Can friends get you in trouble? Read this short story by Colin Devonshire…

Mates

The sound of a textbook slamming on a desktop silenced the class, even the two boys fighting in the corner.
‘Pavlok and Jones, my office, now,’ said the headmaster as he turned and stormed down the corridor.
‘Idiot, now look what you’ve done,’ said Ivan Pavlok.
‘You started it, dickhead,’ answered Paddy Jones.
‘Because I got all the questions correct? That’s what we are supposed to do.’
The boys glared at each other, and the classmates sniggered as they dragged themselves off.

‘You see the copse of trees over there? Your job is to rake all the fallen leaves into that trolly.’ The headmaster tapped his window, ‘and then deliver the full wagon to Mr Carpenter, the groundsman. Starting when school closes at four pm until five pm. Got it?’
‘But, sir, I’ve got a school match,’ said Paddy.
‘No. you haven’t. You should have thought of that before you started causing trouble.’
Paddy sighed, and Ivan kept his eyes down.

They trudged back to their classroom and waited for the bell. Propped against the wagon were two rakes. Each boy grabbed one and shoved the trolley between them.
Paddy stopped and lit a cigarette. ‘You are so stupid,’ said Ivan. ‘He is watching us with his binoculars.’
‘I don’t care. It’s gone four.’
‘In case you hadn’t noticed, we are still on school grounds.’ Ivan tutted and marched to the trees.

‘Look, if we work together, we’ll get finished a lot quicker,’ said Ivan.
‘And how do you propose that? We’ve only got two rakes and four hands.’
‘You rake the leaves onto my rake, and then we can lift the whole lot together. Easy.’
The enormous plastic bucket was filling fast.
‘You can work for my father’s building firm if you need a job next year. Show them how to work faster,’ Paddy said.
‘Thanks, but no thanks, it’s too much like hard work. I’m going to be a scientist like my dad.’
The boys had cleared a large patch of ground; they high-fived and grinned at each other.
‘Hey, what’s that?’ asked Paddy.
They both got on their knees. ‘A silver ring?’
Paddy tried to lift it. ‘Look, there is a chain attached.’
‘And it goes under the tree roots. Can we get it out, and what do you think is at the other end.’
Both boys shrugged their shoulders and tugged at the chain.
‘I’ll tell you what, we can come back later when everyone has gone, and we can cut the roots away using my dad’s tools. What do you reckon?
‘Yeah, I’m up for that. So let’s tidy up, cover the ring, and nip off until, what? Seven or eight?’

‘I thought you were playing football tonight?’
‘Nah, I got detention with Ivan.’
‘You know, Ivan’s dad and I hated each other. But now we are mates.’
‘I’m meeting up with Ivan later.’

A similar conversation took place in Ivan’s house.
Both fathers said, ‘We even planted a tree together.’

Paddy rummaged around in his dad’s toolbox, stuffing saws and a battery-powered grinder into his backpack. ‘See you later,’ he called and rushed off to meet his “mate”.
The school gates were locked, and only the street lights illuminated the grounds.
The boys aided each other in climbing over the fence. Torches lit the path to the copse and their target tree. Paddy spilt his backpack onto the grass and found a lamp. They each pried at the root, then cut it in two, releasing the chain. They tugged at it. It moved, but not much.
‘There must be something at the end. What shall we do?’ asked Ivan.
‘Keep cutting at the roots, and then we can lean the trunk to one side. Grab what’s down there, and replace the earth; tap it down, and no one will know.’
‘Yeah, the tree is, what, twenty years old? So, not too big to shift.’
Both boys were sweating in the winter’s evening air. The lads chopped away at roots away, mud shifted, and the excellent teamwork freed more of the chain. They pulled and tugged. Gradually more inches of steel hoops came in sight.
Paddy rocked the tree trunk side to side. It cracked and split. Half of the trunk remained in Paddy’s hands; the other fell, missing Ivan by inches. Both boys gawped at each other.
‘My God. What have we done? But, look, what have we found?’
Four teenage hands wiped the earth away; they prodded and prised the cube box buried in the soil.
The boys looked around, making sure they were alone. Eventually, the murky steel-coloured box was free from its grave.
Ivan shook it. There was something inside. He smiled at his mate, who was busy looking for a clasp, lock, or some method of opening it.
‘It is steel and welded shut. So there must be something valuable inside,’ said Paddy.
‘Sure, no one would go to that trouble for cheap rubbish. So how are we going to open it?’
‘My dad had welding equipment at home. But I’m not allowed to go near it. What shall we do?’
‘We need to keep this secret.’ The lads were in deep thought.
‘What’s the time?’ asked Paddy.
Ivan showed the illuminated dial of his new watch. ‘Good, dad will be down at the pub. Come on, and we can open it without dad knowing.’ The boys hurried off, leaving the destroyed tree lying on the grass.

‘Mum, I’ve got Ivan with me; I’m showing some of my stuff in the garage, okay?’
Paddy clamped the box to a vice. Paddy marked the line of the weld. The box had once been two halves, but now, joined all the way around. Next, he needed to grind the weld away. As his mate started the operation, Ivan watched, jumping from foot to foot.
‘Mind, it will be hot,’ said Paddy as Ivan tried to lift the top.
After splashing water to cool the chained cube, and the steam disappeared, the boys looked at each other. ‘Who wants to open it?’ Ivan grabbed at the top, dropping it on the garage floor, and Paddy held the bottom. They peered in.
Both were ready to collapse, each holding the other up.
‘My God!’ they said.
They had seen too many horror movies and expected a gross smell. Both coughed and turned away, covering their mouths and noses. They looked back at their treasure and gazed inside again—a skull with the last vestiges of ginger clumps of straggly hair. Bits of flesh and skin hanging to jaw and cheekbones, yellow teeth grinned at them.
They looked at each other, then back at the head.
‘You or me?’ asked Ivan.
‘You get it out. I’m not touching that thing.’
Ivan leaned closer; he reached inside and picked out a folded sheet of paper from between the teeth.
“This was Mr Burke. He was our teacher. We hated him!”
At the bottom of the yellowing paper were the initials “P” and “A”.
‘Now what do we do?’ asked Paddy.
‘I guess we should tell the police?’
‘Let’s ask mum.’

‘Aagh, get that out of my house. It looks real,’ Paddy’s mum screamed.
‘It is real, mum, we found it.’
She hammered her phone, and a squad car arrived ten minutes later.
After viewing the skull, the boys led the police to where they found the box. They then explained what had happened—starting with their punishment and finishing with the welding equipment.

Early the following day, the police were at the school. They found photos of Mr Burke and grilled the headmaster, who told of Burke’s strange disappearance twenty years ago. Then the police were back at Paddy’s house. They arrested his father, Patrick. Who then joined his friend Antonovic in the cells. Ivan ran crying to his mate’s house.

Both prisoners gave a similar statement. “I had excelled in biology and learned about acids and what they can do to the human body. So I experimented on Mr Burke. That’s why there is only a head.” Signed Antonovic Pavlok.
“I got a welding kit and a few power tools for my birthday. I wanted to try them.” Signed Patrick Jones.
“We never thought the head would see the light of day. It was under the sapling we planted. How in hell’s name did the ring and chain work its way to the surface?”

The END

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