The hedges turned inward upon themselves and he quickly lost sight of the brightly colored tents that held the lords and ladies of the Renaissance Fair. He could still here the cheers of the crowd and the thunder of the horse hooves as the knight raced against each other, but with each step into the maze, the sound got quieter and quieter. He moved quickly, with his right hand extended out, barely touching the edge of the hedges as he moved, making sure that kept to the right path. Each dead end he would double back, and then continue on, with his right hand extended. He heard the low whispers and could smell the acrid smoke before he found the other two boys, their button-down shirts hanging from branches as they sat down in the grass with their legs splayed out at forty-five degree angles. They nodded to the newcomer, as the redhead lifted the pipe to his mouth and lit it, releasing his finger from the hole on the side and taking one last inhalation. He held the smoke in, as his cheeks puffed outward and his face turned the color of his hair. He exhaled quickly, coughing slightly at the end and handed the pipe to the blonde sitting next to him. He repeated the exercise and coughed louder than the first had after holding in the smoke for a longer period of time, deliberately trying to outdo his companion. He held the pipe out to the newcomer, who grabbed it, and inhaled it before the embers went out. He couldn’t hold it for as long as the other two, and let it out with a quick jet before a sickening cough shook his shoulders. He tapped the back of the pipe against the palm of his hand, dropping the ash on the ground in the process: “it’s cashed.” He handed it back to the redhead, then squatted with his back to one of the hedges. He grabbed a fistful of grass, throwing it up in the air and watching the wind take it back to the ground at a gradual angle; he let out a loud sigh which seemed to jar his companions. “How much time do we have left?”
The redhead stirred, moving a leg up and leaning against his knee: “twenty minutes, give or take. They’re not going to count anyone until the buses are about to leave anyways, and that is still about two hours from now.” He opened a cloth bag with a pull-string, stashing the pipe inside before putting it back in his pocket. He jumped to his feet abruptly and leaned backwards with his hands on the small of his back, making a slight groan like he had seen his grandfather do nearly every time the elderly man stood up. He began to fiddle through a backpack nearby and pulled out a small vial of eyedrops. He tipped the vial up to his eyes and squeezed a few drops into each eye before handing it to his friends. They followed suit quickly and back into the backpack it went. The other two rose to their feet, and all three of them stood awkwardly, straining against the wind to hear the cheering of the crowd off in the distance. The blonde and the redhead put their shirts back on and buttoned them up as quickly as possible. They started walking back through the hedge maze, pausing as they went on occasion to giggle amongst themselves. They arrived back at the tents and the horse arena just in time to see the black knight fall under the lance of the red challenger, to the applause and cheers of the crowd. Sneaking through the bleachers, they managed to get seated before their teacher turned around, smiling, and motioned the class towards the next demonstration. She was none the wiser.
They had no more chances to sneak away after that, but it didn’t bother them much. They rode their high all the way back to the buses, giggling at random intervals to each other when something piqued their interest in an inappropriate matter. There were suspicions that were whispered between some of the other students, but no one paid them very much attention. The girl with the hazel eyes, always the queen bee amongst the popular girl articulated it best to another girl standing next to her: “those three are just weirdoes.” All three of them registered the insult, and it was met with a raised middle finger in her direction by the blonde boy, as he carried a wicked grin. She shook her head at him and spent the rest of the trip staring daggers at him, but he never noticed, as if he was rebelling against her sensitive notion, which caused the girl with the hazel eyes to become visibly angry, talking to her friends in low hushed whispers the entire bus ride back to the school.
James stood, hovering about with his two friends watching the scene unfold in front of him: the baseball team scrimmaged in the distance, while directly in the foreground, the hazel-eyed girl led the softball team in stretches. The two practice diamonds were adjacent, but just far enough that James could not make out the individual faces that made up the baseball team, but could see every muscle and sinew of each softball player. He leaned forward slightly, letting his left arm run slack down his side while his right cushioned his face against the cold metal bleachers. Behind him, the blonde boy and the redhead threw rocks against the equipment shed, trying to hit the crudely painted bullseye that had marked the building for as long as anyone could remember. Inside, the track and field team’s equipment lay around unused; James had seen them get on the same bus he had disembarked from less than an hour ago, otherwise they would be running and throwing around the track behind the three boys. The cool spring evening gave James the feeling of listlessness as he just stood there, leaning up against the bleachers until the blonde boy, Taylor, elbowed him roughly in the stomach: “I’m pretty sure I heard that Caroline wants to go out with you.”
James reached out to Taylor, placing his hand against his friend’s neck, right where it met his shoulder. James squeezed, and felt the muscle tense up underneath his tight grasp. Taylor leaned over and starting throwing punches into James’s side, but eventually fell to his knees under his grasp, telling him to let go. He flung another punch at James, contacting his armpit with more force than the previous ones. “Shut up,” was all James said in a terse voice, rubbing his side as he watched Taylor run his finger along the pressure point that James had been pinching. His voice changed back to normal very abruptly, causing Taylor to scrutinize his friend closey: “Where did you hear that?”
“On the bus. She was like two rows behind me, and I heard her tell Margaret while they were whispering. Every time I looked back to give Mickey the finger for being a dick, she was staring at the back of your head.”
Mickey stopped throwing rocks at the shed and sauntered back to his two friends, giving a scowl at Taylor: “He’s right, I saw it the whole time. She talks big, but she wants you stuff, man.” He let a short giggle after the last statement, catching the audacity that he had just said. James nervously chewed his lip as he glanced between his two friends, quickly processing what was just said. He clapped his hand on Taylor’s neck and mumbled an apology, but turned his attention back to the softball team. His friends crowded alongside him, as they watched the team begin their hitting drills out on the field.
The boys were in middle school when they first began to feel the deep-seated urges involving women, but looking out at the girls practicing on the softball diamond, it seemed like it was an eternity before that moment. Taylor began chewing at the string from his sweatshirt as he watched Katie dive to make a catch, and then arcing her back as she stood up. He elbowed Mickey in the ribs and motioned towards her behind, staring at until she turned around. Mickey nodded almost solemnly, watching himself stoically so that he would not betray the sensation that was slowly growing in his nether regions. He closed his eyes and imagined Katie during last summer’s trip to the water park, when she had already begun to develop. In his mind, he created a chimera of that girl and the fully developed one he was watching at that moment. That image of her walking out of the wave pool made him reach down towards his pants, but he stopped when he realized that he was not alone in his bedroom: he was standing under the bleachers with his friends, he blushed, but neither of the other boys noticed his movement or his crimson cheeks. Both of them were caught up in their own fantasies and imaginations, the look of desire crossed across their faces right up until the coach blew the whistle for the end of practice, and all three boys took off towards the parking lot, hurriedly jogging away before anyone had a good idea of who had been watching the girls practicing; the girls themselves, talking in high, manic voices as they walked towards the high school paid them no attention.
James’s solo walk back towards his house filled his mind with a thousand questions that spiraled around and around as if in some perpetual motion in complete defiance of any law of physics. Every question led backwards to the same question as an answer: were they lying to me? Those words twisted around and he mouthed them to himself as he passed along the various cookie-cutter houses of his subdivision. His mind wandered back to the words he had overheard her say about the three of them when they were boarding a bus. Would she have called me weird if she liked me? Was it just a lie so that no one would suspect her? He passed the small park down the road from his house, and saw his younger brother running amongst the swingset, being chased by a chubby girl with pigtails. For the first time since his brother was a baby, James was jealous of him and the attention he got, or rather the kind of attention he got from girls. He remembered the days spent with Caroline, when they were much younger and she lived across the road from him. There was no complexity brought on by sexual desire, just idle curiosity at worst. Every warm summer day spent running through backyards rushed at him in a wave, and before he knew it, he was sitting on the swing set and falling deeper into his thoughts. Every carnal want had been pushed out, and was followed by a broken, jagged sense of nostalgia which cut through him like the linoleum knife that had pierced his thumb when he was seven. He stared at the scar as he flexed his hand back and forth, remembering how it had happened, and how he had perceived it all to be Caroline’s fault.
It was storming out, the two of them, the boy and the hazel-eyed girl, decided to stay inside of his parent’s house and reenact scenes from a favorite children’s movie. Sitting on the swing set, he grew angry with himself for not remembering which movie it had been. The small, simple little detail was so easy to overlook, and he wondered almost aloud what effect it would have on his recollection of the story. In front of him, his brother began to dig frantically in the dirt while the chubby girl watched, standing over him. James heard the word “treasure” repeated several times.
After ten minutes of quiet contemplation, he called his brother’s name and the boy came running to him, his hands still covered in sand. James walked home with his brother walking directly behind him, aping his slow saunter while giggling the entire way. James either never noticed or did not care enough to tell his brother to stop, which caused the boy to enjoy himself immensely. When they were in sight of their house, he ran forward, up the front steps and through the door while James procrastinated in the driveway. There is no sense to hurry in, he thought, mulling over the events of the day; dinner won’t be ready for a while yet. He shuffled around to the back of the house; he was staring down at the grass as he walked watched his feet leave a trail through it. He was back by the deck when he crouched down and removed the lattice from the side of the structure. Underneath, the deep blackness of the crawlspace beckoned to him quietly, and he carefully removed a flashlight from his backpack, twisting it on slow and methodically while making sure that the beam did not run through the window off to his left; he could see the dim shape of his mother moving around the kitchen on the other side of the glass and the blinds that were down in front of it. He could almost smell the kitchen from where he was, and he knew at any minute that she would begin to cook in earnest so that the family would be able to eat on time. He climbed down underneath and porch and into the crawlspace, setting the alarm on his phone to warn him when he needed to make an appearance inside.
The flashlight illuminated his path into the crawlspace until he could reach the battery-powered lantern that he kept there. As per his usual yearly routine, he spent all of winter waiting for the ability to use his sanctuary again, to find solace in the crawlspace. His parents knew it existed, of course, but they had put the lattice up around the deck after a possum had decided to make its home there several years ago. That was when James had first found out that the crawlspace existed, and after some time trying to figure out a way in, he loosened the lattice slightly, just enough so he could slip in past it to find a place to himself, away from his parents and his siblings, where he could just be alone in quiet solitude. Over the years he had added basic creature comforts to the space: the lantern, some books and magazines, a blanket, and a few other things that he knew he needed to hide from being found by his parents. He would usually spend the late afternoon in the crawlspace, letting his parents think he was out wandering the neighborhood or away with Taylor and Mickey loitering somewhere; most of the time he was really hiding in the crawlspace, because he desired the solitude of it more than anything else. His bedroom was not a sanctuary, as his parents would not allow him to put a lock on the door and he spent his time in there constantly aware that anyone could walk in at any moment, despite any protests on his part for them to stay out. His brother was the worst offender, making his way into the room at any minute of any day, but as James aged and became a teenager, his parents grew more and more suspicious of his activities, questioning him at every turn like he was always guilty of something. He thought back to the hedge maze earlier in the day, and realized that they were partially right, but he was more than old enough to make his own decisions instead of being treated like his brother and sister, neither of whom would ever make the right decision on their own. He secretly tried to suppress a grin before remembering that no one could see it as he imagined his seven-year-old brother high. As if from some sort of flashback, he experienced the giggles from earlier in the day rise up in his stomach and he clasped his hand over his mouth to suppress them. He had long ago figured out that the crawlspace was not entirely soundproof, and he would not only hate that his sanctuary be taken away from him, but also that his parents would linger over the magazines that he had hidden away after pilfering them from his uncle. The questions, the stares, and the punishment would be never ending, at least until he escaped to college. As he adjusted the lantern, he flipped through one of his favorites, looking at the well-worn pages.
He was lost in a daydream of women and boyish fantasy when the alarm on phone started going off in his pocket which was followed by a frantic movement of hands to turn it off before it got louder and aroused suspicion. He waited another few minutes before exiting the crawlspace; he turned off the lantern and reorganized as he slid his way backwards along the concrete and back towards the underside of the deck stopping underneath only when he realized that his father was standing just above him. He could barely see through the gaps in the boards, but knew that there was no way to escape out through the gap in the lattice until his father went back inside. The bottoms of his shoes seemed to taunt James as the paced just above his head. He rolled onto his back and stared up at the scene unfolding above him, realizing that his father was on the phone.
He was dully paying attention when he heard the name “Caroline” in his father’s soothing-yet-terrifying baritone voice, a voice that could transition from kindness to a harsh whip-crack without any gaps in time. He’s talking to her father, James thought, cupping his hands around his ears to eavesdrop on the conversation above him. It was still incredibly one-sided, but he developed the constant imaginings of what the other man was saying, after the initial utterance of her name by his father. Before that he was lost in the monotony of a fleeting conversation about football, a sport that, as a child, James had loved, but his own waning talent and inability to play at the level he had dreamed about had quickly quelled that ambition. He found his father’s talk now boring and brutish, especially when talking to Caroline’s father. He remembered Sundays in the fall when he was a young boy: the two men would stand on the front porch of Caroline’s house and talk about the NFL for what seemed like hours, each drinking a single beer and motioning with their hands, pantomiming throwing motions, their voices getting excited when they could overhear a big play happening as Caroline’s father left the television set on a loud setting. He remembered being in the basement of her house, hearing the dull sounds of the football games while they played, knowing that when her father would come downstairs, it would be time for him to go home finally. Above him, he listened to the garbled voice of her father, inaudible but still registering as words as they barely filtered through the air and came to him underneath the deck. A few minutes later, his father said goodbye and walked back into the house. James did not hear the context of the conversation, or why Caroline’s name had been brought up; he was still daydreaming when he crawled out from behind the lattice and brushed himself off.
His mother was not happy that he was covered in dirt, as he did not give himself enough time to clean up, but when he just told her he had fallen in the ravine behind the park, she believed him, only telling him that he should have been more careful, as “if you were to have broken your leg down there, what would you have done to get home?” He gave a shrug, which caused his mother to begin lecturing him about his attitude. It was a constant battle between the two of them, which only was paused when his father intervened, usually by barking at him to knock it off with the attitude. James never felt like his father would hit him, but there as a distinct fear that it was possible, especially as he got older. It seemed like every fight with his mother drew James closer to a bare-knuckle brawl with his father in the garage; blood and sweat covering the concrete, his father virtually unscathed but for a few weak bruises, but he was a pile of weak flesh and broken bones. His father would constantly give him the opportunity to apologize, to end it right there, but he never would: he would fight until he lost consciousness, and one of the times he would die.
It was this thought as he sat at the table that kept him quiet while he listened to every word that his mother put in his direction. She turned to his brother and said quickly, “Martin, do not act like your brother when you are his age. Please.” James looked up from his plate momentarily to stare daggers at her, and felt the anger coursing through his body. He took a drink of the water in front of him, never taking his eyes off his mother the entire time. Don’t do it, he thought, realizing that any word he said at this point about what she said would bring down the full wrath of his parents down on his head, like the first time they had heard him use the word “fuck” in casual conversation. It was a fight he was too tired to engage in. He simply stood up, and asked to be excused from the table. His father nodded and he walked towards the stairs and up to the second floor. He did not hear his parents’ conversation afterwards, as they both wondered aloud what they could do to stop him from acting out so much. As James slipped a pair of headphones over his ears, below in the kitchen, his father pointed at a letter from school. The conversation would continue long after James had gone to bed, and had he heard any of the options, his reaction would have been less than ideal.
It was Mickey who first asked the question after they had walked out of geometry class. After all the thoughts that had coursed through his head the previous day, after every self- scrutinizing moment, that whether he was ready or not, or whether he was going to try or not, Mickey’s simple question seemed like it was some sort of anathema to James. It sliced through every thought that he had in a simple elegance, like a surgeon’s scalpel or a rapier. How could I have overlooked it? He stood there, mouth agape as Mickey stared at him, clutching his book and notebooks out like he expected James to hit him. “Well? Do you like her?”
James could only stand there and stutter out a short response: “I don’t know.” He felt like the entire hallway had transformed into a magnifying glass, and everyone was staring him down, trying to figure out just how genuine his wants were. He felt embarrassed, and reddened softly.
“You don’t know?” Mickey’s words echoed through James as he walked into English class, only to see Caroline standing directly in front of him, peering at him from behind the desk at the front of the class. She looks different today, he thought; like she had aged to adulthood overnight. He mumbled something along the lines of a hello to her while he made his way to his desk at the back of the class. He could not read her body language like he could the boys sitting in class next to him. He could not keep his eyes off of her, trying to scrutinize some hidden meaning from her movements. James tried to be as discreet as possible, lest more questions arise from everyone around him. The gossip was never ending, and when the faucet was opened, the deluge could not be stopped, and without a life preserver, he would surely drown underneath it. That image began to roil endlessly through James’s thoughts, as he failed to pay attention to the words coming from the teacher in the front of the class. He could see himself drowning, the waves rolling him under with every movement, and he would surface, while trying to gasp for air. There was nothing for miles, and when the bell rang at the end of class, he was certain that he had an answer for the entire thing. He did not want to drown, and he would simply do nothing at all, just like most every other impulse he had encountered of late. It’s just easier that way, he thought as he jostled past Caroline and out into the hallway; why should I care? That lax attitude would not last the week.
They were once again hanging outside of the practice diamonds, lounging on the bleachers watching the softball players run around the diamond. Taylor had stolen a small bottle of liquor from his mother, and they were passing it between themselves mixed inside a two liter bottle of soda. It was not very strong, but the boys had never drank before, and it was quickly going directly to their heads. They were struck with a riotous laughter that occasionally got looks of confusion from the girls running laps around the field; they wondered whether they were being laughed at, but every look verified that the boys were paying no attention to them, and laughing at some secret joke that they may never be in on. It was Emily who stated it perfectly as they gathered around home plate, breathing heavily: “Those boys are so weird!”
James absent-mindedly watched the girls walk back up the hill towards the high school. He scratched his chin, imagining that the itch he felt might finally be facial hair: it was an ant that had crawled up his pant leg. He took another slug from the bottle before handing over to Mickey, who gulped down everything that was left, other than a single swallow which he handed over to Taylor. The liquor finished, they sat in silence on the bleachers before Mickey finally broke the silence: “So, I stole more of my brother’s weed. Who wants to do something tonight?”
James kicked the sole of his shoe against one of the bars that supported the bleachers, wiping the dirt clod away on the aluminum: “yeah, alright. I should be able to slip out after we eat. But I gotta bail now. Need to grab a book from my locker before I head home.” He gave a half-hearted clap on Taylor’s shoulder as he walked up the hill, kicking at clumps of grass as he went. He could smell rain on the wind that had begun blowing in, and made a mental note to grab his jacket while he was in his locker.
The hallways of the school were almost completely silent, except for the quiet humming of the floor buffer as it made its way along past the science classrooms, pushed by the gaunt janitor with the debilitating lisp. James made his way towards his locker, his feet shuffling on the newly buffed floor, leaving a satisfying squeak with each movement. He grabbed the lock and spun his combination in as fast as he could before wrenching the door open. His locker was full of garbage: crumpled papers and dog-eared books were thrown alongside food wrappers and plastic bottles, which every time he opened the door threatened to spill out onto the floor of the hallway like an avalanche flowing down an alpine mountain. He rustled around in the debris before he managed to find the book he was looking for. James started to close the locker door before remembering the impending rain and the walk home, ripping his jacket off the hook and closing the door. Behind it, Caroline was clutching her backpack to her chest and staring at him. There was no one else in the hallway.
“I suppose your parents told you about tomorrow night.” Her words were definite, and despite her young look and slender frame, they carried an air of authority about them that would have made a man multiple times her size pause. James turned around to look behind him and found no one there, before turning back to her and pointing a finger at himself. Caroline gave an audible sound of derision before continuing to talk: “Yeah, James. There’s no one else here but that creepy janitor. Your Dad told you about tomorrow night, right?”
“Uh, no. What’s going on tomorrow night?”
She gave a sigh before walking down the hall until she was within an arm’s length of James; she still clutched her backpack to her chest as if she was anticipating that he was going to try to snatch it out of her arms. “My parents’ are having some stupid party.”
“Uh, yeah? And?” James voice came out tense, and he felt it was an adequate mask against the tension and fear he kept feeling in his chest. He heart fluttered and his mind raced: Am I going to some party? Is she going to be there? Why is she telling me this? He inadvertently scratched the top edge of his ear out of nervousness as he stared at Caroline. He studied the face in the few seconds of awkward silence, trying to find those familiar features that he was so used to when he was a kid; they were there, but distorted into some sort of haunting beauty that made him even more nervous. As he waited for her to respond he swallowed heavily and audibly.
“And, I’m going to be over at your house babysitting your brother and your sister.”
“Oh?” Her voice carried a singsong mockery to it, as if she felt like he should have responded to her in a more enlightened way, as if she expected James to have an understanding why this was happening. “Well, why aren’t you watching them?”
“Uh, no one asked me to.” He suppressed a wince at the pathetic sounds that emanated from his mouth. He yelled internally in frustration, slamming his head fiercely against the prison that his own fear of the female sex had him imprisoned in. Do something, you fucking idiot were the only words that he could think of, and he knew that those were not going to be spoken out loud; he knew that showing weakness to Caroline was the kiss of death.
“Alright, whatever. If you’re going to be there, don’t be your usual weird self.” Her words cut through him, right down to the bone. She turned around without saying anything else and walked quickly down the hall towards the front entrance of the school. He shuffled after her, making sure that he was walking slow enough to keep his distance. She was already out the door to the school and in her mother’s car before he made it outside. It was pouring rain and he watched as Caroline had a heated argument with her mother in the car; her mother pointed over to him as he stood underneath the entrance, hiding from the rain. He knew that she wanted to offer him a ride back home, but Caroline refused. He gave her mother a quick wave, and she motioned for him to come to the car: he politely shook his head and motioned as if his own mother was coming to get him. She nodded, and waved goodbye while Caroline sat with her arms crossed and a look of haughty derision on her face just discernible through the rain splattered window. James watched them drive away before turning up the collar on his coat and hunching up his shoulder to strike out into the rain.
It was not an incredibly far distance, and he knew the shortcuts through backyards to get home even quicker, although he did not take them. As he walked, he stowed his phone in the interior pocket of his jacket, aware of the danger that the rain posed to it, and imagining his parents’ furious response to it becoming unusable from water damage to the delicate electronics within. He only cared so much as to ensure that it was one less issue that his parents could yell at him for. He barely used the device, only to talk to Mickey and Taylor or occasionally his grandmother when she called him. His mind wandered with these random thoughts as he trudged through the rain and towards home. The streets were empty of everything except cars, and despite the arrival of pleasant spring weather the preceding few weeks, the rains had rolled in as expected. His time spend outdoors was going to be very limited, and that filled James with conflicting senses of both good and bad; during inclement weather, he rarely saw his friends, as all their miscreant behavior happened out of doors. Even Taylor’s lax mother would not let it slide if she caught them drinking or smoking weed somewhere in the house. Besides those two activities were barely a year under their belts as they faced down receiving their driver’s licenses within the next few months. There was a fatalistic sense that some kind of end was nearing, and James felt it more than the other two. The town they lived in was no longer a prison, and all they needed were vehicles and gas money to escape it for periods of time. He questioned what would happen to their friendship as he walked through the rain, questioning whether it had staying power or whether it was built on flimsy premises, like his friendship with Caroline when he was a boy. The memories of that gradual distance that began to creep between them like ice across a lake in winter continued to taunt him. Those boyhood memories of laying underneath a constructed shelter of blankets and pillows, holding her hand in his as she mentioned words that he did not fully understand lie “boyfriend” directly in his ear, quiet enough to avoid anyone outside of their sanctuary being able to hear her. He remembered the elm tree in her backyard, cut down after it became diseased last year. Before that, it had been a majestic tree they used to climb and sit under: in its lofty branches James had stolen his first kiss from the girl at the tender age of 12, the summer before they started middle school. The drift had begun by then, but it was quiet and easily passable. However, by the next summer it was a wide chasm that he could not jump over, and after constantly looking around him for something to create a makeshift bridge with, and finding nothing, he gave up. His parents spent the time remarking amongst themselves that it seemed like without the positive influence of Caroline on James, he seemed to grow restless and directionless.
The rain never relented as he walked home, ignoring every shortcut along the way. He walked in the door and his mother’s immediate response was why he was soaking wet; he mumbled that he walked and hurriedly ascended the stair to his bedroom. He removed all the wet clothes and climbed into his bed, shivering. His heart continued to race at the thought of the next night, and found that despite this physical nervousness, his mind was in a calm, Zen-like state. He embraced it, and afterward, when reflecting at the absurdity that he was in possession of such a mindset, was surprised at the calming effect that it had. At that moment, however, he paid it no real attention, just wallowed in it and let the calming effect wash over him like a slow tide on a calm night; his heart, however, continued to beat at a rapid pace and only slowed when the blood that it was pumping accumulated in his nether regions.
He was his usual, sullen self at the dinner table, and his calming trance had ended the minute he began to listen to his family talk around him. He kept his responses somatic, which seemed to suit his parents just fine. When his father had begun to do the dishes, he decided that he would actually have to speak, and asked for permission to go to Mickey’s house. His father nodded, adding only that he needed to be home by eleven. James wondered why he neither of his parents brought up the conspiracy around the next night, but pushed it out of his mind, fearing that he would once again begin to dwell on the mysteries that surrounded Caroline. He had no time for that right now, and would let the lucid effects of Mickey’s brother’s weed try to puzzle that out for him. He was afraid that he would inadvertently tell his friends, and open a new floodgate of issues, but that fear was quickly replaced by a cautious optimism, hoping that between the two of them, they could provide him with some sort of insight to quell his uncertainty once and for all. However, he felt, deep in the pit of his stomach, that he may be gifted with nothing but more inane observations. It was just a risk he was going to have to take.
The rain had stopped, leaving the entire neighborhood overcast and covered in puddles. James removed his bike from his garage, deciding that it would be a much faster way to get to Mickey’s. He pedaled through the street, stopping to drift past Caroline’s house, staring intently through the window as his bike glided past: he didn’t see anyone but her father, sitting on the couch watching something on the television. He pushed his legs at a frantic pace; splashing through puddles with a complete disregard for the fact that he had been soaking wet less than an hour ago. Before he became conscious of the fact, he was in front of Mickey’s house, rolling his bike alongside the house. He walked up to the front door and rang the doorbell: Mickey’s mother answered and let him into the house.
It was a familiar scene that James walked into, one that unfolded every weekend night that he came over to his friend’s house. Sitting on the couch was a man that James had never seen before, bathed in the soft glow of the television set. He knew that he was probably Mickey’s mother’s new boyfriend: he would last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, and afterward, no mention of him would ever be made again. It was the ritual of the house after Mickey’s father had divorced his mother, and she had been left alone feeling vulnerable and broken. The men she found were never ideal, but they weren’t terrible either: working class guys who lived hollow existences and carried shallow interests, usually younger than Mickey’s mother. Despite that James knew she was at least as old as his own mother, she had an air of youthful vitality about her figure, but her face, while pleasant and usually smiling in the presence of the boys, showed every wrinkle and stress line. She was irrevocably attracted to men with similar qualities that Mickey’s father possessed: a strong desire for traditional gender roles, jobs that required the use of one’s hands, and an unbending sex drive. Many times, while at Mickey’s house, James would hear the sounds of Mickey’s mother and her current paramour engaging each other in the bedroom, and the results were always the same: James and Taylor would strain their ears to hear every sound that was uttered, while Mickey would sit cross-legged on the floor, hunched forward with his face contorted in fear. The other two never made fun of him for his mother’s sexual behaviors, but had discussed it more and more amongst themselves over the past few months as their interest in the subject increased exponentially. As James walked up the stairs to Mickey’s bedroom, he stared after his friend’s mother, rolling the image of her through his head. He had seen her breasts once, during the summer a year ago when they were swimming in Mickey’s above-ground pool: She was sunbathing on a towel while the boys horsed around in the water. James and Taylor kept making glances at her, especially after she had untied the string of her bathing suit. When a wayward bird defecated on her as she lay there, it seemed like a sign from the god of pubescent boys: Mickey’s mother sprung upward, swearing loudly at the bird before she realized that she was topless. James had remembered that moment often, and he blushed as he walked up the stairs and recalled it once again.
Taylor was already there with Mickey when James entered the room and closed the door behind him. The two were staring at Mickey’s television intently, clutching controllers in their hands so tight that their knuckles whitened. The sounds of gunfire and explosions filled James’s ears as he slunk down on the floor at exactly the perfect angle to see his friends’ actions on the screen. The sat without saying a word to each other for quite some time, only voicing outrage at the outcome of the game with wild cursing and lewd gestures. When they had finished, Mickey looked at the other two, carefully showing them a small baggy of marijuana. They nodded in agreement before gathering up their coats and quickly leaving the room. They did not say anything as they passed Mickey’s mother and her boyfriend kissing enthusiastically on the couch, letting the sound of the backdoor slamming being the only indicator that they had left. Taylor and James nudged each other knowingly, cracking half-smiles as they walked through the backyard and to the bike trail that ran behind the house.
The wind had picked up, and while there was a bite of cold to the air at that point, it had chased the cloud cover away and left a tranquil, star-filled sky in their wake. The boys traipsed down the bike path, stopping only to menace a lone rabbit as it sat on the pavement. It took off like a shot from a gun, tearing through the tall grass well ahead of them as they half-heartedly jumped after it. Returning to the path, Mickey pulled the packed pipe from his jacket pocket and lit it before taking a deep breath, letting the smoke sit in his lungs as he passed the pipe towards James, sputtering out small rivets of smoke into the air before he let it all out in one giant cough. James took a larger hit, drawing deep down with his diaphragm to inhale as much of the smoke as he could. He held it, passing the pipe towards Taylor until he felt his lungs burning in protest. His cough was like that of a wheezing old man on an oxygen tank, and the gout of smoke he released to accompany the cough made him look as if he was about to spew ash and burning lava from his mouth. His vision blurred, and he grew dizzy from the lack of oxygen and the sensory overload that accompanied it. He managed to right himself as the pipe made its way back to him, and he drew a smaller hit before passing it along to Taylor once again. It was full of nothing but ash when it came back to Mickey, and he quickly tapped it against his hand to empty it before stowing it back in his pocket. The stars seemed to glitter even more fantastically when accompanied by the high that the three boys felt. They took off back down the path.
Taylor was the first to break the silence as they walked down the path: “who was the guy in your house?”
Mickey turned up the collar of jacket, pausing for a long time before he answered, “That’s Alex. My mom met him a few weeks ago at a PTA meeting.” Mickey subconsciously shivered at the last few words, knowing full well that they were a lie created by his mother to make him feel better; he had known that she had been lying about where she had been meeting her boyfriends for a few years. He did not know the truth, and deep down, he was very grateful of that fact. He had heard the stories and gossip from around school, but kept them far from his mind.
It was Taylor who questioned it: “PTA? That guy was like 30.”
Mickey snapped back without so much as a second of hesitation, “He’s got a daughter in elementary school or something. First grade, I think. God, just fucking leave it alone.” In the darkness, James could tell that Mickey was upset at the notion of his mother with another man who would just leave here sooner rather than later, and felt a twinge of sympathy for his friend, before his mind wandered back to memories of the sounds of her having sex, and he blushed deep crimson, incredibly glad that Mickey would not be able to see it in the darkness.
“Jeez, man, relax. I was only asking.” Silence returned and settled back in amongst the three of them. Up ahead, the trail veered towards their high school, through a wooded area owned by a local farmer. Instead of following the bike path, they slunk down low and walked underneath the single strand of barbed wire which marked the farmer’s property: he had long let this copse of trees fall into obscurity, and no one ever came back there. It was a secret passed down through a select group of kids, and it was Mickey’s older brother, then a senior and able to go wherever he wanted, who told the boys that they could hide back there at night when they wanted someplace to be left alone. There was a single caveat: if a light showed up in the adjacent field, they needed to leave: stories were that while the old man never checked there, if he saw something while checking his fields, he would shoot first and ask questions never. The boys were well away of the stories about the bitter old man, but they had never once seen a light in the fields. They knew that when the fields were being harvested, that would change, and they would lose their collective sanctuary. That particular evening, however, they stood out scrutinizing the fields and, upon seeing nothing but the lights of the distant farmhouse, they sat down on the rotting logs.
It seemed like none of the boys were in the mood to do anything out in the darkness but smoke more weed, so Mickey carefully added more into his blackened pipe, passing it around again like before. It ran out even faster than before, and once again, the boys found themselves sitting in the dark in silence. It was James who finally said something. He had been battling with it since he had arrived at Mickey’s earlier, questioning whether he should keep Caroline’s visit to himself or let his friends try to ply him with advice. That confusion made every moment even more awkward for him: the boys always came across as a somewhat silent and morose bunch, but amongst themselves, and only themselves, they were talkative and cheerful, at least they used to be. It occurred to James, many years later, that the collective weight of puberty had spread itself across his friends and himself, and that with it came that crushing, senseless dour corrosion of self they all were becoming accustomed to. It took every single fiber of his being to utter the words that he had wanted to since he first arrived at Mickey’s house: “So, I guess that Caroline is going to be at my house tomorrow night.”
He could feel both pairs of eyes leveed on him and the weight of all the questions that were brewing within his friends’ minds. The floodgates were opened, and there was no going back again; all that needed to happen was for the awkward silence and broken stares to end. Predictably, it was Taylor who broke the silence: “Wait, what?”
Those two words reverberated through the woods, and James felt certain that they were loud enough to wake the inhabitants of the farm house across the field. When he was certain that it was just as quiet as his words, he responded: “I guess my parents asked her to babysit my brother and sister while they’re at some sort of party at her parents’ house. She told me earlier today.”
Mickey lit up the last of the weed he had stolen from his brother and let out the smoke: “Shit, really?” He passed the pipe towards Taylor: “Does she still hate your guts?”
“I think so. She sounded pretty pissed that she was talking to me.”
Taylor snorted in laughter, “I thought you guys used to be friends or something.”
“We were. She lives right across the street from me.” His mind drifted away for a second, but he regained his composure in the face of his friends: “I don’t know what I should do about her being in my house.”
“I thought you didn’t like her.” Mickey’s matter of fact attitude reminded James of what was at stake, and what he needed to figure out before the next night.
“I said I didn’t know.”
Taylor piped up immediately: “Well, what does that mean?”
“I don’t know.” Those words rolled around his mouth and seemed to hang in the air before him, mocking his inability to figure out what he wanted. He thought for certain that his friends were going to call him out on it, but they remained relatively silent for the rest of their excursion out in the copse of trees.
It was Taylor who had the last words; “You better figure it out, dude. She’s going to be in your house. That’s like the best opportunity that you’re going to get.” Immediately after he spoke, Mickey jumped up from his log and pointed through the trees and out across the field, where the light from a flashlight bobbed against the grey background of the unplanted field. The boys got up and hurried out of the woods and back on the bike trail. James’s mind raced as he jogged, swooping down to avoid the barbed wire, wondering why they had suddenly seen the light. Behind them, the boys heard gunshots ring out across the field and they ran in a near blind panic, down the bike path and back to Mickey’s house. In the field, a coyote lay dead over the corpse of a newly slain chicken it had pilfered from a chicken coop.
Silence reigned supreme over the jog back to Mickey’s house: inside, his mother and Alex were nowhere to be seen. As the boys walked up the stairs, they spotted the soft glow of a television set creeping out from underneath the door to Mickey’s Mother’s bedroom. It was silent. James sat on the bed and watched his friends play a video game, before he became conscious of the time. He crept downstairs and out the door and pulled his bike out from alongside the garage.
The ride home was quiet: it was not even eleven, but all activity in the suburban setting seemed to have died. No one was out on the streets, neither car or pedestrian, and a creeping sense of calm crept over James as a result. He felt the Zen-feeling creeping through his mind, and embraced it. In the silence that was both outside and inside himself, he rode home, walking in the front door a full minute before his curfew. His parents made verbal recognition of the event, but he did not respond, walking up the stairs with a slow prowl, and promptly barricading himself into his bedroom. He collapsed on the bed, and fell asleep with the light on, still thinking of absolutely nothing and being incredibly happy with that feeling.
It was several hours later when he woke up with the light off. He figured that his mother was responsible, and turned over to turn on the lamp next to his bed. He carefully reached under his bed, pulling at a shoebox that was tucked back in the corner. He cradled it in his lap before opening it, and staring at the contents. He removed a well-worn Polaroid from inside, and stared at it carefully before he set it off to the side. In it, James was a much younger boy, dressed in accordance with his favorite cartoon, complete with foam turtle shell. Beside him, a young girl stood, dressed like she had stepped out of a music video from the 80s. James continued to rummage through a number of photographs: his family, friends, and Caroline were spread across his bed sheets, staring up at him through time. He carried a small smile on his face, which turned into a grimace. He placed the pictures back into the box and returned it underneath his bed and turned the light off. That feeling of content and understanding vanished, and he was alone in the dark with his thoughts. His ceiling was devoid of anything discernible in the dark, but there was no opportunity for him to draw focus. I have to make a decision he thought, and shivered in terror at the concept that he to actually make a decision. I can’t do this. That mantra kept repeating as he tightened his eyes and whispered to himself to fall asleep. It refused to come, and his mind, in clear defiance of his wishes and his begging, continued to remind him that everything was changing around him. When he finally fell asleep, it was restless, filled with anxious dreams that seemed to play out as if he was suffering from a high fever.
It was a familiar setting, one that he had seen hundreds of times before. Catherine’s mother kept her antique doll collection in a room in the basement of their house, and it seemed like every time that the two children played hide and seek together she always hid in the doll room. That was the room that James hated the most, and he swallowed hard as he slid the door open more. Every single glass eye was fixed upon him as he edged through and into the room. He started softly calling Caroline’s name, scrutinizing each motionless form as it stared at him. He knew exactly what was going to happen next: Caroline was going to jump out and grab him from a row of dolls. He stared trembling with anticipation, so when the skinny, feminine hand snaked out from behind the rows of dolls and grabbed him by the nape of the neck. James shrieked and fell down to the floor as Caroline fell after him and landed on top of him, laughing hysterically: “I can’t believe you fell for it again! I’m going to hide outside now, come and find me!”
James lay in the room, surrounded by the lifeless eyes with his own squeezed shut, slowly counting to one hundred. When he finished, he did not get up, but stared up at the ceiling. He looked over at the doll closest to him, reaching his hand out to gingerly touch its porcelain arm: it was cold to the touch and firm. He stared at it, and slowly sat up from his position on the floor. His thoughts jumbled together, and while he remembered that he needed to find Caroline, the doll looked enough like her. He sat with his head resting sideways on his knees, hugging them to his chest while staring dreamily at the face. Each passing moment it seemed to resemble Caroline more and more, until it was her form in porcelain that he was staring at. He heard her yelling from outside for him to come and find her. He moved his head towards the doll, kissed it, and yelling the number one hundred out, he charged out into the sunlight intent to find the real version of the girl.
The morning after his fitful sleep was just a dreary as the day before: the high winds that had blown out the rain the previous night had blown in a storm that hovered overhead, threatening with peels of thunder and the occasional flash of lightening. It was Saturday morning: James knew he was condemned to stay inside his house all day. That sense of imprisonment was only intensified by his parents, who seemed intent on spying into his bedroom every couple of hours, as if they expected him to be wiling away the hours of the day in ways that they would disapprove of. In reality, he spent the day on his computer, alternating between games and a stubborn homework assignment that he was too tired to actually work on. His memories of the previous night haunted him as he sat in his computer chair, gnawing at his thoughts and even infiltrating themselves onto the paper he was trying to compose: there her name was, snuck into a single line of text, mocking him. He could not escape it. When he heard his parents’ low talking from the other room, and when they came in together to tell him that they were leaving soon and Caroline was expected and minute, he accepted what was going on, and began wracking his brain for a plan, or some sort of guidance. The hollow reverberation of unanswered prayers gave him the revelation that he had asked for: he was not prepared, and like every waking moment since he first snared to notice the opposite sex, he would go into the situation full of nervousness and with no idea what to do.
He slipped a single headphone off his left ear when he heard the doorbell rang, and crept towards the top of stairs to eavesdrop. He heard Caroline and his parents talking, paying particular attention to his mother’s approving tone of voice. He cradled his knees against his chest as he listened to Caroline’s voice without any sense of hostility about it: it carried a singsong quality to it, and echoed up the staircase. James’s uncertainty waivered slightly at the sound of it, and he felt a knot begin to form in the pit of his stomach. When the words “bathroom” and “upstairs” were paired together in the same sentence, he scrambled to his room and sat down at his computer chair, leaning back just as his mother knocked on his door frame. He pulled his headphones down and spun his chair around with a pseudo-quizzical look across his face. His mother stood in the doorway with Caroline behind her: “James, Caroline is here. Your father and I are going to the party now.” When he nodded his head, she turned and walked back down the stairs. Caroline stood there, wearing her softball practice clothes and holding a back in her hands. She seemed as if she was changed somehow, standing in front of his room now. She was blushing slightly, and it seemed like the animosity that he had felt that she harbored for him since middle school had somehow vanished overnight. She muttered that she needed a shower after practice and turned towards the bathroom, shutting the door quickly.
James, puzzled by the new development, moved away from his desk and laid back on his bed, staring at the familiar ceiling and trying to figure out what he just witnessed. The knot in his stomach unwound itself, and he felt at ease for the first time in months. The familiar uncertainty still existed, however, but it was driven by these new thought processes. Somehow, it seemed less anxious than before. Across the street, parents of his classmates entered Caroline’s house. He could hear the cars pulling up and parking on the street in front of his house. He removed himself from his bed and looked out the window at the parents with their umbrellas out over their heads to ward off the last little bit of rain. They don’t seem nervous at all, James thought. Behind him, he heard the sound of the shower running, and all sense of understanding collapsed on itself. He felt his friends’ words pressing him to action, and that his own inaction did not legitimize him at all. He walked away from the window, and into his parents’ room.
He could faintly see steam underneath the second door to the bathroom, the one with the broken lock that connected to his parents’ room. He paused in the low light of the bedroom: the sun had moved to the other side of the house. He held his hand expectantly over the doorknob, and pulled it slightly ajar, staring inside. He expected the steam to obscure his vision, but he forgot to take account of the shower curtain itself. He waited, with a level of anxiety that he had never experienced before. His mind screamed no, but other parts of his body overpowered that conscious. When the shower turned off, his heart leapt into his throat, and he jerked the door closed slightly so that he was only looking through his right eye. When the curtain opened, he held his breath, worried that he would be unable to stop a sharp, audible gasp that rose from his throat. His nether regions stirred as he looked upon the unspoiled beauty before him and felt every lecture he had ever heard about respect and sin flooded through his head and began to protest as loud as possible.
“Do you want to play doctor?” The words were spoken in a hushed tone as the two of them lay in the grass behind Caroline’s house. James had no response to the question, pulling up blades of grass with his hands. He felt like he needed to answer but before he could, he heard the screaming erupt from in front of him. Caroline was clutching a towel in front of her naked form, and he immediately knew that he was caught. He stood up, and bolted for the door and the stairs, barely registering that his parents were out of the house. He passed his siblings, looking bewildered and afraid as they stood up from the space of floor directly in front of the television. He wrenched open the screen door, and before he knew it, he was through the lattice and into the crawlspace. He lay inside, motionless in the darkness as eventually he heard the angry voices of his parents shouting through the house, and their frantic search for him. He knew that it was only a matter of time before he would be ripped apart.