Billy Wilder woke with a savage yawp. He bolted from his chair and ran toward the front door slapping at himself with his hands. A black spider, one with a body as big as a jellybean and legs that could span a coffee mug, had been crawling up his chest toward his open, snoring mouth.
When he opened the door and the cold air hit him in the face, he realized that there was of course no spider, not really, that once again his imagination had gotten the best of him.
The terrors usually came at night. They had been coming for seventy-two years now, since he was eleven, and had started during a sleepover with Mike Musselman and Virgil Lamb in a treehouse built from stolen barn wood. Billy had gained admission into the “club,” which had previously included only Mike and Virgil, because he owned a handheld brass telescope his uncle had brought home from the Navy. The telescope, which collapsed and could fit neatly into the pocket of your overalls, was perfect for pretending to be pirates or explorers or beings from another planet. There was no end to the games you could play with that thing, and the three of them got a lot of mileage out of it.
There had been some extortion involved, too, because Billy had seen Mike and Virgil tearing down the dilapidated tobacco barn at the old Schweinhardt place and toting the timbers and planks to their construction site in the woods. Billy had threatened to rat the other boys out if they didn’t let him into their club, so they said okay, he was in, as long as he brought the telescope to every meeting.
One crisp October Friday, the three of them climbed the rope ladder and were taking turns scouting for hostile invaders when Mike said, “Hey, let’s sleep out here tonight.”
“No way,” Virgil said. “Daddy’ll tan my hide if I ain’t in by dark.”
“Me too,” Billy said. “Plus I still got chores to do.”
Mike Musselman, who never let petty annoyances like parents and work and the law prevent him from doing something he considered to be fun, had it all figured out.
“Here’s what we’ll do. Virgil, you tell your folks you’re staying at Billy’s house tonight. Billy, you tell yours you’re staying at my house. I’ll tell mine I’m staying at Virgil’s.”
“Right,” Virgil said. “And when our moms get to talking after Sunday meeting, we’ll be in a pickle for sure.”
“Virgil, Virgil, Virgil. Have you ever known our moms to mention anything as dumb as us when they get to talking after Sunday meeting? They have more important things to cackle about, like how a loaf of bread has gone up to ten cents and such. You know what? I think y’all are just chicken. Bach bach bach bach baaaaaaach.”
Mike hooked his thumbs under his armpits and walked around flapping his elbows.
When you were an eleven-year-old boy in rural Tennessee back then, chicken was about the worst thing another eleven-year-old boy could call you. Either you beat the living shit out of him, or you did the thing he was calling you chicken about. You chewed your first plug of tobacco, took your first drink of hard liquor, hotwired your first car. You stayed out all night, even if it meant a trip to the woodshed with a razor strop the next day.
“I’m in,” Virgil said.
Billy thought about grabbing Mike Musselman by the seat of his pants and heaving him through the doorway like a sack of flour. It was a thirty-foot drop to the ground, and a broken leg or two would teach Mike a little prudence regarding who he called chicken next time. Billy was bigger and stronger than Mike, and could have easily done it.
But he didn’t.
It would have automatically gotten him thrown out of the club, for one thing, blackmail scheme or not, and he definitely didn’t want that. The club had become his sanctuary from the freak show he called home: Mama quoting scriptures a thousand times a day, telling him he was going to roast in Hell if he didn’t repent for his wickedness; Daddy just sitting there quietly reading his newspaper and smoking his pipe until some crazy gauge in his head redlined and he blew ten different kinds of gaskets; big brother Clay, who Billy still had to share a bed with, coming home after work every night with beer on his breath and Molly Herringer on his finger, jacking that monstrosity of his and then wiping it on the sheets.
Billy looked forward to his club meetings with Mike and Virgil, and he wasn’t about to bitch it up over something stupid like this. In fact, a night away from home was starting to sound like a damn good idea.
“Count me in too,” Billy said.
They did the secret handshake and chanted the secret words, descended the ladder and ran to their homes. Billy’s heart raced like a scalded polecat when he asked his mother about staying the night at the Musselmans’ house, but he never allowed himself to lose eye contact. He had become quite the accomplished liar these past few months, a skill that would serve him well through his teen years and into adulthood. Mom finally gave in, but she made him read from the Bible and kneel down and pray before pretending to leave for the Musselmans’ and hightailing back to the treehouse.
The western hilltops glowed red, silhouetted by the dying sun. Billy stood alone, gazing out over the valley, feeling closer to God here than he ever had in church, wondering if any other human had ever witnessed anything so magnificent.
The day slowly faded, and the stars took over by the time Mike and Virgil showed up.
“Where you guys been?” Billy said. “I thought I was going to have to stay out here by myself all night.”
Virgil’s father had made him clean the horse stalls before heading out.
Mike had failed to get permission at all, so he was in essence a fugitive now.
“I’ll take my licks like a man tomorrow,” Mike said. “Tonight we’re going to have ourselves some fun.”
Billy had brought a canteen full of water, Virgil some biscuits from the supper table, and Mike a few strips of dried pork wrapped in cheesecloth. They passed the canteen around and ate some of the food, pretending to be shipwreck survivors bobbing on the open sea in a lifeboat.
“Better save some of these vittles for later,” Mike said. “No telling when we might get rescued.”
They took a vote, and everyone agreed it was best to ration the provisions a little at a time. Billy wrapped everything neatly in the cheesecloth, and stuffed the package into a cracker tin Mike had brought on a previous adventure.
They got bored with the lifeboat scenario after a while, and Virgil suggested they join the French Foreign Legion and snipe on some Nazis with their high-powered rifles.
“That’s dumb,” Mike said. “How we going to see Nazis in the dark? You think they walk around at night holding torches, with big red swastikas painted on their backs? ‘Hey y’all, I’m a Nazi. Go ahead and pick me off like a duck in a shooting gallery.’ You think that’s what they do? Let me tell you something about Nazis, Virgil. They ain’t--”
That’s when a red fireball blazed through the sky, interrupting Mike’s soliloquy about Nazis and changing all three of their lives forever.