Fit to locate his comrades and desert the loathsome school, Billy prowled along the spine of the building, his broad strides disheveling the chains of hedges crowding the scanty path. Plowing his way onto the lot's foreground, he encountered his usual entourage, lounging against the establishment's shingled face.
Darren warily detached from the wall and greeted him. "Hey. We waited for ya," he explained, feeling obliged to supply an excuse for their presence.
"So, uhm..." Chucky cleared his throat, his expression faintly apologetic, "...How'd it go?"
Billy snorted contumeliously. "As usual. Those grown-ups don't have a clue." Impulsively craving violence, he pumped his hand hungrily and wondered, "Where's Boogs? I wanna vent some anger."
"Hey, wait!" issued from the mowed plant-life in Billy's wake.
Discommoded by the intrusion, the trio turned to watch the speaker clamber forth, slapping at the groping twigs and generally stumbling over himself to escape the cultivated jungle. The gang acknowledged the bungling youth with disdainful sneers.
"It's the new kid again."
Reflecting on his need of a victim, Billy sighed resignedly, "I guess he'll have to do."
Crono earned his footing and coldly regarded the sum of bullies. Darren and Chucky's presence startled him, and a shoe sliding back in retreat betrayed this. The child momentarily balanced on silence, his ill confidence impairing a normally facile vocabulary.
The lull itched Billy's temper, and he conveyed his impatience by shifting his weight towards the diminutive inciter and addressing him.
"Wha'ddya want, kid? I'm in a bad mood."
Booger, by her nature, was as unsure of her route as she would be of any decision contrived by her own instinct. She meticulously wove through her schoolyard's mismanaged, retiform bushes in pursuit of the day's quarry: the inherited owner of a bleached, tattered headband. The mnemonic item was twined about her left knuckles like a makeshift bandage, secured in both her grasp and memory.
When swimming out of the shrubbery towards the campus's front, the scent of an impending scuffle triggered a freezing of the joints. To spite an anxious heart, Booger focused her hearing over the pounding in her ears and instead on the banter of an ensuing quarrel.
The bellow of a thundering beast was distinguished foremost. "I did what?!"
Blind conviction answered him. "You heard me--you took it! It's my bandanna and I want it back!"
Booger reeled at the auditive input, and mentally fumbled with the new variables.
Billy... Crono... bandanna?
"Uh... dude, what's he talkin' about?" Chucky verbalized her thoughts, albeit with a spin of slang.
"I have no idea," Billy admitted, "But I think he just asked to get his scrawny ass kicked. Is that what you want, shrimp? 'Cause I'm in a real 'giving' mood today."
"I'm in the mood for a little charity, too," Darren followed the suggestive remark.
"You know what I'm talking about!" Crono persisted, anger lending his words an edge of clarity normally dulled by a childish slur. "I don't like being stoled from!" he added, a backwoods dialect spoiling the effect.
Stolen... Crono... Billy... stolen... bandanna...
Booger glanced to her clothed hand, and a certain dread seized her.
Finally realizing the magnitude of her folly, she shrank into the enveloping flora and away from the unpleasantries, not prone to confront danger. The mute grappled with her conscience amid the sheltering leaves.
What could she do now? Without a suitable deterrent, the "terrible trio" would invariably donate some knuckle sandwiches to the "kill the newbie" cause. Then again, to intervene at this point would only redirect that order of sandwiches to Booger's plate.
Regardless of the resulting discomfort, the notion to volunteer her service was justifiable. After all, this dilemma was the fault of a stolen article--an article that the girl had taken under sincere courtesy, but without consent, nevertheless.
Fretful of the boys' attention, Booger tried to squirm deeper into the hedges and proof herself against recognition. The foliage itself hindered her, however, and she contorted to glimpse the encumbrance.
A tail of the disputed bandanna was hitched on an unwieldy stem. With her hand haltered to it thus, Booger tugged on the twig an inch, but the stuck cloth wouldn't yield without a greater force. As she reached her spare forelimb to claw at the problem, the child paused.
Suspended in that awkward, crouched stance, Booger heavily reviewed her predicament. She distantly stared at the branch fixed to the bandanna that was slung around her wrist, as if entranced by it.
A glint of ingenuity flared behind her glossy spectacles. Booger got an idea.
Fending off the sun's harassment with a veil of tiles, the roof's overhang seemed to close over Crono like a crocodile's jaw as he unwittingly backed into its shadow. His recoil was hinted to him whenever a fleck of sunshine was wiped off his nose, and he minded this detail enough to cease his backtracking and hold his ground as Billy and his cohorts encroached on his diminishing personal space.
"You'd better run that by me again," the chief behemoth warned without subtlety, "This time without that part I thought I heard about me bein' a thief."
Crono was on the verge of growling. "Don't play dumb! I know you took it 'cause you're the only one who could'a!" he relied on deductive, if fallacious, logic.
A jab to his left shoulder jarred the lad's senses and tossed him into the wall. As the moulting paint grated against his elbows the redhead learned that Chucky had applied the force, acting in accord with Billy's next words.
"Wrong answer, shrimp-o. There's one hit against ya. Nobody calls me dumb!"
Whether it was for the sake of his own amusement or a rare fit of mercy, Billy allowed another chance for the new student. The mammoth leered down at Crono, an icy sheen filming his eyes and augmenting his most ominous features. "Okay, ya get one more shot. Now, what were you sayin'?!"
A stony, indignant glare was returned. "Give it back!"
Darren, acknowledging a spoiled pardon when he saw one, gaped in astonishment as one should at heinous idiocy, while Chucky's expression was likewise confounded by the insanely brave retort.
The bully's pounce was as instantaneous as a reflex and uncannily swift for a person of such ponderous stature. Utilizing an open fist, Billy fastened Crono's backside to the wall by the breadth of his freshly bruised arm. The timber slates quivered under the rough impact and dislodged a shower of particles that frosted the small boy's crimson hair with dust.
"Man, what a stupid ass!" Darren's commentary was dimly registered over a second thud; this one issued from Billy's other palm as it rooted itself on the wall a sneeze away from Crono's ear, thus barring his escape.
"Okay smartass!" Billy hotly roared, forcing his captive to flinch, "Since you've obviously got shit-for-brains, I'll spell it out for ya. First a' all, I ain't got your stupid bandannie or whatever the hell you're talking about. As a matter of fact, I don't know who's got it, and last, I couldn't give a bigger rat's ass about it! I don't even know who'd want the stupid thing!"
This confession was hardly satisfactory to the caged boy, and he spat defiantly, "You liar! I--"
One sweep of the arm thwarted Crono's words when Billy cuffed him across the cheekbone. "I'm what!? A liar!?" the redhead caught such exclamations as he sorted through the stars swarming his vision. "Dammit, new kid," the assailant continued, his tolerance for inane obduracy exhausted, "That's the last straw! I wasn't gonna at first, but since I'm apparently such a thief, I guess I got no choice!"
Struck by a daze, the spiky-haired youth was too sluggish to prohibit his larger foe from violently strapping his forearm over Crono's neck and raiding the vulnerable lad's pockets. A handful of robbed coins rang upon the unquenched earth as Billy scrounged for and discarded items indiscriminately.
"You teach 'im, Billy," Chucky encouraged the lawless reprisal.
"Ack, stop it," the redhead gagged dizzily as he was relieved of his possessions. Some type of warm syrup began to drip from his nose and tickle his upper lip, but Crono dared not heed it, or make any abrupt movements, for that matter.
"The hell--?!" Billy started the moment he encountered a questionable substance in the pouch of his victim's tunic. Lifting it into his associates' view, he queried, "What the hell is this, guys?"
"Um... ew?" Chucky fecklessly guessed.
"Yuck, man, looks like a green turd," Darren related the object to the most repulsive concoction he could imagine.
Crono revived at the sight of it. "Hey, that's mine!" he choked, identifying Matt's lucky rock.
Billy turned a skeptical grimace on him. "You keep crap in your pocket, newbie?"
Ignoring the chorus of snickers from the bully's henchmen, Crono cheaply defended, "It's not crap; it's lucky!"
Billy snorted sardonically. "'Guess it's not!" Indifferent to a short, "Hey, no!" he shrugged the enchanted stone over his head, relinquishing it to the sandlot behind him.
"There, ya happy now?!" he appealed to the thief's title earlier bestowed him. "Guess what else, new kid?" the agitator continued, "You just signed up for the poundin' a' your life. You know why? 'Cause there're three things people don't call me: a dumbass, a thief, and a liar, 'cause I ain't! Now you're not only gonna wish you'd never moved here; you're gonna wish you'd never even been born, punk!"
Fulfilling this intent, Billy retracted his steely grip on the boy and spaced some air between the two. A finger-snap summoned his accomplices, who eagerly appeared at his sides. He employed them as one would dispatch hit men, giving both a grimly succinct command.
"With pleasure," Chucky beamed sadistically. Not sparing their victim more time than needed to reclaim his bearings, he and Darren advanced on the rebellious youngster as if to pinion him to the grainy cladding again. Despite the unwilling lad's thrashing protests, overpowering him was a mere chore for the pair.
Crono's wits wholly restored to a firm strength against his shoulders and Billy's looming silhouette, cloaked in the high sun's dazzling radiance.
"Let me go!" he desperately demanded, trying to wrench himself clear of Chucky and Darren's hold.
"Quit squirmin'," Billy silenced his futile resistance, "This won't take long. Your head's hollow--it'll cave in quick."
Sometime around the point when Billy was loosening his wrist in the fashion of a butcher sharpening his knife before the slaughter, Crono figured perhaps Joey was right about leaving the bully and his thugs alone, after all.
'Oh no,' he lamented amid thoughts of doom, 'I can't die yet! Not in Truce! I just got here. ...I can't even spell "Truce" yet! I should'a listened to Joey. I should'a just went home. But now...'
Finally, Billy wound his fist back, his cruel smile extinguishing any vestige of hope in Crono's eyes. The condemned lad hung his head, suddenly stricken with homesickness. 'I wish I could go home. I wish I never moved here.'
"You know what?" the bully decided as his fist was poised to bludgeon the boy into oblivion, "I think I'm gonna enjoy this..."
'...I wish Matt were here.'
"Stop!" a rock shouted as it pecked the giant ruffian on the arm. Wincing, Billy dropped his bare weapon and wheeled about, irritated by the objection.
"Who did that?!"
It was a rhetorical question. Not even Crono expected the culprit--if such existed--to expose himself to blame. Asking to be gutted alive with a meter stick would have invited more promising results. Defying the laws of self-preservation, however, was a single bystander, void of disguise or shade in the barren lot. Everyone was instantly struck with bewilderment.
It was Booger.
At first, Billy peered past her as if she were invisible, his mind rejecting the potential suspect. When the concept eventually sank in that she was the only available human being within range, he gawked at her incredulously, and then asked, "Was that you, Booger?"
"Naw, can't be," Chucky argued, "Booger don't talk."
"But she's the only one around," Darren countered, mystified as he was by the notion, himself.
The little girl typically surrendered nothing in the way of response spare an impression of guilt. She distractedly watched her shoes bury themselves in the dirt and murmured something unintelligible.
"I don't believe this." Billy smirked. "This day just keeps getting dumber and dumber."
"Maybe it's just you."
Billy's hard look could have cut stone. Darren shut up.
Turning back to the fairer instigator, his frown evolved into a scowl as the bully adopted an appropriate emotion. "Now I'm just pissed." Neglecting his prey pending in order to pursue more puzzling quarry, he stomped toward Booger, an inquisition bubbling out before he could reach her.
"Was that really you, Boogs? Did little miss 'I'd sooner piss my pants and hide,' weenie-ass Booger, who can't talk, can't scream, can't even fart loud enough to get the attention of a mouse, just tell me--me!--to stop? Was that you?!"
In what she would later call "the second-stupidest thing she had done in her life" (the first being throwing the rock to begin with), Booger nodded.
Billy flapped his arms in exasperation. "The hell, Boogs!?" the mute was shrieked at. "What the hell did you think you were doing? Did you think it was funny? Did you think it was very smart to throw a rock at someone who could cram those dumb glasses a'yours down your puny neck?"
She shook her head, not negotiating the terms of moronic behavior.
"I hope you're not feeling sorry for the new kid, Booger," Billy's rant furthered. His pacing would've trampled the girl, had his thick toes not stopped at the skirts of her shoes. "'Cause he's not gonna be around for much longer. And if you wanna stick around much longer yourself, you'd better start talkin' again real quick, before I think I'm hearin' things."
Darren, who had appeared beside his fuming partner out of morbid fascination, goaded Booger towards this feat with mocking commands. "Speak girl, speak!"
"I wanna hear 'er say somethin', too," Chucky whined as he joined the spectacle.
The gang floated over her with amused, interested, and generally formidable anticipations, the sum of their imposing frames blotting out the sun. The frail child shriveled like a weed beneath them and her mouth worked like a hooked trout, hanging ajar but refusing to procure coherent sound.
"We don't got all day, Boogs," Billy pressured her failing voice.
"Aw, she won't do it again," Darren sided with doubt.
"She'd better!" the behemoth growled, aggravated by the fruitless stammering.
The warning was as potent as the bunt of a furled newspaper upside the head. Booger cringed like a feral animal and swallowed the lump of terror that had ossified in the back of her throat. She appeared to panic as her eyes darted sporadically over the scene in search of an imaginary, irrecoverable item. Gradually, the girl tamed her frantic breaths and settled her gaze on a target in the background.
The subject of Booger's stare was beyond the trio, and before any could realize its significance, the timid girl opened her lips, nibbled some air, and finally spoke.
Booger's words were as alarmingly clear as a foghorn in a cavern, but everyone's initial reaction was blank and numb, as if she had instead ordered them to drive a square peg through a round hole in some obscure language. The event was such an impossible rarity that no one was quite sure whether to be amazed or frightened. The girl was smacked with a backlash of pudency by the strength of her own voice, and her hands clamped fast over her mouth in embarrassment.
The repercussions of her outburst were realized belatedly. In synchrony, the bullies turned to find their former captive courting escape in the dense shrubbery. Unlike his antagonists, Crono wasn't lost enough in his own shock to doze through the opportunity to flee with his hide intact.
"Oh sh--!" Darren partly exclaimed as he jumped to chase.
"Uh... hey!" Chucky followed.
Forced to reschedule his discourse with Booger, Billy aimed a, "You're gonna eat it for this later, Boogs!" over his shoulder while sprinting to catch up with the others.
Crono dove headlong into the nearest haven: the margin of bushes from which he was pursuing Billy not minutes earlier. With the tables irrevocably turned now, the swamping foliage seemed much more arduous to barrel through in haste than to crawl through in stalking. As the boy endured a gauntlet of pricking greens, gaunt twigs and snaring roots, a flare of white whipped over his head, startling him. When spinning about to trace the elusive brightness, glimpses of the three hounds tailing him hinted that Booger's diversion served merely to postpone the imminent.
"There he is!" Darren's voice reported.
"I'm gonna kill 'im!!" roared Billy, spooking Crono with his closing proximity. He abandoned his distraction and continued to jog toward safety.
The bully's partners afforded him the role of bulldozer, and with his burly arms as scythes Billy burned a scar into the hedges. He gruffly sliced his way closer to his retreating target, and could barely reach of a tassel of the lad's crimson hair when something attacked him.
A tensile limb recoiled into Billy's face, and with it a cumbersome attachment: a blank cloth strip, knotted to a pair of branches and strained precisely across the path to catch the lofty ruffian at the eyebrows. Billy fell into the white band with a flailing step and yelp of alarm, his inertia disrupted and his vision patched with coarse cotton. His balance twisted, and the bully, the blindfold, and the bushes toppled over collectively with a leafy whoosh.
Crono heard the cry and commotion, but didn't incline to his curiosity's urged detour. He burst from the foliage with a sharp gasp and flurry of leaves. He surveyed the vacant courtyard ahead, and then quickly checked the trodden path at his back to see Billy and his pals engrossed in the jungle-esque morass.
A hailing chirp spun his glance into the opposite direction. Crono was expressly bemused to watch Booger scurry around the schoolhouse's corner and approach him. Preserving her running pace, she swept past him, hooked his elbow, and lured him backwards to the territory's border fence.
"H-Hey wait!" the boy squawked as he reacted adversely to the displacement, but the girl pressed him towards the fence regardless. She bid him into a recess within the perimeter of bushes and untagged his arm in order to pry at one of the fence's slates. Prodding at the rim of the board with her slender fingers, she managed to wedge the plank ajar, something to Crono's amazement. Booger then held her weight against the flimsy wood and opened a gap just wide enough for a small body to slide through.
"Go," she insisted, her tone curiously stolid.
Crono was dumb with astonishment, and his gaze volleyed between the exposed vista of Turkey Lane and the strange girl proposing his freedom. With all the rush of events, the young lad was muddled in his attempt to comprehend Booger's motives. Although he was wondered by her acts, Booger was hardly patient with his hesitation. Sensing a lapse of communication, she tried to clarify her suggestion.
Crono stalled another moment, disturbed by the flat ring in her voice. It did nothing to mirror her general composure, set ill with suppressed panic. Her support against the fibrous beam faintly wavered, and behind her lensed mask Booger's eyes trembled with frightful anxiety. For a second the boy was convinced he had something to tell her, but the words never assembled, and he instead climbed through the slim opening and onto the tranquil sidewalk. Crono's feet were firmly on the pavement when he detected a meek, "Thank you," and a wobble as the fence fitted itself whole again.
He whirled to find the face of his Samaritan, but only met the vapid countenance of the fence. He scratched at its steadfast boards, trying to reclaim the shortcut, but the attempt to wrench open the hidden passage was quickly rated as impossible by any external means. Crono scoured the wood's constricted slits, fishing for a glimpse or remnant of that girl.
But Booger was gone. The boy, confounded and alone, applied a question mark to her last words.
"Where'd he go?" projected over the fence, reminding Crono that he was still the subject of a manhunt. He was instantly grateful for his current position, well beyond the bullies' detection.
"Hey, there's Booger!"
"Huh? Oh you're dead, little girl!"
A sequence of footsteps faded with distance and ended flatly with a metallic crash. Alarmed to that portentous chord, Crono warily called, "Booger?"
Not an echo returned. As the boy bore the suspense of silence, the nature of his status finally occurred to him. He was free. His situation was so miraculously contrived that he could abandon the perilous scene and meander home without a single scar or token of his discord with Billy.
However, that advantage wouldn't be relished without scruples. How could he indulge in the turn of fortune that spared him Billy's wrath without recognizing Booger's play in the scheme? A pang of guilt afflicted the lad's conscience, and a skirmish raged in his head over what to do with himself.
It would be easy to follow his left and take a protracted, yet safe, route home. It would denote cowardice, however, to neglect the way to the right and leave behind the girl responsible for saving him. Crono's eyes skimmed along the length of wall, screening for a sign to persuade his next direction. He looked to the right, then to the left, then right once more, before resigning to his better intentions and falling into a run.
He couldn't realize how that decision was going to affect the rest of his life. He didn't know, either, if he was going to find Booger, or Billy, or simply more trouble, but this was just something he "had to do." Crono couldn't leave anything half-done. Matt taught him better.
Besides... he never got his bandanna back.