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The Latchkey Gang

by Ane Gummel 10 months ago in Short Story · updated 10 months ago
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A summer's tale

The Latchkey Gang
Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

Frankie closed his right eye and stared at the vase with his left, “Camera one." He switched, shutting his left eye, looking through his right, “Camera two,” and watched the vase bounce back into place. It was another boring summer day, stretched out before him like a wet dog drying himself after jumping in the lake.

Frankie was what they called chronically unemployed, so he received money from the state. He didn’t really have any friends to speak of, but the few he did have all worked regular 9-5’s. There was no one to call up for a beer. No one around at all.

Except for the children. They had the summer off and were far more resistant to the heat than Frankie. They could withstand the brutality of it for hours on end. They were seemingly impervious to it. Not Frankie. He found more than 20 mins of the sun punishing to an unnecessary extent.

Frankie didn’t want to go out and interact with the kids. He wasn’t a pervert. He just liked watching kids sort out their self-imposed social order. There was a hierarchy there that took him a while to decipher. The nuances of playground diplomacy were not up for negotiation. To the contrary, playground rules were pretty fucking infallible.

As far as Frankie could tell, the gang that hung out across the road near the marigold field adjacent to the playground didn’t appear to discriminate by race or gender. There were two girls, Kaspy and Gilla, a tall black boy named Leroy, a heavyset kid in a wheelchair, a Chinese or maybe Japanese kid in tight shorts, and 2 white boys, Ernest and Anke. That Anke fucker was even a full-blown day walking ginger.

They were, Frankie surmised, as them PC folks in the city would say, an inclusive bunch. He smiled at himself in self-congratulatory praise. Hell, he might even be woke.

Now, Frankie was just miserable at discerning the age of children, dogs, the elderly, and vegetables. Each presented a unique set of challenges. He’d have to guess that they were right on the brink between elementary and middle school, fourth and or fifth grade, probably. He reckoned that made them around 10. And while, in many ways, 10 seemed so whimsically naïve, he knew that it was old enough to get into very real trouble. It was hard to imagine anything bad happening to a 10-year-old kid playing in the marigold field out here in the middle of nowhere. Hard, but not impossible.

There was no adult supervision. In this tiny midwestern town folks still left their doors unlocked, at least, during the day. They sent their kids from the house on summer days to play in the fresh air. The only rule was to either turn up alive for supper or call from whichever friend’s house they ended up at.

80’s kids were bullet proof tough. They were left alone without phones, money, supervision. They went hours, 5 to 7, without food or water sometimes, left to their own device, playing outside in the groves and pastures where very real dangers occasionally lurked. Some days, they’d find their way back to someone’s house for lunch, water, or bathroom breaks, but that wasn’t even necessary. Most people left their garden hoses out in plain sight for the kids to use and kids will pee anywhere.

Eventually, parents would come to collect them in formidable, solid metal beasts of vehicles, throw them in the back, sans seatbelts, and let them stand, jump, and wrestle all the way home. Ah the 80’s - safety last! That’s what this gang really was, the epitome of 80’s latchkey kids; turned out for the day and up to no good.

Small town politics and police presence being what they were, things would have to really go sideways for them to get into serious trouble. It was astonishing how little attention they were paid. They shoplifted candy and sodas brazenly from the same man at the same corner store nearly every day. What kind of inventory was he running? He had to notice at some point. They headed down to the playground wired on sugar and independence. Their routine rarely varied.

The interesting thing about their hierarchy was that, while the top three positions were fixed, the remaining slots were up for grabs via daily competitions. For instance, there was always a contest of stamina. Often, they would see who could endure the merry go round the longest. The top three goons, the two white boys, Ernest and Anke, and the tall black boy, Leroy, would pile everyone onto the merry go round, and run alongside it, pushing it faster and faster. Inevitably, one of the girls would fly off first. The next off was always a tossup between the Asian kid and the second girl. Since the kid in the wheelchair couldn’t play, sometimes he’d race around the merry go round in his chair, fast enough that they’d decree him winner. Sometimes, one of the girls would act as his avatar. All and all, they each got pretty equal turns being first second and third in command.

All of them had their attributes, Frankie supposed. But then, that was the fun part. Only so much could be sleuthed from the games he watched them play. There were also many moments fraught with intense debates he couldn’t hear. So, he had to make up a lot of the plot, as it were. It turned out he was pretty good at that, so he kind of took it and ran.

At first, he watched their close-talking intense convos and played the fake dialogue game. He constructed entire 4 act plays based on speculation and imagination. Eventually, he began writing the dialogues out, so it was easier to follow. The entire project reached ludicrous proportions, the kids all had elaborate backstories, secret vendettas against, and alliances with, one another. If someone were checking his work for continuity, it would track, but all the life they were supposed to have lived would never fit neatly into a mere 10 or so years.

It was fun to do, nonetheless. Frankie took copious notes regarding the plot twists and general developments. On weekend and rainy days, he cleaned up his notes; he even made diagrams to try and organize the spiraling backstories he created for his beloved delinquents.

Because that was the other thing: They were clearly delinquents. Aside from the shoplifting, vandalism and desecration of the park he’d personally witnessed, Frankie genuinely came to believe that these moon face simps were hiding a much more sinister secret than anyone might’ve guessed.

Frankie noticed that when the group huddled in contentious debate, one or more of them would involuntarily disengage from the group and stare vacantly at the marigold field. Sooner than later, one of the gang would clock the transgression and reel the strayed member back into the flock with a pointed tone or flat slap on the back. After watching the gang for a few weeks, Frankie could tell there was a story there no one was talking about.

In quiet moments, when he was organizing his notes or having supper and watching Animal Kingdom on PBS, he’d nearly fall into fits of hysterical laughter contemplating the fact that his suspicions about the gang were based on fictitious conversations and storylines he’d created. It was impossible that anything as sinister as what he conjured was actually transpiring. Right? But then, the way they’d stare at the marigold field during these heated debates, he couldn’t be imagining that.

In order to be certain, he began taking pictures of them. It was a calculated risk. He was sure that people in the neighborhood already though he was a kiddie diddler. If they found out he had pics and vids of the kids, he was done for. So, he took the pictures selectively, only when they seemed to be in heated discussion, and only when he saw them staring with that soulless gaze at the marigold field. Eventually, Frankie collected enough images to corroborate his theory. There was something in that field of marigolds; a secret dark enough they’d lost sleep over it, sworn a blood oath over it, maybe.

After carefully hanging the photographs in the living room so that they aligned, as closely as possible, with where the kids often stood, locked in discussion, Frankie would smoke massive amounts of marijuana and stare at the images that taunted him. Late one afternoon, after a few bong tokes and a fifth of gin, Frankie was convinced that he could find the place in the field the kids were always staring at.

Exhilarated, he slipped on his sandals and robe and set out into the warm, humid day. Frankie had a photo of Leroy looking toward the field committed to memory. Looking back at his window for context, he found the spot where they usually gathered to confer and assumed Leroy’s position. Leroy must have been about the same height as him, nearly 5’8’’, so Frankie could approximate his line of vision.

So, he stood there, looking back at the house again for reference, cocking his head like Leroy’s, trying to mimic the photo as best he could. He couldn’t see anything remarkable or worth investigating but was suddenly seized by the impulse to walk into the marigold field from where he stood. He proceeded about 9 yards into the thick of it before he found it: A childlike memorial to a fallen comrade.

Frankie almost missed it. It was so small and low to the ground; a simple cross fashioned from two popsicle sticks, probably lifted from the dime store, bound in the center by pink and purple yarn. No photo or name, just cryptic symbols and messages written in permanent marker. Things like “EE4evaRIP”. Frankie wondered if it was his imagination, or if the soil was redder there.

Frankie was moved to tears by this tiny monument. Then, standing there trying to absorb the details, his mind suddenly shot back to the previous summer. A local boy, snatched in the night from his bed. At least, that’s what the investigation lazily concluded. There had been no leads, no clues, no ideas among family and friends regarding who on earth would do such a thing. But little Geoffrey, or maybe it had been Michael, had never been recovered and was later presumed dead.

Frankie watched the sky turn a darker shade of blue as the impending storm rolled in. It was supposed to be a real doozy. He decided to go back in before it hit. Inside, he sat in his favorite chair and lit his pipe, thinking about the evil humans do. And how young they can be at the start of it.

Of course, it could be anything; a pet, an animal they’d found dead and buried with solemnity because it had been their first glimpse of death, a joke even. Watching the darkening sky juxtapose the bright yellow field of marigolds, it was impossible to imagine anything bad happening in this middle of nowhere, quiet town, especially to a gang of 10-year-old kids. Or, more unimaginable still, at the hands of them.

Frankie drew deeply from his pipe and wondered at the loss of innocence. Had there ever been a time in his life when he’d been innocent? He couldn’t remember. He wasn’t even convinced that innocence was a real thing. More of an idealistic nostalgia, Frankie mused, the kind of thing a person romanticized with age because their recollection was imperfect and because, quite simply, they wanted to believe it had been so.

The wind began to roar through the marigolds, rattling them. It looked like they were shaking their heads in distain. Or nodding in emphatic consent. Strange that you couldn’t tell the difference, Frankie thought as he sat and smoked.

Short Story

About the author

Ane Gummel

Anarchist activist feminist professional agitator psychonaut ACAB BLM QUEER AF smash the patriarchy dismantle the system subvert the paradigm taketheredpill Maidens and Magick find me at anerkey.me @aneane666 IG punk rock politics

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