I began to walk home from the book store about two miles away from my house when I heard a familiar voice shout out to me. “Hey, Sebold!”
I ignored the call and quickened my pace with my load of heavy books smacking into the side of my thigh, causing welts and bruises to form the next day. The plastic bag squealed under the burden. The pitter-patter of my feet shuffled through a puddle, and I hoped whoever was calling me decided to abandon the issue.
The plastic bags holding two Stephen Kings and an anthology of Sylvia Plath stretched and then abruptly ripped, pouring my booty onto the stale sidewalk. The books plastered against the concrete, adjacent to a puddle, which I was very thankful to have been saved the torture of three ruined books. I knelt down resignedly and began stacking the books in my arms like I did in the hallways at school when I clumsily dropped my Biology and Genetics textbooks on my way to Literature. I reached out to grab Stephen King’s Misery, but someone held the book directly in front of my face.
“Devin, you need to get your ears checked.”
I did not make eye contact with Heath. I pulled my chin to my chest, and my hair slid off my shoulders to hide my expression of dismay and disdain. We had been committed to our little rendezvous like his parents agreed to; however, they didn’t know how far we went, or how far my body was scarred. My dad was adamant that I attended the motel every Saturday except on nights before soccer games for either of us. He was hoping I would get an athletic scholarship for school one day so I wouldn’t burden him more with expenses. My medication already burdened my family enough.
I took the book from his hands and put it in my arms. “Thanks,” I said coolly. He and I were physically close, but we barely knew one another. I couldn’t tell you if he had siblings or if he had any interests outside of soccer and boys. I stood up and readied myself for the walk.
“Special occasion?” He pointed his chin at the stack of hearty books.
I glanced to my side and tried to walk around him, ignoring the remedial small talk. My skin would just begin to crawl when someone initiated a conversation with me with stupid phrases about the weather and what kind of day someone was having.
“It’s close to your birthday, isn’t it?”
My blue eyes fell back to the teenage boy. He was genuinely interested as his brows furrowed and he leaned in to hear my answer, his slender hands jammed into his jean pockets. “I think it was this month…at least?”
“Heath, you don’t have to do anything about it. I mean, we don’t know each other. I wouldn’t even consider you a friend.”
“Ouch, I need some aloe for that burn.” He cringed at my comment and rubbed his arm. I turned away, not intentionally trying to be curt or short with him. I just didn’t have the tact to fully disclose how I felt about our relationship. He gave me a smug smirk and added, “But I’d like to know you better.”
“Well, seeing as you’ve fucked me, I’m pretty sure—”
He threw his hands up and waved for me to abruptly stop before I went into a rant or a tangent. “Whoa, Dev, not in that way. I honestly have something for you for your birthday or some holiday or whatever comes first, and I just want to be your friend.”
I gave him the iciest stare I could muster, venom readying in my words. I was not in the market for a friend. I had my books, and I could get lost in those forever without having to communicate with a human being, without being betrayed or judged.
“I’m dead serious. You remember that episode you had on Saturday?”
I glared at him, silently daring him to say the word out loud, daring him to throw out my imperfections and faults for everyone to see. Vomit the word into the open so everyone can see what kind of burden I am to everyone I meet and know. Empty inside, I didn’t care to have another person hold onto my secrets, and he would unfortunately be the one.
But I’m glad he was.
“Come on, my mom is making pasta and some weird chocolate dessert—and come on, it’s chocolate. You can’t mess that up too badly. If anything, we could eat the chocolate chips.”
I just stared at him. What kind of proposition was that? Did he not understand that boundaries should exist between us? Keep our relationship as professional as possible?
“My dad just got the deluxe edition of Monty Python’s Holy Grail and Meaning of Life.”
Was I supposed to know what those were?
“What do I have to do to get you to come over to my house for just like an hour? I promise I won’t try to do anything to you. I just got you something that I think you will really like, and you kind of need it, Devin. I don’t want you to get hurt again.”
We both looked at the burn that peaked out of the bottom of my shorts, newly scarred and blistered. Boiling water makes the most beautiful tattoos though—a string of keloids webbed together by my own body. I pulled on the bottom of my shorts to cover it up before turning back to him. “It’s fine.”
He somberly grimaced. He began to talk with his hands fervently, throwing them out dramatically as his desperation for persuasion set. “It’s not, Devin. If you won’t protect yourself, how long do you think you have? You won’t tell the police, and if this continues, I will.”
I stared at him incredulously. Anxiety strangled me as I imagined hundreds of scenarios in which policemen come to reprimand my father but see me as a fraud. How dare I question a pastor? He’s a good man, and he would never do that. Soon, the door closes, and my father forces me to do whatever he wants as punishment. I shook away the images and finally agreed.
He smiled and turned back to the parking lot.
“Your mom bring you?” I asked as he cockily marched us across the lot until we came across a Jeep Cherokee. He climbed inside and patted the passenger seat confidently, obviously smug he could persuade me to accompany him to his house. He pulled his seatbelt across his prideful chest and nestled in his seat.
“You’re too young to drive,” I declared robotically, silently observing to see if any adults would question our age or our intentions. I glanced from side to side as if to cross the street, reevaluating my decision to accompany a nearly perfect stranger to his home. More scenarios flooded into my mind until an unexpected rebellious voice inside of me said, You could go home, and what the hell? Anything is better than that.
Heath revealed a charming smirk and motioned for me to come in. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
I hurriedly pulled myself inside the car with some difficulty as the Jeep of course had to be lifted. I half-expected my jeans to rip across my thighs as I flexed and wiggled to pull myself up. The lanky teen just seemed to have leapt inside gracefully without any difficulty. I buckled myself in, and Heath’s car roared to life like a ferocious lion. I couldn’t help but smile at the rebellion of the cry, as if this action was me breaking away from the ties I gave myself to avoid friendships and attachment. Heath let out a loud whoop as he slammed on the gas and crawled over an island in front of us, laughing and chortling like an amused infant. I lurched forward as the wheels slid off the curb and he turned the car sharply onto the main road. “Devin, I foresee a beautiful friendship, my friend.”
I turned to him and just stared incredulously at him. A grin stretched from one ear to the other, and a contagion seemed to have infected me as I cracked a smile. He cranked up the radio to some alternative station that flip-flopped between classical and industrial music as if the two were harmonious together—and I promise they weren’t. He hummed and nodded to the different violin solos and the factory solos and seemed to have known every single note in all of the songs they played. Eventually the radio host revealed the name of the show as Bach’s Bitchin’.
He eventually turned into a little neighborhood and then into the short drive of a quaint two-story Victorian home with a wrap-around porch adorned with a white swing, barely swaying in the light autumn breeze. Pillows sat around the seat’s curved edges, and a cat sat nonchalantly on the swing as if it resigned on a throne. The fur resonated orange and unveiled distinctly strawberry streaks down her sides like a tiger as one approached her. Heath bolted out of the car and rushed around to my side, helping me out the car by taking hold of my hands and balancing me while I hopped down onto the concrete drive.
He may have eventually let go of my hand, but he never let me go.
Heath led me through the entrance after grabbing his cat and placing her on his shoulders like a feather boa and nodded a hello to his wiry, lanky mother who peaked around the corner of the kitchen island to say a greeting. Her black hair and green eyes matched Heath’s characteristics identically, denying anyone the opportunity to question if he was her son. She donned a cardigan over a floral top that my mother would have pronounced too loud for a mother and jeans that flattered her thin frame. Part of me felt self-conscious that the woman probably wore a smaller size in jeans than I did when I was in middle school, narrowly readdressing my own body issues. She repeated her greeting suddenly as if I was hard of hearing but not rudely. I didn’t know how to respond, so I just gave her a vacant stare as Heath whisked me away into his utopia within his home.
He suddenly stopped as we climbed the stairs and turned to me. The cat growled in dismay as she tried to scratch at the next stair above Heath. Heath grabbed her front legs and back legs with a hand to give himself a stylish kitty scarf, still holding onto my hand, which was becoming sweaty as I got more and more nervous. He loudly inquired, “Mom?” His emerald eyes stared at the ceiling above him as I noticed the foyer stretched from the entrance through a corridor to another open room with the stairs. This place was a maze I could have easily been lost in for years and years.
“Yes, Heath?” she chirped in a high-pitch voice I would not have expected from such a giant. I thought vocal chords were relative in size to the rest of the body, so she would have a deeper voice. I questioned if she was merely self-conscious of this attribute associated with her height, creating a faux auditory profile for her new guest.
“Have you taken him out recently?”
My head sat on a swivel as I watched him talk and then I glanced to the corridor that had led to the kitchen to perhaps see his mother peek out from behind the walls.
“Yes, he’s sitting in the box in your bathroom. He’s been crying all day. I hope you find him a home soon because you know your father is allergic.”
“Yes, ma’am!” he cooed. He whipped around and thundered up the stairs. The cat turned to me and bobbled her head with each step, glaring at me with half-open eyes like I was the one running up the stairs with her around my neck.
Heath turned into a room and then marched out of it. He let go of my hand and then crowded me into the entrance with his thin frame. I anxiously tried to writhe away from his grand cell created by his arms and torso and just hopped into his room as quickly as I could away from him. As my eyes readjusted to the darker room, Heath flipped on a light switch, causing a halo to resonate around the room for a moment before my pupils and irises relaxed.
A large bookshelf stretched from floor to ceiling with a stool to the left side of it, filled with books, transfixed me in my spot. Colorful, alluring spines teased me upon the bookshelf, and I felt a little closer to Heath knowing he would rather have a large bookshelf in his room than a television. His bed was framed in a wooden box that held many scars and eyes beneath a dark, hardwood stain. Lavender sheets peaked from the unmade bed from under a minimalist bed cover depicting a great oak tree below a royal purple moon. He motioned for me to sit on his bed while he shuffled off to what I assumed what his bathroom and left me alone with my thoughts. In the corner of his room sat a soccer bag rank with the stench of sweat and musk associated with any athletic bag. Soccer balls crowded the corner along with loose pumps and boots. I glanced at his bed-stand, which matched his bed’s frame, to see about ten books stacked high below a lamp with a burgundy shade that stuck out from his purples, whites, and blacks painted throughout the room.
I placed my books to my side and glanced through this selection, which ranged widely. A complete collection of Edgar Allen Poe made me smile as he is my favorite writer, and I kind of questioned his taste upon a copy of Paradise Lost and some other classics known to be dour reads. I glanced at Kate Chopin’s The Awakening with curiosity and began flipping through the pages to come across key words about this woman’s second puberty. His tastes fell back to the normal teenage breed with Lord of the Rings and Eragon, but he also dove back into the classics with Lord of the Flies and Jane Eyre. Adult works came into view as well—Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk and Before I Go to Sleep.
“Like the collection? I’m almost done with The Awakening. I think you would like it.”
I started at the sudden appearance of Heath, nearly throwing the book into his window. I pushed it back onto the table and mumbled, “I’m sorry. I need to stop being nosy.” I clasped my hands together as a reminder to keep my hands out of this new world as my prints did not need to erode and decay another environment.
Heath shrugged stiffly with the cat still stretched across his shoulders and a grand cardboard box filling his wide wingspan. “Nah, anything in here is not out of bounds. My porn collection is under the mattress if you want a look-see.”
My jaw dropped at his openness.
He rolled his eyes and chortled, “Joking, joking.”
I shook my head and smiled at the idiot as he readjusted the weight of the box.
“It’s really in the basement.”
I faux glared at him and squinted my eyes, forcing a fake laugh in his general direction.
Heath sat down beside me with the great box and shifted close to me. His cat fell away from his shoulders as the box began to move and thump against his lap. I furrowed my brow, questioning what kind of thing he was keeping captive.
Heath turned to his cat and called after her, “Fine, Edna, run away from me; it’s not like he wants to hurt you.” She shimmied off of his bed and skirted out of the room as fast as her large belly would allow her to move. He turned back to his massive box and smacked the side of it as the creature inside growled and yipped at I presume the shadows it saw through the cardboard.
I twisted my head towards him and noted, “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with this.”
“What? The fact that my cat is named after a character in a book or the fact that my little box could hold a dragon. Guess what, ‘yer a wizard,’ Devin.”
I punched him playfully in the arm; he smirked at his joke like a smug jester.
“Alright, alright. You have to open this before we kill the poor guy.” He set the box on my lap and continued his lecture nonchalantly, like it was totally appropriate for someone I barely knew to get me a living, breathing creature without my permission or even understanding that I can’t keep an African violet alive for more than a month. “I read this article that dogs can detect certain attributes people have before they… you know, and I was reading about certain breeds who are really loyal and willing to protect so you’ll be okay. And I have thought about this since the boiling water, so I’ve been contemplating this for a week. I think you can handle him, and I know you absolutely need someone to keep an eye on you.”
I glared at Heath. “I can’t keep a dog. Heath, I can barely remember when to take my own medication and when my practices are. How am I supposed to handle whatever you have in this box? How am I going to afford food and stuff? I just ref games, and that’s it.”
Heath signaled for me to stop before I let my anxious thoughts drown us both. “Listen, you keep a hold of him for a week, and if he doesn’t catch anything or doesn’t bode well with your life, I’ll take him to a farm.”
“Heath, I don’t know.”
The box whined as I stalled before opening it.
Heath crossed his arms and stared at me sternly. “You know very well you need him more than anybody else does.”
My shoulders drooped as I could not argue against Heath any longer because I knew he was right. I couldn’t just let myself roll around in public without a companion to keep an eye on me if something were to happen. And then maybe this little guy would grow up and protect me.
I turned to the box and slowly opened the flaps, and my heart melted upon just the sight of the cotton ball. A large puppy with even larger paws pranced around inside the box, and a sheen of white stained the inside of the box with his intense coloring. His brown eyes stared longingly at me as he pranced around the box proudly, showing off his beautiful coat and muscular body. His black nose peaked over the edge of the box, and two paws followed his nose so he could get a better look at his surroundings. His massive fur made him look about a third larger than he was I realized when I picked him up out of the box. Stunned in awe and in his beauty, I just absorbed every little detail of him. I held him in the air to look at his darling face before burbling and bubbling coos of endearment and love like a mother to her newborn.
He barked a low woof into my face, and his sweet puppy breathe comforted me immediately.
Heath glanced at the dog and then back at me. “He’s a Great Pyrenees, so he’s going to be a big-ass dog. I just didn’t think you were a Chihuahua girl like your sister. She’d probably want a Yorkie or something, but I had a feeling you liked big dogs with some attitude. Plus, a rat-dog isn’t something I want to be associated with either.” He smiled back at me as I glanced at him from the corner of my eye.
I pulled the little guy to my chest and stared at Heath. “How much was he? I owe you so much for him. Maybe you should keep him. He’s a good dog, I think. He’s really sweet.” A warm wetness came across my fingers and I glanced down to see the dog playfully licking and nibbling my fingertips.
Heath laughed, “Nope, he’s found his momma, and I’m not separating him from that.”
I smiled shyly. “Thank you so much, Heath. You really shouldn’t have.”
“It’s about the least I could do, but I have one reservation about this little guy.”
My heart dropped upon this sudden proposition, afraid he would take him back if I didn’t do something for him. And my mind became polluted with all of the sexual favors or even relational favors he could make me do. I pulled the puppy closer to my chest and readied my legs to run out of the house.
Heath nodded at the puppy. “You have to name him after a book character. I don’t care who it is or what genre it is from, but you are not naming him Fido or Chester or Larry or Bob for crying out loud. God, no, you will not name him Billy Joel or Flamingo or something fucking stupid. I immediately get him if you name him after Brad Pitt or Paul Newman, and then I will vomit uncontrollably all over this room like a volcano.”
I choked back a laugh as he continued the list of prohibited names deadpan like Leroy, Black Beauty, Snowflake, Snow, Shakira, Cher, Monopoly, Mr. White, Tyrone, and Misty.
I rose the little man up so our noses touched and looked deeply into his brown-black eyes. He immediately began to lick my nose greedily, begging for my love and affection. I smiled and rubbed my face into his fur as I put him back onto my lap gingerly. “Is Holden alright?”
Heath immediately recited, “’I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.’ J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Very appropriate for this little guy. By the way, I’m stealing that name the first chance I get.”
“Go for it,” I playfully growled as I grabbed Holden’s paw, and he began to nibble at the back of my hand with his dagger puppy teeth.
Stephen King once said, “The scariest moment is always just before you start,” and the moment before I began to love Heath Frey was one of the most frightening moments of my entire life.
However, I still dove deeply into this unknown territory because it was the first time no one could stop me.