IN THE LAND OF KEYS
By Larry O. Grand
"HEY, Nick, me and Evon are gonna go down to Windout this evening, then we're gonna go to see 'The Smell', do you want to come along?" Nick Least glanced up from the monitor and peered over his reading glasses at his best friend and partner, Joe Tech, who stood in the doorway, coffee cup in hand. "Uh, no thanks." he said, turning back to the monitor, "I've ..... got some file cleanup to do, you know ... the hard drive's starting to get a little slow." Had it really been 25 years since they had first encountered each other at the daycare center, run by that nice lady whose face they couldn't remember. Nick had been in the sandbox when Joe ran through, kicking sand into the big hole he had been digging for the past ten minutes. Joe came over, apologized, and then helped Nick construct the largest hole in the sand ever. Since then, the two were best friends, always hanging out together, always eating lunch together, always taking naptime on neighboring blankets. They ended up going to the same elementary and middle school. When Joe was eight and his family decided to move out of that "scary" neighborhood on the other side of the railroad tracks, and out of the house that always flooded during heavy rains (especially during the particularly nasty storm of 1977, which carted away all of Joe's Star Wars figures), was it a coincidence that the Techs moved in to a house two blocks away from the Least family? Not really, since Nick's father was, after all, a Realtor, and gave the Techs a great deal on the old Watersbay property. The two boys, separated by a three- minute bike ride, were now able to continue their friendship outside of school and beyond the occasional sleepover that they had been entitled to until then. Running home from the bus stop (usually to Nick's place, as his parents didn't get off work until 5 o'clock, and they also had a color television) to catch Ultraman and Star Blazers. Those weekends, every weekend, it became a routine that one would stay overnight at the others, staying up until 3 in the morning reading comic books under the covers or playing with Nick's action figure collection (which Joe was always jealous of, as Nick had not one, not two, but five Star Wars stormtroopers, which he used as a supreme fighting force against Joe's army of droids and generic rebel soldiers). The summer of 1981, when they were playing down by the creek at the hollow tree, when Nick almost drowned after stumbling on that slippery log, and Joe had held his head up until old man Jefferson in the next yard over heard them shouting. And how, despite the parent's stern orders not to go down to the creek after that incident, they would sneak off just to hang out at the hollow tree (but nowhere near the water, nope, no way). " ..... lots of old files." Nick mumbled, almost to himself. "Uhm ..... plus, I've got to review the McCloud & Charles account." "Okay, no prob." Joe took a big slurp of coffee, then made that annoying suckling noise in his mouth that he would make with liquids. Joe was always the prankster, the joker. Ever since he was little. Nick was always along for the ride, but he soon grew to enjoy and appreciate Joe's strange, juvenile humor. How many times were they sent to the principal and to detention for the old cup-of-water-over-the-doorframe-before-the-teacher- walks-in trick? Or the many bomb threats (especially the ones in which they WEREN'T caught)? Or the stinkbombs in the lockers, or the fire alarms, or the bananas in the tailpipes? When they both made it to high school, how many times were they in trouble for flipping up girls' skirts? When Nick became a photographer for the school paper, he and Joe amassed the largest and most envied collection of cheerleader panty shots. Joe was almost always the one to blame, but Nick was almost always dragged into the blame and the subsequent punishment. Looking back, the two could have caused some real serious damage, and it was only through sheer luck that neither one suffered any long-term damage. Through fortunate circumstances, they both went to the same high school, Sirek High, although Nick's parents were very tempted to switch their son to nearby Bolton High to get him away from the influence of "that Tech troublemaker." At SHS, the pair became a trio when they met Brian Krew, a fellow of similar interests and mischieviousness, and proud owner of what appeared to them, at the time, to be the largest collection of pornography in the universe. Joe and Nick learned a lot about life and women that summer (which Nick now realized was also mostly incorrect), an education which inspired even more juvenile pranks and adolescent fetishes, such as Joe's well-documented obsession with short skirts. The three became inseparable, getting into trouble together, thinking up more and more elaborate schemes and extending their prankster base from SHS to the unsuspecting streets of Grandville. Most of the pranks ranged from the relatively harmless -- there was the one time that Nick, because he lost the coin toss, traveled the mass transit system with a bale of hay tied to his back. He got onto the bus and got off at the next stop. Brian was waiting with the car and they drove to the subsequent stop, where Nick got back onto the same bus again, much to the surprise and annoyance of the driver and passengers -- but there were some that almost landed them in jail, like the time they egged the minister's house, and there were some that almost got them killed, when Brian thought it would be fun to taunt the local biker gang, and there were some that almost gave them feelings of remorse, like the time they stole Mr. Rekoh's heart medication because they thought it was "just" aspirin, and old man Rekoh happened to have that second heart attack at that time (and, although they would never admit it, Nick always felt that this contributed to Mr. Rekoh's death a year later). "Hmmmm??? Sorry, what?" Nick said, glancing away from the screen and back at Joe, who had his left foot up on the table and was tying his shoe. "I said, did you see the reunion invitation?" Joe said, "It came in the mail yesterday." "What reunion?" "You know, THE reunion. High school. Tenth year." "Uhhhmmm ...... no, must've missed it." "Well, we both got one. Pink envelope. I put it on your pile." Brian was a year older than Joe and Nick, having been held back in second grade due to "inability to socialize," but he seemed to have recovered from that problem, as he was the first of the three to have a serious girlfriend, and the first to get laid, in their sophomore year, and he had just turned 16. The tale that he would later tell Joe and Nick almost sounded as if it were lifted from one of Brian's porn films, and they never found out if it were true. Being a year older meant that Brian got his driver's license before anyone else, and with a mindlessly devoted father willing to do anything to please his only son (including post bail), this meant that Brian had the car of his choice on the day that he passed his license test. That year. 1985. Halfway through their sophomore year. Nick could still remember that afternoon, when he said goodbye for the last time to Brian, as he hopped into his car after giving Mary (his third) a big long kiss for the benefit of the guys. The coroner said that he never felt a thing, but when Brian didn't show up at the party and the news was saturated with reports of the accident on the interstate, they naturally assumed that he had found another girl along the way and was having some extracurricular fun. Even Mary thought so, as Brian's womanizing tendencies were well known around the school. The trio was once again a duo. And Joe and Nick expressed their grief by engaging in more elaborate pranks and stunts, each one more dangerous and potentially damaging than the last. Playing chicken with trains. While drunk. Skinny-dipping off of bridges. High ones. When they received their licenses, high speed races down the strip on the other side of the tracks (but for some reason, never down the interstate). Nick began shoplifting. Joe began smoking, and Nick started stealing cigarettes. Luckily for them and their future careers, they were never caught. And Joe's collection of cheerleader photos, all snapped by Nick, grew exponentially. "Must've missed it." Nick said, turning back to the screen and making some useless clicks with his mouse. "Yeah, Sirek High School, class of '87 tenth year reunion. They're having it in May, in Grandville. Fred Stemci's organizing it, since he's about the only one still there." "Huh .... " Nick said, trying to sound interested, "you gonna go?" 1987. Their senior year. The year that it all came collapsing down. The return of the Grandville mob. The six-day hostage situation at SHS. The violence. The sheer terror. Fellow students and teachers being beaten and tortured before their very eyes. And how it all ended. The police bursting through. The shots exchanged. And poor Dennis Shoehorn. Nick and Joe had never really been friends with him, and they had pulled many a prank on him (especially at Greg's Diner), but never had they imagined what had happened to him. That was their wakeup bomb. The two managed to graduate from high school, clean. No more pranks. No more jokes. No more dangerous stunts. No more destructive behavior. Even Nick's parents, who had believed that Joe would implode on his own attitude someday, accepted him into the family, and Mr. Least even called him his own son on more than one occasion. On that momentum, they both applied to and were accepted at the College of Business at Palestrina University. Having grown up together, now they were living together, as roommates at P.U., in the freshman dorm, Breakman Hall. "Sure, man, I think it'd be cool." said Joe, "Evon said she'd go too. What about you?" Things happened too quickly after that. Nick became a resident advisor at Breakman Hall in his senior year. Joe got into some minor trouble but managed to save his ass. The two graduated at the same time and, by minor coincidence (plus due to the connections Joe had made) the two got jobs at the same company. Jobs that they quit two years later to start their own consulting business. A business that had been thriving for the past four years. And, two years ago, Joe had first met Evon Kern, who also started P.U. in 1987 but never finished, as she had mysteriously vanished in 1990 and turned up in 1992 with no explanation for the missing two years. Evon, the "award-winning" photographer with an uncanny eye for design. Evon, who was just as goofy as Joe, and perhaps even moreso. Evon, who had truly taken Joe's heart and entangled it with hers. Joe and Evon had been married for seven months, and the three still lived together in the same two-bedroom apartment that Nick and Joe had rented in 1991, when they graduated from P.U. "I ...... I dunno." Nick said, "I ...... just don't know ....... "
All contents copyright (c) 1997 Larry O. Grand
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