For more than a hundred years, our town prided itself on its Fourth of July fireworks. Unfortunately, the annual display grew increasingly expensive and three years ago, the town council announced that we could no longer afford it. We did without for two years and then a retired multimillionaire and a big-box store teamed up to resume the display.
The explosives are fired off from a small island in the slough west of town. Fred Rhenquist, a butcher, and Tom Uecker, a druggist, have handled the fireworks for years. They boat over to the island and set up the rockets where no one else will be at risk in case of an accident.
This year, Randy Cross and my brother Tim decided to sneak over and swipe one of the spare rockets. I begged to go with them but Tim said no. I kept after him, asking him how I could learn anything if he didn’t teach me, and he finally gave in. He said I could go but I had to stay in the boat.
We took off at dusk. We left from the old quarry dock and circled behind Goat Island so that no one would see us. Randy handled the oars and Tim knelt in the bow and gave directions. The water was so shallow, we felt ourselves scraping over the mud half the time. Birds began their night calls in the reeds. The sky spread clear and deep turquoise above us. We all wore dark shorts and t-shirts. The mosquitoes in the slough are large and lazy and slow and a breeze off the bay had discouraged them that evening.
Night settled in before we made it around to the back of the island. Shadows spread black from the marsh growth onto the water. The stars came out and the fireworks commenced. I sat in the back of the boat, craning up as the shells exploded overhead. I hardly noticed when Randy beached the boat. He and Tim climbed out, squooging through the mud, and disappeared into the scrub. They were back in minutes with Tim carrying a rocket in his arms. They knew that Mr. Rhenquist and Mr. Uecker would be too busy to spot them when they snuck up to the spares.
The rocket had Chinese writing on it. The only English words were Chrysanthemum and Made In China. We returned across the narrow channel in no time, while the explosions continued overhead. We could hear ohs and ahs from town, mixed with the boom of the shells.
We carried the rocket through the dark to Grinton’s abandoned service station on the edge of town. There was a storage room off the open service bay, filled with trash. We stashed the rocket under some empty boxes and then we sat out on the curb and caught the tail end of the show. Tim and Randy explained to me for the tenth time how important it was to keep quiet about the rocket.
“I know that. I’m not stupid,” I said. “Will they even know it’s missing?”
“They’ll know,” my brother said. “They may even see our tracks.”
“The rocket doesn’t have a fuse,” Randy said. “Did you notice that? How are we supposed to light it?”
“You use electronics,” my brother said. “It’s so you can fire off a lot of them one at a time by flipping switches. We’ll have to go into the city and buy a kit.”
“Forget that,” Randy said. “I hate projects. I don’t even want to work on my bike. Let’s just figure out how to light it and sneak out tomorrow night and set it off.”
“We aren’t going to do that,” Tim said. “Do you understand how powerful these things are? You could feel the shock waves hitting us tonight and that was from way up in the air. You could blow yourself up with this rocket.”
“We’ll make a fuse and stick it in the back somewhere and light it and run like the devil.”
My brother just shook his head.
“We should never have taken it,” he said. “I realized that in the boat on the way back.”
“Now hold on a minute,” Randy said. “We are not giving this rocket back. We are going to fire it off. If we need these electronics you’re talking about, this kit, let’s go to the city and buy it. Besides, if we give the rocket back, they’re going to figure out it was us who took it.”
I could tell by the look on Randy’s face that if Tim didn’t agree with him, he was going to come back and take the rocket for himself tonight or tomorrow.
“All right,” Tim said. “We’ll take the bus into the city tomorrow and we’ll buy what we need. We’ll fire it off tomorrow.”
“You’re real good at fixing things,” Randy said. “How much is this going to cost me?”
“Nothing,” Tim said. “I’ll pay for it. It won’t cost much for one rocket.”
That seem to satisfy Randy and we split up and went home.
“What are we going to do?” I asked Tim.
“We’ve got to let the police know where to find the rocket, but I don’t want Randy to think we squealed.”
“Can’t we just call the police station and disguise our voices?”
“No, because we’re the only ones who know where the rocket is. Randy would know we did it. He’s a little wild, but he’s my friend. I don’t want him mad at me, or blowing himself up either, so I’m going to take him tomorrow to buy a fuse.”
“I thought you weren’t going to do that.”
“It’s my excuse to get him away from here while you go over and move the rocket. We probably won’t find a kit, or it will be too expensive, but Randy doesn’t need to know that.”
“I’m going to move the rocket? You said it could blow me up. It’s almost like a bomb, Timmy. I’m scared of it.”
“You can pick it up and carry it out into the woods beyond the gas station and hide it under a bush. It won’t blow up. They transport these rockets in boats and trucks all the time. It’s trying to light them that could blow you up. Randy couldn’t fix a flat tire, never mind make a fuse. He’d kill himself for sure. Mikey, hide that thing in the woods. Then we’ll figure out what to do next.”
In the morning, Tim left to meet Randy. I walked back out to the old gas station. I wasn’t in any hurry. It was a quiet day and I had all summer ahead of me with no school and no plans except to have fun. This wasn’t the fun. Twice I considered turning around but I knew that if I did, Tim would be slow to invite me on any more of his adventures. This was the price I had to pay to be on the team.
I got to the station and stepped inside the open service bay. In the daylight, I could see coyote sign and the old, dried-out carcass of a cat down in the oil-change pit. I went to the door to the storage closet and opened it. I stood waiting for my eyes to get used to the dark in the closet. Just then, a hand grabbed my shoulder from behind. I jumped and screamed. The hand let go and I turned around and faced a homeless man dressed in too many layers for a warm day, with whiskers and strong smells of whiskey and body odor and other things I didn’t want to identify.
I was so scared I almost fell over.
“What are you doing in here?” he said.
I couldn’t find my voice. I couldn’t look him in the eye. I was looking past him and trying to order my legs into action.
Studying me, all of a sudden he looked a little scared himself.
“Kid, I didn’t mean to grab you like that,” he said. “I’m sorry. I just wanted to ask you what you were doing in here. I’ve been living in the office over there and it’s sort of like my home now.”
I had a quaver.
“Kid, look, I’m sorry. Please don’t go report this. I didn’t mean anything by it. You tell the police I grabbed you, they’ll lock me up and throw away the key. A town like this, they’ll be down here with dogs. You want to go, go. You want to use this place for something, use it. I’m real sorry I scared you.”
Now he seemed more scared than I was.
“It’s OK,” I said. “I was just… looking for something…”
“Go ahead and look. I don’t own the place. I’m just living here. I like it out here. The city can be dangerous. But you want me to go, I’ll go, if you promise not to report me.”
“No,” I said. “It’s OK. You can stay. I won’t tell. How do you get food?”
“From the dumpsters and the church. I do some odd jobs. I’m not lazy. I just value my freedom.”
“Well, I’ve got an odd job for you,” I said. “I can’t pay you, but I can bring you some food.”
“Sure,” he said. “Anything.”
I stepped into the storage room, pulled the papers and cardboard off the rocket, and stepped back out.
“Geez,” the man said. “What is that?”
“Where’d you get it?”
“Never mind. Can you carry it out and hide it in the woods?”
“Is there a reward for it? Is it worth something?”
“No, but a big kid might come around here looking for it. I wouldn’t mess with him if I were you. Tell him you don’t know anything about any rocket.”
“Don’t worry. I’m moving out of here as soon as you leave… Is it dangerous?”
“My brother says no, if you don’t try to light it. But I wouldn’t drop it.”
“What’s your name, kid?”
“Hello, Mike. I’m Lester.”
He entered the closet and picked up the rocket. We walked out to the woods together, across the weed-filled field behind the gas station. We found a solitary tree by a boulder, a spot we could remember and describe if we needed to, and hid the rocket in the brush.
“Thanks, Lester,” I said. “I’ll go find that food for you.”
“Let me get my stuff and I’ll come with you. I’ll stay at the church tonight while I find a new place.”
We talked about this and that on the way to my house. Lester wasn’t a bad guy. Over the summer, he became my first grown-up friend.