Bait Dog An Atlanta Burns Novel - By Chuck Wendig

She hears the clanging, the echoing reverb of an open slap palm on the side of a dumpster. Voices carry across the empty parking lot across from Bogner’s Produce: a mean cackle, a goofy guffaw, the murmur of threats culminating in some pleading bleat. Atlanta Burns is on the way home from school, walking the five-mile stretch from town to country, for the burg of Maker’s Bell lives on that line between rural and suburban, between farmland and white picket fences (with a crooked zig-zag of trailer parks smack in the middle). She thinks, fuck it, fuck this, no, no, just keep walking, do not pass GO, do not collect $200, do not go kicking over logs to see what squirms beneath.

A few folks mill around town. They ignore the sound in favor of watching her. Ever since she got back, the eyes are always on her. Like she makes people uncomfortable, somehow.

Whatever. They don’t care about the noise. Neither does she.

But then she hears the laughs again. Crass and cruel. And the sound that follows: the sound of someone scared shitless, maybe in pain.

Atlanta sighs. She pulls her tie-dyed bag—bought at a flea market some years ago when she was 13 or 14 and she didn’t know just how bad things could be—and crosses the street.

The sound’s coming from behind the old garage. An abandoned husk of gray concrete.

Her mouth’s dry. All the moisture gone to her hands: palms slick and sweaty.

Atlanta sees an old can of motor oil. Before she rounds the corner and heads behind the garage, she kicks that can—it clangs and skips across the blistery cracked asphalt—just to let them know that someone’s coming.

Not that they give much of a shit. She heads out back, finds three boys from her school standing around the far end of a big green dumpster, its sides pocked with cankers of rust.

She knows them. Rather, she knows of them.

The tall one with the smashed-flat nose, that’s Jonesy—a.k.a. Gordon Jones. The prick next to him is a Virgil. Virgil’s a juicer, the muscles of his upper torso looking like several packets of hot dogs lashed together with ropy tendons. She’s not real sure of his last name. Erlenmeyer. Orlenbacher. Something. The one hanging back behind the other two is Chomp-Chomp, both first name and last name lost to her. He’s average in every way. Even his hair is so sandy brown it blends in with the dirt-lot behind the garage. One exception is his teeth: kid’s got a seawall of horse-teeth shoved unceremoniously in his mouth. Big flat biters in an otherwise average jaw.

They’re not alone.

They’ve got a fat Latino kid held in the dumpster. Dressed well, this kid. Blue shirt buttoned tight to the neck. Hair slicked back like, what, like he’s a gangster or a crooner or a Jehovah’s Witness. Jonesy’s hemming him in with a flat-bladed shovel like Atlanta’s mother uses to edge out her flower-beds. Atlanta can see something sitting at the edge of the shovel.

A turd-curl of dog shit, by the looks of it.

The three boys—not boys, not really, given that they’re all 17 or 18 years old, but boys because they’re acting like mean little shits just the same—stand and give her a real what-the-fuck look.

“Hey,” Jonesy says. He nods. Grins. Shrugs as if to say, yeah, what of it?

The Latino kid, she thinks she’s seen him at school. She figures him to be a sophomore, maybe a year below her. He gives her a look like he’s not sure if she’s friend or foe. He’s got a cut across his brow, a line of blood running down the margins of his round, Mexican Charlie Brown head.

Virgil Erlen-orlen-whatever gives Jonesy a sharp elbow in the ribs. Jonesy waves him off and instead says, “Like they say, nothing to see here. Move along.”

“Is that kid okay?” she asks, cocking an eyebrow.

Jonesy nods a vigorous, almost comical nod. “He’s great. We’re just playing a game.”

She looks to the kid in the dumpster. “Are you okay?”

The gentlest shake of a head. No.

Again Virgil elbows Jonesy, but Jonesy retorts: “Fuckin’ quit it.”

“Looks to me like you’re trying to make that kid eat a shovel of crap,” she says.

“It’s chocolate,” Jonesy says, stifling a laugh. “It’s, ahhh, you know. Wetback chocolate. Made special.”

The third miscreant in the trio, the one she thinks of as Chomp-Chomp, is watching everything with a deliberate stare. Arms folded, hands tucked tight into his armpits. He’s mule-kicked, she thinks. Or a sociopath. Or just scared