“Well, well, well… if it ain’t the pee-pee brothers! You guys mess your pants? Running home to your mommy to change your Underoos?”
Peter and Philip Price turned to see their childhood tormentor, Trey Coleman, fondling a nerf football in his greasy hands and giving them a menacing stare that said: What? What are you gonna do? Ernie Foster, Trey’s dimwitted and rotund shadow, cackled like a hyena at his side.
Peter, the eldest by three whole minutes, grabbed his twin by the wrist before he could speak. “Just leave him be, Phil, he’ll stop harassing us if we don’t react, that’s what mom says,” he whispered.
“Got something to say, piss stain?” Trey swept aside a shock of oily black hair, hitching up his dirty jeans as he stepped forward. Ernie laughed harder, hands at the sides of his blue food-stained t-shirt imprinted with Fortnite’s Fishstick.
Philip and Pete turned back toward the path winding to the other side of the park. “How do you stand that asshole?” Phil said.
“Well, he’s a lot bigger than us, one. And you’ve seen what he’ll do if we fight back; I don’t wanna get crushed by his fatass friend while Trey bloodies my face, that’s…”
A whizzing nerf football bounced off the back of Pete’s head, and raucous laugher ensued. “Good catch, dipshit!” Trey bellowed.
Pete’s passive sensibilities were suddenly evaporating in his boiling blood. He looked back at the two biggest bullies at Easthills Middle School, took a deep breath, and turned to his brother. “Let’s cut through here, come on.”
Pete led Phil into the dense trees at the edge of Powell Park as Trey’s taunts and Ernie’s asthmatic laugher faded into the background. “If we go straight through the woods, we should hit Beechman Street a couple blocks from home,” Pete said.
“Mom says kids have gone missing out here, Pete, that’s why we aren’t allowed in the park after dark. She told us to stay on the path!”
“Well, a second ago, you were about to break her no fighting rule; she’ll never know if we take a shortcut, dammit,” Pete grumbled, shoving through the dense cedar, his forearms and hands becoming sticky with sap. Eventually, both brother’s anger stilled as they navigated the impossibly thick cluster of trees and shrubs. They breached the woods thinking they’d reached the other side, but instead found themselves in a small, circular clearing centered with a mound of gray mossy rocks too neatly stacked to be a natural formation.
“What’s that?” Phil said. “I didn’t know there was anything in here.”
“Me either,” Pete replied.
The brothers slowly advanced to the center of the clearing, compelled by a magnetic curiosity. They peered over the ring of knee-high stones. It was full of murky, dark blue water topped with small clusters of dead leaves.
“What the?” Pete said, “it looks like an old koi pond. How the heck did this get out here? I can’t believe it still has this much water in it…”
“Why would someone build a koi pond here? Isn’t this public land?”
“I heard there was a house where the park is now – a really long time…”
Pete was interrupted by a bright flare of tangerine in the dark water; the water began churning, a faint ring of orange circling and spiraling under the surface. “Holy cow! I think there’s one of those huge goldfish in there!”
“No way! This pond looks ancient. It should be dead,” Phil added. “What the hell is that crazy thing doing?”
The water was spinning rapidly, creating a seething funnel; waves splashed over the edge, wetting the boy’s pants. They stepped back, appraising one another nervously.
“I don’t like this,” Pete said, “not at all…”
The roiling water began to settle, and Phil returned to the pond’s rock edge. “Whoa… look…” Phil said as Pete rejoined his side.
The previously murky water was now crystal clear, the faintly rippling surface free of debris. They could see the bottom of the shallow pool; a sizable red-orange koi fish was busily darting around in its depths.
Phil grabbed his brother’s shoulder. “Pete, he’s arranging those pebbles on the bottom… how?…”
The large fish completed his project and darted to the surface, his shiny papaya nose and white, whiskered chin breached the water. He appeared to stare directly at the dumfounded siblings. Faintly distorted below the pond’s undulating surface was a series of small stones arranged into four close letters:
S W I M.
Pete and Phil shrieked and darted away in terror, busting through the foliage and barreling through the scratching, swatting, sappy branches. When they finally broke through the other side of the woods, and the street came into view, they stopped, grabbing their knees as they struggled to catch their breath.
“Holy shit, Pete, did we just really see that?”
“I… I…” Pete gasped. He shook his head. “Let’s just go home, I don’t want to talk about it.”
The brothers slowly made their way the final blocks home in silence, grasping for understanding in the day’s dying light. They didn’t speak another word about the koi pond, and both shuttered in disgust when they sat down for dinner an hour later. Mrs. Pauline Price served green beans, white rice, and grilled fish.
Neither Pete nor Phil slept well that night, and they arrived at school disheveled and on edge, their brain’s foggy, their bodies turgid with stress. Trey “accidentally” smashed into Phil’s open locker, slamming the sharp, metal edge on Phil’s hand and drawing blood. At lunch, Pete sat a fully-loaded tray at an empty table only to have Trey stealthily flip it into his lap, covering him in a spray of mealy mashed potatoes, creamed corn, and hunks of meatloaf the consistency of garden humus. After several more hallway altercations, Phil and Pete reached the end of the school day exhausted, dispirited, and addled with angst and turbulent emotions.
They reluctantly plodded down the block to their after-school program, groaned and moaned through their algebra homework, and then began shuffling toward Powell Park to journey home. They turned the corner, relieved to see the park empty except for an elderly man with a ratty gray schnauzer on his way out.
“Thank God,” Phil said, “if Trey…”
“You don’t even need to finish the sentence,” Pete interrupted. “I know exactly how you feel, come on.”
They were halfway through the park, skirting a set of weathered swings when a familiar voice called out behind them.
“Penis and Pussy Price! Hey! Your mom’s a prude – your dad’s a prick! You should all drink poison and die!”
“That’s it!” Phil spun around, scrambled to the edge of the path, grabbed a baseball-sized rock, and flung it as hard as possible before Pete had finished yelling: “No!”
It struck Trey in his left shoulder, evoking a surprised yelp. “You fucker!” Trey screamed, grimacing. “I’ll kill you for that!” He leaped forward.
“Run!” Pete yelled, and the brothers fled across the park, Trey in hot pursuit. Phil jutted off the path and dashed into the woods, Pete on his heels as Trey’s rabid screams filled the afternoon air like nails on a chalkboard. They quickly found themselves in the clearing around the freakish old pond, and Pete gave his brother quick militant commands as Trey struggled through the swatting branches behind them.
Trey staggered into the clearing, his face covered in red slashes, yelling with a Wolverine-like ferocity. “You…” he growled. “Where’d your chicken-shit brother go?”
Phil was standing on the opposite side of the small clearing, directly behind the ring of rocks. He furtively eyed the churning water below him.
“We got separated in the woods, I guess. But I’m not scared to stand up to you, you bullying asshole.”
“You’ll be sorry…” Trey grabbed a large nearby stick and slowly approached.
Phil was carefully shifting around the pond’s edge to stay Trey’s opposite. The pond’s surface was still, the water clear. A gold-headed observer had popped up to watch the show.
“You wanna play ring around the rosy, faggot?” Trey reached the edge of the koi pond and began shuffling quickly from one side to the next in attempt to fake Phil out and trip him up.
“Aaggghhh!!!!” Pete rushed out of the tree line screaming, bounded across the small clearing, and slammed into Trey from behind right as he was turning his head. Trey flipped over the edge of moss-ridden rocks and splashed into the dark pool.
“Go-Go-Go!” Pete yelled.
A garbled, blood-curdling scream rent the air, and the brothers turned at the far side of the clearing to see flailing limbs and thrashing water surrounded by brilliant flashes of reddish-orange and gold.
“Wa… wa… wha…” Phil stuttered, his eyes turning to saucers. Phil grabbed his arm and pulled, almost tearing it from the socket as he dragged him into the woods. This time, they didn’t stop when they breached the woods; they smoothly transitioned from the grass to pavement and sprinted the entire way home.
The brothers both had another terribly sleepless night and rose the next morning with dark, bagged eyes, queasy stomachs, and rapid heartbeats. Yet, the school day proved to be one of the best days they’d ever had at Easthills Middle.
Trey Coleman hadn’t made it to school that day.