Aaron was not known for his kindness. Although no one could pinpoint a time when he was cruel or rude, it was common knowledge that he was not the guy to look to for help. His father had been known to say, “if you got a choice between Aaron and the Devil, ask the Devil.” A lot of people were under the impression that his indifference was an after-effect of his 2nd oldest brother’s death, but those who knew him would tell you that he’d always been that way.
Next to his mother, Aaron took Ashur’s passing the hardest. His loss transformed his detachment into dissatisfaction and even four years later he was still nothing but fed up. The unsocialable aspect of his personality had become more apparent, but otherwise, it was hard for most people to tell the difference. His mother seemed to be the only one concerned.
The truth of it was, he just couldn’t be bothered and once his brother was gone, he found it difficult to even try. He wanted nothing more than to drop out of life. It was in the winter of his junior year that Ashur died; if it wasn’t for his brother’s love and passion for baseball, he would have quit the team then. Despite his disagreeable nature, he was close to his brother and mother, so in honor of Ashur’s memory and to ease his mother’s worries, Aaron figured he’d be better off maintaining amicable relations with his teammates, classmates, neighbors, and such. And though it infuriated him to no end, he tried to at least maintain a benign relationship with his father and oldest brother. That was quite a feat because he was sure he hated them even more than he did the kids who caused his brother’s death.
As the automated voice sang out “Loretto Avenue” for the second time, Aaron snapped out of his usual trance and readied himself to disembark in two more stops. When he graduated high school two years ago, he wanted to be done with the place; he could do without all of the constant reminders. Unfortunately, his father still worked in his alma mater’s athletics department and his bus stop was on the same corner; he found it too troublesome to get off a stop earlier or later, especially now when it was so cold, so he just quietly dealt with it, like he did everything else. Five at night and it was already this dark; he really hated this time of year.
Arriving home to be greeted by his parents’ four-year long silent argument was one of the things he did just about everything to avoid. Aaron dragged his feet alongside the school’s northwest gate in hopes of having the night to himself just a bit longer. As he approached the corner he heard moaning coming from the school grounds. There’s something to be said for horny teenagers, he thought to himself. For him, there was no desire great enough that he’d be compelled to get it on in below-freezing temperatures. The moaning continued and he now noticed some movements, but it was just one shadowy form. Masturbation? Freaky. The moans turned into stifled wails and he quickly realized there was nothing like gratification in those sounds. Overriding his choleric disposition, his conscience prompted him to climb over the gate. The moment his feet hit the ground, he headed toward the fading cries, though he could just make out the ground he tread.
He saw a skirt and long straight hair tossed about. He hesitated for a moment. If this girl was attacked, or even worse, maybe he shouldn’t be the one to help. He pulled out his phone and called his mother, but his call went straight to voicemail. He left a message and sent her a text and asked that she hurry, but in the mean time… what should he do? He didn’t trust the police, so they were the last ones he wanted to look to for help, but he couldn’t just leave her there. He moved closer, then stopped, thinking he should say something.
“Hey, are you alright?” His crystal clear baritone broke into the night, but for all he could tell, he may as well have said, “take me to your leader.” His intonation was unnatural; he spoke above his normal volume, intending to be as conspicuous about his actions as possible. The whole thing felt contrived, but he didn’t see any alternatives. “Do you want me to call the police, an ambulance, …your family?” No answer. Aaron wondered if she had comprehended anything he said or if he was even asking the right questions. Undaunted, he tried again.
“Hey, what’s your name?” he solicited patiently, inching closer, still unsure of how helpful he should be. He heard wheezing in response. “I’m Aaron; I live around the corner. Do you live around here?” He couldn’t help but cringe at his questions–they sounded like pick up lines.
He watched as the girl tried to get up, but came nowhere close to succeeding. You could say that she fell back down, but she hadn’t managed to get far enough off the ground to make that observation even remotely accurate. ” Do you need help? Do you want me to call someone?” There were a few coughs and then he made out the name “Kelly” beneath the hoarseness.
“Ah, Kelly?” He readied his phone. “I-I see that you’re not okay, but are you injured, bleeding?”
“Are you going to be alright? I can walk you home if you live close.” Pedophilia 101. Aaron knew it was a completely inappropriate thought, but his mind tended to go to strange places when he was out of his element.
It was getting darker which meant he could see even less now. He crouched down to try to make eye contact. He could see Kelly’s hand struggling to reach up. He grabbed it, but let go immediately; Kelly was ice cold. Aaron surveyed the scene. Hair matted to the face, skirt clinging to the thighs, shivering … Wet?! “Can–Can you stand?” It seemed to be too much effort for Kelly to say anything, but he got the message when Kelly’s arms went up. He leaned in and placed his arms under and lifted Kelly to a standing position. “What happened?!”
“Ho…Home,” and a nod in the general direction was all he got.
“I’ll walk you if you don’t mind.”
Aaron lent his arm and headed off once he felt Kelly’s grip on his jacket. The nearest gate opening was about 20 yards in the opposite direction of where they were headed. Kelly trailed behind with precarious steps, but by the time they finally exited the school grounds, it was more of a march, a stride more sure than it had been. Aaron thought that was a sign that things would be alright. They made their way along the perimeter of the school. As they approached the first street lamp on the block, he felt the pull on his jacket double and then slacken. Aaron turned to make sure everything was alright only to find Kelly hunched over and swaying. His body moved on its own accord to catch the now shuddering frame. Bodily contact was minimal when he picked Kelly up on the field, so he didn’t realized Kelly’s clothes weren’t just wet, they were completely soaked through. “Hey,” Aaron barked as he cradled Kelly in his arms, “how far do you live?!”
Under the ochre glow, he was finally able to get a good look at the stranger in his arms and then a spark of familiarity hit him. Long purple hair obscured a distinct profile while a garment reminiscent of 80s rock video Catholic school girl skirt swaddled otherwise exposed thighs. Aaron cursed to himself. Without a second thought, he scooped Kelly up and broke into a sprint. Even though his house was only a few yards to the right, he kept straight. All sorts of things ran through his head, but the worst–and he hoped it wouldn’t turn out to be that–was a repeat of what his brother went through, because this Kelly was a boy and he knew him.
He’d seen Kelly always wearing a hoodie, a plaid skirt, and high top Chuck Taylors–and leggings underneath when there was a chill in the air. As Aaron pushed on, the boy’s frozen sleeves surrounded his neck and it was starting to hurt; the wet was getting through. With only a block and a half to go, he was becoming anxious. “Hey, you listening?”
“You’re mom’s Miss Evelyn, right? Is she home?”
He decided to take that as a “yes.” He was so far out of his comfort zone, yet he hadn’t caught on at all. Leaving things as the were was Aaron’s default move, but as for current matters, he knew he couldn’t relax until he found out what happened. Stalling wasn’t an option, but his leggy 6’3″ frame was making short work of the distance. He pressed the drowsy kid for more information. What he got was a miscellany of nouns. He repeated the words to himself a few times, figuring he’d try to sort them out later.
Tired and frustrated, he lumbered up the path of the second to last of the odd-numbered houses. He guessed they must have a motion sensor because, even before he reached the first step, his mother’s bowling team captain was out the door, meeting him mid stride. Aaron only knew the lady from the team photos decorating his mother’s study, but he understood his mother held her in high regard.
She ushered Aaron into the house, through the kitchen, and up the back stairs while she bombarded him with questions he couldn’t answer. The most he could tell her was that some kids from the baseball team drenched him with water. But even with that, he qualified it by stating that it was merely conjecture. Evelyn blessed him with a hug–she smelled of lemon pound cake–and offered to dry his clothes and have her husband drive him home. He returned her thanks, but declined the offer, disclosing that he didn’t live far.
Less than an hour ago he was procrastinating on his way home, now, jogged unsteadily up the block only because he was too weary to sprint. Even without 150 lbs. of ice burdening him, his progression was slow; he felt like he was standing still. Five feet, four feet, three feet, two feet. Made it! The dining room light was on, but the house was quiet. He passed his mother’s Camry on the way in, but he didn’t see his dad’s Durango. It’s Wednesday, right? I guess they’re at church. It was the only reason he could think of for his mother not returning his call.
Like Kelly, his bedroom was also closer to the back stairs. He flipped on the hall light and stripped on his way up. By the time he got to his room, all that remained on him were his boxers and one sock. He dropped the other clothes on the floor, grabbed a towel, and then headed to the bathroom. To warm up his body slowly, first tepid, then hot, then three degrees from scalding. The falling water beat against his chest. He turned and lifted and stretched his limbs, making sure everything got wet. It felt good.
Sick, yesterday, tryouts, baseball, water, asswipes… The words played with each other in his head until he concluded that Kelly’s cold shower was courtesy of the baseball team and it had something to do with tryouts, which, if he recalled, would have happened last week. If he was calling them asswipes, it certainly wasn’t a friendly prank.
Now that he was sufficiently thawed, he soaped up, scrubbed up, and rinsed off. Sleep had the greatest appeal at the moment, but he had a paper to write, so off went the hot water and up went the cold. With this, a bowl of cereal, and some Propellerheads, he was sure he could bribe another three hours out of the day.
After his guaranteed-A paper was submitted, he crawled into bed. Aaron turned over the day’s events, speculating on their significance. The Sandman wasted no time in escorting him to the other side. It wasn’t until he was pulling the comforter over his head that he acknowledged exactly how troublesome his night had been. And it wasn’t until just before slumber had fully taken hold of him that it occurred to him that he didn’t mind at all.
Kelly’s body shook as he sank to the ground. Was he laughing that hard or did the cold water he was dripping with already negotiate its way through his wool jacket and the 3 layers beneath it? He couldn’t tell.
It was going to be another long walk home.
Nnnn… Nnnn… Nn? He panicked. “Maaaahhh,” the effort brayed his throat and he wheezed. “Mahhhhom! Hellllllllp! Hellllllp meeee!” His voice was but air and when he tried again, his esophagus constricted and he choked and gagged himself right into a coughing fit.
At the racket, Evelyn dropped the laundry basket, slipped out of her heels, and dashed up the stairs, two at a time. “Kelly?! Kelly, I’m coming!” She lost her footing as she rounded the corner that lead to Kelly’s room, but thank God for narrow hallways, her shoulder bumped up against the opposite wall and bounced her upright. As she crossed the threshold into her stepson’s room, she heaved, “Kelly?! I’m-I’m here! What happened?! What’s wrong?!”
One arm, extended, swung wildly about, its hand groping for who knows what, while the other arm covered his eyes. “Mom,” he gasped. “Eyes! My Eyes! I can’t see! Why?! Mooom?!” It burned, but sound did escaped.
Small, round hands that concluded in finely manicured French tips caught hold of the clammy hand with nails gnawed to the quick; they squeezed and the hand clutched back. Evelyn rid her voice of tension and fear, and calmly cooed, “baby, baby…I’m here. Let’s calm down. Can you do that for me?” As the warmth from her palms seeped into his, she felt Kelly’s grip relax. She continued, “you said you can’t see? Let me see your eyes.”
“I can’t open them,” he bawled.
“Can I move your arm?”
The boy sniffed and nodded. Feeling Evelyn’s soft caress on his forearm took him back to the day he first met her.
Kelly had finally convinced his father to take him shopping for a skirt. He’d been asking since the new year, but on account of all the clothes he barely had space for already, Jim wouldn’t allow another thread in the house until he out grew some. The Whitaker me were generally late bloomers and he being shorter than most seven year-olds was no exception. They also didn’t grow very tall; at scarcely six feet, Jim was the tallest man in their family. They lived a pretty comfortable life, but Jim had some rather frugal habits and tended to purchase his son’s clothing a size or two larger so he wouldn’t be troubled to buy any sooner than he cared to be bothered with. And though he didn’t really understand the circumstances, Kelly had a feeling that outgrowing anything was a thing far off.
A mass of dark auburn curls bounced and flopped atop Kelly’s head as he ran back and forth from the sales floor to the fitting rooms where his father stood sentry off to the left. The post gave the man an unobstructed view of his son’s comings and goings which afforded him the chance to react swiftly when the boy fell for the third time, but didn’t get up as quickly as he had before. It only took a few seconds to reach him, but by the time he got there, Kelly had been picked up, dusted off and was being tended to by, who Jim would later admit was, a very lovely woman and a child who looked to be about three or four years older than his own.
Kelly stood patiently in the shadow of his father. He tilted his head back to gain approval for what was taking place, but couldn’t make eye contact because Jim’s eyes were transfixed.
Though it was his son being treated, the stranger in her 50s styled attire seemed to have complete control over the situation as if she’d helped Kelly a million times before; he was further confounded by the unreasonable thought that he shouldn’t intrude. Kelly wasn’t a shy kid by any means, but he’d never been too keen on strangers. The scene before Jim alluded to nothing of the sort. He watched as the woman gently rubbed what smelled like iodine over a small cut on the boy’s forearm and the young girl sang a song he was certain she was making up as she went along.
Jim looked on dazedly until a spring green pillbox hat met him at eye-level. His eyes refocused and looked down to see a bundle of plaid skirts where Kelly’s face should have been and a gloved hand waiting to be received. He accepted the hand and expressed his thanks and urged Kelly to thank the nice lady as well. After introductions were made, Evelyn enquired about the boy’s spoils.
“Are these for him?”
A crease formed on his brow as his back straightened and his arms folded across his chest. “Yes,” he answered defensively.
“Hmmn… well, it would probably be best if he looked in the other section.”
“He wants a skirt,” he explained, his voice full of feigned civility. “There are skirts in this section. Why should he look elsewhere?”
She ignored his tone and gestured towards the racks behind her, “this is the section my daughter shops, and as you can see,” she gestured to her left, “Gina is more than twice his size; it will be a while yet before he’ll be able to fit anything over here.”
Jim hung his head for a second and then lifted it to apologize, but was halted by the gloved hand.
“No need to make apologies; you’re in a difficult position, so it’s understandable, but I’d suggest you wait until the other party actually meets your expectations before baring your fangs.”
He couldn’t argue. “Duly noted.”
Kelly wasn’t sure what just happened, but since his father was smiling again, he assumed everything must be alright.
Nearly ten years had passed since then and not much had changed. Evelyn still had everything under control, his father still stared dazedly at her, Gina still made up songs, and not a day went by that he didn’t have a reason to thank the nice lady.
Kelly exhaled as Evelyn’s hand swept purple strands to the side of his face. While most 17 year-olds cringed at the thought of being babied, he was thankful that his stepmother allowed him to act like a needy child every once in a while.
Evelyn held her pearls as she leaned over to plant a kiss on her big baby’s forehead. “Baby,” she laughed, “you’re not blind; you just have sleep in your eyes.”
“Just give me a minute, I’ll be right back.” She patted his hand and placed it at his side before leaving the room.
He heard the front door close. Kelly turned his head toward the sound. “Mom?” There was no response, but the jingling of keys told him that it was Gina and the unmistakable scent of strawberries told him she had just come from getting her locs re-twisted. He heard his step-sister greet their mother and once the voices grew closer, he turned his head back toward the window.
Evelyn returned with a hot washcloth that had been wrung out just enough so that it wouldn’t drip. Her daughter followed closely behind.
“Hey sickface! I hear you went blind!”
“No-oo-o,” he whimpered as his hands covered his eyes.
“Gina!” Evelyn scolded. “Since you’re not going to be helpful here, go put away the linens I dropped in the living room.”
“Maaaan,” she complained while exiting the room, “I don’t even live here anymore and you’re still puttin’ me to work.”
With washcloth in hand, Evelyn perched on the edge of the bed with a warning, “this is going to be hot. I just need you to hold it over yours eyes for a few minutes, okay?”
“Nnnnn,” he groaned. “Will this be enough? I feel like my eyes were hermetically sealed.”
“Haha! Don’t be so dramatic,” she teased. “For the past three days, you’ve done nothing but sleep, cry, and cry yourself to sleep. Although your dried tears and a lot of sleep have collected in your eyes causing them to be crusted shut, it hasn’t reached the point of being bulletproof, so a little steam should suffice.”
As much as he could in his weakened state, he cracked up. “I can’t believe that’s all it is. Oh, God! Please don’t tell Dad about this. He’s worse than Gina; he’ll never shut up about it.”
“Alright, but on one condition…”
“Uhhhh… what is it?”
“The young man that brought you home wasn’t able to tell me much, so I’ll need you to fill me in on why you came home soaking wet when it hasn’t rained for days.”
Northeast High School was a hub for some of the brightest young minds in the city. In addition to having one of the most sought after music programs and being an IB Programme school, Northeast was home to the first high school space research program in the country, SPARC. This much-awarded program is what initially drew Aaron to the school and with his father working there and living a stones throw, he couldn’t have imagined a more apropos confluence of circumstances. All that promise was surrounded by sprawling lawns and unassuming late 50s architecture.
Classes had already let out by the time Aaron passed through the slate-sided foyer. Upon entry into the main hall with its trophy cases and wall of fame, he was embraced by an amalgam of turpentine, chalk dust, pine cleaner, rubber, and Freon; this is what public schools smelled like. All of them. Or at least all of the ones Aaron had been in. It had been his plan to never step foot in one again, especially his alma mater, but plans change. Between his double course load, studying, and job, it was rare that he and his father were home at the same time. Usually this was preferred, but there was something he need to discuss and it couldn’t wait.
He made his way to the administrative office to pick up a visitor’s pass. Being an alumnus and the child of a faculty member, he was easily recognized. A mirthful looking woman who he had never seen before handed him a handwritten pass and told him she would call a head to let his father know to expect him.
Over the course of its 100+ year history, the school had amassed countless accolades, so many, in fact, that the plaques and conferments spilled out of the main hall and into some of the arterial corridors. Memory lane was not on his list of stops to make, so he took the only route that was memorabilia-free. It was the longest way around, so when he finally arrived, his father’s assistant asked if he had gotten lost. He flashed a counterfeit smile and shrugged.
Chelsea had only been his father’s assistant for a year or so and though he had spoken to her on the phone a number of times, Aaron had only met her face to face once before. She was probably in her early thirties, fit and, little flirtatious.
“Mr. Marruz, Aaron’s here.”
He didn’t like the way she said their name; her tongue lingered too long on the trilled Rs and her teeth rode out the Z. He could hear the exaggerated pucker of her lips and the baring of her teeth. Even without looking, Aaron knew it was all very Jerri Blank. Since his father had eyes for no one but Hadassah Marruz, he made no mention of it. It had probably been a month since they last spoke. Not that they had exchange a great deal of words then either; conversation was hard to come by since Ashur died. And even after all that time, he still couldn’t tell if his father felt the distance between them. No matter the situation, Nicolau was just as jovial as his son was aloof.
When he knocked on the door post, his father looked up from cleaning his glasses.
“If it isn’t the hero!” His words bounced with an ease that got under Aaron’s skin. “Since when do you wear a cape?”
“I wanted to talk to you about that.”
Nicolau swiveled in his chair to face Aaron and presented the seat to his left. Aaron held up his hands to decline and then clasped them together as if to wring them.
“It seems as if the kid was being bullied by some guys on the baseball team.”
“Heh, bullied? Is he crying about a little water?” he laughed.
There it was again. That contentment that obscured everything. Or was he really bothered by nothing?
“Yes, bullied! And it wasn’t a little water! It was 30º and he was ice cold when I touched him!
“Well, I’m sure if he had dressed properly, he would have been fine.”
“That kid can’t weigh much more than a buck-fifty and carrying him felt like 200! His clothes were soaked and he was freezing. He could have caught pneumonia.”
“I don’t think we’ve gotten any invitations to a funeral or a wake, so he’s fine now, right?”
At his sides, his fingers formed fists involuntarily. His shoulders tensed and raised. He felt his ears getting hot–that was always a bad sign. “If I hadn’t found him when I did and he died on school grounds, then what? Would you still be talking about how he was dressed?!”
“But the boy’s alright, right? Since everything worked out, I don’t see any reason to fuss. Heh, heh. This should give him a good story to tell.”
“A good story?! He could have died; what don’t you understand about that?! Everything’s not fine just because he didn’t! That was a dangerous prank, those kids need to be held responsible for their actions!” The side of his fist belted the file cabinet fastened to the metal shelving to his right; it rattled and clanked in its spot. It was doubtful its moorings could withstand another blow.
“You seem to care more about this than the kid; I haven’t heard anything about him complaining. Besides, they’re all kids, the lot of them, they’ll grow out of it.”
“Ash was a kid, too! And so were the guys who bullied him day in and day out for 3 years! They never grew out of it and look what happened! You telling me that you’re going to sit back and let it happen again?!”
Nicolau sat up in his chair and crossed his arms. Looking over his glasses with his head tilted slightly to the right, he regarded his youngest son. “N-Now,” he stumbled, the succor a little less present than it was a moment ago, “what happened to Ash was…”
“‘What he deserved’?”
“Who would say such a thing? No, what happened to him was unfortunate; no family should have to experience loss like that.”
Aaron couldn’t deny his father’s verbal dexterity. Four years ago, there was a lot of press about the incident, shining a light on his family and the school. The man had managed to sail through several months of relentless questioning without ever once actually saying that his son’s death sadden him. It was all about “the family” and how he didn’t want it to have a negative effect on the other students–they had so much to live for. It was a load of crap that he served up and was still serving up to this day.
The day Ashur told his father that he was bi, but had a greater preference for men, was the last day father and son spoke. That was a year before he died. So, Nicolau’s attitude came as no surprise to Aaron, but he hoped that, at the very least, his father wouldn’t be an accomplice to another family’s misery.
“Fine! You can keep passing for human with that serpent’s tongue of yours, but I’m telling you now,” his voice dropped a few octaves as his jaw tightened and his brows narrowed, “if I have to do something about it, you’ll wish you had.”
Aaron flew out of the office and down the first corridor. Screw the memories, he just wanted to get out of there as soon as he could.
Kelly tried to sit up and whined as he got stuck halfway; his shoulders and back just locked in place. Everything hurt. The worst had passed, but everything hurt. He didn’t care, though, because he was tired of being in bed.
It was a double and wide enough to accommodate him rolling over without rolling off, so he thought he would try that. Not so easy. Rocking side to side to gain momentum lulled him into a state of discomfort akin to being spun around while hanging upside down. He tried for one final push and found himself lying uncomfortably on his left side. He wiggled and inched his way to toward the edge until his legs were hanging off. With just the right amount of hip action, he managed to roll and slide his way onto the floor. He forgot to free himself from his covers, so they came with him, but nevertheless, mission accomplished!
And with that, he was done. Sprawled on the floor, he’d now patiently wait for his sister to visit or for his parents to return from the meeting with his principal.
Part of him wanted to let the whole drenching incident pass, but a greater part of him didn’t want to contribute to the advocacy of such behavior. He did nothing wrong and refused to feel guilty about it. But even if he wanted to slink into the shadows, his family wouldn’t let him. He had both his mother and his sister by at least six inches, but neither one of them would hesitate to greet his butt with their foot if there was a need to.
“Kel!” Gina yelled from the back stairs. “Are you awake?”
He rapped on his bedroom floor; it was the only bare one in the house–everything else was covered in carpet or tile.
“Have you eaten yet? Are you hungry?”
Two knocks for “no” and four knocks for “yes.”
Knock, knock, knock, knock.
“How about biscuits and sausage?”
Knock, knock, knock, knock.
She made breakfast for him enough to know just how he liked everything, so she didn’t bother asking, but it wasn’t as if it mattered this time because she knew he couldn’t taste anything. When she brought the food to his room, the tray nearly slipped out of her hands as she erupted with laughter. “What in the world are you doing?!”
About a half hour had passed since he made it to the floor and in that time, with the exception of one hand, he had managed to swaddle himself from head to toe with the covers. “Help,” he sputtered.
Gina thought he looked like an inchworm with his butt hoisted in the air. She placed the tray on his ottoman and tried to hold back her giggles. “How did this happen? Do you want to get back on the bed?”
“Just… sit up,” he groaned.
After righting him, unwrapping him, and handing over the tray, she couldn’t hold back anymore and cackled and snorted herself onto the floor. When she finally caught her breath, she looked up to see that Kelly wasn’t eating. “Ah! No spoon! Sorry, be right back!”
Gina stayed long enough to wash the lunch dishes and hand-off caretaker duties to their dad. “Where’s mom?” sounding disappointed.
“That’s all I get after not seeing you for a month?”
Gina smiled, stood on her tip toes, wrapped her arms around Jim’s neck, and launched a raspberry kiss attack. “I missed you, Daddy! How was your trip?”
He gave his step-daughter a tight squeeze and then kissed her forehead. “It was fun. Saw a lot of people that I completely forgot about. It’s amazing how everything looked the same as it did 20 years ago. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing, though. The weather was great, too, but I was glad to come home. What about you? Are going this week or next week?”
“I was supposed to leave this week, but the museum still needs help dismantling the exhibit, so probably next Wednesday.”
“Such a good kid, you are,” he delighted as he gently tugged on the only loc that escaped her messy bun. “Your mom’s at the pet store.”
“The meeting stressed her out that much?”
“Yeah. Is Kel awake?”
“He should be. I have to run, so if I don’t see you before I leave, be good, Daddy!”
When his dad reported that the three boys were now facing suspension, Kelly sent a text to his best friend, Gavin, to find out if he knew anything. As they sat down to an early dinner, Evelyn expressed her concerns about possible retaliation. Father and son looked at her, then at each other, and then back at her and in accord said, “it’ll be fine.” Of course they didn’t think that nothing would happen; actually, they both assumed that the boys might confront him face to face, and if that was the case, it would definitely be better than their previous sneak attack. Although Kelly only weighed in at 147 lbs., he was six feet tall with a proportionately longer reach, quick reflexes, and delivered a lot pain with every punch. Three might be a bit difficult to take on, but it wasn’t as if he hadn’t faced this situation before. Jim didn’t advocate violence as an all-counts solution, but he knew that sometimes it was the only way to shut some people up. His son had a good head on his shoulders, so he trusted him to know the difference.
Evelyn understood her boys, so she only asked that he be careful.
“I promise.” He smiled widely and framed his face with his hands. “I can’t risk marring this work of art. OW!”
Jim smacked him on the back of his head. With a mouth full of steak, “don’t you have homework to do?”
“You’re sending me back already?” his voice cracked and his words were tangled up in disbelief.
“Of course not. You’re still too pale and wheezing too much, so we’re keeping you home, but you’re not dying, so don’t slack.”
“Why are you treating him like it’s his habit?”
“Ev, he’s a smart one, but you know, sometimes he’s too smart.”
She looked at Kelly knowingly, “don’t slack.”
“Et tu, Mom? Et tu?”
A week seemed excessive, but he really needed it. The aches didn’t subside until Thursday night and Friday morning was the first day he could breathe without the hiss and rattle. As he shuffled to the bathroom, Kelly gagged at the thought that after a week of vague hints of nothing, the first thing his taste buds were going to recognize was toothpaste. “Gahhh, mint.” But the aroma of cinnamon and honey that filled the house meant he had something better to look forward to.
When he returned to his room, the blue notification light on his phone was blinking steadily. It was a follow up text from Gavin. He had been apprising him of the goings on throughout the week. He learned that the boys were, in fact, suspended; that there were whispers of a uniform policy; and that their club had received the grant for the summer camp. Gavin stopped by after school on Thursday to bring the rest of his homework and fill him in on the details.
Kelly’s eyes and mouth watered as he sat down to a plate of challah french toast, pecan butter, crème fraîche, turkey sausage, and Gorgonzola scrambled eggs. “Moooom.” His mouth missed food.
“Hm?” her eyebrows hitched as she savored a forkful of eggs.
She looked up, “yes?”
“Mooooommmmm, this is so good!
“Welcome back to the land of the living. You look better, but how do you feel? Are you up for today?”
Between mouthfuls of challah, “Five dollar bolts, Mom! I can’t miss that! When was the last time Fabric Row had this kind of sidewalk sale?!”
“Alright,” she hummed as she contemplated whether more tea or more sausage would make her meal complete, “but don’t pass out on me, I just had my nails done.”
“Come on, Mom…”
They congratulated themselves for thinking ahead and bringing a shopping cart to haul their finds, but even with that they had already made a second trip back to the car to empty it for another round. With only one block left to tour, Evelyn mulled over lunch options. Kelly’s favorite steak joint was around the corner, so he probably wanted to eat there, but she was in the mood for Thai at Tamarind. “Rock paper scissors?”
“Ishkabibbles or Tamarind.”
“…Why don’t we just go to Tamarind. It’s cold and Ishka doesn’t have seating.”
She chuckled as her hand reached up to pat his cheek, “we raised you right, we did.”
“You did, you did,” he chirped.
Evelyn’s hands patted her full belly as they exited the restaurant. Since they were in the area, she wanted to pop into Long in the Tooth to look for some more Johnny Cash to torture her husband with, but she didn’t want to wear Kelly out. “How are you holding up?”
He pulled his hat down over his ears and his coat sleeves down over his gloves. Kelly didn’t mind the winter weather, but he wished it didn’t require so many layers. He was lost in his head, sketching out patterns for his new skirts, when he was nudged back to reality. “Hunh?”
“How are you holding up? Tired? Want to call it a day?”
His lips puckered in consideration, “well, it’s cold so I’d like to be inside, but that doesn’t have to be home. You have something else to do?
“I wanted to run up to LitT, if you can take it…?”
“Sure, sure, sure. That’s the one in Rittenhouse, right? Across from the guitar store?”
“Yes, that one.”
The last block of the sidewalk sale netted Evelyn and Kelly empty hands, so he still had some cash to spend before his budget broke. Were record stores required to be dim, he coughed, and dusty? The moderately spaced overhead fluorescent lighting enhanced the basement atmosphere of the ground floor. And although the ceiling wasn’t low, and he was only 6 feet, he felt too tall for the space. He wandered around stopping at random bins and casually flipped through the vinyl and CDs; he searched for nothing in particular. The store’s movie selection held his attention, but he didn’t think he’d have time to enjoy anything that he needed to sit still for in the coming weeks. He continued his wandering and just when he had thought of something to look for, he noticed his step-mother enthusiastically waving him over. He saw her turn her attention downward and grin at something or someone he couldn’t see. Evelyn was only 5’2″, so he figured, if it was a person, it had to be a child, but in this record store? As he rounded the end of the aisle, he almost stepped on a guy who was crouched low on the tile floor. He looked familiar in the frequently-used-catalog-model kind of way.
Evelyn beamed as she introduced Kelly to the squatter. “Since you had no idea about the guy who brought you home last week, I wondered how he knew you.” Her gloved hand gracefully swept in the guy’s direction. “This is Aaron Marruz; it turns out he’s Hada’s youngest son. You know, from my bowling team?”
When Aaron stood up, the light in their corner was dimmed by half. Now understanding why he thought he’d seen him before, Kelly quickly appraised him and wondered why this guy, who was taller than him, appeared to fit more comfortably between the floor and the ceiling than he did. It annoyed him.
Aaron gave a half smile and offered his hand, “nice to see you upright and lucid.”
Kelly stared blankly at the hand; he was rendered inert by the vague memories of that day. How do you face someone that saw you in such a state and essentially saved your life? Should I be embarrassed?
Aaron watched as the boy removed a leather-clad hand from his pocket to acknowledge the greeting.
“Thank you. Thank you very much.”
“You’re welcome. How are you?”
Kelly lifted his arms up as if he was wading through rising waters and quickly inspected himself, “I’m fine I guess, though it’s the first day I can say that.”
“I’m going to make my way to the register and leave you guys to it.” Evelyn looked at Aaron, almost teary-eyed, and thanked him with a tight hug, “God bless you. And thank you, again.”
Aaron honored the gratitude with a genuine smile.
The silence that remained was cumbersome. Kelly had no clue what to do with it; his step-mother knew he’d never been good with these things, yet she still abandoned him. He already thanked the guy, what more did he need to do? Meanwhile, while Aaron didn’t favor entertaining strangers either, but the half-baked account he had of that incident nagged at him to get the whole story.
He tried to find a segue, but came up with nothing, so he just went for it. “What happened before I found you that day?”
Kelly’s eye twitched, which it had been known to do when he was irritated. Does saving someone’s life entitle a person to the full story? Would it be rude to forego an explanation? These thoughts left him harried. Kelly turned to face his paladin with his full attention; he intended to respectfully decline. However, while the tone of Aaron’s voice had failed to reveal whether it was curiosity or concern that fueled his interest, the look in his eyes confessed something that was not entirely germane to their encounter. Kelly hesitated for a moment–his interest was piqued, thus his resolve to keep mum crackled and waned. “Are you done here?”
“OK. We’re heading home, we can talk there. Do you need a lift?”
Curiosity had been having it’s way with him since that night. Aaron could not withstand its gravity; he resented it and ached for the day when it released him. But until that day came, he was bound to it, so he acquiesced, “…sure.”
At the time he delivered the shivering boy to his home, he noticed the mid-century touches here and there throughout the main floor. Also, the wardrobe Evelyn had come to be known for was a dead giveaway of her tastes, but the Whitaker’s basement was on a whole other level. Chrome and vinyl everywhere; it looked like a pop shop. Aaron stood at the bottom of the stairs, marveling at the cleverly appointed space. Chrome trimmed many edges, including the bar counter and stools, a black and white checkered tile floor was underfoot, vinyl upholstered booths lined the right wall, and a flat-screen outfitted with a wooden cabinet was the center piece in a out of the way lounge area–it was a sight to see.
“Hunh? Oh, yeah. It’s really cool.”
“Except for the barback and the jukebox, my mom built and restored everything herself.”
Aaron was amazed. With that kind of determination, he could see why his mother admired her. Kelly gestured toward the corner booth, so he followed. Now that he was seated, he noticed the delicate aqua pin-striping on the smokey gray vinyl seats. Everything was so precise; he wondered if they ever used it or if it was just for show.
“Anything to drink? We have water, pineapple, cranberry, OJ, seltzer, uh,” he stooped down to get a better view of the mini fridge’s contents, “there’s also club, ginger ale, Coke, and Sprite.
“Ginger ale is fine. Uh, no ice, please.”
“Sure thing.” he prepared two glasses of ginger ale and a separate tumbler with just ice. He debated whether he should talk about the incident first or ask him why he’s interested. He set the glasses on the table and slid all the way into the booth–it was his favorite spot. Though he wasn’t completely relaxed, the comfort of the familiar made Kelly feel less anxious about the conversation that was ahead of him. “Sooooooo…?”
“Yeah. Uh, I guess it’s probably the last thing you want to talk about, but if you don’t mind…”
“I wasn’t going to, at first, but it’s whatever now. I guess it’s the skirts, but the one, the tallest one, Darren, I don’t know he’s a little different than the other two.”
“You said something about try-outs that night…?”
“…Yeah. They announced the times of the try-outs over the PA, so Darren, he’s in my history class, I asked him about the team. He wasn’t so forthcoming and looked at me like I was invading his privacy or something. Then, I think it was a few days later when they started snickering at me in the halls. I think they were following me because I never ran into them in the halls before and I only knew Darren from that one class. Anyway, the snickering turned into mumbled comments about my skirts and stuff and then, the Friday before tryouts, they followed me after school and told me that they didn’t want any ‘fags’ on their team.”
His nose wrinkled. He took a big gulp of his ginger ale and stared at Kelly who took on a pinkish hue under the fuchsia lamp that hung above their heads. “Did you tell anyone?”
“Nah. I wasn’t going to get tangled up with them over some stupid comments. Plus I’m used to crap like that.”
“Used to it?”
“Oh! Not like I’m OK with it, but I can’t go ballistic every time idiots speak. There’s just too many of them.”
Aaron’s eyebrows raised and his mouth turned down as he nodded in agreement. “Did you go to try-outs?”
“Yeah.” Kelly leaned forward and smacked the table in time with his words. “I had on pro-flares and a blank jersey, and they still had something to say about it. And the coach didn’t do anything. He only told them to stop playing around and even though he saw what was going on, he still put me with them and then walked away. I had to bat against James–he’s a prick,” he falls back against the seat, “and I don’t think it has anything to do with me. That dude tried to clock me, twice, but then he got pissed when I hit the balls.” Kelly shrugged. “But if he had managed to hit me, I’d probably be telling a different story.” Out of habit, he ran his hand across the wall ledge and crooked his index finger under a flush notch. He rummaged about until he found what he was looking for. Out of the discrete storage and onto the table came a deck of cards. “Humbug or Conquian?”
Philadelphians play cards. For money, for fun, for distraction, or simply to break the ice. Some considered it a social device like drinking or smoking, so it wasn’t strange for someone to pull out a deck at any given moment. Although Kelly wasn’t a native, he adopted the propensity quite easily. Evelyn taught him a number of games, but he had a special fondness for Conquian; he was the reigning champion in the Whitaker house and had only one loss to his name amongst his Interact club. Even though he was in his favorite spot in his own home, the whole talking to strangers business still had him feeling a little unsettled. He hoped talking over a game or two would make it easier, because he still had his own curiosity to satisfy.
Aaron pushed his empty glass to the side and looked Kelly in the eyes. He threw down the word as if it were a gauntlet, “Conquian.”
“You look more like Humbug.”
“You should hold off judgement until the end.”
Kelly discarded the 8s, 9s, and 10s, and began to shuffle. He then looked at Aaron who was looking at him.
“Aces low!” they both asserted.
“…Just making sure,” Aaron stated as he rolled up his sleeves, “some people…”
Aaron slowly lowered his gaze to the shuffled deck that had been placed before him. He didn’t come to socialize, but it was rude to refuse a game. It was even more rude to talk about anything other than the game during the deal, so he cut the deck and waited until they both had their 10 cards before he tried to advance the conversation. He considered his hand. Not great, but workable. He had first pluck.
They found themselves too engaged in the game to talk about other things. Aaron noticed that Kelly counted and silently applauded him for doing it in such a way that it would slip under the radar of some of the most seasoned players.
On the other hand, Kelly couldn’t pin down Aaron’s strategy; it seemed both haphazard and calculated, but his meld appeared deliberate. He wondered if the guy was lucky or just that good. When he went out on the first round, he settled on lucky. “You sure you don’t want to play Humbug?”
“You’re judging me again.”
“Alright, it’s your call. I don’t mind winning again.” He gathered the cards and pushed them across the table–it was Aaron’s turn to deal.
Thirty minutes and five games later, Kelly was huddled face down on the table–he’d never been so thoroughly and swift beaten. It turned out that Aaron was a speed player who was haphazard and calculated who had played the first round in observation mode. Kelly was dumbfounded. How could he play at that pace and carry on with such a heavy topic? He had been able to go out five times in a little over a half hour, and two of those rounds ended before Kelly even had one spread. “Nonsense! Who are you!” he groused.
Aaron snickered, “I told you to reserve judgment until the end. Now, back to what I was saying before you lost so splendidly… What are you going to do about all this?”
“Well, you said that even though you were better than most of the guys trying out, you still didn’t make the team, but you want to play, right?” And they were suspended, but what about when they return?
“I… I guess if they let it go, I’ll let it go. I’ve been playing since I was four, so I want to continue, but I don’t need to play for them. Plus, I don’t like the coach and at least two of the star players have an issue with me. I’m not welcomed. So, I don’t want to force them to accept me because I don’t want to play in that kind of environment. There’s no fun in that, you know? I don’t have anything to prove.”
“And when they come back?”
“I won’t be faggin’ up their team, so they should be fine. And if they’re not, I’ll deal with it then.”
Aaron’s face turned sour at Kelly’s choice of words. He remembered that Ashur had hid it well; he never reacted to any of the name calling and taunting and he made Aaron promise to do the same. Aaron knew now that he’d probably never regret anything more. “Are–”
“Is it my turn?”
“Kel! Are you down there?!”
He looked over his shoulder towards the stairs, expecting to see Gina skitter down, but she didn’t come. Kelly excused himself and poked his head into the stairwell. “I’m here. Come down and say ‘thank you.'”
Aaron looked on.
Gina made her way into the basement, dragging a full garment bag behind her. “‘Thank you’ for what?”
Kelly gestured toward the corner booth.
“Hi.” She turned to Kelly and mouthed, “who is he?”
“I’m–” Aaron started.
“He’s Miss Hada’s son, the one that brought me home.”
“Oh! Hi!” Pushing her brother aside, She slammed her palms on the table top, “thanks for helping my brother out! That was really nice of you. Thank you!”
Normally he would have stood up to shake her hand, but she, barely 5’6″ on a good day, was crowding him. So, Aaron just nodded and accepted her thanks.
While it was her habit to entertain handsome men, she came for a reason, so she turned her attention back to Kelly. “I know you’re busy, but can you finish taking in these? She held up the garment bag. “I’m leaving on Tuesday.” She snuggled up to him, “please?”
“Oh…” Before the incident, Kelly was working on taking in the waist on a handful of dresses their mother gave to Gina, but he was about to have his curiosity sated, so he hesitated to answer. “Uhh…” He turned to Aaron and asked if he didn’t mind picking up some other time.
“I heard his brother died.”
Kelly eased his foot off the sowing machine’s pedal and turned to Gina, “who?”
“Whatshisface? The guy that just left.”
He thought on it and, for a moment, considered whether or not it was unrelated to Aaron’s interest in him. Nevertheless, he wanted to know, “how?”