bush directly in front of him, their hair wild with sticks and dirt. The rest of the children materialized in the clearing.
Tiny Voice advanced closer than the others. “So, whose turn is it to use the baseball field?”
Billy sat at the edge of the woods, sniffling and occasionally wiping his nose on his forearm. The other sixth graders, bruised and dirty (one gagged and struggling against the jump ropes binding his arms and legs, another developing a rash he was desperately trying not to scratch), sat pouting next to him.
In front of them, a lively game of third grade baseball lasted long into the evening and ended only under parental threats of withheld desserts.
For The Galway Review 7, (Printed Edition)