They hadn’t seen him crawl under the back porch; his knees covered in dirt. It was a great hiding place for the troubled, like the brush out behind their house. Both his parents had given up on it; the upkeep too much from one year to the next. Hank reluctantly mowed the lawn for the first time that summer, but even at twelve, the overgrown branches were too abundant.
The Fox’s house was unnaturally tidy; the boy wondering if everybody was so proper in Ruby Cape. Hank had known Dale and Bonnie for as long as he could remember; his sister pointing to blurry shots of father’s college friends in the family albums. Full moons and tapped kegs, the joys of life before dad met mom. She’d had a beer that night, nursed before and after the barbecue. Hank wasn’t used to his mother enjoying herself so much, a loud cackle echoing down through the splintering wood.
“C’mon now, let’s be honest, you were a little over the limit that night, Dale,” she said.
“No more than Chester here,” their host replied,
“Yeah, let’s not talk about this anymore,” dad was only half-serious.
“You’re right. We could bring up that night after you guys won the semi-finals,” Bonnie suggested.
“I’m still a little blacked out from that one,” Dale joked to the clang of bottles.
“So Bonnie, I meant to ask, how long have Sherry and George been with you two?” Mom had a nice way of prying.
“Almost six months now,” Bonnie answered.
“How’s everyone adjusting?”
“George had a few hiccups towards the end of school, but we straightened him out,” Dale said.
“Sherry seems like a bit of a rascal,” dad observed.
“I guess she was pretty attached to their mother,” Bonnie sighed.
Mom cleared her throat. “You said it was drugs, right?”
“Yeah, but she’s supposedly clean now.”
“Would you adopt if you had the chance?”
“Most definitely,” Bonnie didn’t hesitate.
“There’s a lot of things to consider first,” her husband added.
“I believe it,” dad replied.
“Your Cousin Susan adopted her daughter, right?” Bonnie asked mom.
“Yeah, as a baby. I can only imagine how much of adjustment all of this would be.”
“We take a lot of things in stride.”
“I suppose it’s easier down here, so close to the shore.”
“I gotta take a whiz,” dad stood, a cloud of dust descending past his son’s eyes. “Anybody need anything from inside?”
“Found you,” Sherry nearly whispered through a crack in the foundation, as if she’d been listening even longer than Hank.
He hunched over, taking baby steps towards her. “You knew about this place already, didn’t you?”
“Well yeah,” she claimed.
Hank stepped out as the cool breeze parted the sweat above his brow. He stared across the backyard at Maggie and George, babbling opposite one another. “Where’d you find them?” he asked.
“In the woods. They were messing around.”
“Ya know, touching and stuff, making-out.”
“No they weren’t.”
“Fine, don’t believe me,” Sherry backed off.
“You’re only ten. When I was ten, I lied about everything.”
“Well, I’m not you, Hank.”
He watched the girl tromp towards their respective siblings and considered his next move. Even if she was telling the truth, Hank didn’t know how he’d use said information against Maggie. They’d been at odds since the backseat drive three days earlier, bickering and tuning out when necessary. Her report cards always had higher marks, leaving the raw taste of moral fiber in the back of their parents’ throats. It was a rarity he’d get one over on her, vacation already full of obligatory jabs. She’d wiped out boogie boarding that afternoon, slowly rebuilding her confidence in-between breaths. Hank knew the taste of sea water better than anyone else in the minivan.
“So are we playing again?” Sherry asked the older kids.
“We should do something else, before it gets dark,” George replied. “Yo Hank, wanna check out the woods with me?”
“You’re not gonna try and kiss me or something, are you?” the boy replied, Maggie’s expression beyond priceless.
“I was just kidding,” Hank said. “Chill out, man.” He advanced towards the trees.
“What’s your problem, kid?” George asked on the outskirts.
Hank watched the teenager’s eyes shift from their sisters to the narrow trail. “No problem. Everything’s cool,” he said.
“You don’t know what it means to be cool. Now C’mon,” Sherry’s brother sauntered through the branches. Hank couldn’t pinpoint which deviant from school reminded him most of George. There’d been plenty of scribbling on bus seat thrones. Maggie usually sat in the middle with her best friend, Tamara, both quite tolerant of fourteen-year-old gentlemen.
George had aged differently, his steps somehow violent over rocks and mud puddles. “Ya know, they found a dead guy not far from here a few months back.”
“Big whoop,” Hank exhaled.
“Yeah, but you gotta check this out,” George pulled him away from the designated path, eyes big. After a few paces, he fell to his knees between two trees, brushing away dirt and leaves from a small wooden plank. Underneath he pulled out a cigar box, swinging the lid open. “This is that guy’s life,” he said.
Hank huddled opposite George and stared endlessly into its corners. A brown wallet, now emptied of all worth; two credit cards, one blue, one red; a snapshot of his blonde wife and daughter at a baseball game; video store and gym membership cards; reminder for an appointment he didn’t make, and the free ice cream cone he never claimed. The man was only starting to lose his hair in the driver’s license photo. Mitchell Bronson: he could’ve been a super hero.
“Isn’t this like evidence?” Hank finally asked.
“His wife identified him. They still don’t know who did it or why.”
“You robbed a corpse.”
“I was careful. They couldn’t get anything on me.”
“This is weird,” Hank stood from the ground.
“It’s a good thing that I did.”
“How much money was there?”
“Only forty-two bucks, but look at this.” George slowly pulled a folded square Polaroid from inside the wallet and handed it to Hank.
A naked brunette lied sprawled out on a hotel room mattress with one hand between her legs, the other cupping her left breast, tongue out. Temporary arousal plummeted not long after the guilt hit his stomach. Hank stared through the reflecting camera flash into the heart of weary souls and inconsolable widows. “You think it was her that did it?” he finally suggested, passing the photo back.
“I don’t know. She probably liked him a lot to let him take this.”
“Maybe he paid her.”
“This wasn’t a rich man.”
“He probably paid for the hotel room.”
“Maybe they split it.”
“You could go to jail for this, ya know?”
“Nobody cares about this creep anymore. I don’t even know why I do.”
“You weren’t afraid, when you found him?”
“He wasn’t going to hurt me.”
“No, I guess that’s true.”
“So does your sister have a boyfriend back home?” George asked, reburying the past.
“No. I don’t think she’s ever had one, at least that I know about.”
“She said she has.”
“What does it matter? We’re leaving on Thursday.”
“I’ve got her screenname.”
“Did you show her this?” Hank pointed to the ground.
“No. I haven’t shown anybody this, so keep your damn mouth shut.”
“I don’t even know who I’d tell. Nobody back home would believe me anyway.”
“If you want the video card, I’ll give it to ya.”
“No, that’s alright. I’m only allowed so many souvenirs this trip.”
“You think you parents love you?” George asked.
“If they don’t, they’re good at pretending.”
“My mom still says she does when I see her, even though I’m not supposed to see her.”
“I almost got caught spying on my neighbor, Rachelle. She goes to college now.”
“You’re a big little weirdo, aren’t you?”
“No,” Hank asserted. “No more than you.”
“I’m sure as hell not any kind of weirdo. They tell me I’m completely normal.”
“And you believe them?”
“Of course not, but that doesn’t mean I need to take any shit from some twelve-year-old who’s sister isn’t even really hot.”
“You got me there, George.”
“Oh screw you man,” he punched Hank in the left arm and stomped off.
The visitor stared down at the half-covered plank, soon brushing more leaves overtop. Hank felt misplaced looking for the trail, head rushing around to far-off corners only to return top-heavy and full of water. George didn’t care where he ended up; there’d been too many places in-between. Dad and Dale were from similar stock, but grossly different. Even on vacation, dad had a reason to be irritable. He’d remember everything if only to use it defensively later. Hank was the same way; already concocting answers to inevitable questions should things get out of hand.
“Are you lost?” Sherry jumped out from a blind spot.
“No, I know where I am,” Hank declared.
“I know what to do, ya know,” she grabbed his hand and squeezed.
“Knock it off,” he shook her fingers away.
“I’ve seen Dale and Bonnie. They thought I was sleeping.”
“Good for you,” Hank stepped past her and considered all kinds of truth. He’d never caught his parents in the act. They were too angry to be getting any. Maybe his sister knew more about it, but like anything else, was waiting for a round bubble to fill in. Maggie carelessly hula-hooped in the backyard; Hank approaching cautiously, eyes on every angle. Sherry followed two steps behind him, her brother nowhere in the sight.
“So did you weird him out or something?” Maggie asked before her brother could breathe.
“He weirded me out,” the boy clarified. “Is our cousin Hallie adopted?”
“Yeah, you didn’t know that?”
“No, no one ever told me.”
“How’d you find out?”
“The adults were talking about it.”
“Oh. Well yeah, she is. I mean, she doesn’t look anything like Sue and Dan.”
“Where’s my brother?” Sherry interrupted, aloof.
“Inside,” Maggie replied.
“Oh. Well I’m gonna go get something to drink,” she walked off, the siblings watching her first few steps.
“Shouldn’t she have offered us something?” the sister asked.
“We could just go in and get it ourselves,” her brother replied.
“Yeah, but we’re the guests.”
“So what? Dale and Bonnie have known us longer than they’ve known George and Sherry.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s true.”
“So I know what you two were doing in the woods.”
“I’ll kill you if you tell anyone,” Maggie gritted her teeth.
“Do you think mom and dad will even care?”
“No, but they’ll still make a big deal out of it. They’re always doing that with me. It doesn’t matter how little it is, I catch hell from both of them.”
“They do the same thing with me.”
“Yeah, but you’re too young to have any real problems.”
“So are you.”
“I’ll be in high school in a month. You’ve seen all those movies; how crazy things are.”
“That’s Hollywood. Nothing’s like that in Wilmore.”
“You don’t know anything.”
“You just pretend like you do.”
“Oh yeah?” Maggie’s lips spread thin. “Do you know about mom’s boyfriend before dad?
“Do I need to?”
“Aunt Audrey said he was like ten years older than her. Isn’t that gross?”
“It doesn’t matter. She married dad.”
“But just think about if that guy was our dad. I guess pap didn’t really like him.”
“Pap doesn’t like dad either.”
“You don’t care, do you?”
“Not as much as you do, I guess.”
“I just think about how we’re their kids, ya know, but if things were different, we could be somebody else’s, just like that.”
“Our parents are too lame to die anytime soon,” Hank stated morosely.
“I didn’t mean if they died, I meant like in a different universe or something,” Maggie clarified. “You’re sick in the head, little brother.”
“You’re the one bringing it up.”
“Well I’m sorry that I did.”
They both fell silent, a grey Oldsmobile kicking up gravel as it parked behind the family van. Ralph had arrived, thus completing the unholy trinity. His hair was longer than in the photos, curls and shit-eating grin intact. Hank and Maggie didn’t recognize his new lady, squeezed into white shorts and a blue tank top. She could’ve been a catalogue model, much younger than their parents, teeth visible from a good thirty yards away.
The boy followed closely behind his sister joining the adults on the front porch. Ralph said the same thing as Dale and Bonnie upon first glance. The kids were getting bigger by the second. Chloe introduced herself; hands rougher than expected. A sculptor by day, they’d met at an opening mixer, bonding over ocean breezes and a variety of daiquiris. Mom subtly nitpicked for information, while dad attempted to flirt in-between swigs, as if this first impression meant more than all those previously. Maggie was at a loss after a resume of eighth grade achievements washed ashore.
Hank played coy, Chloe following him into the kitchen. Saving her six-pack, she leaned against the counter, as he grabbed a glass from the cabinet. “So what do you like to do, Hank?” she asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he replied, two ice cubes falling from the dispenser.
Chloe gracefully picked them up from the linoleum and dropped them into the sink. “C’mon now, do you play any sports?”
“What did you play before?”
“Baseball and Soccer, but I wasn’t any good.”
“I was never any good either,” she sighed. “That’s why I started drawing.”
“Uh huh,” he sipped his water.
“Do you play video games?”
“Yeah, but we only have a regular Nintendo.”
“Ralph just got that new Sega; maybe you guys can come over and play sometime.”
“We’re leaving Thursday.”
“Well, we’ll just have to see then.”
They re-adjusted as George stepped out from his bedroom; head down only to perk up at the sight. “Oh hey Chloe,” he said.
“Hi George. Where’s your sister?”
“In her room after I kicked her out of mine.”
“I see,” she nodded. “So I keep forgetting, you left your pinch pot in the basement. I’ll have to bring it over for you next time.”
“I already told you, I don’t want it,” George professed.
“But it turned out so nice.”
“Then you keep it.” He aggressively walked out the sliding door to the backyard.
“So did I miss something?” Chloe asked.
“I just met him today,” Hank remarked.
“Oh. Well then you probably shouldn’t worry about it. Wanna come back outside?”
“Yeah, in a second. I have to use the lavatory.”
“How proper. Enjoy,” she beamed.
Hank thought of future fantasies, women of that caliber paying him slightly less attention. He flushed and washed up, observing the small red mark above his left eye, where popping felt like the right thing to do. Maybe he’d grow his hair long or start playing an instrument, stay late after school on Friday to paint and relate. He’d have to ditch some of his friends. They were uninspired, perfectly comfortable bumming around with delusions of fame and violence.
Door wide open, Sherry lied on her bedroom floor, reading. “Did you talk to George?” Hank asked.
“He never tells me what’s wrong with him, but I know what it is anyway.”
“He loves Maggie, but you guys aren’t going to be around long enough. No one ever is.”
“I guess that means I can’t be your boyfriend either.”
“I don’t want you to be. I don’t like you that way, Hank, and besides, I already have a boyfriend. You don’t know him. He’s older.”
“How much older?”
“Older than you.”
“He isn’t your teacher, is he?”
“No, that’s gross. Can you leave me alone?”
“Okay. I like your room, though.”
“Thank you,” she exhaled as Hank dawdled before returning to the front porch. Maggie had reattached to George, both pretty bad at Frisbee. Dad suggested his son join them, before Ralph promenaded into the yard, barefoot, beer in hand. Chloe egged her man on, his motor skills still predominately intact. Dale watched the sad display for only a moment, then completed the square, making sure all parties spread out. Hank stole Ralph’s chair, pretending to watch parts hover in-between glimpses of Chloe. He’d tell the boys back home all about her, how summer vacation kept his hands idle and head unhinged, where even the truth meant very little when lumped with everything else.
Christopher S. Bell has been writing and releasing literary and musical works through My Idea of Fun since 2008. His sound projects include Emmett and Mary, Technological Epidemic, C. Scott and the Beltones and Fine Wives. My Idea of Fun is an art and music archive focused on digital preservation with roots in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. (www.myideaoffun.org). Christopher’s work has recently been published in Anti-Heroin Chic, Avalon Literary Review, BlazeVOX17, Drunken Monkeys, Heavy Athletics, Queen’s Mob Teahouse, Lime Hawk and Talking Book among others. He has also contributed to Entropy and Fogged Clarity.