Authors: Ike Hamill
Alan fitted his extension and socket on the wrench and set the proper torque. In a few minutes, the engine was done. He snapped the cover back on and plucked a dirty rag from his bench. He folded it over to a clean spot and wiped the word “piston” from the cover.
He checked on his trash can. It had only collected about six inches of water—not nearly enough. Alan wheeled it back into the shed and then ran back out for the hose. He let the trash can fill with water as he mixed up some fresh gas and gave the outboard engine a little sip. He parked the dolly under the trash can and then wrestled the engine into place. This was another trick he’d picked up from an online video. Your outboard engine needed the water to cool itself, but it was much easier to test it in a trash can at the house than drag it all the way down to the lake.
Alan filled the trash can up above the engine’s inlet and then crossed his fingers. The cord was tough to pull with the outboard mounted on a dolly. On his first couple pulls, the whole thing threatened to spill over. Alan popped the cover and gave the carb a shot of ether. He was about to put the lid back when he noticed his rookie mistake—he hadn’t connected the plug wires. Alan smirked and seated the caps.
His next pull was magic.
The engine only ran for a second, but the puffs of blue smoke and coughing sputters made Alan beam. He set the choke to half and pulled again. The engine buzzed to life. In the trash can the water bubbled noisily and some sloshed out onto the shed floor.
Silently, Alan shot his arms up into a V and lowered his head. He was smiling so hard that his cheeks hurt. He goosed the throttle, putting the engine in gear. That experiment was short-lived. The water splashed and the dolly started to tip. Alan had to kill the engine to keep the thing upright. He put it back in neutral and started it again with one pull. He let the engine run and danced around the shed, putting away his tools.
As he shut the engine off, Alan said, “There you go, Colonel. I fixed your damn piston.”
With the noise of the engine gone, Alan heard the phone ringing inside.
Toyota out to the school. After they met with the Vice Principal—the man in charge of kicking ass and taking names, apparently—Joe followed Alan back through the parking lot. The boy had his book bag clutched to his chest.
“Get in back,” Alan said as Joe reached for the passenger’s door.
“But I ride in front in the truck,” Joe said.
“You ride in front because the truck doesn’t have a back seat,” Alan said. He didn’t like the way his own voice sounded—clipped and angry—but he couldn’t help it. His voice was an accurate reflection of the way he felt.
Joe got in the back seat and closed the door softly.
After slamming his own door, Alan spun in his seat.
“You care to explain to me exactly what just happened in there?” Alan asked. He felt the blood rushing to his forehead and ears. He saw his own rage reflected in Joe’s wide eyes.
“I told you,” Joe said. His voice was pitched up from his normal tone.
“Look at me,” Alan said. “Don’t tell me it was an accident again. They have cameras in the stairwell, Joe. I saw the video.”
Joe was looking straight down. Alan saw fat tears dropping onto his shirt. Alan started the car and backed out of his parking spot.
“You’re lucky they didn’t expel you,” Alan said as he took a left at the stop sign. His right foot wanted to slam the pedal to the floor, but they were driving through Kingston Depot where the speed limit was twenty-five. They passed between old houses. Some were converted into small shops and some were divided up into apartments. Alan didn’t like these houses. They’d been built as proud residences for big families, but now they’d been rolled through the dirt and gnawed to the core. They looked used up and forgotten. He’d almost rather see them plowed under and replaced with prefab houses with no history. At least a clean start would erase the years of neglect these old buildings showed.
The Toyota bumped over the railroad tracks.
Alan took a right. He made short work of the rest of the trip. The car dragged to a halt on the dirt floor of the barn.
“You take your things and sit at the kitchen table,” Alan said. Joe was looking out his window at one of the barn’s plank walls. Someone had hung a collage of old license plates there. “You’ve got two things to do before I confine you to your room. Do you hear me?”
“Get going,” Alan said.
He waited for Joe to disappear through the door to the long shed before Alan got out of the car. His anger bubbled just beneath the surface of his thin layer of restraint. Alan thought of his own father—a man who would smash his fist through a window because he couldn’t get it open. His father was a man who would work for several hours fixing a radio and then throw it across the shop because he couldn’t tune in the station he wanted. His father would lose his temper and then let his anger destroy his hard work. Alan despised that impulse. He understood it, but he despised it.
Back at the school, after watching the video of his son pushing a little girl down the stairs, he’d wanted to grab Joe by the shoulders and shake him. He’d wanted to take Joe’s little hands in his own and squeeze the evil out, like some deranged Baptist healer. Those concrete stairs had rubber treads with big raised circles for traction. They had rounded metal edges on each stair to absorb the abuse of a million little feet climbing and descending. Now they had splotches of blood.
Alan closed his eyes and beat his fists against the barn wall, trying to expel the image of bright blood painted down the stairwell—blood his son had spilled. He took a deep breath and walked through the shed. His father’s rage in his veins saw the outboard engine sitting in the trash can full of water and wanted to shove the whole thing over, drenching the shed floor. His father’s blood wanted to destroy. Alan paused, took another deep breath, and folded the anger over in his mind, looking for a clean spot to rest his thoughts.
When he had control and could unclench his fists, Alan went inside.
X • X • X • X • X
“From the top, tell me what happened,” Alan said.
Joe wouldn’t look up. He stared down at his own hands which were gripping the edge of the table and trembling.
“Joe?” Alan asked as he sat down. “Can you speak?”
“Yes,” Joe’s voice was strong and defiant.
Alan blinked and shook his head.
“You won’t believe me,” Joe said. His hands were still trembling.
“I need the whole story, Joe. And I’ll believe you if you’re telling the truth. You know that.”
Joe started breathing fast. Alan wondered if he was about to pass out or perhaps drop into seizure, but then the boy’s shoulders slumped and he let out a sigh. “I couldn’t help it, Dad.”
“From the top, Joe.”
Joe shook his head.
“Joe—look at me. The first sentence is the hardest. After that everything is easier.” He covered his son’s trembling hands with his own.
For a minute, Alan thought Joe would never start. His son looked like he was holding his breath. His mouth was pressed into a tight line and his face began to turn red.
Joe’s words burst from his mouth—“She stole my lunch.”
Joe’s tears began to flow again.
“I went to my locker after History and I looked in my backpack, but my lunch bag was gone. Polly was walking away and she turned around and told me to have a good lunch. She was holding my lunch bag.”
“So you went and got a teacher, right?”
“No,” Joe said. He looked up with red-rimmed eyes. “She was always so nice. I thought she just made a mistake. Her locker is right next to mine.”
“I went up and told her she had my lunch bag,” Joe said. “She opened a door we’re not supposed to open. It’s a supply closet or whatever. She pointed to me and told me to come in.”
“To the supply closet?”
“Yeah. So I went in.”
“Why did you go in?” Alan asked.
“I thought maybe she was ashamed she took my lunch and she wanted to give it back where nobody would see.”
“Did anyone else see you go inside the closet?” Alan asked.
“I don’t know.”
“What happened?” Alan asked. He was no longer sure that he wanted to know.
“When I went inside, she was holding the lunch bag up over her head. She’s taller than me, so I couldn’t reach it. She closed the door.”
Alan held his breath.
“Dad, she said terrible things.”
Alan exhaled and then croaked his question. “What happened, Joe?” Alan’s thoughts swirled with perverted images. You spent so much effort to protect your kids from damaging sexual imagery from the media and—God forbid—wandering hands of sick adults. Then, quite possibly before they’re ready, their peers shed light on their own twisted views of sex and it feels like there’s no way to protect your children. No amount of calm, rational discussion about the body will trump lurid stories whispered at recess.
“She said I’m a demon,” Joe said.
“She said that the devil had visited me and that I had a demon inside me that would bring darkness to our world.”
“Joe, what exactly did she say?” Alan asked. He wasn’t sure if he should be relieved or not.
“She talked about you and mom and her voice got really deep and her eyes were red. The lights went out in the room and she lit on fire.”
“What?” Alan asked. “Joe, what are you talking about?”
“I knew you wouldn’t believe me. You said you would,” Joe said. Fresh tears made new tracks down his face.
“You’re not making sense, Joe.”
“Then she said that she was going to come get me tonight. She said she was going to get all of us. Tonight! She had little white worms coming out of her mouth and her nose and even her ears. She went back to normal and then she left with my lunch. I ran after her and when I saw her at the top of the stairs I just pushed her. I didn’t want her to come get us.”
Alan leaned back, away from his son. The boy returned his gaze to his own hands. They’d stopped trembling.
“You’re going to take out a sheet of paper and write an apology to this girl. I want it to be at least half a page. You’re going to tell her how sorry you are…”
“And you’re going to apologize at the beginning and the end. You’re going to tell her that you hope she feels better and you hope that her lip doesn’t hurt too bad. You’re not going to mention anything about the lunch or anything else. Do you hear me?”
“I can’t,” Joe said. His tears were running a close race with his dripping nose to see which could produce more liquid.
“What did you say?” Alan asked. The waves of his anger were crashing against his logic.
“I had to get my lunch bag back because Danny Wayland said you can’t let them have any of your possessions. Danny said that they use your possessions to trap you. If I give her a letter, she’ll have one of my possessions.”
“Joe, stop. You’re going to write that letter right now,” Alan pointed a finger at his son. He did not pound the table, even though his hand itched to feel the slap of the hard wood.
Joe looked down.
Joe reached for his bag.
X • X • X • X • X
“I don’t understand,” Liz said. She sat in the same chair where Joe had written the letter. She looked at the shaky script. It looked like the work of a third-grader. The blocky letters barely stayed between the blue lines.
“That makes two of us.”
“And he’s suspended for two days?” Liz asked.
“We’re lucky they didn’t expel him,” Alan said. “The video was brutal. He just shoved her.”
“I have to see it,” Liz said.
“Honey, trust me. You don’t want to see it.”
“I’ll go talk to him. Maybe his story will make more sense by now.”
Alan nodded. “Give me a minute. I’ll fix him a tray with some dinner. He’s been asleep since he finished the letter and he missed lunch. I bet he’s hungry by now.”
Alan cooked a grilled cheese sandwich to go with the cup of veggie chili. He added a glass of milk to the tray and handed it to his wife. Alan waited at the table while she went upstairs. Outside, the rain was still coming down in sheets. He pulled out his pad and began another list. He wrote, “Check Basement,” and then crossed out the second word, replacing it with “Cellar.”
Better start using the local vernacular,
He added, “Boat,” “Gutters,” and “Change Oil—Toy.”
I’ve got to figure out where they take waste oil. The Colonel probably just dumped it out back. Probably start showing up in the drinking water any day.
Alan put one more line on his list—“Get water tested.”
He cleaned the dishes and looked out through the rain-streaked window while he waited for his wife to return. She came back empty-handed.
“Did he eat anything?” Alan asked.
She shook her head.
“I left him the tray.”
“Did he say anything?” Alan asked.
“I guess I heard the same story you did. He said that little girl—Polly—burst into flames and threatened him in the closet. She said she wanted to marry him. No, wait, not wanted—she said she
to marry him. Do you think maybe he had a hallucination or something? Maybe he’s got some medical problem.”
“That’s a good point. I’ll make an appointment for him in the morning, just in case,” Alan said.
“I don’t think he’s lying. I mean, I think he believes what he’s saying,” Liz said.
“He didn’t tell me the part about marriage,” Alan said.
“Yeah, he didn’t reveal that detail to me until the third telling,” Liz said. “Those are my awesome cross-examination skills at work. I’m going to leave a message for my assistant. I’ll have her shuffle my meetings around tomorrow morning. Do you think we could drop in and talk to the Vice Principal? I want to see that video.”