The next day passed more or less uneventfully, with no contact from either Baxter or Yvonne. Then, the weekend passed in much the same way. Considering what a whirlwind my first two days after learning about the “Junk Genie” had been, the change in pace was both refreshing and nerve-racking.
By the morning of the fourth day of inactivity, I was done waiting. Determined to hunt down Baxter and ask him just what he’d learned so far, I strode purposefully into school.
And thus, I was more than a little surprise to see Baxter Stuart himself waiting for me outside the door to class.
“Well, it’s about time…” I started, when he held a finger up to his lips, looking skittishly around at the passing students.
“Not here.” He hissed, stuffing a crumpled-up piece of paper into my hands. “Burn the message after you read it.”
I rolled my eyes. “Burn it? With what?”
“I dunno, eat it then.” He insisted. “You can’t just tear it up, people can piece it back together!”
“Sure, I’ll do that.” I shrugged. Whatever it took to get him off my back.
“I’ll be waiting.” He whispered, then scampered off.
Sighing, I unfolded the note. All that was written on it was “Same place, same time.” Honestly, it was cryptic enough, he probably could’ve just told me in person. However, it was Bax I was dealing with. Re-crumpling the paper up, I slam-dunked it into the nearest garbage can and got ready for class.
When the bell sounded for recess, I made my way to the convenience store where I had met with Baxter a few days back. When he said “same place, same time”, this was the only spot that made sense, and yet, there was nobody there when I arrived.
I hesitated, then decided to buy a Mountain Dew and wait. There technically wasn’t anything in it for me to bribe him now, but I felt that a spurious gesture of goodwill might loosen his tongue a little.
My faith in Baxter was rewarded when he shuffled up next to me almost two minutes later.
“What took you so long?” I queried.
“I took the long way around, just in case.” Baxter whispered, glancing furtively around him, then snatching the soda out of my hands like we were making an illegal trade.
“So, you got the goods?” I asked, following the vibe.
“I got you, bro.” He returned, belching citrus. “Actually, it was easier than I expected. But you know what’s odd?”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Remember how we were talking about Jacob Schwartz?” He asked me.
And there was that name again.
“Well, technically it was more you talking and me listening, but…yeah, I remember.” I replied.
“Well, here’s the fishy thing;” He continued, taking a swig of Mountain Dew. “Both of those knuckleheads’ wishes are ALSO tied to ol’ Jacob.”
I felt a slight chill. “Pshaaaw, no way.” I retorted.
“No word of it a lie!” He shot back. “It’s got me kinda spooked, if I’m honest.”
So, you weren’t spooked, then? I almost retorted. “Well, he was a role model for a lotta kids, so I suppose it makes sense.” I downplayed it.
“Well, maybe…” He sounded unconvinced. “But anyways, get this!” His usual wild-eyed excitement had already returned. “Turns out Martin O’Conner always dreamed of being the next Jacob Schwartz!”
It’s a good thing I didn’t buy a soda for myself, or I’d have been snorting it now. “Martin? That meat-headed bully?”
“I know, right?” Baxter cackled. “Anyways, back to Martin. So here I was, taking a leak before PE class…”
“Hey Bax?” I interrupted. “Do you have, like, a theatrical cut of this story? I’m sure the whole thing’s fascinating, but recess is already half over.”
Baxter clicked his tongue. “Damn, guess you’re right.” He sighed, taking another swig of soda. “Well, let’s see…do you remember Martin when he was younger?”
I paused. “No, I don’t think so,” I admitted. “He basically only showed up on my radar two years ago once he slugged that upperclassman.”
“Sounds about right,” Baxter nodded. “That’s what kinda set off his reign of terror. Once he had that first taste of victory, he was unstoppable.”
“And this ties into his wish how…?” I asked.
“I’m getting there, man!” He exclaimed. “Turns out when he was younger, he was a real wuss, and a bit of a wallflower. I don’t even think we had a nickname for him in the gang.”
“Hunh.” I muttered, trying to place a younger Martin O’Conner in my memories.
“So he gets tired of being treated like a second-class citizen among his peers, and goes to Jacob, his hero, and asks how to change himself.” Baxter continues.
“What’s Jacob tell him?” I asked.
“To become stronger.” Baxter returned. “Ol’ Jacob told him that if he improved himself and became “truly strong”, people would flock to him. “Strength attracts followers” he told him.”
“Well, it worked for Jacob I guess,” I admitted. “But Jacob was strong in a different way. His was more the strength of leadership and charisma.”
“You know that and I know that,” Baxter chuckled dryly. “But ol’ Martin still thinks he meant raw power. So, following the words of his hero, he became the protein-junky childhood terror we all know and hate, all in the hopes of someday carving out a place for himself where he could be loved and respected like Jacob was.”
“If I didn’t hate Martin so much, I’d call that a pretty sad story.” I replied.
“Well, life ‘aint full of happy ones, that’s for sure.” Baxter muttered glumly. “Well, anyway, Martin’s wish is the same as it was then; he wants to be strong, like Jacob was.”
“I guess even the best advice can be dangerous in the hands of an idiot.” I commented. “What about Brodie?”
“Brodie straight up gives me bad vibes.” Baxter shuddered.
“More so than any of the rest of that crowd?” I asked.
“The other guys, I can kinda understand.” He shrugged. “Brodie’s just downright a bad apple.”
“How so?” I asked.
“Well, what’re the first things that come to your mind when you hear the name ‘Brodie Furlough’?” he asked.
“Compulsive eating? Terror of middle-schoolers? King of the world’s most obnoxious belly-laugh?” I ticked off my fingers. “That about sums him up.”
“No arguments here.” Baxter nodded. “So, you’d think a bloke like that’d be livin’ the high life, right?”
“Well, factoring in that none of those guys have a conscience, yeah it must feel pretty swell.” I nodded. “At the very least, it’s not like he has to step out of the way for other kids. People tend to clear a path where he walks.”
“That’s what you’d think,” Baxter grimaced. “But talking to Brodie alone is like talking to a death-row inmate. I’ve never seen somebody act so empty.”
“You’ve talked to a death-row inmate?” I almost asked. Wait, that wasn’t the issue here! “Uh… elaborate?” I queried.
“If you talked to the fellah, you’d get me,” Baxter continued. “It’s like nothing brings him joy in his life anymore. He described life as “empty and bleak”, and claims that the only thing that keeps him going is knowing that there’s a nice meal waiting for him a couple hours down the road.”
I breathed out heavily. “Oof, sounds like somebody’s got issues,” I summarized. “But again, I hate the dude, so I can’t really feel any pity for him. I guarantee you nightmares about an encounter with Brodie keeps half our middle school awake at night. I say let him gnaw on his own liver if he wants to.”
“Amen, brother.” Baxter nodded, holding out his fist towards mine, which I tactfully ignored. After an uncomfortable length of time, Baxter sullenly lowered his fist, then launched back into his narrative.
“So, Brodie goes and unloads all this on me, see?” Baxter went on. “So, I figure this is as good a time as any to ask him what he wants from the Junk Genie.”
“And that’s when he brought up Jacob?” I cut in.
“I’m getting there, don’t rush me! Geez!” he protested, drop-kicking his can into a nearby bush. I resisted the urge to comment on his brazen littering. If I did, I’d NEVER hear the end of his story.
“So, as you guessed, Brodie asked me if I remembered Jacob Schwartz. I told him naturally, everybody remembered him. So then, he tells me that back when he was younger, he was something along the lines of a worry-wart. No matter what game Jacob suggested, ol’ Brodie would wait on the sidelines, too afraid to participate.”
“Really?” I asked. “You’d think I’d remember a kid like that.”
“Slim down your mental image of him by about half, then add glasses,” Baxter advised. “Then throw in that silly little stopwatch he always carried around with him.”
“Ref?!?” I exclaimed, remembering the gloomy kid that always hung behind our group, the one Jacob always roped into being the referee or timekeeper, earning him his nickname. “Get outta here!”
“No word of it a lie!” Baxter assured me. “Anyways, he had a history of some sort, something about an accident, and him being terrified of getting into danger after that.”
“Actually,” I interjected, realizing something. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Brodie’s dad, not even at parent’s day or sports day.”
“Oh, really?” Baxter looked mildly curious. “I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really listening at that time. Personal stories always bore me outta my mind, so I tend to zone out, y’know?”
Damnit Baxter, you are literally the worst.
“Anyways,” he continued “Eventually young Brodie gets tired of just watching us all play. Even though he’s terrified of getting injured, his current lifestyle feels just…empty. So, he vows to himself one day that next summer, he’ll change. Next summer, he’ll join in with Jacob and his gang.”
“Uh oh, I see where this is going.” I muttered.
“Yup, there never WAS a next summer.” Baxter smirked. “Ol’ Jacob up and vanished, leaving a distraught young Brodie unsure of what to do with his life. Jacob’s crew fractured up so there was no way to re-integrate back into his circle of friends, so that left Brodie all alone.”
“So he decided to eat his heart out literally instead of figuratively?”
“I wisely decided not to comment on his current life choices.” Baxter replied, showing uncommonly good sense. “It sounded like he just drifted aimlessly for a while, throwing himself at anything that could pass his time safely and keep him amused. Comics, snacks, games, you name it. Anything to fill his empty life.”
“And that leads to his wish, I guess,” I summarized.
“Hey, don’t just cut to the good part! Are you telling this story, or am I?” Baxter objected. “But that’s the long-and-short of it, yeah. He said when he looked at Jacob, he saw a contented man. It didn’t matter if he was eating a jelly sandwich, playing kick-the-can, or even just telling stories to pass the time on a rainy day, everything Jacob did seemed to fill him up. And poor, empty little Brodie wants desperately to be filled up.”
Baxter’s story ended there, causing an uncomfortable lull in the conversation. Meanwhile I was fighting back an annoying sense of deja-vu. Here were Brodie and Martin, two guys I should hate, DID hate with my whole heart and yet…just like Michael, I could see how their past had led them to their current deplorable self. As much as I tried to fight it, I felt a sense of empathy for the two kids.
And that made me sick.
“Well, I guess that wraps that up.” I said, hoping to dispel my current crisis. “See you back at the school I guess.”
“Yeah, see you.” He muttered, turning to walk away. “If you find out anything new, leave a note under the garbage can here, I’ll check it every morning.”
As if I’d go to that kind of trouble.
That aside, I had everything I needed. I knew Baxter’s wish, along with Michael’s, Martin’s, and Brodie’s. Now I was all set to report back to Yvonne.
Wait, Yvonne? How could I have forgotten!
“Hey, wait Bax!” I called back, turning to chase after him.
Baxter nearly leaped six feet in the air, spinning around to face me as he reflexively opened both hands, keeping them free at his sides. What a jumpy kid.
“Yeah, what now?” He asked nervously.
“I forgot to ask what you learned about Yvonne. You DID investigate her like I asked, right?”
Baxter stiffened like a plank. “Uh…nothing to report.” He stammered out.
“Wait, what’s the matter, Bax?” I asked. “Didn’t you get a chance to talk to her?”
“Well, yes…I mean no!” He shot back. “I mean, she didn’t say anything of note, so…”
“What did she do to you, Bax?” I asked.
“D-do?” He turned a furious red for some reason. “No, nothing! I gotta go, bro. Recess is almost over!”
And with that, he bolted like a frightened rabbit.
I sighed. I was not looking forward to making my report.ns126.96.36.199da2