Thursday, July 23, 2009

Backfire




I heard the first set of gunshots clearly.

They came from behind us, deep in the woods. Curious, I stood up suddenly. I walked a few metres out of the woods and into the baseball field. The baseball field was deserted. I looked to the right at the townhouse block where we all lived. There was no one loitering outside. I shrugged and walked back into the forest. No one noticed that I had been gone; my brother and my friends, Wolfe and Brian, barely noticed the noise. I squatted back down next to them and directed my attention to the log we were turning over. Wolfe and Brian pushed one end of the log, turning it over. Immediately, some earthworms rushed back into the soil and a few centipedes ran out in random directions. However, the species we were after, although relatively well camouflaged, was too slow to escape our eager hands.

I caught one first. I held it up by the tail for everyone to see, relishing the attention I received for catching the first one. It was a red back salamander. With their tiny legs, we often mistook them for garter snakes, which was half of their appeal. I lifted it over one of the open jars we brought with us, but it wiggled out of my fingers' grasp and fell to the forest floor again. It buried itself into the dirt. I tried to find it, but in vain. It escaped. I sulked and hung my head as I took on a barrage of insults from my peers.

My brother caught the next one, and the next several salamanders. I was desperate to make a come-back, and doubled my efforts. We moved from place to place in such a way that from a bird's eye view, we were traveling in a large circle through the woods. Moving in this way ensured that we would finish back where we started at the southern point of the circle, where our backyards met the forest. After about an hour or so of hunting for small wildlife, Wolfe and Brian each held a jar holding a modest amount of animals, mostly salamanders and some worms to feed them. Even I managed to find some novelty amphibians, like a bullfrog and a strange yellow newt. However, my brother had caught the most animals, carrying five jars full of diverse species. It seemed like enough animals to start a whole new eco-system. I took out a guidebook on North American reptile and amphibian species and tried to identify the animals in each of our jars, starting with my brother's.

My brother did not brag, but my friends congratulated him over and over again and showered him with compliments. I was intensely jealous. I wanted the same attention he was getting. I said nothing, because there was nothing I could say. My brother did, after all, catch more animals than me or anyone else.

That's when I heard the gunshots for the second time. This time everybody paid attention. My brother and Wolfe were instantly excited. Brian and I were visibly nervous. We decided to keep heading north, deeper into the woods and away from the safety of our neighbourhood. After about ten minutes of walking, the woods opened up to a large field quartered off by a barbed wire picket fence with a sign. The sign was wooden and obviously hand-made by the land-owner. The sign said, WARNING! ABSOLUTELY NO TRESPASSING! TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT!

"What does trespassing mean?" I asked.

"I don't know. But my dad says that there's a farmer that lives on the land there and he's really mean. He's a dumb butt," said Wolfe. We all laughed.

After less than a minute of discussion, the general consensus was that we should go over the fence and continue. I had absolutely no clue where we were going or what we were after, but I wanted another chance to impress my friends - most of all, I wanted to show my friends that I was better than my brother.

Walking on the farmer's land, we followed the fence north-east until we saw a donkey standing alone next to a creek. I walked up to the creek and threw some water at the donkey. It made no noise and didn't seem to mind the attention. Wolfe punched the donkey in the flank. The donkey kicked wildly into the air and then walked away silently. Wolfe almost fainted from the shock, but the rest of us laughed uncontrollably.

That's when the third set of gunshots rang out. It was deafening.

"Crap," said Brian. "That's way closer."

I dipped my hands in the creek and pretended to grab at the crawfish in the water. I was frightened.

"Let's go check it out," said Wolfe.

They started walking back into the woods again, towards the direction of the gunshots. I reluctantly kept pace with them.

After a few minutes we reached a large patch of open space in the forest. The ground was very sandy, almost orange. Someone had planted onions nearby, and the smell hung in the air. My brother and I thought it would be funny to transplant these onions from the fertile ground to the sandy section to see if they could survive. It took us the better part of fifteen minutes. Wolfe and Brian thought it was a stupid idea, and spent the time admiring the animals we caught and pacing back and forth. Wolfe was concerned about how we were going to split the animals up. We were sharing jars, and the ownership of certain animals was immediately contested.

After my brother and I finished transplanting the onions, we moved on deeper into the forest. The clanging of the jars against each other in our bags began to annoy us, and we all expressed our annoyance out loud.

I started complaining loudly about how annoying the jars were, until I heard Wolfe speak. I thought I heard Wolfe ask, "What?" I foolishly started to repeat myself. He spoke louder and it was clear that he was actually saying, "Shut up. Shut up." I did. We could hear the distant sound of people talking ahead of us.

The foliage was blocking our view, but it was obvious that there were people ahead of us. There were some pick-up trucks parked to our right. In the back of one I could clearly make out some open weapon cases and a stripped down 12-gauge shotgun.

Growing up, I often saw my father's weapons stripped down in the living room. The basement even had a rifle up on display for anyone to touch and hold. Its firing pin and chamber had been removed, but in my mind it had always been a real weapon. My brother and I would take turns holding the rifle and yelling, "Pow! Pow!" at each other. My father had taught us how to use a cheap, mostly nonlethal air rifle. I would shoot at paper targets hanging from tree branches. My brother would ruthlessly kill squirrels and robins. We were both familiar enough with weapons. However, neither of us had any idea how to act around people with weapons.

My brother smiled and motioned for us to move forward. Hunched down, we slowly made our way forward until we could make out a group of men holding weapons. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed what looked like an open carton of milk. My immediate instinct was to get up and kick it. This is going to be so funny, I thought in anticipation of what I was going to do. I spotted another few random open cartons of milk open on the dirt.

Real funny.


"Let's get out of here," Brian said. At that instant, we all spontaneously sprinted through the group of men, surprising them. Our sprint even surprised us, as we dropped some of our jars. It all seemed to be happening in slow motion. I kicked the first carton of milk and kept running. I heard a loud metallic noise but thought nothing of it and just kicked the other cartons. By the third or fourth carton, I realized that what was coming out of the cartons was not milk.

It was handgun and shotgun ammunition.

This realization struck me with guilt and fear. I immediately froze. Everyone else kept running until they were out of sight.

I looked towards the group of men. There were about a dozen of them, all of them Asian. Most of them seemed to be in their late 20s. Some of them wore head-bands and some of them wore jeans and some of them had no shirts on. All of them held guns. I might have imagined it, but I could have sworn I heard the sound of a gun being cocked. I didn't know whether it was the sound of a bullet entering the chamber of a rifle or the sound of a weapon being unloaded.

I dropped down to all fours and began picking up as many bullets and shells as I could. Every few seconds I looked up and saw the men staring at me. The expressions on their faces were identical and unreadable.

"I'm sorry," I kept saying. "I'm so sorry."

None of them said a word. One of them, suddenly bored, loaded a crossbow and shot it at a paper target.

I felt like I had been on the ground for hours, filling up cartons with grimy, dirty shells and bullets. After a while I couldn't take it anymore. I stopped and looked up. Most of the cartons were filled, but it was evident that a lot of ammunition was still strewn about. "I'm so sorry," I said one last time. "I'll never bother you again."

I ran away and never looked back. I didn't really expect anyone to shoot me, but I half-expected to hear warning shots. I was not mentally ready for that eventuality, and ran as fast as I could out of terror. I had no idea where I was running. Out of nowhere, I heard my brother yell out, "Stop!"

"On te regardait," my brother told me in French, relieving me. They had seen everything. Wolfe and Brian put their fingers to their mouths and shushed my brother. We walked silently and methodically through the forest again.

We didn't stop until we made it back to the creek. I looked down at my pants and noticed that I had urinated at some point. No one seemed to notice. I quickly dunked my hands into the water and splashed some onto my crotch; my attempt to mask the pee stain only brought further attention to it. However, no one seemed to care and no one teased me. Our experience with the armed Asian men was fresh in our minds.

"Ching chang chow chong!" yelled Wolfe. We all laughed. It felt good to break the silence.

"Holy crap, those guys were probably Japanese ninjas or something!" added Brian. "Imagine if they had ninja stars or nun-chuks. They're probably like the ninja turtles or something."

"Yeah, right," I said.

"Hey, where are our jars?" my brother asked. There were only two left; we had dropped the other ones in our hurry to leave the scene earlier. All of the jars were of shoddy quality and had weak trap-doors so we were confident that the animals would escape - this was exactly what worried us. My brother pledged to find the jars the next day. I begged him not to, but he was set on it.

We walked past the creek, the donkey, the barbed wire, the sign. We left the woods and crossed the baseball field to reach our townhouses. Brian asked us if we wanted to play Super Nintendo at his place. We all said yes. My brother and I entered our townhouse and washed our hands. I let him keep his jar of amphibians under my bed. My mother asked us where we were going. "Chez Brian," I said.

Brian lived next door to us, so we walked right in and went to his basement, where he was already playing a Super Nintendo game with Wolfe. The video game was called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles In Time. He offered a controller to both me and my brother at the same time, hovering it back and forth in front of our faces. My brother grabbed it and gave it to me. I smiled, and chose Donatello.