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Thorns

“Go farther! As close to the ditch as you can.”

Gavin did like I told him and ran backward until he was only a few feet away from the dip in the ground, what we called the “ditch” and used as our endzone. I threw the football as hard as I could to Gavin, but Demi caught it instead. Gavin didn’t even try.

“What the hell, Gav?”

Gavin was staring straight ahead, and instead of answering my question, he asked, “Is that kid sitting in a bush?”

The rest of us turned around to see Connor, my next door neighbor, sitting in a bush behind his house, watching us.

“Yeah,” I said, “he always does that.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. My mom doesn’t let me talk to him.”

“No wonder,” Tanner said, coming up beside me. “What kind of freak sits in a bush?”

“Plus, it’s a rose bush.” They all gave me weird looks, so I said, “My grandma has rose bushes, and they have really sharp thorns. So he has to be really weird if the pain doesn’t bother him.”

Tanner shrugged. “Whatever. Forget the freak. Let’s keep playing. Our ball.”

I was almost glad that the teenagers in the neighborhood took over the bigger field at the end of the street. I liked our new spot being right by my house. That way, when the sun went down and all my friends left, I was pretty much already home. Connor stayed in the rose bush.

“Hey, Mom,” I said through a mouthful of spaghetti at dinner, “why can’t I ever play with Connor?”

Mom and Dad looked at each other, so I knew whatever they were about to say would either be a lie, or they were going to talk to me like a baby. I was ten now. I wished they’d treat me like it.

“They’re just not the type of people we get along with. They don’t have the same family values as we do.” Mom smiled at Dad. “Why don’t you tell Simon about the bird that flew into your office today?”

That meant Mom wanted to change the subject. Plus, Dad’s story was pretty funny. I forgot all about Connor.

***

Tanner couldn’t stop looking at Connor as we played soccer the next day. “That freak is in the bush again.”

“Yeah, I told you, he’s there all the time.”

“Maybe we should see if he wants to play,” Demi said. “We need an extra player, anyway, since Gavin’s punished.”

Tanner groaned. “No, come on, I don’t want to play with him.”

Demi shrugged, and walked to Connor. Tanner shook his head. “This is why girls shouldn’t be allowed to play with us.”

I threw the soccer ball at Tanner. “Shut up.” I would fight him if I had to defend Demi. She was a lot of fun.

As soon as Demi stepped into Connor’s yard, he started telling her to go away, nearly yelling at her, things like, “Get out of my yard, or you’ll regret it.”

Demi finally turned around and came back to us with anger on her face. “He’s a freak and a jerk.” She shivered. “And his whole body is covered in scratches from the thorns.”

“We have to get him back for being an ass,” Tanner said.

“How?”

“Halloween is in two days,” I said. “Let’s prank him.”

Tanner thought for a second, then grinned. “We knock on their door, and when they answer, we get them with our water guns. And then we take all their candy.”

Demi and I looked at each other and smiled. That was perfect. “We can tell Gav tomorrow.”

We got back to our soccer game, but every time I looked at Connor, who was always looking back at me, I got more and more excited for Halloween.

***

Demi, Tanner, and Gavin came to my house on Halloween evening with their masks and water guns ready. As soon as it got dark, we made our move.

I started to feel bad about what we were doing as we walked to Connor’s front door. But when I thought about how mean he had been to Demi when she was just trying to be nice to him, the excitement came back.

The porch light was off, so that meant no candy to steal. Oh well. Connor didn’t have any friends, so hopefully he was home, and he’d be the one to answer the door.

Tanner knocked on the door, then whispered, “Get ready.”

We got our guns in position as Connor’s dad answered. “Can’t you see we don’t have no damn — ”

He stopped talking when we started spraying him with our guns. He stumbled backward into the door and dropped the beer bottle he was holding, which shattered on the floor.

We stopped shooting, and he stood up straight, “Fuckin’ little bastards.” He pulled a knife from the back of his pants and moved toward us.

I was farthest from the porch stairs and closest to Connor’s dad, so I jumped over the railing as Demi, Tanner, and Gavin ran down the stairs.

The fall hurt my ankles, and I couldn’t get up right away. Luckily, there was a tiny space under the porch, a space I could fit in and Connor’s dad couldn’t.

I crawled in as quickly as I could, even though it was pitch black under there. There was a small light straight ahead, so I went for it.

The light was coming through a broken piece of wood that looked like it was hanging off the house. I pushed it and it moved, so I crawled through, and now, I was face-to-face with Connor, sitting next to him in the rose bush.

Demi was right. His whole body, even his face, was full of cuts. Small ones, big ones, and bruises, too. His clothes were torn up, and he looked a lot skinnier up close. We didn’t talk to each other, only stared.

Once I heard his dad go back inside and lock the door, I went back to the front of the porch, then ran as fast as I could back to my house.

Mom was watching TV, but she turned it off when she saw me. She walked up to me, looking worried. “Simon, sweetie, what happened to your arms?”

It wasn’t until I looked down and saw the red cuts all over my arms that I realized I had never felt the thorns.

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