Fantastic Freddie was the only altar boy from the Red Brick Alley. He was always consecrating Ritz Crackers and trying to make us eat them like communion wafers. He light-fingered incense from the sacristy, and he blessed water from Old Lady Tully’s spigot and flicked it in our faces before we played Mutually Assured Destruction in the woods. When you asked if he wanted to become a priest when he grew up, he said no, he wanted to be a ninja. How stupid. He was way too big and fat to be a ninja. If anybody could get a job as a ninja, it was me, because I was small and compact, and I was the fastest, strongest, agilest sixth-grader on the North Side of Pittsburgh.
“Listen up, Ringer. You’d better hurry and sign up with the altar boys. The Apocalypse is due any day, and you need to work off some sins,” Fantastic Freddie said to me for the millionth billionth time.
I knew the stinking Soviets were itching to pick a nuclear war with us, and America’s new president, Ronald Reagan, wasn’t about to chicken out. I had nightmares about the end of the world all time. The nuns at Saint Augie’s were always talking about megatons, and radiation sickness, and places in Japan where people’s skin melted off and eyeballs exploded and shadows got deep-fried into walls. I worked on my fighting skills every day, and my little brother, Jaggerbush, had tons of supplies hidden all over, so we were ready for Armageddon. But I wasn’t much for joining things, especially the altar boys and their stupid costumes, and I didn’t admit it to anybody, but being up on the altar gave me the creeps. It made me feel transparent so everyone could see inside me and see all the things I’d done wrong and all the bad things I wanted to do. But after the nuclear bombs exploded and made mushroom clouds everywhere, knowing some altar boy magic tricks might come in handy against the Soviets since they didn’t believe in God.
“Maybe he doesn’t want to join your hocus-pocus boys,” Jaggerbush said. He looked like a crooked stick figure with his long skinny arms and legs, holding the metal handle of his red wagon, staring up at Fantastic Freddie’s fat head. Even his hair looked scribbled the way it stuck up all over the place.
“Shut up, Jaggerbush,” Fantastic Freddie said. “You’re just mad because Father Morgan excommunicated your butt.”
“Father Morgan the Organ made an escape goat out of me,” Jaggerbush said.
“Isn’t eleven too old to be riding around in a little red wagon?” Fantastic Freddie said.
“Isn’t twelve too old to be pulling your pants all the way down to your knees just to take a whiz?” Jaggerbush sat in his wagon, “Increase energy to the Wave Motion Engine.”
He drifted down the Red Brick Alley slower than one mile per hour. His squeaky wagon wheels sounded like a top-secret space alien radio signal beaming in from the galaxy next door. Fantastic Freddie stuck his fingers in his ears, the big fat baby.
Antonio came walking down the Red Brick Alley dribbling a red dodge ball with one hand and carrying a plastic gallon of purple juice in the other.
“Let’s play Murder Ball!” Fantastic Freddie said.
“I told Ding Dong I’d deliver his newspapers for him,” I said.
“Throw them down the sewer and tell him you got jumped,” Fantastic Freddie said.
I couldn’t do that to Ding Dong; I gave him my word. Plus, I needed the money, comic books were up to fifty cents apiece.
“Watch out, that’s Killard territory.” Antonio took a swig from his gallon of purple juice. “Even you ain’t bad enough to take them on, Ringer.”
From their scrawny old Grandma down to the newest one who ran the streets in nothing but a dirty diaper, the Killards were nastier than stepping on a rusty nail. You couldn’t keep track of how many there were since they all looked alike with their red hair and freckle-faces. They never played with anyone except each other, and they’d fight you for no reason at all. The girls were as bad as the boys. One of them had yanked a handful of hair right out of Antonio’s afro. She would’ve plucked him bald if I hadn’t been there to drill her in the eye with a football.
I climbed up Veteran Street with Ding Dong’s paper sack slung over my shoulder. It was steeper than Mount Olympus. Every house on the left side of the street was way up at the top of a long set of steps, and all the houses on the right side were way down at the bottom of their own sets of steps, and most of the yards had chain-link fences so you couldn’t even take a shortcut across the lawns.
“Hey, cuz, you collecting today?” Smoothie Spoony said.
I looked him dead in his spoon-shaped face to let him know he didn’t sneak up on me. He was a tall sucker, but he didn’t have any calf muscles at all. I was tempted to say yes just to see if he’d really try to jump me. I bet I could scoop him up and body slam him, even though he would’ve been in high school if he hadn’t flunked so many times. But I had a job to do, so I told him the same thing I told him every time he asked if I was collecting, “Nope, Ding Dong collected yesterday.”
After I climbed up and down a billion steps, I finally made it to the last loop of the paper route. We called it the Street That Time Forgot because it didn’t have a street sign and the asphalt was all tore up and the city never bothered to repave it and no kids lived there. The houses looked like they were about to lose their grip on the mountainside and slide down through the woods into the East Street Valley. I had one last paper to deliver before I could head back to the Red Brick Alley for some Murder Ball.
A gargantuan dog sprang out from between two parked cars and made me jump so high I swear I would’ve been able to grab a basketball rim. I’d had run-ins with some vicious wild dogs before, but this was the biggest, meanest monster I’d ever seen. He wasn’t a Boxer or Great Dane or Rottweiler or Doberman or Pit Bull or Akita. I’d say he was a combination of wolf and radioactive fallout.
I stood my ground and barked right back at him. He stunk worse than a prehistoric creature from the bottom of the ocean. He lunged at my face. I swung my newspaper sack and caught him in the jaw. He tore the sack out of my hand and whipped it into the street. I stomped my foot at him. He snapped his teeth at me. They looked like broken forearm bones. I peeled the Hell out of there.
He took off after me. He was too quick to juke out. I dove headfirst over a wooden fence into somebody’s front yard. While I was in mid-air, he ripped one of my Pro-Keds right off. He leapfrogged the fence, too! The last thing I wanted was to be locked in a yard with that man-eater. I flipped myself back over the fence and punched the gas. I didn’t dare look over my shoulder for fear of losing speed until I made it to the top of the hill.
The monster stood in the middle of the street, snarling and barking with his acid slobber flying everywhere, daring me to come back. I picked up a rock and threw it over his head to scare him off so I could get my poor Pro-Ked and deliver Ding Dong’s last paper. He jumped in the air and caught it in his mouth like a Frisbee. The rock hit his teeth with a clonk that made me wince, but he didn’t seem to mind at all. He was some type of mutant, and not the good kind. I needed reinforcements.
I took off my tube sock so I wouldn’t ruin it and hopped all the way home on one foot.
Back in the Red Brick Alley I told Jaggerbush and Fantastic Freddie and Antonio what happened.
“Sounds supernatural. I’ll be right back,” Fantastic Freddie ran home.
“No way,” Antonio said. “You won’t catch me messing with any demon dog.” He took his red dodge ball and purple juice and ran home.
Fantastic Freddie came back with a black beaded rosary wrapped around his fist like brass knuckles and his book bag strapped to his back.
“Let’s see if this unholy creature can stand up to the power of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.”
“You plan on exorcising him?” I said.
“That’s right. I’m going to send this mongrel straight back to the pit of hell that spawned him.”
Jaggerbush laughed and knelt one boney knee inside his wagon and pushed with the other foot scooter-style toward Perrysville Avenue. His squeaky wheels beamed their loud radio signal up into space.
Fantastic Freddie hummed “Onward Christian Soldiers” as the two of us headed back up Veteran Street. If he could pull off a victory against the killer dog, it’d be a miracle. I’d ask Father Morgan the Organ to sign me up with the altar boys first thing at school tomorrow morning.
The Street That Time Forgot was dead quiet. No sign of life.
“There’s your high-top,” Fantastic Freddie said, pointing at my Pro-Ked sitting in the middle of the street like a hunk of cheese in a mousetrap.
“Go get it,” he said. “I’ll cover you.”
“The power of the Holy Spirit,” Fantastic Freddie said. “Reveal yourself, hell hound!”
The dog burst out from behind a car like he was waiting to ambush us. He looked even bigger than before. Some radiations were known to make you grow at ultrasonic speed.
“By the power vested in me by the Diocese of Pittsburgh, I command you to exit this canine,” Fantastic Freddie splashed holy spigot water in the sign of the cross at the dog. The beast didn’t slow down one bit. Fantastic Freddie threw his book bag in one direction and took off running in the other.
“Satan leave this pooch!” he did a second-base slide under a Dodge Omni then shimmied all the way underneath. I don’t know how he made his blubber fit. The dog jammed his snout under the car like a great white shark attacking an underwater cage.
“Demons begone!” Fantastic Freddie screamed.
I unzipped his book bag. It was full of stuff a priest would take on a house call. Crosses, vials of water and oil, stoles, a missal, one of those gold plates with a frying-pan handle they stuck under your chin when you received communion, and other stuff he swiped from Saint Augie’s.
Fantastic Freddie yelled from under the Omni, “The power of Christ compels you!”
I grabbed the ball-and-chain thingy Father Morgan the Organ waved around to stink up the church with incense. I swung it in circles over my head like Thor’s hammer and let it fly at the dog.
It smacked him in the ribcage. It didn’t hurt him, but it distracted him from Fantastic Freddie. He stampeded toward me. I scampered up onto the roof of a beat-up old pick-up truck. The dog launched himself up the driver-side door snapping his teeth at the air then slid back down.
Fantastic Freddie poked his head out from under the Omni. The dog roar-barked at him. His head disappeared like a turtle’s.
“My God, my God,” he cried, “Why have you forsaken me?”
The beast ran circles around the pick-up truck like such a hellion he slid out of control as he rounded the corners, his claws scrapping and scratching the asphalt.
We were both trapped. The dog was too much for us. Ding Dong’s paper sack lay in the street with the last paper still inside. And I was still short one Pro-Ked. The bottom of my bare foot was black as tar. God had failed us. Or at least the Diocese of Pittsburgh had.
“Heavenly Father protect us!” Fantastic Freddie yelled from underneath the Omni.
A super loud squeak blasted through the sky. The dog slammed on the brakes and his pointy devil ears shot up in the air. Jaggerbush came torpedoing down the middle of the Street That Time Forgot in his trusty wagon. I stood up on the roof of the pick-up. The dog charged up the hill toward him barking and snarling. Jaggerbush and the dog plowed headlong toward one another, and neither of them looked like they were playing chicken.
A split second before impact, Jaggerbush threw two handfuls of dog biscuits up in the air, the kind that were shaped like little bones. The dog parked on his butt and took his good old time licking up the biscuits, and Jaggerbush rode his wagon all the way down the hill until he was out of sight.
I jumped down onto the pavement and scooped up my Pro-Ked and pulled it on my bare foot without tying it. I snatched Ding Dong’s paper sack and delivered the last newspaper. I grabbed Fantastic Freddie’s fat foot and yanked it with all my might. He popped out from under the Omni.
“I’m risen!” Fantastic Freddie said. “Thank you, Lord!”
A platoon of redheaded, freckle-faced kids with dirty, white undershirts came trudging out from between the trees down at the end the street. Killards!
“Hey,” the tallest one yelled. “Who said you could feed our little puppy?”
Me and Fantastic Freddie laid tire out of there.
I made it to the top of the hill in record time. The Killards were too busy petting their mutt and taste-testing the dog biscuits to chase us.
Fantastic Freddie said, “Rejoice Ringer. I’ll tell Father Morgan you helped me defeat that evil demon so he’ll let you join the altar boys.”
“Your stupid voodoo didn’t work one bit.”
“You have to join us. Your immortal soul is in danger.”
“Morgan the Organ already promised me I’d never make it to Heaven with my record.”
“Don’t forget about the altar boy summer picnic.”
“Why would I go to some dumb picnic?”
“It’s at the wave pool in South Park.”
Hmm, I always wanted to go to the wave pool.
ROBERT ROMAN was born in Pittsburgh, PA; taught incarcerated teenagers in Baltimore, MD; studied fiction writing at Johns Hopkins and UCLA; and currently writes America’s favorite Hangman puzzles. He’s had stories published in Six Three Whiskey, Eclectica Magazine, and The Nervous Breakdown.