This isn't the letter I want to write. I want it to be the one that says things are good at home and at school, I'm keeping myself out of trouble and I can't wait for the weather to get warm again. I want it to show you how good I feel, how happy I am, so you can be happy for me. That's what letters are supposed to do.
I am none of these things. It's my fault you can't come back, my fault I haven't kept my promise. My fault you're miserable.
I'm miserable too. And I'm sorry I--
I crumpled up the piece of paper and threw it across the room where it bounced off the wall and landed near my shoes. Since it was the letter I didn't want to write, it was better left unwritten. I'm pretty sure Haley knew how I felt even if she wouldn't admit it. It wasn't a relationship of shared feelings with us, but they were understood. At least, I thought they were, complicated as it sounds.
After the first of the year, there was snow. It was light, the powdery kind, and grew in intensity over several days. By the second week of January, the ground and trees were covered and everything looked like pillows, adding an illusion of softness. But, like life, it only hid what lay underneath; things better left that way. I spent a lot of my free time outside where things were simpler. The walls were still far enough out on the horizon they were easy to ignore.
Grandma and Grandpa Schiller lived just off the interstate, on one of the two intersecting roads that dead ended at the same field. One end was the creek that ran behind the house, the other at a pile of rocks and leftover concrete. There was a small outcrop of trees behind it, which gave just enough shade to make it a good place to waste a summer afternoon hunting for snakes. It sat past the gravel driveway that led to a kid named Jack's house; he was a couple years older than me, went to the public grade school. Now it was a giant pile of half melted and refrozen snow and ice, a fortress of quasi linear wonder to my mind and a death trap to Mom's. She forbade me to play there, but what I did outside in the snow was for me to know as long as I came back safe and sound.
I walked along the edge of the road where the snow mixed with stones. I listened to the crunches under my shoes and thought of cereal. The air was cold, dry, and my eyes filled with tears to keep them wet. I wore a hat when Mom told me even though my hair stood up stupid when I took it off. Someone might see. Someone might understand how strange I was to look so different from everyone else; the way people did when they were foolish and weak. Physically? I was a number two pencil, a wildflower. Still, there were things I'd seen, felt, been party to that could melt mountains. There must be some way of measuring such things in the eyes of a stranger.
The tears froze halfway down my cheeks: my memory of Haley. No smiles, no stolen candy bars, no warm goodbyes.
Nothing soft was left.
The space under my mattress was running out.
Unlike at home, Mom couldn't clean all the things she wanted to at Grandma and Grandpa's and that made her surly. Grandma put up with it for about a week before she told Mom to just sit down and relax, but cleaning was the part of Mom's routine that had to happen or bad things might. What kind of bad things? Anyone's guess. Maybe if I cleaned more it would make things so Bedbugs and Someone Else's Stockings never happened, but that was ridiculous. There was life, the things you dreamed, and profound forever evil like the snoopy dog. Everything else amounted to fiction.
Still, it meant I had a semi safe place to put things I didn't want anyone else to see. It's where I stashed my bad grades, pictures of girls I drew in various states of undress, half eaten candy and other sundry pants pocket fill at one end and what I got from Santa at the other. To my credit, it was an expert tactic in that it hadn't moved since I put it there. I checked it every night before I went to sleep, slipping my hand into the crevice until I felt the cool, polished skin, fully anticipating a bloody stump upon withdrawal. I think it was, in its own way, happy to be there. So close to me. Maybe it was once a little boy, too.
The past Christmas was an exercise in pinpoint focus on a poorly constructed lie. A trimmed plastic tree, naught for lights except over the archway going from the living room into the abrupt foyer and, most disheartening, not at home, made for poor celebration. Everyone opened presents as might hobos picking through yet another tin of beans. Great gifts became common, good ones dismissed. Socks and underwear and ties went out with the garbage. There was nothing of cheer. Aunt Ky and Uncle Gerry both stopped in, but didn't stay. There was only enough oxygen for those of us with the forethought to order ahead.
I made the mistake of mentioning Haley; you could frost a cake with the tension. Mom made a noise caught between a cough and a sneeze and went to the kitchen. Grandma was there, too; where it was safe. Once it was done--the damage, that is--I traipsed up to my bedroom to accept defeat. It wasn't a story for children though there were none present. The sun slithered through the blinds and cast itself upon the floor, a beached whale. The door wasn't as I left it.
There was something other than the bed on it. A box. It was wide but not tall, wrapped by a strung out addict's hand. The paper was colors, cartoons, wrinkles, wreckage; one corner crumpled in on itself, what's left of a ribbon holding everything in. The writing on the tag felt like a threat.
To: Little Boy
I was talked into opening it. No. Compelled to. It wasn’t curiosity or desire or greed that made me do it. I don’t think there’s a name for it, really. Let’s call it an accident.
There are no such things as accidents.
The paper came off a patch of dead skin, revealing a box like the ones they used at Woolworth’s. I’m not sure how I even knew seeing as it was a plain and white. It smelled just enough of roasted nuts to feel like a yesterday. When I pulled the top off, I didn’t cry or yell or run away. I sat down, like a man, picked it up, felt it in my hands, against my flesh.
It wanted to love me. Hurt me. Kiss me.
And other things.
I’d never really noticed how it wasn’t so much white as pearl. Scrimshaw. There was the tiniest crack in the cap, the dark pleather scuffed coffee with milk in spots, worn down along the edges. Smooth all over. Curves that defied time. A beautiful girl’s body. It felt so right against me I couldn’t fathom wrong. Half the world just washed away.
I slipped it under the end of the mattress closest to the door, where it could sleep.
And dream little doggie dreams.
I’m not sure when Mom decided to start smoking, but I remember the day I found out. It was insufferably hot for the end of March, almost shorts weather, and I left my jacket at home. Mom insisted I wear something long sleeved so I didn’t catch cold, but the only thing I had any real threat of catching was Mom’s ire. I don’t know if she woke up on the wrong side of the bed or what, but she’d been on a tear the whole morning and once she’d laid sufficient waste to the house, she set her sights on me.
“It’s too hot.”
“Don’t you dare open that window.”
“Well don’t sweat in those clean clothes and get them all smelly.”
“But I don’t stink when I sweat.”
“Everyone stinks when they sweat. You’re just too young to notice.”
"Do you stink when you sweat?"
Mom shot me a look.
"Women don't sweat. Get in the car."
We had errands to run, Mom and I. Really, it was just part of the routine. She needed someone to be there with her, see all the wrongs, bear witness.
Even a little liar like me.
The Chevette didn't leave much room for, well, anything. I asked to sit up front.
"Wear your seatbelt. Last thing I need is some cop pulling us over."
There was something in the air that day. Maybe it was just the heat making people's brains a little crazy, making them see things, feel things that were only sort of there. That's how it was for me, anyway.
"Can I roll the window down?"
Mom's mouth strapped on steel toed boots.
"Just a crack. It's still winter."
I put my hand on the crank, wrapped my fingers around the handle, and rolled it counterclockwise. Halfway through the third revolution it fell on the floor and I had an epiphany of personal harm.
"Uhh. The window."
"What? What about it?"
"I think I broke it."
It was a feeble old man noise she made.
"WHAT DID YOU DO."
I held the broken handle up and she snatched it away, looked at it like it might start breathing again.
"WHY DO YOU RUIN EVERYTHING."
It was a valid question, one I sometimes asked myself. So far, I couldn't come up with much that didn't tailspin into academic fantasy. If I had too many muscles, there'd be a tv show about it. If my brains were popping out my ears, I might get to work at some university developing military weapons. As it stood, I was just some boy with a disproportionate amount of personal trauma. I suppose it's only natural it would find its way out, if unintentionally. There were no such things as accidents, only actions and reactions. I felt bad for the window crank but it didn't put up much of a fight.
She put the crank in the console and rummaged through her purse, one hand on the wheel, cursing without passion. I inventoried the words, reviewed the meanings, mentally bookmarked their associations. Each one of them had a special place and when I looked at Mom I saw them as name tags on her face, her arms and chest, legs and stomach. They were who she was, while I was what she pointed them at. It was its own kind of love, a giving of herself to me, except it was sometimes the kind of love people didn't want, the forced upon them kind. Sometimes I had trouble telling the difference. Sometimes not being able to tell made me feel stupid. When I couldn't feel the love at all.
Mom calmed herself down enough to pray.
"You're just lucky I don't drink."
She slipped the cigarette between her lips and lunged for the car lighter under the panel that explained how to make the car warm. We didn't need any help with that. The first curls of smoke were yellow, banana balloons, then white like Santa's beard. A thousand lifetimes of snow. The smell made me cough.
"You hadn't broken it, I'd let you roll that window down some more."
We rolled into town, heading for the grocery store. It was close to the edge, with a bowling alley at the back of the parking lot. Dad told me they used to live in a house right next to it, but that was before I was born. Haley's favorite thing was to tell me about what happened before I was born, maybe to make me feel sorry for missing it. It wasn't meant to be mean, it's just how she was, and I loved her anyway. Even so, it worked. I secretly missed all the things I didn't know happened.
Mom lit another cigarette like it was a competition, her third since we left Grandma and Grandpa's. Even though it was all I could smell, it became like the trees and houses that went by.
West Whitney Avenue had a way of going from pleasant to spooky in the width of a cross street. I had an idea what street that was, but it didn’t much matter since the unfortunate fact was our grocery store lived on the spooky part.
Mom flipped the turn signal and waited for a pickup to pass before she went. She was most of the way through the turn when the other car darted out from behind a station wagon, clipping our front driver’s side corner. Both cars stopped, Mom’s face a wreck of its own. I didn’t want to move, taking in the silence.
A car door. Then another. Mom got out and I followed suit, walking around the front to survey the damage. It wasn’t bad, to my mind, but my only comparison was from tv and movies, where crashes normally resolved with an explosion. The headlight was cracked, signal light smashed, a rumpled fender and a cool purple streak of paint left behind; a tattoo. I traced it with my finger until Mom smacked my hand away.
“Don’t touch that.”
The other driver was a woman younger than Mom, but you wouldn’t know it to look at her. She was thin, somewhat tall, withdrawn. Her dark hair fell to her shoulders, limp and mousy. Eyes dull. Convalescent. She looked like she needed something. Sleep. A hug. A way out. Mom hugged the woman with her mouth.
“Jesus, did you even look?”
The woman’s reaction was careful.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say.”
It was an honest mistake.
“I have a kid in the car. He could have been killed.”
“I thought it was clear.”
“Well it most certainly wasn’t. You’re lucky he’s okay. You’re okay, aren’t you?”
I nodded, hands in my pockets. My body was fine.
“Can we just-- forget it? I’ll give you money.”
This seemed to trip some internal switch for Mom. Her eyes flashed, a pinball table.
“Money isn’t the issue. The car can be fixed. What you did was--”
I faded Mom’s voice to static, a car starting, a dog barking halfway down the block. There were birds and I concentrated on them, watched them fly across the lot, over the houses across the street, into the future.
“Your mom’s kind of a bitch.”
Spoken like an expert.
She was right next to me, just a bit taller but built the same. Her hair was dark like the woman from the car, off her shoulders but past her ears. Full. I saw red in there, underneath loose curls; undulating, controlled flames. The way she turned I couldn’t see much of her face, but the sun shone bright for winter.
“Yeah. She’s having a day.”
“I’ve seen you before. Next door.”
I could only imagine what that meant.
“At Yanya’s. You know, on Henna.”
“I live on Henna.”
“Duh. That’s what I mean.”
“Sorry. Yeah, okay.”
She faced me, rolling her eyes to tell me I was obtuse. I watched the way they danced over round cheeks, a perfect little mouth smiling diamonds. They were green, but deep, like a Christmas tree. There were things in there I wanted to find, protected things. Hidden around short corners past the tips of my fingers.
She kicked my knee.
“Did you see me too?”
“You kicked me.”
“You deserved it.”
I rubbed the spot through my jeans and felt the warmth spreading through my leg. It wasn’t the bad kind. I considered her question, surmised the answer, and decided to give her a different one. One that wouldn’t end with another kick.
“Yeah. I think so.”
Her face lit up bright.
Shit. This was getting sticky.
She looked into me, didn’t mind what she saw; maybe even liked it. My clothes felt thin.
“Well, the one day, I guess. When you were outside.”
It was probably true.
“What was I wearing?”
My brain yelped with fear. Second Stomach howled.
“You know. Shorts.”
“A tee shirt?”
“The one with the puppy?”
“I dunno. Yes.”
“That one’s my favorite. I wanted to wear it today but it’s got ketchup on it.”
Her shoulders were up, almost to her ears, cheeks flushed. She twisted, hugging herself almost. Happiness.
I made her happy.
“Do you have a name?”
I have a hundred: Pest. Shit. Goddam You.
Something twinkled in her eye. A birthday card.
“Like a kitty cat?”
“Hey Whisker Like a Kitty Cat.”
A smile forced its way out.
It was Mom. All caps meant it was time to leave.
“I gotta go.”
She turned and skipped back to her mom who was standing next to their purple car. A Gremlin. Mom made me get back in and buckle up before she turned the car on. The engine made a racket before it settled into its usual four cylinder chug. The little car that could.
Something itched in the back of my head as we started to pull away, something under the skull. It felt like I was forgetting something the way it dug around in there. I watched out the window, saw the mom opening the car door, looked for the girl who was nearby. Then it hit me.
I didn't get her name.
I went to roll down the window but my hand felt door. Broken. I pawed at the window, put my nose to the crack in the window like some anxious mutt. I saw her wave as we passed by, saw the little bumps under her sun white shirt, finally read the letters. I hadn’t seen them under the rainbow, stitched into a cartoon cloud, but the name rolled over silent lips and all down the front of me as we passed.
We sat across from one another at the kitchen table, eyeing each other up. I didn’t like his haircut, the way he smiled. Taking into account his funny polo shirt -- a frog with a sombrero over the left breast-- didn’t help either. Everything about him screamed used car salesman, but Dr. Benjamin Coker spent all day appraising used brains.
“How are you feeling today, Whisker?”
“Umm, tired mostly.”
“Would you say you’ve been getting enough sleep?”
“I guess so.”
“What about school?”
“What about it?”
“How are things going with your classes?”
“And your friends?”
“Brett’s fine. We play a lot of Star Wars.”
“What about your other friends?”
“There, umm. There aren’t any.”
“I see. Would you say Brett is your best friend?”
“Yeah, I guess so. It used to be Chaz.”
“Used to be?”
“We had a, umm, fight. We don’t talk anymore.”
Ben wrote something down, then looked at me, smiling.
“Tell me about Chaz.”
My mouth was an asterisk and I shook my head. Ben made this little noise that sounded like “mmm hmm”. It was this thing he did.
“So you told me you were friends and that you had a fight. What else can you tell me?”
“His mom died.”
“And how does that make you feel?”
“Do you ever think about it?”
Whenever I’m awake.
“And what do you think about?”
“Stuff. Umm, how sad he is I guess. And angry.”
“What do you mean?”
“What happened when she, umm-- died.”
“Can you be more specific?”
“I dunno. What parts she hurt, I guess.”
“The injuries she suffered?”
I thought long and hard on that one, wanting to be sure I got it right.
“Where her ghost came out.”
I could think of a hundred things I’d rather be doing than standing in the bathroom with the door shut. I already did my business and it smelled like it, but Kalliope insisted it was important, something I needed to stay for. She stood in the back of the bathtub, behind the edge of the sliding glass door, with the fingers of one hand curled around the edge like she might jump out at any moment. The mirror started to fog at the corners even though it wasn’t any warmer in there than the rest of the house. I watched Kalliope in the reflection: a long bunch of blonde hair and the rusty eye, the marks on her neck that ran over the line of her jaw angry bright.
Grandpa was there, in just his pajama bottoms. They were a faded green checkered affair, worn and loose at the waistband, the ties frayed at the ends. They’d been through the war, those pajamas, the kind fought on the homefront; I could almost taste the arguments, inappropriate touches and beer piss. He muttered things to himself.
“Goodfernothin' stinkin' birds.”
There was lather on his face, thick and marshmallowed. I didn't get to see him much without his glasses and I never noticed how small his eyes were; little ones, hard and dark like marbles. The razor sat on the edge of the sink near his hand while he studied himself, moving his lower face around the jaw. I saw the things in his heart through the reflection; dark, squirming things. Things without compunction. Things I saw in me.
Grandpa's words wound up like a car wreck.
"Which oneayou thievin' shits TOOK MY GODDAM COMB."
He leaned over the sink, heaving, arms of lumber. His breath became the steam and with it filled the room until all that was left was his shadow. Something grabbed my collar, pulling me back, and I nearly fell into the tub. Scrambling, arms and hands a search party, cold fingers over the mouth clipping my shout. Kalliope's face was next to mine, a second head, the one with enough sense to stay hidden. Her lips tickled my ear and an exhaled syllable slithered down the hole.
I moved my head to let her know I understood, felt familiar parts of her against my back. My eyes were wide and I watched, waited. Inhale. Exhale. Great, billowing, seething oaths. I could hear my heart beating with them, urging them on. The door slid open with a shush.
Kalliope hovered into the room, eyes wide, mouth hyphenated. Her hair was almost to her waist, long and straight, a bright blue comb in her hand offered up like some ancient sacrifice. The door slammed behind her without anyone touching it. Then Grandpa turned, but a hair, and snatched the thing from her grasp. He began to comb.
“Told you this weren't to be touched.”
Kalliope looked at the floor.
“I could not find my brush.”
“Ain’t my fault your head don’t screw on right.”
Her face made more punctuation.
“I am just--”
Grandpa looked at her sidelong.
I could feel the words clogging her throat. Dead leaves. Oatmeal. Hair in the drain.
“I am slow. It is what Momma says.”
Grandpa’s mouth hinked.
“Your momma made you that way.”
“No. I-- I’m slow. I am not s-stupid.”
Grandpa put down the comb and took up the razor, drawing the first plow.
“I suppose that doctor was wrong, you bein the expert and all.”
Her hands went into fits as her sides.
“One that come to the house. Way back when.”
“I do not r-remember.”
“S’pose you wouldn’t.”
Grandpa’s razor clanked on the edge of the sink, foam splattering. He started on the other cheek.
“Don’t really matter none long as you act a lady.”
Another clank. Only neck and chin remained. Kalliope looked everywhere, eyes bouncing, but all the exits were walls. I could taste it, her desperation. It tasted like chocolate.
“Shit’s all a sudden sideways with you, girl.”
One stroke up the neck.
“Forget your damn name it weren’t stitched on your collar.”
“Work all day with them sonsabitches always sittin' around with the cigarettes and dice on the goddam clock.”
“And for what? Come home to beer turned warm and supper gone cold.”
Grandpa’s face was a lemon, squinting eyes the seeds. The last stroke caught on the curve of his jaw, drew blood.
The razor landed in the basin, a bright red scar behind it. It looked like a fish gill flapping on his neck before he clamped his hand down on it, grabbing a towel mere inches from where I cowered in the clutches of a different monster. She pulled me back further, lips all over my face. They felt like discarded snake skins.
I tried to see the other Kalliope, the one in trouble. She backed away, the way a statue might; her heart was in it but nothing else. Grandpa’s voice spat a porcupine.
“Lookit you made me do.”
He grabbed her under the chin, pinching her mouth open, head bobbing goosey. He just held her like that, but she didn’t struggle so much as teeter; a hanging suicide half off the straight back chair. I held my breath even though I was out of practice. I hoped it would make things better, or at least make them go away. I tried to ignore the hands all over me, rough lips, little girl sighs. My spine felt like a creepy crawly.
Grandpa released his daughter and she windmilled into the door, fell, arms and legs jumbled up every which way. Only her face was composed. A mask. I tried to see what wriggled underneath, but it was too far down, too far to dig.
"Breaks my heart how much your momma's in that face."
He started toward her.
"And next to nothin a me."
I watched through the mirror, whispers seeping into my pores while grunts buffeted my eardrums. This was no Bedbugs. This was something I couldn't find a name for, something better left in a hole a hundred miles away. Covered with dirt. With buildings.
When he finished, Grandpa stood over her, glistening like some profane athlete, the spot on his neck a leftover kiss that spoke nothing of love. He went back to the sink, opened the cabinet; all the little bottles and tubes and implements. He reached for the top, took it from the shelf and unscrewed the cap. I shuddered when it upended. Splash.
He patted his face and neck and chest, rubbed them. Massaged them. Cool hands mimicked the same on me. Then he put it down, sucked in his breath seeing his kiss in the mirror. It was a bottle. White. Slim. A little dog.
A smiling little snoopy dog.
The rumbling in my ears was from oceans falling. Hurling. Slapping me down. The bathtub became a tomb: my forever hiding place. Still, she who was with me held me tight, promised. Made me see.
A crooked girl hand. Reaching. Grasping.
Grandpa smiled in the mirror, appraising his reflection. Testing the weight. The purity. The girl hand fluttered over the vanity, knocked away the comb. Smack.
Grandpa turned as the dog bottle crashed over the side, glugged liquid nightmare. Kalliope's mouth split wide in triumph before his hands closed around her neck. Shaking.
The line of her nose. Wisps of blonde hair.
And an eye once blue now rimmed red gasped and transformed.
Into a tiny orange sun.
It wasn’t the first time I’d wet the bed, but I sure hoped it was the last. It hurt a little bit extra because it was at Marcia’s and even though she just laughed and told me it was no trouble as she put the blanket with my clothes in the washer and scrubbed the spot on the couch with a bristle brush, I knew I’d done something irreversible. Something I might not ever make right.
Marcia worried I might be sick, and that scared me even more so I told her I had a big glass of water before I went to sleep and that must have been what did it. She didn’t seem so sure, but I promised not to drink anything before bed from then on and that seemed to do the trick. It was a tiny lie, even though a part of me figured it could be true. We’d done a fair amount of that between us of late, between the secrets we kept from Mom and Dad and trying to comfort each other. I tried to tell her about other things, but it mostly just ended with us praying together. Right before the kisses and fondling. It became its own sort of ritual. It got so I tried to admit things just to get to the other parts, like eating my vegetables to I could have dessert. If she knew, she didn’t seem to mind.
After the incident, Marcia led me to the bathroom so I could make myself clean. She ran the water the way I liked--not too hot--and got out her own special wash cloth. When the robe fell away and she climbed into the tub behind me, it felt like the way things should be. I spent a lot of time doing things that I didn’t want to, went against what I thought was right. Being with Marcia in the tub while she scrubbed me clean was so far away from that I had trouble putting it in perspective. She felt good with me there, between her legs, against her body. Natural. Maybe I was meant to be there.
She toweled me off when we were done, even let me do the same for her. It took a long time, but I wanted to make sure I did it right. I might have lingered over certain parts, but I couldn’t be roasted over a spit for exercising due diligence. She giggled a lot. Said I was tickling even though I wasn’t at first. The power of suggestion. I had a change of clothes, but they were down in the basement, so I ran out of the bathroom in my birthday suit. It felt good. Free. I wanted to be like that all the time, like Mickey in the Night Kitchen. Marcia called for me, but didn’t immediately give chase. I imagined myself as like the girl in the Rio video. Desired. Pursued.
I had my underwear and one sock on by the time Marcia found me. She had her hair pulled up, wore her favorite robe-- a pink, silky thing-- white panties peeking from the vee it made under her belt.
“There you are.”
There I was.
She knelt down beside me, put her hands on me, turned me toward her, weighed me solemn.
“I want you to come with me to see Pastor Raoul. Just you and me.”
Who's Pastor Raoul?
Marcia’s face got smaller. She was thinking.
“Well, the next service won’t be until Wednesday. I guess it will have to be then.”
I thought it over.
“If you want me to.”
She gripped my arms, made my back straight.
“Oh I do. I really do.”
I felt the question coming. It waited in line for quite some time.
“Do you-- like it?”
Her eyes glimmered.
“Like what, honey?”
“When we’re, you know. Like this.”
“Together you mean?”
“Alone together. So we can be like we’re married.”
“You know I do.”
“Do you like the way I feel?”
The smile admitted more than I’d hoped.
“I like how you feel too.”
Giggles. A little girl again.
Her bottom lip stuck to its sister for a second before it fell away and a soft, pink tongue brushed it moist. I knew what that felt like. It was all I ever wanted to feel again.
“I think we can.”
She sat next to me on the couch, putting her hand on the small of my back. She left the robe on, open, leaving some of the work for me. My hand hovered over the edge where it formed the curve over her breast. That's when she put her hand on my wrist.
"We have to decide."
I was still trying I liked them both so much. She shook my hand, once, moved so her eyes could see into mine.
"What to call it?"
"So your Mom and Dad won't make us stop?"
"Does it need a name?"
Her eyes were liquid. Her face earnest.
"Oh yes. Every love needs a name. Especially one as strong and deep as ours."
It made sense. About as much as anything could in my condition. I searched through the fog, remembered things.
"I, umm, well. I sometimes call it Someone Else's Stockings. In my head."
Marcia's smile was quick, meant to be reassuring, but it said something different. It said I wasn't scoring so well.
"That's nice, honey, but I was thinking it should be more, you know, happy sounding."
"My youngest used to call it pizza party, but he's just about grown up now."
Pizza party. I liked pizza.
"So you want to call it pizza party?"
A quick shake of her head. One, two.
"We need a name for just us. Only we share."
I drew a blank. This was algebra, missile science. Too much and too hard.
"Let me give you some help."
She pulled her robe aside, placed my hand on her breast like she'd done before, and I became awash with need, fevered and fitful. I moved my hand like she showed me, massaged the nipple with my palm until it made diamonds seem like marshmallows. It's what I thought about when it was supposed to be numbers with decimals. Action and linking verbs.
I made all kinds of verbs.
"How does that feel, sweetie?"
"HOW does it make you feel? WHAT does it make you think of?"
All kinds of things. Late nights watching HBO. Mrs. Switt's daughter, Kimberlea. That time in the woods with Bashika even though it was scary too. Even Someone Else's Stockings. Even though I didn't want to think about that.
"Good things. Things I like."
"The first time-- you know."
Marcia's cheeks flushed.
"What kind of dessert?"
I thought of the watermelon roll she got me special. Chocolate chip seeds.
"Ice cream cake."
Marcia's eye lit up, lips made ready to receive.
"Ice cream and cake. Perfect."
She smiled, this time approving, and moved my hand away so she could kiss it.
"We'll call it ice cream and--"
Mom. Marcia shot up from the couch, pulled her robe together, tying crazy with one hand. Her voice was hushed, frantic.
"Stay there. Stay. Right. There. Don't move. I'll be right back."
She hurried across the room, a funny, straight legged prance, to the short steps. She turned to me just before she went up, shaking, mouthing something. All kinds of words. The same thing maybe three times.
PUT YOUR CLOTHES ON.
I couldn't tell what she meant, but it made me want to smile. Maybe even laugh. Marcia was funny. One more thing we kept just between us. I did what she said and stayed put. Even though between my legs felt like a headache.
I heard them talking upstairs and that wasn't unusual. Mom was early, by maybe two hours. I tried to think if there was anything special I had to do that day, but couldn't figure it out. I was a little angry the way she barged in when I was so close. Maybe I'd tell her on the car ride home about the mother/girlfriend puzzle, about how I figured it out, and how I loved Marcia and Marcia loved me and that's just how things were.
They were close to the stairs.
"-- know how it is, but he was a perfect angel."
"I should hope so. He's always so well behaved with you. I wish I could say the same when he's at home."
Mom came down the steps, stopped halfway, stared at me. The words made me jump.
"WHISKER. Where are your clothes?"
My pants and shirt and one sock were on the couch nearby and I grabbed them, holding them up so she could see. All here. No harm done.
"Put those on this instant. Marcia? What's going on?"
Marcia stayed at the edge of the kitchen. I could see just her feet. I heard the way her words quavered.
"Whisker had a little accident, but he's f-fine. I put his clothes in the laundry."
"But why isn't he dressed? It's two o'clock in the afternoon."
"He took a long bath. I think he fell asleep. He was in there quite a while."
"You left him in there alone? Why weren't his clothes with him?"
"I- I guess he just forgot. I didn't want to make him feel uncomfortable."
Mom closed the gap between us, held my shirt while I put my pants and sock on. Handed it to me when I was done. Mom was having a day.
"What you should be worried about, Marcia, is making me uncomfortable."
Marcia was in the room now, by the stairs, legs pinched together. She looked afraid, small.
"I'm sorry, Kathryn. It was a mistake."
"You're damn right it was."
When I finished putting my shoes on, Mom took my hand none too gentle and marched us across the room, up the stairs, to the front door. Marcia followed behind, stopping and starting, pleading. Mom pushed me out the front door, forgot to get my clothes from the dryer. She turned to Marcia.
"Don't call me, I'll call you."
I stole a quick glance at Marcia, saw how the mascara pooled under her eyes, made them blurry. She tottered inside the front door, cracked open enough I caught a peek of the vee between her legs. Dark, swirling hair. She smiled, waved, tried to get my attention as I climbed into the car, put my seatbelt on, adjusted myself.
Mom shot out of the driveway and tore down the road while I tugged mutely at the front of my pants. She was halfway past the sign when the car finally stopped, but there weren't any cars coming. Lucky for us.
I was holding it when she came to me, from the corner where stood a plastic plant Mom still watered. She pulled the hair back from my face, curled it over the lip of my ear, sighed. I could hear the way her tongue poked at the hole where the tooth used to be, where the barb moved in, a tiny snake fang. It’s the only place she touched me; she wasn’t like the other one. She understood boundaries.
“It wants to stay.”
“Well it can’t.”
“It asked nice.”
“It doesn’t know the meaning.”
“We don’t have time for this.”
Her hand was a one of those tools used to core an apple the way it went through my back, grasped the place where my heart was and held it like a baby bird fallen fresh from the nest. I listened for the chirp while my arms and legs and everything else fitted. Cold. Intense, relentless cold. I’d died before, but never like this. Never having felt such abandon. When she pulled the hand out, I collapsed against the bed.
“Now you know.”
My teeth clacked together, wind up plastic dentures.
“It lasts forever, little brother. And it’s always tomorrow.”
Warmth returned, fingers and toes first. My words were little frogs.
“I l-love you. M-miss you.”
Haley’s look became stone.
Haley followed me to the basement, down the creaky, shuddering steps. It was dark but I knew where the light was and ran to it before anything worse could get me. The naked bulb flickered, blinked, and blazed to life, casting light into everything but the farthest end. I caught a glimpse of Kalliope out of the corner of my eye, remembered when she told me that’s where she lived when she couldn’t be with me. It was the same clothes from in the bathroom, eye glowing like a cigar butt. She was too tired to move after having been up all night playing with me, but she’d come again.
She always did.
Haley ignored her while I rummaged through Grandpa’s things. He had all kinds of tools and other junk down there along with Grandma’s stuff she painted on a table in the middle of the room. The washer and dryer were there, a stand up shower with a plastic curtain to one side. The freezer where they kept the extra meat and ice cream. Fruit pops. This wasn't it.
I pushed on the door that led to the room before the garage and a gust of cold air knocked me back. The one at the other end was closed, but still felt a breeze. It was where Grandpa kept the extra things, like lumber. Things he didn't care if they got stolen. It was also where I saw the hammer.
The hammer wasn't special, not his favorite or even one have gave half a damn about. It was old, worn down, the wood lost its color and the head caked with rust. Blunt and ugly was what I knew. Was just what I needed.
Haley stood over my shoulder as I placed it on the floor, got down on my knees, held the hammer with both hands. When I raised it over my head, it stopped. I felt Haley's hand on mine.
She took it from me, tossed it on the table. Bang.
"This isn't the way."
Her lips curled back from her teeth, the ones that were left.
"Make it feel what I do-- what you felt when I made you."
My brains felt like a cinder block sitting up there. A cinder block on a rake handle, ready to topple.
A long, agonizing inhale followed by a just as withering exhale.
"Must you make me do everything."
The outer door flung open with a shower of glass, chill air smacking me back to sense. The garage door was up.
"Put your coat on."
We walked along the edge of the road where the snow mixed with slush. I listened to the crunches under my shoes and thought of packing peanuts. The air was cold, dry. My eyes tried to make tears to keep them wet. I didn't wear a hat because I didn't tell Mom I was going outside and my hair blew across my face; all over the place. No one would see. No one could understand how one little boy might carry such a burden of meted pain and suffering for so long and look like everyone else; the way kids did when nothing affected them. Physically? I was a pretzel stick, a soap bubble. Still, there were things I'd seen, felt, been party to what made nightmare the things that were my every waking day. There must be some way of measuring such things in the eyes of the ones I loved.
The were no tears to freeze when Haley was with me. No smiles, no hugs, no murmurs of joy.
Nothing soft was left.
It looked almost pitiful in my hands with its floppy ears and that simple, insipid smile. My fingers were fast becoming claws in the cold, but I was so completely far from caring. I was warm inside, boiling in fact. A dragon's belly. Main stomach, second stomach, even that shitty little black thing that lived in my gut, they were packing, locking up tight. This wasn't a storm they could ride out with the neighbors and the family dog. They needed to find a way out. Higher ground. I felt Haley's hand on my shoulder. It told me she approved.
I was past hearing her at that point, so great was the thud of my heart. It was the badger legion, only this time they were with me. I saw Brett and Uncle Meldrick, Chaz and Mrs Greer, like the time we vanquished Baht Daog and its infernal canish hordes. Now I had it where I wanted it. Where Haley wanted it. It shivered in my grasp, trying to make itself small.
"You knew this was coming."
"I never wanted anything else."
"This isn't goodbye."
"Goodbye means I'll remember."
"But I just want to see you happy."
"You're a liar."
"I learned from the best."
"It won't stop."
"It will when I forget."
Its eyes got so big, the snoopy dog. Full moons. It played cute like one of those cartoon kittens with eyes so full of love and innocence and something else.
I knew that look well. I wore it every day under the costume of a little boy.
Every day a Halloween.
The spot where I left the snoopy dog was perhaps seven miles from my house as the crow flies. It was cold that day, record temperatures as I recall. The city had problems with frozen water lines and several neighborhoods were without power for days. Snow fell, drifted, covered the roads. Most were stuck in their homes, cut off from their neighbors, with no one but each other and the family dog.
Of those who lost heat-- mostly older folks-- a handful died. It was sad, tragic even, but to be expected. When extreme weather left the civilized without electricity, the elderly were always the first ones to perish. It was nature's way of clearing out the dead wood, or so I'd been told. What a heartless way to see it.
The other parts, well, they're still a bit fuzzy. Mom was frantic, couldn't find me. When I rang the doorbell she pulled me into the house off my feet and cried while she beat me. With my clothes still on. I barely even felt it. We still had power, but were snowed in for two days before the plows could get to us.
Dad came by the next day. Or was it the one after that? Funny thing about electricity is it does all kinds of things to your head. Some good. Some not so good. The important thing was the overall benefit. I got so I could sleep through the night again. Even looked forward to it.
I tried to write the things down as I remembered them, keep a running dialogue as they called it. Sometimes writing one thing down triggered something else, and that triggered two more things, like a string of firecrackers. I thought about how good this chocolate tastes and POP POP POP I remembered that time I stole my sister's candy bars she had to sell for, well, something. It made me smile. Sometimes in a sad way.
Dad had to remind me about Haley when I looked at the pictures. They were part of my recovery, along with a bunch of books on animals and dinosaurs and all kinds of things. They said the effects were meant to be a measure of improvement, not a cure. The more I talked with Mom and Dad about her, the more things started to fall into place. Pieces of a puzzle. Scattered, but coming together.
One thing I like to think about is when it finally made sense to me. It was this time where I was under all the pants at some department store that smelled like roasted nuts. I mean, it was all you could smell. So I was under the pants with this girl who, well, I dunno what you'd call her. She was kinda-- creepy, really. But I just couldn't get over how I somehow knew her even though she didn't look familiar. She had this awful hair, all wet and stringy and, well, like seaweed I guess. Anyway, that's not the important part. The important, the really important part, is what she told me to do. And what I said to her.
So I told these things to Mom and Dad and even though they kept giving me funny looks, they knew it would help me get better and just let me go. I went on and on about the little dog and Bedbugs and the weird thing at Aunt Ky's. Then I told them about the letter Mrs. Greer sent and how it smelled just like her and about Rita and Ganice and the blonde lady, whatshername-- oh, it doesn't really matter. What matters is she screwed Dad like a porno, and that really got Mom going. The best part was when I told them how Haley helped me be a man for once and even though Dad looked like he wanted to run screaming from the room I knew in my bruised hear it just meant he was proud of me.
They said I had one more session and I should be okay to go home. It meant I might forget some things, but they'd come back one day. No worries. It made me happy to know they were taking such good care of me and wanted to see me get better. When I went to sleep that night, I went through all the things I remembered, all the things that happened, even the ones I didn't tell Mom and Dad. I decided there was one thing I should take away, focus on, think about so hard there was no way I could forget even if I was made to. And when I woke up, even if everything else was a barrel of monkeys and I didn't know a number two pencil from a wildflower, I'd remember what I did the time Haley hugged me so hard her love hurt me inside and out. I could still feel it, that hug. When I coughed.
Still, Grandma died and somehow I didn’t see it coming. Somehow lost grasp over time and circumstance things that happened and how they not only affected me, but others around me. The ones I loved. Years gone by without growth beyond that necessitated by puberty. I felt the briefest spark of anger, but it faded almost instantly, smothered by something with a far greater weight. Some Thing unconsoled and dead enough inside I feared it might engulf what remained of me. The eight-year-old boy. My seventeen-year-old self. Tomorrow.
Sometimes I wondered why Haley picked that moment, that particular point in time, to show me the things I never measured up good enough to see before. Where accumulated scars devised their own organ that haunts me the way the living eventually haunt those who just survive. How every chance I feel it beating me up from the inside, I remember.
I kept my promise.
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