CLEARLY THE POLICE DIDN’T do their job. If they did, she would not have laughed, and she wouldn’t have asked, “Where’s that freakin’ idiot? He rushed out this morning without cleaning his pigsty of a room.”
There was the police neglect to deal with. And then there was Gino’s mother, Florence, who we called Auntie Florrie. I looked over the fence, saw her. There she was, in the tiny backyard, sitting on a wooden bench with her daughter, Wendy, cackling and laughing as if it was just another, normal day. When Auntie Florrie laughed, her whole body laughed.
Her mother said something and Wendy got up, crossed the yard and started to pull at items of mis-matched Salvation Army clothes that hung from a sagging washing line. We were standing halfway between the gate and the washing line when she first laid eyes on us. Wendy stopped her pulling and gave us a long stare. “Where’s Gino?” she asked.
I felt unnerved, shaken up, immediately turning to my friends for help. Even they looked rattled. For a little while nobody spoke – both mother and daughter waited for an answer.
Wendy was just about to open her mouth again when the scratches on my arms and legs caught her attention. “What happened to you?” she asked in a snappy tone. Her expression had suddenly changed. The smile on her face had completely disappeared.
I shrugged my shoulders.
Then, a few seconds later, the penny dropped. As if alerted by some sixth sense, Gino’s mother pushed herself off the bench quickly, took two or three steps and stood in front of us.
“Where’s Gino? Where the hell is he?” She spat out the words, causing Colin to burst into tears.
“Auntie,” he sobbed, struggling to speak. “Gino is… Gino is dead.”
“What do you mean Gino is dead?”
She turned to me, grabbing my hand firmly to make me look at her. “What the hell is he talking about? Is he trying to be funny?”
I dropped my eyes onto the ground, taking care not to look at her. “Sorry, Auntie, Gino is dead. He died this morning.”
Auntie Florrie went noticeably pale. “Max, what stupid game are you boys playing? Please tell me you’re lying. Tell me that my baby is still alive.”
Again I shook my head, feeling how the fear was flooding my veins. Soon enough, a volley of screams exploded from her mouth, rising up. The screaming was unearthly, shrill, and it made my blood run cold. Wendy followed her mother’s lead. Her tongue was equally sharp. But she turned violent.
Still dressed in her school uniform, she hurled the washing basket at us, missing Colin and me but hitting Oscar square in his head. There were discarded clothes flying everywhere, floating down, settling and then flowering the muddy ground around us. Wendy came closer, lifted her hand to strike, but let it fall. Afterwards, she walked over to where her mother had collapsed into a wailing heap. They clung to each other, crying hysterically. The crying began to sound hopeless and agonizing, almost ghostly.
“How did he die?” Auntie Florrie asked. The question wasn’t unexpected, but it still came as a punch to the gut. I suppose none of us had counted on her asking that sort of detail.
God, what do I tell her? That was my first thought, which was followed closely by another: Run.
And that’s when I exploded out of the blocks, moving as fast I could. And in my haste to get away, I forced open the wooden gate, neglecting to unlatch it first, snapping it broken and sending bits of white pickets flying everywhere.