Chapter 6 Red shoes
Peggy thought, if they gave him a normal routine, he’d snap back eventually and become the kid they knew. So for a few days, he got up, he had breakfast, he had lunch and dinner, he watched movies, he went for a drive: steady diet of normalcy, easing him out of his shell.
She had Brandon take him for a drive to a storage locker. It was a large concrete block of a place, filled with red sliding shutters, packed in tight, some kind of maze.
They found their locker. Brandon opened the padlock with a key from his jeans pocket.
“We locked up most of your stuff here when we moved. Momma didn’t have the heart to take it back; it was too hard for her, you know.” Brandon forced a smile and led Johnny into the musty storage locker.
It wasn’t that full; it was a smaller box locker, about six by six. There was a mattress with a large brown stain in the middle, probably from damp in the locker.
Boxes, lots of boxes; some of them looked a little soggy.
“Hey, why don’t we split up and see what we can find?” Brandon said, smiling like it was a game.
“OK,” Johnny said.
He opened a box that said ‘Johnny’s stuff’ on it.
“We kept everything the cops didn’t take, you know, for evidence.”
Johnny went through the box: mostly pictures and little toys, army men and gun-shaped things; nothing really stood out except one picture.
It was a picture of Johnny before he disappeared. He was standing under a tree with a man whose head was cut off by the top of the picture.
Johnny looked at himself in the picture and thought his expression was odd. He looked sick or sad or scared, and was fingering a strange pendant hanging around his neck.
Brandon stuck his chin over Johnny’s shoulder as he put a box of mothballs down.
“Oh, that’s your older brother, Jack” He got a little closer and pointed directly at the necklace. “He bought you that weird necklace thing you’d never take off. You were always into that aliens and ghosts and voodoo crap as a kid, dungeons and dragons, you know.” He paused and cocked his head for a moment, as if he was struggling to fill the silence. “I mean, what kid isn’t? Some of the neighbors thought you were abducted by aliens” He laughed then got a little sad. “This was taken a couple of days before you went missing. “Johnny took a closer look at the necklace in the picture. It was some kind of bird, maybe an owl, standing on top of a circle, with a five-pointed star in it, like it was the hood ornament of a car. “Oh, that’s right; you’ll probably meet Jack later today at the barbecue. It was supposed to be a surprise: Peggy’s idea. I got you out of the house for a bit, and we have a little welcome home barbecue, get you reacquainted with some of the family.” Brandon walked towards the entrance. “Come on, help me to the car with some of this stuff and we’ll see how it’s going. “Johnny nodded. He put the picture back in the box.
By the time they got to the house they could already smell the barbecue. There were a lot of cars parked outside: trucks and station wagons and one beat up old yellow Mustang.
Brandon mounted the curb in his Chevy Nova and got out.
Johnny looked scared. “You OK?” Brandon asked, leaning on the passenger side window. He opened Johnny’s door slowly and could see Johnny was nervous. He was sweating and looking around and couldn’t sit still. “It’s OK, they won’t bite. They just want to see you and feed you, and then you can hide in your room the rest of the time. Don’t worry, they understand, you’ve been through a lot.”
Johnny looked up at him with the frightened eyes of an animal behind those dark glasses. He licked his lips and nodded and started to lift himself out of the car. The seat, at that moment, seemed to get deeper, and he couldn’t get his legs to work. Brandon helped him up and they walked, almost arm in, arm to the front door. “Oh wait, we can surprise them and go around back.” He led Johnny to the wood fence, at the side of the house, which had a little latch lock. Brandon popped it quietly and signaled for Johnny to go through; like it was ’Nam and they were infiltrating a Cong stronghold.
Johnny smiled. Brandon jogged in front of him, around the side of the house and into the back yard.
Across a canopy, hung a shiny plastic sign that read, “WELCOME HOME JOHNNY – WE LOVE YOU!” in big multi-colored letters with confetti and party balloons.
Johnny’s whole family was there, the ones he had met before, his uncle Kirk, his Grandma from the pictures.
“Surprise!” a few of them said, in a disjointed cacophony of ill-timed shouting that waned to nothing.
Peggy was there, drinking out of a red paper cup, and Brandon put his arm around her. She looked at Johnny and then she looked at Brandon and scrunched up her face in irritation. She slapped Brandon’s chest hard with her open hand.
“You told him didn’t you?”“Aww, hell, he was gonna find out anyway.” Brandon laughed.
She slapped him a few more times and he recoiled, laughing.
When she was done, she stepped forward and took Johnny by the wrist.
Johnny was still hiding behind his dark glasses and cap. He wanted so much to shrink into his big coat and scarf, but they were tucked away somewhere. It was too damn hot to wear them without drawing more attention: the opposite of what he wanted, which was to disappear.
So he sucked it up. He ate some sticky ribs in whiskey barbecue sauce, and drank punch and cool aid, listened to people talk about him with a forced smile on his face. He dipped his head so they couldn’t see his eyes. He was childlike and awkward but at times charming.
He met with his grandmother who gave him a big wet kiss on his cheek. She’d brought a casserole and some upside down cake with pineapples. It looked like a recipe for diabetes, glistening in the Texas noonday sun.
He had some fun playing with the kids. He liked playing with Sarah and his cousins, and they seemed to like him too.
After he felt he’d spent enough time in the spotlight, he started to feel maudlin. Something told him he would never fit in with these people again. They’d never accept him. His armor of quiet optimism was on its last layer. He slunk away, back into the cool shade of the house.
It still didn’t feel like home to him, not at all, not only because this wasn’t the house he had grown up in, but also because there wasn’t a place for him here. There was no trace of who he was.
He started to walk aimlessly.
It was a nice house, if a bit drab. It looked new, it smelled new, like the shrink wrap had just come off. It felt cold and put together and unlived in.
He was looking for the downstairs bathroom. He’d been shown it before, but now he couldn’t remember where it was. He knew there was an en suite in his mother’s room though.
Her bedroom smelt of old people, mixed with cigarettes and maybe a little booze. It was a large, pleasant room with big patio windows and long lace drapes. They let in a lot of natural light.
There was a dressing table full of knickknacks: jewelry and creams, hair sprays and tonics, and brushes and whatnot. Some of it surprised him since his mother’s appearance was as muted as she was. She didn’t seem like the type of woman who took great care over her appearance, but maybe he didn’t know her at all.
He couldn’t resist the urge to poke around a little, so he read the labels of her various creams and sprays. He opened ornate jewelry boxes and found mostly costume jewelry. It was the dull, curious boredom you’d expect from a child.
But as he made his way around the dressing table, he stumbled over a stool. The cushioned seat slid off and inside he found various assorted bric-a-brac: old letters, letter openers, brushes, pictures, scissors, stamps and tape, glitter and birthday paper. There was a black and white picture of her as a girl with her sister, and a few pictures of her, with a man he didn’t recognize, in a field, with a cow skull at their feet.
At the bottom was a white shoebox dusted with glitter. The label was for a set of red, heeled shoes.
He lifted the lid off the box and jumped back with a visceral gut reaction: a nervous lizard-brain response to seeing something that seemed off.
Inside the box was a concoction of strange and ominous objects. After the initial shock wore off, he realized nothing was going to jump out at him. Curiosity brought the cat back to the box.
It looked like something you’d get in some hippie store, but with a darker twist. There were feathers, maybe from a chicken, various little bones that must have been from an animal. There was a little skull, maybe from a rat, teeth, red candle wax, a razor with brown rust on the blade, parts of lizards that were dried, like the skin of a snake; it smelled really bad, musty and evil. Something was rotting in there.
He’d seen enough.
“There you are, Johnny, I was looking all over for you!” Peggy said from the doorway, loud enough for the whole house to hear.
Johnny jumped back and damn near dropped the box all over the floor. “What are you doing in here? We got a whole party outside for you. Just spend a few more minutes outside, would you please?”
“I was looking for the bathroom,” Johnny said.
“What’s the matter, sweetie?”
“Why are there bones and feathers and a knife in that box?” he stuttered.
“Oh, you found Momma’s little Santeria box.” She tutted and shook her head as if she was already tired of explaining herself. “Mmm, you see, when you went missing, we had these kinda weird, kooky, Mexican neighbors. At least, I think they were Mexican; they might have been Cuban. But anyway, they were into all that Santeria crap. Brought all this stuff over, said it would help find you or whatever. Err, so I guess Mama held onto it in some hope that it would. Not that I think it did. I’m a Christian. I don’t believe in that hocus pocus stuff, you know?” She cleared her throat and said, “It was our lord Jesus Christ that brought you back; I know that in my heart”.
“Oh” Johnny said. Peggy laughed.
“What, did you think Momma was gonna cook you up and eat you? Sacrifice you to mumbo jumbo or something?” She put her cold hands on either side of his face and said, “Come on back. I’ll introduce, re-introduce you, to your brother, Jack. “He lagged behind a little and, when he got to the screen door, Peggy was already outside, talking to a man who must have been Jack. Johnny couldn’t hear what she said, but whatever it was, it made the man look at him.
Jack was around six foot, and wiry, with ropey arms that stuck out of a red football shirt. He wore a set of blue jeans, because of course he did. He had loose blonde hair and a light-colored Fu Manchu mustache.
Peggy smiled when she saw Johnny in the doorway. She beckoned him over, excited, like she was asking him to come play.
Johnny walked over slow, his breathing steady. There was something in Jack’s eyes he didn’t like. They were dark, sunken eyes, and they seemed to stare right through the back of his head, as if Jack were looking into the house and couldn’t even see Johnny. It wasn’t as if there was malice there, just a cool, monstrous ambivalence.
As soon as Johnny was in range, Jack smiled and shook his hand, grabbing it tight, just to make it hurt a little. He pulled Johnny in, but didn’t hug him, just pulled him close to have a look at him. Jack was strong, with a vicious energy.
“Good to finally meet ya. I’m Jack, but you already knew that, didn’t ya?” There was a mocking tone in his voice. He took another sip of his beer. His eyes seemed to offer a challenge or an accusation; Johnny couldn’t tell which. Was he joking? Johnny couldn’t think of anything to say. He started to feel small, like he was on trial. “Have a beer, brother,” Jack said as he shoved a bottle into Johnny’s chest. “It’s time to celebrate.”
Peggy cut in.
“Jack he’s too young”.
“Ah, come on, Peg, look at him: he’s old enough.” He flashed a cheeky grin and a wink at Johnny. “I mean, who’s gonna know? I won’t tell anyone. Are you gonna tell anyone, John-John?”
Johnny shook his head.
“You got a funny accent. You get that over in Spain?”
“Hmm. Well, I wish you the best of luck, kiddo.” He smiled and slapped Johnny on the back, hard. “Look like you’re having some fun, for God’s sake. It’s a party.” He laughed and disappeared into the crowd.