Shadow Box

When I come to, I am half sunk in ivy, the sun bright in my eyes. My right leg is tangled in my ten-speed. The handlebars dig into my side and the front wheel is bent like a potato chip.

"Oh, Mikey, honey! I'm so sorry, I didn't see you." A woman leans over me, peering through Jackie-O sunglasses. Her head is wrapped in a flowery scarf. "You really came flying out of nowhere."

"Mrs. McIntyre?" It's odd seeing her so close up. In fact, I'd never seen her at all until I became the paper boy, and then just twice on collection days. Most weeks, she tapes an envelope with the money to the front door.

The McIntyre house has always been No Man's Land. Stay out of their yard, the older kids told us. Don't even go up their driveway, or else. Or else what? Just or else. And forget about Halloween.

Mr. McIntyre materializes only on weekends, a tall thin ghost in a tweed cap and plaid vest, trimming the rose bushes that line their front walk and turning a dry eye toward any passing children, pruning shears gripped in one hand.

 

With my left foot, I push the bike away and pull my leg free. My head throbs and my forearms sting with dirty scrapes. I think about my paper route, how late it's getting. When I stand up, my ribs join the chorus of pain.

"You shouldn't move. Did you hear me? Stop moving!"

Mrs. McIntyre's Buick sits at a weird angle in the road, nose still in the driveway. I get a flash of swiping into the passenger side and ricocheting hard into the bed of ivy.

"Let's have a look at you. Come on, now!" Her breath smells like weapons-grade peppermint. She pulls a strand of ivy from my hair and brushes dirt from my shoulder. "I looked before pulling out. Where the devil did you come from?"

"I don't know." The sunlight feels extra bright and I want to lie down. The last thing I remember is smoking a bowl with Danny at the lake, then riding home to do my paper route. No doubt I shot down Crescent Terrace, onto Crestview, and right into Mrs. McIntyre's car.

She grabs both my hands and when I pull back, she grabs harder. She lifts my arms and examines the scratches and scrapes, making a sucking sound through her teeth. "Let's go, Mikey. We have to get you cleaned up."

I look at the house, imagining Mr. McIntyre stirring a cauldron of boiled children. "You mean, inside?"

"Well, I sure as Adam can't clean you up out here."

"But my paper route."

"Sweetie, that has to wait. We gotta get some Bactine on those cuts." She puts her arm around me, pressing me up the driveway. I try to hang back, but she presses harder. Her blouse smells like the beauty parlor where my mother gets her hair done, only a lot stronger, enough to make my eyes sting.

I glance back at the street. No one's around, and the neighborhood looks like a different place, some other neighborhood.

"Let's just hope you didn't hit your head too hard." She closes the door behind us. The house is central-air cool and dim. It looks like any other house on the block, maybe nicer. Antiques and big lamps, a dining room, a kitchen with green appliances. Floor-length curtains on every windows with that frilly part running along the top.

Mrs. McIntyre sets her sunglasses on the kitchen counter. Her eyeballs stick out big and round, and very blue. She grabs my wrist and pulls me through the kitchen and into the bathroom by the washer and dryer. In the harsh light of the mirror, she looks older than she did outside. Older than my mother but younger than my grandmother. Her lipstick is fading except for little pieces caught in the cracks. Everything looks brighter and washed out a little, everything except those little red vein-like bits of lipstick.

I blink my eyes a few times but it doesn't help anything.

"Okay, off with the shirt."

"What?"

Mrs. McIntyre grabs my t-shirt near my belt. "Let's go. You don't want to get your shirt all wet, do you? Off, off."

"Okay, okay, let me do it." I pull off my shirt. She wets a washcloth and scrubs my arms with soap and water, then sprays Bactine from a kit under the sink. The Bactine label is faded but the sting is strong as ever, though I make like it doesn't sting at all.

Her lips purse and she shakes her head. "You boys are all the same. My Jeffy always played the tough guy too, even when he dislocated his shoulder playing against Navy. You'd think crying was a capital offense or something."

She frowns and gets quiet. The whole house seems to frown and get quiet with her.

She brushes my hair over the sink, bits of dirt and twiggy shreds sifting down onto the white porcelain. She rinses out the washcloth, then, before I can protest, rubs it over my face and torso. My skin gets goose pimples in the cool air.

"You're gonna be okay. You're young. A fall like that would kill an old lady like me."

"Uh-huh. I'd really like to lie down, if that's okay." I feel dizzier than before. My head still hurts and the bathroom lights are too bright. "I should call my mother."

"Sure, honey, of course." She smiles and pulls a fat towel from the cabinet. She shakes it out and drapes it over my shoulders like a cape. "Let me get you a ginger ale first. I don't know about you, but after all this excitement, I could sure use a little something."

Mrs. McIntyre steers me into a sun room built along the back of the house, and positions me on the sofa, tucking the towel around me. Everything in the room is white wicker, even the coffee table. The cushions are patterned in bright primary colors like the game Twister. Tall potted plants in every corner make me feel like I'm in the jungle.

She turns on the TV and leaves the room. The Mike Douglas Show. A minute later she returns with a big glass of ginger ale with ice for me and something in a tall skinny glass for her. She shakes a small pill from an orange container and sets it in the palm of my hand.

"Go ahead, take it."

"What is it?"

"It'll relax you."

I sit there staring at it.

"Oh, for crying out loud" She takes the pill out of my hand and puts it in my mouth. She prompts me to sip my ginger ale, so I do, washing the pill down.

"Good boy," she says. She shakes out two pills for herself.

She sits in the chair next to the sofa and pulls a long white cigarette from a leather case.

Goldie Hawn walks across the TV screen to big applause. Mrs. McIntyre blows out smoke and says, "She's so funny. Button cute, too."

I want to watch but my eyes keep closing until they won't open any more, no matter how hard I try.

 

In my dream, Goldie Hawn and I are in the Jungle Room, playing Twister. The red-blue-yellow-green spotted mats are everywhere, papering the walls behind the trees and covering the cushions on the wicker furniture. Goldie's face is painted with symbols and she's trying to tell me something about my mother. But she giggles too much to get the words out clearly. She looks so pretty, so button cute, but I want to know what she's saying. I spin the Twister needle and it lands on black.

 

When my eyes open again, I'm tucked tightly into a twin bed. I can barely move. The room is dim with yellow light from the windows. Evening? Morning? For a moment, I think I'm at my grandmother's house in Pennsylvania.

But I'm not. I don't know where I am.

Model jet fighters dangle from the ceiling. The top of the dresser and the wall behind it are crowded with framed photos of someone, a little boy in black and white, then older in color. He has dark hair and happy eyes, the same gameshow-host smile in every photo. School portraits, hair getting longer the older he gets. Team photos. Hockey, football, baseball.

In some of the photos, he wears Army fatigues like on M*A*S*H, in others a dress uniform with a beret, hair cut so close to the scalp it looks blonde. But because of the smile you can tell it's the same guy.

One frame is deep and shadowy and I have to squint hard to make it out. It's not a picture frame at all, but a boxy thing around an American flag folded into a triangle.

The squinting intensifies my headache so I close my eyes again. I remember slamming into the side of Mrs. McIntyre's Buick and the ginger ale and that I have to call my mother. I think about Mrs. McIntyre's laundry room which makes me think about our laundry room, and the night I caught my father in there, waiting for Mrs. Baumgartner, two drinks in his hand. I think about Mrs. Baumgartner's boobs and tennis tan skin and shiny glossy lips, easily the prettiest lady on my paper route. Oh shit, I still gotta do my paper route.

And I will, right away.

 

I wake up to people arguing. The room's darker except for a chalky line of light around the door, which is open a crack. I hear a man mostly, but can't make out his words. They are vibrations coming through the walls. He doesn't sound angry, just insistent. Impatient. My father talks that way sometimes when he's explaining something he doesn't want to explain, like inflation or Linda Lovelace.

My headache's no better, but I'm not so tired any more. My ribs complain as I work the sheets loose. I grab the bed table for support and knock something over, a lamp that thuds onto the floor.

The door opens, light angling into the room. A tall and thin figure, Mr. McIntyre, flips on the light switch. The lamp on the floor ignites, burning bright through the crumpled shade.

"Oh, good, you're awake." He turns and shouts into the hallway. "Rose, he's awake. Better let his mother know! Now!"

I swing my legs free and sit on the edge of the bed. Sitting up doesn't feel as good as I'd hoped.

Mr. McIntyre huffs and picks up the lamp. He sets it back on the night stand and pushes the dents out of the shade.

"This is all right. This is nothing," he says. Except his voice sounds like it's not all right, like maybe it was his most favorite lamp in the world.

"I'm sorry, Mr. McIntyre." My throat twists in a dry, heaving hiccup.

He doesn't look at me, focused as he is on lamp repair. "It's all right. See? Good as new. Good. As. New."

It looks anything but. The shade is marked with creases like dark veins and the wire frame is crooked. My bike tire looked in better shape, the last time I saw it, which felt like a hundred years ago.

"If you say so," I tell him, and puke all over his shoes.

 

My father paces among the white wicker. Mother peels my eyelids back and squints into my pupils. She examines the scratches on my arms and the bump on my head, her brow rippling with worry.

"After treating his wounds, my wife thought it might be best if he rested for a while." Mr. McIntyre leans forward from the white wicker chair, elbows on his knees. He looks like a mantis. "When Michael woke up, she called you right away."

"That's all well and good, Alex," my father says. "But it's almost ten-thirty! My wife was frantic. We had no idea where he was."

The doorbell chimes, one of those cathedral numbers with a dozen bells. Mr. McIntyre sinks a little. "I expect that's the police." He stands and wipes the wrinkles from his slacks.

"I'm sorry," my father says. "But when we called back to say he'd been found, they said they were obligated to follow up."

Mr. McIntyre leaves the room without a word. Mother runs her fingers through my hair. "This is a big bump. We really need to get an X-ray."

My father looks toward the arched doorway. "I just don't understand why they waited so long to call."

Mother stiffens.

"What?" my father asks.

"You know why."

My father says nothing, then nods. He checks his watch, sliding the charcoal cuff out of the way with a single finger. "How long are we going to be stuck here?"

Mother darkens. "Sorry for making you miss your 'business dinner.'"

"It's not like that, Marie."

Silence.

My father sighs. He looks weary. I realize he hasn't changed out of his suit, something he usually does right away when he gets home. In that room of bright colors and whites, he is a slash of darkness.

Mr. McIntyre returns, Sergeant Torelli trailing behind him. Torelli looks at me and I'm afraid he'll say something about how last week he confiscated a six pack of beer from me and Danny behind the A&P. But he just nods and shakes my father's hand.

"Could we perhaps speak in private?" He gestures to the far end of the room, and he, my father, and Mr. McIntyre walk over.

I want to hear what they're saying, but Mother keeps fussing over me. "It's all right, Mikey. It's going to be okay." She hugs me this way and that, as if trying to find the right fit.

My father comes back over. "Let's go, honey. Michael. Let's go home."

Mr. McIntyre says, "Thanks for being so understanding, Robert." He extends his hand but my father doesn't shake it.

Outside, Torelli and my father wrangle my bike into the back of the station wagon. The bent wheel sticks out the back window.

Mother insists on taking me to the Emergency Room. My father doesn't argue, doesn't even slow down as we pass our house. All the lights are on and we go by like we don't live there anymore. No one speaks. I lie back on the ridged Naugahyde, watching the lights of the cars wash across the ceiling.

I'm almost asleep when my father breaks the silence.

"I don't care what happened to her son. This is unacceptable."

Mother says nothing.

"Unacceptable! When was she planning to call us? What the hell was she thinking?"

Mother sighs. "I don't know how I'd react if anything happened to Michael."

I open my eyes. The tops of their heads stick up at the far ends of the front seat. Mother is turned away, like she's looking out the window.

"Whatever she's taking, they'd have to give me double. I don't think I'd ever recover." Her voice gets strange toward the end. "Michael is all I have now."

"Honey, don't..." My father's voice is small and almost swallowed by the car noise.

"Don't, don't, don't! What do you know about don't?"

"Honey... Marie..."

"Can we please just try to get through this? This really isn't the time."

The car is silent again. The ceiling turns red and the car slows to a stop.

"It wasn't a business dinner," my father says.

Mother snorts, a noise I've never heard her make before. She chuckles but it's a cold chuckle, not like when we're goofing around in the kitchen.

"It was therapy."

Mother says nothing.

"It was therapy. A psychologist on the West Side. I've been going for a few weeks now."

The ceiling turns green and the car shifts forward and accelerates.

"I'm just..."

"Just what, Robert?"

"I'm just trying, that's all." Long seconds pass. "I should have told you. I'm sorry."

"It's here. Turn in here," Mother says, and the car pivots this way and that. Bright white light fills the interior and we slow to a stop.

I feel like throwing up again but I fight it. It takes all my strength, but I hold it down.

Andrew O. Dugas' work has appeared in 100 Word Story, LITnIMAGE, Mixer, Instant City, and elsewhere. His novel Sleepwalking in Paradise was published in 2014 by Numina Press. He recently snail-mailed 1,001 original hand-inscribed haiku postcards to as many randomly selected recipients, and he still doesn't know why.

 

 

Edited for Unlikely by Justin Herrmann, Prose Editor
Last revised on Friday, July 22, 2016 - 20:41