The phone thumps onto the rug. Dad takes a deep breath, locks eyes with me, then somehow swallows his pain. He speaks in a whisper. “I’ll be okay, okay?”
I nod woodenly.
“Stay here and wait for your mother. She’ll be back eventually. She always comes back.”
I’m scared, and I don’t want to go to him, but I’m drawn like a magnet. Dad clamps down on my shoulder.
“Don’t tell anyone about this. This is between us. No more cops or lawyers.”
“I sprained my foot playing basketball, if anyone asks.”
This story is silly. I’ve seen his toes.
“Got it?” he presses.
“Yeah, Dad. I get it.”
“Good. That’s good.”
The front door bursts open above our heads.
“Johnnie!” Uncle Joe booms.
Uncle Joe thunders down the stairs. He’s a big man, but he stops, and his eyes get huge, when he sees Dad’s foot. Then he leaps toward my father, and in moments the two of them are three-legging it out the back door. I’m a shadow at their heels.
Uncle Joe tucks Dad into his station wagon before rocketing out of the driveway and heading down the hill. I watch the road for a long time, even after the wheezing of Uncle Joe’s engine fades into the summer day.
I kick the gravel, spitting rocks into the street and uncovering stashes of folded cigarette butts the color of wet sand. I bend and pick through the stones, searching out the dirty filters.
I know why Dad swore me to silence. I know about the Department of Social Services and foster homes too. I imagine the long hallway of my school, lined with policemen, psychologists, and foster care people.
My fingers peck and burrow like a bird’s beak until I have a handful of the rotten cigarette butts cupped in my hands. I carry the pile to the stairs, deposit them neatly, then start in a new place.
I listen to Dad. I never tell anyone.
Alex from down the street pedals by my driveway and locks up his brakes when he sees me, leaving a long skin of rubber behind his rear tire. He stops a few feet away and squints at me. My heart skips a beat.
“What the hell are ya doing, dude?” Alex snaps.
I glance up and down the street, but I don’t see his buddies anywhere, and I realize all at once he’s alone. Today he is friendless and bored.
“Cleaning the driveway.”
“I’m goin’ down to that new construction site to sneak into some houses. Wanna come?”
“Isn’t that trespassing?”
I can see mean words about to form, not words like dork or wimp, but grown-up words that I barely understand, like pussy or faggot. I don’t think Alex plays with action figures anymore.
“I’ll get my bike.”
Mom and Dad avoid each other, and when they meet, they fight. Distant tremors mutter through the walls, and always there is the threat of a storm. Dad limps around the garage and the backyard, tending to things that don’t seem to matter. Mom shuffles through the house, chain-smokes, and talks on the phone to Aunt Jenny about the Lord. There are lots of amens.
Sometimes, I sneak to the top of the basement stairs to eavesdrop. Mom says things like, “Blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near,” and, “Every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all peoples on earth will mourn because of him!”
She sounds so goddamn certain, and those words turn my blood cold. This isn’t the sort of stuff I learned at Sunday school, back when we used to go to church, but I’m beginning to think that maybe it’s normal; my new friends all come from homes like mine, if their parents are even still together. I wonder about demons and angels, about good and evil, and about Mom and Dad. I’m beginning to understand that I’m standing in the passageway to something strange and awful.
I hear a car pull into the driveway one day while I’m in the backyard playing with my favorite toy pistol. My lucky stinger is tucked away in my pocket, as usual. I race over the lawn and then run-walk-creep when I reach the backyard stairs. Shoes grind over the gravel. Either Mom or Dad is just around the corner. A thought blooms in my head, and it’s a good one. I’m going to scare the heck out of one of them.
I jump out and shout, “Freeze!” at the top of my lungs, jabbing my toy gun in the air.
The cop walking up the driveway doesn’t freeze. He slaps a hand to his pistol, while his eyes bulge out of his head in an expression of perfect terror. My plastic toy suddenly weighs a hundred pounds, and my hand drops to my side.
“Sorry,” I squeak.
I recognize Officer Trembley. He’s friendly and sometimes he drives the school bus when the regular driver can’t make it.
He swallows hard, and then asks in a shaky voice, “Is your father home, Jerry?”
I turn and bolt before he can arrest me.
Dad calls me into the basement a little while later. He’s got a few sheets of paper clenched in one hand, and a small blue suitcase in the other. His eyes are red rimmed and puffy. He sits on the dingy recliner and shakes the papers at me.
“Your mother is making me leave. This is a restraining order, so I have to move out.” He looks confused.
I stare at the linoleum—dirty brown borders enclosing white emptiness —and try to figure out what everything means. Footsteps shift at the top of the stairs, and although I can’t see Officer Trembley from where I’m standing, I can feel his presence, like the heaviness before a thunderstorm.
A blast of scratchy language cackles over Trembley’s radio, the words tripping over each other. He dials the volume down until it’s quiet, but I can still hear it. I feel him up there, and I hate him.
“Mr. Conwin,” Trembley says politely, but firmly.
“I’m coming. Just a second,” Dad snaps. “Your mother won’t let me take anything. Can you freaking believe . . .” his voice trails off.
The words your mother drip with poison, but he looks at me, really sees me, and he forces himself into a weird sort of calm. He pulls me close. This is happening to someone else, some other kid, and I fade away, and away, until I’m floating somewhere far behind myself. I’m on the lawn, then at the trees, then deep in the woods, safe and alone.
Dad’s words cross the distance anyway. “I love you, son. I have to go now.”
“I’ll be at your grandmother’s for a while. Don’t worry. Your mother and I will work this out. It’s only temporary.”
Dad limps slowly upstairs with his tiny suitcase, trying to manage the weight.
I steal rolls of toilet paper, snatch eggs, swipe cans of Dad’s shaving cream, and then sneak out in the middle of the night to meet Alex and the older kids. We egg cars or decorate houses with miles of toilet paper, darting into the forest when enraged adults lock up their brakes or burst through their front doors. We wait for the threats to pass, telling jokes or whispering in the dark, cursing these strangers with words we’re just beginning to understand.
It feels good. It feels like laughter. I’m getting strong.
Sometimes we break windows with rocks, and sometimes the cops chase us. We shoot into the dark like bullets, chased by their lights, fueled by laughter and terror.
I hide in the sticky summer night, panting and sweating, and feel all giddy in my middle when their lights poke at bushes and fallen trees. I want to laugh when their clumsy footsteps trip through the woods. I never move. Silence is my best defense.
Five of us hide behind a low fence at the edge of someone’s yard one night. We brag and laugh about our adventures. “I got three eggs on the same window!” or, “That car was unlocked, so I pissed in it.”
Headlights slip along the power lines first, the way they always do, and then shine against the trees and turn the night into a world of vertical shadows. A car peeks around the corner, rolling toward us. Someone laughs. It bubbles up from that giddy feeling in the middle. I feel it too, like I’m standing at the edge of some great height and wondering what it’ll feel like to jump. One of the older boys tells him to “shut the hell up, fairy.”
The car creeps closer, and we hunker down. It passes by the house. Headlights slip through the gaps in the fence, making me squint, and then the car is right in front of us.
“Now!” someone shouts.
We spring up like a line of jack-in-the-boxes, hurling our eggs at the passing police car at point-blank range. The first egg splatters across the hood. Another strikes the windshield, and another pops against the light bar. The rest go thump-thump-thump down the side of the car.
We run toward the woods even as the car screeches to a halt, angry blue lights flickering from the roof. A cop bursts out of the car, sprinting after us. He shouts, but I can’t hear what he’s saying over the blood pounding in my ears.
We plunge into the trees and scatter like rabbits. My friends shrink and vanish, swallowed by rock, tree, or bush. I dive behind a tree, and glimpse Alex from the corner of my eye as he dives behind a log. We know better than to crash through the sticks and leaves like deer on the run.
I peek around my tree. Officer Trembley is framed by white and blue lights. He’s so close, but we could be three feet away and he’d never even know it. We always dress in camouflage or black, and we’ve become shadows among shadows. There are countless places to hide for boys like us.
He peers around, his flashlight poking at thick undergrowth, mossy stumps, and the thickest patches of darkness. The beam sweeps back and forth, turning the branches into spiny webs.
I think of papers crumpled in Dad’s fist. A thought blossoms in my head, and it’s a good one. A giggle bubbles in my guts.
“Hey,” I hiss at Alex.
“Shut the hell up, man.”
I dig the jelly jar containing my stinger out of my pocket, and lean out from behind my tree. I measure the distance, cock my arm back, and throw. My lucky charm streaks through the night, glances off a branch, and then strikes Trembley in the neck.
“Hey!” he bellows, and I have to bite my lip to keep from laughing, even as I realize my precious stinger is gone for good.
“God-damn, Conwin,” Alex giggles.
“I’m gonna get you kids!” Trembley shouts, and the certainty in his voice freezes me solid.
Then, from deep in the woods, one of the older boys mimics, “I’m gonna get you kids.”
Trembley charges deeper into the forest like an elephant, running right by us. His footsteps soon fade, and we creep from tree, to lawn, to bush, leaving the police car behind, knowing we’ll find the rest of our crew very soon, the way we always do.
A shadow in someone’s yard—too small to be an adult—races toward us, leaps over a bush, and joins us. Footsteps patter down a dark driveway soon after, and another one of us materializes. Our fifth steps beneath a streetlight up ahead, waves, then shrinks from the light so we can catch up.
We still have to be careful though; there are other cops out. They might be sitting in their cars in someone’s driveway, or maybe standing in the deepest shadows between two light poles, just waiting for us to pass by.
I’m not scared. I’m fast, I’m invisible, and I’m young enough to believe I can’t be stung anymore.
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.