The kids weren’t in awe with the spire, even though it was the largest thing around, taller than the Eiffel Tower, as their substitute teacher Ms. Butts told them in geography class at the end of the school year. They called her Ms. Butts not because of an easy-to-mock surname but because her butt, wrapped in a tight black leather skirt, was quite a spectacle. None of the girls in their class had a butt like that.
They rarely looked up to marvel at the concrete TV Tower that reminded Tomas of the Christmas tree toy he broke at his Grandma's house. Both were grey and pointy, and had a mid-section looking like a hula-hoop. Tomas breaking the toy wasn't the reason Grandma dropped dead a week after the holidays but sometimes he thought that it was the opaque piece of glass blown and coated in Soviet times, and not the many diseases with barely pronounceable names that Grandma had, that led to her sudden death.
The only times the trio did cock up their heads was to talk about Sandra's birthday party for which her rich folks – rich by the standards of Tomas, Jonas and Mark – rented the rotating restaurant up top. Or when Mark described – for the hundredth time and with more gore at each recount – the reason why they banned bungee-jumping from the upper platform. Those two occasions notwithstanding, the tower was barely noticeable, even if it served as the axis for their everyday adventures. Fading into the background on a regular day, it shined like a beacon from a distance – a first glimpse of hope visible from the highway that brought them home from the much-dreaded exile of their parents' summerhouses.
There were reasons not to look up, as their eyes were usually scanning the grass for brown beer bottles. At the kiosk, the bottles could be exchanged for any convertible currency – dolphin-shaped gummies, jawbreakers, Formula One stickers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles gum. The lady who owned the little aluminum shop of wonders was a sweetheart. She was so apologetic when the kiosk ran out of plastic turtles you could get after collecting ten TMNT wrappers (only Donatello was left, but you couldn’t really play with four Donatellos). “I’ll call the wholesaler myself,” she swore. Even if she never actually bothered to do so, her promise made the three boys feel like adults.
When not looking for loot, they would be playing pogs on the stairs, building dams on little streams that trickled down into the river, crafting shoddy bows and quite formidable condom cannons. How you made one is you'd tightly tie a balloon (condoms didn't really work for that purpose) to a cut-off plastic bottleneck with some string. Pulling and releasing the balloon was enough to shoot a projectile at your enemy. The three friends would load their cannons with white inedible berries when playing amongst themselves, and with sunflower seeds when waging war on kids from the other block. Using pebbles was against the Geneva convention.
They would often find themselves playing around the spire, especially on days like this – Midsummer, the longest day of the year.
"So where's my present?” Jonas asked his buddies as they rushed up the stairs to the meadow below the spire, the sharp scent of freshly cut grass hitting their nostrils.
"Is it your birthday or what?" Tomas replied. He knew it wasn't, as he had all important information, like his best mate’s birthday, written down in his Tom & Jerry notebook.
"It's Saint John's!"
"So you're a saint or what?"
Both were out of breath as they had raced to the stairs just a minute ago. Mark was still a few flights behind, as he wasn't the quickest or the most agile of the three.
"Hey, porky, keep up!" Jonas shouted, skipping both a few steps and the rant about not getting a gift on his name day.
"The bloody hut isn't going anywhere!"
"You don't know that. One day it's there and the other – poof," Tomas made a gesture his teachers – Ms. Butts included – would have found obscene.
"You mean twenty years it's there and today – this exact day – it goes poof?" Jonas asked, making an even more obscene gesture, waiting for Mark to catch up.
They waded through the bramble, taking a shortcut through the illegal pet cemetery, where the grave of one particularly venerated rottweiler rivaled some of the human graves at both the Catholic and the Orthodox cemeteries. Mark's goldfish was buried there as well, under a cardboard plaque.
“Let’s approach it slowly,” Tomas suggested. He shot up in height that summer and being taller made him feel and act like the leader of the pack.
The hut had not, in fact, gone anywhere. It was there – a small green wooden construction elevated above the ground by four tall posts. The paint was cracked and the walls were covered in moss. There was a door but no way to access it, unless you happened to have a step ladder. The roof of the hut was made of fine metal mesh. It was an unsightly hut, and the few rusty antennae on top didn’t add much in terms of beauty to its look.
The boys approached the familiar hut in silence, which was not typical of them. And in the silence of the longest day of the year, interrupted only by the sound of someone revving their Honda Civic engine by the garages, they could hear it loud and clear. The Hum.
The Hum appeared a week ago. It was Mark who noticed it when the three were playing durak in the shade that the hut generously provided them on lazy summer afternoons. Mark tended to concentrate on his hand, trying to pick the best card to play. It rarely paid off, and he was yet to learn that the only long-term winning strategy was cheating.
"Maybe it's a bumblebee hive," Mark proposed the first time they had all become aware of the Hum.
"That's hornets, you dummy. Bumblebees don't live in hives".
"Don't you mean wasps?"
"Where do bumblebees live then?"
"It's some stripy insect thing that lives in colonies. I've heard the same hummm above our balcony and then dad hit the nest with a broomstick and there was this cloud of angry Japanese killer bees."
"Bullshit. They're like a finger long".
"Well, maybe they were Chinese bees."
The game of durak progressed slowly, and they saw no stripy insect thing fly out from the porous upper part of the hut, which they already nicknamed the attic. Their discussion – loud enough to silence the Hum – took a turn away from insect taxonomy.
"It's probably one of those spy communication devices".
"Under the TV Tower? The signal would get jammed."
"So it's a jammer then!"
"You jam at the receiver and not at the source. How can you not know that?" Jonas's dad was a Doctor of Physics who sold Vietnamese jeans at the outdoor market, that’s how Jonas knew things like that.
The theories morphed over the week. An alien probe, a robot in distress, a pirate TV station that only broadcasted artsy Italian erotica from the 70s – nothing was dismissed as too outlandish. And while the kids could not manage to stop their trains of thought from going as fast as the Japanese shinkansen, they did manage to keep the Hum a secret. It was knowing when to shut up that held their friendship together, even more than the funny and embarrassing stories that they shared.
Yet the Hum remained a mystery. The Geiger meter they borrowed from Mark's grandfather, without him knowing, didn't start frantically ticking. And everyone's compasses were unimpressed by the magnetic field surrounding the hut. But this day was supposed to be the day they uncovered the truth.
"Don't tell me you forgot to bring it," Tomas scolded Mark in advance, well aware of his chubby friend's absent-mindedness.
Mark looked at him scornfully and produced an aerosol can from the pocket awkwardly sewn to the back of his light summer vest.
"You know how much this thing cost? I could have bought the new Formula One album and five packs of stickers!"
"We’ll chip in!" Jonas, who stood on guard some ten steps from the hut, shouted.
Tomas grabbed the can of compressed air and started shaking it with the vigor of a graffiti artist. The only graffiti he had painted were Sharpie willies in the school’s toilet.
“We can break a bike lock with it too, right?” Mark asked, rubbing his palms together.
“Screw that, a guy’s bike’s untouchable,” Tomas put him down. “Now, breaking into the school’s lab…”
“You’re shaking that shit, but how are we gonna reach the bloody lock?” Mark pointed at the rusted but still impressive-looking barn lock that dangled a good meter above his head.
“Ever heard of Catalan human ladders?”
“You and your Grandma’s docus!”
Tomas didn’t retort, as shaking the can called for his full attention. Mark, mesmerized by the smooth moves of his friend, felt jealous of the most important role in their mission. He wanted to ask to shake the can as well, but something else broke the silence. The easily notable sound of dangling keys. The can fell from Tomas’s hand just as Jonas shouted:
Their collective sixth sense kicked in immediately, as they all realized that something was approaching, something that wouldn’t look fondly at the three kids dicking around with an aerosol can. No one of them understood how they ended up in the bushes, as their feet thought faster than their brains. Unseen by the interloper, they were now all watching him – a bearded man in denim overalls carrying the holy grail of break-ins. A folding step ladder.
“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” Mark whispered, only to be shushed by the others.
They saw the man get up the ladder and open the same lock they were planning to shatter like glass. He unlocked the lock with one of the many keys on his keyring and opened the creaking little door, the Hum turned into something else. There was fighting, there was chaos, there was… a flock of homing pigeons that soared right into the sky, almost as high as the rotating restaurant of the TV Tower.
“So that’s what the Hum was… Bloody pigeons.” Jonas uttered after a minute of admiring the birds’ pirouettes, disappointment strong in his voice.
A mystery that occupied their minds for the better half of the week was now airborne, hovering above them, threatening to leave them on the longest day of the year.
“I bet you they’re spygeons!” Mark shouted, breaking their cover. But the man with the ladder was too occupied with cleaning the pigeon coop to notice.
“Yes, yes! They had spy dolphins in the Black Sea, spy falcons in the Caucasus. Why not spy pigeons here?” Jonas quickly picked up the thread.
“I’ll go grab my dad’s binoculars!” Tomas shouted, his feet already carrying him home.
“Maybe they’re zombie pigeons?”
Their galloping steps raised dust and sent pinecones flying as they raced against each other on the longest day of the year.
This story was originally published on the Soaring Twenties Social Club website.