by Dan Leach
On most days when we got home from school, my mother would be waiting for us at the edge of the driveway. A scuzzy bus the color of a tangerine groaned to a stop at the end of our street, releasing my brother and me, along with Ben Preston, Chuckie Barrett, and several other girls who lived nearby. As soon as our shoes hit the pavement, we ran to her, crashing our tiny bodies into her legs, and hugging the backs of her knees while she kissed our heads and inquired about things which, to our minds, were entirely irrelevant—a grade on a spelling test, details on an upcoming field trip, or whether or not we had relayed a message to a certain teacher. “Mom stuff” we called it and when it was over, she ushered us inside to enact a routine as stringent as anything we did in school.
First, we removed our coats and hung them in the closet across the hall from the bathroom. We each had our own hanger—my brother’s wooden with his name carved into it; mine plastic and powder blue. Then, we took out our homework folders, opened them to the appropriate page, and seated ourselves at the kitchen table to await my mother’s inspection. Only after she had checked all three columns—the assignments, the due dates, and the teacher’s initials—would she set us free to actually begin our homework while she prepared a snack to hold us over until my father returned from work and the four of us would gather for a proper supper. Our kitchen was the cleanest, most peaceful place we knew. A radio on top of the refrigerator played light jazz and the curtains on the bay window were always drawn back to allow a flood of natural light to bathe the table’s cherry surface. Our hands, which moved in time with saxophones and pianos to conquer math problems and handwriting exercises, would be stained in amber or gold or pale grey, depending on the day.
This, for us, was life, and in the sense that children crave structure and consistency, our life was a good one. Although we would endure the worst kind of torture before admitting it to our peers, we loved the strict, predictable quality of our after-school routine and would not have traded those quiet hours for any amount of television, horseplay, or other supposed freedoms some parents seemed to permit. I loved the inevitability of it all, by which, I really meant the inevitability of my mother, since it was her who held the various strands in place.
My gratefulness became most evident on those rare afternoons when a complication would arise, pulling my mother away and effectively derailing our routine. Her mother, our “Gee-Gee,” was only 62, but already in particularly bad health. A bad fall, pain in her chest, any number of disorientations, many of which hinted at Alzheimer’s—any one of these things might, and did, demand my mother’s presence. Then there was her business, a candle company she had started from home, which had exploded in the past few years and which, despite her efforts to mold it around us, occasionally required the inverse. It’s true that some days my mother couldn’t be there. We understood. Those afternoons, we stayed with Mrs. Carter.
Mrs. Carter lived in a yellow one story ranch almost directly across the street from our house. She lived there alone—her two sons grown and moved away, her husband dead since before we were born. She lived there with Mango, a filthy, half-blind beagle who followed her everywhere—although, as far as we could tell, she never traveled farther than her own front porch. She was not an unattractive woman, just old and heavy, a little “dirty,” by our sights, smoking long slim cigarettes and sipping out of a red Atlanta Braves cup. She was always dressed in a faded T-shirt and oversized sweatpants, always a little greasy around the face and hair, always generally disheveled, but still somehow attractive, with a kind face and a sweet, insatiable Southern accent stronger than any we had ever heard. Overall, she produced an effect of warmth and generosity. It was not difficult to imagine Mrs. Carter as a young woman, slim and pretty, dressed in actual clothes at a restaurant having fun with other young people. We trusted her, in other words, not just because our mother did, but because our instincts compelled us to and because, despite being different in every way from our mother and even from our Gee-Gee, Mrs. Carter exuded a distinct confidence. It was as if, at all times, she was doing what adults should be doing, which is, I have come to suspect, the sole factor in earning a child’s trust.
These facts, paltry as they were, constituted the sum of our knowledge of Mrs. Carter. As far as we could tell, she was a “nice old lady” whose friendship with our mother originated because of proximity and was sustained mainly by courtesy. Why my mother asked her to watch us—as opposed to one of our friend’s parents, all of whom were responsible, likeminded adults and many of whom even lived in our neighborhood—was not a question we actively pursued, nor, even now, one which I can confidently answer. We knew only that my mother had said, unequivocally: “If I’m not home, go to Mrs. Carter’s.” For us, that had been enough.
However, our respect for Mrs. Carter in no way quelled our curiosity about the apparent differences between her home and ours. Little things, discernible to an adult’s eyes but glaring to a child’s, located her not just in a different set of routines, but in a different world. Her house was one story and vinyl, while ours was two and brick. We owned two cars, both new, and she drove a faded black Buick that reminded me of an old shoe, the one my mother made me throw out because the bottom was coming unglued. I could see her house from my bedroom window and there were no shortage of differences to observe: her flower beds were full of weeds and had more dirt than mulch, her lawn was cut but covered in brown patches, and whereas my parents had placed white wicker rockers polished to a shine on our porch, Mrs. Carter’s had one shabby beach chair, an upturned cardboard box, and a veritable carpet of cigarette butts. She didn’t decorate for Halloween or Christmas and the flag she flew on Independence Day was made of plastic and torn across the stripes. “Poor” would have been the word we used to describe her house, not because we were aware of her financial state, but because, back then, money meant aesthetics and how could we have known otherwise?
Inside was even worse. On the days she watched us, we would knock on her door—the doorbell was broken—and no sooner had we stepped inside than a deluge of acrid and unfamiliar scents would overtake us. Cigarette smoke and dog hair were the obvious culprits, but there was something else, too, something musky, but at the same time sweet that smelled—and I can’t really explain what I mean by this—sinister and distinctly adult. It was a dangerous smell, one I equated with alcohol or sex or some other vice still savagely indefinite to my mind. I did not like it, whatever it was, and when Mrs. Carter waved us inside, muttering, “Come in, come in,” and locking the door behind us, a certain prickly feeling always traveled up my spine and spread out across my scalp.
“Sit,” she would say, referring not to a table, because the only table she owned was the one in her kitchen, which was the size of a school desk and covered in dirty plates, wine bottles, and unopened mail. “Sit” for Mrs. Carter meant the floor in front of the television, a crusty, nicotine-stained patch of shag carpet chosen for its nearness to her recliner.
“I watched them. They did it,” Mrs. Carter liked to say when my mother asked if we had completed our homework and my mother would nod approvingly. We never challenged this claim, but knew, silently and secretly, that the only thing Mrs. Carter watched was her “stories,” a string of sexually charged soap operas that, even then, we recognized as trite and melodramatic. The soap operas were easy enough to tune out, although Mango, who would rise from his ratty cot in the corner and come nibble on the edges of our papers, was considerably more difficult to ignore, and the smoke from Mrs. Carter’s cigarettes often made my brother break out into coughing spells.
“Is this bothering you?” Mrs. Carter would say, blowing the smoke over her shoulder and waving her hand in front of her face as if shooing away mosquitoes.
My brother would always shake his head and, after the second or third time it happened, actually made up a lie about having a chronic cough. I can’t say why he did this, since I’m confident Mrs. Carter would have extinguished her cigarette if either of us had asked. She was considerate and, to her credit, made a concerted effort to replicate our normal routine. Although she never asked to see our homework folders, she would nod affirmatively when we presented them and say, “Okay, good” or “Looks about right.” She would also use commercial breaks to run into the kitchen, refilling her cup with something that looked like Coke but smelled like gasoline, and often returned with a bowl full of chips or a couple pre-packaged pastries. The chips were almost always stale and, consequently, we wondered about the expiration date on the pastries. My brother, who once glanced inside her pantry on the way to the restroom, claimed to have seen nothing but open boxes and a multitude of cockroaches, but, given his proclivity for embellishment, I ate whatever was put in front of me.
Our visits with Mrs. Carter never lasted more than a couple of hours. On most days, we finished our homework early enough to either mess with Mango or play a game of Speed with a deck of forty-eight cards Mrs. Carter kept in the side pocket of her recliner. When things got truly boring, we were forced to watch the soap operas and, in fact, watched them often enough to know the basic storylines and even predict a few of the plot twists.
Once, just before it was revealed that a notoriously shifty playboy was having an affair with his best friend’s wife, my brother said, “I bet Chet is messing around with Amy.” When, seconds later, my brother’s prediction was validated, Mrs. Carter beamed a proud smile down on my brother and said, “Good eye, son. I had suspected that myself.”
Except for her trips to the kitchen and restroom, Mrs. Carter never left her chair and it was understood that we, too, were limited in our radius. A rusty, yet still working swing set left over from her sons was visible through her back windows, but we never asked to play on it. Though we could have removed the toys and knickknacks that we carried in our backpacks, we never did. It was as if we had recognized a different kind of routine in place and decided, unknowingly, to follow it with the same dedication with which we obeyed our mother’s. Mango, cards, or television—those were the options.
Eventually we would hear three crisp knocks on the door and Mrs. Carter, muting the sound and swinging out of her recliner, would say, “I bet that’s your mother.” We would take that as permission to pack up our materials, bolt out of the living room, and open the front door. With the exception of once when we opened it to find a young black man soliciting magazines, we always found my mother, a smile on her face, arms outstretched for an embrace. My mother would kiss our heads, ask if we were good, and exchange a few pleasantries with Mrs. Carter before taking our hands and leading us home, salvaging what was left of the evening.
I should say that, in all of our numerous visits, we did hunt for something to elevate Mrs. Carter from her status as another stock neighborhood character—like Jayvon Christie, our local teenage delinquent and occasional drug-dealer; or Manning Duvall, a middle-aged recluse who only appeared at night to walk his two Great Danes and was rumored to accost the children who entered his yard to retrieve a lost ball or Frisbee. We knew an abundance of such characters, all of whom we defined by one or two absurd traits. Sensing that there was more to Mrs. Carter than what our parents had told us and certainly more than what our friends pretended to know, we searched for clues, scanning the few pictures hanging in her hallway, studying the books she left out on her coffee table, and even once summoning the gall to flat-out ask her where she was from and how she ended up here. However, none of it illuminated a single fact we didn’t already know. Two out of the three pictures were of her and her husband, and the third was her two sons on the peak of some mountain. The books were dog-eared romances with the tan, taut figures on the covers that appeared in her soap operas, and all we got the time we interrogated her was “I was born in Georgia” and “You could say we came up here on a whim.”
So in the end, we came up with nothing to grant Mrs. Carter the depth and nuance we so badly wanted her to have. It was as if, while everyone else in our lives—teachers, parents, and friends—were taking on a newfound sense of complexity, Mrs. Carter was slipping into superficiality, relegating herself, seemingly without a fight to nothing more than a prop in the backdrop of our youth, a “nice old lady” who loved soap operas and lived alone in a yellow house across the street from our house, and that, I guess, is not such a bad thing to be, only it saddened me and made me wish I had the courage to sneak off, under the pretense of using the restroom, and go into her bedroom where, I reasoned, surely there was a hidden box or secret place which contained all the brightest parts of Mrs. Carter’s past.
Then, something momentous happened. On my 11th birthday, my mother gave me a key to our house and, with it, the privilege of being what she called “the man of the house” on those afternoons when something required her presence. After a lengthy and explicit list of restrictions, most of which pertained to my brother, she handed me a small silver key and said, with almost imperceptible tears swelling in her eyes, “You’ve earned this.” This was, I don’t mind admitting, the first time I had ever considered our years of obedience as a currency with which I could gain entrance into greater freedoms, a down payment of sorts on a variety of adult privileges and powers. Until then, my mother had achieved something like sovereignty in my mind—our freedoms given according to her will, the logic behind her decisions outside the grasp of our feeble understanding. It gratified me to think that, from now on, all past obedience actually indebted her to me and justified all varieties of requests and proposals.
The key was the crescendo of a series of freedoms that began on my 7th birthday when I received a bike and the implicit permission to ride on any street contained within our subdivision. Only after I had done chores for six months did I earn the right to ride my bike to the Wilson’s Five and Dime and drain my allowance on candy and gag gifts. Only after I helped him build a treehouse did I earn the right to use my father’s tools. “Prove you can handle it and, in time, you’ll get it” was the gist of our arrangement.
At 11, I knew my driver’s license and first car would eclipse the key, but those were still years away and in no way diminished the feeling of authority that surged through my body when I slipped it in and out of the lock and reveled in its muffled click of autonomy. I could, from now on, reach into my pocket and pull out a tangible symbol of the trust I had spent eleven years earning. I could open the door for younger, more helpless creatures—mainly my brother—and, just as easily, snap it shut and secure our home against invaders with a quick turn of my wrist. If I needed to get in, I no longer needed to wait on the porch while my mother fumbled with groceries or went out to check the mail. I could open our door whenever I wanted and I didn’t need anyone to do it for me. I certainly did not need Mrs. Carter, whose hospitality was appreciated but, because of the key, no longer necessary.
Consequently, we saw less and less of Mrs. Carter, our interaction dwindling to the times she was letting Mango out and we happened to be outside, too, and, even more rare, the times we saw her old Buick sputtering around town. To tell the truth—a truth I’m not particularly proud of—the size and scope of my ego swelled so large in the years after I got that key, that I damn near forgot all about her. I had left elementary school and entered the infinitely darker and more thrilling world of junior high, a world that welcomed me with great ceremony. I experienced puberty in a single, glorious burst, shooting up six inches overnight, shedding baby-fat to make room for sharpened swathes of muscle, and sprouting thick brown facial hair, but not a single pimple. The whole of South Pines Middle formed a lofty opinion to accommodate the young man I had become and I was not immune to my own charms. Girls adored me, teachers revered me, and kids I didn’t even know asked to sit with me at lunch. I played a different sport every season and started in every one. If I forgot about Mrs. Carter, or any other figure from my childhood, it was not out of a sense of meanness or intentionality, but rather the busyness that comes with egocentricity, the haziness that courted the belief that I was the center of the universe and even the most important people in my life were mere planets designed to revolve around me.
Naturally, my change in attitude did not go unnoticed. Although I could, and did, fake humility at home, my friends, especially the ones who had known me since grade-school, tried in their own way to counsel me.
“You’re getting a little big for your britches,” Chad Wheeler, who was always repeating things his father said, told me one day after I had single-handedly beat him and two other basketball players. I called him a sore loser, accentuating the thought with my thumb and index finger pinned against my forehead in the shape of an “L.”
“You’ve changed,” Anna Kosa, who was always incredibly direct, said after I took her to the fall dance, ditched her after the first slow song, and spent the rest of the night in the center of a small, but elite group of girls who were both popular and pretty.
“Who hasn’t?” was my response. To this day, I’m not sure what I meant.
However, the most piercing criticism came not from a peer, but, strangely enough, from a teacher. Mr. Rivers, a literature teacher who was famous for his unkempt beard and crinkled work shirts, said, in the middle of a lesson on Greek mythology, “Who can summarize the story of Icarus?”
Although I knew it, had known it since reading a book on mythology in the third grade, I slumped down in my desk and put forth my best illusion of disinterest. In truth, I enjoyed everything about Mr. Rivers’ class—the weird stories and poems we read, the riveting discussions, even the five-paragraph essays which celebrated a certain risk and freedom that other subjects seemed to lack—and had, more than once, considered the prospect of becoming an English teacher. However, what I felt and what my reputation permitted me to show were two entirely different things and, so, when he called on me, I shrugged my shoulders, sucked my teeth, and said, “I don’t know.”
A hand in the front row shot up, Asari Chan’s if I wasn’t mistaken.
“Icarus and his father were trying to escape an island, but Icarus flew too close to the sun on wings of wax,” she said, obviously impressed with herself for knowing the tale. “He didn’t listen to his father and fell to his death.”
“And what is the moral of that story?” Mr. Rivers said, directing the question, once again, at me. His glare was too intense to be incidental and I knew, on some level, that he was using the content to convey a message to me.
Moreover, I knew exactly what he was saying, identical as it was to Chad and Anna’s observations about my hubris. I had seen him use stories to do the same thing to other kids and, while I didn’t appreciate being singled out, in no way did I consider it unprofessional. Mr. Rivers obviously believed in the power of literature to speak to people, to even change and enrich its readers. Why wouldn’t he spare me the hard-knock and let me learn from some ancient story? Just like the other students he had tried to pin down with a particular passage or theme, I wriggled free.
“I don’t know,” I said, chuckling in a way intended to suggest that I had better things to think about but, being a good sport, I would indulge Mr. Rivers anyway. “I guess the idea is if you need to fly, don’t use a waxwing.”
A few kids laughed, mostly my teammates and the same few girls who followed me around and laughed at everything I said, regardless of its wit. But Mr. Rivers did not laugh. Without taking his eyes off mine, he sneered, ever so slightly, and shook his head from side to side for a torturous seven seconds, before calling on Anna, who was seated two desks behind me.
“Pride comes before a fall,” she said.
“It does, doesn’t it?” Mr. Rivers said, still staring directly at me, only now no longer sneering, but smiling, as if to suggest that we shared an inside joke. In a way, I guess we did.
In the fall semester of my eighth-grade year, I ascended to new heights when a coach for the high school football team recruited me. Having seen me play only one game, they wanted me to play wide receiver for a team which, if the local sports columnists could be believed, had a good chance at winning state. My parents, after reiterating the importance of good grades and the necessity of balancing academics with other aspects of life, gave me their blessing and, like that, I had graduated from the most popular kid in my middle school to a veritable demi-god who started on a high school team, dated a high school girl, and routinely attended high school parties. If a good pass through puberty had swelled my pride, then making the football team elevated it into another stratosphere. Everything was looking up, and I honestly believed, to use my mother’s phrase, that I had “earned it.”
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a night came which compelled me to gamble a decade’s worth of trust for a single possibility. It was a Thursday evening and I was at home, watching sports with my father while my mother was in the kitchen helping my brother put the finishing touches on a science project. The phone rang. My mother answered it, saying, in her typical way, “May I ask who is speaking?”
A brief pause followed, then she called from the kitchen. “Donavan, there’s someone on the phone for you.”
“Someone” turned out to be Chris Helios, the first-string quarterback, a senior, and—since receiving letters of intent from Clemson, Auburn, and Florida State—one of the most enviable kids in our county if not the entire state. Although I knew Chris from football, I couldn’t pretend that a call from him, on a Thursday night no less, was typical by any measure of the definition. Regardless of how well I had done, I was still, by definition, an eighth grader, and he was, and always would be, Chris Helios. The one guy who could call anyone and do anything was calling me and suggesting, with hardly any preamble, that I be ready tomorrow night, a bye week on our schedule, to join him and several other football players for a ride up to Clemson where somebody’s brother had gained us entry into what Chris called a “kegger.”
“Be ready at six” was all he said, not an interrogative note anywhere in the sentence. “Okay” was all I said, my mind already scrambling for a viable lie to tell my parents when they asked.
With a history of honesty on the line, my heart raced as I constructed a plausible deception. As it happened, the lie didn’t need to be complicated, nor even good. When I hung up the phone, my mother, with a sly little smile on her face, asked, “What did Chris Helios want?”
“He’s having some people over tomorrow night and wanted to know if I could make it,” I said, not failing to notice that my father had muted the television and was listening to our conversation.
“Will his parents be home?” my mother asked.
Without thinking, “Yes” slipped out of my mouth, followed by the same unflinching eye contact I had always reserved for the moments when my integrity was wrongfully being questioned. I had perfected that look for the purposes of establishing credibility. My mother stared at me, yet I didn’t flinch. Later that night, I would think about that—how easy it was to lie, how similar it felt to telling a hard truth. I lied and stared and my mother, who was gluing letters onto a poster board, nodded, and said, “Okay,” while my father unmuted the television and my brother, who had been picking dried glue off his fingertips, yanked on my mother’s wrist and complained about a crooked ‘G.’ The only thing she added, and she added it from the doorway to my room after I had climbed in bed for the night, was, “We’ll probably go see Uncle Brian tomorrow night, so we won’t get home until eleven or twelve. Be good.”
“Does that mean my curfew is eleven?” I asked, smiling through the darkness of the room. “Or twelve?”
“That means,” she said, backlit and looming large in the soft yellow light from the hallway, “you’ll come home at ten and call Uncle Brian’s house when you do. Chris Helios can do a lot of things, but, as of now, he still lacks the power to change my son’s curfew.”
Then my mother, the great giver of privileges and protector of routines, blew a kiss across the room and shut my door, leaving me in the cool, black quiet to consider what would happen if I got caught and if, the call from Chris alone, had not already justified the very worst punishment she could imagine.
My Uncle Brian lived in Asheville, about two hours away from our house. On Friday, we got home from school, did our homework, ate an early supper at 4:30, and when my family drove away at 5, I waved at them from the edge of the driveway, calculating all the necessary preparations to make before Chris pulled up at 6. I wanted to take a shower, iron my clothes, and, time permitting, do some internet research on the respective differences between college and high school parties. In fact, I did all of these things and ended up back on my driveway, clothes ironed to a crisp, cologne generously applied, door locked behind me, at 10 minutes till 6. I was so ready that my fingertips trembled inside of my pockets.
While waiting for Chris, I stood there fingering the key and staring at the blue light coming from Mrs. Carter’s window. Knowing that she was sitting in there in her decrepit old recliner, Mango dying slowly in the corner, some depressing soap on the television, I could not help but consider how far I had come. I thought about the docile kid who would sit down on shag carpet and do his homework to the petty rhythmic rows of hack actors, a kid with no choice in the world except doing as he was told, except submitting with a smile to the routines of adults. I don’t know which excited me more—all the actual autonomy I had earned in the past few years, or the grace with which I had completed my first major deception, an act that would have seemed unfathomable to the boy sitting nicely beside Mrs. Carter’s chair.
Back then, I didn’t wear a watch, so when it started to get dark, I had to go inside and check the clock on the microwave, which read “6:24” in crisp green bars. I called the number from which Chris had called me the previous night, but someone named Stacie picked up and admitted to knowing Chris, but claimed to not have heard anything about a party in Clemson. I hung up and considered my next move. I could look up Chris’s parents’ phone number and call it, which seemed not only pathetic, but tactless, too. I could call some of my friends and see if they knew Chris’s personal number or, at the very least, knew someone who might know it. However, the more I considered these options, the more desperate I felt and so I decided, on a whim, to forget all about Chris and make my own plans for the night. Without another thought, I grabbed a juice from the refrigerator, darted down the hall, left the house, locked the door, and whispered, “Screw Helios,” as I jogged towards Courtney Sol’s house.
Courtney and I had been dating for a few weeks, but had not spoken in several days and I felt a little guilty about showing up unannounced. When I got to her house and saw a light on in her window, all my reservations dissipated and I picked up the first small rock in sight and chucked it at the backlit window panes, nailing the center square with a punctuated clank. Moments later, her silhouetted face appeared and, though I could not make out if she was smiling, I did see the outstretched index finger and knew that she would be outside momentarily. I took a seat on a curb and ran my tongue along the teeth of my key, the faint metallic taste somehow appealing and repellent at the same time. Eventually, Courtney came out and took a seat beside me.
“What’s up?” she said, slightly out of breath and, if I wasn’t mistaken, slightly agitated too.
“Nothing,” I said and smiled. “Not a thing.”
“Then what are you doing here?” she asked and fanned out the fingers on both hands in a nasty little gesture that belonged more to a teacher or a parent than a tenth-grade girl.
“I wanted to see you,” I said, tossing my key up and snatching out of the air, hoping to infuse the moment with some sense of lightness.
“I told you I was grounded,” she said, letting out a disgusted sigh and shaking her head from side to side. “You never listen.”
About the time she said “grounded,” I snatched too hard for my key and knocked it to the pavement a couple feet away from where we were sitting. Retrieving it seemed lame, an explicit admission of defeat, so, instead, I pretended as if my dropping it was part of a larger, more reckless scheme and I left it and reached over and grabbed her hand. “Nothing can touch me” is the vibe I was going for, having seen time and time again how seductive such boyishness can be.
“I just missed you is all,” I said and tried to bring her hand to my lips without bending my head even slightly.
She jerked her hand away and stuffed it beneath her armpit, crossing both arms in a gesture to match her face, tone, and general disposition. Times like these made me wonder if the gulf between our ages was more than just biological. I’m not saying that middle school girls couldn’t lose their tempers or be flat-out nasty, because they could. From my experience, they picked up on your attitude—in this case, an affable disregard—and followed suit, practically mimicking your tone and working in their doubts when the windows opened up. You led and they followed is the point. Courtney, though, who was my sole basis for conclusions about high school girls, seemed to habitually disregard my emotional state and, whether by intention or simply by result, demand that I assimilate to hers. If she had come bouncing out of her parents’ house as happy as a clam, I would have had no right to express a sad or anxious thought. However, she was not happy, because she was, in fact, upset about something which probably had nothing to do with me. I was expected to ditch my devil-may-care optimism and play into her griminess. Normally, I might have gone along with it, but given what had just happened with Helios, I was not in a particularly sacrificial mood. Standing up and crossing my arms as well, I made a face of my own and said, regretting it almost immediately, “Why are you being such a bitch?”
And as if this word was some kind of cue, a secret word that signaled attack, her father came barreling out of the driveway, sprinting straight towards us. I did not know if he was coming for me or for her, but he was a big man with balled fists and the muscle-fat ratio of a lineman. He was moving quickly, too. Despite the large, violent quality of his body, it was his face that scared me most and that, all these years later, still haunts me. Even in the dusk, I could see it had turned blood-red. His eyes, which were normally large and protruding, were, that night, freakishly massive and, relative to the redness of his face, incandescent in their white-hot anger. He cursed as he ran, mumbling an incoherent string of obscenities in a low, husky voice.
I don’t know what all Mr. Sol said or even what he wanted. Instinct kicked in and I took off sprinting down the street. I ran harder and faster than I had ever moved on a football field, and by the time I stopped to catch my breath and look back, both Courtney and her father were gone. I hocked phlegm from the back of throat and spit in the direction of their house.
“Bitches,” I said and took a hard left through a dimly lit lawn, a cut-through I had been using since childhood and which would dump me out on a street where Chad Wheeler, my last hope for a somewhat decent night, lived.
I rang Chad’s doorbell and he answered, but when I asked him to come out, he refused, gesturing with his thumb over his shoulder and whispering, “Family night.” I peered into Chad’s house and saw a familiar scene. Like myself, he had one sibling, a sister, and she was hunched over a game board, preparing to roll a dice and playfully sticking her tongue out at Chad’s father. Around a coffee table were pizza on paper plates, a half-drained two liter on the table, and everybody playfully taunting each other. On another night, it could’ve been my house and my family.
It was not another night, though, and I needed Chad to come with me and find some minor form of mischief to engage in. I told him briefly about Helios and Courtney, hoping some shred of sympathy might compel him to come out. After I told him what happened, though, he apologized and acted ashamed that he was spending a Friday night with his family, even though we both knew he wanted it that way. I asked a few more times, promising various things I probably could not have delivered, but Chad dodged each new lure, mumbling, “Sorry man, I can’t,” until it became like the chorus to a song. Frustrated and feeling yet another opportunity slip through my fingers, I punched Chad in the sternum and called him a “pussy,” hoping shame might succeed where sympathy and loyalty had failed. It didn’t. I must have said it louder than I thought because Chad’s father, by no means a small or passive man, appeared behind him, filling up the doorway and squinting down at me.
“Is there a problem here, Chad?” his father asked, his jaw like two rocks trying to break through the skin.
Though Mr. Wheeler’s anger lacked the wild-dog quality of Mr. Sol’s, it was no less frightening and, in fact, in some ways, it felt even more threatening. The truth is I was ill-equipped to deal with either kind of aggression, since I had not ever, not even with the teachers in school, so blatantly provoked grown men.
“There’s no problem, sir,” I said, adding bass to my voice and bowing up to where I was almost, but not quite, eye-level with his father. “No problem at all.”
“You’re Rhett Davidson’s boy, aren’t you?” his father asked, eying me up and down.
I understood his intention, but happened to know for a fact that he was not friends with my father and that, unless I did something worse than mutter one vulgar word, he would not dare call my parents and report what he had heard. This was part of the act—knowing who knew my parents and making sure certain stories never trickled back into their network of friends. So I smiled in a way that let him know his threat didn’t faze me. I smiled at Chad, too, a different smile, one that said, “Thanks a lot, pussy.”
“I think you better run on home, boy,” his father said and pulled Chad back into the house while massaging his shoulders.
“Whatever,” I said in an acidic voice before jumping off their porch and making my way back home.
It was, I guessed, sometime close to 8, which meant it’d be at least another three hours until my parents returned. Given the night’s events, I intended to spend all three of them in my room, either in front of my television, or, more likely, in my bed, willing myself to sleep and striking this day from the books. I literally sprinted the last leg home, so eager was I to gain shelter from a night which had become, to me, synonymous with rejection and loss. Crossing my lawn and climbing our porch steps, I resolved to call Courtney and apologize before going to bed and I was trying to settle on the best way to begin the conversation when, hand on the doorknob, I reached into my pocket and realized that I had lost my key. Knowing it was futile, I checked my other pocket and then my two back pockets as well. After releasing a series of whispered curses, all directed at me, I started walking back towards Courtney’s house, where I remembered having dropped it. I searched that stretch of curb ten times over and even fanned out in a hundred foot radius, but found no key. I wasted almost an hour walking up and down both sides of her street before giving up and going home.
Back home, I considered my options. Judging from the blue-black shade of the sky and the number of houses which had turned off their lights, I guessed it to be around 9:30 or 10. Our neighborhood, composed as it was with young families, turned in by 10 and any noise or commotion thereafter was frowned upon if not coupled with a call to the police. What were my options? To begin with, I immediately disqualifying any plan involving facing a friend and asking for help. I had, due to my interactions with Chris, Courtney, and Chad, lost all faith in my ability to inspire solidarity.
I was, by then, seeing things in a different light. Insecurity seemed to pump through my veins, hurrying to every part of my body and filling me with the reality that I was not half as cool as I thought I was. I was a fake and a little prick to boot. Chad and Anna were right. Mr. Rivers was right. Tonight had proved that, if nothing else, and all that seemed left to do was sit there and wallow in that realization. I stretched out on the cold concrete of our porch, stared at the limp flag dangling beside our door, and resolved to wait for my family right there, no matter how long it took.
Then a light came on. It was soft and peripheral, but enough to catch my eye. I sat up to look, and across the street, Mrs. Carter had turned on her porch lights and was, in fact, standing in her doorway and waving me over. I stood up, said nothing, and limped across the street.
“Come in, come in,” she muttered, holding the door open for me and inadvertently blowing smoke in my face as I did.
“Sit,” she said and locked the door behind her.
I followed her into the living room, the crystallized scent of smoke still hanging in the air, Mango, same as ever, rising from his cot to meet me at our old spot in front of the television. I sat down on the floor and he licked my fingertips. All thoughts of Chris Helios, Courtney Sol, and Chad Wheeler faded into memory and I became grateful, almost physically so, for the warmth of the room and the present flood of familiarity. Mrs. Carter, who had gone into the kitchen, returned with a bowl of chips in one hand and a Braves cup in the other. She set the bowl in my lap and collapsed back into her recliner. She said nothing about why I was on my porch or what she intended to do now that I was inside.
“They’re doing a marathon,” she said, pointing at the television screen on which the actors were engaged in an argument about an affair that had taken place while someone was in a coma. I watched their anguished faces and could not help but laugh. An actor I recognized pointed his finger in the face of another man and said, “You will rue this day, I tell you. You will rue it.” After that, Mrs. Carter said nothing, just lit a new cigarette and stared at the screen. Mango nestled in beside me and I ran a hand through his matted coat and placed a single chip in my mouth, in no way surprised and, in fact, delighted by its staleness. Mrs. Carter laughed at something and I lay back on the filthy carpet and closed my eyes, my heart filled with an ancient, but still familiar happiness.
Dan Leach’s fiction has been published in The Greensboro Review, Deep South Magazine, New Madrid Review, and elsewhere. A South Carolina native, he graduated from Clemson University and taught high school in Charleston until 2014 when he relocated to Nebraska. “Floods and Fires,” his debut short-story collection, will be published by University of North Georgia Press.