Brad Lee and The BIG 2K

“My name is Brad Lee, and 1997 was supposed to be my best year ever… but it turned out to be the worst. On top of that, everybody in the world started freaking out about the end of the millennium. Some people said we could totally lose our grip on modern technology. Others were talking about a full-blown apocalypse. I’ve even heard that a few guys started stocking up on gold, gas, and guns. Look, I don’t know what’s gonna happen if the system crashes. I don’t even know what the big deal is, anyway. Bad things happen all the time. From what I’ve learned, sometimes it’s easier to just start over, than to try to make a shitty situation work out.”

Brad Lee and the BIG 2K

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2019 Darius Marley, LLC

All rights reserved.

……

Every morning, I navigate over mounds of clothes, comic books, and magazines, as I make my way back from the bathroom. Then I sit on the edge of my bed, and close my eyes. I can still hear the toilet tank hissing in the background, but I try to ignore it while I concentrate on taking nice, slow, deep breaths. When the time is right, I exhale while lowering myself backwards, until my upper body is stretched across the center of the mattress.

This is how I like to get in position to do abdominal crunches. I can do fifty good ones in a row, without stopping. I also like to keep going with at least fifty push-ups, but crunches always come first. They are the most important, because they set the tone for everything else.

Something interesting happens during this routine. I develop a sort of lightheaded sensation, but not in a bad way. My mind becomes amazingly clear. Focused. It’s kind of like when I’m reading a really good book, or when I’m zoning out in a boring class, while filling my sketchpad up with cartoons. It becomes much easier for me to concentrate on just one thing, whenever I get this way.

I’m usually thinking about a lot of stuff at once, and it can be hard to stay on track. A few years ago, I was taking Adderall because my ADHD was supposedly getting out of control. But I quit using it, because that stuff wasn’t really helping, and it actually made me feel like shit most of the time. I’m pretty sure the doctor just wanted to sell expensive drugs to my parents. They definitely fell for the sales pitch. My dad only cared about getting everything covered by our insurance. Beyond that, he just looked pissed off and annoyed to hear that his loser son had yet another major defect. What an inconvenience.

Mom was pretty freaked out. This wasn’t like the other times I’ve gone to the hospital, after breaking or spraining something. The problem couldn’t be revealed by a couple of x-rays, and it wouldn’t get fixed by simply using ice packs and bandages for a week or two. We were visiting a psychiatrist, which automatically put her way outside of her comfort zone. She kept looking at me, then at the doctor, then at my father. Her head was on a swivel. She looked like a nervous bird watching a bunch of cats. It was pretty sad, the way she just sat there and listened to all the terrifying reasons they needed to medicate me. Hyperactivity. Anxiety. Chemical imbalance. Impulsive behavior. Disorder. I’m sure she was praying for somebody to tell her that her English simply wasn’t good enough to understand what was really going on, and that it was all just a big misunderstanding.

My father kept one hand on her shoulder, while his other hand pulled a ring of keys from his pocket. He started whipping them around in quick circles, and they produced a menacing thud every time the keys landed on his palm. The doctor got the message. It was time to wrap up his sales pitch, and just write the damn prescription so we could all get on with our day. Looking satisfied with himself, he hunched over his desk and scribbled a couple of lines, then the note was snatched away before I could sneak a peek. After that, everybody was suddenly on their feet, and my father practically shoved me out the door.

Mom sat in the front passenger seat, with her body twisted sideways. She stared at me and didn’t say a single word the whole time. It was annoying, but the worst part was when I caught my father’s stare from the rear-view mirror. I could tell what he was thinking. He was angry because I was causing more trouble between him and Mom. This trip to the doctor was only giving her another excuse to overprotect me, while she bitched at him for always being too rough on me. I saw his eyes grow narrow, and the creases in his brow got deeper. He was telepathically warning me that those drugs had better work fast, or else.

At least I wasn’t alone. It seemed like all of a sudden, everybody I knew had a case of ADHD that year. It wasn’t as though we never heard about it before, but for whatever reason, they made it seem like a national plague that had finally reached us, and now it causing a fresh epidemic in our town. I got the feeling that it put us in the big-leagues, since the newspapers and TV news shows could finally brag about how we were finally on the same level as other big cities in America. They were obviously saying it was bad, but at the same time they seemed to be excited to report this news, like we were now part of some important national statistic. The counselors at my school started passing out ADHD pamphlets and began offering private office sessions for students who felt like they might be suffering from symptoms of this thing. It was just like when that kid got killed in a car crash, and they wanted us to know that we could talk to them if we felt suicidal or whatever.

Who comes up with this crap, anyway? Maybe they just didn’t want to admit that school is totally boring and completely useless. We don’t have ADHD. At least I don’t really believe that I do. They can’t face the truth. The truth is, we’re not paying attention, because there’s nothing worth paying attention to. They did a great job coming up with an official-sounding excuse, to put the blame on us.

I stopped taking those pills after the winter holiday, and nobody could even tell the difference. Sometimes you just have to take care of things on your own. Discover your own solutions. Some kids at my school were paying ten dollars per pill, so I sold my entire supply in just a few days. Of course that’s when the stoners started talking to me, and before long, I started smoking a little bit of pot, which has been super helpful for getting my brain to calm down. A little bit of weed at night for a good night’s sleep, and then a little bit of exercise in the morning. This program works way better than those pills ever did. I don’t even know if I have ADHD, but if I do, then I’ve figured out the best way to manage it, on my own.

Of course, smoking pot is something I can only do here, and only if I’m sure my parents aren’t going to walk in on me. Even if I could do it somewhere else, I wouldn’t, because I don’t want to become one of those full-time stoners. Those dudes smoke way too much pot, and they kind of look like they need to relax a little less, if they hope to get anything done. I never see those guys doing anything but hanging around and smoking cigarettes when they’re outside. Then I guess they play video games and smoke weed after school. Those guys don’t have ADHD. They just don’t give a fuck about anything.

I would probably be a loser too, if I wasn’t always reading books or drawing pictures. Now I’m starting each day with some exercise, and this morning routine is a whole new experience for me. Actually I’ve never been interested in sports or bodybuilding, I guess because those are purely competitive activities. Also, the people who do that stuff are usually a bunch of assholes.

For the first time in my life, I might actually be able to say that I can relate to the jocks at my school, and the way they were always bragging about lifting weights, or strutting around in the parking lot, or showing off on game days with gay-looking matching muscle shirts. I can see how a guy’s confidence would benefit from getting bigger and stronger, but those guys are a bunch of idiots. I’m not interested in adopting their retarded attitudes, and I’m in no hurry to dumb myself down, just so I can start hanging out with them. I’m pretty sure they still wouldn’t like me anyway. Those are the same guys who teased me since the first day I started going to high school. I don’t forget stuff like that.

I need to stop thinking about it. Another slow, deep breath goes in. The whole point is to get myself focused. I need to think about thousands of strands of muscle fibers, straining to lift me up, and slowly lowering me back down. Imagine the satisfying burn of lactic acid that follows each deliberate, controlled release. Look for that window of opportunity, to give my brain one single thing to think about. Every morning, this is what I look forward to. Things have changed since I started doing this routine.

Last summer, my feet were still hanging off the side of the bed, barely able to touch the floor. This summer, I’m a lot bigger, and still not used to seeing all those muscles every time I walk past the bathroom mirror whenever I get in and out of the shower. I know where they came from, though. Commitment to my routine. Layering each day, building a stable foundation.

My stomach was the first thing that caught my eye. What used to be a white, hairless, doughy child’s belly, was looking more like the manly ‘washboard’ everybody seems to want. My arms and shoulders became bulkier, too. Even my bony legs, a lifelong source of embarrassment, had thickened up and become solid. Awesome, because I no longer feel weird about wearing shorts in public. I’m definitely going to wear shorts every day this summer. I should just throw all my pants away, and wear nothing but shorts.

But right now, the only thing in the world that matters, is reaching crunch number fifty. After that, I’m ready to face whatever life throws at me. Completion gives me a sense of accomplishment.

So far, I’m only at twenty-four. Twenty-six more to go.

Since last Christmas, everybody agreed that I looked so much older. So mature. He’s so tall now. He’s got his dad’s build. His mom’s looks. He should be playing football and breaking hearts. I’ve learned to just take the compliments with a smile, keeping my mouth shut and soaking it all up, while surveying the tops of everyone’s heads. A lot of my older relatives have bald spots. Even some of the women, which is funny. They also liked pointing out that no matter how big I get, I’ve still got a baby face, which I find super annoying.

I definitely don’t know much about being a heart-breaker, but a couple of weeks ago, an older girl hit on me at the supermarket. Mom had forgotten to grab something when it was time to check out. She told me to hold our place in line, since she would return by the time I reached the cashier.

So I waited, and watched an old couple examine the weekly specials flyer as they tore out coupons, right in front of me. A scrawny, birdlike cashier rapidly blinked her eyes at them, also waiting. Somewhere in the background, a baby screeched and totally ruined Kenny G’s sax solo that played on the store’s PA speakers.

Then a girl with long red hair bumped against my shoulder, giggling as she said, “I guess you’re never too old for Lucky Charms.”

She was beautiful, and standing really close to me. I remember being hit by the smell of fresh-cut grass and laundry detergent, which confused me for a split second, but I figured it was probably her shampoo. Her hair was long, flaming red, and really curly. I tried not to look like a total perv as I spotted a pink bra strap that peeked out from beneath the neckline of her t-shirt. Her shoulder was smooth, pale, and sputtered with little tan freckles. I didn’t know if she was a college student, or already finished with school, or whatever, but she was definitely older than me. Not too old, though. I guess she was a college student.

Soft, copper-brown eyes looked up at me. More freckles were scattered across her nose and cheeks. Her lips were the same color as the bra strap. I felt like she was waiting for me to say something, but I had no idea what to say. So of course I jammed my hands into my pockets, raised my eyebrows, and blurted out the first thing I could think of.

“Huh?”

Pretty stupid, right? My face and ears instantly burned red, but the girl just laughed and grabbed onto my arm, as if to demonstrate a sudden need to steady herself, because my reply was so unexpectedly clever and awesome. Her touch was cool, and a little sweaty. “No, no, you’re okay. It’s kinda cute,” she said. She nodded towards a family-sized red box of cereal in my shopping cart.

She let go of my arm, took a short step back, and playfully tossed her curls to one side while shrugging a gesture that I could only describe as exaggerated disbelief. She was still standing really close to me, and she smelled good. My mind reeled as she proceeded to explain how she never quit eating Oreos, and loved dunking them into a coffee mug filled with hot milk, the same way she did it when she was little. “Except now it only takes a minute in the microwave for the perfect temperature,” she said. “Could anything be any better?” Another giggle, and her hand reached out to touch my arm again.

As you could guess, I was speechless. This random girl was enthusiastically flirting with me, but all I could do was stand there, nodding and gawking at her like a big dumb geek. I wasn’t into dunking Oreos, because I hated how they made milk turn sludgy at the bottom. I wanted to say something about how milk actually gets better in a bowl of cereal, but decided to just keep my mouth shut instead of screwing up this unbelievable moment.

Then, a familiar voice snapped at me. “Brad! What are you doing? You’re holding up the line!”

Mom had reappeared. She stood with one hand on her hip, while the other hand gripped her purse strap so tightly that her knuckles turned white. Her favorite sleeveless white blouse was tucked into a high-waisted pair of dark blue jeans. She squeezed her mouth into a thin, impatient, disapproving line.

It took everything I had to stop myself from running away. I actually thought about doing it. My heart was thumping, and I watched in horror as the girl’s eyes grew two times larger. My ears instantly burned again when she reached for her shopping cart, and rolled it away without looking back. It was over. Mom had her arms crossed and her shoe was making angry clicking noises as she tapped her heel up and down. I didn’t look directly at her, but I could tell that she was watching both of us. Then she pointed towards the end of the checkout counter, and told me to go sack the groceries after they had been scanned.

All I wanted at that moment, was for a friendly orbiting spaceship to beam me off the surface of this miserable planet. Of course, there was no chance of that. My eyes darted around, hoping to catch one more glimpse of the redhead girl, but she was nowhere to be seen. The scent of her shampoo still lingered in my nose, which helped a little. Gone, but not forgotten. My eyes narrowed as I imagined her long red hair, lathered into wet twists, clinging to bare white shoulders. What her freckled body might look like, slick and shiny and smooth in the shower.

The bird-lady interrupted my thoughts with a sharp cough, and rapidly blinked at me when my eyes met hers. Her bifocals were so thick, I could see magnified globs of mascara that clung to the eyelashes of her bottom eyelids. She punched a string of numbers into her keypad. The register’s printer started to rattle, and a red box slid towards me. I looked down at Lucky the Leprechaun. At least we have each other. Rainbows and marshmallows. Magically delicious.

A wave of anger washed over me, and I carelessly crumpled the sides of the box as I stuffed it into a plastic grocery bag. I’m pretty sure I smashed some of the cereal, but I didn’t care.

Things never would have gotten very far with her, anyway, right? What would we even talk about, besides breakfast cereal versus cookies? Even if I were to somehow, miraculously, reach her bedroom. Then what? Last summer, I was a skinny, unattractive loser. Now I’m all grown-up, and allegedly good-looking, but still a loser deep down inside. I’ve barely had sex with one girl, and that didn’t go so well. Who was I kidding? I still hated to take my shirt off at the swimming pool. Zero self-confidence. Surely she would notice that. I couldn’t even put a sentence together in a supermarket checkout line. I didn’t even ask for her name.

Okay, enough. I inhaled sharply, and held my breath until the swirl of unpleasant thoughts receded into blackness. Today is a new day. Who cares what anybody thinks. In the safety of my bedroom, I’m a superhero whenever I look at my own reflection. And I often think about the supermarket girl, too.

Forty crunches so far. This is all that matters right now.

……

“Brad! Come to the kitchen!”

Mom’s voice shot straight up the staircase, flew down the hall, rippled right through the bedroom door, and bounced around inside my skull. I thought about Joe Pesci, and how he shot that lady in the ear with a .22-caliber pistol. That’s what Mom’s voice can feel like sometimes. Like a bullet ricocheting around in my head, scrambling my brains into a thick liquid. Some day she’ll find me lying here in a pool of my own juices, and then she’ll really scream as she watches the puddle slowly soaking and spreading across the sheets.

Big breath goes in. Please, no more distractions. I squeezed my eyes shut, and pushed everything out.

Forty-one. Almost there. I exhaled slowly, and opened my eyes. Time to command my muscles to contract again, and this time I’ll focus on stuff around me, to stop my mind from wandering beyond these walls.

Forty-two. A frisbee-sized dark patch had become a permanent part of the ceiling, over the last few years. My father would always mumble “goddamn useless wetback roofers” as he slathered plaster, rather unskillfully, over that same spot, every time Mom complained about it.

Forty-three. I pondered another smear of plaster between the ceiling and wall. When I was a little kid, an inch-long gap appeared there. Later that week, I watched a documentary about black widow spiders, and until my dad plugged it, that mysterious crevice was the source of many vivid nightmares.

Forty-four. There’s the air-conditioning vent, located directly over the bedroom door. Sometimes I would daydream about finding bundles of money and guns inside, like they always do in the movies. I never bothered to climb up there and look, though. It was too close to the spider crack.

Forty-five. Taped to the back of my door is a life-sized poster of Carmen Electra. She stands at a very lifelike five-foot-three. I measured her picture from head to toe, just to be sure. In this scene, she’s seductively posing on the beach. Sun-streaked blonde hair is blowing in the wind. The color of her skin contrasts sharply against white sand, and her eyes are the same color as the water.

Forty-six. I pulled myself up again, and this time my eyes landed on Carmen’s sand-speckled ankles. I imagined what it would feel like to reach out and wrap my hand around one of her shapely calves, to give it a nice squeeze. She would approvingly whip her hair to one side, motioning for me to go ahead and slide my hand up. “Slide it right up Brad, and see what else I’ve got for you.”

Forty-seven. By now my hand is slowly skimming the inside of Carmen’s golden thigh, until my palm glides across a smooth, tanned pelvic area just outside the hi-cut bikini line of her red Baywatch swimsuit. She’s making soft moaning noises now. “Come on Brad… you’re almost there,” she whispers.

Forty-eight. Carmen’s hands are interlaced behind my head, and she’s pulling me towards her. My hands are now exploring aggressively, as I’m blindly feeling around for whatever seems soft, supple, smooth, and filled with promise. “That’s it!” she gasps. “I’m gonna let you do whatever you want!”

Forty-ni–

A sudden thump against the door, and Carmen’s picture vibrates from the impact. My entire body jolts and convulses, as if I had just been shocked with a million volts of electricity.

“Whaddaya WANT?!” I shrieked. My voice cracked.

Giggles and footsteps fade away as my little brother bounces down the stairs.

With a long groan of defeat, I slump backwards, and catch a glimpse of my clock radio. The digital display says eight-twenty-six, and I groan again. Way too early for this bullshit. I’ve been awake for less than half an hour, and already events beyond my control are beginning to unfold.

I was really bummed out to see how quickly my boner had recoiled into a lump under my boxer shorts. Might as well just lie here and wait for the inevitable. The spell was broken anyway. I won’t even bother with the final fiftieth crunch. Carmen will have to wait until tomorrow, and there will be no push-ups this morning.

“Brad! Brad Lee! Come down here, now!”

Uh-oh. First-name-last-name. Mom only does that when she’s getting close to having one of her legendary tiger-mother meltdowns.

I sat straight up, then continued to curl my torso further until my head dipped between my knees. Stretching both arms out, groping at various items under the bed, I fished around for the nearest t-shirt within reach. As I pawed past magazines and comic books, I noted that this maneuver could possibly be counted as the fiftieth crunch for the day, which made me feel a little better.

Finding a t-shirt, I gave it a firm shake and a quick sniff, and pulled it on. A somewhat clean pair of jeans followed.

Familiar footsteps began to thump-thump their way up the staircase, with just a little harder force than necessary, adding Mom’s typical touch of melodramatic urgency to an otherwise unnecessary situation.

I closed my eyes, and sank backwards into the old oak four-poster for the last time. My arms crossed into an ‘X’ shape in front of my chest, just like Dracula might do, whenever he settles into a nice layer of moist Transylvanian dirt at the bottom of his coffin.

“Vat’s… the prrroblem?” I snarled, doing my best Bela Lugosi impression.

Smiling to myself, I knew it didn’t matter. Unless Mom were to show up with a wooden stake in one hand, a vial of holy water in the other hand, and a wreath of garlic bulbs around her neck, I’m pretty much indestructible today.

Today is June 15, 1997. It’s my eighteenth birthday.

……

The door swings open without a courtesy knock. It’s another thing Mom likes to do, whenever she wants to get a rise out of me, but I stayed in character.

“You… vill pay… for thisss!” The Prince of Darkness is only moving his lips, you helpless mortal.

Mom ignored the act, and replied with one of her standard comebacks. “Ugh! Your room smell like a pig house, you know that? It’s not healthy in here.”

She marched across my room, timing her steps perfectly to throw the curtains open with a well-practiced swoop. Then she stopped, pivoted, and looked straight down at me.

I raised my arms to shield myself with an imaginary cape, and loudly hissed at beams of sunlight that instantly illuminated millions of floating dust particles with an explosive, swirling glow.

Her knees were parked at each side of my head, and her silhouetted figure cast a long shadow that spilled over me.

I squirmed to seek cover. The world shook as she kicked the wooden bed frame beneath me, and I grunted in acknowledgement.

She bent over, with her hands on her hips. “Brad, you need to get up and see what we got you today.”

Her upside-down face made a sort of grotesque human caricature, with her chin suddenly looking like a fat, comically oversized round nose, and bottom teeth forming the illusion of a perfect, tiny, white row of top teeth. Thoroughly frustrated with my impromptu schtick, Mom grimaced with disapproval, which only made the upside-down face way, way, funnier.

I finally sat up, if only to prevent her from seeing my own facial contortions. Birthday or no birthday, I needed to get a grip, because Mom was about to go postal on my ass.

“Ohhh-kaaayyy… I’m ready. You see?”

“Go. You always make everybody waiting for you.”

She quickly navigated around the bed, kicking away whatever crossed her path. Then she stopped at the door, and watched for anything that could possibly signal the slightest shred of defiance, as she jabbed a finger towards the hallway.

“Now. Downstairs. The kitchen.”

I sighed one more time. Then I stood up, and sheepishly lumbered past her.

……

Remember when birthdays were fun? For me, that was a long time ago, as I seem to recall the last good one happening when I was six years old.

It had been raining all morning, but as soon as the weather cleared up, there were sausages and burgers grilling in the backyard. A group of men stood around the fire, talking about sports and taking turns gesturing at each other, each with a can of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

Women in short skirts and sunglasses were chasing kids around, while struggling to keep their high-heels from sinking into the soggy lawn.

The kids were all supposed to be my friends, but in reality I only liked two of them. The Were-cow-skee twins from across the street, both wearing matching denim overalls and getting mud on their brand-new Reeboks.

Old Mrs. Van Dijk was there too, smiling sweetly while holding a Salem Menthol in her pale, wrinkled hand. She took drags from the perfectly straight, crisp white cigarette, and left smears of blood-red lipstick on the filter end, while a glowing tip of ash dangled precariously from the opposite end.

Hundreds of black ants formed dotted-line trails, as they streamed up the legs of a folding table, and disappeared into a collection of plates and napkins. Legions of tiny, six-legged soldiers, marching toward a cake that was supposed to be an edible replica of a World War II fighter airplane. It looked more like a dead shark whose skin peeled back into a rigid smile, as it decomposed in the summer heat. Humidity clung to sugary icing in sticky globules. Fat, heavy drops rolled down the sides, leaving glistening trails behind them. There was even a small swarm of hungry insects buzzing around, giving the scene a truly macabre effect.

One of the kids had a nosebleed. I saw this as a perfect opportunity to snatch one of the fondant-colored candles from the cake, while everybody was distracted. I took a moment to admire its pearly, confectionary appearance before popping it into my mouth, and hastily chewing it into a shockingly flavorless, waxy paste.

I started gagging, and Mom became hysterical. Another man held onto my father’s arm, probably to steady him, because he was drunk and staggering towards us. He laughed and announced that it would be easy enough to make a new kid, if this one died from candle poisoning. Mom was kneeling in front of me, with one hand formed into a fingernail-tipped vise that gripped my face so hard, it made my cheeks hurt. The other hand was swiping at my nose, mouth, and chin, using a napkin that she repeatedly dabbed against her tongue with each pass.

Then I started to cry, and the last good birthday of my life was over. That was also the year my parents started shouting, slamming doors, and frequently sending me to my room “so the adults could talk.”

……

I rounded the corner at the bottom of the stairwell, and saw my little brother scrambling to take position as the official candle-lighter. He was grinning and teetering on the edge of his chair, while balancing against the table with his knees.

A generic pile of grocery store sponge slathered in chocolate frosting essentially resulted in an oversized, flattened cupcake. No name written in icing, or anything festive about it, besides eighteen multicolored candles that had been stabbed into its surface by two clumsy little hands.

Every year the cake would get smaller, and cheaper, which consistently matched my overall level of enthusiasm for the big event.

Certainly not the case for my brother, though. He was a hyperactive, shaggy mop of dark brown hair and crooked front teeth who didn’t care about those things. He shouted “Look! I’m lighting the candles this year, Davie!” Then he got back to work, struggling to flick the thumbwheel on a childproof cigarette lighter, only managing to produce a few weak sparks.

Dad reached over to him, snapped his fingers, and said “Here, gimme that.” Then he plucked a candle from the cake. With exaggerated ceremony, he handed back some fire, and pocketed the lighter.

That’s strange, I thought. He wasn’t standing in his usual big-man stance, with his arms crossed, and his beer belly thrust forward. He was seated, leaning back, and looking vaguely satisfied about something. Very strange indeed. It’s the weekend, the sun is up, and he’s not holding a drink.

“Piz, be careful!” Mom said, while moving in to assist with the operation. She gently pressed his shoulders down, forcing the chair back on all four feet. He giggled and continued to hover over the cake.

“Piz” was the name he gave himself, long ago, with my unintentional help. It happened one day when he was barely learning to speak. He was happily babbling away, perched on a high chair in front of the kitchen TV. One of the commercials caught his attention, and I was singing along, just having some fun playing with him. As usual, he started imitating my moves and facial expressions. He also started copying the sounds I was making, which got Mom’s attention. Before I knew it, Mom was laughing and dialing the phone to tell my father about a word that sounded like “piz,” and after that, it officially became his nickname. I think my parents were more excited to hear him say anything that even resembled a word, because he was already more than two years old.

Tilting my head back, I studied my parents from a distance. Theirs may not be the model marriage, but the two of them loved obnoxiously conspiring to create nicknames. It was also one of the very few activities they could handle participating in together, without starting another fight. It might have been the only genuine shared pleasure that remained of their marriage. They would exchange smug looks, and lean close to whisper and snicker about their victims. Dad stoically making an off-color comment. Mom suppressing a devious smile while slapping at his shoulder with the back of her hand.

The Lump? He was a red-faced QA inspector at the factory who always slowed production runs down. Tackity-Ann? She was the whiny, undatable front office receptionist. One skinny neighbor across the street was originally from Boston, and they called him Clam Soup, or just Clam. Clam’s wife was Chunky Soup, because she was pretty chunky. So many names on the list. Each one less funny, than the one before it.

Naturally, they also had names for each other. When I was my brother’s age, Mom’s French side used to refer to my dad with something that sounded like mon-shoo. When I asked about it, my mother replied in her heavily accented English. “It’s like… a little, how you say… a very small choux bread?” That’s when I erupted into an uncontrollable fit of laughter, and started running around the kitchen, shouting “Shoe bread! Shoe bread!”

Unfortunately, my father was not nearly as amused as I was, and the name promptly went away after that day.

When she’s angry with him, which happens much more frequently these days, her Vietnamese half spits out a scathing jumble of unpleasant noises. Stuff I can’t even pronounce. I don’t bother asking questions about those. It’s probably a good thing I never learned much Vietnamese. Or French, for that matter. My father was always against us speaking anything but English around the house, and maybe this was one of the reasons.

He’s far less creative, simply calling her “Mom” as me and my brother do. Whenever he’s pissed off, he calls her “that woman.” I often wonder what he calls her when we aren’t around. I’m sure it would be better to never find out, though. I’ve learned to leave some shit alone.

Sometimes we find out stuff by accident, whether we like it or not. Like when I started sneaking downstairs to scrounge up a few leftovers from dinner. It was right after Halloween, last year. That night, I crept past a couple of jack-o-lanterns on the kitchen counter, thinking about the big hunk of pumpkin pie I saw in the fridge when Mom was putting stuff away. I was disappointed to find a pie dish on the kitchen table, empty and surrounded by crumbs, which let me know that somebody else had already beaten me to it. Then I noticed the flicker of the TV in the living room, and thought for sure I was going to get bitched at for being up so late, and sneaking around downstairs after bedtime.

I waited, and nothing happened. So I quietly stepped past the staircase, and found my dad sprawled out on the recliner. A six-pack of empty beer cans flickered shadows beneath his hand, which hung limp from the armrest. Since then, I found him every time I made a midnight snack run, always with the TV on mute, and always with a pile of beer cans at his side. Sometimes i would go down there, not really wanting to eat anything, but just to see if he was going to be there. It made me wonder how long ago he started spending his nights on that chair. I never would have known if I didn’t start getting hungry around midnight. Mom never gave off any signs that things were going so badly between them. Even if she did, what was I supposed to do about it? Best to just keep it to myself, and act like everything was okay, the same way they did. I decided not to tell anyone, not even Piz.

So far, Piz had only racked up one nickname, although every now and then, my father would upgrade his title to “The Little Piz,” for added panache.

As for me, there were plenty of names. Most of them were nothing more than convenient temporary labels that directly related to whichever offense I had committed at the time. Doofus. Butterfingers. Lazy-ass. Captain Clueless. None of them meant much to me, except for one in particular. It’s a nickname that my parents gave me before I was even born. I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck tingle, as it forced itself into my head.

Katik.

I hate that fucking name. There’s a couple of vague stories explaining its origin. Something to do with a book my mother read, around the same time she emigrated from her home country. But I couldn’t care less about what it originally meant, or where it came from.

That name became pretty hurtful to me when I was only seven years old. I don’t really know what was going on with my parents at that time, but Mom started sleeping all day. She wouldn’t even emerge from her bedroom until lunch, long after forgetting to take me to school. She was going through some serious personal shit back then, but nobody talked openly about it, at least not when I was around. I could tell something was very wrong, though. Dad would come home to find her lying on the sofa, looking like she had just climbed out of bed, and there would be no dinner ready. She was still wearing the same clothes from the day before, and her area was surrounded by moist clumps of tissues.

Then there was me, sitting on the floor in front of the TV, just a few feet away, looking up at him with my mouth open. I remember how my father’s face changed color as he stood there, still holding onto his briefcase and wearing his coat, as he took it all in, and the shouting would start.

After he was done with Mom, he would summon me back down to the living room, and start yelling about how I was old enough to know better. I could have picked up the phone and called the factory, instead of deciding to act like some kind of spoiled little princess, perfectly happy to blow school off so I could watch daytime soaps and game shows and eat cereal from a five-quart mixing bowl.

I was in as much trouble as she was, and every time it happened, he only became more violent and angry with both of us. That wasn’t the worst of it, though. I was already used to a lifetime of getting smacked around by my father, but it was my mom one who did permanent damage, without ever leaving a visible mark.

On the day it happened, she was lying down on the couch, sideways, with her head flat on a floral print seat cushion. I had already parked myself in front of the TV because I knew she wasn’t going to take me to school that day. I was worried about her, and didn’t want to just leave her down there alone.

She reached out to me, and touched my shoulder. I turned around, expecting her to mumble a request for another box of Kleenex, or another glass of water. Instead, to my utter confusion, she spoke slowly, and clearly, and instructed me to cry.

I’m pretty sure I just looked back at her with a blank expression, offering nothing in response. I thought I misunderstood what she was saying. “Why don’t you cry,” she began to repeat. “Why not just cry for me?”

She sat up, and I recoiled backwards. She leaned forward to meet me at eye level, and began cajoling me with an exaggerated baby-voice. “Come on Katik… cry for me. You, and your beautiful little white face. Cry for your poor mommy. Just one little tear, Katik. Come on.”

I was scared and confused beyond explanation. What was she doing? The world crumbled all around me, as my lip quivered and a tear rolled down my face. She seemed pleased by this, and began coyly stroking my cheek with her index finger, while demanding more. I remember her looking less like my mother, and more like the evil sorceress in a Disney movie. I think that’s the biggest thing that scared me, was me feeling like she was not the same person any more. I didn’t know who she was. She had become somebody else, and that person wanted to see me in pain.

I don’t recall her ever expressing any remorse for doing it to me, and I never asked for an explanation. What would be the point, anyway? To be honest, I hope I never find out what possessed her to even think about doing it in the first place. I never learned what she was going through at the time, but she succeeded in dragging me down into a dark, bottomless hole on that day.

Of course we couldn’t just forget it and move on. She started telling people about what happened, right in front of me. She never mentioned the part about her spending the day crying and forgetting to take me to school. Her version of the story was simply about the time I cried on command, and how strange it was for her to experience something like that. Yeah, strange for her. She would look at me as if waiting for an apology, or some kind of explanation. He’s always been such a strange little boy. So sensitive about things.

By the time I was twelve years old, I couldn’t take it any more. The next time she tried to embarrass me in front of an audience, I erupted into a deliberate full-blown public tantrum, and that was the end of that.

I had willingly traded one humiliation for another, knowing that I wasn’t winning anybody’s sympathy by acting that way, but that’s not what I wanted. She was thoroughly embarrassed, having been checkmated by me, after I used the nuclear option. She attempted to save face by scolding me in front of everybody for acting like a spoiled little asshole. After all, I was nearly an official teenager, and there was no excuse for such inexcusable nonsense. She made me apologize to everybody, and that was just fine by me. Victory was mine, even if she would keep calling me Katik until the day I die.

I would still win.

……

My vision refocused back into reality, and I watched Mom laugh while she guided my brother’s hand. Seeing big smiles lit up by the golden warm glow of candlelight, was like watching a scene out of an old TV commercial for long-distance telephone service. I felt another tingle on my neck as I stared at eighteen tiny flames, while I wondered if she had ever done something like that to him.

“No, let me do one more! Mmmooommm!”

I watched my little brother pout as Mom snatched away what remained of a frosting-smeared candle. Then she started wiping and scrubbing at his fingers, using her classic spit-and-napkin routine.

I stepped forward, reached out, and tousled his hair. Seeing that he was outnumbered, he slapped my hands away, writhed out of Mom’s clutches, and scurried to his usual seat at the other side of the table.

Mom regained her composure and smiled. She was done with him, and ready for the main event.

“My beeg boy!” she exclaimed, in her accent that always gets thicker when she’s excited about something.

She clasped her hands together and held them up beneath her chin, as she grinned and repeatedly glanced over to my father, who by this time, was walking back from the cupboard with a long carving knife in his hand.

“Here you go, man. Cut your cake.”

He handed the knife to me handle-first, while locking his eyes directly onto mine, which made me feel incredibly uneasy.

The only time he called me “man” was when he was really drunk, and trying hard to bond with me on a guy-to-guy level that was purely of his own imagination.

This time was different, though. He wasn’t drunk, that I could see. Something just seemed off about him today. There was a smugness, as if he knew a hilarious joke, but wasn’t sharing it with us. Like he was high on something, and figured nobody could tell. Maybe he finally decided to upgrade from beer, and switched to another form of recreational substance abuse. Come to think of it, Mom is acting funny too. Maybe they’re both high as kites. Actually, that would explain a lot.

As if sensing my momentary distraction and lack of enthusiasm for the main event, Mom again exclaimed “My beeg boy!” with a panicky grin plastered across her face.

Clearly, I had forgotten that everybody in the room was waiting for me to blow the fucking candles out, so we could all get on with this awkward moment of obligatory family time.

She dashed up to me, firmly clapped her hands on each of my cheeks, and tugged at them, as if it would punctuate her words. “Just look at heem!” This time I was the one wriggling around, trying to escape.

My father was looking. He had been looking right at me, ever since I walked into the kitchen.

“Hurry up and blow them out, Brad. And make a wish. Let’s finish this.”

……

If I wasn’t already feeling suspicious about my day so far, it was the fact that every trace of this morning’s birthday-related proceedings were completely wrapped up long before lunchtime, which provided the clearest evidence. But, there were other signs too.

For one thing, there were no gifts this year. This didn’t make me feel sad, or hurt, as much as it made me wonder what the hell was going on.

For another thing, the whole place was dead quiet, unless you count the buzz of a lawnmower from somewhere down the street. Unlike every birthday before this one, nobody from the neighborhood stopped by. No visits from extended family members who only show up a couple of times each year, to hand over a Hallmark card with five or ten bucks inside, gulp down free food, and then disappear. Nobody asking me about my plans for college, or other stuff I might be thinking of doing, now that I’m eighteen years old and done with high school.

The rest of the morning went completely without any incident, shouting-match, or door-slamming conclusion that usually signaled the end of a family gathering. It was eerie and quiet in our house. I heard the phone ring a couple of times, but that was it.

My brother devoured three pieces of cake, then Mom drove him to soccer practice. Leftovers were crammed into Tupperware containers, and wedged into the fridge. My father was nowhere to be seen, which probably meant he was drinking beer in the garage.

I crouched in front of my bedroom window with Grandpa’s old 7×35 binoculars. As I watched some squirrels chase each other and battle each other over a nugget of food, I struggled with a weird, nagging awareness of the total lack of fanfare for my birthday this year, which made me think about how my relationship with everyone in my life would inevitably change, except of course for those who have already decided to move on without me.

Last year was actually pretty good. Mitch and Connor, who were a couple of guys I used to hang out with from school, dropped by and told me they were going to go see the Barb Wire movie, and said I should just sneak out and go with them. This was an easy choice for me to make, since I would much rather watch Pamela Anderson’s boobs bouncing around on the big screen, than to stand around and pretend I was interested in a bunch of people who only saw me once a year. Plus I hadn’t seen those guys all summer, and I missed how we used to just hang out and be pretty good friends.

We headed out the kitchen door, and walked all the way down to the big cineplex on Briar Boulevard, instead of going to our usual theater at the mall. Mitch told us it was one of the first theaters to have Dolby Digital sound, and he already saw Batman there, and it was gonna blow our heads off when we heard it for ourselves. I was super stoked to check it out, because Mitch was always right about movies, especially about how good they would be. He was kind of a movie freak. His dad ran some kind of supplier for the companies that make VHS tapes, and somehow he was able to get lots of movies before Blockbuster had them in stock. Of course he never let us borrow them, because he said it would get his dad in a shit-ton of trouble, and that’s when Connor started calling him Mitch the Bitch, which was actually really funny because Mitch was a fat kid who had little boobs that bounced around whenever he had to run in PE class. Mitch always got extra pissed off because he had really blue eyes and dark hair, and when we started going to high school some of the seniors used to like giving him shit, saying that he was wearing eyeliner, or something like that. Then it got even worse because his cheeks would turn bright red, as if he had even more makeup on. Some of the girls who felt bad for him would say that he had beautiful eyes, and that they were jealous, which didn’t help his situation at all. Poor Mitch was twice as fucked when he insisted that everybody start calling him by his full name, which is Mitchell, because then the seniors would pronounce it “Michelle,” like a girl’s name. Poor dude. He had a rough time in school, but now we’re all done with that. At graduation, he said he was going out of state for college, and I guess he did it, because that was the last time I ever heard from him.

Connor was a whole other story. He was kind of like me, in the way that he wasn’t popular or good with girls for as long as I knew him, until we hit sophomore year. That year, he showed up and everybody liked him because he grew a lot taller, and he was totally different-looking after he went to stay at his dad’s house in California for the summer. He had a bunch of blonde highlights in his hair, and suddenly he was wearing surfer clothes with punk rock t-shirts. It was a whole new style and attitude, and it was definitely working for him. The biggest score he made was when he went out with Lori Christoffsen, who was the gymnastics team captain. Everybody in school were talking about some rumor that they did it in his mom’s house while she was away on a business trip for the weekend, but Connor pulled me over and told me every little detail about what really happened. He told me they were just hanging out in the house the whole time, pretending to be a married couple, and she got so caught up in the game that they ended up doing it four times on his mom’s bed that night. He didn’t even need to worry about condoms, because she planned the whole thing and brought some with her. Then they did it again in the morning, on the bed and in the shower, and after that he actually sat in the living room and read the Sunday paper while she cooked scrambled eggs for breakfast. My mouth must have been hanging open the whole time he told me the story, and I remember feeling like the whole world had gone upside-down, because here was this guy who was a bigger geek than me, who simply changed his hair, got some new clothes, and then went ahead to win the ultimate prize by banging Lori Christoffsen. How does that happen? They broke up after a few weeks, but ever since then he became really well-known at school, and that’s about the time we began to drift apart as friends.

For some reason, I started thinking about what happened to the Wakowski twins, when they finished high school two years ago. We were never super close friends or anything, but I remember going to their neighborhood graduation party that year, and how the adults in the room no longer seemed interested in asking them about their summer plans, or how they were doing in taekwondo. Instead, everybody was asking what they thought about the Oklahoma City bombing, the OJ Simpson verdict, upgrading to Windows 95, and if they were looking at majoring in the same subjects even though they were going to different schools. They were identical twins, after all. It was funny because I knew them since we were all just little kids, and suddenly they were being treated like adults, and I felt like the only kid in the room.

A sonic boom tore through the sky, and I lowered the binoculars to scan the area, and spotted a fighter jet that was passing overhead. I followed the plane while it dipped in and out of the clouds, but as my mind swirled with a jumble of competing thoughts, I quickly lost interest.

Letting out a heavy sigh, I tossed the binoculars onto the bed, turned my body around just enough to lean on a bedpost, and slid down against it until I hit the floor with a soft thud. Maybe I should just draw something. That usually makes me feel better. I stared at the wall in front of me, eyeing the Titanic movie poster that hung over my desk, which didn’t help my mood at all. Mom took us to see that movie last year, and it affected her so much, that a few days later, my brother and I each received the same ridiculously oversized poster as Christmas gifts.

At first I was going to simply chuck it into my closet and leave it for dead, but after unrolling it again and realizing there was nothing I liked about seeing a montage of Leonardo, Kate, and their doomed steamship, I decided to go ahead and pin it up. That way, whenever I sat down to do homework, it would give me plenty of incentive to finish as fast as possible, so I wouldn’t have to look at it. It actually worked, too. That was the biggest surprise of all.

I stretched my legs out in front of me, turned my head to the left, and took a long look at Carmen. She just looked hot, as always. Smiling and posing for me, same as always. I guess there’s nothing to worry about, when you spend all your time getting paid to hang out on some make-believe beach in LA. My hand found something small, smooth, and round on the floor next to me. It could have been a stray M&M or a Skittle, but I didn’t bother to look down to see what it was. Then I took a slow breath, and closed my eyes.

My mind raced. Without a doubt, this birthday was different. It was more than just another number. According to everybody, eighteen is a major milestone. I didn’t feel any different, though. My father loved to remind me that was the year when the US Marine Corps sent him overseas. He had to grow up in a hurry, while people were shooting at him, and trying to kill his entire platoon. I can’t imagine what that was like. I honestly tried to understand it, but he never wanted to talk about the stuff they did over there, at least not when he was sober. I quickly learned to avoid talking about any of that stuff with him. The best I could do was watch movies like Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now, which were pretty cool movies. Totally classic. Especially the parts with crazy drill sergeant, and the me-so-horny girl. I didn’t like how they chopped that cow up. I made the mistake of watching Jacob’s Ladder, which scared the living shit out of me. Maybe that’s closer to the real thing. For sure, I’d be angry all the time and messed up in the head too, if that’s what it was like.

My shoulders were sagging way down, and started I bouncing the back of my head against the bedpost a few times. I just turned eighteen, and there’s plenty of chances for me to go overseas to join the current war that’s going on in some desert, somewhere. No, that’s out of the question. I’m definitely not interested in going to exotic places, so I can meet new people, and then kill them.

What am I supposed to do now? Maybe just go to college. At least that’ll cover me for at least four more years. Maybe I can be one of those “professional students,” like the lady who taught our junior biology class. She said that was her dream once upon a time, to do nothing but live off free money, and do nothing but get good enough grades to just stay in school and keep changing majors. She said she couldn’t make it happen for very long because it was getting too hard to keep applying for grants and scholarships, so she gave up and got a teaching job at my school. She already had some white hair, so I’m guessing all of this happened a long time ago. Maybe it’s not so hard to get those grants and scholarships these days. I made a mental note to look into it some time, as I slid back towards the window for another look around.

The lawnmower noise stopped, and I could hear those squirrels that were still going at it, chattering and barking at each other in the trees. I stretched my arm out to reach for the binoculars. I didn’t want to have to get up. I pondered whether I should make an honest attempt at changing my ways, to actually try becoming more engaged with everybody who’s been a part of my life for the last eighteen years. Mom says I spend too much time indoors, but what else is there for me to do? Now that school is over, I’m really going to be spending a lot of time hanging around the house. Maybe I should get a part-time job, or just go out and start looking for anybody who might want me to draw stuff for them. I’m pretty sure Mom would be okay with that. She might even drive me wherever I need to go, as long as she doesn’t already need to do something with Piz. Mom’s not always easy to figure out, but she can be pretty nice sometimes. She really likes my drawings, too.

I really didn’t want to get up, but I could see that the neck strap was just beyond my reach. My father would be the hardest to deal with, because he already thought I was wasting my potential. Not only was I skinny and uninterested in athletics most of my life, i wasn’t exactly getting killer grades either. He always loved to tell me how smart I was, but how stupid I could be for not putting my brain to better use. Of course he never had actual suggestions about what I could do with all this alleged brainpower, but I’ve learned to stop expecting more than criticism from him anyway.

My hand pawed at the strap, trying to snag it without making me get up. But maybe things would eventually work out, if I could just get enough people to see me in a new light. All it would take is getting enough people to support my new identity, and I’m sure he would just let all the stupid shit I’ve done in the past few years, slide and be forgotten. I would really need to do something amazing, though. That much was clear to me. I could never surprise him with any sports achievements, but maybe there was still time for me to do something that shows him my academic abilities aren’t “hopelessly average,” as he likes to put it.

I was going to have to get up, because my finger hit the strap, and accidentally flicked it even further away. Was there some way I could get him to recognize my artistic abilities as more than just some stupid hobby? This would be super hard to pull off, because he already has a low opinion of anybody who falls into the category of “weirdos and queers” who make their livings sucking up to rich people who can afford to throw good money away on modern art. But I wouldn’t make modern art, I would be drawing cartoons and animations. Still, I would need people to back me up. To my father, nothing is really worth a shit unless it makes money and is recognized by most people. His standards aren’t necessarily that high, but there’s no room for negotiation about what would make him back off and let me do my own thing. I needed to at least get some famous people to publicly name me as a talent. Nothing would do it better than that. Of course, I don’t know anybody like that, and I wouldn’t even know where to begin looking for them. They’s probably not in this town. I’m guessing they all live in California and New York, at least.

With a long sigh, I finally gave up, and rose to my feet. Maybe I should be thinking less about making things happen in my current situation, and just go find the right place where I can really get out from under his control, and chase my dreams. No, not dreams. He hates that word.

“Hey, Bra-yud!”

Speak of the Devil. Dad’s voice bellowed from the bottom of the stairs.

“Brad! Why don’t you come on down here for a minute!”

Damn it. I tossed the binoculars onto my bed, again. Then I headed for the door, as if guided by remote control. Ladies and gentlemen, the master of the house has spoken. Time to see what he wants, before he loses his cool. Mom could be goaded into an occasional confrontation, but my father never had much patience for anything like that. He says go, and I go. Or else. Such was the extent of our relationship. Might as well see what he wants, and just get it over with.

……

The sky was starting to darken overhead, as thunderclouds gathered and threatened to hit us with an early afternoon shower.

I stepped over a crate of ancient Pepsi bottles that were almost completely hidden by a narrow strip of crabgrass and dandelions between our house and the garage, and I watched as my father turned his head just far enough to spit past his shoulder. At the same time, he was snapping his fingers at me. That’s his thing. He’s all about non-verbal communication.

Then he pointed toward an old, thoroughly rusted BMX bicycle that had been leaning against the garage since my last year in middle school.

“Shit, Brad. I thought I told you to dump that old bike long ago.” He didn’t even look back as he instructed me to “go ahead and grab it, since we’re already here.”

I pulled the bike away from the wall and tried to roll it with me as I walked, but the chain’s links were fused solid, and I ended up struggling to lift the frame with one arm while using the other to drag it along on a flattened front wheel. I’m sure I looked like a total moron.

My father was already in the alley, watching me. He was digging around in his shirt pocket for a pack of cigarettes, and watching every move I made, as I wrestled with a useless, tangled mess of corroded steel, and crumbling rubber tubes. The smirk on his face was priceless.

I wanted to say “how about giving me a hand with this shit,” but even though I’m a whole inch taller than him, he still intimidates the hell out of me. He’s a large man, with broad shoulders and the thick triceps of a former athlete who likes to throw a ball around with the guys at the factory during their lunch break. Even though his days in the service were a long time ago, he still walks around with a certain kind of swagger. A guy who knows he can kick the shit out of most people, without trying too hard. Life for him is always defined in simple and straightforward terms, which is just the way he likes it.

And then there’s me. I tend to “complicate simple things,” which is something that he doesn’t like so much.

I’m pretty sure that in his mind, nothing changed much since he was playing football for the high school team. He only needed to hit the pause button when he was shipped off to war. He came back with a wife that he “rescued from that goddamn shit-hole.” Used his GI money to settle down in an old suburban triple-decker, and started a family. Sure, he eventually became older, fatter, and balder, but I’m pretty sure he thinks it’s all part of the plan anyway. Guys like him are all about feeling like they’re always in control of things.

After tossing the bike onto a pile next to the dumpster, I took a moment to slap at rust-colored streaks that were all over my jeans and t-shirt. I’m not sure why he wanted me to come out here, but I hope nobody sees me like this. He extended a meaty forearm toward me, and waved an unlit cigarette in my face. I immediately responded by waving it away, while trying to avoid making contact with his eyes.

He snorted, and said, “Oh, please. Your mom told me she could smell smoke coming from your room, boy. She knows I don’t smoke in the house.”

My stomach did a somersault. Is this why he wanted to bring me outside? I should have been more careful. Lucky for me, my father wasn’t the one smelling the smoke. That would have been a total disaster. I always figured he was busy enough doing his own thing, hiding downstairs every night. And Mom is pretty clueless about most stuff, which means she doesn’t even know what weed is supposed to smell like.

Without looking up, I accepted the cigarette, and told him I was sorry for smoking in my room. He shrugged, which for him, is the exact opposite of smacking me on the head.

Lying directly to his face felt good, even though my heart was thumping in my ears. I tried to steady the cigarette, which was shaking between my fingers.

My father reached out to me once again, this time offering a light. “Don’t worry about it. You’re a man now.” He paused to spit, then turned back to me. “Might as well act like one, instead of pussyfootin’ around.”

I took a deliberate, cautious drag, as he lit up another one. I couldn’t believe my luck. This day could have turned out seriously bad for me. I smiled to myself, and glanced down at his hand. He was using the same lighter from this morning, a fluorescent pink one.

“That’s not a very manly lighter,” I said, and then I immediately regretted my choice of words. Way to bring our rare moment of father-son bonding, to an abrupt and terrible halt, idiot.

Instead, he grinned and blew two long streams of smoke from his nose. “I always buy them like that. Pink’s kind of a faggot color, right? Any time the guys wanna borrow it, they always give it right back. They don’t want me to ask them why they decided to keep my gay pink lighter.”

Then he spun toward me with a surprising burst of speed, and shot a couple of fake combo jabs at my ribs. He laughed loudly while he clenched the cigarette’s filter between his yellow front teeth.

We hung out in the alley, talked, and smoked our cigarettes. My father made wisecracks about the weekend sports news, and I nodded my head, pretending to know what he was talking about. I didn’t care if it was just meaningless jabber. It was so weirdly surreal to even be talking to him like this, to pretend that he was treating me like an equal. I was perfectly okay with any topic he wanted to cover.

When we finished smoking, we walked along the alley, and made a turn onto the sidewalk that led back to the house.

He extracted a keyring from his back pocket, pointed one of the keys toward a reddish-orange car that was parked on the street, and said, “Lookit over there.”

Then, dangling the keyring between thumb and forefinger, he jingled them up and down, as if he expected the car to respond the same way a dog might, as if he were offering it a treat.

I was dumbfounded. Did my father, who had spent the last decade of my life letting me know how much I had disappointed him, actually get me a car for my birthday? It’s no secret that he isn’t thrilled with the way I turned out, but this… this was a gesture beyond my wildest expectations.

He clapped me on the back and jerked his chin towards the vehicle. “That right there is a 1977 AMC Hornet.”

Still stunned, I couldn’t believe he would do something like this, especially after all the tension and hostility we had built up over the last few years. My eyes burned with hot tears as they welled up. Words escaped me, while I tried to think of how I could possibly thank him for not giving up on me, without sounding like a blubbering kid. Maybe it would be best to just apologize for being such a fuck-up all these years, and then let him take it from there. Yes, that would be easier than me coming up with a clumsy speech. I wonder if it’s already got a sound system? How fast does it go? I’d better not say anything about that nasty-ass orange color. A quick paint job would take care of that. Maybe some flames on the hood. That would look awesome.

When I reached for the keys, he jerked his hand away.

“I was thinking about getting a new car,” he continued, “since the year me and your mom moved to this neighborhood and got ourselves all good and situated.” He leaned away to scan me from top to bottom, and shrugged. “But then you came along, and the party was over.”

Skkkrrrrt! The needle on the record skipped. My eyes dried up and returned to their usual half-lidded position. A familiar combination of disappointment and apprehension washed over me, and my shoulders slumped, as my body resumed its regular slack posture. So much for our bonding session.

My father has never been good at showing his emotions, unless those emotions are anger, disgust, or the kind of delight that comes from witnessing a great play during a football game. Clearly, this was another thing. He was excited about showing me the car, but my involvement in this touching father-and-son moment no longer made any sense.

“She’s got a V-8 under the hood. A three-oh-four. That ain’t too bad.”

That part made sense. He prefers his vehicles fast, and at the very least with big engines. These days he drives a Ford F250, and I couldn’t imagine him buying anything with wheels, unless it had something satisfying under the hood.

I watched him roll his eyes. “Of course I wanted a pickup, but I was gonna teach your mom how to drive, so I figured I’d bite the bullet and get something more her size. Plus it’s got a three-speed slushbox.”

Again he jabbed at my ribs. “Now that I think of it, she probably wouldn’t have been able to see over the wheel anyway. Oh well. Your mom’s happy with her little car. I saw this one in the paper for six hundred dollars, and it made me feel kinda sentimental, so I figured why the hell not!” He cackled loudly as he dug around for another cigarette.

He’s saying that the car was originally for Mom, eighteen years ago. Now it’s 1997, and today is my birthday. He really doesn’t seem interested in giving me those keys. What’s going on here?

“Anyway, you’ll get a chance to tell me how it runs, since you and me are going for a ride pretty soon.”

Finally, I turned to him and asked if the car was my birthday gift.

His face went blank for a moment, then twisted with incredulity.

“Your birthday gift? That’s a negative, sir.” He stepped away from me and stretched his arms out before clasping his hands behind his head. “This car is a gift to myself. Shit, I’ve earned it.”

I actually felt a wave of relief pass through me. To even consider the notion that my father would do something so uncharacteristic, so beyond any possibility, was too much for my brain to process on this day. But him being a selfish asshole? Well, that was simply the way things should be. Everything was back to normal again. I shook my head as I looked down at my feet.

“Never mind, okay? I just thought–”

“You thought I was gonna give you a damn car!”

He parked one hand on his hip while rubbing his eyes and forehead with the other hand, while whistling a single, long, low note. My cheeks burned with embarrassment. His face was red too, but it looked like he was about to cry and laugh at the same time. Then after a quick swipe across his pants leg, he extended his legendary “knife hand” towards me.

“Son, I’m gonna give you what you really need, more than anything. I’m gonna send you out into that world, so you can finally pull your head out of your ass, and become a man.”

I stood motionless, as he proceeded to deliver an inventory of reasons.

First of all, he was dismayed beyond words about how I turned out to be such a late bloomer. Then, when I finally did grow up, I turned out to look like a starting quarterback for the NFL, but instead of getting with the program, I always had my head up in the clouds. Or my nose jammed inside a comic book. Or my eyes glued to the TV, watching some bullshit about aliens and spaceships. How the hell could a guy be so smart, and still be so low on common sense anyway? He fought in vee-yet-namm with a couple of guys like me, and they were always the ones who gave the enemy plenty of target practice. Guys who read lots of books and loved to use lots of big, impressive-sounding words, but never had enough sense to know what was going on right in front of them. Bunch of fuckin’ daydreamers. All talk, no action. That’s the problem, you know. Too soft. The world is a hard place. And now, it’s time for trial by fire. Do or die!

At last, my father’s point of view was abundantly verbalized. Today was the day I would be forced from the nest, and left to perish. Or, I would surprise everyone and give him something to brag about. Either way, my time was up here.

Putting a nice sharp point on the topic, he then gave me until lunchtime to pack up and be ready to roll out, or get rolled out by force. I wasn’t sure if I heard him right, and I could tell he knew that, because his posture suddenly shifted, making him look very impatient.

My father cleared his throat, then cocked his head to the side and spit on Clam & Chunky’s front lawn.

He squinted, as if he were distracted by something far away in the distance, before he turned back to me. His eyes locked onto mine.

Leaning in slightly, and tapping his fingernail loudly against the face of his wristwatch, he repeated very clearly that I would have more than an hour to pack a bag, which was more than enough time to ‘bug out.’

Again he pointedly stated that I needed to meet him right here, at this spot, by twelve o’clock sharp.

Then with a curt nod, he turned and walked away.

……

I felt numb. The air hung heavy with sticky summer humidity.

I looked at the red-orange car that would soon take me away, and watched its obnoxious paint job transform into the color of a dried scab, as storm clouds swirled overhead, casting a sinister blanket of gray all around. I tilted my head back to watch them violently billow, roll, and crawl across the horizon. All the time in the world exists up there. Down here, minutes were ticking along.

The smell of rain in the air permeated everything, and it made me feel short of breath, like I wasn’t getting enough oxygen.

My day had finally come. Since my brother’s arrival from the hospital, my father always half-jokingly said that he would kick me out as soon as I turned eighteen, but I stupidly dismissed it as an insignificant byproduct of his frequent grumbling about my endless shortcomings. It all just became noise after a while. Just like my dreaded nickname, I had simply learned to tune it all out.

But now, I had to face the music. The half-jokes and sarcastic comments were all signs that I foolishly chose to ignore, thinking I could wish them away. They became a lot less joke-like over the years. I can’t say I’m shocked about this. I’ve known this was going to happen all along. It was always my choice to let things slide, which, at this moment, made me angrier than anything else. I let myself down by not preparing for this day, and now I only had about one hour to scrape a few belongings together, before getting shipped off.

I began walking back to the house, regarding it with renewed interest as it came into view. Pretty soon I won’t be living there, I thought.

Would I eventually forget this neighborhood?

How quickly will it forget me?

In the distance, I saw a figure emerge from the shade of the trees that lined our street, and as I crossed the intersection, I watched the shape turn into Mr. Roberts, who was doing his daily power-walk. He was wearing bright yellow headphones. They made his face look extra red, as he frantically waddled after a reddish-brown wiener dog that was pulling him along on a leash. I remember when she was just a puppy, and how she bit and chewed at my denim jacket when I reached down to pet her, just last year.

As my eyes scanned the road, I remembered how I’d fallen off my bike five or six years ago when me and some of the neighborhood kids were doing power slides and competing to see who could leave the longest tire streaks. I lost traction and hit the ground, which left an angry red patch of road rash on my left thigh. Mom yelled at me for shredding my jeans. My brother was a tiny little kid, and his bike still had training wheels.

Then, I think around 1990, there was the time when me and those same kids were pretending to be Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We were running around with plastic swords from Toys “R” Us, and swinging them around like maniacs. Victims would drop to their knees, screaming as they acted out their death scenes. At some point, somebody showed up with an illegal ninja throwing star. It was illegal because it was actually made of metal, and had sharpened points that looked like little blades. Of course it was super cool, and we gathered around and took turns throwing it until dumbass Sandy Roberts missed the tree, and shattered the windshield of Mr. Schneider’s Pontiac. I’ll never forget how loud the noise was. It’s kind of funny now, but it wasn’t funny at all when it happened. Maybe I’ll look back someday, and laugh about what’s happening to me right now.

I stood there, and watched my father disappear into the house.

……

After making my way back, I nervously paused outside the front door and readied myself for an intensely awkward confrontation. Was he going to stand there and watch me pack? Maybe he’ll want to speed things up by filling a trash bag with whatever he grabs from my room, the same way he packed up my brother’s moldy old hockey gear last weekend, before kicking it to the curb, along with the rest of the day’s garbage.

My stomach churned, and a drop of sweat tickled my back as it rolled down. I needed to look as indifferent as possible while making an entrance, but I couldn’t stop my breath from lodging itself inside my chest as the door swung open.

Total silence. Both the living room and kitchen were empty and quiet. I stepped through, and gently pushed the door behind me until I heard it click.

I exhaled slowly, and hoped whatever remaining shred of luck I might have left, would stay with me for just one more thing. No matter what, my top priority at this moment was to covertly dispose of my most incriminating possessions, so I could prevent an already bad situation from turning a million times worse.

Without bothering to kick off my sneakers, I swiftly climbed the stairs two steps at a time, headed straight to my room, and shut the door. Too bad if I leave footprints. I need to get to my closet.

Like Indiana Jones parting a curtain of ancient cobwebs, I pushed through layers of winter coats and sweatshirts that were hanging in front of me, and then ducked my head inside until I could more easily access my makeshift security system.

Kneeling on the floor, I faced a tower of old shoeboxes that leaned against my closet’s back wall. They sagged under the weight of piled-up comic books and motorcycle magazines. This was a perfect hiding place, since it never drew any attention from anyone who happened to be nosing around my room, even if the closet door was wide open.

I felt my way down, and wriggled my fingers into an opening at the base of the pyramid. Then with a grunt, I shoved half of the wobbly pile aside. After that, I slid another disheveled heap towards me, being careful not to trigger an avalanche.

With a few more well-practiced moves, my crude version of an oversized Chinese puzzle box was open, with an object wrapped in a brown paper bag, and wedged into a space at the center.

My skin prickled at the thought of any spiders that might be hanging out here too, but this was no time to let childhood phobias get the best of me. I clamped my jaw tight, and thrust my hand into the slot.

Leaning back, I took a moment to study the package. A thick red rubber band was wrapped around it, nice and tight. As I turned it around in my hand, I realized just how unbelievably suspicious this thing looks. Might as well have a huge sticker on it that says DO NOT OPEN THIS SECRET PACKAGE.

I thought about rolling it up into some loose clothes, or some other stuff that I could pack into a duffel bag, but I immediately nixed that idea, since there was no good reason to risk transporting dangerous cargo into unknown territory. Especially with my father around. I didn’t even know where we were going. What if it was some kind of military summer school? Or the military itself? I’m eighteen now, and there’s a war going on in Afghanistan. Fuck that. Maybe I should just run away now, while I have the chance.

There was a noise behind me, and I felt a sickening wave of panic as I glanced over my shoulder, but nothing happened.

As soon as my heart started beating again, I stood up and reached for an old windbreaker. After hastily putting on the jacket, I shoved the package under my arm as if it were a gun going into a shoulder holster, yanked the zipper up to my chin, and bolted downstairs.

So far, luck was still on my side. I managed to slip outside through the kitchen door without arousing any unwanted attention, and miraculously, the morning drizzle hadn’t turned into rain yet. As I jogged across our back yard and headed towards the alley, my mind reeled at how I’d always anticipated the need to unload my precious stash of contraband, but somehow I always imagined it would happen under the cover of darkness. Not with me sweating buckets on a humid summer day, while wrapped in a sticky, non-breathable jacket that stuck to my skin like wet plastic wrap.

I broke into a sprint as soon as I stepped into the alley. After running for a block and a half, I slowed down at my preselected drop-off point. It was in the alley behind the McCullough’s house, where a large rectangular bin contained hundreds of pounds of mulch and compost. This would be the ideal place to dump my cargo. I was fairly sure that after about a day or two, most of its contents would become untraceable, after they’ve been digested by a nasty pit of black dirt, kitchen scraps, parakeet poop, and wet newspapers that bubbled and simmered inside.

I slowly lifted the lid and held my breath, as a hot wave of moist air gushed past my face. Then after another quick glance around, I unzipped my jacket and slid the package out from under my arm. When I tugged at the rubber band, it popped off and snapped me in the chin.

My hands were shaking, and for a moment I felt myself losing momentum, when I thought about what waited for me back at the house, but at least I would no longer run the risk of getting caught with a dime bag of weed, and a dog-eared collection of hardcore adult magazines.

Getting rid of the weed was easy enough. I only had to open the little sandwich bag it came in, and shake it out into the compost pit. The corners of my mouth curled up as I imagined Mrs. McCullough — or better yet, the McCullough kids — opening the lid and finding a fresh crop of little marijuana plants sprouting across a landscape of nitrogen-rich soil. I couldn’t help imagining how funny that would be.

My smile faded fast, though. The magazines, which were sweat-soaked and curled up, required a bit more work. I savagely tore at their pages, eventually breaking them all down into jigsaw puzzle-sized pieces, which fluttered into the bin, and tacked themselves to slimy piles of dirt and eggshells.

It took a lot longer than I expected, but when I was done, I thrust one hand into the paper bag and used it as a sort of protective mitt, as I scraped a mound of compost over the magazines. It was not easy, because I was choking back my gag reflex the whole time, and drops of sweat were stinging my eyes.

The bodies were now buried. It was the perfect crime. I peeled the bag away from my hand, and tossed it into the bin. The thousand-pound stone crushing my chest had suddenly been lifted.

“Oh! Brad!”

My blood ran ice-cold as I heard someone call my name.

“I’ve finally found you, young man.”

……

Although a fresh shot of adrenalin surged through me, I felt like a flashlight whose batteries were almost dead, with the bulb fading and flickering out, no matter how hard you shake it or bang it against a table.

My bloodshot eyes felt like they were going to roll out of my head as I slowly turned towards the direction of the voice.

It was Old Mrs. Van Dijk, waving and smiling at me from the end of the alley. She was pulling an oxygen tank behind her, on a tiny wheeled cart. Long, translucent tubes loosely wound around her plump body and plugged into her nose. They were whipping around as she continued to wave and loudly call my name.

Mortified and exhausted, I casually lowered the lid, and decided that I would just have to accept whatever came my way. I didn’t want Mrs. Van Dijk to discover why I was crouching down behind somebody’s house, dripping sweat like a hyperventilating crackhead, but it would have been far worse to watch her wobble over to my location, and trip over a broken glass bottle, or cry out in agony after stepping on a rusty nail, or maybe even slip on a banana peel. How about if her oxygen tank tips over and explodes, shredding us both to ribbons with hot pieces of shrapnel? At this point, I’m willing to believe that anything could happen. This would be the day for it.

After staggering back to the sidewalk, I stopped and breathlessly held one compost-smeared hand up in greeting, as I bent over to catch my breath.

“Heavens! You sound worse than I do, dear.” She patted the top of her oxygen tank for comedic effect.

I forced myself to produce a weak smile, and blankly asked her how she was doing today. I didn’t know what to do with my hands, so I zipped up the jacket. Why did I do that? It’s got to be at least eighty degrees out here. Now I can’t just unzip it, because that would seem even more weird. My mind went blank. I stared at the horizon, pressed my palms against my thighs, fully expecting to get the third-degree interrogation.

She raised a pencil-thin eyebrow, and inquired as to why there would be no “neighborhood birthday soirée at the Lee residence” this year. 

For what seemed like a horrible, silent eternity, I continued to sweat and stare with my mouth hanging open. Meanwhile, my brain lit up like a truckload of fireworks, as it processed the sheer impossibility of the bullet I just dodged. I almost laughed out loud, as I regained my senses. Maybe I could afford to push my luck just a teensy, tiny bit more. Tell her the party will be happening later, and get out of here. But guilt kicked in, because Mrs. Van Dijk was the closest thing I had to a grandmother. It would have killed me to blow her off with some fake bullshit story, and then never see her again.

Besides, I could think of no better way to get back at my parents for kicking me out, than to publicly shame them by reporting their misdeed to someone as respected as the little white-haired lady who lived in the huge, century-old house at the end of our street.

……

After explaining everything to her, including the part about my twelve o’clock deadline, she crossed her arms and cast a disapproving look towards my house. I could see that her jaw was clamped shut. Her cloudy blue eyes looked like two frozen pools of seawater.

“Why, it’s simply unacceptable,” she said. Then her features relaxed, and she looked up at my face. “But you know what, Brad? It just might be for the best.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond, but the thought was cut off as she reached out and gripped my hand.

“You’ve always been a highly imaginative and creative boy, Brad. You certainly don’t belong here, hidden in this old neighborhood, growing up to be a spiteful man with no thought of improving the world around him.”

Again she took a sidelong glance at my house. I recalled how, a long time ago, my father had gotten himself caught up in a major battle with Mrs. Van Dijk. One of the big elms that grew in our front yard had roots breaking into the sewage line, which eventually damaged it, and created a problem for a bunch of homes within a quarter-mile radius of our house. Thanks to some century-old legal loophole, the city government wasn’t responsible. They blamed my father for negligence, and then turned the matter over to Mrs. Van Dijk, who also happened to be our district’s HOA director.

That was the first time I ever heard my father call a woman an asshole. Since then, I’ve heard him say stuff like that about another woman — a federal inspector who audited his factory — but Mrs. Van Dijk was the first. It seemed like everybody in our neighborhood was afraid to come near any of us back then, and my father was angry all the time. The worst part was when my mother took Mrs. Van Dijk’s side, because she spent a lot of time taking care of me when I was a baby, while my parents were barely getting themselves set up in their new house, and with my dad’s new job at the factory.

She told him that he should just fix the problem quickly, without risking further embarrassment. He told her he was going to cut up her green card, if she didn’t shut her goddamn mouth.

We strolled together, all the way back to her house at the end of the cul-de-sac. I waved goodbye as I told her that I would come by to visit some time, after getting settled and figuring out what my next move would be.

“Nonsense, young man! You are going to come in here this instant, and have a bite to eat before your father hauls you away to who-knows-where!”

She stood firm on her front stoop, and from my vantage point on the sidewalk below, she possessed a regal quality, like some kind of ancient imperial ruler who personally watched over the affairs of her royal subjects, as they came and went about their business.

I looked back at my house, which now felt as though it were miles away from me. Then I looked back up at Mrs. Van Dijk, and she winked at me.

If I missed my father’s shoving-off deadline, well then, he could just shove it. I’ve got his arch-nemesis on my side.

……

As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I wandered into the living room and parked on an antique sofa that had been restored since the last time I saw it, which must have been at least ten years ago.

I looked around and marveled at how her house still looked so cavernous, even though every other landmark from my childhood looked smaller, now that I’ve grown bigger.

There was the old grandfather clock, with its handsome brass pendulum and row of chimes, which still towered over me.

Above me, were rows of white fleur-de-lis tiles, which my mother loved, because they were French. Every time we visited, she would comment on them.

As usual, the chandelier was turned off. Another French word Mom liked to teach me. Sunlight sparkled as it struck teardrop-shaped crystals, and projected tiny rainbow patterns against the wall.

My eyes moved down to the ceiling-high bookcases. A museum of items from every corner of the world, collected by Mrs. Van Dijk, many years ago.

Her husband, who was no longer living, had left her with a fortune. I never met him, but he was supposedly one of the town’s founders, and he did business with people from all over the world. From what I’ve heard, she went with him on trips to some pretty scary places, and that’s how she collected cratefuls of beautiful, exotic, precious-looking things. Maybe she was just distracting herself from what she called “the unsavory realities of backward cultures.” I guess life was pretty rough back then, outside of America. I glanced around the room again. Between the porcelain statuettes, floor length candle holders, silver boxes, and crystal trinkets, it kind of looked like she didn’t have such a bad time after all.

She had a big family, and her greatest pleasure came from showing off dozens of snapshots that were held inside frames of every size and shape, which surrounded us on all sides, and added chaotic splashes of color to her mostly mahogany and coffee-colored environment. Pictures of babies, kids, adults. Wearing shorts, hats, sunglasses, hiking boots, suits, tuxedos, wedding dresses, you name it. The Van Dijks were everywhere. Every major city. The Pyramids in Egypt. The Great Wall of China. Restaurants and hotel lobbies in different countries. On the decks of boats, floating on oceans. All the places you could think of, except for outer space. I’m sure her great-grandkids will end up going there. Besides the photos on display, hundreds of additional loose photos were stored inside volumes of dusty albums which filled the bottom rows of the shelves. Maybe there were thousands of photos. She was crazy about them.

My eyes were now working their way along the far wall, and landed on my favorite spot; a solemn row of ancestral portraits of rigidly-posed subjects. The old Van Dijks. They were prominently displayed in chronological order, above the mantle of the fireplace.

It started on the left, with a set of glass plate negatives featuring the stern faces of immigrants who had come to America on transatlantic steamships. They refused to adopt an Americanized spelling of their Dutch surname, and then they built an empire. To me, nothing could be cooler than that.

Slowly sweeping my eyes to the right, I moved past corroded tintype plates, faded sepia-tones, and a hand-colored print on canvas. I stopped at the end of the line, to study my favorite one. It was a stunning black and white portrait of Mrs. Van Dijk’s youngest daughter Barbara. She died from some kind of cancer, in the early 1950s. She looked like an old-time movie star in the photo. When I was a little kid, this was the one that made me curious about how photographs are made.

My mind throbbed with a combination of exhaustion and insatiable curiosity, as I contemplated the girl who started her life in this house, and died almost half a century ago. Now I’m sitting here with that girl’s mother, on furniture that was probably purchased by her grandfather.

It made me think of Back to the Future, a trilogy of movies that confused me for most of my life, until I decided to sit and watch all of them one weekend, in an attempt to finally get the story straight in my head. I wondered how long it would take to do that with the Van Dijk timeline, but my thoughts dissolved into air as the housekeeper arrived with a silver tea set, and slid a matching silver plate with a chicken salad sandwich in front of me. She then poured tea for us, and I breathed in the familiar scent of Earl Grey with honey, which I never would have known existed, if not for Mrs. Van Dijk and her fondness for old-world decorum.

I sat up straight as Mrs. Van Dijk returned to the room. Then I caught an unpleasant whiff of myself, rapidly identifying odors that ranged from dirty, sweaty clothes. The pungent aroma of a ripe compost heap. A hint of decayed and metallic. Worst of all, the rancid stench of my own shame.

Feeling a bit flustered, I looked at Mrs. Van Dijk, who settled into a large chair, then folded her hands in her lap. I wanted to take off the windbreaker, but I was afraid even unzipping it would send a puff of odor straight into the air, and then she would be shocked and offended by the smell.

“Is everything alright, dear?” She queried.

With a stupid grin, I fanned my hand in front of my face. “Well, I guess I’m just sorry I came over here… smelling… like I’ve been rolling around in a dumpster, Mrs. Van Dijk.”

She gave an approving nod, visibly pleased that I still addressed her by her formal name, instead of ‘Mrs. V,’ as most residents of the neighborhood knew her. Then she raised her teacup in front of her, with one shaky hand supporting the other, and said, “The fact that you would even think to say such a thing shows me there’s hope for you, my dear.”

She took a sip, and we continued chatting for another few minutes. Just small talk, really. Nothing too serious. After the tea set had been whisked away, Mrs. Van Dijk rose to her feet and motioned for me to come with her to the foyer. Shooing the housekeeper away, she extended her withered arms, pulled the heavy oak door open, and turned towards me.

“Well, noon will be here soon enough, I suppose. Heaven forbid we keep that man waiting.”

She followed me out the door. Then, as if suddenly pricked by a needle, she gasped. I spun around to see her face light up, as one tiny hand darted into her sweater pocket, and slowly extracted a crisp one hundred dollar bill. “Oh, my old mind! This is the reason I was looking for you in the first place.”

She pressed the money into my sweaty palm, between her own fragile and cold little hands, and urged me to put it inside my wallet right away, so I would always know that it’s there in case of an emergency.

Her pale eyes bore into mine, giving me the feeling that she expected me to do it at this moment. She continued to observe as I quickly folded the bill into a small square and tucked it behind a photo of my dream bike, the Honda VTR1000F.

Thanking her, I turned to descend the front steps, but I stopped when I felt a sharp tug at my jacket.

My arms rippled with goosebumps as the voice behind me said “Remember, Brad… for some of us, life is longer than necessary. For others, it can be cut off much too early. Don’t be afraid to take chances, if you believe those chances will make you happy!”

I stood frozen, and she again tugged at my sleeve until I snapped out of my daze and realized that she wanted me to stoop over, so she could give me a little kiss on the cheek.

She remained in the doorway, and watched me trudge down the sidewalk until I was swallowed up by the row of elm trees that lined our street. Mrs. Van Dijk smoothed down the pocket of her sweater and exhaled softly.

“It’s certainly going to be a birthday to remember. Isn’t it, Fiona?”

The housekeeper nodded in response, as she muttered “it’s Felicia” under her breath, stepped forward, and closed the door.

……

I had no absolutely idea how much time had gone by. At least a few hours, right?

My hands were trembling, but at least I wasn’t retching any more. I squeezed my eyes shut until they stopped burning, and then I slowly opened them again. I could see my reflection come into focus as it rippled across the surface of Earl Grey-tinted water. With dazed fascination, I stared at tiny bits of chicken salad and bread that floated and swirled just a few inches in front of me. 

A glistening thread of mucus dripped from my nose and lashed itself to the rim of the toilet seat, then broke and whipped away as I leaned back to swipe at my mouth with my shoulder. After a deep breath, and assuring myself that I was finally done, I rose to my feet. I could feel my legs shaking, and I had absolutely no idea what time it was.

Cold water filled my hands as I cupped them under the limescale-crusted faucet of a miniature sink. I splashed my face, and combed wet fingers through my hair. I rinsed my mouth out a few more times, until the sour metallic acid taste was subdued, and no longer threatened to send me back to the toilet. The faucet squeaked loudly as I twisted it shut.

I had to hunch down to look into the mirror, which was about the same size as a sheet of notebook paper, and hardly more than a frameless plate of glass fixed to the wall with glue. Or maybe just double-sided tape. Random patterns of scratches, crusty shower scum, and fingerprint smudges formed a hazy border along its edges. The center of the mirror had been rubbed clean. It was the cleanest-looking spot in this whole place, I thought.

My face didn’t look so great, but I couldn’t be sure because the lonely little naked lightbulb above me didn’t provide much light to see by. I figured I wasn’t going to feel much better hanging around in here anyway, so I flushed the toilet, and stepped out of the closet-sized bathroom. After a few more steps across my new apartment, it was obvious that the entire space was barely as big as the room I grew up in, in a house where I no longer lived. The bathroom was the size of my closet. The bed almost looked the same as the one in my little brother’s room, minus his new Animaniacs blanket.

Rush-hour traffic echoed and rumbled through a flimsy front door that looked like it had seen better days. My stomach, recently emptied-out, was also rumbling.

I sank down onto the edge of the tiny bed while reaching for my duffel bag, and heard the sound of mattress springs groaning beneath me. My face grew hot with renewed anger and shame. I must have looked pretty pathetic, passed out and curled up in the fetal position, for who knows how long.

When I looked to my left, my shoulders sagged as I watched the faint orange glow of the sun dipping below the horizon. Within the next minute, the room became shadowy and gray, cut in half by a yellow strip of bathroom light that spilled across the bed. The curtains were wide open. Anybody could just walk by and see inside. I must have been lying here for hours.

The room was so small, I didn’t even need to get off the bed as I reached over and yanked the curtains together. As soon as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, the neon sign in the motel’s parking lot came to life. Electric pink and blue rays of light started flickering beneath the curtains, and across my bed. I’ll need to make sure every day is the worst day of my life, if I hope to get any sleep here. My stomach growled again, and I wondered what else could possibly go wrong.

I extracted a pack of cigarettes from the bag. After taking a long, slow drag, I squeezed my eyes shut as hard as I could, and then opened them slowly. Little splotches of light flashed in my periphery. Nicotine buzzed in my ears. No matter how hurt, or sad, or depressed I might feel about this predicament, I knew perfectly well that it was time for me to put all of these emotions aside, so I can try to get my head around things. I seriously needed to start taking care of myself, because nobody else was going to do it.

The cherry glowed as I took another drag. Quitting smoking would be a good idea, but I can deal with that later. Right now, I need to be cold, calculating, and emotionless. I need to be a machine.

Let’s start over again. Deep breath in. Exhale.

System reboot.

Activate optical scanners.

I’ve just reactivated within an unknown location, and all communication with headquarters has been cut off. No hostile lifeforms in the immediate area. It’s time to take inventory, and assess the current level of threat.

Sitting upright with my back perfectly straight, I slowly swept my head from left to right, as Robocop or the Terminator might have done, to acquire an optical scan of the immediate space around me.

Folding chair. Ten o’clock position, by the door. Material: Most likely thin-walled recycled aluminum tubing. Low structural integrity. Painted brown, with red plastic-covered seat cushion. Possible threats: Uncomfortable and not very sturdy.

Dresser with four drawers, against the wall. Twelve o’clock position. Material: Probably particle board. Not effective protection against gunfire. Painted brown to simulate natural wood. Possible threats: Spiders and other deadly lifeforms.

Bathroom to my right. Four o’clock position. Previously scanned. One shower, one toilet, and a nearly useless sink. Tiny mirror. Poor visibility. Possible threats: Dirty and disgusting. Contamination imminent.

My head jerked back to the dresser. Feeling my stomach coil inside me, I suddenly dropped out of character. It had already occurred to me that something was missing, but I couldn’t quite place the thought at first. Now I know what it is. I frowned, while slowly shaking my head.

Damn it, this place doesn’t even have a TV.

My cheeks puffed out as I blew a long, exasperated breath. No daydream could cover up the fine mess I’d landed myself in. I looked around again, unhappily noting the obvious lack of a kitchen, including anything that even resembled a refrigerator. No sign of a microwave, either. And where was the washer and dryer? My heart started to sink again. How the fuck can anybody live this way?

I stared at a spot on the wall in front of me, where large flakes of plaster had chipped away and fallen. The top of the dresser was covered in a thin layer of dust, and I could see faint traces of smudges and smears beneath the powdery film where someone, presumably the most recent inhabitant, had removed their precious few personal objects before making an escape.

How many other occupants had come here before me, and what circumstances brought them here in the first place?

Nothing good brings anybody to a place like this. And now, here I am.

I stood up and cracked my neck a couple of times, as I took a few hesitant steps toward the dingy little bathroom. Then I pulled a final drag from my cigarette, lobbed it into the open toilet, and paused long enough to hear a tiny hiss when it hit the water’s surface. My jaw twitched as I watched the filter paper turn dark.

While reaching over to flush again, something in the mirror caught my eye. There was a metallic glint on the wall behind me. It was a small embossed metal sign, in reverse. I turned around and read the words THANK YOU FOR NOT SMOKING.

A shrill, high-frequency tone shattered the silence and pierced my eardrums.

It was the smoke detector.

……

I was rather impressed with the chair, which turned out to be a lot sturdier than I thought. I stood on it while reaching up to pull the battery cover away from the smoke detector, which ultimately brought the entire unit down and left me with a dangling, deactivated plastic disk attached to the ceiling by a couple of twisted wires. I wanted to rip it out and throw it across the room, but that would have been pretty stupid. Definitely something my father would do.

Thoroughly pissed off, I left it hanging there. Using the toe of my shoe, I kicked bits of ceiling plaster under the bed, and ground the remaining bits into the carpet until they disappeared. Then I dragged the chair back to its place, and tossed the batteries onto the table. They both rolled off and hit the floor, but I didn’t care.

I took another look around at my pathetic new surroundings, and felt my chest get tight. My eyes landed on the impression left by my body where I had slept. Part of me wanted to just lie down again, right on that spot, and go to sleep forever. In this summer heat, reports of an unusual smell would undoubtedly bring the manager up for a visit within a few days. Of course, there would be no answer. Maybe he would suspect something dangerous, and call the police, and they would make a forced entry. That door would be super easy to kick down.

Shortly after that, my parents would get a visit from a man in formal uniform, stoically doing his duty by delivering the grim news, a handful of crime scene polaroids, and a duffel bag full of dirty laundry. Sorry about that, folks. You’ll need to come with me. There’s no suicide note, but everybody knows it’s all your fault.

This time, indulging in fantasy didn’t bring me any satisfaction. I flinched as I acknowledged that I was desperately trying to distract myself. There was no denying the truth.

Gritting my teeth and pressing my palms against my eyes, I started to run my fingers through my hair, pulling tight against my scalp. I wanted to scream like a girl. I wanted to kick and scream and cry, and smash stuff and break windows. My vision blurred as my eyes filled with fresh tears. I kept sliding my fingers back, pulling my hair along the way. I was pulling hard, and the pain brought me a strange sense of comfort, like picking at a scab.

It was suddenly all so clear to me. I grew up in a comfortable middle class neighborhood with everything I needed, just like my father always told me, but I’ve squandered it away by not taking shit seriously, and just taking it easy all my life. I’ve been warned about this day, for years. I knew it was coming, but I kept telling myself it would never happen.

What an idiot I am. The world is filled with people who are much worse off than me, and none of them would feel sorry. They would laugh at me. My mother came from one of those places. I can’t expect any sympathy from her. She obviously made some kind of deal with my father to leave the house this morning, so he could drive me off without her needing to witness anything. There was no fight. No pleading to give me another chance. Clearly, they had already agreed that it was the best thing to do. She didn’t even say goodbye.

My fingers nervously twirled and flicked at the beginning of a small ponytail, which would have sent me straight to Supercuts, if my parents saw me doing this.

But they don’t see me doing this, do they? No, and if I wanted to grow my hair down to my ass, I could do it, and nobody would have a damn thing to say. I may not be worthy of anybody’s sympathy, but I’m certainly not going to allow this to break me, or scare me straight, or whatever it is they hope it will accomplish. I have a chance to do whatever I want now, without anybody getting in my way.

Then, a smile broke across my face, as I realized that I was literally pulling my hair out. Rapidly pacing the floor like some kind of mental patient. Another wave of tears stung my cheeks, and I started laughing out loud.

I wiped my cheeks with the backs of my hands. What if this isn’t the end of the road, but actually just the beginning? Maybe I can turn this… into… an opportunity.

At least that’s what Mr. Gupta would say if he saw me right now. He was a small, wiry, and super dark-skinned Indian man with a square-shaped head, and a thin mustache. He used to substitute for my regular math teacher when I was in freshman algebra. By the time I reached senior year, Mr. Gupta was teaching classes full-time, but I’ll always remember the real lesson he taught me. Not about math, but a lesson about survival.

He liked talking to me during lunch. I would often hang out with him in his room, since he never left it until the final bell rang every day. He knew me when I was still a scrawny kid with no friends, always hiding inside a sketchbook, a comic book, or a motorcycle magazine. I think he was lonely too, because he was so distinctly different from his coworkers. I never saw them going out of their way to talk to him. I would bring my lunch and sit at a desk in the front row, while he would lean back in his chair and tell me stories between spoonfuls of curry and rice, that he wouldn’t even bother to heat up in the teacher’s lounge microwave. He was perfectly happy chewing on his little plastic tub of room-temperature food, while vividly describing the horrors of life as an Indian boy who survived a perilous life on the streets of Mumbai.

“In America,” he would say with his Indian accent, “Even a common Indian boy like myself could grow up to be an independent fellow who owns a car, and enjoys the security of a stable life.”

Although I couldn’t really relate to what he was telling me about life in India, it was his unwillingness to do what most people do under extreme hardship — that is, to just accept it — that impressed the hell out of me. Looking at him, you would never guess that he was tougher than my school’s football coach. Tougher than my dad. I admired him in ways they couldn’t compete with.

Mr. Gupta was the one who urged me to read a book called Unlimited Power, by Tony Robbins. He found the book one day, when some thieves threw a tourist’s backpack into an alley as they ran down the street. Scared that he would get in trouble, Mr. Gupta ignored them, but he noticed a book sticking out of the bag, and something overcame him. The book, he said, was calling out to him. When the coast was clear, he slipped into the alley, grabbed the paperback, and then ran as fast as he could, all the way back to an abandoned warehouse cellar where he and his brother lived. They lived in a super shitty place. Other guys would beat him up every time they saw him, and they took food and money away from him and his brother. He never spoke of his brother in the present tense. I’m pretty sure I know what happened, though. Mr. Gupta survived, while his brother probably never even got to be as old as I am right now. He spent years studying that book, and using it to learn English until it disintegrated in his hands. By that time, he had a plan to leave India forever.

It was an amazing story, and although I had zero interest in the book, I would always nod and promise to check it out some time, just to avoid disappointing him. But something about his persistence finally got to me. So, last year, I pulled a copy from a shelf at my school library, fully determined to read it.

Maybe my expectations were too high, because after only a few minutes, I ended up skimming through most of it, although some parts really grabbed me. The book was about five hundred pages long, and I saw a lot of phrases repeating. Still, I sat in the library during the lunch hour, and quietly snuck bites of food while flipping through it. That was the least I could do, since I promised Mr. Gupta I would check it out.

The book’s main point was, bad things happen to everybody. Everybody makes choices about how they handle those bad things. Successful people make choices by looking into a mirror, and telling themselves that they will take control of a bad situation. Have fun being weird. Learn from your mistakes, and find the opportunities. Something like that.

Looking down, I was startled to feel my fingernails biting into my palms as my hands balled up into tight, white-knuckled fists. Without relaxing my grip, I strutted back into the bathroom, and leaned forward into the mirror. You will take control.

It’s a good thing I don’t have super-powers, because this is exactly how super-villains are born.

A thick lock of hair, heavy and damp with tears, swung in front of my eyes. I snarled and bared my teeth at my reflection, while flexing my biceps. Another rumble shook my abdomen. Time for me to quit feeling sorry for myself. I need to pull myself together, go outside, and find some dinner. It’s time to check out my new neighborhood.

……

Warm, humid wind swirled thick, all around me. I wanted to take a shower before leaving the room, but I forgot to bring soap. I even forgot my toothbrush. It doesn’t matter, because my stomach keeps rumbling and I figure it’s better to go now, and find what I can, before it’s too late. What time do these places shut down on a Sunday night? I’m probably too late already. At least I remembered to take my cigarette lighter and an almost-empty pack of Camels. I didn’t want Mom or the little fire-starter to find those.

As I approached the overpass, the deafening roar of traffic was impossible to tune out, and it was starting to drive me crazy. I stuck a finger in each ear, just to see what would happen, and I regretted doing it as soon as I found out how loud this place actually was, after I removed them. Suddenly, hearing distant traffic through my flimsy front door didn’t seem so bad. But there’s no going back now, because there’s no food in my room. As far as I could tell, there was nothing to eat for miles, at least on my side of the highway. There’s got to be something on the other side of the overpass. A gas station sign was already visible from where I stood, which was encouraging. I leaned forward, and kept walking.

Reflecting on recent events, I thought about how, just a few hours ago, I walked out of a place that had been the center of my universe for the past eighteen years. What really bothered me was, after snatching up the clothes I wanted to take with me, the room actually didn’t look any different than it would on any other laundry day. It only took ten minutes to do what Mom has been yelling about for years. The floor was no longer covered in shirts, socks, pants, and underwear. I could have done it any time, but I just got in the habit of letting clothes accumulate on the floor, every day, and then I would wait for her to start bitching at me about it, before making an effort to pick stuff up. Usually it was her who would come in and fill the laundry basket. By that time, she would just complain about how lazy and disorganized I was, and then disappear downstairs until next time. Maybe this is one of the reasons why I’m in my current situation. There’s no way she’s going to miss dealing with me every weekend, hauling around an overflowing basket with my dirty clothes. Then washing and folding it all, just to see me toss everything on the floor anyway.

I grimly remembered surveying the area for the last time. Looking at my bed, the desk, the shelves, a lifetime of stuff that I wouldn’t be taking with me. All the toys, models, LEGO sets, comic books, magazines, and posters, that I had collected over the years. All the art supplies I draw cartoons with, like my colored pencils and sketchbooks. My TV, and shoeboxes full of VHS tapes. A brand-new, unopened model kit of a sixties café racer under my bed. An electronic dartboard behind my desk, I think I only used two or three times. I’d even lost a new Nintendo 64, and I barely had a chance to play Super Mario until school was out for the year.

Shit. I had a ton of great stuff, and now I have nothing. Even the ancient Game Boy I’ve had since the fifth grade would be nice to have, since I’ve got no TV. But I don’t remember my dad saying anything about letting me come back to pick things up, or sending them to me, or whatever. He doesn’t care. He’s got his new muscle car, and for all I know, Mom has already gone on a cleaning frenzy and I’m sure she’s glad I’m not there to get in the way. I hope they at least give my brother all the toys. They deserve a good home. So many old GI Joe figures and Transformers, stashed away inside shoe boxes. I had a lot of fun with them when I was a little kid. Kind of sucks how I totally forgot about them, until just now. If I were that kid from the Toy Story movie, I’m pretty sure none of them would come to life and go out looking for me.

The ground started shaking, and I blinked at an SUV as it cruised past me. Halogen floodlights blazed in front of me, and had me seeing nothing but splotches of white for a few seconds every time I blinked. When my eyes readjusted, I noticed that the area I stood in was really quite dark. There were no streetlights to help me see past the turn. I looked back at the motel, just to get a feel for how far away it was, and watched the big neon sign flash a few times.

“Twin Flamingoes Lodge,” I said out loud.

Okay, it’s a lodge. That sounds a lot better than telling people that I live at some motel no-tell on the bad side of town. At least I have that going for me.

……

When my father found me in the house earlier today, he noticed me hesitating at our front door before stepping outside. That’s when he pointed out that it was just the two of us, because he “didn’t want everybody making a big production out of this.” Then he added, “You know how your mom gets.”

I seethed with fury, and stormed out, barely noticing fat drops of rain that splattered loudly against my bag, as I carried it over my shoulder. I was too busy wishing that I could summon the forces of magic to direct a lightning strike at him. Channeling my emotions into a singular, pure, focused ray of hatred that would beam into the heavens, and then return its amplified power, down upon my target. After that, I would calmly turn around and march right back to the house, making sure to stomp a shoe print into the smoking pile of ash where my father once stood. I’d even wipe my feet on the welcome mat, before going back inside.

Instead, things went so quick and smooth, they almost seemed rehearsed.

Once we were on our way, the ride itself was nothing special. Thankfully, my father didn’t seem interested in making small talk. He was completely distracted by his new toy, or at least it seemed that way, as soon as he turned the key and pulled away from our street. If he felt any regret over getting rid of me, he sure didn’t show it while drumming his fingers on a bare metal three-spoke steering wheel, or while he was obnoxiously humming along with a twangy country song that buzzed from the car’s tweeters.

I kept my mouth shut as I let myself sink into a well-worn bucket seat that reeked of mildew. My entire body absorbed every vibration the old muscle car produced, as we careened down the interstate. The wind slapped at our seat belts and whistled through cracked-open windows. Rainwater formed tiny streams that snaked across the hood, up the windshield, and into a fine spray as they found an opening, and blew onto my face. We drove all the way across town, and neither of us said three words the entire time.

Actually, we did talk before he got on the highway, but it was hardly a conversation. First we drove to the post office, where he parked the car, and motioned me to follow him out. When I paused to reach for my duffel, he made a face that looked like a mixture of pain and embarrassment.

“Why would you need your fuckin’ bag? Come on. Let’s go!”

Since it was Sunday, the counters were all closed. I wanted to ask him what we were doing there, but instead just quietly followed him to a section near the PO boxes, where there were a few acrylic racks on the wall, and they were filled with tax forms and booklets. At least that’s what the sign said. I never looked at that stuff before. An old lady with a pink t-shirt and super dark, fake-tan leathery skin looked up at us both. I got the feeling that she was getting ready to pepper-spray anybody who got too close to her. I offered a smile, but she ignored me and continued filling out some form on the counter in front of her.

After my dad scanned the wall for a moment, he pulled a postcard-sized piece of paper, and put it on the counter. I leaned in to take a look, and he told me to pick up one of the ballpoint pens that were chained to the table. Before I could ask him anything, he started telling me what to write down.

“Put your name here. Your full name. Then your birthdate.”

His finger was tapping the card, tapping rapidly to indicate where I was supposed to write. I scribbled away, and kept my mouth shut.

“Social security number here.” Tap, tap, tap.

I entered my number.

“Just put my home address here.” Tap, tap, tap.

Nice how he said “my” instead of “our” address. The words SELECTIVE SERVICE were printed at the top of the card. I glanced up at him, hoping he might clue me in. No change in expression. I could hear his finger start tapping again.

“Check that box, sign the bottom, put today’s date here, and you’re done.”

As soon as I pulled the pen away, he snatched the card up and dropped it into one of the outgoing mail slots.

“Thank you, sir. You’re officially not my problem any more. Let’s hit the road.”

More twangy music, and again my father drummed the steering wheel. The old car sounded pretty good, actually. It’s too bad this would be my first and probably last ride in it. My eyes traveled along the dashboard, and it didn’t seem like it would take that much work to make this a really cool vehicle. Maybe after tightening everything up and replacing the busted parts, a bit of new upholstery, and of course a paint job. Fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view. A skull with glowing red eyes on the shifter. For a moment, I almost enjoyed myself, as I sank a little deeper into the seat and imagined driving. By the time I was thinking about how many girls I could pick up, we had pulled off onto a service road. I didn’t even notice we had slowed down, and my father startled me when he swept his hand grandly and announced “Okay, Pee-Wee Herman! It’s time for you to start your big adventure.”

My stomach tightened as he laughed at his own joke, which he always loves to do, especially when nobody else does. I noticed there was nothing around us but a few strips of highway, shady apartment buildings, warehouses, a couple of gas stations, and a few fast-food places. I could only describe the entire scene as being a run-down, depressing, ghetto-looking neighborhood. Parallel to us was a smaller road that bordered a row of nondescript motels, which, to my dismay, we were now pulling into.

I spotted a pregnant girl with black hair and yellow pigtails, carrying a large paper grocery sack. She was wearing tiny pink shorts, a yellow tank top, and flip-flops. She was really skinny, but her stomach was so big it looked like she had swallowed a basketball. She flicked a cigarette, then continued shuffling and waddling across the parking lot, and disappeared behind a pair of dumpsters.

A bit further in the distance, four little kids were laughing and jumping around in a circle while enthusiastically clubbing something to death with wooden sticks. A baby — boy or girl, I couldn’t tell — wearing nothing but diapers, was squatting down, pointing at it, whatever it was.

The car’s chassis groaned and shuddered as we came to a stop. Without even switching off the ignition, my father dug into his back pocket with exaggerated urgency, produced his wallet, and counted out some cash. They were all crisp, new hundred dollar bills.

“Here’s all the money anybody ever gave you, for all the birthdays you’ve ever had. Eight hundred bucks right here. Don’t go blowing it, Brad. Until you get a job, this is all you got. You follow me?”

Dumbfounded, I simply sat there and stared at the pieces of paper in my hand. My parents had a rule about birthday money. We weren’t ever allowed to use any of it. They would always commandeer our cash and put it away, assuring us that we would be glad they saved it for a rainy day. Well, today certainly was rainy, and although I was feeling anything but glad at this moment, it never occurred to me that I would need my lifetime savings so desperately.

Fingers impatiently snapped in front of my face. “Earth to Brad! Put that shit away, before some weirdo sees it!”

He reached between the seats and yanked my bag from behind us, then pitched it onto my lap. He sat there and watched me fumble around with the cash and the bag. Then he raised his left arm, keeping his elbow bent at a ninety degree angle, until his wrist was a few inches from his face. One of his old habits from his military days. He made obvious note of the time, by loudly clearing his throat. Then he rotated his forearm and opened his hand, palm-side up, revealing a key with a blue plastic tag attached to it. I never saw where he got the key. He looked like a large, angry, overweight robot doing a magic trick.

“Here’s the key to your new pad. It’s up there on the third floor, and I’ve already paid your first month. You’re welcome.” He continued to stare at the key while impatiently thrusting his eyebrows upward, indicating that I was supposed to take it from his hand.

“I told the manager that you’re moving in. Name’s Jack. He’s a vet. He’s gonna keep an eye on you.”

“Manager?” I stammered. “Vet? Is that who’s gonna help me move in?”

“Help? You’re already moved in, son. The only thing missing is your ass, and that bag.”

He revved the engine of his car, watched the tach drop to idle, and then slipped it into gear.

“Alright? His name is Jack. Go on! If you get out now, I can still beat traffic.”

……

After following the sidewalk that led me away from the motel and towards the interstate, I reached a spot where a makeshift footpath seemed to zigzag all the way down the steep embankment. It was even darker down there than it was up here, but after estimating how long it would take to make the trip, I wasn’t looking forward to walking all the way around the offramp, then walking all the way down the opposite service road. I decided to give the shortcut a try.

It was a little slippery in some spots, but when I reached the bottom, the path ended just outside the mouth of a huge storm tunnel that would provide a short passage underneath the highway, directly to the other side. A section of chain-link fence had been ripped away from its post, and someone even twisted a length of wire coat hanger to hold the flap securely in place, which I found surprisingly thoughtful. At the same time, I was amazed that nobody would complain to the city about such blatant damage done to a public structure. Apparently, I have much to learn about how things are done here. Come to think of it, I hadn’t even seen one police car since I got here. Maybe it’s not such a bad place after all. Still, I need to keep my eyes open.

My shoes crunched on gravel and broken glass, as I ducked down to squeeze through the opening. After making sure I hadn’t snagged my clothes on exposed ends of chain-link, I paused to study the large storm tunnel ahead of me. It wasn’t nearly as dark here as it was outside, and I could see graffiti everywhere. To the right, I found myself dwarfed by gigantic balloon letters that spelled ’NOBUS’ with a series of thick black lines and white highlights that were intended to give the artwork a glossy, plasticky appearance. I walked while floating my hand along the wall of the tunnel, which was decorated with spray paint, markers, and a few etchings that were brutally carved right into the concrete. I felt like Bruce Willis, looking for any possible sign of the Twelve Monkeys. Perhaps the entire mural was a message, created by other time travelers who wanted to leave a memento, or perhaps a warning, in case they didn’t make it back. I wondered if I was going to make it back.

With much of the highway’s unbearable noise blocked by the embankment, I could finally hear the echo of my own footsteps. Flattened soda cans were uniformly worn down into bare aluminum shingles, and made faint metallic crinkling sounds under my weight. Water had pooled up in other areas, forming an obstacle course for me to weave through.

Colored bands of light reflected from the gas station ahead. It created a dazzling glow that illuminated wavy patterns and ripples across the tunnel’s walls. I tilted my head back, and looked straight up to see how far the lights would go, which turned out to be all around me. A smile spread across my face, as I thought about how cool it would be to just hang out here some time. My eyes continued to follow the contour of the tunnel, and stopped at the bottom. A moving shape drew my attention. I spotted a shirtless man with a large beard, lying on top of a few flattened cardboard boxes. Without hesitation, I splashed through water and headed directly for the exit.

As interesting as the tunnel was, I reminded myself, it’s only a portal into another world. There’s a critical mission at stake here. I stepped down from the exit, and left dark, wet footprints on smooth gray concrete. At last, I had successfully crossed over from a crumbling urban war-zone of desperation and decay, into this well-lit world of glossy signs and neon tubes that flashed an array of logos promoting beer, snack foods, and the state lottery. Everything vibrated with an electrifying mercury-vapor lamp buzz that cast everything in a blue-green haze. Compared to my motel, this place felt extraordinarily safe and ultra-efficient.

As I approached the main area, I noticed reflective yellow lines, arrows, and dashes that were crisply painted on the ground. My eyes traveled around, and I traced the shapes, until I began to understand their patterns. Cars and tractor-trailers were performing a ballet as they revolved around a nexus of fuel pumps. The majority of them formed a slow-moving train of vehicles that lurched forward every time somebody finished filling up, started an engine, and rolled away. Drivers on the outer ring were jockeying back and forth, looking for openings that appeared as other vehicles slid out of parking spots, which outlined the perimeter of a massive convenience store.

Drivers were wiping windows with squeegees, emptying ashtrays, stretching their legs, folding and unfolding maps. Others were blissfully carrying bags of potato chips, cartons of cigarettes, and cans of energy drinks back to their vehicles. The convenience store’s large, clean windows revealed an indoor sign that read THE QUIK CAFE. Another flashing sign said COFFEE CIGARETTES FOOD.

I pulled at the bottom of my t-shirt, straightened my posture, and ran my fingers through my hair. A hand-written sign on the end of a shelf said MEN’S CREW SOCKS – $2.99 ONE PAIR, and that’s when I knew everything would be okay.

……

Two minutes. That’s all it takes to go from hero to zero. You never know when it will be your turn. Always when you least expect it. Sometimes it happens while you’re waiting for a bean and cheese burrito to heat up, as it slowly rotates inside a microwave oven.

I was grinning to myself, anticipating the hot goodness of my dinner, and trying not to let drool run down my chin. With my hands jammed into my back pockets, I balanced on the balls of my feet, and rapidly bounced up and down as I contemplated the bizarre nature of life as I know it. Sure, it was crazy enough that I had been kicked out of my home, on my birthday, and rudely escorted to the bad side of town. But the really insane thing, the part of this totally weird day that made me want to grab the nearest person by their lapels, and laugh like a maniac while shaking them back and forth, was the fact that I looked and smelled like a shirtless resident of the old storm tunnel outside. And yet here I was, carrying almost one thousand dollars in my wallet.

I could buy a used car. A plane ticket to another country. A thousand dollars would go far in Mexico. Or I could hang out in that motel room, and eat here every day for an entire year, if I really wanted to. My shoes made wet, sucking sounds as I shifted my weight from one foot to another.

“Oh! Excuse me.”

A lady with black-framed reading glasses perched on the end of her nose, bumped into me. Her curly brown hair was twisted into a frizzy ball, and stabbed by two yellow pencils. Large green eyes locked onto mine, then traveled down the full length of my body. Without looking away, she immediately swept her arms out, and pawed at the air behind her, as she corralled two small children.

“S-so-sorry about that,” she stammered. “We were just leaving.” They disappeared between the aisles.

“Who was that, mommy?”

“Shush! Nobody! Just go!”

My jaw slacked, and I sucked in a slow breath as I watched them exit the building. Was she actually afraid of me? Am I now terrorizing innocent women and children at night? For a split second, I considered chasing after her. It was a crazy thought, which I pushed aside, but I couldn’t help feeling like I’m the one who had been wronged somehow. I wanted a chance to clear my name. To tell her that I’m a decent kid who just graduated high school with a 3.2 GPA, after putting in four years of minimal effort, for fuck’s sake. I’m really not as bad as you might think. I don’t know where you guys are from, but you would feel better after getting to know me a little bit. I bet you would like my neighborhood. It’s probably not so different from yours.

My former neighborhood, I thought, bitterly correcting myself.

An alarm beeped behind me.

My burrito was ready.

……

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