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I put my hand up, shielding my eyes.
The sky was so blue it hurt to look at; never mind the sun, or its light, making my hand glow red around the silhouettes of bones dark and fuzzy like dirty secrets.
I was in the parking lot at the catholic school down the street from where I lived. It was a low brick building, all browns and deep reds, serious as cancer. But it was somehow different. The back doors were wide open—something I'd never seen before—and I could see daylight pouring through a matching pair at the opposite end of a long, open room. I leaned to one foot, head tilted, and peered inside. I could see the edges of rows and rows of pews, the floor waxed such that it reflected the light as would a mirror.
I wasn't catholic, but my mom and dad used to be. Maybe they still were, but we never went to church so I didn't know what that meant for them, only that I always thought the churches, especially the catholic ones, were beautiful on the outside, but their open doors were dark and foreboding and I was afraid to find out what lay within.
I knew Catholics: shopped with my mom around them, stood next to them at the Memorial Day parade, probably even ate beside them at the drive-in. They seemed normal, like my family, so why did they willingly walk through darkened doors into the waiting arms of barking, frothing dobermans, bike wrecks and beatings at the hands of neighborhood bullies? Those were the worst things I endured before snoopy dogs and Bedbugs came along.
I walked unsure to the edge of the open doors, stopping just outside the threshold. This was the school, not the church, and from what I could tell, it was not only well lit, but almost—comforting. I briefly wondered why there were so many pews in a school, but having only ever seen churches on TV, I decided if adults out of school sat in them, kids in school would need them too.
"Why don't you go inside?"
I'll admit it: I jumped. But the voice from behind didn't sound angry or mean and I quickly composed myself. I looked upon the person who spoke to see them wearing a purple velour track suit with white tennis shoes and a silk-screened baby blue tee underneath. The jacket was zipped halfway and I couldn't see what was on the shirt, but it was colorful and made me think of Care Bears.
There was something familiar about this person and I searched memories, rifling through desks, overturning boxes and tearing apart filing cabinets. A distant, high-pitched squeal pierced one ear and stuck in my mind on an endless loop like the thrumming of locusts. I stuck my finger in and wiggled it around, trying to jar it loose as my back teeth started to ache. The way the sun was shining I couldn't see the face, but the hair was light-colored, probably blonde, and long, just past the shoulders. They were nearly as tall as my dad and stood so close I could smell strawberries.
"Take my hand."
I did, and it was soft and warm and felt good against my skin.
We walked together into the building and things suddenly became ultra focused for me. Everything looked more brilliant, more intense; sounds were acutely clear and distinct; the strawberry smell so fragrant—I've never experienced anything so sweet or inviting before or since—even the physical contact felt so strong it had this—tickling sensation or subtle vibration like every tiny part of the skin was individually alive, autonomous, and wiggling around like fresh bathed puppies.
It was almost too much.
"It feels nice, doesn't it?"
I nodded like my head was attached to a slinky, threatening to topple off my shoulders at any moment. I was guided to the top of the center aisle, where we stopped, and when I looked out over the pews I saw they went on forever into a horizon of light. I turned to my chaperon and for the first time I knew who it was.
The Van Family Mom.
Her features were static, unlike in the dream. And she was beautiful, like the women on my real mom's stories, but not so resolute or scornful or fake looking like they were. She smiled and the room seemed brighter. I studied her every feature, committing each one to memory: warm, liquid hazel eyes, a strong, slightly upturned nose, soft lips.
I knew at that moment I loved her.
She knelt in front of me and I thought of Mrs Greer, placing her hands over mine at my sides, then pulling them so they draped over her shoulders. Her hair felt like baby chickens, peach fuzz. Her hands slid flat up my back, pulling me forward so our noses barely touched. Then she leaned in and kissed me on the lips like I saw in the movies.
It was gentle and loving and made me feel warm in all the right places. My jeans were beginning to feel tight, and I briefly wondered if she noticed. I closed my eyes because that's how people kissed when they were boyfriend and girlfriend and I could feel her smiling. I ran my fingers through her hair and rubbed her shoulders and the back of her neck for lack of anything better to do with my hands. She made these noises like I'd heard Mom make when she ate chocolate, and I hoped it was as good.
My eyes flew open when her tongue poked between my lips and started to rub against my own. It was the kind of kissing I'd only heard about from older classmates and sometimes on TV. It was the way the French did it, they said, and I often wondered what made them so special.
Now I knew.
We kissed with our tongues for what seemed like forever, and every time she caught me peeking she smiled. When she started rubbing my bottom, I thought things couldn't get any better, and when she put my hands on her breasts, I knew I'd been wrong.
Then my tongue brushed up against something sharp, ragged, and crystalline and I tasted blood.
The world flew away into darkness.
"What did you say?"
"I want to be with her. In heaven."
My stomachs gnashed with glee.
If I’d known this was what was in store when Mrs Greer asked me to help Chaz, things might have played out very different. At first, I thought he was yanking my chain. Only dead people go to heaven, right? That aside, I didn’t even really believe in heaven. It was something I conceded in politeness to others, but not for myself. I never gave death much thought past the absence, even with Grandma.
The concepts of heaven and hell were topics better suited for scary stories and Sunday school. If there really was a heaven, as in a place where good dead people went to play out their continued existence in virtual paradise, I was confident Chaz’s mom was there, being a good person herself, undeserving of death, yet unequivocally deserving of an eternity of bliss. But I also believed, in my six year old mind, everyone’s time would come, and to me, Chaz’s time was far, far off.
He put his hand on my wrist and leaned in closer. My instinct was to pull away, but I was lost in thought and my reactions sluggish.
“She’s waiting for me.”
“And I don’t want to make her wait any longer.”
“Don’t you, umm, think--”
“Don’t you think she’d, uhh, want you to be happy?”
“Well, yeah, duh. What kind of question is that?”
“So she’d want you to be here.”
“I guess so.”
“Having fun, hanging out with the ones you love.”
“I love HER.”
“That’s why you need to be here-- with your dad and sister. Because she can’t.”
I surprised myself with the Phil Donahue style exposition, and secretly wondered if all those hours in front of the tv weren’t rotting my brain after all. Chaz seemed less agitated, but I could sense we were just getting started. It was a process of stages, and the flood gates still had yet to be thrown.
I really didn’t want to be there when it happened.
“She still loves you, Chaz.”
“I think so, yeah.”
“It’s hot in here.”
That’s when I realized the entire front of my shirt was soaked through, perspiration beaded on my forehead and upper lip, and my glasses were smudged from rubbing against sweaty eyebrows. I wiped my face with my arm and stood up, legs wobbly, and quickly cleaned my glass with my shirt tail. Chaz followed suit and we squeezed out from behind the cabinets where the air was somewhat cooler.
Perhaps twenty minutes passed since I found Chaz, despite feeling like an eternity. There was a weird energy in the air, and I scanned the room trying to pinpoint it. I noticed the door marked “Employees Only” was slightly ajar and murky blue light flickered from within. I could see shadows moving in pantomime, ranging in pace and intensity. I found myself wishing I was in there and my feet started to move toward the door when Chaz put a hand on my shoulder.
“I think I see your dad.”
It was true. Dad was waiting near the entrance, hands in his pockets, whistling, as he watched people pass on the causeway. He turned, waving when he saw us, and we started to leave. Chaz made a smacking sound with his tongue.
I knew what he meant; my tongue felt thick and pasty and I knew Dad would take us to Orange Julius or the Woolworth’s cafe for something to drink. A brief flash of Van Family Mom’s pert nipple dribbling sweet citrus over my tongue increased my urgency and I looked back over my shoulder at Employees Only.
The door was half way open, dim light trying to push through a haze of smoke. A girl stood just inside the doorway; she was thin, too thin, with shorts that looked more like underwear and a tie back bikini top. Her hair was long, plastered down and pulled back in a tight ponytail. And her eyes: dark, sunken, haunted.
There was too much blush on her cheeks and what looked like bruises on her legs and arms and around her neck. She made eye contact with me and the lines of her frown deepened. She looked familiar somehow, but she had to be in her late teens, maybe even twenty. Then the world snapped into focus as it dawned on me.
She looked like Haley.
I stopped, trying to make sense of what this was. I hadn’t seen Haley in months, but she went to college hours away so it was to be expected. She was supposed to come visit over Christmas, but she called and canceled at the last minute, citing a bunch of her friends wanted her to go skiing with them. We were disappointed, but being that she was beginning to experience life at the cusp of adulthood, Mom and Dad uncharacteristically cut her needed slack. I’d never before seen Haley dressed the way this girl was, but the height, hair and features looked right.
Dad took my hand and began to lead me out of the arcade, his pace leisurely.
I kept watching behind me, at the girl I thought was but couldn’t be my sister. A man appeared next to her, his back to me. He was bald, with a sleeveless shirt, narrow cut jeans and a metal chain hooked to his belt loop that hung partway down his leg and snaked back up into his back pocket. The girl looked at him, then back to me and her lips moved, saying something I could neither hear nor understand.
Then the door shut and she was gone.
Dad turned to me, creases in his forehead.
“I saw Haley.”
“She’s away at school, son.”
Chaz and I sat by the big fountain with our drinks while Dad drank coffee and paged through a book he bought. I loved Dad and looked to him for guidance and knowledge, but this time he was wrong.
The skinny, troubled girl I’d seen in the arcade was definitely my sister.
Or what used to be.
I woke up and it was still dark outside. I was dreaming something I couldn’t remember except there was this strange, frantic, rattling sound, like a rack of dishes going into the dishwasher, that woke me and it was so loud and so real it took me several minutes to realize it was part of the dream. It was the third time that week I had it, but it was one that faded almost immediately from memory, leaving behind only the knowledge it had happened. I groaned, rolled over on my side, and closed my eyes, trying to fix my pillow so it was comfortable, but after laying there for several minutes, I knew I wasn’t getting back to sleep.
It was two weeks since the Boom Boom Barn and I’d kept telling myself things were getting better, but denial was a talent I hadn’t fully realized, and it was a tiny voice compared to the very loud one telling me Haley was in trouble, Chaz was worse not better and other, equally terrible things that flitted just beyond my grasp. Dad brought up Bedbugs in the car on the way to pick up Mom from the grocery store when the battery in her car died, but I just pretended I didn’t hear him. The only part of that whole affair I was interested in exploring had nothing to do with Mom or Dad, and as much as I wanted to tell him so, a small part of me knew it would come out screwy and more than likely spark even more unwanted discussions.
Dad was erudite; an academic. Love wasn’t particularly difficult because it could be measured, treated empirically. But expressing feelings beyond the ones suited to men were, for him, akin to alchemy. We had a relationship based on the things we could do together and those experiences we shared, which was more than acceptable if what I needed was a friend.
And in being friends, I was grateful, but when I needed a father, someone to be who I couldn’t, well, that subject was its own Bedbugs. When I needed protection from spectral badger armies, there was no one better suited. But Haley, Chaz, snoopy dogs, and yes, even Bedbugs, were just too heavy. As much as I needed solutions, I needed mechanisms to cope, and those things were, to my unease, beyond his scope of expertise.
I was acutely aware being a father to me wasn’t easy. If Mom’s frustrations were any indication, he was in over his head. But there is a unique opportunity, in being parents, to behold one’s own qualities, for better or worse, in their child, and that can be more than anyone is prepared to handle. I suspected I was a constant reminder of things better left unaddressed, but I didn’t give it much thought; it was beyond my control. That’s what I told myself every time things got out of hand, which seemed to happen more and more as the days passed.
It was a Tuesday; a day begging to end badly.
Just one more for the fire.
I was in my room, sent there for eating three cookies when Mom said I could have two. I could still taste the peanut butter since I didn’t have a chance to get a drink before she caught me. I was listening to my second stomach when I took it, whose voice was louder than the one replaying Mom’s instructions.
It told me she made three dozen of them, she’d never notice one extra missing, and bad things would happen if I didn’t do as I was told. That was the problem: bad things would happen either way, and this was years before I’d even heard of Joseph Heller. I decided Mom’s was a fury which could be mitigated and committed myself to insubordination. Mid bite, I was told to stay in my room until supper and I’d be going right back when I was done, with a smack on the butt with the wooden spoon for emphasis.
When Dad walked in the back door forty-five minutes later, he got a wooden spoon of his own.
They were in the kitchen, and I couldn’t make anything out beyond they were fighting because their voices were raised. At that point, I was used to it, despite putting me further on edge than I already was. Second stomach chortled at the prospect of stuffing my face at the dinner table, but I ignored it. I needed a distraction and listening to Mom and Dad go at it seemed like as good a one as any. I cracked my door open and huddled on the floor, listening.
“What? You think I don’t know what you do while you’re at work?”
“What I always do. Work.”
“HUH. Since you took that new position you have all that extra time to get all friendly with the secretaries.”
“And why would I do that?”
“YOU DON’T LOVE ME ANYMORE.”
“We don’t even have secretaries.”
“What about that black woman?”
“Which black woman?”
“THERE’S MORE THAN ONE?”
“Now you’re just being irrational.”
“That sounds just like something you’d say, ASSHOLE.”
“How am I the asshole?”
“I’m not the one with something on the side.”
“Neither am I.”
I quietly shut my door and their voices faded, to my relief. It was worse than usual, but I mentally filed it away to be dealt with at a later date. Their arguments were like the weather: seasonal and ever present. And while they would always be there, there was a certain relief in knowing, like the weather, it would never not be there, which meant my home, damaged as it was, would never be broken. It was cold comfort, but to my six year old self, preferable to the alternative.
We ate supper in stone silence, but second stomach laughed the entire time.
The next day was only halfway through and I wanted a do over. Chaz was withdrawn and uncommunicative. I tried to cheer him up by telling him jokes and showing him where all the boob drawings were in my Mad Magazine, but every attempt fell flat. I kept telling myself it was a process, drawing on my knowledge of afternoon talk shows, and that he would come to terms with it in his own way on his own time.
But I knew this was somehow different. He was improving after the Boom Boom Barn, day by day, until about a week ago, where he practically reverted back to where he started. I tried talking to him about it, but it was like he was completely shut down. The teachers noticed a change, but made minimal attempts to draw him out; even Mrs Greer came by more often than usual, always making eye contact and offering strained smiles. I felt like I was letting her down, but more importantly, I was letting down my best friend.
I decided to make one more effort to get him to at least talk or laugh at the end of the day. He was upstairs, in the furthest corner of the library, sitting by himself. I pulled up a chair and kicked his foot.
“C’mon. Grab your balls, it’s time to go.”
He made no effort to move and I decided to dial it up from rude to obnoxious. I sniffed several times.
“You shit yourself?”
Still nothing. I was getting annoyed.
“Mrs Switt said you were a cricket dick and has the pictures to pr--”
“I know what you’re doing.”
“C’mon, it sucks when you’re like this.”
“I have my reasons.”
“You really want to know?”
“What do you think?”
“Errr, yes. All right?”
Chaz slouched, slipping a hand into his front pocket and pulling something out. It was folded once, a piece of paper maybe. He handed it to me and I realized it was a photograph.
“Dad took the picture. On the day-- the day she--”
I opened it carefully to see Chaz standing next to his Mom and sister in front of their van at what looked like a roadside rest area. There were trees in the background and an old man walking his--
“Well, you know what h-happened.”
At that point I’d stopped listening. I could only stare at the picture in horror.
It was the van.
Chaz was smiling, something I hadn’t seen him do in weeks.
So was his mom—in her purple track suit, white shoes and baby blue tee—Long, blonde hair.
My head filled with screams.
Chaz’s mom was—I felt acid splash in the back of my throat.
“You ok, Whisker?”
I dropped it and ran. Ran down the stairs, ran through the classroom, past my locker and through the double doors out into the playground area. I kept running across the yard and into the woods and didn’t stop until I tripped on an exposed tree root and fell to my knees, skinning my palms on a partially buried log under the leaves.
I sat there, lungs heaving, mind racing, trying to make sense of the picture Chaz showed me.
The Van Family.
She was—She couldn’t be—I started to cry; fat tears rolling down my face, nose running. I covered my face with my hands and bawled like a two year old as my stomachs too turns doing somersaults. I was beyond denial, beyond sense.
I thought of Chaz’s sister, grinning, arm around their mom, giving a thumbs up.
And the dancing, smiling Snoopy on her shirt.
Mom couldn’t get me to eat that night. She went through the whole rigamarole: checking my forehead, asking me if my stomach felt all right, asking if I felt tired, weak, cold. I always shook my head, but refused to speak. Second stomach howled with rage, but it was buried down deep in the hole that opened up that afternoon. Mom was concerned and sat with me, rubbing my back, but it felt more like she was scrubbing a dirty pan. She wasn’t the mom I truly, deeply loved and it wasn’t her hand that was supposed to be there.
I finally knew how Chaz felt. Ever since I had the dream, I thought of the Van Family as my real one. Mom and Dad were my adopted parents, who loved me in their own way, but like a movie, I would one day run out the door in search of them, and after adventures with strange children and stray dogs, fleeing capture from beat cops and a crafty yet sympathetic detective who understands my plight and ultimately lets me go, I am reunited with them and I finally get to live the life I was meant to. I knew it was just a fantasy, but when Mom whipped me for only drinking half of my milk, it was one I wanted to be real more than anything.
Mom was saying something, but I couldn’t hear her; everything sounded like when my head submerged in the bathtub. But there was one thing I could hear clearly, like the sound from the dreams that kept me from getting enough sleep for the past week, a jingling, rattling crash that just wouldn’t stop.
I put my hands over my ears and stood up, walking from my room into the hallway. I could see both of the other bedroom doors were open just enough I could squeeze through. Haley’s was dark, except for a flickering, murky blue light. Wisps of smoke curled around the molding and I looked away before I saw the cavorting silhouettes.
Mom and Dad’s room was brighter, almost as if the sun shone through the windows, but it was after eight o’clock, and almost certainly dark outside. The rattling continued, and I moved toward the door, each step slow and careful, peering around the edge of the door. I saw the light wasn’t from the sun at all, but a lamp without a shade, the naked light harsh to my eyes. Frantic shadows bounced over the walls, but I couldn’t tell what they were, only that they appeared to match the tempo of jingling, rattling, crashing that concluded its crescendo when my hand touched the door and I could finally see everything.
The snoopy dog shuddered violently on top of the dresser, ears flapping back and forth, flat bottom bouncing off the surface in a racket that made my eyes water.
Jingle jingle jingle.
Rattle rattle rattle.
CRASH CRASH CRASH.
It danced back and forth, like a little kid shaking it.
Like the eyes on a Kit-Cat clock.
Like it was laughing.
I covered my eyes and screamed.
Sleep was deep and dreamless, and for he first time in what seemed like months, I didn’t wake up feeling like I’d never gone to bed. Mom wanted to keep me home from school that day, but after finally putting something in my stomachs, I felt good enough I convinced her I was okay to go. She was incredulous, and repeatedly asked if I was okay, if I felt well enough.
I answered yes every time.
For some reason the day felt right, but I took it in stride. I just wanted to get through school without a major incident and maybe get a cheeseburger and a milkshake for supper. With all that had been going on, I really thought I had it coming.
Chaz greeted me at the door like he'd been waiting for me to arrive. He seemed surprised to see me, figuring after what happened the day before, I'd need a day or two to recuperate. But as we talked, and his mood darkened, I came to realize he wasn't surprised like I thought.
"What are you doing here."
"What do you mean?"
"Shouldn't you be at home?"
"Why? I feel fine."
"I'm sure you do."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Stop fucking around."
I cursed like a sailor given the chance, as did Chaz, probably from hanging around with me. But one thing we rarely, if ever, did was aim it at each other. If the teacher was being a bitch, we said so. If one of our classmates pulled some asshole move, we called him on it. But when it came to calling each other out, we were a little less severe, understanding that we each had our own shit we had to carry around and sometimes that meant we weren't always perfect gentlemen. It was one of the things that defined us as best friends. And something I thought would never change.
"Oh come ON."
"You're not making sense."
"How's this for sense? Stay away from her."
"What? From who?"
"You know goddam well who."
"I really don't."
"She isn't yours and she isn't some whore."
"What the fuck are talking about?"
"I know everything you did and it makes me want to vomit."
"I don't even--"
"Shut UP. Just shut the fucking fuck up."
Guilty cubes of ice crawled under my flesh, but my mind kept trying to convince myself I had no idea what he was talking about and, out of fear, I went along with it. My mouth was shut, but I couldn't keep myself from trembling.
"She's MY mom. MINE. Not yours."
I nodded in deference, backing up a step.
"And I'm telling you this because we were friends, but it'll only happen once, so listen up you piece of shit."
I swallowed hard and searched frantically for a way to resolve this, to calm him down, to keep the situation from careening into an ocean of fire.
"Stay away from her or I'll fucking kill you."
"You hear me?"
"Don't talk to me again. Ever."
He left me there, shaking, practically wetting myself. I felt nauseated, but didn't have the energy to throw up. Chaz didn't so much as look at me the rest of the day and I felt myself slipping back into an all too familiar feeling of helplessness. It didn't make sense he would be mad about something I was pretty sure only existed in my head. It was something, like the snoopy dog, I told no one. It wasn't exactly a topic I wanted to bring up in casual conversation. I may have only been six, but I wasn't an idiot.
Mom picked me up at the normal time and I crawled into the back seat like usual. When she asked me if I was still feeling okay, I told her I was, but didn't elaborate. I wanted a cheeseburger, hell, two of them, but just couldn't bring myself to ask Mom to take me somewhere to get them. I just wanted to go to sleep and hope when I woke up the next day I'd find out everything that happened was a dream or a hallucination or all in my stupid, screwed up head.
Mom looked at me from the rear view mirror.
"I need to stop at Woolworth's and pick up a couple things, okay honey?"
We had to pass the Boom Boom Barn to get to Wooldworth's and I looked toward the Employees Only as we went by. It was dark, but I could tell the door was closed. I wondered if what I saw, the girl I thought was Haley, was just another in what I was beginning to think was a long list of phantoms brought on by lack of sleep, dehydration and stress. The more I thought about it, the more it rang true for me.
Woolworth's smelled like it always did; something I normally enjoyed greatly and wanted to visit just so I could bask in the aroma of roasted nuts and candy bins.
But that day I was in such a fog it barely registered. As we walked by the clothes, I slowed down, and eventually stopped; Mom kept walking and disappeared into the cosmetics section. I slipped through a couple of racks, moving toward the center, and stopped at one full of women's slacks. I got down on my knees and crawled underneath until I was at the center and sat down, pulling my knees up to my chin.
I wanted to cry, but couldn't find the tears. Instead, I just breathed in and out, in and out, and thought about Chaz, the seeming end of our friendship, and wondered what I would do without a best friend.
My only friend.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and I looked up with a start.
I scooted all the way around and saw the girl from the Boom Boom Barn hunkered between the pairs of slacks in front of me. Up close she looked worse than when I saw her the first time; eyes dark and gaunt with heavy eyeliner, hair in tangled sideways ponytails and a host of bruises around her neck and shoulders. She was wearing a tank top with Ms Pac Man about to eat some cherries and a pair of shorts similar to the ones from before. She looked like she'd been crying, and I knew how she felt.
"P-please don't say anything."
I nodded in assent. And in that moment, I realized how much I missed my big sister, heedless of our past.
"I need you to listen very carefully, Whisker."
I nodded several more times.
"You need to get rid of it."
My eyes went wide and I mouthed the word "what".
"The snoopy dog. It's trying to kill us."