The rusty station wagon pulled into the deserted parking lot leaving a trail of white, smoky exhaust. It screeched to a stop under a dim streetlamp by Murphy’s Drug Store. Although it was only October, the temperature before sunrise felt more like December. A tall bearded man in a hunting cap, an army-green parka, faded work trousers, and worn-out boots got out and slammed the creaky, old car door shut. He made his way to the tailgate with an awkward, labored walk. He opened the wood paneled gate and started dropping off the bundles of newspapers. His chest heaved puffs of steamy breath in the freezing air.
“’Bout time. Ya runnin’ late again, eh Hatcher?”
The ragged old man shuddered, noticeably startled by the young voice. Shane emerged from the darkness of the drugstore stoop. He had been pressed flat against the stoop wall, listening to his transistor radio earpiece as he waited to start his daily paper route.
“God damn, Sullivan, you just about gave me a heart attack, creepin’ out like that! I ain’t even late, you’re early, as usual,” Hatcher grumbled in his thick Boston accent, and scratched his grey beard. “There ya go, forty-seven.” Hatcher tossed Shane’s bundle in his direction. “Try not to spook anybody, will ya?”
Shane quietly started his morning ritual, unbundling and recounting the issues of the Boston Herald. He packed them efficiently into his canvas newspaper bag so that he could carry them on his hip without too much discomfort while he walked his route. He habitually checked the date, weather, and headlines at the top of the front page. October 1st, 1974. Harvard DNA Research Panel Disbanded After Funding Slashed; Clear Skies, Cold Winds High 47, Low 36. He got on his way, tipping his cap to Mr. Hatcher. He ignored the old man’s mumbles and sauntered off toward his first house in the foggy darkness.
“Somethin’ jus’ ain’t right ’bout that kid,” Hatcher grumbled, lighting his pipe and getting back in his car to get warm and wait for the other carriers. With his long grey beard, the pipe smoke, the puffs of white car exhaust, and his visible breath in the frosty air, Hatcher was enveloped in fog.
In the past, Shane had ridden his bike to do the route, and even pulled the papers on a toboggan in the snow, but walking was the way he did the job most often, and with the least amount of hassles. He walked so frequently that sometimes he seemed to retrace his steps. He would occasionally even stoop over to look in his bag and reread the date and headlines. This reminded him what the actual date was when the days seemed to run together. At times his paper route routine made him feel trapped in the same place, but other times, he felt free in his own world to do his own job while no one was awake yet to notice. Not that anyone really noticed Shane anyway.
The youngest of four, Shane often felt invisible at home and at school. He was a decent soccer player, but no comparison to his brother Bobby, the all-star athlete in soccer, hockey, and baseball, who had just graduated from high school last June. Bobby was full of confidence, always surrounded by his loyal jock buddies, dating a cheerleader or some other popular girl, and sailing through his classes with honor roll grades. Everything came easily to him, and he had life all figured out, even now as he started his first year at Framingham State College. Shane’s sisters were also active and popular in school, in their own ways. Tammy was a junior, and involved with cheerleading and gymnastics. Due to her light hair, curvy figure, and below average grades, she was the butt of many blonde jokes. She enjoyed the fact that all the guys were attracted to her, and dated actively. His sister Jeannie, the sophomore, was the smartest of the clan. She was on the debate team, swim team, and in the top five of her class GPA. With her red hair and slender physique, she turned some boys heads as well, and had had a few steady boyfriends in the past. The more recognition and popularity each of his siblings got in high school, the more invisible Shane felt down in the lowly eighth grade.
His mind often strayed at this dark silent hour while he plodded through the streets. Sometimes he tried to organize his thoughts, and remember things he needed to do like homework deadlines, and chores at home. Other times he listened to his transistor radio. It only got a few AM stations, but he could turn the small radio dial to find local news, sports talk, and golden oldies. He had become quite adept at interpreting the local weather forecast, so much so that he could predict school closings before the snowstorms even hit the Boston area. He often tuned in for the Bruins scores, or the Red Sox, and usually let the news chatter just keep him company as he walked his hometown streets before the sun came up.
Then there were the times he just let his imagination wander, conjuring up fantasies of scenes from his life that would feature him for a change. It was now one of those times. Shane trudged up the steepest hill on his route.
. . . Of course I would wake up first because I’m the lightest sleeper, Shane thought. I’d hear the back door open; I know that sound better than anybody because I have to slip in and out for my paper route all the time. I’d sneak down the loft steps into the kitchen without a sound. Then, I’d jump the prowler from behind, and get him in a choke hold! He’s big and all, but I can lock that choke in tight. He’d flail around and try to toss me, but I’d just keep on choking and let my legs and hips fly around. He’d spin again, and try to knock me off his back. I’d start shouting directions. “Hey! Get up; call the cops!” My sisters’d look downstairs and scream. Bobby’d finally come down all freaked out and macho, threatening to kick somebody’s ass, but by then the burglar would be unconscious or dead on the floor. Pops probably wouldn’t even—
“Looks like a cold one.” The sharp voice shocked Shane. He was breathing heavily after lugging his bag up the hill, and nearly lost his wind when startled awake from his predawn musing. He looked around to get his bearings. His fantasy had absorbed most of his attention, and only force of habit had guided his feet to this point.
“For the game today. Cold and windy. We’ll need to keep it on the ground against them Natick jerks.” Shane realized he had made it to the varsity soccer coach’s house. Coach Collins was a Boston Herald subscriber on Shane’s route, and was often awake before sunup plotting out game plans at his desk in his garage. He had stepped outside to call in his dog in when he saw Shane, half dazed, slumping up the hill.
After the surprise of being caught daydreaming, Shane thought his breathing would calm down, but it didn’t.
“Boy, are you even payin’ attention to what you’re doin’?” coach asked firmly. “You gotta focus, Sullivan, focus! You’ve got a way to go if you ever expect to play like your . . .” Coach’s voice trailed off as Shane’s daze worsened. He was looking into Coach Collins’s eyes, but couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying.
What the hell is happening to me? Am I hyperventilating? Shane wondered. The shock had triggered his adrenaline, but his tired body was frozen in place. He saw an eerie glare around Coach’s silhouette as if he was blocking the sunrise. He felt his head ringing like the moment a headache turns into a full-blown fever. The sun doesn’t come up there . . . it’s not even . . . What Shane saw next made him stop trying to figure out what was happening to him.
As he stood paralyzed, he watched Coach’s intimidating face become blurry and slowly change. He could only stare and try to breathe. Coach’s appearance seemed to transpose into a different likeness. His face looked almost the same, but with less hair, and more wrinkles. Am I watching him age? Shane searched for any explanation, when his eyes focused a bit more to see the wrinkles leave Coach’s face and reveal a different Coach. Wait, he’s not older, he’s just . . . not Coach. But it’s so much like him, maybe it’s like a relative. Like his dad or something? How in the hell is this happening!?
“Now don’t ever forget son, ya learn by doin,” a mysterious voice echoed from the faint image. “If ya wanna truly understand somethin’. . . go out there and live through it. Take the chance. Go for the big risk . . .” The piercing voice, like the face, was similar to Coach’s, but belonged to someone else. Shane stood stunned, pupils fully dilated, not knowing what to think or do.
“Sullivan! Have you heard a word I’ve said!?” Coach bellowed. Shane was snapped back into reality. Everything was normal. It was dark, no glares. Coach was Coach. He was still rambling on about how the weather affects the game. Shane wasn’t even breathing heavily. But he had been absent for Coach’s entire talk.
“Umm, uhh . . .” Shane stuttered to try to blend back into the conversation.
“We’ll be playing the four-four-two today and keeping the ball flat on the ground. I’m telling Coach Morgan to do the same with the JVs. I hope you listen to him better ’an this! Hard to believe you’re related to the smartest sweeper who ever ran my defense,” Coach grumbled.
“Yes, Coach,” Shane blurted in a late attempt to show respect.
“Just don’t make me sorry I spoke up to have you moved up to the JVs a year early. We have big expectations for you, young man. So keep your head clear.”
Slightly dizzy and unsure of what had just happened, Shane checked the date on the front page of the next paper in his bag. October 1st, 1974. He shuffled along, dragging his feet exhaustedly for the rest of his route. Shane always wore out his sneaker treads too fast from dragging his feet. He also hunched his shoulders, especially when he carried his newspaper bag, and in the early morning hours with the sun barely starting to come up, he could have been mistaken for a slender old man shuffling through the shadows.
What in the hell was that? Shane wondered. I mean, I know I can daydream up a storm, but damn . . . I almost passed out! Who was that sketchy old face, a ghost? “learn by doin’ . . .” What kinda crap is that? Hafta’ figure this out later, musta been a dream. Nobody’d ever believe me anyway. Thank God I’m almost home, it’s wicked cold out here. He plodded up his driveway on Old Connecticut Path and slipped back into his small colonial house, and back into real life.
Shane always felt like he was sneaking out and sneaking back into the house when doing his route. The whole house was always pitch dark and quiet when he woke up each day. He usually startled himself awake a few minutes before his alarm went off at five o’clock, paranoid he would oversleep and be late for everything. He knew how to climb off his top bunk, navigate the obstacle course of the bedroom floor littered with dirty clothes and sports equipment from him and Bobby, get dressed, and get down the tiny hall past the joining bathroom and girls’ bedroom to the rickety loft steps. The stairs in this small colonial house looked more like a slanted old ladder with railings. But even if they did squeak under the weight of footsteps, this never awakened anyone, since the family was used to many structural noises. Their home was a two hundred twenty-three-year-old historical landmark known as The Butler House, and they were proud of its age, and forgiving of its faults.
Once down in the kitchen, he had the floor plan memorized in the dark. He’d grab his canvas bag from the hook on the wall by the phone, tiptoe past his parents’ room through the living room and out the side door. He didn’t need to be so quiet once downstairs, since his mother was usually working third shift at the hospital. His father was either working extra hours or passed out drunk after his night shift. Shane’s mother was a nurse at Mass General, and his father was a conductor on the T. Both worked hard, and didn’t have much presence in Shane’s daily life. So, slipping in and out of the house was always easy.
After coming back in, he made his way upstairs where everything was as dark and as dead as he’d left it. Shane turned on the first light of the day in the tiny bathroom that joined the two siblings’ bedrooms. He got undressed, wrapped himself up in his robe, and started the shower. The old house was always terribly drafty and cold much of the year, so the shower made a great deal of steam that warmed and comforted Shane. As the bathroom steamed up quickly, Shane hung his robe on the door hook, and turned toward the mirror. He noticed his tall, awkwardly thin body, and shaggy red hair in the reflection. With a scowl on his freckled face, he stepped into the hot shower and slid the glass door shut. His feeling of luxurious warmth was short lived, as the combination of alarm clocks, radios, and creaking pipes from the bathroom was the daily cue for his sisters to awake.
Shane heard the usual sounds of stirring from the girls’ room. The doors of the tiny walk-through bathroom were plank wood, hung on their original hinges with an old-fashioned latch. They slanted down at the top to match the tapered ceiling. The door opened from the girls’ side and the floorboards groaned as someone walked to the sink and stood in front of the big three-foot mirror. The shower door, made of clear glass, fogged up from the steam so Shane retained a momentary shred of his privacy. The blurry person on the other side gave three loud taps on the glass and slid the shower door halfway open.
“Time’s up, Shaney. It’s been more than five minutes, save us some hot water, would ya?!” It was Tammy. She was wearing her last boyfriend’s old football tee shirt as pajamas. Shane couldn’t remember the guy’s name, as Tammy dated many football players. She pulled off her shirt, revealing her naked body as she slowly grabbed a towel to make a temporary skirt.
“Keep it runnin’ Shaney, I got it next,” she said.
“Don’t call me Shaney,” Shane muttered. He peeked at Tammy in the mirror, then quickly drooped his head and stepped out. He reached for his towel with a shameful expression and a slouching posture. He tried not to look too obviously as Tammy’s towel dropped to the floor. She paused with a smile at the glass door, caught Shane’s eye in the mirror, and happily got in the steamy shower. I bet Jimmer will be wishing he was me again, Shane thought to himself as he started brushing his teeth. He’s always beggin’ for a peek at Tammy and Jeannie, and carryin’ on about how gorgeous they are, how I’m the luckiest prick in the world. What a jerk-off! He felt a chill as he finished brushing his teeth. As he re-hung his towel and fumbled to put his robe on, he got a look at himself in the big mirror and couldn’t help but wonder if Tammy peeked at him. Nah, she sees me all the time, no big deal for her. Besides, I’m like the skinniest kid in the eighth grade, and she’s been with all those muscle-head jocks. How embarrassing, I have to share a bathroom with two girls that all the guys are after. He rolled his eyes, and started combing his hair.
As if on cue, Jeannie barged in and banged on the glass.
“Time’s up, save some for me!” she called with her shrill voice. “Hey Shane, all set for school?” She turned slightly away from him and started to unbutton her pajama top.
“Yeah, almost . . . just gotta get dressed,” he mumbled, bowing his head and walking back toward the door to his room.
“Get some breakfast honey. And dress warm, it’s gonna be freezin’ today. Check the woodstove, ’kay?” Jeannie called after him with a caring tone.
“Uh-huh,” Shane replied. As he swung the door shut with his heel, he caught a glimpse of Jeannie whipping off her pajamas and switching places with Tammy as she got out of the shower.
Jimmer’s right, Tammy’s boobs are way bigger, he thought to himself shamefully. Get outta my head you perv. I’m never telling Jimmer about this stuff anymore. He got dressed quickly, left Bobby in a sound sleep and climbed downstairs. Lucky bum, his first class at Fram State isn’t ‘til like 10:00! He makes it look so friggin’ easy, and he gets to do whatever he wants. And all the popular girls in high school like him even more now than when he was the super-jock there. Sucks. He stoked the fire in the woodstove, downed his cereal, and left for school. On his way he replayed in his mind the bizarre experience he had with Coach Collins, and still could make no sense of it.