The ice cream truck sat by the side of the road, music cranked low, the ice cream cone on its roof spinning and flashing a kaleidoscope of colours against its dark purple. Up close like this, the cone didn’t look like plastic with a light bulb inside. It glowed all over like it was made out of white-hot rock, with a spiral of dark red lava from top to bottom.
The door slid open and someone jumped out. The driver. There was something spidery about the figure, something not right about its proportions.
“Heya, hey!” it said, in a voice that sounded like an amplified buzz. “Come on, you kids!”
Will’s stomach lurched. Was it talking to them? If Doof hadn’t been there, for sure he would have run away.
But no, the spidery figure was turned away from them. “Get busy!” it buzzed. “I feel customers coming!”
The service window in the side of the ice cream truck clattered open. Red lights showed a menu board and a couple of employees getting ready to sell whatever kind of ice cream and treats the truck had on offer. The employees must have been short; only their heads showed above the counter.
“They’re just kids. Let’s go see what they’ve got.” Doof stood but Will pulled him back.
“Maybe they’re kids, but that other guy isn’t. Didn’t you see him? He’s really weird looking.”
A gang of teenagers jostled down the road and stopped in front of the ice cream truck, yelling orders for Frosty Flamesicle and Sulphur Surprise. Just like the cone on top of the truck, the treats glowed like hot coals. The teenagers waved their popsicles and ice creams, tracing lines of light, laughing and daring each other to eat them. One took a lick and then another.
“Oh man, that smarts! Love it!”
“I’m gonna catch fire, but I can’t stop eating!”
“This one’s wild!”
“Look, I’m a fire-breathing dragon!”
Their exclamations faded away as they moved down the road. “See, it’s okay,” Doof said, jumping up. “Say, have you got any money?”
Will didn’t want to get any closer, but Doof was more than halfway across the street.
“Doof! Wait, come back!” Will’s voice felt as though it was being sucked away. Doof didn’t stop but slowed, his shape blending into the dusk. I’m scared. Will stomped down that thought and ran after Doof.
“Look, there’s a dog!” said Doof. A black form near the truck unfolded into a dog shape and turned its head toward them. A big head on a big dog. Really big.
Dogs loved Doof. He was always making friends with random dogs. But this was no ordinary dog. Dark orange flames floated behind it. Sparks shot from its studded collar.
Doof started toward the dog. “Hey, boy,” he said. “Come here.”
It shambled toward them. Its eyes glowed and little sparks popped out from its fur, like one of those happy birthday sparklers.
Will grabbed for Doof’s arm, but he was too far away. The dog came closer. He didn’t look mean, just weird, with the cloud of little lights around him, like dust.
“Come on, boy!” said Doof. “It’s okay, I won’t hurt you.”
Then the spidery guy looked over at them.
“Heya, heya, heya! Dog!” The voice rose to a buzzing screech that hurt Will’s ears. It did something to the dog too. He stopped and whined.
“Heya, heya, heya! Boys!” The tall black figure glided toward Will and Doof. It looked like it was put together from pieces, arms and legs snapped into the body, head bobbling on top. Its movements were both smooth and jerky, like it was worked with strings.
“Heya, heya, heya! We got treats for you!” Its voice twisted like wires, wrapping around Will’s head.
“Doof, let’s get out of here! Let’s go!”
Doof looked back at Will. Will could see he was scared too. “But the dog—”
“Never mind the dog. He’s their dog. Come on!”
The dog lurched toward them, jaws open and dripping fire.
“Run!” Will yelled. But Doof just stood there, watching the dog.
Then the guy moved, snapping a whip that shot purple sparks. The dog shambled slowly toward him. Doof finally turned and ran. The dog howled, a sound of empty loneliness that froze Will’s heart.
Three blocks later, Will sneaked a glance over his shoulder. No one there, just a faint glow of departing lights. The ice cream truck was gone. So was the dog.
Neither of them said anything until they were back at the corner of 12th and Maple, where a streetlight shed its cold light on the pavement.
“What is it?” asked Will. “It’s not really an ice cream truck. Who was that… guy? And that dog came after us.”
Doof had been looking at his shoes while Will was talking, but now he jerked his head up. “The dog was trying to get away. I’m going to go back and help him.”
“Whaa—? That’s stupid! He was helping that weird guy. They were trying to catch us.”
“No, he wasn’t. That dog needs help.” Doof sounded a lot older, almost like a grownup. “You’d better go home, Willy. You’ll get in shit for being late.”
“I’ll be in sh— shit for being out at all,” said Will. “Don’t your parents mind you being out late like this?”
“Parent. Just my dad. He doesn’t care much.”
Will thought about Doof’s weird lunches and frequent absences from school, his lack of concern about being late for meals. “Where’s your mom?”
“Gone,” said Doof. “Since last summer.”
“You mean… she died?” Will found himself whispering the last word.
Doof jerked his head up. “No, Willy, she didn’t die. She’s just gone.” He shrugged. “I dunno where.”
“Geez,” Will breathed. He couldn’t think what else to say.
“Okay, now you know. So how about if you go home.”
“But you can’t stay out all night! Come home with me. You can sleep in my room. Mom won’t mind.”
Doof made a sound that wasn’t really a laugh. “Maybe not, but what about your dad?”
Will didn’t say anything.
“Go home, Willy.”