Billy turned down the volume on his car radio as he pulled into the empty parking lot. He checked his map. This was the place. An old strip mall full of abandoned nail salons and Mexican restaurants. A general sense of unease coated the area like grease on fries. He was a long way from the suburbs.
“Hey Billy!” A familiar voice shot out from one of the buildings. “Come on in! Glad you could make it!”
Billy couldn’t help but smile. Red was always coming up with these crazy shenanigans for the holidays. And the Fourth of July would be no exception. But he had never taken the group so far into the south side. Still, Red’s voice seemed to melt away any inhibitions.
Billy shuffled out of his car and into the dilapidated building. It was once a Payless shoe store. The kind Billy used to go to in middle school. It was weird seeing it in such bad shape. It was an empty concrete husk with scrap metal laying haphazardly along the edges of the floor and a single barrel in the center of the room. Red leaned against it as he shook with excitement. Another figure lurked in his shadow, Billy recognized him as someone from his school but could not seem to place a name to the face.
“How the hell are ya Billy? It’s been too damn long!”
“It’s been two days.” Billy shot back with a grin.
“Well, do I have something planned for us tonight!” He gestured to the plain looking kid next to him. “This is John. You probably know him from Algebra.”
Billy and John made brief eye contact before turning back to Red.
“So John here!” He clasped him on the back upon mentioning his name. “He says we can shoot fireworks at him for $50. He needs the money or something I guess.”
Billy smiled sheepishly and stepped back.
“What the hell is this man?”
John spoke up. “Look, I need the money and Red said I could stand all the way at the back of the store while you shoot. Just do it man, everybody wins.”
Billy tried to play off his comments with a shrug, but he still felt uneasy about the whole situation. Red was not helping with a manic energy that shook Billy. He was not sure why Red wanted to shoot fireworks at this kid and it was unlike him to be so outwardly mean.
Before Billy could protest, John was already walking to the other side of the room. Red was suppressing a deep chuckle. He inched a bony elbow into Billy’s chest.
“Hey Bill.” He whispered. “So you know how my Pa was fired from the plant the other day?”
“It was this fucker’s dad that fired him.” He gestured into the barrel.
Billy’s stomach flipped over. He could tell this was not going well. And when he peered into the barrel he was expecting the worst. Only to find a standard pack of fountains and sparklers. The relief was breeze that swept away his anxiety. If only that was all he found in that barrel inside that abandoned payless shoe store.
“Check it out man.” Red lifted the fireworks and underneath were two hammers. One for Red. One for Billy. “Let’s fuck this guy up. By the time he turns around and realizes it, he’ll be trapped.”
Billy paused for a moment. This was wrong. He knew it was wrong. But Red was his best friend. He reached into the barrel and grabbed his hammer. His hand shook with the implications of what he was about to do. When would they know when he had enough? What if they accidentally killed him? So many questions. He looked over to Red who was already getting in a few practice swings.
Red flashed a toothy grin. “Happy Fourth Billy.”