Michael wakes to the sound of drumming fingers on the wooden table next to his uncomfortable bunk. He rubs the sleep from his eyes and looks up to see his older brother John's face an inch from his, wide-eyed and impatient. John is one year older than Michael to the day. They both have shaggy black hair, a few freckles, and big green eyes. The only difference in appearance is that John is a few inches shorter, not nearly as muscular, and the gap between his front teeth is very noticeably larger. You’d never tell that Michael’s the younger of the two. He’s bigger, tougher, and meaner in every way. They’re as close as twins, and look the part.
They share a cramped bedroom in a wooden shack of a home, in the middle of nowhere. Their sleepy farming town in central Montana isn’t even big enough to make it on a map… any map. Being deep into a depression, there’s no money to spare to fix the leaky roof, or busted windows. The walls are cracked, and floors are creaky.
"Michael, get your lazy butt out of bed."
Michael peaks out of the corner of his sleepy eyes, trying to process wakefulness. John has been sitting up next to him for a half an hour. He’s been waiting for Michael to bounce to life, not daring to actually shake him awake, or yell. The last time John tried that, he got a fist to the face and had a black eye for a week. So instead, he’s been sitting as close as he can get without actually touching his loudly snoring brother, just waiting.
"Jeez, it took you long enough. I’ve been waiting for hours." John lies.
Michael and John have been waiting on this day for over a month. Their best friend Steven spends the summer with his dad every year. Now that they’re 16 and 17, practically all grown up, this will be the last summer they’ll be able to spend with Steven for who knows how long. Times have been tough, and nothing seems to be lining up for improvement in the foreseeable future. The odds of Steven ever coming back to this place after the summer is slim.
Steven’s father is one of the lucky men in the area who has been able to keep a job. He’s a cashier at the one and only grocery/convenience store for miles. They sell everything from guns, to gas, to bread. It’s a small store, but it has every essential any passer-through may need for survival.
Not many people in town have the money for food. For the most part, they poach small game, and find their own way of living. But the area does seem to get a lot of drifters. There’s a small room that’s rented out in the back of the store. Steven’s father has been the keeper of the place since the boys can remember.
Michael slowly sits up, stretching his arms as far as they can go in the lack of space their bedroom allows.
"Hold your horses, John. God, you can be such a butt-hole sometimes."
Michael doesn’t handle being woken up very well. He isn’t a morning person, and his short temper is at an all-time high within the first hour that he rolls to his feet. There’s been a mean streak in Michael’s blood since he was knee high to his mommy, pulling on her apron for attention. He’s been known as the fighter of his class every year since the first year he went to school. Resorting to fists has been his favorite thing to do since he can remember. Over the years, he’s progressed into quite the scrappy teen.
Michael has learned to save his fighting for after school, so that there are no teachers around to get him in trouble. The Hounds boys work odd jobs on local farms and gardening at home, but they spend most of their time hunting. They sell or trade the firs from their kills for anything that can be used to take care of themselves and their sick mom.
Not having a father at home made them learn to take care of themselves and at young age. It’s also made their mom very good at finding strange but effective punishments when either of them got into trouble growing up.
"Well, you boys are too big for a small woman like me to be whoopin’ ya, so I guess I’ll have to find some other way to teach you a lesson."
She’d say this before taking them door to door, asking everyone they came in contact with if the boys could scrub their floors and wash their windows. It’s always been disgusting and humiliating enough to teach the boys a lesson. Mrs. Hounds is by no means a weak woman. She’s been raising Michael and John by herself since they were babies. Their father took off without a word. No explanation or excuses, he just up and left.
"That man was no good anyway, we’re all better off without him."
It’s all their mother had said on the matter. Now that she’s sick, they have little to no time for fights or playing around.
In no time at all, Michael and John have their shoes and hats on. Their lunches are packed, and they’re out the door. It’s a long walk to Steven's house. They only have one peddle bike between the two of them, so they opt to leave it behind. Some people call it the boonies, some call it redneck hills, and some the Sticks. To the Hounds and the other twenty or so families that live in this spaced-out little farming community, it’s home. It’s an adventurous place with lots to explore and get into.
Mrs. Hounds was gone most of the time while the boys were growing up. She worked long hours as a nurse at the little clinic at the edge of town. She decided they were old enough at 11 and 12 to get through the summers without a babysitter, given they would check in at the neighbors at least once a day. It was a hard decision for her, but she really couldn't afford to pay for childcare. Especially with the price of heat and food, they struggled enough as it was.
So, at only 11 and 12, Michael and John had the freedom that most kids their age only dreamed of. They caused a lot of trouble and learned to take care of themselves. It paid off in the long run, as now they’re not only taking care of themselves, but their mother too.
"We have to stop and see if Chloe changed her mind," says Michael.
Chloe lives a half a mile in the opposite direction from Steven’s house. Obviously, John isn’t happy about the idea.
"Hell no! We’re not going to get your stupid girlfriend. She doesn’t even like Steven and she already said ‘there was no way in hell she was walking half a day to meet up with some dumb kid with a big mouth,’ remember?"
John actually likes Chloe, and he knows how mad Michael gets when he labels her with the girlfriend title. Right now, he doesn’t care.
"Well, you do whatever you want, but I’m going to get her."
Michael doesn’t do much without Chloe. He takes off toward her house, knowing that John won’t argue with him much further. Being the younger of the two doesn't stop Michael from getting his point across by any means. John rolls his eyes and follows with his head dropped to his chest. There’s no point in fighting about it. Kicking rocks along the way, John keeps a close distance in the rear.
It only takes about ten minutes before they’re knocking on the giant wooden door to the front entrance of Chloe’s house. It swings open with a woosh, and there she stands. Her long, bleached from the sun, blonde hair is pulled into a ponytail that falls into the middle of her back. She’s wearing a light pink tank top with matching shoes. Chloe is short and slim with an hourglass shape. At first glance one could easily think her to be the proper, private school type… until she talks.
"What in Sam's hell are you two dirtbags doin’ at my house so early in the mornin’? I thought you were goin’ to hang out with that pig you call a friend.” She grips a hand on her hip. “If you think your gunna’ guilt me into walkin’ all the way to his cow shit smellin' crap-hole just because you came out of your way to get me. You must be slow in the head."
Chloe doesn't have much of a filter in what she says, never has. And, she sure doesn’t have the time or desire to be proper. She rolls her eyes at the two filthy Hounds boys standing on her giant porch filled with flowers and wicker decor. She quickly decides that she’d rather go on an adventure and play in the mud at some point, than sit at home with her parents' maid. Her parents travel on business most of the summers and leave her alone with a jolly, oversized woman who speaks little English. Living in a depression makes no difference to the Mead family. They have ‘old money’ and aren’t afraid to show it.
Despite their efforts to make Chloe a snob much like them, she put her foot down at a very early age. Chloe refused private school and has a mind of her own. Eventually they gave up and let her do her own thing, turning a blind eye to her in the process.
"I’ll be back by dark!" Chloe yells into the house.
She slams the door, stomps past them onto the road, and takes the lead to their ‘stupid friend’s house’.
Chloe's house is the only one of its size within a five-county range, and it’s the only one of its size that the Hounds boys have ever seen. None of the others who live in the area really understand why the Meads built such a place there. They’re never home and they don’t fit in. Really, no one with more than a couple dollars saved up in pennies does.
Chloe doesn’t care. She fits in just fine, and she loves it there. Which is probably the reason Michael likes to be around her so much. So does John, even though he’d never admit it out loud. Michael decided the day that Chloe put a water snake in their teacher’s drawer, ultimately resulting in her screaming, running out of the room and practically peeing her pants, that Chloe was probably the funniest girl he’d ever meet. Not only that, but she’s all spit and grit. Chloe isn’t one bit afraid of Michael’s temper. She’s reminded him of that on a daily basis, practically their whole lives.
One time he got mad at her for drilling him in the ear with a dirt clod. They were supposed to be on the same team in an all-out playground war. When he got to yelling at her, she told him, “Michael Hounds, I’ll give you a pass on this one, but if you ever yell at me like this again, don’t you think I won’t be afraid to kick you as hard as I can between the legs and then run circles around you. You’ll feel it for a week and you’ll never catch me!”
He knew she wasn’t joking because he’d seen her do it before. Every kid in school knew that she was the fastest around on foot.
The three of them take off toward Steven’s house, having what they think will be great timing. Then, after about a ten-minute walk, Chloe unexpectedly takes a risky turn. The wooded area she disappears into is thick and darkened by the shadowing trees.
“Hey maybe we should stick to the road this time,” shouts John.
“Yeah Chloe, remember what happened last time we took a shortcut?” Michael mocks, “John got a tiny scratch on his leg and cried like a baby.”
He ducks into the darkness, leaving John to stand alone on the road for a few seconds before running after them. John is afraid to get too far behind them, just in case he gets lost. He loves the woods just as much as the other two, but only on one condition. John is extremely cautious, and always makes sure that he can at least see, or hear, who ever he’s with.
“It wasn’t a tiny scratch, you dick. Mom had to put six stitches in my thigh, remember?”
John keeps on ranting and raving while he follows his younger and much braver brother, along with his all too crazy girlfriend into the woods. John is a great aim with his rifle, and awesome at skinning deer, but when it comes to exploring new places, he’s definitely not the type to lead the way. After years of running into bear and being stalked by mountain lions, he’s developed a slight fear of getting caught up alone in the wilderness. That’s not to mention the deep-rooted terror of wolves that’s instilled into his blood, despite the fact that he’s yet to actually see one.
The woods get thicker and thicker. They have to climb over the dead fallen trees, tread through small muddy ponds, and avoid the giant holes in the ground. All the while, not knowing what kind of wild animals might be lurking nearby.
“Snake!” yells Chloe.
The thick trees open up into a small grassy flat, and Chloe sprints into it like a cheetah. One thing about Chloe is that she loves to catch snakes.
“Don’t be stupid Chloe, that sucker’s huge!” shouts Michael, as he reluctantly chases after her.
Michael hates snakes, he never really can tell them apart. Not knowing if they’re poisonous or not scares the crap out of him. Every time they come across one, he’s convinced it’s going to sink its fangs in and put one of them into the ground forever. Chloe laughs at him before pulling out the pocket knife she keeps tied to her belt for just such an occasion. Then she dives into the tall grass.
By the time John and Michael catch up to her in the middle of the flat, she has cut the head off the biggest snake they’ve seen her kill yet. She’s starting to gather a small stack of sticks and bark, placing them on a mound of sandy mud.
“Well, ain't you dirtbags gunna’ help me build a fire? I didn’t pack no fancy sandwich in any stupid little pack like you two sissy lala’s. I’m havin’ this juicy snake for lunch. Ain’t ya’ gettin’ hungry?”
It drives John crazy that Chloe’s favorite way to refer to him is a dirtbag. Nonetheless, they head back out of the flat to pick up all of the dead wood they can carry back. Soon enough, a fire is blazing and the only smell around is that of the long-skinned serpent wrapped around Chloe’s makeshift roasting stick. She holds it over the fire and watches the meat sizzle and drip. Surprisingly, it smells like chicken and both the Hounds brothers can’t help themselves but to have a taste.
It doesn’t take long after their brunch is devoured that the three hoodlums are stepping out of the deep woods and back onto a road. As the sun continues to rise in the sky, it leaves on the pavement a sweltering heat. It’s only a short walk longer to Steven’s house, and the luxury of water will be welcomed.
“See, told ya it wouldn’t be so bad,” says Michael, as he turns to his brother and flashes a smug grin. “We didn’t even see any other animals, and we ate some pretty awesome tastin’ snake.”
John can’t argue with that. Though he isn’t entirely convinced that the shortcut took any time off their trip, considering they had to move much slower, climbing over and ducking through all the irritating deadfall. Usually Steven meets them halfway down the long windy road on his bike. The last couple years they’ve had to spend more time working than hanging out with Steven, it’s made things very different.