The Bogeyman didn't haunt my dreams last night. Though I spent half the evening drawing him hunt through a snow-packed field, he didn't occupy my thoughts either. I got to thinking about Jamie Durkin. Thought about his brother Junior too, though I hadn't met him yet, but mostly I thought about Jamie.
Every town has a bastard, I thought, Tuckettsville has him. I couldn't stand him. It was the catty fucking way he came up to Brandon in front of his friend and uncle and broke the news about Leighann. I'd only seen him the once (and I'd be more than happy if I never saw him again) but I hated him there and then. I hated the living shit out of him. Maybe the angry thoughts put me in good rest because I woke up the next morning with a smile on my face and without a head full of Bogeyman.
I felt pretty damn good actually. As usual, before I did anything, I went to my gmail inbox through my iPhone (Mr. Wimmer was cool enough to let me use the household wireless) but I noticed the little red dot marked (1) on the 'messages' tab. I tapped it with my thumb and saw my Dad's number.
8.34am, his call came. We last spoke two weeks ago when I called and told him I was spending the summer in Florida with my friend Brandon and his family. "Fine," he said, "I'll tell your grandma. She'll be disappointed."
If he was disappointed, then nothing in his voice said so. There were piles of slag more expressive than Jeff McKee. We hadn't been face-to-face in a year and even in Strawberry Point we didn't see each other much but I still saw him clear in my head. He had the most distinctive face I'd ever seen on a man, hands down. Wrinkles and furrows cracked through the slate of his face, his jaw was square rock and his brow slanted over his eyes like ridges. He had the hands of a coal miner. There was always a cigarette in his perpetual frown of a mouth, even when Gramma got mad at him for it.
She must've chiselled him out of stone, I always thought.
He's never been the same since Mom disappeared. He never told me he loved me or said he was proud, never hugged me; he barely even looked at me. But I didn't hate him. My Dad worked like a dog on a wind farm. His boss was an out-of-towner I knew he hated and the money paying for my tuition cost almost half his savings since 2002. Between him and Gramma I never went hungry or cold or wanted for anything I really needed, despite everything (BOGEYMAN). I couldn't complain.
I straightened out and thumbed Dad's tab on my contacts.
"Hello?" he said.
"It's me, Dad."
"I'm at work," he said, his voice all gruff and hoarse. "I can't talk long."
"I know. I'll be quick. I just... wanted to say I'm sorry I missed your call and I'm... I'm in Florida now with Brandon and his folks. I'll be back in New York next month. Tell Gramma I'm okay and that the Wimmers have been generous and hospitable and everything. They're taking good care of me. Tell her I'll call her when I get back."
"I will," Dad said. "Was there anything else?"
"Okay. I'll talk to you soon."
'Soon' is next month, isn't it, Dad? "Sure. Seeya."
That morning Mrs. Wimmer was whipped up toasted English muffins, hash browns, and sausages. A coffee pot and cream sat next to the empty plates that Mr. Wimmer handed out to Katy and me. His back pains had calmed down enough for him to get up and around, but it was obvious he was still sore from the gingerly way he moved around the table.
"He's got scoliosis," Katy told me when we passed each other by the bathroom that morning. "Since he was a kid. He gets around pretty well most of the time but if he stands too long or he carries too many things the pain flares up on him."
Guy looks so young for back pain, I thought. After three unsuccessful courses of physical therapy, some unhelpful experiments with Tylenol and Darvocet, and months of irate phone calls, letters and emails from Savannah; the GP prescribed him with Vicodin to help him cope with the spasms. It occurred to me that Mr. Wimmer had offended his back with that long drive up to and back from Jacksonville two days ago, and I felt guilty.
"I'll help, Mr. Wimmer," I said, standing up.
He didn't smile but I could tell he was grateful for the help. When I finished setting the table Mrs. Wimmer was back with five ceramic cups on a silver tray. I took them from her and set them all down and I blushed when she called me a 'gentleman'. The four of us sat down to eat.
I tipped my cup with coffee and Katy was buttering a muffin when Mrs. Wimmer turned to him and smiled. "Do you know who was asking for you yesterday?"
"I don't know," Katy shrugged. "Who?"
"Ms. Wicks' daughter, Stephanie Lansing."
Who the fuck is Stephanie Lansing? I thought.
Katy sighed as though this were a dance, he'd done a thousand times before. "I haven't spoken to Stephanie in like four years."
"Well she came to the store yesterday for some milk and she said it would be wonderful if the two of you caught up some time. You should really give her a call."
"...Are we really going to do this, Mom?"
"Do what, dear?"
Mr. Wimmer glared at her. "Let it be, Savannah."
I watched Katy set his cup down. "I can't believe I have to say this again, Mom. You know that I'm-"
Then the door opened, and Brandon was there. He wore the same beaten jeans and shirt he did yesterday, with a depressed frown framed by a night's worth of unshaved blonde chin fuzz. He looked like he was having a hangover.
"Morning, buddy," I said.
He plopped into chair next to mine. "Morning."
Mr. Wimmer palmed his shoulder. "How are you feeling, son?"
"Lousy," he replied. "Where are my Froot Loops?"
"No Froot Loops today, Kiddo," Mrs. Wimmer served sausages and hash browns into his empty plate with her aluminium spatula. "My Big College Man needs him some real food."
That's not going to make him forget about Leighann. I couldn't blame Mrs. Wimmer for trying, though. The more I learned about Jamie Durkin the more it stuck in my craw that Brandon's girl would go anywhere near him, let alone date him -- assuming that was true.
Brandon scratched the stubble on his chin, glaring at nothing and everything. Mrs. Wimmer poured him coffee. And when he started eating everyone else did too. Silently. And then...
"Do you have any plans for the day, Brandon?"
He shrugged. "I don't know yet, Mom."
"Then you won't mind covering for me at the store today, will you?"
I almost laughed at that. Here was my best buddy all hurt and pissed that his girlfriend dumped him for his worst enemy, and here was his mother asking him to cover for her at work.
Brandon paused mid-chew. "Are you serious?"
"Sweetheart, I know you're upset, and I know you're on vacation but I'm rushed off my feet here. I have to drop your father off at the chiropractor by noon, make a deposit at the bank, and collect an overdue order at market. I'll be back by three and then you can do whatever you want. And Kayden can help, can't you?"
Katy moved his lips to speak but Brandon beat him to it. "You know what, Huey hasn't seen the shop yet. He'll help me. Right, Huey?"
I looked at Katy and Katy looked at me. He shrugged, not caring either way, and I gave in to a fight I was never going to win. "I guess I'm in."
"Iowa! Get your ass out here and help me!"
Stop, Shop and Go! was one of only two small business groceries in Tuckettsville (the other one was a cash and carry on the other side of town called Timothy's). The store opened as Cushdale's Groceries in 1971 by Lloyd Cushdale, Brandon's grandfather, and he ran it proudly until 1993 when his smoker's lungs finally caught up with him. Stanley and Savannah (pregnant with Brandon at the time) were living in Fort Lauderdale when the call came from the town doctor that Lloyd was bedridden. They came up to Tuckettsville to care for him but as the months passed and it was clear that he wouldn't get any better, they spent their savings on the bungalow and settled in town. Lloyd died in the summer of '94 and left his life's work to his daughter. Savannah Wimmer ran it herself ever since.
There was a sliding door linking this, the office/store room, to the store. Brandon opened it, stuck his head through it, and started yelling at me;"Do you want me to get a hernia? What in the blue hell are you doing in here?"
I held up Mrs. Wimmer's portable TV. "Trying to get this to work. I think it's broken."
"Dude, I'll be broken too if you don't get out here and help me. Haul ass!"
So, I replaced the portable TV with a box full of Golden Delicious and Granny Smiths and carried them out into the store. It was a reasonably small space at 4x4.5 metres past the counter but there were only two double-sided shelves in its centre, so it never got cramped. Brandon was behind the storefront glazing stacking lemons and oranges and bananas into slanted box compartments. He was almost done with the lemons when I brought over the apples and we finished the re-stock. After that I was sweeping floors while Brandon flipped the open sign and waited for customers. I didn't know how to work a cash register and Brandon wasn't in any mood to show me, so he handled the customers while I bagged items.
Even though this wasn't really the way I envisioned my vacation, standing there like a dork in a bib apron didn't bother me so much. Brandon and I worked part time at an off-campus coffee shop to earn the money for our Amtrak tickets, so I was used to this work, and I ran a paper route for three years when I was a kid.
"Dude," I said. "I've got it, you can't get this. Eddard Stark vs. Rhaegar Targayen."
Brandon was waving away our third customer of the day at the time. "See now, that doesn't even count. Rhaegar was dead before the first book even started."
"That's what makes it a dream match, genius."
"Well what about weapons?"
"What about weapons?" I said.
"Lances, swords, axes, anything, nothing?" He shut the register with a ring, a cling and a slam. "It's like, Robert wouldn't be shit without a hammer."
We went on like that about the challenge for half an hour, debating variables like location, weapons and armour, when the bell above the door jingled for a new customer. I made for the bags without even thinking it and bent behind the counter to get them, when I came up Brandon was still as ice.
My first thought was she's just Brandon's type: a tall and busty redhead. Practically every girl he'd been with at college looked like her. For a long, long moment they stared at each other like there was no one else in the world, much less the room, but it didn't last. Brandon bounced over the counter and hugged her. She didn't hug him back.
Brandon held Leighann by the shoulders when he pulled back. "Damn. It's good to see you again."
"You too," Leighann said, stiffly. Then she looked at me. Then Brandon saw her looking at me and explained, "This is Huey, my roommate at Rochester. Huey, this is Leighann, my-"
"Hey," she said to me.
I nodded. "Hey."
Leighann turned to Brandon. "Can we talk in private, please?"
I didn't wait for Brandon to ask me to excuse myself. I told him I'd "finish up in back" (there was no stock left to stack) and slid open the door into the backroom. Said door was not soundproof.
Leighann paused before she spoke. "Sal told me what happened at the diner. I didn't want you to find out like that."
"So, it's true?" Brandon. "You're with Jamie now?"
"Yes. I'm sorry."
Something banged the counter, probably Brandon's fist. "Damn it! Why him? Of all people, why him?"
"You don't know him like I do. Not anymore. There are so many more sides to him and you'd see them too if you'd just try."
"But what about us, Leighann?"
"I wanted it to work, Brandon, I really did. I thought I loved you," I could tell by the strain in her voice that she wasn't lying. "You remember that night we snuck out to St. Augustine?"
"I was so sure I'd feel like that forever. I thought 'it doesn't matter if he goes to New York because he'll come back one day, and everything will be the same'."
"It still could be," Brandon said.
"You know it can't," Leighann paused again. "I tried. You did too. Even if you were back for good it couldn't be the way it was. I don't feel the way I did."
"Brandon, say something."
He snorted. "You and Jamie. How long has it been going on?"
"This isn't about Ja-"
Leighann sighed. "Two months."
"So, you've been screwing Jamie behind my back for two whole fucking months. Nice. So, fucking nice."
"Look," I heard a scuff of fabric and steps, not really sure what to make of it. "Brandon, I'm sorry. You deserve to be mad. I just wanted you to hear it from me."
A chain of hard footsteps preceded the front door's jingle. "Well I've heard. Now you can leave."
There was no protest. Softer footsteps followed his, the raps of Leighann's mules, and the door jingled shut. Then there was a moment of silence, a beat, then a furious shout, and then the pulpy smash of the fruit I'd just stacked battering the floor I'd just swept.
"Damn it," Brandon sobbed. "Damn it."
Yo bitch I fucked your friend, yeah you stank ho I seen her on the elevator, honey grabbed my Kangol She put me onto mega-shit, 'bout to slap the bitch She shot crazy verbal, I leaned back like I'm rich
"Brandon!" Katy yelled, banging his tiny fists against his brother's bedroom door. "Brandon, goddamnit! If Mom hears any of that rap shit when she gets back, she'll freak! Brandon!"
It took place late night on February 17th Hands flooded like ink, my face on her magazine Just got back from Honolulu, pockets stackin' beaucoup cash Girlfriend sipped the Yoo-hoo and laughed, yo While I was on tour, whore, you went to work Quick fast, had a nigga dick in the dirt
Katy looked good from behind. The folds of his white shorts rode up the length of his thigh and squeezed as she stretched up and banged Brandon's door as loudly as he could to be heard over Ghostface Killah.
You couldn't wait just to kidnap the bait of my sperm Where's you at, hoe? 'Pinky house, she put in my perm' That's all you ever said to me, thought that could hold me Remember when I long-dicked you and broke your ovary? You cried bitch, chickenhead ho, eatin' heros I'm the first nigga that had you watchin' flicks by DeNiro
I shrugged. "He hasn't come out yet, huh?"
Katy turned to me, smiled, then turned back to the door and frowned. His fist hit it one last time before he spoke. "What the hell happened to him? He's been in a funk ever since he came back from the store."
You gained crazy points, baby, just bein' with God Taught you how to eat the right foods, fast, and don't eat lard I gave you earth lessons, I came to YOU as a blessin' You didn't do the knowledge what the God was manifestin' You sneaky fuck bitch, your ways and actions told it all I fucked you while you was bleedin', held you down in malls Sexually you worshipped my did-ick like a cross
So, I told Katy about what happened with Leighann at the Stop, Shop and Go! It wasn't my place to, but I didn't want him worrying about Brandon.
"Let me give it a try," I said. "I'll talk to him."
I had you fiend out, broke out, for a month you fell off You was my main shit, my peeps showed you love on the strength You saw how I got down, the way I thought had you tranqed But you had to fuck this rasta-head ass nigga I shoulda slapped ya but the Gods said "chill! That's your wiz fault, god, handle that in the lab" I'm wonderin' how many times your hot ass got stabbed
There was very little I could say. I couldn't make him feel better. I didn't know what it felt like to be dumped because I didn't know what it felt like to be in a relationship; at least not a real one. I had crushes and ugliness (BOGEYMAN) in my past but nothing like what Brandon and Leighann did. But we were buddies and the least a buddy can do is try.
"Brandon," I said knocking. "It's Huey."
You dumb bitch, horny hot fuck from out the mountains Your clientele is low ho, catch you next show, bro I got jerked, gave away my pussy, that shit hurt It feel like somebody died or shot your old Earth But fuck it, I fucked you on a chair with three legs Broken tables, had you screamin' while you was bitin' on my cables
"Look, I know you're mad. I would be too. You're pissed and crazy and fucked and you just wanna scream about it. I don't expect you to get over it right away. But do you really wanna lock up in your room all week while she's out there walking it off? Come on, man. Don't let her win. Don't hide away and mope on her account." I smiled. "Dude, what would Charlie Sheen do?"
Whistlin' to the washing machine, I threw it on spin If your pussy dry, spit on my dick and put it in My dick's the bomb baby, marvellous hot steak Plus I'm conceited Starks' make the biggest so-called rape I'm God Cipher Divine Love my pussy real fine, that means clean, the FDS smell with a shine Word up, respect that, ho...
The door clicked open and a thick hot cloud of Marlboro smoke wafted out as Brandon poked his head through it to stare at me. "He'd get shitfaced."
Stop, Shop and Go! was already locked up for the night and it didn't sell any liquor so we walked across town to Timothy's. Since Tuckettsville was small and everywhere was walking distance from everywhere else it didn't take us long to get there. It was a tiny cash and carry at the tail end of a long Route 207 off ramp. Since the drinking age in Florida was 21, I figured I'd have to lie about my age and hope the guy working there wasn't a tool, but Brandon told me it wouldn't be a problem. He went in alone and came out with a jumbo bag of chips and some ice-cold Coronas.
"His daughter Stephanie was cool with Kayden in high school," said Brandon, popping the cap. "So long as I never tell anyone where I get it, he's cool with selling me beer."
That who the fuck is Stephanie tape did a double take in my head, but I blocked it out for Brandon's sake. We sat at the curb with Timothy's neon sign lighting up our backs. It was a pitch-black night and colder than I ever thought Florida could be. Nothing by Iowan standards of course but still pretty cold.
Brandon slunk his arms on his knees and sniffed. "You know we've been together since third grade?"
"Yeah. She made me a card on Valentine's Day with macaroni and glitter. I thought it was stupid then. I just liked the idea of having a girlfriend."
I swigged my Corona.
"Got to first base in forth grade, second in sixth, third in eighth and forth in tenth. She's the only girl I ever danced with, Iowa. I took her to the prom and homecoming and my winter formal. I had all my firsts with her."
"That's real," I said, snapping a chip between my teeth.
"Yeah. I don't hate her though. I hate that she's with Jamie, but I don't hate her. I screwed around behind her back, too."
Glad you haven't forgotten, I thought.
Brandon guzzled his Corona, tossed the bottle, and uncapped the next. "Fuck man, I hate feeling like this. It's like someone slugged me. I wish I were more like you, Iowa. You're alone and its like you don't even give a fuck."
Beyond Timothy's storefront glass there was a hog dog machine that hadn't been cleaned in weeks. When a fat guy parked his Chevy and barged through the doors, the stanky smell of onions surrounded Brandon and me; if it hadn't or if I'd ignored it and listened to him, I might've been hurt by what he said. I might've gotten mad and told him why I couldn't find a girl, I might've told him about what I'd been feeling for Katy. Maybe he would've freaked and kicked me out of his house. Maybe he would've pretended he didn't hear me and got on with the vacation. Maybe he would've been cool with it.
All I know looking back is that this was a moment, the moment, where it all could've gone differently (BOGEYMAN). If I could go back and tell myself to talk to Brandon, to keep him there just a bit longer or leave just a bit earlier, or if we'd walked back into Timothy's to buy more Coronas and found it laying there waiting for him; how different would my world be now?
"Huey, are you listening to me?"
I covered my nose. "Jesus, that smell!"
"Okay, okay," he bottomed the last of his last Corona and stuffed it into our empty bag. "I feel a little better now. Let’s get back to the house before Mom and Dad get home."
Timothy's was ten streets and six blocks from McCorman Clay Lane, the cul-de-sac of bungalows where the Wimmers lived. We were about three streets and a block away from home when my roommate patted his back pocket and remembered something.
"I left my wallet at Timothy's," he said.
After five beers Brandon was a wobbling mess slouched over my shoulder. I walked him home. We were on a street called Holland Avenue, one of three offshoots of an old farm road re-paved with tarmac in the '80s. A string of old warehouses occupied the east side of the road and a leafy arm of the forests encircling Tuckettsville occupied the west. We were on the west side, walking beside a wire fence bracketing off the oak trees.
"Can't you just leave it until tomorrow? You trust the owner, right?"
I didn't want to go back to that smell.
Brandon groaned at me. "I trust him... not so much his customers. It's just a couple minutes back, I can walk."
Dude could barely stand. There was no way we could make the trip back to Timothy's and get to McCorman Clay Lane before Mr. and Mrs. Wimmer came back from the chiropractor in Jacksonville. Not together, anyway. My stomach soured as my mind resigned itself to returning that onion stink and I shuffled Brandon to a wooden bench by the fence.
"Wait here," I said. "I'll get it."
He yawned. "Thanks, Iowa."
For a moment I wondered if leaving a half-drunk Brandon alone out here was the smartest idea (a year in New York could do that to you), but Tuckettsville wasn't Brooklyn, and I wouldn't be gone long.
So, I ran the rest of the way back to Timothy's.
Their black Dodge Ram passed me by on my way. I didn't notice them, and they didn't notice me, despite a clear street and their slow speed; it was just too dark. I even got there before they did.
From here the only way to Timothy's by road was to drive around the town's circle of forestry and head out onto the Route 206 off ramp; but I could get there directly by a footpath called the 'Dust Trail', a shortcut Brandon told me about on our way there.
The lot was quiet when I got there. The neon lights above the pane flickered over the pavement. I opened the doors, avoided the onion-soiled hog dog rotisserie and went to the counter to ask Timothy Lansing about Brandon's wallet. He recognized me and went beneath the counter to pull out a brown leather tri-fold. "Tell Brandon he aught to be more careful."
I thanked him and went on my way.
It must've been midnight at that point, and dark, the darkest I'd seen a sky since I left Strawberry Point. I've got to get back to Brandon, I thought. That was when I noticed the black Dodge Ram parked in the dirt track and for the first time, I saw who was in it.
Jamie and Junior Durkin.
When they saw me, they climbed out of either side of the Dodge and slammed the doors behind them. And I froze. I didn't run or sneer or challenge them or walk back into Timothy's and hide behind a shelf until they left…
"You?" I watched Jamie's lips curl into a smirk. "Well lookie what we got here, Brandon's New Yorker. Get a load of this guy, little brother."
I'm a fucking Hawkeye, my thoughts went, but I didn't have the balls to say it out loud. Not then. Junior Durkin was a year younger than Jamie but well over a head taller. And big. Sub seven feet tall big. His faded Lynyrd Skynyrd shirt barely held onto his chest and shoulders for all the muscle packed underneath it, a fucking football body in every way and everything Katy told me suddenly seemed more real.
"You're shaking like a bitch," Junior's voice was so husky you'd think he'd been smoking since the 4th grade.
I said nothing.
"We've been looking for Brandon's sucker-punching ass all day, haven't we, Junior?" The gauze in Jamie's nostrils made a Puerto Rican out of him. "And you know what? Couldn't find him. Then you show up."
And I said nothing.
"What are you, mute?" He went around his little brother and shoved me. My shoes became ice-skates me as I stumbled and slapped the storefront glass with my back. Timothy Lansing's counter was too far away to see anything.
"Come on," came Jamie's nasal squeal. Any other day I would've laughed at it. "Say something you little prick!"
But I said nothing.
"He's chickenshit!" Junior guffawed. "He's so fucking scared he can't talk!"
Then there was a brown flash of leather and the back of my head thudded the glass so hard I thought it might crack. Through the shock I heard myself gasp but I couldn't let the breath out; Jamie's hand had me by the throat. I thrashed and twisted and struggled but I couldn't get him off me. Then all Jamie's features, his gelled hair, his bomber jacket, his cigarette and chicken breath, all of them disappeared.
All I saw was his eyes staring into mine, so blue and so furious, so fucking manic, so goddamned Bogeyman.
"Since he's not here," Jamie seethed, "You'll have to do."
Then he slugged me.
I'd never been winded before, mainly because I'd never been in a real fight before. I felt it there and then, like someone just reached down into my throat and pulled the breath from my lungs. I heard myself wheeze like an old man and I dropped to my knees as everything around me turned into a black whirl.
I heard Jamie yell "Get up!" as he took two handfuls of my shirt and dragged me up. I couldn't see him through the tears, only the angry blue in his eyes, but I felt him there when he caught my face with a backhand. My cheek exploded beneath his knuckles and I cried out, every bit the bitch Junior called me.
When I fell over, I landed in puddle of upturned Corona extra, the beer I tipped out earlier when I couldn't finish it. Someone's big hands dragged me off the behind the Durkin Brothers' Dodge Ram: that much I could tell from the logo. Those big hands were Junior's, the boy who kissed Katy and hurt him and started it all.
I only glimpsed him through the mist in my eyes. Then his foot met my stomach. Sneakers never felt more like steel-toed boots. He followed the first kick with a second, then a third, then a forth, each blow making the ball I was curling into a little tighter. I tasted blood before the fifth one. Then a stingray boot kicked my head down when I raised it. Then everything was just knocking, grunts, whimpering and blood splatter. Jamie and Junior chuckled between grunts as they stomped me. That was the last thing I remembered before I blacked out, the sound of their laughter.
Then something broke inside my head.
They just finished what so many other moments in my life started but they broke it. My whole world became a hot black daze and in it I saw flashes of my Mom and my Dad and Gramma, of Jacob Chambliss and every uncaring face in Strawberry Point; of Brandon and Billie, and god help me, Katy.
Yes, something broke inside my head that would never be fixed, and when I woke up three hours later, I'd never feel freer.
This is an original work of fiction, all characters belong to me. Any resemblance to person(s) living or dead is purely coincidental, etc...