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Birds in the trees.
I could taste blood on my lip and I immediately knew there was no way I could hide it from Mom. I thought of my cousins and wished I was eating birthday cake. I didn’t even particularly care that much for cake. I mean, it was all right, but it certainly wasn’t better than donuts or pie. Yet in that moment, that tiny, wallet-sized measurement of time, I could really go for a slice of--
“Get up, mutherfucker. I ain’t done put a hurt on you.”
Shane was the kid down the street—everyone with a down the street’s got one. He was stocky, tough looking, dark-eyed and dark-haired, wore his trucker cap cocked just to the side, knees of his jeans always dusty and dirty from playing too hard. His dad either worked at or owned—I never figured out which—a junkyard a couple of towns over. He was a year ahead of me and had a sister a year behind. There was a mental demarcation I had separating my block into two parts: My Side and the Wrong Side. Shane lived two houses past the Wrong Side. If our street had train tracks, he’d live beyond them. I suppose it couldn’t be helped; it wasn’t his choice where he lived. In our town, there was you and everyone else and everyone else was from the Wrong Side.
I was halfway standing when he kicked me in the shoulder, knocking me back down. It hurt.
I guess I made it to his wrong side.
School ended that year with a whimper. With all our work done, there was a lot of free time, reading time, movies, popcorn, even recess was extended to forty-five minutes from the usual thirty. I felt down, withdrawn, and participated only when instructed to. I was ready for school to be over and, while I was mostly quiet, made no effort to hide it.
I only saw Bashika a handful of times and, to my relief, always acted like she didn’t notice me. Chaz was absent, and while that too was somewhat of a relief, it was a stone deep in my belly; a reminder of something not quite lost, but hopelessly out of reach. I considered faking sick for the last day, but between the thing with Haley and other erratic behavior, my credibility was shot. Mom was likely glad to have me out of the house for an extended period and someone else’s problem for a change. In a way, I couldn’t blame her. I was tired of being around me too.
I spent a lot of time by myself, and when the weather was nice, did so outside. Most often, I was in the backyard, usually at the back of the property where Dad had a wood pile stacked around what I assume used to be a grill pit. I never found out if my parents used it or if it was from the previous owners, but there was a partially exposed cinder block foundation and when I dug around I found tiny bits of charred tin foil and a few pull tabs from old pop and beer cans. I also liked to dig for earthworms and would routinely leave holes and divots until Mom yelled at me to fill them in and stop tearing up the yard, which always lasted until the next time I was bored outside. The yard had a small slope and a set of crumbling steps leading down to a tool room built under the garage which Dad kept locked most of the time. There was a family of chipmunks who lived under the top step and likely contributed to the way it would tilt forward precariously if I put my weight on the front edge. Dad was going to kill them, but I begged him not to. Chipmunks were my favorite singers.
Mom and Dad were getting so they argued more than they didn't. Mom cried a lot. When Dad got home, he'd spend most of his time outside or in the basement and he barely spoke during supper. It came to be expected that I perpetuate conversation while we ate, but with school out for the summer, I didn't have much to tell about my day beyond the number of worms I dug up—which invariably got me in trouble with Mom—or if I found any interesting birds or ground animals while I was out. I had an old tractor tire Dad turned into a sandbox near the back porch and I would sometimes dig around in that, hoping to find toys I'd lost the previous summer. More often than not, however, I only succeeded in finding the ones I didn't care about, so it remained largely left alone. If I found any cool bugs in there, I would report those as well, but as the days wore on, I had less and less to admit—though a fair amount I kept to myself—and supper at home became a long, silent thing I wanted less and less to be a part of.
Shane was a kid from the neighborhood I didn’t know very well. Since we didn’t go to the same school, he was virtually a stranger, but he’d ride his bike up near my house and if I was outside, he’d circle a few times, watching me. He only stopped when I had my little cars out since his dad was into cars and that made them, in general, a big interest of his. But being a kid like me, little cars were the only ones he could readily get his hands on and he would come by once a week or so asking to trade. At first, I didn’t want to, since I liked the toys I had, and I was protective of them, but Shane insisted he was only borrowing them and when he was ready to trade again, he’d bring back the ones he got the last time. His cars were okay, but he had a lot of ones he put together himself from pieces of different ones I assumed he broke. It didn’t instill confidence he would curb his hankering for destruction when playing with the cars he borrowed from me, but I had trouble telling him no, and I rationalized the situation in telling myself I didn’t really have any hard evidence proving I couldn’t expect him to take care of my stuff. Where the neighborhood kids were concerned, I was kind of a pushover. I suppose in my not knowing them well, I wanted to make as good an impression as possible. Compared to the kids I knew from school, the ones from the neighborhood were kind of creepy. Ever since things with the snoopy dog changed, I was due to have something that scared me shitless on a routine basis.
I was out with my little cars playing in the driveway one morning when Shane came riding up on his bike, stopping his front tire inches from my hand. I pulled it back quickly and saw him smirk.
“Whatcha got there?”
“No shit, Sherlock. What kind?”
“Matchbox, Hot Whee--”
“No, what kind. Corvette, Superbird, 442...”
“Oh, umm, this one’s a van. I’ve got a Thunderbird here. And, uhh-- this is a Camaro.”
“What’s that one?”
“That van say Scooby Doo on it?”
“Lemme see it.”
I handed it to him and he turned it over several times, inspecting every detail. He tossed it back to me and it bounced off my fingertips and fell on the driveway.
“Hunka junk is what that is.”
“I like it.”
“C’mon. I’ll bring some of mine up and we can trade.”
“Like- to keep?”
“Jesus, you always this big a sissy? To borrow.”
“Oh. I guess that’s okay.”
“I’ll be back.”
The idea of trading, borrowing or even letting him play with my toys didn’t sit well with me, but it was the first time he’d deigned to speak, so I didn’t want to come off like a pussy. Half an hour later he was back with a beat-up, mostly full plastic case of his own little cars. He had me go get the rest of mine and we sat looking through each other’s collection for about ten more minutes before he found half a dozen he liked and I found only two I’d even consider. His cars had a lot of the paint scratched off and a few with the wheels missing, not to mention the Frankenstein ones he fudged together. He watched me look through his stuff and when he saw I had only two of his, shrugged. He lined the ones he had up into two rows, three across.
“I want these.”
“I only found two.”
“I think I’m done. Two is it.”
“I want these.”
He stuffed my cars in his front pockets, snatched up his collector case, and wheeled out of the driveway, pedaling hard. My head told me I just got scammed, but my gut told me he’d be back. It might be a year from now, but he’d be back.
There was a neighbor several houses down who had an arched trellis covered with grapevines at the back of the property I would see as I passed by in the alley. It was so overgrown it formed a partial dome, with an entrance big enough for someone my size to slip under. On a couple of occasions, I used it to hide, not from anyone or anything specific, but because I had a need to feel safe. It became somewhat of a refuge and place I would check several times a week and keep things I found around the neighborhood as I explored. The man who owned the house was old and lived with his son who was a dwarf. I rarely saw either of them outside, but the son was probably at least thirty—I could tell he was older by his facial hair—and only slightly shorter than I was. The property was always tidy, but looked like it was barely lived in. Being that most of my neighbors were seniors, I was keenly aware of the sterile quality of the properties of old people. Two houses down, across the street was the kindly old Doc Johan who had a weird thing with the lower half of his face that made me think of Nazis. In fact, every house across the street from Doc Johan's all the way down to the end of the block lived seniors. The only ones with kids even close to my age were on my side of the street, which included Shane and his sister and another kid I'd only seen a couple of times, but Mom said the family were hippies and health food nuts and Jesus freaks. I figured it best to avoid them.
I went to the grapevine fort one afternoon to retrieve some candy and other odds and ends I'd stolen from the grocery store. There was a spot in the back behind a broken cinderblock I kept things hidden. I ducked underneath the leaves, sat down and something poked me in the butt. I got on my knees, turning around, and brushed away a short, knotted up stick.
"You didn't do it."
I'm pretty sure I left something in my shorts at that moment, whipping myself around, searching frantically. I found myself eye level with Haley, who was sitting hunched forward, Indian style. Her face was serious, her skin a bluish tinge at the extremities. Unlike before, her hair hung straight down; greasy like an oil slick, it made me think of cartoon seaweed. When she spoke, her lips curled back and I saw an eyetooth was missing, the surrounding gums shriveled and dark, like raisin flesh.
"Do you remember your promise..."
It wasn't a question.
"It can't stay in the house."
"It won't let me come home."
"I don't understand."
"You promised me."
"Why won't it let you?"
"What the fuck are you doing in there?"
Shane was crouched down, peering at me from just outside the hole into the fort. He had a look on his face like he thought I was baby; probably one he learned from his father.
"Playing with yourself?"
"Uh huh. Ain't got use for your junk. Let's go to your house so I can get my stuff."
Shane rode ahead of me, cutting through the neighbor’s yard to the sidewalk since the fence around my house wouldn’t fit a bike through the gate. I was warned to stay out of Mr Kovacs’ yard since he and my parents didn’t get along, but I crept along the fence row since it was quicker and I thought it might make Shane think I wasn’t such a wuss. I entered through the front door to Mom and Dad yelling at each other.
“Wait out here. I’ll be right back.”
I headed straight to my room.
“I don’t want to hear any more excuses.”
“He needs a doctor.”
“You mean a therapist.”
“Whatever. Someone who can prescribe something.”
I went to my dresser and opened the middle drawer where I kept Shane’s cars. I made sure I kept his things separate from mine; not like I wouldn’t know the difference.
“I don’t think drugs are the answer.”
“What the hell do you propose we do then?”
“Have you tried actually talking to him?”
“Why is it my job?”
“It isn’t just your job.”
“Sure as fuck sounds like it.”
“I suppose it would.”
“Don’t take that tone with me.”
“Anything else I’m doing wrong?”
“You-- you’re an ASSHOLE.”
“So you’ve said.”
“Get away from me-- you fu-- NO. GIT.”
I shut the door behind me and found Shane riding in circles in the driveway. I held out his cars and he went into his front pockets for mine. He counted out one, two, three, four, five, informing me each one was a “hunka junk” as he handed them to me. I looked at them, then back to him. His eyes were slitted almost closed.
“There’s only five here.”
“You borrowed six.”
“I traded five.”
“It was six. I remember.”
“Ain’t my fault you’re shit for brains.”
“Give it back.”
“I don’t have it.”
I knew he was lying, and something deep inside me was tired of Shane’s games. Maybe it was second stomach or something else I had yet to name, but what I did next surprised even me. I stepped forward and popped Shane in the cheek with my right fist. It wasn’t very hard, and I could tell by his reaction it was more shock than pain. He dropped his bike with a clatter and took two steps forward, checking my shoulder with a stiff arm and kicking my leg out. I fell hard, but caught myself on my elbows. He got down on one knee, balling up the front of my shirt in his fist.
“Want your ass whipped, kid?”
“Give it back.”
“Ain’t got it, you little turd. Fuck with me again I’ll beat you shitless.”
He let go, heading back to his bike and rode off. I spent the rest of the day in my room trying to block out all the fighting.
There was a knock on my door.
“Whisker, sweetie. We’re getting supper out tonight. Do you want anything?”
I slid off my bed and went to the door, opening it slowly. I could tell Mom was crying by the smudge of mascara left on her cheek. She put a hand on my shoulder and when she smiled her bottom lip trembled.
“We were thinking about getting something from Peyton’s. You like Peyton’s, right?”
“What would you like, honey?”
“Well, how about-- a milkshake. How does that sound?”
“Fries? The curly ones?”
“You want a sandwich?”
“A fish sandwich? Okay, sweetie. I’m going to place the order and then I’ll be back. I have something I need to tell you.”
Mom shut the door and I went back to sit on my bed. I really didn’t want to think about what she might have to tell me, figuring it had to be something I didn’t want to hear. Usually when she had something to say, she said it. When she made a point to let me know she needed to talk to me, it was almost always something bad. I could hear her on the phone asking what came on the Peyton Burger even with the door closed. My shoulders tensed when she hung up and I could hear her coming back to my room. She walked right in without knocking this time and sat next to me on the bed.
“I have some bad news I need to tell you.”
I made no response; only waited for what she had to say next.
“You remember that boy in your class, umm-- Damon was it?”
I turned my head and looked Mom in the eye.
“Yes, well, he was attacked. He was bitten. By a dog. And he was seriously hurt.”
“He’s in intensive care.”
“What kind of dog was it?”
“Well I-- I’m not--”
“Was it a Doberman?”
“I’m not sure, honey. Mrs Greer didn’t say what kind of dog it was, only that Damon was attacked while playing outside and it was so bad he had to go to the hospital.”
“Will he be okay?”
“I think so, but all we can do is wait and see.”
“Are you okay, honey?”
“I guess so.”
“Is there anything you want to talk about?”
“Do you want to come with me to get the food?”
“Okay, sweetie. You just lay down and I’ll come get you when the food is here, okay?”
The next morning I headed outside as soon as it was warm. It was still early enough in June the mornings were cool and the grass was damp. I headed down the alley, stopping at a neighbor’s for a handful of Concord grapes. The vines from the fort didn’t bear any fruit that I’d ever noticed, and the neighbors with gardens didn’t have much I was interested in pilfering this early in the season. I popped a couple in my mouth, enjoying the sweet and sour quality, chewing the thick skin that came off like a jacket. Mom always warned me not to eat anything from the neighbors since I didn’t know when they may have used to spray the plants, but unless she was standing right next to me, I was heedless.
The last of my ill-gotten gains were still in the fort which was where I was headed. There was a certain point on my block that no matter how many times I passed by remained utterly alien. I wondered about it on my way to the fort. It seemed to coincide with what I declared the Wrong Side, but it was more than that. Aside my from my own yard, I spent almost as much time at the other end of the block, yet for all those days and nights I explored, it never felt more familiar. The houses always seemed taller, more gaunt, their shadows longer. My mind was occupied with all of this when I arrived at my destination, ducking down, and crawling into my makeshift refuge.
It was torn apart.
All of the sticks I stacked carefully in one corner were strewn about the interior, the broken cinder block smashed halfway through and left hanging from the back wall of grapevine and latticework fencing. I searched frantically and discovered all of my loot was missing, only a couple of empty plastic wrappers left behind. I cursed back some sniffles, making an even bigger mess in my frustration. I was on my knees, getting my pants all dirty, and I knew Mom would be furious but I didn’t care. The fort was my safe place.
Something sour churned in my gut, a petulant thing full of lingering aggression that stippled my skin with perspiration. I clenched my hands, absently wondering if it felt the same way Chaz did the last time I saw him. It felt like sick stomach, but not like I had a cold or ate something that didn’t agree with me.
It was sick with violence.
It felt familiar, but wormlike in its desire to escape my grasp. Not unlike the way I felt when I wrestled in the dirt and leaves with other kids over exaggerated slights, it was far more intense; localized. And at that moment, I wanted only one thing: to visit injury upon another.
Mom was yelling from the front porch. I got up quickly, brushing off my jeans, trying to make myself not look like a total dirtball. I knew it didn’t matter what kind of mood she was in, if she saw I’d been rolling around on the ground, shit would hit the fan. As I made my way back home, my anger was slowly replaced with apprehension. I’d heard Mom yell for me enough I could tell by how it came out what to expect when we were face to face. Today it was somewhere between mad and scared, and that made me worry. The condition of the fort would have to wait.
Mom was standing just inside, watching for me through the screen door. Her eyes were slick and glassy.
“Come inside. Hurry up.”
As I ran across the front yard around the bushes toward the front door, I noticed Dad’s car in the driveway from the corner of my eye.
“Go sit on the couch.”
Already preoccupied, I sat on the far end and half watched the TV. My suspicions drifted toward the identity of those who trashed my refuge and my blood began to simmer. I’d begun to mutter under my breath when Dad came into the living room.
“I’m going to be leaving for a while.”
“I’m leaving for a while. I don’t know how long.”
“Why? Where are you going?”
“I’ll be at the YMCA near where you go to school.”
“For how long?”
“I don’t know yet.”
Dad ruffled my hair and put his hands in my underarms, picking me up—something he hadn’t done for quite some time—and holding me like he did when I was small.
“Ungh-- you’re getting heavy.”
“Please don’t go.”
“I have to.”
“Your mom and I need to work on some things.”
“Why can’t you do that here?”
“Well, we talked about it and decided it’s best if we do it apart for now.”
“Sometimes it’s what moms and dads need to do.”
Mom stood several feet away, watching me. Her brave face didn’t look very brave.
“Will we still do stuff together?”
“But what if I have nightmares?”
“That’s why Mom will be here.”
“But what if I miss you too much?”
“I’ll still see you on the weekend.”
“But what if I can’t wait that long?”
“Tell you what--”
Dad put me down and left the room, heading toward the back of the house; toward the bedroom. He returned, moments later, with something in his hand. He offered it to me and I just looked at his face, not sure what to do next.
“I want you to take care of this for me while I’m gone.”
“Won’t you need it?”
“Not where I’m going.”
“Are you sure?”
I took it from Dad’s hand and it felt warm. There was a tiny static charge and something like the dial on a radio rolling through every station—a jumble of static and sound—echoed around me.
Jingle, jingle, jingle.
The snoopy dog’s smile vanished into its ears.
Shane was perhaps five long strides away from me, shoulders up, knees bent, dangling the remains of the orange Dixie Challenger in front of me like a dog treat. The top was smashed in—like with a brick—and all but one of the wheels was missing. It wasn’t an exact replica of the General Lee, but it was the closest thing I had.
Wicked deeds stewed in my guts and my eyes stung from duplicity. I’d told myself it would happen, even setting things in motion by allowing Shane to take my stuff. But the truth of it bit deep, and once again, I was consumed with the urge to divert the pain I felt onto whatever stood in my way. I made fists, tight ones, and I screamed every raw, dark, awful thing I knew as I crossed the gap between us with jet fueled adrenaline.
The world fell away.
Sun in my eyes.
Birds in the trees.
I could taste blood on my lip and I knew there would be a dumb ugly bruise. I thought of Haley and how she baked me a chocolate cake for my second birthday. I didn’t realize I’d forgotten it until just now. It was a chocolate cake to end all chocolate cakes, with creamy, swirled chocolate frosting all over my hands and face and it would be the last one since Mom and Dad found out I had a chocolate allergy. In that waking moment, that split ticking second hand blink of an eye, I found myself wondering who on Earth has a chocolate--
“Stand up, chucklefuck. I ain’t finished beating your ball baby ass.”
Cake with a cat on it.
I opened my eyes and rolled over on my side. Bad dreams could go suck an egg.
The snoopy dog sat on the shelf next to my bed for exactly twenty-seven-and-a-half days which was how I remembered how long Dad was living at the YMCA instead of home with Mom and me. So far, it was true: I saw him on the weekend; but only one day, and only part of that one day. It was either as long as it took to see a movie and eat lunch or go to the art center and eat supper or, in the case of last Sunday, eat breakfast buffet at Shoney’s and walk around the nature center. Since he left, we did more, but balancing out with not seeing nearly as much of him in general, I was undecided as to which was better. I liked doing things and much of those things being the things we did, but I missed having him at home and even more so when the bad dreams came which was happening more and more often. Mom tried to comfort me, but it was always with a “this again”, “go back to your room”, or a “stop eating sugar before bed”. I could tell not having Dad at home made Mom sad. When she got angry with me, she mostly just cried now instead of using her hand or a piece of wood on me.
I often wondering how Dad would be able to get the things at the YMCA he had at home. He ate Raisin Bran for breakfast every day and I was sure they didn’t have it where he was living now, so when Mom and I went shopping for groceries I made sure when I got the little boxes of cereal all together in a big pack I saved the Raisin Bran for Dad. By the weekend, I was lucky if I had two boxes, but I figured every little bit helps, and made sure I gave them to him when he came to pick me up. He always smiled and thanked me and said he would make sure he had them for breakfast before . Until he ran out, anyway.
I got so I didn’t mind so much sleeping with the snoopy dog next to me and even though Dad asked me to take care of it for him, I still couldn’t stand to look at it straight. The to the ears smile still gave me the creeps, so I turned it to face away from me and if I woke up in the middle of the night or had a bad dream, it wouldn’t be staring right at me when I opened my eyes. So far, it stayed the way I put it. Once in a while, I would again hear the radio station noise, but always soft, always when I was daydreaming in bed or on the verge of sleep. Eventually, it became like the rest of the background noise from my house and neighborhood and while I never could pick up more than fragments of songs and conversation, sometimes they coalesced into something more.
It was those times I found myself doing things I didn’t think were in me.
I kept having the bloody lip dream, which had many permutations, but always included two things: my demolished toy car and me on the ground with a face full of pain. Over the weeks, I’d caught Shane sneaking in and out of the fort a number of times, and coupling that knowledge on top of the dream, my thirst for retribution threatened to boil over. I let it fester inside me, a cauldron of hostility, until one overcast morning the second week of August.
I sneaked around outside Shane’s house, hoping to catch him unawares. I hadn’t seen him around the neighborhood for a couple of days, but normally didn’t more than three to four times a week anyway. His dad’s truck wasn’t in the driveway, but working days like he did, this was no surprise. I crept into the back, hoping to catch a glimpse of him through a window, but the curtains were all down. I climbed the back steps and knocked on the door. It wouldn’t add the element of surprise, but I could always lure him away from the house and pick my moment.
I was furious. The time had come and I was in no condition to wait. I stomped off the porch toward the garage, absently jiggling the knob as I passed by.
The door opened soundlessly.
I’d only ever seen the inside of Shane’s garage from the street, but I knew that’s where he kept his bike, among other things. I poked my head in and saw his mom’s car was gone, too. I thought I remember him saying she worked days, which explained why Shane was allowed to run wild. I knew Mom would never allow me to stay home by myself and would be of the opinion that anyone who did was both an unfit parent and white trash.
I walked inside, looking for Shane’s bike. A couple of slashed tires might not quell my desire to pummel his face with something heavy and blunt, but it would have to do. I looked in the usual spot—a two-by-four jutting from the wall where he hung the bike by its frame- but found nothing. In fact, there were no bikes in the garage, and as I searched, my frustration grew. I cursed and kicked things and made an ass out of myself to no one in particular for a good five minutes before I decided it would have to wait.
Sick to my smoldering emotions, I stalked toward the door, kicking an empty coffee can across the floor. I heard a hiss followed with spitting and growling, and a black and white blur flew past me, leaping up the wall and onto a cubby where the rafters met the edge of the roof.
I’d seen it around his property a handful of times, but I didn’t realize it was his. I considered throwing something at it, mostly for scaring me shitless. Then I heard a few faint scratches and soft squeaks coming from where it ran across my path. I walked slowly toward the sound, eyes squinted, and found a shallow cardboard box with a red and black plaid blanket inside.
Under a litter of kittens.
There were six of them; tiny, fuzzy, burrowing against one another. They were at most a week old as their eyes hadn’t opened. One of them yawned and I got down on my knees in front of their box nest. I looked toward to the mama cat, who gazed balefully with glowing yellow eyes, but remained quiet. I turned back to the kittens, petting the one closest to me gently. It squirmed and flipped over on its back with a stretch, closed eyes pinching, and I smiled. Along with chocolate, I was allergic to dander, which meant I couldn’t be around animals that licked their own fur. This being the case, I’d only ever been in contact with adult cats on a handful of occasions—ones briskly terminated by my mom—and had never even seen kittens up close. I was mesmerized by their weensy, soft bodies; all crushed against each other for warmth and safety.
I knew I shouldn’t, heard Mom’s voice in my head warning they were wormy, seeds of Satan or worse, but I picked one up and held it aloft, watching as its little nose twitched with my scent and its nubby paws flexed nubbier claws where it lay suspended above its siblings.
Get up, motherfucker.
I rotated my wrist, back and forth, watching the kitten blind dream airplanes.
Ball baby faggot.
Saw how its closed mouth, from the side, was a contented smile.
Gonna beat you shitless.
The skipping radio stations filled my head with such acrid ferocity I screamed only to remind myself I wasn’t dead. I shot to my feet, dropping the kitten in the box, staggered a few steps, room spinning and finally fell to my knees in front of them. My eyes stung, my chest heaved, my blood burned.
Before it registered, the first kitten was ten feet across the floor behind me.
I listened to the way their little claws screeched on the bare concrete.
Their little cries.
The last one was the smallest, barely bigger than my hand. It mewled weakly; white pine needle fangs.
I launched it against the garage door and it landed with a crunch.
The mama cat shot daggers from the rafters.
I placed each one back in the bed like I found them; all coiled together, bloody nostrils and noses, some breathing.
Haley swayed in the corner, arms wrapped around herself, shuddering.
I closed the door when I left.
I slept surprisingly well for a murderer. I awoke refreshed and invigorated and wondered how that could be. I looked to the snoopy dog from the corner of my eye and it sat there like always. It did give me a modicum of comfort with Dad’s absence. As I stretched and yawned and scratched myself, there was something else, near second stomach, that gurgled and cooed but was more of an itch than a need and was easy to ignore. I hopped out of bed, in nothing but my Underoos, and went to the bathroom.
I flushed and walked stiff-legged into the living room where Mom was at the screen door looking outside. She had the broom and was pacing—well, more like tottering—back and forth on the threshold.
“I’m right here.”
“OH-- come here. Hurry.”
I walked up beside her, peering out the screen into the street. Everything looked like it always did and I looked to Mom whose eyes were wide, pupils darting.
“Here. Take the broom and get that.”
“On the porch. Just flip it into the yard. Hurry up.”
Our front porch was more of a landing than a porch proper. It was a solid concrete slab, maybe five feet square. There was a metal awning attached to the side of the house above the door that extended out over it and a black rubber welcome mat with a hex design that had a rooster and a bunch of symbols I didn’t recognize as anything other than gibberish. In the center of the rooster was what was left of a field mouse.
With its head missing.
Mom wasn’t a fan of rodents and lobbied to have the chipmunks under the back steps forcibly removed before I intervened with puppy dog eyes and a healthy admiration for syrupy, high-pitched cover tunes. As such, I understood why Mom mustered me for summary disposal. She made a groan seasoned with revulsion as I used the brush end of the broom to flip the carcass off the porch and under a bush with a single motion.
“Hurry up. Get inside.”
She opened the door for me and I slipped into the house, broom snatched from my hand.
The next morning there were two, both on the front porch, both missing their heads. I was again summoned for corpse detail and dispatched them in the same fashion. Mom shivered and scratched at herself.
Over the course of the following weeks, more and more dead mice showed up, always in the early morning, and eventually moved from the front porch to include the driveway, the garage, the back door, and on a couple of occasions, on the sills in between the screens and interior bedroom windows. The morning Mom found those she shrieked like a bird of prey and planted ;herself on the couch, refusing to move; she merely pointed toward the attic way in the kitchen where she kept the broom. It got so bad I started shoveling them into garbage bags because flipping them into the yard would turn it into a compost heap or attract opossums and skunks, which could have rabies. The strangest thing was, aside from Shane’s mama cat, I’d never seen any strays in the neighborhood, and the sheer volume of dead mice was such that a single cat, no matter how proficient, could never hope to catch so many. This trend continued, with a standing record of eighteen, until my first day back at school, at which point the numbers dwindled, to Mom’s relief, to almost nothing within a couple of weeks.
The first few days were an adjustment, but on the positive side, I managed to avoid any kind of fighting with my classmates, and my mood improved for it. Chaz was nowhere to be found, Bashika in a different class and schedule, and the demons of my past appeared to be loosening their grip.
Two weeks in, I met a kid a year younger than me named Brett. I found out we shared a birthday, in late September, which would happen soon, and in the fastness of our friendship, decided to have them together at school. The teachers took to the idea, and I talked to Mom, who had no problem with it beyond wanting to meet his mother first, and plans were tentatively laid. Brett liked a lot of the same things I did, and at first felt like shades of Chaz, but as I got to know him better, I realized they were two very different people. Interests aside, Brett was a vegetarian, like his family. That was something I’d never before encountered, and with my great love of things that go moo, could hardly fathom life without meat.
Barely a week to go until our conjoined birthday celebration, I told Mom I wanted a cake with Garfield on it. Orange was my favorite color and when Mom made lasagna I always asked for seconds, so it only made sense I would like a Sunday funny who embodied all of those things and still found time to backtalk his owner in between naps. I told her it didn’t matter what flavor it was nor how big, only that it prominently featured a fat cartoon animal with a chip on its shoulder. It didn’t occur to me that might not be what Brett wanted, but I figured he’d have his own cake anyway, so it wouldn’t matter. Two kids, two cakes, too much.
Mom had the bright idea to offer to bring Brett home one day after school before the party, on the surface because she wanted to be a good new friend’s mom, but more specifically because she wanted to size up this other mother. Brett lived maybe twenty minutes from school, just off a very busy main street at the top of a steep, narrow suburban alley; it ended with a guard rail and a sign warning the steep drop. When we got out of the car, I walked to and peeked over the edge, watching as Brett’s neighborhood fell forty feet into a public park and a lazy, twiglike stream.
I was Saint Patrick’s Day with envy.
Brett’s house was a small, two-story affair with finished dark wood trim and lots of windows. It looked like a cabana from the outside, but once I crossed through the front door, I realized there was a lot more to it than I originally thought. It was slightly bigger than my house, but had the added charm of two bedrooms and a full bath where my upstairs was a musty, mildewy attic. His room was replete with Star Wars pretty much everything: sheets, wall decals, art, toys, clothing, you name it. I marveled at both his devotion and collection and tried to imagine myself in his place, sleeping in his bed, brushing my teeth with his Darth Vader toothbrush, eating his meals bereft of mea—Never mind.
Mom called us downstairs and we gathered in the living room while moms talked mom stuff. Brett’s was tall and thin, with a big nose but soulful, smoldering eyes and freckles on her cheeks. She had an ever so slight accent I couldn’t quite place.
“So your mom says you have the same birthday as Brett.”
“And you’ll be how old?”
“Wow. They grow up so fast. Would you like something to drink?”
You better believe it.
We sat around and talked and played and had fun for most of the afternoon. When Mom was driving us home, it was the first time I’d seen her smile since Dad left. We had cheeseburgers and milkshakes at Burger Chef, which was right down the road, and I grinned to myself thinking about what Brett was missing.
On the day I turned seven, I felt high as a kite. I bounced out of bed, into my clothes and through a bowl of cereal, all the while dancing circles around Mom while she got ready to take me to school.
“Now remember, I’ll be there around lunchtime with the cake.”
“And I’ll have paper plates and plastic forks, too.”
“Try to behave yourself today, okay?”
“Will you stop that?”
I didn’t want to put my seat belt on when we got in the car, but Mom made me. When I got to school, I almost left my backpack in the back seat and Mom had to yell for me to come back and get it. I was so hyper I was giddy, so giddy I needed to pee. When I finished I raced out of the bathroom and found Brett who was busy with a science project. I was too excited to work, so I paced around him while he did, talking to him, talking at him, breaking his concentration and eliciting dirty looks.
It didn’t matter, I was seven.
I was hot shit.
When lunch finally came, I was practically climbing the walls. Mrs Switt had to shush me repeatedly in class and even threatened to put my desk in the corner, which finally got me to at least keep my mouth shut. Mrs Greer came into the lunch room and announced there would be a birthday party for myself and Brett and that everyone should make sure they were seated because there would be cake and ice cream. Shortly thereafter, Mom and Brett’s mom came into the room carrying a cake and several plastic bags. They put everything down, first getting out several tubs of ice cream, then napkins, plates, spoons and finally taking the plastic cover off the half sheet cake. I couldn’t wait any longer and sprang from my seat, chugging over to where Mom was standing so I could see. I peered around her, eyes like saucers, straining to see the festooned cartoon feline with the namesake of an assassinated United States president.
My heart sank.
Second stomach cackled with glee, anticipating sweet suffocation.
I looked at Mom and she looked at me and my eyes asked why.
It wasn’t a fat, smarmy orange cat with entitlement issues at all.
It was Pac Man.
Fuck Pac Man.
Whoever decorated the cake I’d waited an entire breathless week for must have had hooks for hands and an eyepatch the size and fit of a hockey mask. Instead of appearing as a yellow pie with a slice out of it, it looked more like a banana peel with poor motor skills. There were two ghosts, if you could call them that, one blue, one orange, that hovered out of Pac Man’s reach like obese marshmallow peeps, cross-eyed and asymmetrical.
“What the fuck is that?”
The room went silent.
Mom’s face flushed deeper than her lipstick.
“Whisker, I think you should come with me.”
She grabbed my wrist and marched me out of the room and through the double doors to the cloak room where she spun me around to face her.
“Don’t you EVER use that kind of language around me OR in school.”
“But I wanted Garfield.”
“I wanted Garfield. I asked for Garfield.”
“You’re asking for a fat lip.”
“Why didn’t you get it, Mom?”
“Brett didn’t want Garfield. He wanted Pac Man.”
“Did you even try?”
“Of course I-- this day isn’t just about you.”
“It isn’t just about Brett, either. He got the cake he wanted.”
“The decorator didn’t know how to do Garfield.”
They didn’t know how to do Pac Man, either.
“So stop your whining, Buster, or I’ll give you something to whine about.”
“That cake is stinky.”
“You heard me.”
“I bet it tastes like poop.”
“It’s chocolate and vanilla. Half and half.”
“Can I have chocolate?”
“This sucks. You suck!”
Mom slapped me and my cheek exploded like a firecracker.
I sulked in the corner, refusing to eat, while Brett and our classmates enjoyed both flavors of the stupid looking Pac Man cake. Mom was understandably embarrassed and apologized for my behavior, all the while giving me the hairy eyeball. I could tell when I got home I’d be in deep trouble; maybe so deep I’d never climb out. She tried to do something special and I showed just enough appreciation to spit in her face for it. On the car ride home, Mom was eerily silent, only scowling at me from the rear view mirror. It slowly dawned on me I’d done a very bad thing.
Another very bad thing.
A week passed, by which time most everyone all but forgot about my unfortunate display. It was back to business as usual, and when I got home, I was finally ungrounded, but far from off Mom’s shit list. I informed her I was going outside to play and upon hearing her assent, slipped quickly out the front door. I headed for the alley at a leisurely pace, lost in thought, picking up a broken tree branch and swinging it absently at low-hanging leaves. There was the slightest hint of a chill in the air, the first indication Summer was over and Winter would soon be here. In the meantime, I would enjoy the Autumn months, the changing of the trees from green to red to yellow to--
“You’re a dumb motherfucker.”
I spun around. Shane was standing in the alley, blocking my way back home. He looked taller than normal, tougher. His shoulders were rolled forward, stooped, his eyes dark and full of something I hadn’t felt since--
“I know you did it.”
I swallowed hard as the clouds parted enough to let the sun shine through.
Shane was closer, bigger; his dark clothes matching his eyes matching his intent and then he was in front of me.
Everything felt too close.
Sun in my eyes.
Birds in the trees.
I could taste blood from my lip and I knew the doctor would have to give me stitches. I thought about a birthday cake with a giant bloody orange sunset and a cat like the dipping sun smirking at me. I watched as it got smaller, its mouth opening to reveal a smile full of tiny white pine needle teeth that screeched like little claws across concrete. There was blood coming from its nose and its eyes erupted fluorescent yellow and—no—oh no--
“Get the fuck up or you’ll be shittin’ teeth.”
Haley choked misery from somewhere behind me.
This was no dream.
Shane dangled the wrecked Dixie Challenger over me like a butler’s bell. Jingle, jingle, jingle.