Giddy and I didn’t know Mr. Lawson but all the same we didn’t care for him. His house was palatial and his lot three times the size of everyone else’s in the neighborhood. Local scorn – easy to come by in a community of unlocked front doors – took root when he bought the two houses adjacent to his after the neighbors moved out. Within a week a bulldozer had razed the houses, heaps of mortar and red brick strewn across the property as if a bomb had been dropped. In its place Mr. Lawson raised a split-level disfigurement so hideous that my father began driving to work each morning in the opposite direction. Giddy and I were just kids, but we channeled the socio-economic ire that the neighborhood parents held towards Mr. Lawson, spitting on the sidewalk beside his house each day after the school bus dropped us off.
There were five stories in all, each bedecked with large rectangular windows. Through these windows passersby could witness Mr. Lawson walking up and down the main stairwell, which zigzagged through the middle of the house like a marble run. Over the years he had built on two additions – no crime in that – but the additions were awkward, extending from each side of his house like the bellows of an accordion.
After school when the weather was nice, Giddy and I wasted time in Bonsall Park, a converted lot that sat across from Mr. Lawson’s property. At first, families flocked to the park. Children screamed and ran about while parents marveled at the effort of the neighborhood parks committee to build something for the community. But the newness wore off and the park took on vestigial qualities, as families bought swing sets and barbeque grills to relish in the fenced-in comfort of their own back yards.
Bonsall soon became a place parents warned their children about. Trash spilled from the garbage cans and the lone streetlamp over the park illuminated shadows but no faces. Under an oak tree hung three bald tires laden with dank rainwater that passed as the park’s swing set. Woodchips no larger than pencil nubs littered the ground, softening the blow when kids scraped their knees, but released the stench of animal urine when kids kicked them about. And at the back of the park – where the dim light of the streetlamp couldn’t reach, where freedom from everything parental reigned – Giddy and I would hang out.
One day after school, I dropped my backpack in my room and walked to the park. Giddy was already there, having cut out of school after lunch. He was upside down on the monkey bars, arms unfurled, scraping the ground. His hair dangled from his head in pointy stalks.
“Five minutes I’ve been hanging here. Beat that,” Giddy said, dropping to the ground. A landscape of veins bulged in his neck and forehead; the rush of blood had turned his face the color of yard work sunburn.
“Nobody saw you,” I said. Giddy ignored my protest at the lack of witnesses.
“With a tobacco buzz, too,” he added, pointing to a butt below the monkey bars. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his jeans pocket and extended his hand. I took one and looked at Giddy, a fifteen year-old cocooned in a man’s body. His sideburns were carpet thick and his voice at a depth I envied. His gut drooped over his belt with a sadness ordinarily reserved for a man with a family. At times I could look at Giddy and envision what his life, long after I would be out of it, had in store for him – Giddy punching a timecard at 5 pm, Giddy shifting the gears of a semi on the interstate.
We lit up and walked to the back of the park where the steel spring riders were. I plunked down on a rooster, Giddy on a dolphin. With other friends the topic of conversation would have been faultlessly juvenile. We would have giggled about the stink of Mr. Danner’s breath when he leaned over your desk to eyeball homework, or wondered if the note passed in science lab between the girls on the field hockey team was about one of us. But discussion with Giddy was raw; gone were the trifling matters often associated with adolescence, dethroned by adult topics that would cause any chaste ninth grader to flinch.
“Stacy Halifax lost her virginity on one of these,” Giddy said, patting the dolphin. I struggled to picture Stacy and a faceless varsity footballer squirming together on one of the spring riders. I had kissed two girls, respectable for most freshmen, but this innocent feat was stripped of its shelter when I spent time with Giddy.
“No way,” I said. “How would you even do it?”
“Stacy on top,” Giddy said, then cocked his jaw to exhale three perfect smoke rings.
“It’s too dirty here.”
“Stacy’s dirty. Dirtier than the park.” A more impure image crowded my brain this time: Stacy with a pompom on each side of the spring rider, the pleats of her cheerleader skirt fanned out over the football player’s crotch, concealing the act.
“Would you lay her, Boyd? Stacy Halifax?”
“I dunno. Not sure if she’s my type.” Giddy, in ninth grade for the second time, had done things with girls. He bragged about unsnapping a bra with one hand; he held his fingers to my nose after a night out with Kendra Witkowski.
“Forget type, Boyd. Imagine I’m not here now. It’s just her, naked, and she wants you.” Giddy began rocking back and forth, his bottom lip sucked hard beneath his upper row of teeth. “Oong, oong, oong. Can you imagine it Boyd? Stacy Halifax on top of you? Oong, oong.” Giddy carried on like this for a moment, then feigned orgasm. From time to time I’d imagine myself with whoever the girl in question was, everything working the way Giddy said it always did for him, not the Sisyphean struggle I ordinarily built it up to be. But in conversation I clammed up. Giddy put me on the spot. He pulled me closer to something I wasn’t ready for, like a neighborhood kid suckered into a street fight he had no chance of winning.
I took a drag from my cigarette and smiled. “You’re nuts,” I said, shrugging him off.
“Just remember what animal you hump her on. I’m never touching it again.”
That was Giddy. He was nothing I ever wanted to become but he was the most fun kid in the neighborhood. He taught me to cut class and not get caught, to rearrange beer cans in a fridge after sneaking a few. Things I wouldn’t need once I grew up. Places of neutrality maintained our friendship – we met at Bonsall, in between classes, on the way home from school. Over the summer Giddy had even invited me to his house, but I had told him my dad needed me to stick around for a project in the garage.
For a while we smoked in silence, the hum of cicadas in our ears. Nightfall gradually slicked the sky, each coat a shade darker than the last.
“I’ve got to get home for dinner,” I said. Giddy didn’t respond. His eyes gazed past me and across the street at Mr. Lawson’s house.
“What do you think he’s doing?” he asked. I turned and looked. Mr. Lawson two-stepped it down the bright center stairwell from the second floor to the first, then disappeared into a room. A second later he emerged with a box hugged to his chest, darted back up the stairs and out of sight again.
“I got nothing,” I said. Giddy lit up a new cigarette and offered me a drag. We watched in awe as Mr. Lawson continued to scamper between floors with the energy of a boy, hefting boxes of assorted sizes.
“I bet it’s nudie mags,” Giddy said.
“Yeah. But gross stuff.”
“For real. Frank Muncie told me.” Frank Muncie was a reliable source. He had lived down the street until about a year ago, and from fourth to seventh grade had cornered the market on paper routes. He swore to have seen the bowels of almost every house in the neighborhood when he collected monthly dues, snooping around as customers riffled through drawers in other rooms for the checkbook. I thought about Mr. Lawson’s porn stash, or whatever it was that had him running about, and didn’t want to leave. But I had to get home.
“Alright, Giddy. See you tomorrow.” Mr. Lawson’s stairwell went dark. I took one last pull on Giddy’s cigarette before he swiveled it beneath his shoe. Then we left the park in opposite directions. I unwrapped a piece of chewing gum as I walked, glancing up as the neighborhood street lamps flickered to life.
A sad, post-summer calm veiled the neighborhood on my way home. Just weeks prior, the streets had teemed with the jangle of kids’ voices, but now the kids were back inside, hunched over desks, impaired by the marking period’s first homework assignments. In the silence I thought more about Mr. Lawson, and recalled my father preaching about him one morning over breakfast before he left for work. My father stood when he spoke, as if the thoughts had to flow upwards first before exiting his mouth. He was an inch or two over six feet, but whatever intimidation his height imposed crumpled beneath the slightness of his build. Wide shoulders slouched and narrowed into the posture of a man stuck in mid-bow. His ribcage, spattered with brown moles, jutted from his frame like a cinder block in a plastic bag.
“Lawson’s a sad sack,” he said, pointing a fork at me, egg dripping from its tines. “All that money and after retirement he plants roots in a town like this.” I figured my father might be bitter, since his own fiscal options were dim. He was a single parent raising an only child. He drove an hour each morning to an adjoining, affluent county to teach AP math in a school district that paid him more, then drove back in the evening, headlights aglow, the property value collapsing to mid five-figures as his oft broken-down car whooshed past house after house until he finally reached our neighborhood. His marriage to my mother, I’ve learned – when my father does speak over dinner – was once great, like anything new. But new things wear down. “Like a garden hose,” he said once as I set placemats on the table. “We sprang a leak. Taped it up for a year or two. But after a while your mom wanted a replacement.”
My father went on to explain – only once, and only after a few evening drinks sanctioned it – that my mother had, at first, seen nothing but future in him. “Charmingly obsolete,” he said. “Her words, not mine.” My father treated her the way he thought a woman should be treated. He walked down the stairs before her in case she fell, offered her a twiggy elbow if they traversed a patch of ice, raced to her side of the car to open her door as she blushed. But she later learned all this was no more than an endearing personality trait, and, despite his chivalrous anachronisms, couldn’t cast off his complacency to be nothing more than a high school teacher.
And then my mother left. I had built it up in my mind, perhaps from watching too much television, thinking my mother would leave quickly, like an airplane disappearing behind a cloudbank. But she left in pieces, clothing one weekend and books the next, as if a long, drawn-out removal of her life from ours would somehow assuage the painful transition to her absence.
She left my father for a co-worker of hers, a guy named Jim. He is a regional manager and a VP of sales at the same company. My father accepts the attraction to the money, the success. But there are some things he can’t cut loose. “He doesn’t open her car door,” he said. “She opens her own car door now.”
I see my mother on weekends. She sends my father money, but most of it gets stored away. My father says it’s for a college fund, but at times I suspect he’s too ashamed to have his ex-wife’s income provide for us. I tell my father I don’t like it here: our house, this neighborhood, the stupid school I attend. His responses vary, and he has long since stopped telling me that I used to like the house when mom was there. “Work hard, Boyd,” he says. “Get out of here. Go off to greener pastures.” This is the response I like. But he has another response, one that starts in a similar fashion but ends quite differently. “Get good grades and you’ll have options someday,” he says. “You can be like me, or even like your mother.” He doesn’t explain it further than that.
The next day I bumped into Giddy after school. He came up to me in the hallway, just after the seventh period bell had rung. A smiley face of cheap silver dangled from his left ear. It had pierced his lobe like a misguided dart. His ear was swollen, encrusted with blood.
“Did you hear?” he asked. I was crouched at the bottom of my locker, digging for a book. Giddy had no bag and his arms were bereft of textbooks. A pencil rested behind his right ear, the lone sign of school enrolment.
“No,” I said. “What I was supposed to hear?”
“It’s Edwin, man. Edwin Chan. He wasn’t sick yesterday after all.” A smile I had never seen on Giddy stretched across his face. I stared at him blankly. “Edwin’s in my homeroom, Boyd. Mrs. Stoler said he was absent yesterday. First time this year. That dork wouldn’t miss school if the field hockey captain offered him a hand job in the janitor’s closet.”
“So he’s not sick,” I said, standing. I zipped up my bag and slammed my locker shut.
“Not at all,” Giddy said, hardly able to contain himself. “He’s fucking missing.” My ears perked up. Suddenly the hallway chatter crystallized. Everyone was gabbing about what had happened to Edwin. “I was in Vice Principal Mosley’s office this morning when a Chinese-looking couple walked by. They walked into Principal Lobello’s office with Lobello and two police officers,” Giddy continued.
“So how do you know he’s missing?”
“I heard it, Boyd. I heard them talking about it. They said he didn’t come home from school yesterday.”
Edwin was chubby, a member of the math club. He wore shirts two days in a row and his backpack on both shoulders. He was easy for Giddy to hate. Since they shared no classes, Giddy would skulk up behind him during lunch and pull up a chair. “What’s for lunch, Edwin? Moo goo gai pan?” he’d ask. Hushed tones and sniggers consumed the cafeteria as everyone’s attention turned toward Giddy and Edwin. “Did mom cook that up for you?”
“You don’t have a mother,” Edwin replied, his eyes on his food. “And it’s not moo goo gai pan.” Giddy stood up and smiled, then smacked him in the back of his head.
“Good one, Edwin. I’ll be seeing you after school.” But Giddy never did see him after school. He left it at that. Giddy had a heart – it just contained a dense covering.
“Maybe Edwin’s dead,” I said.
“No way. He’s just missing.” I pictured Edwin on the side of a milk carton, his bloated face barely fitting onto the cardboard.
“So he’s missing. What’s the smile for?” I finally asked.
Giddy beamed. “I think Mr. Lawson’s got him.” He said this with an earnestness that belied his ordinary behavior – the Giddy who broke into the teachers’ office to flush the school’s supply of chalk, the Giddy who flirted with teachers twice his age.
He urged me not to bus it home that day. We trudged out the back entrance and coursed our way past a soccer scrimmage and a baseball game. A row of cheerleaders hurrahed and kicked their legs to impossible heights, hair gyrating wildly as pompoms ruffled above their heads. Giddy looked over his shoulder and winked.
“There she is,” he said. “Spring rider.” I spun around in time to see Stacy wink back and mouth something to Giddy. Then she caught my eye, her lips curling down into a smile reserved for people she didn’t know.
We lumbered off the school grounds and through a neighborhood before hitting the town’s main drag. I tensed up a bit, passing the downtrodden local businesses that clung to the street edge like barnacles, confident that wouldn’t be me a few years from now, but knowing full well I wouldn’t quite believe it until the town was clearly in my rearview mirror.
We moseyed past an abandoned car wash; a pawn shop, its windows graphed with thick black bars; an empty bicycle shop, its owner perched on a bench outside, a cigarette pursed between his lips. Further down were the citizens who had made more impressive societal strides, but not by much: a pathetic three-room law firm sequestered in the back corner of a lot, strips of aluminum siding curling away from the dilapidated house like late-season flower petals; franchise fast-food restaurants, their hangdog owners serving up the same old slop to the same fat customers day after day. Giddy, on the other hand, seemed at peace, away from textbooks and any other form of learning that would serve as his ticket out of here, to a better place. I wondered if he simply accepted that his life would at some point merge with a path similar to this one, contented in a world that offered him little and one he had nothing to give in return.
A minute later we arrived at Mac’s Mini Stop, where we bought colas and played arcade games at the back. I tossed Giddy a few quarters, then asked him about Edwin as he thwacked the joystick.
“There’s no way Mr. Lawson has him. How could you think that?” I was surprised at my sudden defense of him. He was a stranger to us, but I still couldn’t imagine a neighbor whose name we knew doing anything evil.
“Don’t be naïve, Boyd. When’s the last time anything bad – I mean really bad – happened in our neighborhood?” I thought about this. Houses got egged every Halloween and someone spray painted a set of cock and balls on the Bonsall Park sign last year, but neither constituted really bad.
“Nothing comes to mind.” I sipped the cola and placed it on a table. Beside us, a bearded man in a bandana cursed at no one in particular as his filthy fingernails scratched off another losing lottery game.
“Same here, Boyd. So do you really think a perfect stranger drove a van with tinted windows into the neighborhood? Swiped Edwin up after offering him a lollipop?” Giddy paused to slam his hand against the screen. The clerk craned his neck down the aisle and sneered. “No way,” he continued. “Whoever took Edwin knows the neighborhood.” I tried to picture Giddy as a detective, his legs kicked up on a cheap desk in an office fringed with wood paneling. But I knew Giddy would never fit into this role or one like it – altruism wasn’t his thing.
“So why Mr. Lawson?” I asked. “How are you so sure it’s him?”
“I’m not. But he’s creepy. And I want to get my hands on those magazines anyway.”
The drama of Edwin’s disappearance suddenly made school fun. Principal Lobello interrupted the last few minutes of seventh period, stiffly clearing his throat before his voice crackled over the school’s tinny intercom system, announcing to all the students to get home before dusk and not to talk to strangers. Guys held their girls tighter. Coach Huggins handed out free whistles. Edwin’s likeness and physical details were printed on flyers and plastered over telephone poles, storefronts, school lockers. That Friday, the entire student body filed out of classrooms as they learned seventh period was canceled for an emergency assembly.
I ditched some books in my locker and headed to the gym with a flood of other students, where teachers busied themselves pulling out bleachers before students entered. The gym held two sets of bleachers on the far side where freshmen and sophomores sat for assemblies. We took our seats in the bowed, splintered bleacher stacks, where ostracized fans of the visiting teams were relegated. We came in as a group, single file like ants to a picnic, and took our spots. Noise, muffled at first, made its way down the hallway outside the gymnasium and then exploded as the juniors and seniors filtered in. I watched them with envy. They grunted and screamed, laughed and pushed – their entrance was a circus spectacle. Teachers and guidance counselors jostled with them, lightly grabbing their elbows to guide them to a seat. They plopped down on the near side, the bleachers a few feet higher for the home team crowd. The girls flaunted womanly breasts and hips, the guys stubble and muscle. Condom rings that weren’t for show swelled in their wallets, or so I’d heard. I wondered if I’d act like them in a few years, but for now I was glad we were separated.
A lanky freshman with an overbite sat beside me. A second later Giddy slapped the back of my neck and squeezed in between us.
“What’s up,” he said. Giddy spat into a paper cup at his side, awash with swirls of saliva and chewing tobacco. I rubbed my neck; he spoke again before I could reply. “See that girl in the junior section? The mint green tank top with the rack?” I looked over. Halfway up the bleachers sat a trio of large-bosomed girls, their tits bouncing in unison as they giggled. Mint green was dynamite. Her blonde hair fell over her shoulders and rested atop her chest almost horizontally, like a throw-rug. I imagined Giddy unsnapping her bra.
“Watch this.” Giddy stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled. The boy with the overbite covered his ears and glowered. The girl looked over and acknowledged Giddy with blushed cheeks and a smile, as much recognition as any freshman could ask for from an upperclassman.
“She a one-hander?” I asked.
“You bet. That bra strap is working overtime.”
Just then Principal Lobello ambled across the hardwood court towards a makeshift stage. His belly jiggled as he climbed the steps and shuffled to the microphone.
“Look at that,” Giddy said. “Load’s really let himself go.” I laughed and elbowed Giddy in the stomach. He recoiled in mock fear.
“What’s this?” I asked him, squeezing a chunk of fat between my fingers before he slapped it away.
“This is different, Boyd. Girls like this on a boy. Not on him. On me it’s cute. On him it’s pathetic.” I wouldn’t normally take banter like this seriously, but when Giddy related it to girls, I listened.
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” Principal Lobello began. Conversation packed the gymnasium, tethering itself to the pennant-filled rafters and glass backboards. Lobello pulled the microphone from its socket and slammed it against the palm of his hand. A gunfire of thuds shot from the PA system and the students began to settle. “Alright now,” he continued. The auditorium quieted except for a few coughs and laughs, and funneled moans of Loooaaaadddd.
“I’m sure you all realize why we’re here today. One of our students, a freshman by the name of Edwin Chan, has gone missing.” Lobello carried on for a few minutes, telling us what we already knew. As I watched him, I wondered why an educated man would come back to high school. “I’m going to turn now to Officer Burba.” Lobello left the stage, his pants swishing as the stage creaked beneath the strain of his gait.
“Good afternoon, boys and girls,” Officer Burba began. “Now I’m going to keep this short and sweet. Principal Lobello is right. If you witness any suspicious activity, call the police. If you feel that you’re in danger – call the police.”
Officer Burba’s outfit of authority held the sole source of student delight; if a tweed jacket and khaki slacks had cloaked his body in place of a black uniform and billy club, nobody would have given a shit. But he was a fair enough replacement for Lobello. He stepped forward on the stage and placed his left hand on his hip, just above a pair of handcuffs.
“If you see anything – and I mean anything,” he began, before waving the mic in a quick half-circle through the audience. “Call the police!” we yelled back. Officer Burba smiled, then thrust his fist into the air. “Go Leopards!” he yelled. He lowered his voice as he said this, his face scrunched into a formidable ball of sobriety. We all cheered. I pictured him as a student here years ago, perhaps on the wrestling team, before settling on a mundane life in local law enforcement. He stepped off the stage and rounded a corner out of sight.
That Friday night Giddy and I went to the football game. We met at the concession stand, where we splurged on junk food before climbing into the stands. Giddy chose seats a few rows behind the cheerleaders. A tattered olive bag hung from his left shoulder.
“You think they can pull it off?” I asked.
“The team. The Stanton Mustangs were the runner-ups in districts last season.”
“I don’t care,” he replied. “We won’t be here long.” Giddy grabbed a box of greasy food from my lap. He fished around and pulled out a wad of fries, stuffing them into his mouth. I took the box back as he chewed. “Till the end of the first quarter, tops,” he said. “Just before dusk.” The summer hours slowly conceded to the first signs of fall as a crisp breeze filled the stands. The sky beyond the scoreboard was a muted blend of orange and pink.
“Forget it. What if the game’s good?” I asked.
“Doesn’t matter. Lawson’ll be out of the house for a bit this evening. We need to be there.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Trust me. He walks that damn dog of his every night.”
Out on the field, pads and helmets smashed and cracked. A defensive back struck a superhero pose after a tackle. Two athletic trainers dashed toward the player he had just steamrolled. But all this seemed lighthearted and innocent compared to the trepidation that seeped under my skin.
We left midway through the first quarter with the Mustangs up 14-3 and plenty of light left in the sky. Students trickled through the stadium gates as we tramped across the faculty parking lot. An autumn consonance of teen cheering and band instruments buzzed in my ears – a perfect Friday night was now behind us.
We soon reached the edge of the school property and entered the neighborhood. On our left a man had his head buried beneath his car hood, crackly music blasting from the cheap speakers of a transistor radio. Behind him on the curb sat two boys on skateboards, setting fire to blades of grass with a lighter. Giddy glanced up at the sky and began to pick up speed. He strode awkwardly with the bag slung across his shoulders; something bounced inside.
“What’s in there?” I asked.
“Supplies,” Giddy responded between labored breaths. I didn’t ask. We scampered our way through the side yards of split-level houses, weaving around sandboxes and tool sheds. When we hit the main strip, we slowed a bit for Giddy to catch his breath. Two blocks in front of us stood Mac’s Mini Stop, its neon lights beckoning.
“How about a quick game at Mac’s?” I asked.
“C’mon. It’s on me.” I worried about the way that sounded, as if I were begging. Giddy stepped in front of me and placed his hand on my chest.
“What’s wrong with you,” he said, looking me in the eye. “Did you want to sit and watch a stupid football game for the next two hours?”
“And you’re curious about Lawson’s place, right?”
“Yes,” I replied. For the class clown, Giddy possessed a genuine talent for getting the truth out of me.
“So that’s how it is then. It’s decided.” I felt calm but my throat constricted as he said this. There was a finality to his words that made me nervous. “That game money you have,” Giddy said. “Fork it over.” He cupped his hand in front of me, a blur of fingers fluttering beneath a pale cone of light from a streetlamp. I dropped the bills in his palm. We walked the next two blocks in silence. I had never seen Giddy so focused. I wanted to know what Mr. Lawson hid inside his house too, but I would have preferred to learn about it secondhand.
Giddy swung open the door to Mac’s and a pair of bells rang above our heads. He gestured me inside. Above our heads, the drone of electricity pulsed through the Mac’s neon sign. Giddy skipped past me as we made our way down an aisle. It was the oddest thing, seeing him with a purpose not driven by carnal desire. He canvassed the windows of the refrigerated contents that edged the back wall, yanked open a door, and plucked out two colas. I followed him as he rounded a corner, where he picked up a pocket flashlight and a set of AA batteries. He then scratched his head and stared at a fluorescent light, as if it could solve his confusion. A moment later his eyes bulged and he snapped his fingers.
“I almost forgot,” Giddy said. “A disposable camera.”
“Proof of what?” I asked. Suddenly I was as interested in Giddy’s purchases as I was his plan.
“I don’t know. Just in case.” We walked up to the counter and paid, digging out every last coin from our pockets. An enormous man tallied our bill and handed us a receipt.
“Big plans for the night, boys?” he asked. The clerk’s gut swelled, a dam of buttons holding his shirt in place.
“Like you wouldn’t believe,” Giddy replied. Then we left. Within ten minutes we were at Bonsall. The entire trek, from school to the park, had taken less than twenty minutes. It usually took thirty.
When we arrived the sun was long gone. A backdrop of blue-grey sky provided just enough light to illuminate the outlines of neighborhood houses. We sat at the edge of the park, below the sole lamp we usually hid from, along the narrow strip of lawn that flanked the sidewalk. Then we waited. Giddy smoked and I uprooted crabgrass. For a while, neither of us muttered a word. I had little to say anyway; thoughts pooled in my head about how tonight would turn out, nothing else. After a while I looked over at Giddy, whose eyes shifted in slow, deliberate circles in the direction of Mr. Lawson’s house. Suddenly he pulled a pair of binoculars from his bag and raised them to his eyes.
“He’s in there.”
“Where did you get those?” I asked.
“The attic. You’d be surprised what people put in storage.”
“They your dad’s?” I asked. Giddy ignored me. Giddy lived with his father, but I didn’t know much about him, only that he worked nights at a garage halfway between here and the next town, his shift ending at the time most people went to bed. “Let me see,” I said. Giddy handed me the binoculars. I raised them and spun through a haze of tree limbs before settling on Mr. Lawson’s place. A network of copper gutters framed a black-shingled roof dappled with moss. A weathervane of a rooster stood guard next to the chimney. Lowering the binoculars to the second floor, I spied Mr. Lawson flipping a jacket over his shoulders.
“He’s in there!” I hollered. “He just put a jacket on.” Giddy rapped me in the back of the head.
“Keep it down. His windows are open.” I gawked a bit longer. Mr. Lawson sized himself up in front of a hall mirror: he ran his left hand over his bald head, then sucked in his gut and flexed. I knew my actions – although technically legal – were a breach of privacy, but the rush was too much to put the binoculars down. Giddy snatched them from me.
“Let’s walk across the street,” he said. “There’s good cover by the bushes.”
A second later we were crouched mere feet from Mr. Lawson’s front gate, the closest either of us had ever been to his house. The estate was well shielded, immured by a spiked iron fence that ran the length of the property, offering up protection like the raised quills of a porcupine. I had no idea how we’d get inside.
Giddy stood up, carefully positioning himself behind foliage. He stuck his face against the fence and raised the binoculars, clanging them against the iron bars. “I can see the magazines,” he said, his head pointed in the direction of the garage. He dropped the binoculars from his left hand and squinted. I took them back and stepped out of the foliage for a clearer view. I leaned against the fence and put the strap around my neck. Mr. Lawson was now in the garage. I watched him circle one of his cars then disappear. “There’s stacks of something. Why do you think he stores the magazines in the garage?”
Giddy spat. “Think about it,” he said, wiping a tentacle of saliva from his chin. “Why would anyone keep all those nudie mags in the garage? Because they’re old. He’s got the new ones inside.”
Before us a streetlamp blazed to life. It cast an interrogating funnel of brightness onto my face, like the beam of a giant flashlight. Giddy pulled me back into the leafy protection of a shrub. I thought of the football game and figured the third quarter was well underway by now. I wondered if the Leopards had staged a comeback, bringing the crowd to its feet in the hopes of an upset.
“Get ready,” Giddy said. “Look at the garage now.” Two of the garage doors were already open, but the third one began to rise. A light turned on and the low hum of a motor buzzed to life; the wood-paneled segments of the door then curled beneath a metal box that hung from the ceiling. Mr. Lawson emerged from the garage in quick steps, the soles of his shoes slapping against the pavement.
“Easy, boy,” he called out. “Easy there.” In front of him was Slobs, leading him across the property. Mr. Lawson held the leash tautly, his right hand extended like a strained fishing rod. Slobs was Mr. Lawson’s pit bull, a beast of a dog that patrolled the grounds throughout the day. He’d bark at everyone: joggers, the elderly, kids trudging home from school as they passed by on the sidewalk. He’d sniff and snort as he paced alongside the fence, thick foam coating his jowls as his balls dangled beneath his asshole like a yo-yo in a windstorm.
“Let’s go back to the game,” I said. I wheeled my head around the property and took temporary solace at the sight of an aluminum ladder propped against the side of a shed, its rungs leading to a corrugated rooftop well out of Slobs’s reach. Giddy turned to me and smiled. “Don’t worry, Boyd. Lawson and Slobs are leaving.”
“They’re coming back though.”
“Shut up already,” Giddy said. He yanked on my shoulder and pulled me deeper into the shrubbery. Branches scraped against my neck and arms. In the distance, the padding of footsteps and the unmistakable panting of a large dog neared. I nuzzled my mouth and nose into the crook of my arm. “It’s okay,” Giddy whispered, placing his hand on my knee. He tugged gingerly on a branch to reveal Mr. Lawson and Slobs no more than twenty feet away, making their approach toward the front gate next to the shrubs that ensconced us.
Mr. Lawson stopped at the gate. “Sit, boy,” he said. Slobs spun in a circle and sat, licking his snout for no reason. Out of the corner of my eye I made out a small wooden box next to one of the stone pillars that bookended the front gate. Mr. Lawson opened the box. His hand disappeared for a moment, and I heard the distinct crinkle of plastic.
Giddy turned to me and grinned. “Nice,” he whispered. “Poop bags.” Mr. Lawson stuffed some in his left pocket and shut the box. He then pulled something from his right pocket and clicked it. The gate creaked and groaned.
“Alright, boy,” Mr. Lawson said. “Let’s go.” He jerked forward as Slobs got a quick start. They turned left – in the opposite direction of us – and trotted down the sidewalk.
“Get ready,” Giddy said, adjusting his feet. The gate began to close. Giddy jumped out of the shrubs, dragging his olive bag of supplies with him, and then grabbed my arm.
“Hurry up, Boyd. Now or never.” Giddy’s voice again evoked meaning and purpose, something I never saw in him at school. I crawled out of the bush and darted for the gate. Once inside, Giddy released a deep breath and smiled, as if we had just escaped something. But we were inside now and a six-foot fence with impaling capabilities separated us from a world I was much more comfortable with.
“How do we get out of here?” I asked. Giddy patted me on the back and pulled out a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. He had hatched a plan and everything seemed to be on schedule.
“The back of Lawson’s lot is lined with crab apple trees,” he said. “We’ll head out that way.” Giddy lit a cigarette and took a puff. “Just choose a branch and climb. Jump the fence. Easy peasy.” I grabbed the cigarette from him before he could light another one – no way there was time for two – and took the longest drag my lungs could handle.
“Come on, Boyd. This is going to be fun.”
“Fun until they’re back,” I said. “And when will that be?”
“I’ve seen Lawson walk Slobs all over the neighborhood. We’ve got at least thirty minutes.” I set my watch for fifteen.
Giddy took two more puffs, then swiveled the cigarette beneath his shoe. We started towards the house. Once inside the gate, I was able to appreciate the suffocating opulence of the estate for the first time. Up close, even with less light, I could see things clearly. A winding tongue of front walk dotted with diminutive marble pillars cut through a large patch of pachysandra, then curved around a pair of dogwoods before ending at the front door. To the left, atop one of the lots he had bought, sat an enormous workshop spliced from the rubble of the house he had flattened.
Lawson’s Cadillacs – all three of them – were stored in a colossal garage off to the right of the house. On weekends, he would back them into the semicircle of pavement in front of his garage and park them bumper to bumper like enormous sausage links. He’d then spend hours washing and polishing them.
Beside the garage was the swimming pool, replete with two diving boards and a Jacuzzi. During the day, sunlight reflected in bright flashes off the pool surface. I felt impelled to clutch Giddy by the arm as we bolted up the front walk. “There’s the swimming pool,” I said. Giddy and I had, on multiple occasions, talked about the parties we’d throw if the pool were ours. We’d be the only guys, and every girl would don a bikini.
“I know,” he replied. “We’ve got to find out when Lawson’s going on vacation.”
Half way up the front walk, Giddy leaped over a strip of pachysandra and made a jagged cut towards the garage. I followed him, peering over my shoulder every few steps.
It was at this time, oddly enough, as we approached the garage and had the magazines in sight, when I thought of Edwin. Could Mr. Lawson really have him? What would he do with him? It had been almost forty-eight hours since his disappearance, and I couldn’t imagine how Edwin would have spent that time. One moment I pictured him holed up in another loser’s basement playing video games, ignoring his parents just to piss them off, oblivious to the fact that people thought he was missing. The next I envisioned him strung up by his ankles in Lawson’s basement like a slaughterhouse lamb, tears dripping over his chubby, overturned face before plunking onto the floor.
“I can’t afford to get caught, Giddy.”
“We won’t get caught.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I plan on leaving before Lawson’s back.”
“Do you even care if we get caught?”
Giddy turned and looked me in the eye. “Not as much as you do, Boyd. A permanent record won’t hurt my prospects at a local factory the way it will your college applications.”
“Have you seen the house I live in? We’re in the same neighborhood.”
“You have a mother, Boyd. I know about her.” I felt sorry for Giddy, sorry for the fate bestowed upon him by a shitty upbringing, but at this moment I wanted him to believe his future actually meant something.
“What’s that mean?” I asked. “What do you know about her?”
“She’s got money. It’ll be yours someday.” Giddy revealed some intelligence from time to time, even if he didn’t have much to show for it. Our friendship, despite a few positive attributes, was as incongruous as a coat of paint on an old shed. We rarely talked about anything beyond a few days. In a few years I’d be traipsing across a verdant college campus somewhere and Giddy would still be here.
“Well there’s a lot you don’t know about me,” I replied. We were now just steps from the garage.
“Boyd,” Giddy said, placing both his hands on my shoulders. “I’ve got your back. We’ll check out the magazines, do a quick tour of Lawson’s house, then get the hell out. That okay by you?”
“I guess so.” Giddy smiled and put me in a loose headlock. He was always the one to reassure me, never the other way around. When we stepped into the garage, we headed in opposite directions. I found myself between a duo of Cadillacs, pressing my forehead against the glass to peer inside. I then walked the length of the car, lightly dragging my index finger against the cool smoothness of the doors. When I looked at my finger it was spotless.
“Over here,” Giddy called. Across the garage, he held a magazine in each hand. I ran over and he handed me one, laughing. “These are for you, not for me.” I stared at the cover. A rugged man reclined on the bow of a yacht, naked save for a skimpy white towel around his waist. Sunshine gleamed against his tanned pectorals and ripped abs, sweat-laden and flecked with white sand. I opened the magazine, whirled past a zoetrope of flesh, then closed it.
“This is gross,” I said. Giddy doubled over with laughter.
“You should see the look on your face,” he said. He took the magazine from me and stacked it on the pile.
“I guess we don’t need to find the ones he’s reading now,” I said. I felt the sudden urge to check my watch, even if Giddy would see. Five minutes had ticked by.
“Let’s go inside,” Giddy said. I looked out the garage door and saw the street lamp next to Lawson’s front gate. It brightened the things that didn’t scare me – telephone poles and tree branches, a sliver of asphalt and a parked car.
Ten more minutes, I thought to myself as I followed Giddy through a side door connected to the garage. We entered a mudroom, immaculately clean, stocked with outdoor equipment. Pairs of snowshoes and cross-country skis leaned against one wall while a collection of boots rested beneath a rack of all-season jackets. What sounded like a zipper thumped and scratched as a pair of jeans tossed about in a dryer.
“Holy shit he’s got a lot of stuff,” Giddy said, his mouth agape.
“This is the cleanest storage room I’ve ever seen,” I said. I swirled my head a few times to soak it all in and touched things just because they weren’t mine. We walked into the kitchen, at which point Giddy placed his bag on an island above a rumbling dishwasher in the center of the kitchen. A woman crooned about lost love from the radio atop the kitchen table. “He’s got everything on, too,” Giddy said. “The dryer, the dishwasher, the radio. My dad would go batty.”
“I wonder what his electric bill is.” Giddy didn’t respond and instead opened his bag. I spied the colas he had bought at Mac’s.
“Give me one,” I said. He grabbed one and blindly tossed it to me. I opened it and drained half in one gulp. Giddy rummaged through the contents of the bag and pulled out the camera. He wound it and started clicking.
“Just something to do,” he said, snapping away before I could ask. After five photos he pocketed the camera. Giddy was in a new world, curious about everything. I, on the other hand, didn’t understand the allure – it was just another house – but Giddy opened every cupboard and drawer as if expecting to stumble upon firecrackers instead of plastic wrap and cooking utensils.
“Jackpot!” Giddy cried out, standing on a chair and opening a cabinet door above the oven. “I could see myself staying here a while.” I had never opened the cabinet above my parents’ oven myself, but I recalled my mother long ago mounting a stepladder to fetch a thing or two from it. She had stored kitchen appliances there that she didn’t often need: cookie cutters, a rolling pin, Dad’s anniversary juicer. But I had never seen a cabinet like Mr. Lawson’s.
“Are those all Twinkies?” I asked. Giddy stuffed one into his face and dropped the wrapper on the floor.
“No,” he replied, a spray of foam ejecting from his mouth. “Chocolate cupcakes, too. Tons of them.” I stepped onto the back of the chair and held tight to one of Giddy’s belt loops. Dozens of Twinkies were stacked in orderly rows and behind them stood the cupcakes. Giddy grabbed a handful and jumped from the chair, then dumped them onto the counter. His search continued. A square of light spilled into the space in front of us as he opened the refrigerator door.
“No way,” he said, mesmerized. I could see the fillings in Giddy’s lower row of teeth.
“What?” I asked, craning my neck.
“He must have a hundred juice boxes in here.” I took a look. The fridge at my house was laden with food I took to be normal – leftover casseroles, jams and jellies, a butter dish. But Mr. Lawson had stacked the bottom two shelves with juice boxes of every flavor. Even the vegetable drawer was full of them. Giddy plucked one from a shelf. He removed the plastic wrapping around the straw and stabbed it into the pouch.
“It’s the refrigerator of my dreams.” Giddy slurped it down and tossed the empty pouch on the counter. I checked my watch. Ten minutes gone.
“Giddy, what are we doing here?” I pleaded. “It’s dark out and we’re standing in the kitchen with the lights on. Anyone could see us.”
“Hike up your skirt, Boyd. How often do you pass a house at night and see people inside a lit room? We’re just two guys in a kitchen drinking juice. Why would anyone think that odd?” Giddy was right, we weren’t doing anything strange; we were just in a strange place doing it.
“But this house is huge. We don’t have time to look at everything.”
“Just a few more rooms. We can come back another time.” I gulped. We left the kitchen and entered the living room. It was also immaculately clean, albeit with different accoutrements. A long brown couch and side chairs formed a half-circle around a television set, and in the back corner, two deer heads affixed to opposing walls seemed to inspect those who entered. Between them was a fireplace and a picture-less mantel. I walked over and grabbed a poker.
“What’s that for?” Giddy asked.
“Just in case.”
We left the living room and turned down a long hallway. A thick glaze of emotion crept up into my mouth. I cleared my throat, pushing it back down. I ran my hand along the wall, fumbling for a light switch. My fingers traced a frame of some sort, then the socket of an outlet. The hallway was now as dark as blindness.
“Over here,” Giddy said.
“Where?” I whispered, stepping forward. I clutched for some part of Giddy but got nothing. A surge of fear rippled through my body but found no exit. It was a fear every child experiences at one time or another – a creak beneath a bed, the sound of an unknown barreling towards you in the night. I wanted to grab Giddy’s hand but shook it off, remembering that Giddy shaved and knew his way around a bra. Somehow that put us on unequal footing, and showing him my vulnerability at this moment would separate us even further. But then Giddy did the unthinkable by grabbing mine. It was a clumsy move, uncalculated, as he poked and prodded against my wrist and hip until he located my hand. His palm was hot and clammy, and it clasped mine unconditionally, Giddy no longer the experienced one. More than a moment and it became awkward; I pushed his hand away.
“Look,” Giddy said, stepping aside so I could see what stood before him. Just around a corner was a door I could barely make out, a nearby hallway window spilling just enough moonlight onto it to illuminate its features. It looked thick and heavy, out of place, like a front door of a house instead of an entrance to a room. Someone had slathered a coat of red paint over it, but sloppily, as if to return later to finish the job. Weirdest of all was the chest-high ledge that jutted from the door’s center. Above the ledge was a piece of wood the size of a lunch box, from which a tiny knob poked. Giddy pulled on it and a miniature door popped open. We took turns pressing our face into the door, much as we did our science lab microscopes in Mr. Martin’s class, squinting to make sense of an unfamiliar scene.
“I can’t see anything,” Giddy said.
“Let’s go,” I said. Exasperated, I leaned against the wall and felt a light switch jab me between the shoulder blades. I flipped it on, figuring we could now get our bearings in the hallway, but the room lit up instead. Enough light flowed through the miniature door that Giddy and I could finally detect our surroundings.
“Funny,” Giddy said, looking down at the doorknob. He yanked on a padlock the size of a softball. “Lock’s on the outside.” We looked at each other, then took turns again peering through the miniature door. In the middle of the room sat an old wooden chair, short lengths of rope tied to its legs. A ratty green and yellow tube sock lay lifelessly below it. Snug up against the back right corner of the room was a lumpy gray mattress, caked with dark splotchy stains. The only other items in the room were a scrub brush and black plastic bucket. All of this was oddly framed by the miniature door through which we gazed, making the visual horror seem televised.
“Jesus, Giddy,” I said, my voice quivering. “What is this place?” I looked at my watch. Almost twenty minutes had gone by.
“I don’t know,” Giddy replied. “But I wouldn’t want to spend any time here.” Unnerved, he pulled the camera from his back pocket, squished his face into the miniature door and took two photos. Then he stood and scratched his head. “I wonder if the pictures will come out better if we turn the light off in the room and use the flash.”
I couldn’t stand it any longer. I looked straight at Giddy. “Fuck your little photography studio. What are you going to do with those anyway? I want to go home.” I walked back down the hallway. Giddy loped after me and grabbed my shoulder but I shoved him off.
“What about Edwin?” Giddy asked. “We’ve hardly looked around.”
“Hey Edwin, you fat piece of shit! We’re here to rescue you!” I called out. My heart knocked around in my chest. There was no answer.
“See? He’s not here,” I said. “And what do you get out if it if he is?” Giddy wiped his nose along his arm and shrugged. “Think the fame will buy you a ticket out of here? Because it won’t.” We stood arguing in the living room now, a deer head behind each of us. But the longer we stood there the more I spoke and the more Giddy just looked at me.
“I don’t want to be here. I want out,” I said, poking a finger into Giddy’s chest. “We broke into some guy’s house, and it just so happens he’s a freak. But no matter what we find, we still shouldn’t be here.”
“Fine,” Giddy said. “Go home. I’ll find Edwin myself.” For an instant, Giddy and I stood in the living room and just stared at each other. Time had stopped and the house suddenly was ours. We didn’t try to conceal ourselves in the living room ablaze with light. I imagined residential variations of this moment – siblings and parents bickering about curfews and grades and chores – happening right now all across America. To anyone outside the house looking in, everything was normal.
And then it happened. I never saw it, but I remember the unshakable sounds: the unclicking of a leash, the slap of a hand against a hind leg. And then a line from Lawson that rattled my ears, spoken in a tone that made me shiver: “Good boy, Slobs. Let’s check on our visitors.”
The house undoubtedly had another way out, but although our bodies moved, our brains suffered at that moment from intellectual paralysis. Giddy and I beelined the only route we knew. We darted out of the living room and into the kitchen, where we skidded to a halt. Lawson entered from the mud room and now stood at the other entrance to the kitchen, his fist gripped around Slobs’s collar. A thick black wake of hackles plumed from Slobs’s back as he wheezed and flung gobs of saliva onto the shiny linoleum floor. Up on his hind legs, he was as tall as me and Giddy.
“That’s my poker,” Lawson said, looking at me. My white-knuckled fist curled around the poker in a death grip. I dropped it to the floor. It rolled a few times, coming to a rest at Lawson’s feet.
“And that’s not where it goes.” I went to pick it up but Lawson interrupted. “Leave it.” Giddy and I sidled up to one another and leaned against the kitchen island, ready to run around it or jump on top of it.
“Where’s Edwin?” Giddy asked. I’m sure he meant to ask this with authority, or with as much intimidation as he could work up his throat, but the words came out funny, exiting his mouth with the confidence of a man walking the plank.
“The fat little Chinese boy,” Lawson said. “He was on the news tonight, you know.” Slobs’s growls were getting louder, but Lawson jerked his collar back with a swift, violent motion. Slobs whimpered, then lay at his feet. Then Lawson clucked his tongue and smiled. “But you two weren’t watching the news tonight, were you?”
“So where is he? You had him in that little room with the red door, didn’t you?” Giddy was panting now, interrogating Lawson in a way that only a nervous fifteen-year-old could.
“Look at the mouth on this one,” Lawson said, eyeing me. “That room’s usually for storage. Books and old furniture, maybe a vacuum cleaner. But whatever’s running through your mind, I could have that room cleaned up long before the police even rang the doorbell.”
Lawson opened a drawer and pulled out a large knife. Giddy and I instinctively backed up. Lawson laughed. “Jumpy, you two!” He pulled an onion from a basket on the island and hacked it in half, then began dicing it. “Man’s gotta eat.”
“They’d find something. I saw blood on the mattress,” Giddy said.
“It’s not blood,” Lawson said. He reached for the basket and grabbed some garlic cloves. “You didn’t look in the black bucket did you?”
“The room’s locked.”
Lawson raised the tip of the knife to his lip, deep in thought. “Wait, of course. It is locked. That’s for the better.”
“Then you’ve got him in the basement.”
Lawson grabbed a few peppers from the basket and sliced them open. “I can assure you he’s not in the basement. I do have some secrets, but a tied up little Chinese boy is not one of them. Would you like to come down to the basement? I promise to leave the knife here.” Lawson laughed again, harder this time. A few of his back teeth were missing, white replaced with a gummy black darkness.
Giddy had had enough. He lunged for the drawer. He opened it and pawed for any kind of kitchen utensil that would allow us to negotiate, but there was nothing. I saw Giddy fumble past items whose utility was quite comical given the circumstances: a whisk, a rubber spoon, a spatula.
“This is what you’re looking for,” Lawson said, patting the knife block atop the island. And then he released Slobs. Slobs let out a low grunt and galloped over to Giddy, then latched onto his ankle. Giddy cried out in pain.
“Hold,” Lawson commanded. Slobs held tight, but the damage had already begun. His teeth punctured Giddy’s skin; thin ribbons of blood gushed from his ankle and dripped onto the linoleum. A sudden warmth trickled over my thigh, and I looked down to notice a dark patch in my shorts. Lawson laughed, then raised his voice and spoke with an authority that belied his small, chubby frame.
“You two little fuckers have broken into my house. No matter what you tell the police, I can have you two arrested. So here’s what happens now. You won’t tell anyone about this. Not what you saw behind the red door, and most definitely not what you saw in the basement, if you are lying to me and did indeed go down there after all.” He paused for a moment and broke from dicing up a pepper. Then he pointed the knife at me and spoke. “You – you have a choice. You either help your friend here or you make a run for it. What’s it going to be?”
“Please,” I pleaded. “We’re sorry. We’ll go and we won’t say anything.”
“No. Make your choice. Think you can make it to the knife block in time and fend for yourself against my boy here? Or are you quick enough to make it to the back door? Slobs can’t open doors. Not yet anyway.”
“Just let us go.” I wanted to talk my way out of this – for both of us – but all I could do was beg. Lawson began to count backwards from ten. Giddy writhed in pain as Slobs’s clutch on his ankle tightened. When Lawson reached three I looked over at Giddy.
“Boyd—” he said. A look of desperation spread across his face. He furrowed his brow and bit his lip. Two tears wended their way over his cheeks as a bubble of snot burst from his left nostril. Giddy, a master of every adolescent evil, was suddenly helpless. Giddy and I had waited on each other plenty of times before, one of us at a locker or a urinal, in the hallway before a class bell rang. I tried to channel these thoughts, remembering how easy and quick it was to wait for someone, but I couldn’t. Trivial reliance was all it had been, and what this was right now was anything but trivial. I tried to respond to Giddy, but my tongue was thick with adolescent disorientation.
Next to the back door was the kitchen sink, above which sat a window. Outside, a flood lamp lit up a slate patio and a barbeque grill. Beyond that was a table and a set of plastic chairs beneath an umbrella. I couldn’t see the crab apple trees that flecked the property line of the back yard, but I had to trust Giddy that they were there.
“I’m sorry,” I said, bolting for the door.
Lawson howled with laughter. “The boy chooses!”
I yanked open the back door and then kicked open a screen door, slamming it behind me. Then I ran. I ran faster than I ever had before – faster than I had as a child to embrace my mother waiting for me at the school bus stop, faster than I had to get home in time for a favorite television show. I sprinted into the darkness, wobbling over bumps in the terrain. After a few seconds I saw the glow of a lamp reflected off Lawson’s fence. The trees had to be close. A moment later and I had reached one; I gripped a low branch and swung myself up, my torso flat like a beach towel against the branch. I felt the branch buckle as I grabbed hold. Behind me I heard the sobs and screams of Giddy getting closer. I turned around but saw only Lawson, a small figure in the distance, fringed by the light of the deck’s flood lamp as he stood at the door.
“Keep running, Boyd!” Giddy cried out. A growl and a bark sliced through the silence of the night as Slobs sprinted towards us. I shimmied across the branch until I reached the trunk, then used the light of the street lamp to guide me over another branch so I could jump Lawson’s fence. Once at a safe distance, I turned around to see the silhouette of Giddy edge into the light, limping as he flung himself for a tree branch. Slobs was right on him, ripping out the seat of his pants as Giddy swung his legs up. He gained his purchase on the branch and flitted over towards the fence as Slobs ran in frenzied circles below us. In separate trees we wiggled our way out to the end branches that extended over the fence, then dropped ourselves into the safety of the sidewalk just beyond Lawson’s property. In the night we heard Lawson call off Slobs, who trotted back to the house.
Under the street lamp I saw Giddy flop to the ground and grab for his ankle. He winced in pain as he caressed it, then grabbed a Twinkie and a juice box from his olive bag. As he sat in silence I imagined the police arriving in minutes, breaking down Lawson’s gate, macing Slobs, wrestling Lawson to the ground. They’d find that room. That frightening, windowless room with the prison cell door and that fetid mattress in the corner, their jaws dropping in disbelief that something like that – whatever it was – could happen in this neighborhood, so close to home, right under their noses. They’d take Lawson away forever, and Slobs would be impounded and euthanized. Eventually new owners would move into Lawson’s house, maybe even rebuild.
Giddy would be alright. He’d carry the weight of a rattled ego for a while but his ankle would mend and he’d be a star, his story broadcast in hushed tones and farfetched proportions down every hallway in school. He’d no longer be a class clown, and he’d have stories to share for years.
Giddy pressed his back against the tree trunk and gingerly rose to his feet. I approached him and awkwardly placed a hand on his shoulder, too late to help him up and too distant to portray any show of affection. He pushed it off and then swung. The punch was lightning quick, my cheek cracking beneath the force of his fist. I must admit I wasn’t surprised by it; I would have done the same. I looked at Giddy but remained silent, rubbing my cheek as the whiteness of pain flashed in my eyes each time I blinked.
“I guess that’s it,” Giddy said. He picked up his olive bag and slung it over his shoulder, then limped down the sidewalk, disappearing into the darkness.
“Wait,” I called out. Giddy stopped and turned. This was the moment where I would apologize and tell Giddy my side of things, of how I was no match for Slobs, of how I just ran when I know I shouldn’t have. But Giddy wouldn’t accept it and I wouldn’t have either. I left him alone in that house to fend for himself. And I’d be lying to myself if I said I felt really bad about it.
“How did you get out?” I asked.
“He let me go. Told me to run.” I wanted to hear something more exciting, that Giddy had found a knife after all and had stabbed his way out of the kitchen.
“See you at school tomorrow?” I said, feeling odd as I spoke because I couldn’t see him.
“Let it go, Boyd,” he replied.
And that was it. I never told our story, and I don’t think Giddy did either. I never got questions or strange looks in the hall from kids I didn’t know. It turned out that Edwin was at a friend’s house after all; this came to light when the parents of Edwin’s friend – a fellow math club nerd – caught their son sneaking plates of food to the basement, where Edwin was holed up.
Giddy and I talked less after that. The arm-around-the-neck stuff was gone. I never heard any more about Giddy’s sexual exploits, which was fine by me anyway. We’d swap smiles on occasion, but the smiles were half-smiles, barbed with the knowledge that we shared secrets we wanted nothing to do with but couldn’t dismiss. We’d hang out less, but at school I’d see Giddy in the hallway with a scratch beneath his eye or his hair dyed black, and I’d just wonder. He’d see me looking at him and stare back, but then he’d walk away with some other boys I didn’t know, some kids who were like him and who looked like him, and I’d walk away too, with boys I knew, with boys who were more like me.
Bio: Warren Merkel is currently a doctoral student in the University of Iowa’s Foreign Language and ESL Education program. He lives in Iowa City with his wonderful wife and daughter.