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The boys stood in a clearing of trees watching the house. The evening was hot and sticky. Overhead, an angry yellow-black cloud grew fat and swollen with rain.
“There he goes. He won’t be back till after dark.”
“Are you sure, ar-are you really sure? Positive?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
“I dunno, Mike. It seems like a bad idea.”
“You better not flake. Not now. Now it’s for real.”
They heard the car struggle then sputter to a start. Its engine rumbled and knocked around, making it sound like one of those wind-up tinker toys. The old Camaro skittered out from behind the house and was blotted out by the overgrowth. It reappeared, a little smaller this time, at the bottom of the hill and on into town.
Mike pulled his hood about his head and strode out from the trees, his back bent and hunkered low as he mounted the hill. The sky began to rumble, a stampede of steers along the prairie. It was like the telephone pylons their dad worked on, he’d say it wasn’t that dangerous a job because you could feel the line humming before you would ever think about touching it, humming with power. The first pregnant droplets of rain began to fall, and they beat off Joey’s head with little drumming sounds. He watched his brother reach the top of the hill and disappear over it. This was a bad idea. A few moments later, Mike’s head appeared at the crest, and Joey knew better than not to follow. He tightened the straps of his backpack and dug his hands into the pockets of his coat. The rain was coming down in sheets, a fine rain, the type that soaked through. The ground began to smell sweet and old, like melted popsicles and hospital beds. It was the last week of summer. It smelt of autumn, of dying. He followed his brother like a beaten dog.
The Broomfield house stood on a hill overlooking the town, with a great sea of greasewood covering the front yard. Rusted bikes and deflated footballs lay like dying soldiers amidst the yellowed grass, there was even a couple of remote controlled cars, all gutted of parts. In the far corner of the front yard was an upside-down ice cream truck. The pictures and writing on the little screen window where you ordered had become sun-washed; a two-scoop of lemon now looked more like two scoops of pissed-in snow. The windows of the house were all boarded up. The building was grey and squat, like a sad, crouched old man. Out by the porch steps, on either side, were rows and rows of fresh daisies.
He started and looked over to where the voice had come from. Mike was coming out from behind the house, where the car had left.
“The back and front door are both locked.”
“Then how will we get in?” asked Joey.
“We’ll have to break one of the windows under the porch,” said Mike. “We’ll get in through the basement.”
Joey swallowed hard. The basement. “No, Mike, c’mon not the basement. We – we’ll cut ourselves on a piece of glass. We’ll bleed to death! Right here.”
“We won’t cut ourselves. Do you know how hard it is to cut through this army material? Why do you think I got us to wear Dad’s old ’Nam jackets, huh? To look cool? This stuff stopped bamboo traps all the time, it’s got to be the way it’s sewn or something.”
Mike always had a way of explaining things to his little brother that made them easier to understand.
“Stop catching flies.”
Joey closed his mouth and joined his brother over by the porch. Mike was on his hands and knees taking off his backpack. He peered into the filthy rectangle window, then wiped a space to see with his sleeve and cupped both hands over his brow to get a better look.
“It’s full of shit, junk everywhere.”
“Can you see it?” Joey asked. “Is it there?”
“I don’t think so, maybe it’s upstairs. Wait. I see it, Joey, I see it!”
“Lemee look!” Joey squeezed in next to his brother.
“Where is it? I can’t see shit.”
“Next to that thing under the sheet and the stack of newspapers.”
Joey spotted the bike.
“We found it, it’s really here. How will we get it out if we’re both – ”
“Both?” Mike looked at his little brother straight. “I can’t fit through the porch window. I’m too big. It’s got to be you.”
Joey fell silent. It was like in gym class when the dodgeball would catch you right in the gut.
“By myself, Mike?”
“I’ll be right here, I’m not gonna leave you, partner.” He clapped his brother on the back.
“But what if he comes back? He’s mean, Mike. Everyone says so.”
“It’s all talk, Joey. Yeah, maybe he is a little weird, but don’t you think the cops would have done something if he was that weird?”
Joey thought about this and then decided that it didn’t matter if the cops hadn’t taken him in.
“He’s always drinking, that’s why he can’t talk properly and why he walks with that hitch.
What if he tries to… fuck us.” The word came out choked.
Mike looked shocked, and for a moment Joey thought he saw the genuine concern on his brother’s brow, but then he just said: “Come on now, it’ll be dark soon.”
It was raining heavily when Joey eased himself through the broken window underneath the house. Mike had hammered it to pieces with the handle of the wrist rocket. When Joey was about halfway through, his legs kicking out at nothing, he lost his grip on the wet grass in front of him. He remembered falling backward, a weightless feeling. He was falling for a long time when the dull ache brought him to.
He could hear someone shouting his name, there was an urgency to it, but when he opened his eyes there was only a pale light splitting through the broken window. Mike was gone. Joey sat up in the belly of the house. His head throbbed with white heat, and when he reached to touch the back of it, he felt wetness. He began to cry. I knew this was a stupid idea. Fuck you, Mike. That made him cry a little harder. He didn’t really hate his brother. He was alone and afraid.
Joey stood up and looked about the room. Everything was dusty and old. Maybe that wasn’t true, some of the things looked brand new, but they’d just been sitting down there for a long time. He worked his way over piles of comic books. Some of them, the special issues like Halloween and Christmas, still had the plastic sealing on them. What could he want with all this stuff? In the corner under the stairs that lead to the ground floor were several water guns all hanging from coat hooks. One of them looked exactly like the one he had got last summer. He’d left it on the lawn under the sprinklers when Ma had called him in for supper. When he had returned to battle the neighbours, it was gone.
Joey reached his brother’s bike and he was shocked at how clean it looked. It had been polished and repainted. Mike had named her Red. You had to name your bike, like a horse. Joey thought the name suited her more than ever, the scuffs had all disappeared and the old bicycle card Mike had stuck to the spokes had been replaced with a new one.
Just then, Joey heard a floorboard creak above him. He froze. The basement seemed to seize up and grow smaller. The smell of damp and dead leaves no longer brought thoughts of autumn. Instead, it conjured up images of rotting kids, all bloated and blue. Kids that had climbed through the porch window for their bikes and their footballs as he had. Climbed right on through, then the wino had got them and dragged them back into the recesses of his house. Forever. The creak sounded again, this time into hurried footsteps right above his head and moving away from him. No! Joey heard the door to the basement edge open. He could see it in his mind’s eye now, moving like the hands on a clock, inch by inch. His heart was drumming in his ears and his testicles, no bigger than pennies, had drawn up like the hairs on his arm. The wooden stairs lurched under something’s weight. A finger of ice traced its way across his spine.
Joey saw the shadow coming down the stairs grow ominous and dark on the wall. The shadow lurched, steadied itself, and continued down. Joey scrambled on his hands and knees behind a great tower of newspapers. He hid.
“Get out! Go on, git. Filthy, bastards.”
The shadow moved across the room slow and jittery like it was tied to some great ball and chain. When it reached the centre of the basement, its hand reached up and pulled down on something with a click. The light of the basement flicked on, and Joey reared back, blinded by its sudden sharp glow. When he rocked forward again, his weight carried him onto the stack of papers. It was like he had seen himself in slow motion. He fell, sprawling on his stomach, a whirlwind of newspaper raining down about him. When he looked up, he saw an old man peering down at him, a lost look on his face.
“Are you okay, pal?”
Joey didn’t dare speak.
“You took quite the tumble there, little fella. Here.” The old man lifted Joey up from under his arms and stood him on his feet.
“Are ya deaf, pal?” he made some weird gestures with his hand and Joey stepped back, frightened, against the cold stone wall behind him.
“Was that you that broke me window?”
Joey remained silent.
“Listen, pally, I ain’t gonna hurt ye. I just wanna know what if ye alright? Why didn’t ye just knock?”
Joey went to say something then stopped himself and then said it anyway.
“You weren’t in.”
The old man laughed. It was deep and throaty. Joey couldn’t help but smile.
“Ye been spying on me, have ye?”
Joey noticed for the first time that the old man didn’t sound drunk at all. He didn’t sound like the winos that hung outside the bar after the game or the ones that slept under the tracks behind the factory. He just sounded funny. Not like a joke funny, just…different. The only thing he could think of that helped explain it was that he had an accent like the man who played Macbeth on stage at the theatre.
Joey stepped forward.
“You took my brother’s bike. Mike, his name is Mike, and I think you should give it back.”
The old man shook his head. “I dunny no what ye talking bout.”
“His bike. You stole his bike! Look, here.” Joey threw a hand over Red. “You stole it and fixed it up, but you never gave it back. Why do you do it? You was going to sell it, I bet. All this stuff, you steal it then you sell it, I bet that’s what you do.”
“I don’t understand – ” The old man started. But he didn’t finish. Something in his face changed like he had swapped masks at a costume party.
“Who are you? Wh-what are ye doing in my house?”
Joey stepped to the side slowly.
“I said, who are ye… ye a doctor? I told ye I ain’t going. I’m staying. I’m staying!”
Joey edged further back, his eyes fixed on the stairs.
He kicked out at a box of remote-control cars. It hit the old man in the shin and he hollered out loud. He swiped for Joey, but he ducked and ran under his arm and raced up the staircase, the wood screeching and bending beneath him.
“Ye, get back here! Back here, I said.”
Joey burst through the door at the top of the stairs and looked left and right. The house was filthy. No light came through the windows except in thin forks where the wood had cracked and fell away. He ran through the kitchen. Dishes piled the spaces next to the sink, and old cans of food rolled from his feet on the floor. Cigarette butts were pushed into the wooden table, leaving ashy marks that had yellowed.
“Get back here!”
Joey came out into a hallway. To his right was the front door. He grabbed the handle and pulled, but it wouldn’t budge. He leaned back on his heels and pulled with two hands, his face scrunched up in urgency. The door shrugged. He flew back onto his ass. Joey took one look at the brass doorknob in his palm, and then the shadow came over him like a storm cloud.
“Come here, ye bastard!”
The old man reached and grabbed Joey by the collar and scooped him over his shoulder like a trash bag and began to walk upstairs.
“To your room, that’s where ye going.”
Joey kicked and screamed, pounding closed fists against the old man’s back.
“If you keep screaming like a lassie, you’ll have no supper neither.”
They reached the landing and he walked Joey along the hallway to a room at the far end. When he kicked the door open, Joey bit down on the old man’s ear. He dropped him and howled.
“Ah, ya bastard. You canny bite like that!”
The room he was in was dusty. It was a kid’s room. The walls were an old pink and orange, the bed was all made up, too. A sun catcher of an elephant eating bamboo hung in the window. The old man loomed over Joey and looked down at him. He had dry tears in the corner of his eyes.
“Ye wait till mammy gets home.” And then he left, slamming the door behind him. Joey heard it lock.
Outside, the rain was pouring heavy and slow. Mike shone the flashlight about the back yard; everything was wet in the coming dark. The back door was tied shut with a length of thick fishing wire. His hand could slip inside and feel the walls of whatever room it backed onto, but other than that it wouldn’t budge. The wire pulled the door closed again, and the rain beat a little hard on his bowed head. He walked around to the front of the house and was about to try once more to slip in through the porch window when his stomach sank. The old Camaro sat parked up against the hill, the lights in the front windows of the house were on, and worst of all, he could hear someone that wasn’t his brother singing along to the radio inside.
Joey sat on the big windowsill and pressed his hand against the glass. The window had a small lever about two inches too high for Joey to grab, and so he sat and watched the rain drizzle down the cold glass. Joey thought back to the dry afternoon walking home from the laundrette and the conversation he and his brother had when the plan to get Mike’s bike had only been in its infancy.
The front door closed. Joey sat up. He wiped the window clean of fog and watched as the wino walked towards the porch window and crouched down. Joey saw him walk into an old shed just beside the ice cream truck. He came out a few moments later with something closed in his fist. He knelt in the rain and sprinkled something in the mud beside the broken window. Then he patted it down like you would when making mud cakes, got to his feet, wiped his hands down his trouser leg, and got into his car and left.
Now’s my chance. Joey slipped off the window seat.
“Mike! I’m in here! I’m in here!” He ran back to the window and stood against it, banging the glass.
“Help. Mike, it’s me. It’s me!” He tried to cry but nothing would come out.
His ears pricked up.
“Joey. It’s me, you alright?”
“Mike, I’m stuck in here. I was in the basement and then – ” He began to sob a little. He heard the door unlock.
“You gotta come quick.”
“But your bike.”
“We’ll get her later, you gotta see this.”
When Joey reached the top of the staircase, his brother’s silhouette was cut out in the doorway to the living room downstairs.
“Come on,” Mike said and disappeared into the back of the house.
Joey found his brother hunched over something in the living room, a small lamp on a coffee table their only light. The room was barren apart from a dirty couch chair and an old television set. Piled beside the table were stacks of letters, some in pink and blue envelopes with stamps on them, the ones you’d need to send your mail overseas. They had already been opened and were in their own neat pile to the side.
“I don’t understand,” said Joey.
Mike held up a stack of photographs and handed them to his brother.
Joey flicked through them.
A boy a little older than Mike stood smiling beside a car, his arm stretched across the roof. The next photo was of the same boy but a little older, covered in paint and wearing overalls. The one after that was of the boy and a girl. They were in a suit and dress beside a lovely house with a porch swing and a tree. Joey flicked through, and the pictures carried on changing, a carousel through time. The girl wearing the dress, in a gown from the hospital, had a baby on her chest, and her hair was so sweaty it had stuck to her forehead. The picture after that was of the boy, now a man grown, in army uniform kissing the lady from the hospital on the cheek, a baby held between them with a little bow in the shape of a daisy on its head. The next photo seemed to be of a different place. A mountain range framed the picture, and the young man looked incredibly small. He and a few other soldiers carried rifles beside a sign that read, You are now crossing the 38th parallel.
“I don’t get it,” said Joey. “Who is this guy?”
Mike moved closer to his brother and took away the pictures.
“Can’t you see it? It’s him, Joey. Mr. Campbell.”
“Who’s Mr. Campbell?”
“He’s the old man that lives here. That’s him in those photos when he was a boy.”
Joey looked back through the pictures, and now he couldn’t un-see what came to life before him. He had never thought of the old man as anything more than the wino. Of course, he had been young once, everyone had been young once, but he had never given it any thought because he’d always just been the wino.
“What about all the toys. Your bike? He’s not nice. Mike, he tried to hurt me.”
“I got a feeling that maybe Mr. Campbell didn’t take my bike on purpose, Joey. Or any of the stuff. When he left the second time, I snuck in just before he closed the door. I was sat under the porch and pushed a stick up through the boards and caught the door on the latch. I heard you shouting, I knew you was okay.”
“You heard me? You didn’t come right away – ”
“Listen,” insisted Mike.
Joey fell quiet immediately.
“I went down into the basement, I looked at Red, couldn’t believe it. She was brand new. Better than brand new.” He started to smile, a wonder in his eyes. “I saw all the toys. Your water gun, I got it in my bag. All these comics, important issues, too, all put in little plastic baggies to keep dirt off. And then I came upstairs to get you, but something in this room caught my eye. The photos. The letters. I read them. I don’t think Mr. Campbell is very well.”
“Of course, he isn’t,” said Joey.
Mike hit his brother hard in the arm. Joey was shocked, and Mike could see.
“I’m sorry. You just need to listen. Hear me out.”
Joey nodded and rubbed his arm.
“This letter…” Mike read it aloud for Joey to hear, his voice sounding off the empty walls of the big house like a rock thrown to the bottom of a well.
Dear Mr. Campbell,
We are pleased to confirm your place at Morning Sun Retirement Centre for Dementia and Alzheimer’s. Enclosed are all the information on who will pick you up and your arrival date. Attached is a brochure showing the facilities, rooms, and the landscape of beautiful Port Kone, CO.
We look forward to seeing you.
“Dementia,” Mike finished.
“What’s that? Sounds horrible.”
“It means he forgets things. All sorts of things, all the time. He’s doesn’t have a memory. I think that’s maybe why he has these photos all laid out and the letters, too. Sometimes he can remember, so he leaves these here to try and help when he forgets.”
A lump the size of an apple sat in Joey’s throat and wouldn’t move.
“So do you think, the toys – ”
“Yeah.” Mike looked away from Joey to the pictures scattered about the floor. When he spoke again, there was a sadness in his voice that almost passed for authority.
“I knew Red was broken and I didn’t try to fix her. He did, though. He tried to fix all our things. Keeps him busy, helps him remember. But then he forgets. He fixes them up, the toys, the comics…my bike. He fixes them and forgets to give them back. I think that’s the worst of all, when you know something needs to be fixed but ignore it anyway. One day it’ll break and then I’m not sure if it can ever be made the same again.”
Joey looked at his brother’s downturned face.
“Mike. I think I wanna go home now.”
Mike nodded and stood up, his shadow cast tall and great on the wall. “Me too, Joey.”
When the boys emerged from the basement, the old man was asleep in the armchair. It startled them a little, but they kept quiet and wheeled the bike out of the front door. They made sure to drag a piece of tarp over the window they had broken beneath the porch and to clean away any of the glass beside the daisies. Joey took one look behind him before they left, at Mr. Campbell and the photograph he had left for him on the side table.
Cicadas began to sing from the long grass, and a soft wind stirred their hair. Mike stood over Red on the hill they had mounted hours before, Joey saddled behind him. They let their weight carry the bike down and around the ever-turning road, the bicycle card sounding like a fishing line thrown downstream. Then they were a small dot riding into town and towards home.