The Bucket Boys
We lived in a little house, in a crowded neighborhood buttressed up against the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. People don’t think of New Jersey as having evergreens and curly-ferns, and room for gardens and horses, but the Barrens had such hidden places. The Barrens were magic that way. We lived ten minutes away from the glitz and glam of the Jersey shore. But walk far enough down one end of my road and you’d end up in a no man’s land of scrub pine, abandoned car parts, shanties, cranberry bogs, and confederate flags. That’s where Gianna lived.
Gianna was a girl with close-cropped hair and blistered tree-climbing hands. She was a tomboy, although she’d have fought me to the death if I had dared used that word in her presence. She had a cozy wood-colored pre-fab house with a roof covered in pine needles. Her backyard was a massive sprawl of clear-cut land and Lincoln log fences. Her parents owned at least three horses and her neighbors owned horses as well. I was impressed. My family didn’t even own a cat.
Or maybe it wasn’t all hers. Maybe we were trespassers, pirating a moment of exploration among the sassafras trees and deer ticks. It didn’t really matter, though; Gianna’s backyard was a wonderland. We reveled in the open space at the edge of the darkened, danger-filled forest. We liked to pretend there could be wolves in the woods, or drifters, or axe murderers, just waiting out of sight for two little kids to get too close. Maybe there were.
It was the thought of dangers, of playing at transgressions, that propelled us forward in the way that it does with children who want to tame a little bit of earth and claim it for themselves. We weren’t alone in this need, as other children had claimed their stake, carved it out with cupcake wrappers impaled on sharpened sticks and a twist of clothesline tied between two trees.
We were adventurers, pirates, rogues smuggling treasures. We gathered planks of wood, old bricks, and toy trucks from the endless backyard that was claimed by innumerable children. The grown-up world was too busy to notice the signs and signals of our territorial war. They paid no attention to us; looking back at my childhood encounters with the Bucket Boys, I realize they probably should have.
We called them the Boys with the Buckets because they marked “their” territory with a tin bucket hanging from the branch of the spray-painted maple tree. Our capture by those same boys began with a conspiracy whispered under a hydrangea bush. We plotted over a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, our diabolical plan occasionally derailed by the smack of thirsty tongues and the recurring argument Gianna and I had over whether or not New Kids on the Block wrote their own songs.
The plan was daring. We would cross into the territory marked by the bucket. Gianna would play lookout while I, smaller and stealthier, would creep out from the bushes and sprint away with the old yellow duck on the coiled spring that had been dumped into the pines on an old flatbed. There was also a smelly old couch and a plastic bin of rusty needles, but we knew better than to touch those.
“You got the rope?” Gianna asked, eyes darting in all directions from her spot between the laurel bushes. I nodded and produced the coiled jump-rope I had safely tucked beneath my arm. “Okay then,” she whispered, her voice caught halfway between giddy and authoritative. “You know what to do.”
I crouched down and belly-crawled like a commando towards my coveted prize. At any moment the Bucket Boys might return from their own campaigns. I did not want to be anywhere in sight when they did. The boys were tall, and mean, and gangly. As far as I knew, they were raised by the Jersey Devil who lived in the sand dunes of the Barrens. I envisioned the boys to be six feet tall. I pictured fists and curses and cigarette smoke and boards with nails in them. But we — the Robin Hoods, the underdogs, the sneak-thief Gavroches of the Eastern Seaboard — would not be deterred.
As I drew closer and closer to the coveted duck my heart fluttered. I fashioned my jump-rope into a wonky lasso with all the skills I could muster from my six months in the Scouts. The creature would wait there in its glorious yellow luminescence until the rope caught around its neck. Then I would retreat to the bushes and Gianna and I would drag our spoils into the woods and back to the safety of our barbed wire fences and equine guardians.
I took a breath and raised my arms, flinging the rope forward with all of my might. But something went wrong. The rope fell short. I tried again. But once more, my hand-eye coordination had failed me.
I muttered an eight-year-old’s curse and crawled further across enemy lines. In the distance I heard the sounds of laughter and roughhousing. My eyes widened, and my jaw twitched in equal parts fear and resolve. The Bucket Boys were returning to their lair.
“Psst, Allie. Hurry up!” Gianna hissed from behind the bushes. I considered hissing back but decided against it. Instead, I nodded in Gianna’s direction, said a wordless prayer, stood up, and slipped the noose around the duck’s neck. It put me further into the open than I cared to be, but if it meant securing victory, it was worth it. I gave the rope a small tug. It wasn’t quite a slipknot, but it seemed like it would hold. I braced as much as I could while staying close to the ground. I tensed and began to pull. The duck would not budge. The infernal beast remained still, as though it was anchored to the ground. But it wasn’t anchored. Was it? No, it couldn’t be. The fiberglass creature was on its side, its spring pointed outward. I tugged again. My arms burned and my back strained, but still the duck would not move.
More laughter — cold laughter — echoed through the Barrens. I could feel the bravery draining from my body. I cursed my tiny arms. I cursed my pipsqueak body. I cursed Gianna for not assisting me as I grunted and struggled to drag my prize across the weed-covered dirt.
And then I cursed for real.
Standing yards in front of me were two sneering faces with glaring eyes and yellowed teeth in crew-cut heads attached to broad shoulders and gangly bodies. The Bucket Boys had arrived. And they were most displeased.
“Looks like we got ourselves a little thief,” Evan sneered, spitting on the ground. “Is that right, little thief? You come here to steal our stuff?” My face remained brave even as my jump rope slipped from my shaking hand.
“Aw, and she even brought a rope!” Joshua added, as though we had provided a method for our own execution.
“We don’t want your stuff anymore,” I said, keeping my voice steady. “And you can have the stupid rope. We’re going home.” I knew I had made a mistake as soon as I had said we.
“Who’s going home? You and your imaginary friend? I don’t think so,” Evan said with a laugh.
“Naw, she means Gianna. She put you up to this, didn’t she?” Joshua asked, his face far too close to my own. He placed an arresting paw on the back of my neck, while Evan began to search the area for my accomplice.
“I’ll never tell you where she is, you S.O.B.!” I said with my bravest flourish. I was James Bond, Zorro, and the Scarlet Pimpernel all rolled into one. I starred Joshua in the eye, daring him to intimidate me.
“Idiot!” the Bucket Boy said as he smacked me in the head.
“Now you’ve done it! I’ll make you suffer!” My anger was tinged with a strange exhilaration. I felt a surge of adrenaline from facing a mighty tyrant a foot taller and three grade levels higher than myself. The thrill of capture, escape, and struggle was planted in that moment like a seed in my psyche.
“I got the ringleader!” Evan shouted triumphantly as he dragged Gianna from the bushes by her arm, but not too hard.
“I’ll claw your eyes out, you criminals!” Gianna shrieked, digging her nails into Evan’s skin, but not too deep.
“Oh ,you’ll pay for it now!” Evan yelled. He rubbed the claw mark, then shoved Gianna into me. We growled in protest, but didn’t try to run away. We wanted to face our fear—to stare down our foes—and if need be to go down bravely to the guillotine. This sensation has stayed with me, a kernel of fetishized bravado caught between my teeth.
“Well, well, what should we do with the troublemakers?” Joshua asked as he cracked his knuckles.
“We need to punish them,” Evan suggested, “whip them…with that.” He retrieved the jump rope with a sadistic grin. My jaw dropped, and for the slightest moment I wondered if the Bucket Boys would really harm us. It was no fun if the danger was real.
Before I had a chance to decide between flight and fight, Joshua punched his ally in the ribs and shook his head. “Don’t be stupid,” he replied with a laugh of absurdity. “Whipping leaves marks. We’ll tie ‘em up and escort ‘em outta our turf!”
“Do your worst, you scumbags!” I yelled, volunteering a free hand as Evan tied Gianna and me wrist-to-wrist. “We’ll remember what you do and we’ll pay you back a hundred times worse!”
“Fat chance, pipsqueek!” Joshua replied, tussling my hair. I gave him a sharp kick in the shins, but not too sharp. He pushed us forward with his foot.
It seemed as though we were led for miles across the hostile terrain of our most hated enemies. The only witness to our struggle was the occasional monarch butterfly or red winged blackbird. Joshua got bored after a while and began to slow his pace. He let go of my arm and paused to lean against a tree. “Want some?” he asked, fishing plastic-wrapped cheese crackers from his back pocket.
“I rather die!” Gianna refused with all the dignity of Joan of Arc at the pyre. But my stomach was rumbling, and surely a few cheesy crackers wouldn’t spoil our game.
“Yeah, I could eat,” I admitted, slipping my hand out of the loose rope that tied us together. I munched on his diplomatic offering. Then I punched him in the arm as hard as I could and grinned victoriously. Evan was only a little impressed so I shrugged and slipped my hand back into loop. I was his captive after all and it would be rude to break procedure.
“Damnit—keep moving, prisoner!” Evan muttered. A few more minutes passed before we reached the edge of the clearing where open fields and barbed wire fence delineated our domain. Outside the fence was a shallow ditch, dusty and filled with stones. Joshua shoved us surprisingly hard into the ditch. Too hard. He gave us each a painful kick on the way down. We fell roughly to the bottom, scraped and a little bloodied but we did not cry. Gianna screamed oaths at the boys as they retreated back to their territory. I remained silent.
I thought carefully about what I felt in that moment—what I wanted, and want still—the opportunity to defy violence. To defy struggle. And cruelty. And martyrdom.
To defy being small, and clumsy and weak.
I wanted to stare the devil in the eyes and live to tell the tale.
I think I still do.
Or else, I still relish the thrill of pretending.
That afternoon, we unwittingly bore testament to the darkened wisps of the human condition. We were the baby predators that pounced and gnawed and went through the motions of capture and cruelty. We exorcised the subconscious, wringing out the drips and drabs of every nightly newscast. Of every one of our mothers’ soap operas and talk shows. Of every video of stranger dangers played at a school assembly. Of every documentary about war. We were the sponges that absorbed the ambient light and darkness surrounding us.
We were empty buckets, the Bucket Boys and I. But we were all, too soon, beginning to fill.
Allison A. Spector was born and raised in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. She’s lived and traveled across the United States, but has a special affinity for the Pacific Northwest with its rainy forests and majestic sequoias.
She has several published works including a novella that was published as part of the 1888 Summer Writing Project Contest. It’s titled, Let’s Stalk Rex Jupiter! Her short story “Requiem” published in 1888’s print/digital anthology, The Cost of Paper. Her serial novel, The Fringers, updates regularly on JukePop.com. Follow her on Twitter at @InspectorAllie.