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So I wasn't alone.
And maybe I wasn’t crazy after all.
“Are you crazy? You RUINED it.”
Haley threw the picture on her bed and came at me, lips curled over her teeth, eyes wide.
“Stay out of my room, you little fuck.”
She pushed me out head first and slammed the door.
Haley’s then boyfriend was sort of a big deal. Being in a small town, having a father who was a well-respected high school science teacher and a mother who worked for the mayor was almost the same as having money or being a member of the local government.
People not only knew who you were, but took you seriously. He was popular in school, playing both football and baseball, and carried an air of importance wherever he went. He was also a fairly talented artist, as evidenced by a drawing of the Incredible Hulk he penciled and presented to Haley in a framed portfolio for her birthday. She wasn’t terribly impressed, but in being a gift from his heart instead of his wallet, she was appreciative.
I, on the other hand, thought it was the coolest thing in the world.
I studied every line, every muscle, the ridge of the brow, the wide, flat nose, the frayed jeans. I tried drawing along next to it, but every time it came out looking like a fat, shirtless hobo. Drawing was one of my favorite things to do and making it look like a comic book or Mad Magazine was something I wanted more than anything since I could remember. Being six, I still had a ways to go, but that didn’t keep me from trying.
I wanted to impress my big sister, but my skills being what they were, I knew I’d never be able to draw it the way I wanted to.
So I did the next best thing.
I watched the Incredible Hulk TV show religiously, and while I didn’t like it quite as much as Buck Rogers, that had more to do with lack of a recurring attractive female than quality or subject matter. And in being such a fan, I considered myself somewhat of an expert on the Hulk, particularly his look and demeanor. So confident was I, it was absurd I hadn’t come up with the idea before then, and when I went to my room for supplies, I was so excited I almost told Haley what I planned to do beforehand.
I waited until I knew she wasn’t home to start so it would be a surprise.
Then I got my best, sharpest crayons and set about coloring the original picture with all of the love and care a six year old can muster. I was especially careful to keep it inside the lines and make the rippled muscles and torn pants stand out with different degrees of pressure and line thickness. I couldn’t understand why Haley’s boyfriend hadn’t colored it himself, but silently thanked him for affording the opportunity to improve upon his work as a way of showing her brotherly affection.
I knew she’d love it.
“Oh my GOD.”
I knew she’d thank me.
“WHAT THE FUCK.”
Maybe even do something nice in return.
“I’m gonna KILL YOU YOU LITTLE SHIT.”
To see her now: lean, haunted, desperate, made me wish it was that day again. I would willingly endure her wrath a thousand times not to have to see her that way. There was something in her eyes that went beyond fear, beyond horror; a dull, vacant quality, a resignation to an un-life without joy, comfort or refuge.
She sat with me in the clothing rack, legs crossed, with me in her lap, while she held and hugged me, lips pressed to my ear, dry and scratchy, whispering every dark, unspeakable cruelty she suffered. She was crying when she finished; a silent, shuddering thing, and I cried with her. For the first time, we were the same.
“You have to promise me.”
“You’ll get rid of it.”
Mom was PISSED when she found me asleep under all the pants. She pulled me by my arm; legs still not quite awake, they were limp when she hauled me out. I fell to my knees, but she dragged me a good five feet into the aisle before she yanked my arm twice and my leash training told me it was time to stand up. I blinked slowly, brain and body unsynchronized.
"Didn't you hear me calling you?"
"I've been looking for you for twenty minutes."
"You're in BIG trouble, mister."
"No. You know you're supposed to come when I call you."
"It's too late for buts. You're lucky I don't spank you right here in front of everyone."
"What about Haley."
"I saw her."
"Don't lie to me. Come on."
"But I saw her. She was--"
Mom spun me around so I was facing her and squatted down, which meant her patience was at an end and shit was about to get real. I swallowed dry.
"Now you listen to me. We're gonna march right out that door and I don't want to hear another peep out of you. Then we're going straight to the car and you're going to keep your mouth shut the whole way home or so help me God I'll pull over. Do you understand me?"
I nodded once.
"Good. We're going."
When we got home, Mom spanked me until I was able to get away and hide under the bed, where she cursed and jabbed at me with the yard stick. I flattened my back against the wall, one arm over my head and the other at my side and eventually she was too tired to continue. I laid there until it was safe, but ended up falling asleep and didn't wake up until Mom called for supper.
I crawled out, both of my stomachs reminding me I would need to save my strength for the imminent battle with the snoopy dog. I ignored them, preferring not to think about it. Haley may have told me I needed to get rid of it, but what she didn't understand was I had other, bigger problems. My heart told me I promised, my stomachs echoing the sentiment, but in my head I knew I had only promised I would do it, without condition as to how and, more importantly, when.
Over supper, Mom recanted a tale of willful irresponsibility and bitter disregard. In it, she was the distraught mother, separated from her child, frantic, terrified, convinced her offspring fell prey to hoodlums and ne'er-do-wells intent on all manner of indescribable horrors she went on to describe in painstaking detail.
Dad listened without a word, cutting his pork chops into increasingly smaller pieces as the story wove into a knot of outrage and betrayal. Once it was revealed I was not, in fact, a victim in at all, but the architect of this debacle, Dad looked to me moving only his eyes.
"Is this true?"
"Uh, sort of."
"Did you leave Mom while you were in the store?"
"Well, I-- yeah."
"I was, um--"
"Why were you sad?"
"You know you're not supposed to leave your mom when you're in the store, don't you?"
"And you understand it's for your own safety, right?"
"I guess so."
"I think you owe your mom an apology."
"But I saw Haley."
"It's true. She was under the pants with me."
Dad looked to Mom with a raised eyebrow and she responded with her patented "bitch, please" face.
"Whisker, are you lying to me?"
"Of COURSE he's lying."
"Just-- let me handle this. Tell me. Are you lying?"
"Are you sure."
"Haley's at school, for Christ's sakes. He's lying."
"I know she is, but why would he make something like that up?"
"Who the hell knows? Why does he lie any other time?"
"Don't you think we should try to figure out why he says he keeps seeing Haley?"
"Why give him a reason to keep lying to us?"
"But what if he isn't?"
"Are you telling me you actually believe this?"
"I'm not saying I do. I'm saying I think we should figure out why he's saying it."
"This is a waste of time. And I don't appreciate you undermining my authority in front of him."
"Well you asked."
"Oh-- well why you just take him out for ice cream then? That will teach him not to lie to us."
"Why don't you calm down."
"So you can gang up on me some more?"
"I don't think--"
"No, you DON'T think, asshole. I'm done with this conversation."
Mom took her plate, tossing it in the sink with a crash, and stormed out of the kitchen. Dad waited a full five seconds and went back to cutting up his food. His eyes didn't leave his plate until he was finished.
That night, Dad came into my room to wish me goodnight. He stood next to my bed, tucking me in.
"Why do you keep saying you saw Haley?"
"Because I do."
"You know she's at school, right?"
"Are you saying you lied?"
"It's impossible for her to be two places at once, wouldn't you agree."
"Then how do you explain yourself?"
"I can't. But I swear I'm not lying. I see her at the mall."
"First in the arcade, then under all the pants."
"Why do you think you only see her at the mall?"
"I don't know."
"Do you think it's because you miss her?"
"You don't miss her?"
"Yes, but that's not why."
"Well-- does she talk to you?"
"What did she say?"
"Uh-- I don't want to say."
"It-- scares me."
"You know you can tell me. You don't have to be afraid."
"Are you sure?"
"Then I'm going to have to ground you from doing anything after school for a week. Or you can tell me. It's your choice."
Dad sighed and started to walk out of the room. He stopped in the doorway and looked back at me.
"Don't let the bedbugs bite."
I shuddered at the thought.
School was a progression of bad to worse in minute, pitiful increments. I got into three different fights just in the time I waited for the doors to open, the worst of which was with Chaz, who had become inconsolable and belligerent. He scowled at me, gave me the finger when no one else was looking and threw himself around, kicking and punching anything nearby. He acted like a rabid animal, out of his mind with anger. I tried to talk to him, but he was only interested in one thing, and once I was close enough, he punched me in chest. So intent on mending our relationship, I ignored it, pleading with him to calm down, but he took my unwillingness to fight as a sign of weakness and pounced on me, putting his hand on my face and grinding my head into the ground. I quickly pushed him off and ran for the building, having seen Mrs Straw unlock the doors. I slipped inside and threw everything I didn’t need in my locker, making sure I was within sight of at least one teacher at all times.
By lunch, Chaz was picking fights with other students and Mrs Switt separated him from the rest of the class, dragging his desk to the corner, where he was to sit for the remainder of the day. I watched him while he flipped through his workbooks, tearing out the pages one by one, and when he was finished with those, he started in on the textbooks. Mrs Switt took those away from him and warned him if the behavior continued, he’d be sent to the principal’s office. Instead, he stared at me, muttering to himself and smacking a fist into his open hand, promising a world of hurt when class was over.
Witnessing this behavior, Mrs Switt leaned down and spoke in low tones, but Chaz acted like he couldn’t hear her. Then she took his hand and led him from the classroom, his eyes on me until I thought his head would twist right off his neck. One of the boys who sat behind me chortled.
“Looks like someone wants to beat your ass, sissy bitch.”
I stood inside the doors waiting for Mom after school. I saw Chaz’s father walk out the main entrance with him, holding Chaz’s hand and carrying his backpack. Chaz looked straight ahead until they got to their truck and he climbed in the front seat. Then his head turned slowly toward me and we locked eyes. He said something I couldn’t make out, but I could tell by the boiling hatred on his face it was better I didn’t.
That night, over pepperoni pizza and garlic bread, Mom and Dad said they were going on vacation for a week to visit Haley and that I would be staying with Aunt Kyanna and Uncle Trent while they were gone. I liked them a lot, but didn’t get to spend much time with them since Mom couldn’t decided if she could get along with her sister from one day to the next.
Usually I would just get used to seeing them when Mom decided Aunt Ky was using her, talking behind her back, or just generally being a bitch. Ky was the cool aunt, at least in my book, and being her husband, Trent was by proxy. He worked on cars and Ky drove them; they owned a Corvette Stingray and an Olds Cutlass T-top I absolutely loved to ride around in. I swore I’d own a car like that when I was old enough.
I wouldn’t be going to Aunt Ky’s until that Sunday, but I already started making preparations. I made sure my Crayola crayon box sleeping bag was rolled up and securely tied, having tucked granola bars and some drawing supplies inside. Then I emptied my backpack—which needed to be cleaned out anyway—and set about getting clothes and other essentials.
Once everything was ready, I tried to imagine the things we would do over a whole week. I only ever spent a few hours at a time with them and the prospect of seven days seemed like a dream come true. Most importantly, I would be out of the house, where the snoopy dog couldn’t get to me. I thought briefly of my promise to Haley, but it was just as quickly washed away with the image of relative safety in the hands of my aunt and uncle. I would be a chance for me to forget about everything and just have fun.
Isn’t that what kids are supposed to do?
There is a certain flippancy to youth I could easily see in others, but never myself. Carefree and without responsibility were concepts my young mind couldn’t wrap itself around. Admittedly, it was a rationale forged through fear and discipline; one I adopted out of necessity rather than choice. I sometimes wondered what life was like for other kids my age; not to have to do anything beyond being their age.
Part of me thought it was possibly the best thing in the world. But another part thought it was quite the opposite: a life of illusion and ignorance. While illusion could sometimes be all right, the other was pretty much never so to my mind. I'd already spent so long being painfully aware of the decidedly un-childish aspects of life, the prospect of going back felt like just that: regression.
It was then I thought I should make good on my promise to Haley. With less than forty-eight hours until Mom and Dad dropped me off at Aunt Ky's, and be gone for a full week, I had the perfect chance to do away with the snoopy dog and afford it no means of retaliation by my absence. It was a plan borne of opportunity rather than prudence, but it was what I had.
I waited until I knew Mom and Dad were watching TV, walking first into the bathroom, flushing the toilet and pretending to wash my hands. I then walked quickly to my parent's bedroom door while the toilet water was still running, hoping it would mask the creaks and groans from the floor. I slipped quietly inside and headed for the dresser, mindful of my feet. From the edge of the bed I could see the top of the dresser where Dad put his wallet and car keys.
But no snoopy dog.
IT KNOWS was all I could think. But really, why wouldn't it? It was at least one step ahead of me from the get go and all I'd managed to do was fall into every trap it set for me. My mind reeled, and I backed into Mom's bureau, causing all of her bottles of perfume and nail polish and makeup to clink against one another. Something fell on the floor with a CLACK.
I turned to see what it was and found the snoopy dog sitting on the edge of the bureau, smiling at me. My bladder pinched and a broke out in a sweat. Then I took a step forward and, closing my eyes, I raised my hand to take it.
I felt like a dumbass. I suppose in my half-baked way at going about securing the snoopy dog, I was. Mom was less than pleased to find me in her bedroom, especially with all the trouble I'd been causing earlier in the week. Convinced I was still lying about Haley, her patience was already thin and she sent me to my room, slamming my door shut. At least she didn’t hit me.
I spent the rest of the weekend staying out of everyone’s way. Mom and Dad packed their things, argued a lot, but before I knew it, it was Sunday. We loaded up the car; Mom and Dad’s suitcases and overnight bags went in the trunk while my stuff went in the back seat with me. I was hoping we’d stop for burgers before they left me with Aunt Ky, but no such luck. The car pulled into her gravel driveway, the Olds parked off to the side, and I watched as five toy poodles popped their heads in the front bay window, one by one, in quick succession. Aunt Ky loved her dogs, likely more than people, and treated them as such. Mom told me on more than one occasion I was spoiled rotten, but compared to Ky’s poodles, I was an amateur.
When I said Aunt Ky was the cool aunt, what I meant was she was pretty much the polar opposite of Mom. She smoked, drank, wore frayed cutoff shorts well into September, and rode motorcycles when the mood struck. She was, in mom’s opinion, a bad influence, but not so bad I couldn’t spend a week with her while they were with my sister. Aunt Ky liked me because I was enough like Mom when she told me what to do, it was almost like ordering around her older sister, and I misbehaved enough she had plenty of opportunity.
She lived in a squat ranch with an attached two car garage on the edge of town, just off the main highway. Her furnishings were straight out of the early nineteen-seventies, but half of the basement was finished, thanks to Uncle Trent, with a small bar on one end, and a man cave, replete with a lacquered tree stump coffee table and huge, fuzzy chairs in front of the TV, on the other. For as long as I could remember, the only source of light down there came from the television. Initially, I was scared, being a big, dark place I didn’t know. But several football games full of beer nuts, pork rinds and endless streams of pop later, it was one of my favorite places to be.
Aunt Ky opened the door inside the garage and I could hear barking from within. She walked out onto the bare concrete wearing faded Jordache jeans and a Dukes of Hazzard babydoll tee. Her feet were bare. She had a fringed brown leather necessaire with Native American beadwork where she kept her cigarettes and I noticed her hair was wet like she just got out of the shower. Then her poodles scrabbled out the door and surrounded her like bodyguards, barking and yapping. Dad let out a groan of resignation and Mom shot him a look. I could tell Mom's hackles were up and that it was best to just keep my mouth shut.
"Are we too early?"
"Naw. Just getting a few things straightened up."
"Good. We would have called, but we were already running late."
"I know how it is."
Aunt Ky lifted her chin, eyes sliding toward me, and gave me a wink.
"Go on and put your stuff in the spare, Bud. Don't mind the dogs-- they won't bite you."
I grinned and, armed with my backpack and sleeping bag, ambled into the house with three of the dogs bouncing around me, sniffing and yipping. Ky's house smelled weird to me; like stale cigarettes and dog fur and too long baked potatoes. I noticed a large basket on the floor next to the stove full of them, with a bright pink dog ball in the center, and I wondered briefly what dog spit would taste like. I could hear Mom talking to Ky outside over the barking.
"--ot a problem, Kath."
"Just looked like you had other things going on."
"My life doesn't stop when you call, if that's what you're asking."
"You know that's not what I meant."
"Why bring it up then?"
"Well-- I don't want to put you out."
"If I didn't want to do it--"
"I know. It's just, we haven't always seen eye to eye."
"And why do you think that is?"
"I wish I knew."
"That sounds like something you'd say."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You want me to spell it out?"
"We need to get going. Nice talking to you, Kyanna."
"Have a nice trip, Kathryn. Drive careful."
I listened to Dad pull the car out of the driveway and head back down the road, then went to the spare bedroom. It was dark inside, with a double-sized bed in the corner opposite the door, a dresser next to it, and other odds and ends stacked and stored at the end of the room. It looked more like a storage space than a bedroom, but there was a pillow on the bed, shaped like a football helmet, that said Pittsburgh Steelers, and for some reason it made me feel safe. I slept well that night and didn't have bad dreams or think much about the things that happened at home. I wished I could always live with Aunt Ky.
Or at least sleep there.
The following morning I had Sugar Smacks and rode with Ky in the Olds to school. There were only two weeks left, and being that virtually all of our classwork for the year was finished, Mrs Switt decided we could spend the whole morning working on personal projects and asked for volunteers to help her start getting the room cleaned and organized for the end of the year. I liked Mrs Switt all right, but straightening up wasn't something I particularly enjoyed, so I chose to spend the morning reading and drawing. I had a plastic shoe box full of markers I kept at school and I went through them all to see which ones I'd be taking home and which ones were dried out or broken and needed to be thrown away. I hadn't seen Chaz, but didn't ask anyone about him. After last time, I wasn't sure I still wanted to be friends.
It was a nice, relatively warm day; perfect jacket weather, and recess was outside. There was a recent crackdown on our collective stick throwing escapades, so that part of the surrounding wooded area was off limits, but the part around the side of the building where a large pile of overgrown fill dirt and surplus lot gravel sat behind the dumpster was still fair game. The usual forest war kids were elsewhere, and I surmised the recent restriction quelled much of the blood-thirst for fear of reprisal. It didn't matter much to me, and this close to Summer, without my best friend and partner in crime, it was just as well.
I quickly grew bored, drifting over to a crop of fox-tails near the dirt pile, and began picking them and swinging them around, listening to the way the air whooshed over the tips. I spun myself in circles until I was dizzy and wobbly sat down to steady myself. I closed my eyes, waiting for the elliptical sensation in my head to cease, when I heard crunching footsteps in the gravel nearby. They were slow and measured, and I waited while they came closer. Once they were next to me, I opened one eye and saw Bashika towering over me with huge brown eyes and an upturned lip.
"The fuck are you doing sitting in the dirt?"
"I made myself dizzy."
"That makes you a dumbass."
"White Boy, I know so."
"Why do you keep calling me that?"
"You're white, aren't you?"
"What difference does it make."
"Makes no difference to me."
"So what should I call you then?"
"What's wrong with my name?"
"Nothing wrong with it. I just like teasing you."
"Because your face gets all red when I do it."
"So I think it's cute."
"Give me your hand."
She held hers out, palm up, fingers wiggling, and I took it gingerly. She hauled me to my feet without preamble and I nearly fell forward from the force. She was strong.
"Come with me."
Bashika wore Pepto pink denim pants and a white hooded sweatshirt that had a cartoon puppy with huge, sad eyes on the front. And, of course, her saddle shoes, only today the ribbons were pink instead of red, matching both her slacks and the beads in her hair. She led me into the woods nearby, perhaps twenty-five yards, where we could barely see the playground, but were still well within earshot of the whistle. She stopped and turned to me.
She looked at me with a small, self-serving smile on her face. It made me nervous.
"I want to see it."
"Uh, see what?"
"Show it to me."
"What are you talking about?"
"Your thing. Pull down your pants and show me."
"I don't want to."
"You want me to hit you?"
"Then do it."
Bashika balled up a fist and cocked her arm back, biting her bottom lip. She was used to getting what she wanted, and today was no exception. She punched me in the arm, above the elbow, and even though I knew she could have hit me a lot harder, it would most likely still bruise. I tried not to let her know it hurt, but my body ignored my brain and I held my arm protectively while twisting around in place.
"Pull your pants down now."
"Want me to hit you again?"
"Then you better do it."
I nodded quickly and started to unbutton my pants. I was grateful I could no longer wear the little kids jeans that had a snap in the front instead of a button. At least I could fumble with it for a while and try to think of a way out of this. I knew running was a waste of time; with her long legs, Bashika would catch me almost immediately. I looked around for a stick to throw at her, but dismissed that idea almost as soon as I came up with it. Hurting Bashika would only get me in more trouble than I already was.
"Why are you doing this?"
"I like you, stupid."
"You could've asked me."
"I did ask you."
"This isn't a very good place for this."
"I don't care. Just pull them down."
I resigned myself to the embarrassment and humiliation and finally unbuttoned the front, taking my zipper and slowly lowering it. Bashika watched me like a birthday girl watching her mom bring in the cake. I closed my eyes and sucked in a huge breath.
I opened my eyes and Bashika was already running back toward the building, leaving me to fix my pants all by myself. Considering the way things were going, it was probably a good thing.
"Who's with you? WHISKER."
Mrs Straw yelled my name two more times before I got out of the woods, trying to look casual. She gave me a disapproving frown and told me to stand against the wall until recess was over, but there were only five minutes left so it didn't matter to me. I noticed Bashika didn't have to stand against the wall and figured she'd told Mrs Straw it was my idea. Whatever.
When Aunt Ky picked me up, the whole inside of the Old's smelled like cigarette smoke and I coughed a couple of times.
"Lemme roll down your window, Bud."
On the way back to the house, we stopped for gas and cigarettes and she bought me a Pepsi. It was probably my favorite drink after milk, and I usually drank it fast so the carbonation burned my throat, but today I savored it. For some reason it tasted better than usual. It was a bottle instead of a can, and thought maybe that was why. When Ky got back in the car, she was sipping on a beer, cigarette dangling from her lips, and held out her hand.
"Lemme see that bottle."
I handed it to her and she tucked it between the seat and the console.
"Put it like this when you aren't taking a drink so you don't spill any."
She dropped the beer in the can holder and started the car, revving the engine, and I felt like King Shit of Turd Mountain riding shotgun with an adult who not only thought I was cool, but treated me like one. I forgot about my altercation with Bashika and just enjoyed the ride down the highway. "Magnet and Steel" was on the radio and the windows were down, the wind blowing through my hair. I didn't want it to end.
When we got back, we came in through the garage and I noticed several potatoes lined up on the stove top. Uncle Trent still wasn't home and I went into the spare to dump my backpack. Aunt Ky yelled from the kitchen.
"We're having steak and baked potatoes for supper."
I wandered into the hallway to see her walk out the door with the dogs, no doubt taking them outside to use the bathroom. I noticed the door to her bedroom was open most of the way and while it was fairly dark inside, something about the way the walls were bare and clothes were strewn about the bed and floor made me want to look inside.
The floor was carpeted in every room except the kitchen and I made no sound as I crept through the open door and began to search for something interesting. I tried not to step on any of the clothes, but there were so many it was virtually impossible. There was an open closet opposite the bed and I made a mental note to check that last. Then I walked along the side of the bed toward the nightstand where I could see an ornate alarm clock with a leaping buck on the face and polished gold bells, ringer and trim.
Uncle Trent grew up on a farm and was a hunter and fisherman; if it came in camouflage, he either had it or wanted it. I had a pair of camouflage pants from the army surplus store I wasn't allowed to wear to school, but I brought them with me to wear while I stayed over thinking they would impress him. There was a pile of loose change around the clock and I looked to see a huge clear plastic jug sitting next to the stand about halfway full of coins. I thought there had to be at least a thousand dollars in there and it occurred to me Aunt Ky was pretty easy to get along with for someone who was practically rich.
I turned my attention to the high boy behind me and caught my reflection in the dark wood desk mirror. For some reason, I looked thinner, almost malnourished, and my hair hung thin, limp and lifeless. I could tell my eyes were dark, almost black, like the pupils swallowed the irises. I quickly averted my gaze, heart thumping. When I looked again, I saw that my image was back to normal and my pulse began to relax.
I opened the top drawer to find it full of socks and underwear, something I wasn’t interested in investigating further, and as I was closing it, I noticed something in the right side corner. I stuck my hand in and pulled out a Polaroid photo like the ones Mom took with her instant camera.
In it was a nude woman laying in bed with her arms over her head, tied together at the wrist with some sort of cord, maybe a bungee, eyes barely open. She was covered in scratches and bruises and I could see the area between her legs covered in hair that looked like it came from one of Dad’s armpits. Somehow, she looked familiar to me, and as I searched it for clues, I noticed the end of a cattle prod lying next to her, the rest disappearing off the edge of the photo.
“GIVE THAT HERE.”
Aunt Ky came up behind me and snatched the photo from my hand, taking my arm and pulling me away from the dresser as she strode past me and opened the drawer to the nightstand, jamming the picture inside.
“You’re not supposed to be in here.”
“You should be.”
“I didn’t know. I just wanted to look around.”
“The bedroom’s off limits.”
“Please don’t be mad.”
“Go on. Out in the kitchen.”
I walked stiff-legged, expecting a spank before my feet hit the linoleum, but it never came. Ky shut the door behind her and walked over to the stove, turning it up to four fifty. She dragged a metal-framed step stool with reinforced hard rubber platforms out of the corner and over in front of the sink with her foot.
“Stand here and roll up your sleeves.”
I stood on top of the stool in front of the sink while she tossed the potatoes into the empty basin and turned on the hot water. She then handed me a short, wood handle bristle brush.
“Scrub these until all the dirt is gone, but don’t be too rough. Leave the skin on them.”
Ky got four steaks from the fridge and began to season them with salt and pepper while I cleaned the potatoes. She then laid them out across a cast iron grill plate on the front two burners, but didn’t turn them on. With a sigh, she opened the oven and put the potatoes in, stabbing each one several times with a fork.
“Dry your hands on the towel there and go sit on the couch and watch tv. It’ll be an hour before it’s ready.”
I watched Sanford and Son and the dogs chase each other around the house. Uncle Trent came home right before supper was ready and came into the front room, slipping his trucker cap on the coat rack and melting into the recliner with a grunt. Ky followed him in, opening the closet and getting three metal tv trays, setting Trent’s up first. Several minutes later, the food was served and she put my plate down in the tray with a glass of Pepsi. I was hungry enough to eat a moose and dug in with abandon, cutting the steak up into little bites.
It was then I noticed the steak was definitely not done.
I’d never eaten beef that wasn’t brown outside and gray in. Mom cooked it until it was dead several times over and did that with pretty much all the meat we ate. To me, the steak Ky made was raw, and she could tell by the look on my face something was wrong.
“Something the matter?”
“It’s-- red inside.”
“It’s just a little pink. It won’t hurt you, Bud.”
“Are you sure?”
“First time you eat bloody steak it’ll make your tummy a little sick, but it won’t last long and it’ll only happen the one time.”
“If you say so.”
I ate every bite and asked for more. It was so good I asked to eat what Ky didn’t and she said I should slow down. Almost twenty ounces later, I sat on the couch, watching TV with a full belly and a smile on my face. I went to bed early that night, just after dark, and fell almost immediately to sleep.
I woke up three hours later, stomach cramped, and I knew I should have listened. While I was trying to decide if I should get up and go to the bathroom, I noticed voices coming from the other side of the wall. They were low and muffled, and I could only make out a few words.
“--take it, you--”
“--uck it, bit--”
The sounds scared me and I buried my head under a pillow. Eventually I fell asleep to bad dreams filled with whispering, moaning bits of conversation I couldn’t understand. It was fitful and once morning came I didn’t want to get up. Aunt Ky had to drag me out of bed and force breakfast down my throat. I felt like a zombie for the rest of the day and went to bed without eating supper that night.
The rest of the week was relatively uneventful. Ky seemed nicer than usual and spent time with me every chance she got, even sitting next to me on the couch instead of her recliner when I watched TV. Even though I’d been there several days, her dogs hadn’t yet warmed up to me. They ran away when I tried to pet them and generally avoided whatever room I was in, which I eventually decided was just how they were. I’d never had a positive experience with dogs before that, and I assumed this situation was no different.
Ky made steak for me again that night, giving me the whole thing instead of cutting it up into smaller portions like before. It was cooked the same way and I enjoyed every bite. She watched me as I cut it up and swirled the pieces around on the plate with my fork. Uncle Trent was gone overnight for work, so it was just us.
We played several rounds of UNO when we got sick of watching tv and she even got the big people cards out and tried to teach me how to play poker, but it was too much for me to remember, so we settled on gin rummy. I won five out of six and I suspected she was letting me win, but when I asked she denied it. Said she was just having a streak of bad luck.
Before I went to bed, Ky asked me to give her my pajama bottoms so she could wash them with some of my other dirty clothes. I told her I didn’t have another pair to wear to bed and she said I could just sleep in my underwear. That wasn’t something I’d ever done before, but Dad did, and I liked how Ky made me feel more like an adult, so I agreed to it. I liked making Aunt Ky happy.
I woke up some time later, groggy, wondering what time it was, but sensing it was still too early to get up. It was pitch black in the room and I peered into the darkness, trying to see the outline of the bedroom door. Somehow I could tell it was open, but distinctly remembered closing it before I fell asleep.
“Sh. Go back to sleep.”
My heart bounced in my ears and I looked frantically around until I felt a hand of my head, gently pushing it back down on the pillow.
She got into bed beside me, pulling the covers over us both. My thoughts drifted to Van Mom, whom I hadn’t thought much about since Chaz freaked out on me weeks ago. I wondered if she would kiss me with her tongue like she did in the dream. And while I certainly felt like I was awake, a part of me thought I was dreaming and in bed by myself like always.
She took my hand, putting it on her leg and rubbing back and forth slowly.
“Close your eyes. No peeking.”
She put her other hand on my leg and, in much the same way, began to rub it slowly like she had me do. I concentrated on keeping my eyes closed and trying to go to sleep and after several minutes, the repetitive motion lulled me into a waking slumber where I was vaguely aware of motion and occasional low sounds that came from far away.
“That’s a good boy.”
I woke up late the next morning and I could hear Mom talking to Aunt Ky in the living room. I got dressed and walked in, rubbing the sleepers from my eyes. Mom was on the couch, Ky on the recliner, and they both stopped talking to look at me. They were both smiling, especially Mom.
“Your aunt says you were very well-behaved.”
“Uh huh. I hear you were quite the little gentleman.”
“Well I’m proud of you, Whisker.”
Mom may have been proud, but that didn’t make me feel any better. The was something deep in my gut, something other than second stomach, that wouldn’t settle. I went back to the spare to get my stuff packed up while Mom got my freshly laundered clothes from Aunt Ky. She helped me put it all in the car and talked to Ky a little while longer out in the driveway. The dogs were all inside, barking and yapping and watching from the front window.
“Say goodbye to your aunt, Whisker.”
Aunt Ky got down on one knee and put her arms out for a hug, which I obliged with some reluctance. She held me tight and kissed me right on the lips; something she’d never done before. It felt weird and I tried not to show it on my face.
“Take care, Bud.”
I was quiet the whole car ride home while Mom told me about the things she and Dad did with Haley over the past week. I watched the cars and the houses go by out the window, barely paying attention. When we got home, Dad was in the driveway, changing the oil in the Plymouth. I grabbed what I could from the car and went in the back door, dumping my clothes in the kitchen and taking the rest to my room.
I waited for Mom to come inside or to yell at me to get the rest out of the car, but after several minutes, I still didn’t hear her. Maybe she was talking to Dad outside, or the old lady who lived next door. The unsettled feeling in my stomach wasn’t as bad, but it still nagged me, like second stomach so often did. In this case, however, I didn’t even want to think about eating.
It was at that moment I knew what I had to do. It was my promise to Haley I’d been avoiding—afraid of following through—that made my stomach feel like it was full of marbles. My vision narrowed, my pulse quickened, but I knew I was beyond the point where I could keep pretending.
I walked straight to Mom and Dad’s bedroom, opened the door, and strode in, seeing the snoopy dog sitting on top of Dad’s dresser like normal. It smiled that awful, too big smile, but I put those thoughts aside, thinking about all the times I’d gotten into fights and kicked the crap out of the other kid, of Haley’s dark, hollow eyes, pleading with me, of Van Mom’s gentle touch and big boy kisses.
I knew I couldn’t reach the top of the dresser from the floor, so I pulled the bottom drawer out to stand on. I half expected to see it brimming with gore like in the vision, but it was just Dad’s cold weather sweaters. Then I pulled the top drawer out just a little to give me something to hold onto while I climbed up the bottom one. A few moments later, I was eye level with the snoopy dog and my breathing rapid fire like I’d just run home from down the street.
I put my hand forward.
The snoopy dog smiled.
My fingers strained, inching closer.
Finally, sweat dripping off my forehead, my hand closed on the snoopy dog and I yanked it from its spot, sliding off the bottom drawer with a thud.
I expected my hand to burn, to feel like I’d stuck my tongue in the wall socket, even cold, like the inside of the freezer. But it was smooth, and slightly cool to the touch, like a dinner plate.
Then I felt the sensation in my arm. A quick, intense pulse that shot from my fingertips all the way up my arm and into my belly like the fiery, incandescent balls of a Roman candle.
I gasped, taking a step back. There was no way I was prepared for what happened to me. I almost fell to my knees, so overloaded were my senses.
I stood there, in the middle of my parent’s bedroom, snoopy dog in hand.
And it felt—good.