Dayton and Clay sit low among the twenty concrete steps which lead to their school’s nearly one-hundred-year-old gym. They face a parking lot where their classmates play football and hop scotch and red rover, where boys pull on girls’ pigtails, where cliques plot to pull down shorts and see underpants. It is atomic chaos whose molecular organization can only be seen from the sky.
“Mrs. Cowden says there’s a ‘mooner ellipse’ tonight,” Clay says.
“That’s ‘lunar eclipse,’ retard,” Dayton says.
Dayton and Clay are neighbors and in the same class, but in different classrooms this year. They are nearly always together and would be called “Clayton” if there weren’t already two kids in their grade, a boy and a girl, with that name. They are nearly a year apart in age – Dayton enrolled at five and a half and Clay was still four when their first kindergarten class began. Like an old couple, they walk to school together from their neighborhood a shallow creek and sparse tree line from the playground which touches the molecular parking lot. They usually arrive home together to one’s home or the other’s unless Mrs. Stockton holds Dayton back for misbehaving.
A piece of gravel strikes Dayton behind the right ear, thrown by Luke Taylor, class bully and farmhand. “You faggots getting married this summer?”
Dayton waits for him to pass and says meekly, “You would know.”
“Forget him,” Clay says. “You wanna go swing?”
“We have all summer to swing. And Sarah Callahan’s over there. She smells like moldy books.”
“Her mom’s a hoarder.”
“I know. I told you that.”
“So we’re just gonna sit here all recess?”
Dayton heels begin tapping like a jackhammer against the steps. This means that he’s thinking intently about something. “I saw something the other night.” His parents this week pushed back his bedtime an hour to 9:30 at Dayton’s insistence. Mrs. Stockton’s done giving out homework, he said. Just let me stay out another hour. They said fine, so long as he stays in the backyard. “Something in the sandbox.”
Between the monkey bars, the swings, and the slide sits a sandbox which each recess attracts the friendless mostly – a contrast of bookworms and Special-Eds, both equally pensive. “High school kids.”
“Playing in the sandbox?” Even young Clay knows the sandbox caste.
“No. They were up to something. Burying something.”
“Something like that.”
“We can play treasure hunters!” Clay is still focused on not wasting recess.
“Not play. We’re gonna be treasure hunters for real. Tonight.”
Clay shakes with anticipation and squeezes his hand on his crotch.
“What are you doing, spaz? Get your hand off your dick.”
“I have to pee.”
“Well, chill out or have Miss May take you to the bathroom.”
“Sorry – geez – I just got excited. We’re gonna hunt for real treasure?”
“Tonight, during the lunar eclipse. Tell your parents you’re staying over. My dad’ll put up a tent and we’ll skip the creek and find what’s buried down there. It’ll be a secret mission.”
With that phrase Clay can take no more and runs for Miss May to escort him to the restrooms beneath the gym, in the dungeon of art rooms and utility closets.
“Get your hand off your dick!” Dayton yells as Clay streaks across the parking lot, then looks to see if a teacher had heard him. “Spaz.”
As the sun begins to fall Clay crosses Paul Street and neighbors’ lawns to Dayton’s creek-side back lawn where his father is reiterating how to construct a tent. “If you don’t put this pole in the whole thing will fall apart.” Clay soon stands silent aside them and draws attention to himself by a meek clearing of his throat. “Oh, hey Short Round,” Dayton’s father says, commenting on Clay wearing an oversized Indiana Jones fedora. The humor is lost on them.
“What are you and Dayton’s mom doing for the lunar eclipse?” Clay was sure to brush up on his terminology.
“Oh, since you boys wanted to camp out, Mrs. Ross and I will probably just sit on the front porch and have a glass of tea, then go on to bed.” That’s code for ‘get buzzed and fuck, what with the kid preoccupied.’ “How’s your sister liking band?”
“She likes it pretty good I guess. She’s all sunburned. I said she looks like Mr. Crabs. ‘Arrrr…’” They enjoy a good laugh.
Clay’s sister today finished ninth grade, but already has her mind on next year, taking no break from playing trombone as the burdensome heat of Indiana summer approaches. She, as well as classmate and neighbor Dakota Hodges, will take only a weekend to rest before summer band camp. They, like Dayton and Clay, used to be a neighborhood topic until Emily became a young woman and began acting like an adult, taking on responsibilities with a coolness only becoming someone who has already been forced the task of menstruation. Dakota, too, grew, but as a boy grows – like someone pressing himself against a door frame as inevitable adulthood quakes around him, protected by a crumbling frame of childhood. Even an old man keeps a little sawdust from his childhood in the bottom of his pocket.
“Alright, boys, I’m outta here. I’ll let you light the tiki torches yourself, Dayton.” He hands him a red Bic. “Don’t tell your mother I let you have this.” Don’t piss her off and fuck up my nut!
“I won’t, Dad.”
“Bye, Mr. Ross.”
Dayton waits for his father to let himself inside and close the door. “Why you wearing that hat?” He shoves Clay at the shoulder – just a little.
“We’re treasure hunters. I wore my exploring hat.”
“You almost gave us away.”
“I didn’t say nothing.” Clay reverses the psychology. “You sound scared.”
“Hardly. C’mon. Let’s get some snacks.” They approach a chest cooler sitting just outside the tent.
“Whatcha got here?” Clay says imitating their vice principal. He tosses the lid. “PB and J. Soda pop.” He raises an eyebrow. “Goldfishes?” He opens the snack-sized package, surgically removes an individual fish, inspects it and bites off one of the fish’s fins. Clay leaves character. “Ooo, pizza.”
“Alright, alright.” Dayton has to keep them focused on business, knowing the boys could lose themselves in humor. “We need to go over our plan.”
“Plan? Can’t we just go dig up the treasure.”
“No. We have to do it during the eclipse.” Dayton is as romantic as Clay is humorous. “And they have to bury it first.”
“Who’s ‘they?’” Clay says, Goldfish crumbs falling onto his shirt.
“They only come at night so I can’t see who they are, but they come almost every night. Actually it’s one guy first, then one or two come a little later, then one guy comes again – I think the same guy that comes first.”
“What are they doing?”
“That’s what we gotta find out.” Dayton pulls folded notebook paper from his pocket, on which he has etched a map of the schoolyard. “The first guy comes from the highway and goes to the sandbox.” The sandbox is circled many times with arrows pointing to it from the northeast and west. “Then another guy, or guys come from the cafeteria and they dig for something. About fifteen minutes later. Then fifteen minutes after that the first guy comes back and digs something up and goes home.”
“How you know they’re gonna do it tonight?” Clay says.
“Cuz they’ve done it almost every night since I’ve got to stay up to 9:30. Why wouldn’t they do it tonight?”
“Won’t they be watching the lunar eclipse?”
“Stop asking questions. Just go with me on this.”
Dayton and Clay eat PB&Js and throw a baseball in the backyard until the sun fades. The moon is so big and full it seems that the day may never end. It is only when Clay drops the ball and says he can’t see it that Dayton brings attention to the plan and brings the Bic from his pocket.
“Pull up those tiki torches,” Dayton says, sitting on the cooler.
Clay brings them over in a wobbly handful. “Let me light one.”
“You can’t even work the lighter.” Dayton lights the first torch and nods for Clay to stick in back in the ground.
“Can, too,” Clay says carrying the first torch away.
“Cannot,” Dayton says louder. “You always burn your finger.”
“That’s if you get it lit.”
“Shh! Your parents’ll hear.”
“They’re watching the news.” Dayton looks both ways. “They won’t hear shit.”
It’s thirty minutes to the lunar eclipse and Dayton pulls Clay into the tent. “We’ll watch from in here,” he says. “He should just be a couple minutes.” He unzips the bottom of the tent flap and they peek out their heads. Their man arrives amid dim light as the sky bleeds anticipation.
“There he is!” Clay whispers as loudly as only a child can whisper.
Their man crosses the playground’s baseball diamond, hands in his pockets and a hoodie over his head. He is lanky like a teenager and moves with a confidence as if he isn’t being watched. He reaches the sandbox and is a straight sightline from the single-hatted twin heads. He glances to his left and right, but doesn’t really look for anyone or anything unusual. Had he wanted he could have spotted the boys faces illuminated by the torches. He buries the treasure and retreats from where he appeared.
“Let’s go get it!” Clay again loud-whispers.
“I told you,” Dayton says, “We gotta wait for the next guy – he’s got the real treasure.”
Soon enough the eclipse begins and a blood moon illuminates the sky, as if the anticipation of Dayton and Clay has shone red over their whole world. “Look at it,” Clay says. They are taken from their task of watching the sandbox. “I’m scared, Dayton. Doesn’t something like this only happen in the Bible?”
“It’s called a blood moon,” Dayton says. He watches the moon transform. “And, no. God has nothing to do with this. It’s just stuff in outer space lining up. You’d know that if you paid attention in school.”
“I do pay attention. I just get distracted.”
“That’s called not paying attention. Like we’re doing now. Watch the sandbox.”
Soon enough two figures appear skipping down the long stairs which connect the upper and lower levels of the school. It’s a trip that only a child with the anticipation of recess can joyfully make and which seems to take forever a half-hour later on tired legs. “There they are,” Dayton says. “You need to be really quiet this time. Don’t say a word.”
The two figures appear similar in body and gait to the first. One of them jumps and touches the rusted chain net on one of the basketball goals. It swings and jingles amid pubescent laughs. They reach the sandbox and one of them says the word of the evening while the other sifts through the sand. Clay repeats it. “Blood.” One treasure is exchanged for another and the two figures are gone.
The blood moon is now a lightbulb buzzing beneath a red lamp shade and the stage is set for the treasure hunt. Dayton unzips the tent, jumps out into a sprint, but stops when Clay stays frozen inside. He runs back, grabs Clay’s hand. “C’mon!” He drags him to a run then lets go of his hand, jumps into the creek, skips on a rock and onto the playground shore, waits to see Clay cautiously crossing the creek, feet wet, holding his hat to his head. Dayton sighs, grabs him again and they hand-in-hand reach the sandbox.
Dayton goes digging and Clay turns his body away and his attention to the sky. It’s all happening so fast, Clay thinks. And I don’t know if we should be doing this in the first place. And what if we get in trouble? And why can’t we just watch the moon like everyone else? And I should’ve just stayed home.
“Let’s go. I got it,” Dayton says, stuffing the treasure into his pockets. Clay can’t yet see what it is. They cross the playground and jump the creek and retreat directly to the tent.
“Did you see how much we got?” Dayton says. “Did you see?”
Clay is in a fog. It’s all happened so quickly.
“Look!” Dayton pleads, pulling a wad of cash from one pocket, then the other.
The pile of green brings Clay back to this world. “There must be a thousand dollars.”
Dayton feverishly counts aloud. “One thousand one hundred, one thousand two hundred, one thousand three hundred, one thousand four…”
Clay bites his fingertips. They count together and louder as their fortune grows. “One thousand five, one thousand six, one thousand seven…” They look at each other with wide eyes. “One thousand and eight hundred.”
“Oh my god,” Dayton says. “What are you gonna get with your half? I’m getting all the PS4 games.” He’s elated.
“I, I don’t know. What’ll my parents say if I order all this stuff?”
“Just say you borrowed it from me. I don’t care. We’re rich. Just enjoy it.” Dayton grabs Clay by the shoulders and shakes him up and down. “Get excited, man.” Clay breaks a smile and laughs nervously.
Meanwhile, the blood moon has reached its peak. Dayton and Clay are electrified with material dreams, Mister and Missus Ross are in full coitus, and Dakota Hodges is approaching the sandbox to retrieve his money, which he expects will have magically appeared where just an hour early he had dropped off a heavy sack of weed and two bottles of Valium. This is routine and Dakota approaches as such. He dusts sand with his foot where he expects his money to be. It’s not there and he digs with one hand, then both, and soon he is on his knees shoveling sand out of the box and onto the ground. He realizes he has been robbed and cries out. “Fuck!”
Dayton and Clay are startled to attention by the word which they know, but dare not say. “Who’s that?” Clay says in pure terror.
“Just stay in here and guard the money.” Dayton sneaks through the tent flap and moves low to the ground, trying to make his way to the creek and away from torch light. He hides himself behind a tree, takes a deep breath and moves his head to evaluate the situation. “Shit.” He sees that it is Dakota Hodges and that the torch light is drawing him to the yard.
Dayton needs to warn Clay without giving himself away to Dakota. He picks up a twig and flings it at the tent. He misses, finds another and it lands. Clay peeks his head out.
Dakota clears his throat and raises his voice. “Dayton is that you?”
“The cooler!” Dayton whispers. “The cooler!” Clay disappears behind the tent flap.
“Hey, Dayton!” Dakota is approaching fast.
“I’m right here.” Dayton’s voice cracks. He tries to buy Clay some time. “Hold up, I’m pissing.” He waves his hand from behind the tree.
“Dayton, I gotta ask you something.” His footsteps are now splashing.
“Dude, I said hold up. I got my dick out.” He’s breathing so heavy he can’t track Dakota. “Don’t be a gay wad.”
As heavy as Dayton is breathing, Clay’s heart is trying to jump out of his throat. He can hardly breathe and his chest hurts. He closes his eyes. I knew this was a bad idea. Why did I listen to Dayton? Why didn’t I just stay home and watch the eclipse with everyone else? What am I gonna do? I’m gonna go to jail. What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do?
Clay opens his eyes and sees in the corner of the tent the lighter Dayton’s dad gave him. He stumbles over the money and falls hand-first onto the lighter. He grasps it and his hands shake so much he can barely hold it. He hears Dayton. You can’t even work the lighter. You always burn your finger…if you get it lit.
Clay hovers over the mess of money and cups his left hand around the lighter – like Dayton does it. He presses down on the fork and gas releases. Clay can do that part. It’s the sparkwheel he can’t master, at least at the same time as the fork. He tries it the first time and the sparkwheel scrapes unceremoniously. He tries again and the same result. His thumb is sore. You can’t even work the lighter. Clay sees Dayton’s face in the lighter’s hood. He turns the sparkwheel once and again and again. He imagines he’s strangling Dayton, making the whole situation go away. Dayton’s head explodes into fire. “It’s lit.” Clay guards the flames as a mother protects her child. The first bill catches and Clay stokes the flame. You always burn your finger. The flame is hot, but Clay holds hard on the fork. His eyes water.
“That Clay in the tent, in the hat?” Dakota says. “He see anything?”
“No, man. We’re just out here watching the eclipse. I’d tell you if we saw something.”
Dakota is about to stop pressing the issue when he sees smoke leaving the tent flap. “I think you better check on your friend.”
“Shit,” Dayton says under his breath. He recovers. “He’s fine. I gotta go.”
“That’s shit’s on fire. You better get your parents. I’ll pour the water from that cooler and see if I can put it out.”
“No!” Dayton thinks the money may be in the cooler.
“Dayton, save your friend.” Dakota jogs ahead. “I’ll get the cooler. C’mon!”
Dayton sprints to get ahead of Dakota. On his way to the tent he flips the lid and peeks inside for a second before the lid falls. “It’s not there.” He bursts into the tent where he finds Clay cowering in the corner, looking as if he’s witnessed a murder. Dayton sees the fire and realizes what Clay has done. “Clay, the tent is catching. Get out!” He reaches around the fire and offers Clay his hand, although, with the sight of their fortune burning, Dayton considers pulling Clay into the fire.
They leave the tent and are faced with Dakota preparing to dump the cooler into the tent. Dayton hears his father. If you don’t put this pole in the whole thing will fall apart. Dayton leaps and breaks the pole. The tent collapses onto the fire and Dakota pours the contents of the cooler on top of it, then they all stamp it until the flame is reduced to a smoking whimper.
Dayton’s dad flings the screen door open and runs into the yard, tying the belt of his bathrobe. “What did you little bastards do?”
Dayton steps forward. “We had an accident with one of the tiki torches.”
Clay concurs, still in shock and coughing intermittently.
“I was walking home across the playground and saw the smoke.”
How talented a child is in the art of lying.
Mr. Ross sighs. “Just don’t say anything to your mother until tomorrow.” He pauses. “Or don’t. I’ll handle it. Just be quiet when you go down to the basement to sleep.” He needs to return to the bedroom to finish his business before his house is infested with wandering eyes and ears. “Thanks, Dakota. Why don’t you get on home?”
“Sure thing, Mr. Ross.” Dakota waits for him to go inside. “You guys be safe. Just, uh. Just let me know if you see anybody.”
Dayton and Clay evacuate their breaths and relieve themselves of the task, the treasure, the crime upon crime upon crime. They are able to sleep one night then another and absolve themselves. What Dayton and Clay will never know is what will become of their farm and limestone community from the drug deal they interrupted. When Dayton convinces Clay to play treasure hunter he breaks a trust between drug dealer and drug consumer. Having lost eighteen hundred dollars, Dakota Hodges makes a one-time deal with his supplier to move a little heroin – just to cover his losses. Dakota makes in a day from heroin what he makes in a week from weed and he never looks back. To cover a one-time loss he gets a small town hooked. Dayton and Clay enter high school together and start band camp, just like Clay’s sister Emily, just like Dakota Hodges, and by their senior year one of them is hooked on heroin – all from a summer evening of make-believe, all from a minor drug deal interrupted, all an omen dripping from the heart of a blood moon.