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At 6:00, the clear skies had given way to a storm front coming in from the west. The sun hid behind the dark clouds, and lightning flicked in their depths. The air had taken a damp, autumn feel, like winter emerging. Peter wished he’d brought a jacket. He and Dante cut through the high school’s practice fields to the break in the split rail fence that separated the fields from the woods behind. On the school side of the fence, neatly lined soccer fields and mowed grass had a military order. On the other side, the wildwood defied pattern. Elms, willows, low, scraggly brush, haphazard weeds, and rotted leaves still piled from last winter, created an untamed woods. Their trail to the dump started there, although it wasn’t much of a trail. Spiky brambles tugged at their sleeves as they pushed through.

Dante told a dirty joke that embarrassed Peter, who laughed, even though he didn’t like jokes like that. Dante had been telling more of them lately and saying things like, “Check the rack on that girl.” Peter purposefully wouldn’t look, although sometimes he’d see what Dante was talking about before he could glance away. Dante snuck beers out of his stepdad’s refrigerator, and offered to share with Peter. Dante had started smoking a month ago. But it wasn’t just the change of habits. They’d sworn to each other that they would never do those things—Peter wished to remind Dante of that, but he couldn’t bring himself to say it out loud.

Maybe all could be forgiven, but they didn’t talk like they used to either. Conversations that would never stop now dwindled to uncomfortable pauses. Who do you talk to when you don’t know how to talk to your best friend?

“We’ve never found anything that worked,” said Dante. “Busted stuff, sure, but not a machine.”

They’d walked about half the distance to the dump. In another quarter mile, they’d be there. The sky darkened even more, and a sudden rain pelted them. They took shelter under an elm, waiting for the squall to pass.

“Let me see,” said Dante.

Rain pattered around them, but the thick canopy worked as an umbrella.

“Let’s get to the burnt tree first.” Peter felt the gun’s weight in his pack and a reluctance now to show it.

“Did you find anything else? Anything we could sell?”

“I stopped looking after the tree blew up.”

“I thought you said it burned.”

Peter shrugged. “Whatever. The rain’s stopped. Let’s go.”

Dante whistled when he saw the tree. Steam hissed out of a deep crack where water seeped in. The bark still felt warm. “You weren’t kidding! That’s awesome.”

Peter put the backpack on the ground, opened it, and handed the gun to Dante.

“So, I pull the trigger to turn it on?” he said.

Peter pushed the gun away from him. “And be careful where you point it when you do.”

The screen flared into view. Peter moved behind Dante so he could look over his shoulder. “That upside down Y with the apostrophes on either side was the one I pressed.”

Dante ran his finger across the screen. The twelve icons vanished and were replaced by twelve new ones.

“It looks like Chinese,” said Dante. He replaced the set of icons twice more before they saw the first set of symbols again. “Wow, forty-eight choices. Do you think any of them are Netflix?”

Shadows dominated under the trees, and where the day had been cheery earlier, Peter felt nervous, like they should be hiding, like someone must be watching them. The duffle bag filled with oddly heavy bricks and this . . . whatever it was . . . made him think about those movies where some poor schmuck ended up with a Mafioso’s drug money. The gun . . . tool . . . device could be many things, but it clearly wasn’t his. Just like his mother had said, it belonged to somebody.

Dante touched an icon. The gun clicked as the screen vanished. “Here goes,” Dante said as he held the gun at arm’s length, pointing it at the already burned tree.

Peter wanted to cover his ears.

“Damn,” said Dante, a tinge of surprise in his voice. “The forest is gone.”

The trees stood as they did before, water dripping off the leaves. Overhead, thunder rumbled.

“It looks there to me.”

“No, on the screen, the trees aren’t there.”

The screen had reappeared. Peter looked over Dante’s shoulder. It showed a bare landscape. No trees or grass or brush. Just dirt and rock. Dante swung the gun from one view to the next. On the screen, all plants were gone.

A brown blob in an upper corner caught Peter’s eye. “Go back. What’s that?”

Dante squinted at the screen. “I think it’s a squirrel.” He moved his finger toward the screen, as if to touch it. “Oh, wow.” When his finger grew close, the image magnified. It was a squirrel, one of about a dozen within view, all floating, it seemed, without support. They also found birds and a snake. Peter didn’t know that snakes could be in the trees.

He looked away from the screen again. The forest stood unchanged, but now he knew the animals were hidden in the branches.

Dante turned so the gun was pointed at Peter. He laughed, hard. “You’re naked, bud. Whew, you really should get a tattoo.”

“Let me see that.” The gun erased clothes! “The TSA would like this, I’d bet.” Peter swung the gun up so he could only see Dante from the waist up. He moved his finger toward the screen to see how much it would magnify. Instead of growing larger, though, Dante’s skin turned red in the screen, revealing meat and pulsing veins. “Whoa! I might not have any clothes, but you don’t have any skin.” When his finger got close enough, the image of Dante’s face in the screen peeled away so that he became a sculpture of muscles and tendons. A little closer, and the bone surfaced through the fading flesh—an animated skull that stared back at him—and closer yet revealed the throbbing wet mass of Dante’s brain.

Dante wasn’t looking at him now, though. He bent to study the trail. “Somebody else has been here.”

Peter released the trigger, turning the gun off. In the mud between Dante’s feet glistened the footprint of a smooth-soled shoe. “That’s got to be recent.”

Lightning cracked hard, and the clouds opened, soaking them. Dante surveyed the forest in the rain and the cloud-caused dark, now almost impenetrable. “That’s a recent print. Whoever made that could still be around.”

The woods were no match for the downpour, and there was no safe place to shelter. They ran through the trees to the high school before splitting up for their homes.

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