Even though he'd worn a pair of knee-high socks, long underwear over briefs, three long-sleeved shirts underneath a turtleneck, the winter coat he'd stolen from his mother and two hats, Kev was cold.
He felt like he'd been thrown down the long, drooping toboggan hill at the top of Knight's Ridge overlooking the pond into a snowdrift—so blindingly white that it made everything spin, dizzyingly cold as his body collided with the mesh of frozen crystals—and then sent rolling another twenty yards until he finally stopped, about to puke his guts up, only to get his chest stomped on by a pair of boots that belonged to none other than Birdman.
Tommy had gotten his nickname from the classic childhood game King of the Hill, except in this case it was King of the Friggen' Hill because if, at the time, thirteen-year-old Paul Kirkwood was playing, then he had rightfully earned the privilege to cuss—according to the rules.
It was just another one of those days in mid-December with almost below-freezing temperatures, yet half the children in town went outside that evening at five o'clock sharp to meet at the Hill when the notorious Birdman was unveiled. To everyone's behalf, Paul had gotten sick with the flu and couldn't come outside and play, so only Kev, Tommy, Mo and some extra stranglers showed up.
Being the second oldest, therefore declaring immediate leadership, Tommy stomped up the snow, grinning wolfishly. When he reached the top of the Hill, every boy below could see that his eyes were full of triumph. The sun had set nearly almost an hour ago, Tommy's white teeth still unnaturally white from all the coffee he drank and cigarettes he stole blending in with the glowing snow, the only source of light against the black backdrop that reminded Kev of ashes. He stared up in amazement, only being ten-and-a-half at the time, watching from the sidelines as everyone else who'd decided to play the game now began to swallow up the rest of the existing space.
Tommy's voice broke the wind in half. "Hey, Kev," he'd called out, "Why don'tcha come up here and demonstrate?"
Kev felt his cheeks flame a hot pink color underneath his scarf. It was absolutely sacred that a boy like Tommy, a sixth-grader, knew his name! As much as he wanted to believe it himself, Kev knew the rules of King of the Hill and knew them well.
One, whoever had been summoned as the "demonstrator" was supposed to go and "battle" the current King by himself. After the first punch from the demonstrator was thrown, the other players would flush in and the game would start. Secondly, the only way that the King could be removed from the Hill was by pushing, punching or kicking the kid off. And third, he—like all the other fourth-grade boys in his class—had heard stories from the middle-schoolers about people getting hurt and leaving in ambulances, some even left in the snow banks to bleed to death.
This made Kev's stomach do flips and cartwheels. He could feel the boys' glares burn holes into his back, and a few muttered curses at him. Hesitantly, he took a step forward, and then another and another and another, trying to drown out the yelling voices behind him by concentrating on how the freshly-fallen snow crunched underneath his boot-clad feet, the way the sharp wind chilled the tips of his ears until he—finally—was at the top of the Hill, facing Tommy himself.
Jeez, his head barely touched the other boy's shoulder! Kev glanced at the smoke curling itself from chimneys off in the distance. He felt sick.
The smile from Tommy's face dropped and he glared down at Kev through black holes, his voice dropping an octave as he tauntingly asked, "You wanna play, don'tcha, Kev?"
Kev nodded eagerly, unable to hide a sheepish smile. "Yes."
"You're not a chicken, are you?"
"Then prove it."
Before he could take another breath, Tommy's fist connected with the side of Kev's face and what felt like, at the time, a scorching pain scorched down his cheek, frostbitten skin torn. At this, Kev let out a wail, and, suddenly, his left foot slipped on the ice and he fell backwards—down, down, down the Hill—arms flailing out to catch nothing but gravity.
Vision blurry, Kev stared up at the sky as it swirled above him, the same color as Tommy's eyes—large and vacant and coal-like black—dipping in but then pulling back at the same time. He could hear the boys' mocking tones as they oohed and aahed; taste the poison in their words as letters mixed with blood and salty tears; feel the way their boots crushed his chest in a pattern, one, two, three, one, two, until he was no longer able to breathe when he finally—finally—stopped falling, coming to a collapse at the bottom of the Hill; feel the bitter snow dissolve through his clothes, numbing him from the inside out.
Kev wondered if this was what it felt like to die, his eyes beginning to close.
Seconds, minutes, maybe even hours later, hot air was on his ear and someone was yelling, screaming bloody murder. Strong fingers gripped his shoulders as another pair of hands clumsily helped lift his body off the ground.
"You shouldn'ta fuckin' done that, Tommy "—"it's all your fault"—"who the hell invited him, anyway? He's just a kid!"
Arms curled around his torso, and for a second Kev felt just like one of those documentary birds the teachers liked to brag about, flying higher and higher into the sky until he swooshed back down to earth, letting the wings carry him home.
Fingers dug into his side, and a deep voice—male and rough and undeniably Tommy's—spat out from the blackness, "Shut the hell up, Kev."
And now, even though he sat inside Stinky's bar where the heater was on full-blast, the scent of free apps wafting into his nostrils, the simple idea of having to face the rest of the chilly night alone with but the Christmas radio on to keep him company while he plowed snow still made Kev shiver.