It was a gang of three, and as a temporary replacement member, my status in the group was always somewhat tenuous. The other guys accepted me well enough, but there was always the understanding that I would eventually be gone -- either when our time in the country was up, or if I committed some transgression that warranted my expulsion. The rules were unspoken, but generally understood, and for most of the year we lived there, I was able to fit within them. There was one incident... one mistake I made, the resulting suspension from which lasting 2 long months, but that's another story, and otherwise, I "belonged" as best as a temporary member could expect to. I was the replacement for one Matt Mcintosh, who's family had moved to Budapest. The mere mention of his name invoked starry-eyed reminiscing from both parents and teens alike. He was something of a class legend, although no one had ever done a good job of explaining why. So when the news got around that Matt was coming back for a visit, I was as curious as everyone else was excited.

When he arrived later that week, he immediately took his rightful place back as the unofficial leader of the group. I half expected to be excluded for the duration of his visit, but he made a point of including me, and for that I was grateful. Matt was short -- shorter even then me, and I was one of the smallest 9th graders I knew -- but he was imposing, if not in stature, in personality. He had remaining hints of a southern accent, although he spoke German fluently and hadn't lived in the States since he was very young, and he had what I later concluded must be "Southern Charm." He was polite to all adults, all the time. He addressed my mom as "ma'am" and my dad as "sir," upon introduction, and spoke to them comfortably and respectfully. My mom later referred to him as "a beautiful boy" -- the highest praise I'd ever heard her give one of my friends. When he came to class with us the day after he arrived, teachers would stop him in the hall to talk to him -- one even left a full classroom to catch up with Matt and say hello. Even the librarian, who had, as Anthony called it, a "toilet brush haircut" and was infamous for being grouchy and disciplinarian, appeared to be totally smitten with Matt. To tell the truth, I wouldn't have believed that he had anything in common with the more rebellious spirit of my comrades Anthony and JJ, except that they followed his lead so completely that I knew there must be something I was missing.

That evening we were invited to the house where the McIntosh family was staying. Matt's family proved to be equally gracious and friendly, and we were granted permission to eat dinner in the family room while playing Super Mario Kart. While the original members of the gang reminisced about past adventures, I listened, and soon began to understand that there was more to Matt then what I'd seen so far. Not a duplicity, or "other side" of his character. Rather a logical continuation of his attractive personality into something much more interesting. He was, for lack of a better word, pure and untethered mischief.

Every prank, every trick, every insult thrown, during the time I was a guest in the gang, traced its roots back to Matt. But no one knew that but the four of us in that room. No one would ever suspect that Matt McIntosh was the mastermind behind almost every act of rebellion committed by the class of 1998. But as we laughed at the stories he re-told, I realised why the guys had so much respect for Matt. He could apparently pull off anything, and not only get away with it, but have the adults eating out of the palm of his hand only moments later.

We decided we would have a sleep-over, so that we could plan some late-night hijinks, and since both Anthony and JJ lived outside of town, and since Matt's current residence was on the third floor of a borrowed house, my place was the logical choice. I had no trouble convincing my parents to let Matt McIntosh and his friends come and stay for the night -- even on a week night, and of course we could bring our sleeping bags down to the basement and hang out there.

So later that week the boys came over. We followed his lead -- myself now almost completely sold on his leadership, and still feeling indebted to him for including me -- and made polite conversation with the adults during dinner. Then we put a borrowed movie into our families borrowed and dying VCR, watched it and went to bed, a convincing facade of a more normal sleep-over. Then we sat there in the dark in our sleeping bags, talking quietly, for all appearances obedient young teenagers, until Matt said it was time.

That time was about 1:00 in the morning, and as planned I climbed up on the couch and opened the small basement window. My parents, presumably convinced that Matt's good influence had us all off to bed at a reasonable hour, were sleeping soundly two floors up -- I know because I'd snuck up the stairs to check a few minutes earlier. We all fit easily out the window, and I lowered it to an almost closed state afterward. It was summer and warm, but it had rained recently, and there was a cool breeze that smelled like flowers and freedom. We dashed nervously across the shared parking lot, and to the garage where our bikes were waiting. One of the arms of the garage door had a kink in it, and I knew it let out a loud and distinctive bang! whenever the door was raised, so I was shaking as I lifted it. The sound rang out like a cannon in the stillness of the night, and we crouched in the shadows, waiting nervously for a light to turn on in my parent's house, signaling our defeat. None came, so after a long wait we dashed into the garage and one-by-one wheeled our bikes out. I took a chance and left the garage door open, hoping no one would wake up and notice while we were gone.

Our house was on top of a hill, with a little walkway to the main road. It was dimly lit, and circumvented the more round-about vehicle entrance, so it was an obvious choice for an escape route. Once we made it down the little stairs with our bikes we'd be clear. I went last because my bike was furthest back in the garage, and by the time I got to the road, the others were most of the way down the hill, now little more than shadows in the night.

I didn't care, because as I mounted my bike at the top of the hill, and breathed deeply of the summer air, there was not another soul in sight. The citizens of our sleepy little German town of Kandern were all tucked away in their tidy houses, surrendering the night to the dicht and the flüchtlinge -- the drunk and the refugees. As my bike gathered speed, I raised my arms to my sides like wings, closed my eyes and relished the rush of the wind blowing through my hair. I felt more completely free than I ever had before. It struck me that could do anything I wanted that night, and no one would ever know -- no one would even believe it if I told them, because I was with Matt McIntosh, and he could do no wrong.

I flew past the train station, the Postamt and the Pommes-Frites stand, then raced around the curve at the bottom of the hill toward our pre-selected meeting spot near the school. A teacher had once driven along-side me on my way to school and clocked my speed in excess of 35 miles an hour, and in a town not much more than 20 square miles, that was fast. My friends had barely arrived when I pulled the back brake and skidded in a half-circle to a stop around them. My hair was as wild as my eyes, and as I turned to Matt and saw the same look mirrored back at me, I knew we were going wreak havoc that night. I knew that, at least for the next few hours, Kandern belonged to us...

The End

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