For once Lindsey didn’t have a quick comeback to Al’s revelation. Perhaps her silence signaled that she was on the cusp of leveling up on the maturity scale in the game of life. Girls that age were said to be more mature than their male counterparts. Rather than spilling out her mouth like water through a sieve, words seemed to be bouncing around her head and then sticking to walls of her skull. She wondered why he suddenly felt the need to tell her or why he didn’t want his aunt to meet her parents. She’d been to his house before and his aunt was cool.
For once it was Lindsey who seemed discomforted by the extended silence and she finally blurted out, “Why don’t you try to find them?”
“It’s getting cold out here, maybe you should just go home,” he countered in an uncharacteristically harsh tone.
“Don’t you try to change the subject and dismiss me.”
He’d already started past her with his clinched hands deep inside his jacket pockets. “I didn’t ask you to come looking for me. I’m going inside now. You can do what you want.”
He couldn’t look around. He was afraid of seeing her standing there in her patented arms folded, hip thrust to the right, wrinkled nose stance that she would adopt when she wanted to express her disapproval of the way he was behaving. He didn’t like the way he was behaving right now either, but he liked the way he felt even less. His stomach was sending signals to his brain that he might not have seen his dinner for the last time.
Luckily his aunt was engrossed with one of her television documentaries when he came back in and she let him off with a quick “I hope you had fun tonight,” never really looking up from her show.
“Yeah, sure. Um … I have a bunch of homework to do.”
He’d gotten almost to the steps when she said, “What I don’t even get to see that face?” He knew she knew something was wrong. She always knew. She hadn’t even blinked the night the policemen dropped him off at her doorstep based solely on a piece of paper in his pocket. She just took him upstairs and tried to get him settled into his new room.
“Will this do?” He poked his head around the corner of the doorway. “I have a big test tomorrow, that’s all.”
He knew it was a less than convincing lie but she let him off easy. “Don’t stay up too late. Otherwise, you’re fall asleep during that test.” She smiled, as if to say, I’m here when you’re ready.
He bolted upstairs two steps at a time and dropped like a rock into the bean bag chair in the corner of his room. He sat with his knees up under his chin, a nearly round object amidst the pliant blob of furniture. Everything about him was still clinched. Why had he told her about his parents? He was such an idiot sometimes. Now she’d probably think he was lamer than ever. And what if she went to school the next day and told everybody.
He couldn’t focus enough to finish his homework, but as long as he finished the math at lunch tomorrow, he could probably blend into the wall enough to get past his morning subjects. He crawled up on the bed in the fetal position and willed himself into a sleeping oblivion.
But sleep would provide no refuge tonight. He was returned to the scene of the crime. From his much shorter, younger vantage point he walked through the dreamscape mall once again with a parent on each side holding his hands. They didn’t quite walk in unison so his little arms were tugged first this way, then that.
French fries. A rare treat awaited him at the table in the food court. His mother put a gentle hand on his knee to stop him from swinging back and forth in the swivel plastic chair. His parents were talking but he couldn’t hear their voices. Lips moved. Mom smiled uncomfortably, dad nodded a lot.
Suddenly a bully whose image was well burned into Al’s brain from the previous school year appeared and grabbed a handful of fries out of the red and white tablecloth-patterned cardboard basket. He looked down at little Al, licked the fries and stuffed them back into the container, leaving soggy, saltless potato mash. Adding insult he wiped his greasy hand down Al’s shirt before walking away.
Looking to his parents for some help or acknowledgment Al found neither. They simply walked a now real-time sized Al over to the carousel. His dad put him up on the horse in an awkward and lanky-limbed tangle and told him to hold onto the big pole that stuck out of the horse’s neck. His mom rubbed his back and then wrapped both hands over his to make sure he was holding on. She smoothed his hair down, told him to hold on and everything would be OK and then stepped away.
He watched for his parents on the first few spins of the carousel but then they were gone. As he looked around he saw his aunt standing along the inside track of the wheel. Her hair was longer, parted in the middle with a headband with a peace sign on it and she wore a long flowing skirt. If she spun around it would fan out like a wheel inside the wheel. She held a protest sign with hand-painted letters over her head that said “Give Dick A Chance.”
Then the spinning started going faster and faster and Lindsey was on the horse in front of him. She turned around, her hair flowing behind her. She was saying something but he still couldn’t make out the sounds. Her expression at times looked like the bridled horse she rode, her jaws contorted as if she was hollering something to him. But he couldn’t figure it out. And the spinning went faster and Lindsey’s horse seemed to gain ground and speed away from him. Finally, exhausted from his night, he woke up panting and dizzy.
At school Al was hoping to avoid seeing Lindsey outside of class. If he could have avoided it in class too, that would be great. In a few short months he’d gone from being convinced that they would be okay if they stuck together to wanting to be as far away from her as possible. But not really. He stared at the back of her head throughout social studies and quickly ducked his head when she looked around. He still wanted to reach out and touch her hair. If he just held on he’d be okay, right?
On the way out of the classroom for lunch, Lindsey tried to catch up to Al but he sat closer to the door and slipped out before she could reach him. She went on to the lunchroom and half-heartedly nibbled at her food. She still didn’t know what to say but she wasn’t the type to just let things lie for long. And Al was predictable if nothing else. So moments later she was knocking at the closet door.
Rolling her eyes, she let out a huff, “I’m pretty sure you’re in there. Can I come in?”
Al froze, mid-bite into his peanut butter sandwich. He’d learned in past years to leave off the jelly just in case his lunch ended up a casualty of a bully’s fist or got splattered in his backpack. Sandwiches didn’t provide much cushion on those occasions when Al’s back met abruptly with his locker. The peanut butter held up pretty well but the jelly just got messy.
Like a puppy with his peanut buttered tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth he mumbled something that Lindsey took for approval. She opened the door and rather than scolding him from her high horse, she sat down on the floor next to him and let the door swing almost shut. A thin triangle of light interjected itself between the two.
Not sure if it would help, Lindsey managed, “I’m sure it wasn’t your fault. I mean you were just a little kid.”
“Yeah. Whatever.” Those were the words that came out but all he could focus on was how wonderful her hair smelled and how their feet were almost touching.
“Did you ever ask your aunt about it?”
“I used to but she just tells me how much she loves me and that I’m the best son a woman could ever hope for. She showed me some pictures of my mom and dad and her when they were younger but that’s it.”
After a long pause Lindsey had made a decision. “When I get back from Sugarbush, we’re gonna find ‘em.” Al could almost see the wheels turning in her brain as she went into Nancy Drew mode.
No one else spoke for the rest of the lunch period. They just sat there, cocooned in the closet. Safe. Together. Al could breath again. Sort of. In those few solitary moments Lindsey had both given him back his breath and taken it away.