The sun is high when I finally crawl from the sleeping bag and head straight for the bathroom where the smell from last night still lingers. I got sick and my aim was off. Deciding another time is the best time to clean; I leave the mess and head for the kitchen. On the counter sets a canister of cleanser next to a note and a bottle of pain pills.
Jonas— We need to talk. These are for the pain. —Gerry
“Sure we do,” I say to the paper, “you first, Dad.”
I take my pills and a used Big Gulp cup filled with water, and head to the front porch to take my usual place as lookout. It is a weekday but I don’t want to take any chances. No one’s outside but my mom’s car is on the driveway. That probably means Carrie is home, too.
What’s left of the case of beer is on the bottom step surrounded by crumpled, empty cans. I reach inside the box and grab the last beer, still icy from the chilled night air, and take turns pressing it to my eye and bottom lip. The swelling in both areas has gone down more than I thought it would by now but the black and purple bruises are ugly. I can’t blink or complain without hurting. If I keep my mouth and eye shut I should be fine. My back and chest are stiff. Sitting up makes me feel sick, so I rest my head against the railing.
For all the hours I spent lying down, I should have slept like a baby. But, no, my rest was stolen by strange, vivid dreams. Well, one dream. About the accident.
I kept seeing the creepy bald guy. I know that no one is supposed to speak ill of the dead, but he kept looking at me with these black, hollow eyes like he wanted me dead, too. The kind of death glare you see in the mug shots of serial killers; pure evil.
My hand was stuck inside that strap again and I knew exactly what was going to happen but wasn’t concerned until I felt the malevolence of his stare. Then, an extreme urgency overcame me and I knew I had to get free but couldn’t.
I kept seeing everything just as it happened and was helpless to stop it. The diesel was barreling towards us as the electric bus lost power and slowed. The traffic and interior lights went out. Everyone around me was frozen and hollow—shadows looming in the background. For some reason they didn’t seem important—not when compared with what was unfolding. Somehow, what the bald man was doing, they way he stood holding something I couldn’t see, was more important than any of our lives. His existence, terrible as it was, superseded all of ours.
The stranger with his burly beard and dead eyes kept trying to shove me out of the way like before, only he was not trying to help me. It was more like he was enjoying my pain, which felt incredibly real. Every time I cried out he would release a devilish laugh. Then the walls of the bus started to bend. The strap broke and as I fell, the air bent into waves, distorting everything like images in a funhouse mirror. I hit my head on something as the stranger turned and held out his hands to greet the diesel.
Then, my mind inserted something that hadn’t happened before: the truck imploded. I mean, the fuel in the truck spilled and ignited, but it didn’t erupt into a massive ball of fire. There were flames, but the strength of them waned, seeming to drift into the bald man’s body. Like he was absorbing it.
At the same time, everyone around us disappeared into the spreading plumes of blue that flowed like a fog. Between the patches, the scene looked like the reflection of a cracked mirror. There were jagged parts and doubles of people in the background. The creepy bald man was destroying everything and getting off on it.
And all I could do was watch.
I woke with a start several times but with all the alcohol in my system, I kept falling back into the nightmare.
As the throbbing in my face and head dissipates, sleep wants to come. I fight it, concentrating on the sounds. The birds in the trees and the warmth of the late morning sun on me. I hear several sets of footsteps but they are too far off or have the wrong tone to be those of my mother or little Carrie so I keep my eyes closed.
“Do you always sleep outside?” Lisa’s voice shatters the quiet and I am shocked. I thought she would never speak to me again after last night.
To avoid seeming anxious or grateful, I decide to keep my eyes closed. “Only when the weather is nice.”
She doesn’t respond. After a minute, I wonder if she was just passing by—which would be difficult on a dead end street—but I sense her presence. Remaining nonchalant, I ask, “Why aren’t you in school?”
When my eyes open, she’s standing in front of me on the path.
“I ditched.” Her arms are crossed over a plaid grandma dress as she stares down.
“Because I felt like it.”
“That’s as good a reason as any.” I pat the step next to me and scoot to one side. “What’s on your mind?”
She shrugs, “making sure you’re alright.” Sitting a step below me, she keeps herself pressed against the opposite railing.
“How does he look?”
“Better than you,” she smirks.
“Yeah, but you can’t see injured pride.”
“I was wondering . . .” Propped against her bent knees, staring down at the large buckles on her shoes, she starts and stops.
“You were wondering . . .” I urge.
“Why did you do that, last night?”
“You looked like you could use some help.”
“And you feel it’s your duty to protect innocent girls from their mean big brothers?”
“I forgot you had a brother. I thought he was your dad. How tall is he?”
“Who told you I had a brother?”
I keep forgetting I’m not supposed to know anything about her. “Little Gerry.”
“What else did ‘little Gerry’ tell you?” she repeats the term with condescension.
“Nothing,” I shake my head.
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Like what?” My voice shoots up an octave and I make a show of clearing my throat.
“I gotta jam.” Her tone mocks mine as she stands and starts down the path towards the sidewalk.
“See you Friday.”
She stops and turns, exaggerating the move to amplify her displeasure. “Dylan is pretty pissed, you know. So you might want to rethink this whole contest deal. He picks me up from work at night.”
“I am not hiding from that little punk.”
“He usually makes good on his threats.”
I lean back to illustrate my indifference. “You would know. How’s your eye?”
“I should ask you the same thing.” Her glare shifts to the empty street.
“Is he the one who did it?”
She shrugs and says nothing. In her silence, I have my answer.
“He’s a piece of shit.”
Lisa scoffs. “I came to warn you, but you know what? I hope you show up on Friday. I can’t wait to see Dylan kick your ass!” She storms off.
“Sounds like fun. I’ll see you there.” I yell in a kindly tone. I don’t remember her being so touchy.
She walks up the street, around the curve and out of my view. I consider following, and even take a few steps after her, but Carrie is at home and I can’t risk it. I’m not wearing shoes anyway.
Slowly I stroll—inching along the sidewalk at a snails’ pace—back to the porch and settle in. The neighborhood is oddly quiet for this time of day. Usually there’s someone out with their dog or power walking behind a baby stroller but now there’s nothing and no one. No cars in any of the other driveways along the winding road.
Silence screams in the stillness, a constant ringing in my ears.
I want to talk to my real dad. I wonder how he’s coping. What, with his only son being in a coma and all. I wonder how long the doctor will wait before he starts pressuring to unplug me. I wonder how long I’ve been here. The days outside cannot be as long as they seem in this place.
I miss mind-numbing television and the brilliant distractions of the internet.
And Abi. Her absence is a constant pain in my chest—a hollow in my heart. Hopefully, she’ll be a pain in my ass when I wake up. I think she might feel sorry enough for me to take me back. If she does, I can’t screw up again.
If not for the minor setback of major head trauma with possibility of life support, I’d probably be having lunch with her at the restaurant. I’ve been thinking about her a lot. Too much, actually.
With nothing around to distract me, all I can do is think of what I did wrong and the way she looked when she kicked me out. How she cried when she said everything could have been different, if only I were honest. I don’t know why I wasn’t. All I really did was something stupid and that’s not news to her. She’s been well acquainted with my stupidity for some time. I don’t know why I’m always trying to hide things from her.
I never wanted to be so disconnected. But bad habits are hard to break. It makes me wonder when the curtains that shut out the world were drawn. Probably the same time my spiral of self-loathing began. A solid reason why I’ve landed in this place.
The pressure of stretching my arms makes my face ache. I walk inside the empty house and into the master bathroom, the clean one.
Flipping on the light, though I know what to expect, I’m still caught off-guard by the mirrors’ image.
Touching the edges around my eye, I carefully check for tenderness along my cheekbone and the side of my nose. My lip is still sensitive so I have to be careful when I talk. That shouldn’t be a problem. There’s no one to talk to. On the upside, neither feels as bad as they look but both look really bad. Hopefully, the swelling will be gone by Friday.
The contest is a welcome distraction. It’s only a few days away—I should be preparing. In the living room, I take up the wadded sleeping bag from the corner and roll it up tight before stuffing it inside the empty coat closet. After, I strap on my backpack and head across the road.
My mother’s locked car is on the driveway. I hike up the steps and give a quick knock. The doorbell offers a better chance at being heard but Carrie might be napping.
Mom answers, carefully opening the squeaky door in a way that makes me think I was right not to ring the bell. She’s in acid washed jeans and a stained t-shirt instead of the usual dressy lady-suit she wears for work. Wisps of loose hair have fallen from her traditional up-do. They quiver in the light breeze and I wonder how it’s possible that my little sister who looks so much like me can, at the same time, look so much like her mother. Her eyes carefully inspect every inch of my face.
“Day off, huh?”
“Hi, Jonas. I haven’t seen much of you lately. I was beginning to wonder if your vacation was over.”
You and me both, I think.
“What brings you by? Gerry’s at work but I’ll be glad to help if I can.” She leans against the door frame. Pinned to her small lobes are the pearl earrings my dad gave her one year for their anniversary.
“Do you happen to have a lighter?” I brandish a cigarette.
“No, no one here smokes. And neither should you.” Her mock-scolding tone is about as commanding as a puppy dog. She smiles and sets her hands on her hips.
“Aw, well, thanks anyway.” I shrug, backing away from the door.
“What happened to you?”
“Oh, this?” I point at my face. She nods. “It was an accident.”
“A car accident?”
“I look that bad? No, I accidentally hit a guy’s fist with my face.” I guess old Gerry didn’t tell her anything about this, either. “Oddly enough, it happened more than once.” I plunk my hands together in clumsy demonstration.
“Are you alright?” She covers her mouth, as if wounded. It’s only a courtesy, but it’s still nice.
“I’m fine. Do you have a lighter in your car? Otherwise, I’ll have to walk to the nearest store for a light. Well, I’ve got to walk anyway, but I’d rather have a smoke on the way instead of waiting until I get there. Have to feed the beast, you know.” I’m gushing like a moron.
“Sure, go ahead and help yourself.” She waves towards the car.
“Thanks very much.” Halfway down the steps, I stop. “Is it open or do I need a key?”
“Oh yeah, hold on.”
A second later she’s back, holding a mass of key chains. It’s another one of those details about her that have faded. There must be a ten to one, key to key chain ratio. She has tiny metal frames holding little pictures of her family, pink fuzzy dice, and mini Troll dolls hanging from tiny chains. One of the largest is shaped like the Empire State building. It’s ringed next to a small plaque that reads ‘I love my Caddy’. There is a total of three keys; house, car, and office.
I hold out my hand but she doesn’t seem to notice.
“Come on,” She passes by, waving for me to follow.
“Have you been to New York before?” My eyes search the area.
“We used to live there. I thought Gerry said that was where you two met. Crosby Street? Apartment over the bakery?”
“It is!” Crap. “I didn’t realize you were from there, too. I only lived there a short time. What was the name of those bread things they used to make, not bagels, but uh . . .” I was hoping she’d hand me the keys, but nothing is ever as simple as I hope. I spot a distraction near the edge of yard where the lawn meets the driveway.
“I don’t know, a Bialy?”
“Bialy, that’s it! Man, I loved those things. You can’t get’em out here.”
She nods with a smile. “I grew up in the Village, lived in the city until I got married, then we came to this place.”
A small puddle still lingers on the edge of the driveway, leftovers from the morning sprinklers. Outside the short gate I discreetly drop the cigarette and wait. When the cars lock clicks open, I make my complaint.
“What is it?”
“Oh, nothing,” Very dramatic-like, I lift the wet filter. The tobacco paper breaks in half. I catch the end with my other hand and stare pathetically. “Shoot.”
She turns to face me, keys in hand.
“I guess I’ll have to get another.” I take off my back pack and set it on one raised knee, clumsily searching the numerous outside pockets.
“You know, I just realized that I don’t know anything about you, Jonas.”
“What do you want to know?”
“What do you do for a living?” She asks while I make a show of slowly plundering my backpack.
“I am a musician,” I smile. “I know they’re in here somewhere.” I look decidedly into each outside compartment for the pack of cigarettes.
“Have I ever heard anything you’ve made?”
“Well, keep trying.”
I kneel down, setting the backpack on the cement to perform a seemingly more in-depth search.
“I believe if a person is meant to do something, they will succeed because it’s fate.”
“Do you believe I’m fated to find what I’m searching for?”
“Yes. And it isn’t cigarettes.”
I frown, “Aw, nuts!” She chuckles. She looks nice when she smiles. “Oh, I was meaning to tell you, I heard there’s a really bad flu going around, particularly hard on young kids. So you should probably keep Carrie inside the house as much as possible.”
“She’s napping. I should check on her.” She starts towards the house but stops. “I’ll leave the car unlocked for you. Lock it up when you’re done?”
“Sure, thank you.” Mention the munchkin and she goes running. As she should.
She nods. “Bye, Gerry, um, Jonas.” She sets a hand on my shoulder and gives a reassuring pat. “Jonas is a nice name, but you feel like a Gerry. It’s strange but, it feels like we’ve met before.” She muses for a moment then shrugs, “Must have been in another life. Would you like to come over for dinner tonight?”
I clear my throat. “That would be nice, but I can’t.”
“Well, it is short notice. I thought, since you’ve been here for a while, that you might be leaving soon. I don’t want you leaving with the impression that I am not hospitable.”
“I would never think that.” My eyes can’t release the empty view of the pavement. For some reason I never want to look at her again.
“Some other night, then?”
“Absolutely. I’ll talk to Gerry.” I know he’s not going to want me around his family and for the first time, I’m glad.
“Well, okay, then.” She walks inside the gate.
“Bye, Mom,” I mumble, waiting for the resentment to dissipate, but it doesn’t.
Once the distinct resonance of the squeaky front door sounds, I’m moving.
Older cars are the best kind and my mother’s El Dorado is no exception. My dad, as part of their arrangement, has taken much better care of it than he has the house. Mom took over that since Dad never saw fit to finish anything he started. She must have really laid down the law, because the car is immaculate. I would expect to find it half washed and painted or something but that is not the case. The peanut butter toned interior still looks brand new. It’s clean as a whistle inside and out.
When the lighter pops out, I take it and light up, being careful to keep the smoke outside the car while I connect the charger cord to my iPod. I leave it concealed inside the backpack laying on the front seat and shut the door, careful not to make a sound. Any noise might remind her to check up on me. I’d like to be able to charge my phone, too, but that will probably have to wait. I know it won’t work, but I’d like to be able to play some video games.
I’m still waiting for my dad to lend me the car so I can find a pawn shop. I have to prepare for this show. All I need is an acoustic guitar. An electric is appealing, but requires too many components and I sound best unplugged anyway. It would make things a lot easier if I could recall all the chords for the songs I’m considering.
There are hundreds of things I wish I could remember more clearly: first and foremost, the day of the accident, secondly, my music, and thirdly, the finer details of my mother—her personality and character. I thought, at first, I was better off, but it would be nice to have those memories to look back on sometimes. I may not be entirely healed from the concussion, though the doctor who saw me last said the worst was behind me, but lately I’m beginning to wonder if that’s true.
Smaller recollections are easy to overlook but it can’t be normal to blank on the milestones. I would like to fault last nights’ brawl for the memory lapses but dates are not the only things I’m forgetting. I can’t remember my sixteenth birthday, or any of the preceding ones for that matter. I can’t recall the address of my first apartment where I lived for over five years.
Truthfully, it’s starting to worry me. I’ve been trying not to think about the missing pieces for fear it might mean more than I’m ready to deal with. I’m hoping that the forgotten parts find a way back into the conscious world and when I wake up I’ll be able remember everything.
I have too much going on in here to lend time to thinking about that stuff, though. My main focus has to be winning this contest and saving Carrie. On the off-chance that this whole thing is more than just a dream, I would really like to make everyone’s future better.