The summer of 1988 feels like it’ll never end, and if you ask me, that’s the best thing in the world. No more homework, getting up early, or teachers clucking into my ear. It’s only the first Wednesday after school let out, so there are lot more days to come. Like Thursday and Friday.
Today I’m sitting on the porch steps next to my driveway in the hot June sun, wondering what I want for my thirteenth birthday, when a bee buzzes by my ear. I duck, but it circles around my head, then plunges toward my knee. I freeze when it lands on a crease in my jeans. The bee turns round and round in a jerky dance, and then, for no reason at all, jabs its stinger into my leg.
“But I wasn’t doing anything!” I whine, waiting for the pain.
The bee doesn’t care, and its butt bounces up and down as it pushes the stinger in. I hold my breath and stay wicked still. Its mission accomplished, it pulls at its rear end, yanking free. A string of white guts ooze out of its middle, glued to the stinger. The bee thinks it won, so it flies off like my drunk Uncle Joe, disappearing into the bushes along the driveway.
There is no pain, and I can hardly believe my luck. The stinger is caught in the crease of my jeans, suspended in the little air pocket over my skin. My hand shakes as I pinch my jeans between my thumb and my finger, holding the stinger in place so that I can slide it out like a knife from a sheath.
A real stinger! I think, totally amazed.
I’ve never see one so close up before. It’s black, tubular, and as smooth as glass. It’s a lot longer than I thought it would be too. I hold the stinger so close to my face that I go cross-eyed. My new weapon should be cleaned. Who wants guts on their brand new knife? Nobody, that’s who.
I rub the guts hanging from the flat end into a sticky paste between my fingers, and it feels exactly like a booger.
Yuck! I think, and wipe it off on my jeans.
I hear voices, and look up just in time to see Alex from down the street pedaling by on his bicycle. My heart skips. He’s a mean, skinny kid from my bus, and we don’t talk. I sit in front with the younger kids, and Alex sits in the back with the older kids, even though we’re both in the same grade. His friends scare me a little. They spit, swear, and laugh like Dad’s friends about things I don’t understand. They’re as explosive as the hard rock that blares out of their bedroom windows. Alex passes my driveway, two of his friends trying to keep up. They whiz down the hill, and I’m glad once they’re gone.
Inside the house, Mom starts talking on the telephone. Her voice rises and falls, floating through the open windows to the porch steps; her footsteps move closer, then away like the tide as she paces from room to room. She does this a lot lately. We have an extra-long phone cord for such occasions. It’s just muttering most of the time, but then she says something in that sharp way of hers that tells me she’s annoyed. I steal a few words when she nears the window.
“I don’t know, Jenny. You know how he is. I can’t even get him to . . .”
Her voice fades back into murmurs.
I know she’s not annoyed with me, so I lunge to my feet and run inside. Mom has to see this!
The house is dim and cool, cobwebs of cigarette smoke hanging in the air. They break over my skin and I wave them away, making grossed-out faces and tasting ashes. I try not to breathe them in but fail. I hurry to the office, where my mother now sits on the edge of the desk, the phone cradled between her ear and shoulder. She twirls the cord around a finger with one hand and smokes with the other. A fat gray ghost squats in the room, so I stand in the doorway.
Mom isn’t very big, and sometimes she looks tired. Only her eyes and long, coppery hair seem to shine anymore. She puffs on her cigarette, and her eyes focus on me. She nods, says “Uh-huh” into the phone, then waves me away. A glass of red wine sits beneath the reading lamp on one of my beat-up old notebooks; she reaches for it.
She looks old. This thought bothers me. I’m twelve. Everyone’s old, I say to myself, and my own wisdom makes me feel strong.
“Mom! A bee tried to sting me, but the stinger got caught in my jeans. Look!”
I hold my weapon up proudly. It looks much smaller than it did just a minute ago.
She cups a palm over the mouthpiece. “Not now, honey.”
“But mom, it’s a stinger.”
She just isn’t getting it.
“Jerry. Go back outside. Please.”
I fade from the doorway and head back outside into the sun, clutching my little needle for all it’s worth. I put it down beside me on the wooden steps to let it dry, because that’s what you’re supposed to do with bones and animal skins and stuff. I read that somewhere once.
Drying takes forever, and it isn’t much fun, so I scoop a handful of gravel from the driveway and begin flicking stones one by one, seeing if I can shoot them the twenty or so feet into the road. This is a Forbidden Act because some of the rocks always end up on the lawn when I play this game, and then the lawnmower shoots them against Dad’s shins when he mows. I’ve seen the little cuts and bruises, and I always feel bad, but it’s hard to resist, and it passes the time.
A few rocks strike the white line and bounce along the blacktop. Some knuckleball into the grass. Most just vanish into the other gray stones in the driveway the second they land.
Dad swerves into the driveway in his little silver sports car. He peers at me through the windshield. I can just make out the ridges of his knuckles locked onto the steering wheel. I stiffen and look at my feet. Dad jerks the door open, yanks his briefcase out behind him, and stabs me with a glare.
“Jerry! How many times have I told you not to touch those damn rocks?”
Strands of thin hair rise from the top of his balding head. His tie is too loose, and I don’t see his suit jacket anywhere. He drops a half-smoked cigarette into the rocks, and then grinds it under his shoe. There is something wild about him.
My hands go all watery and the rocks clatter down the steps. I kick the ones that don’t make it as fast as I can, and only then do I see the small patch of brown dirt where I’ve plucked the gravel bare like a fruit tree.
His dress shoes grate over the driveway like gnashing teeth. I scoot over to let him pass and he goes inside. He closes the door very quietly. Through the windows, Mom’s voice gets a little louder before the phone jangles as it’s shoved into the console.
I fix up the brown patch as best as I can by kicking rocks into it, then put the stinger into my pocket, and slip out to the backyard to play.
The clap of a door slamming shut yanks my eyes up from the fort of sticks and twigs I’m building for my action figures. Voices rumble from the driveway like distant thunder. I run toward them, but slow as I get closer, the sound sapping the strength from my legs. In a moment I’m creeping along like a thief. I move up the granite steps and into the driveway like a shadow.
Mom and Dad are standing in front of the car, staring at each other. They don’t seem to know that I’m there. I slip over to the porch steps and sit down.
“Are you kidding me? Are you freaking kidding me?” Dad hisses, running a hand through his thinning hair. He looks up at the pine trees like there’s something perched up there he just can’t believe.
I look, but don’t see anything.
“Do I have to explain everything to you?” Mom asks.
“Who’ve you been talking to? Aunt Jenny? You wanna go praise the lawd with Aunt Jenny?”
My mother jerks her hands to her hips, and her jaw juts out. She looks very small in front of Dad, but I know she won’t back down. She takes a slow drag of her cigarette, watching my father closely, then casually tosses it into the gravel.
“So what if I have?”
“Who else but the Great and Powerful Aunt Jenny?”
I don’t understand their language of questions—I haven’t learned to speak it yet—so I tune out their voices and watch instead. I’m good at finding the mute button.
Dad points at the car, the house, and then Mom, his finger nearly poking her the chest. Mom tries to bat it away like it’s a mosquito, but she misses. Dad leans in and whispers something. Mom’s eyes narrow. Dad smiles like he’s won, but he doesn’t look happy about it. Mom seems calm and sort of leans away from Dad, but her eyes don’t look calm at all. They’re filled with lightning.
Her hand whips out, slapping Dad across the face. His head rocks, and when he turns back he looks stunned. An angry red butterfly flames across his cheek. His mouth falls open. Then he slaps her back, not hard, but enough to let her know that he can sting, too. Mom claps a hand to her face, and it’s her turn to look stunned.
Noise crashes back into my world.
“Don’t . . . don’t you . . . hit me!” Mom sneers, then looks at me and I’m shocked that she even knows I’m there. “Did you see him hit me?”
“You hit him first,” I reply in a voice that sounds really far away.
“Yeah. Jerry saw it.” Dad says.
“I did not!” Mom replies.
She’s hoping I might’ve happened by at the moment when Dad struck back, and so would be on her side. Their voices grow hotter, then they’re screaming over each other, speaking that language I don’t understand again.
Over their heads, across the street, up the long driveway, Mrs. Brimmer watches us from her porch. She’s too far away to hear anything but noise, but she knows which way is up, and I’m ashamed.
“Stop it! Stop fighting!” I shout, but they don’t hear me and that’s the worst part.
I stare at the gravel. The yellow-brown bruises of discarded cigarette filters hide between the clean, mica-flecked rocks.
I shove my hands into my pockets, forgetting I put the stinger in there for safekeeping just a little while ago. I swallow the pain that blazes through my finger.
I eventually discover that the stinger is the perfect knife for some of my action figures. It fits snugly into their plastic hands. It makes my pretend games real, because it’s so dangerous, like the difference between a squirt gun and a rifle. Plus, I’m being a lot more careful now. I always put the stinger in the little single-serving jelly jar I’ve started carrying around in my pocket, so my good luck charm can’t sting me again.
Voices boom from the driveway like cannons again. Two armies have decided on their battleground once again.
I forget about my action figures and fly over the grass, slowing to a walk, and then a creep when I near the driveway. I slip by the granite steps, taking the long way around this time, moving along the line of trees between our house and the Stillsons’, then stalking up the short slope and around the forsythia bush squatting aside the driveway.
I appear like a ghost.
Mom is sitting in our silver sports car, the engine running, and Dad has his foot shoved behind one rear tire.
“Let me go, Johnnie!”
“Just talk to me, will you? Christ! Can’t we just talk for once?”
“Don’t do this.”
“I’m not moving.”
“I swear I’ll go!” Mom revs the engine, but Dad is stubborn.
“Yeah? Do it and see what the cops say.”
“Please take your foot out,” Mom whines, scrunching her face up and pinching the bridge of her nose as if she has another migraine.
“Not until we talk.” Dad looks at me, then over his shoulder to see Mrs. Brimmer watching. Looks back to our house. “In the house. Like adults. For once.”
Mom scowls and grinds her teeth. “John. I. Need. To. Go!”
“Where were you last night?”
“Oh, Jesus Christ, John. I was working. I told you that.”
Mom purses her lips and speaks very slowly, so Dad can understand. “It’s summertime. The soccer league chartered us to do a Quabbin run for the high schoolers. The game ran late. You know this.”
Mom is a part-time school bus driver, and the summer runs earn extra money.
“Who else went?”
“John, you’re being irrational.”
“Yeah? Where’d the team play?”
“I just told you. At Quabbin. They went into overtime. What is your problem? Where’s all this coming from?” She glares out the window at Dad.
“What was the final score?”
“I don’t know,” Mom whines, shaking a bony fist over the steering wheel. “I read a book. I always read a book.”
“You were with Peter, weren’t you?”
“You can’t hide it anymore. Just admit it, will you? You were with Peter.”
Mom slumps like a fighter against the ropes. She puts both hands on the steering wheel to hold herself up. “Yes, I . . . I was with Peter.”
“You hear that, son? Your mother was with Peter!”
I’m frozen by these words; even though I understand the situation only a little bit, I understand enough.
“Are you happy now, John? Can I go now?” Mom asks.
“I don’t think so. Get your ass out of the car!”
Mom’s face contorts into something ugly, and storm clouds move across her eyes. She rams the shifter into reverse and peels out, shooting gravel and cigarette butts all over me and the lawn. Dad’s foot is a speed bump. The tire rolls over his sandal and he screams once, short and loud.
“I told you to let me go!” Mom shrieks. Tires squeal, then she’s gone down the road.
Dad hops around on one foot like a cartoon character who has just dropped an anvil on his toes. “Ah! Ah! Ah!”
His head is ruby red, but his lips are white as snow. He tries to hold his crushed foot with one hand, but topples backward onto the lawn by the forsythia bush. The cords in his neck stand out as he gropes for his sandal, but his hands can’t seem to reach. He rocks back and forth.
I know this is bad, but I can’t move. I’m riveted.
“Dad, I’ll call the hospital!”
Not an ambulance, but the hospital.
“No! Inside. Now!” Spit flies from his lips.
He grabs my arm, fingers like spikes driving into my flesh. He uses me like a ladder and I get my arm around his waist, and then we’re three-legging it toward the house. Dad sucks in a breath with every step, moaning like a wounded animal. I aim for the porch, but Dad corrects me.
“I can’t go up. Down.”
We hobble down the granite stairs into the backyard and make our way to the back door. We stumble into the downstairs living room, and Dad collapses into our dingy brown recliner.
“What do I do?” The sound of my own voice scares me.
Dad doesn’t answer. He groans as he peels off his soft leather sandal and drops it to the floor like a scab. I look at his foot and want to puke. It’s a banana. His toes are sticking straight up like the fence posts in our front yard.
“I’ll call the hospital,” I say again.
“No, son. Phone!”
I grab the phone off the table and watch him dial numbers very carefully, biting his lower lip. I wonder who he’s calling.
“Joe.” Dad grunts into the phone to my Uncle Joe, who lives around the corner. “I need you . . . now. Janet . . . ran over . . . my foot . . . with the car. Hospital.”
A voice murmurs on the other end, and Dad drops the phone.
Vlad V. is the author of The Button, Yorick, and Brachman’s Underworld. His novella “The Sleep Artist” was published in Insanity Tales, a collection of dark fiction, in October 2014 (Books & Boos Press). His most recent release is his novella “Float,” published in Insanity Tales II: The Sense of Fear in October 2015 (Books & Boos Press). His first kids’ book, The Moon is Dead!, was released in January 2015.
Learn more about Vlad at www.vladwrites.com.
His books are available through Amazon and most bookstores.