Potluck

 

T H I S    W E E K

WATERSLIDES IN AUXILIARY HOSPITAL WASHROOM by Daniel Thompson

 

White With the Hidden Sun, Pt. 2

Read the first part of this story here.

***

Down the hallway, the TV threw flashing light onto the wall above the couch, and Brady could hear the sounds of a courtroom drama from the speakers. He swallowed the lump in his throat then turned round quickly and locked the door, spinning the deadbolt and latching the metal chain. Then as he started along the hall, he ran his palms up and down his forearms, where goosebumps had formed, and breathed in loud measured bursts to get warm.

On the couch, there was a big pile of blankets. At the far end was his mother’s head. Her bleached blonde hair hung down over her face. As per usual, she was asleep and probably had been for most of the day. On the coffee table, there was an overflowing ashtray, several open prescription bottles, and loose pills scattered between empty bottles of beer. Brady shook his head, but knew better than to wake her with his troubles.

Instead, he walked over to the TV and switched the knob, the dark gray screen shrinking into a white dot before it snapped quiet. His throat felt dry and like he couldn’t swallow his spit. But the pounding in his chest had slowed since when he’d first come in from the cold.

Looking around now at the dark and cluttered apartment, Brady felt sad, like he didn’t want to be there very long. He stepped into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. A half-eaten chicken from two days prior had stunk up the whole inside of the fridge, causing Brady’s nostrils to twitch in disgust. He snatched a large bottle of orange-flavored pop off the rack and hurriedly shut the door so that the odor of the chicken would be trapped inside, and so he would not have to smell it anymore.

Guzzling pop straight from the bottle, his Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat. When he had finished drinking he let out a loud sigh and set the bottle down on the countertop. Then he noticed the wound on his finger from where he’d poked it with the stick. The blood had congealed by now and formed a crusty smear on the tip of his thumb, which he squinted at, before sticking the whole thumb into his mouth to suck at.

“Brady? At you, Brady?” called his mother, her voice groggy and issuing from some strange realm between sleeping and waking.             

 “Yeah, Ma,” Brady growled, staring resentfully from the kitchen over at the mound of blankets. “Go back to sleep! …Jesus!”

 “Okay, honey,” replied his mother, shifting her weight on the couch and nodding off again.

Muttering curses and shivering with cold, Brady went into his bedroom and rummaged through the clothes hamper lying on the floor. Eventually he put on a loose-fitting, cotton Seahawks jersey, a gray fleece vest that he zipped up to his sternum, and a red Seattle Mariners hat.

When he’d reached the kitchen again, he put the orange pop back in the fridge, stole two bottles of his mother’s beer, which he stashed in his red backpack along with a bottle opener, and then headed for the front door. His intention in leaving was partly to avoid being alone with his mother, and partly to see what had happened to the boy that he’d stabbed.

By the time Brady could see the dumpsters where he had committed the crime, the ambulance had already driven the Indian boy and his mother to the hospital. The sky was growing darker and the bottoms of the clouds glowed white with the hidden sun. It was quiet again, save for the rush of cars on the road.

Wondering if there would be a spot of blood on the ground, Brady started over to the dumpsters. But he found no blood there, so he changed course and began walking past the dumpers, over the sloping patch of lawn towards the trees: the place that he usually drank the beers he’d steal from his mother.

Once Brady had vanished through the tree line; a man came down the steps from one of the apartments.

He was tall: about six-foot, three. He wore an orange bubble-vest over a flannel shirt – the sleeves rolled up to his elbows; a pair of dusty, faded blue jeans; mud-caked cowboy boots, and a green and white mesh baseball cap with a snapback, from which black and gray spikes of coarse hair shot out, like porcupine quills.

By staring down through the window of his unlighted apartment, the tall man had witnessed everything, from the argument to the attack; then he had even stuck around to watch the paramedics lay the Indian boy in the stretcher and drive him and his mother out of the parking lot. More than once, while watching, he had had to suppress his laughter.

Crossing the parking lot now, with his hands buried in his jeans, the secret witness stepped up over the curb and began casually to saunter after the boy, moving along the grassy slope for the woods.  

From his secret place in the trees, Brady could see all the colored lights of the tall buildings down in Bellevue. It resembled a glass city, rising like panpipes into the bruised plum-colored sky. It seemed to Brady a place of pure evil, chock-full of fools and money. He sipped the stolen beer, swallowed it down, and then spat in the direction of the glowing skyscrapers, his face twisted in a scowl. Then turning away from the view he ambled over the dirt and hunkered down upon a rotting tree trunk that was lying on its side in the brambles.

His knees bent up near his chest, Brady continued to nurse the bottle of bitter tasting beer. He didn’t love the taste but he knew he would grow used to it if he drank enough. More importantly he enjoyed the way it made his head feel light and goofy.

Once he had finished the first beer, he chucked the empty bottle off into the trees before reaching into his backpack to find the other. There was a rustling in the bushes behind him, and Brady was startled when a voice called out to him:

“Hope ya got another one of those brews fer me, cowboy.”

Jumping up from the tree trunk and craning his neck, Brady saw the tall man ambling out from the darkness, and moving towards him with a large toothy grin that lit up the shadows clinging to his face. The unopened bottle he’d taken from the bag was still rolling across the dirt.

“I’m just kiddin,” said the tall man, patting at his chest, “I got m’own.”

The tall man reached under his bubble vest, searching at the breast pocket of his flannel, and soon his hand came out with a metal flask, which he began to unscrew:

“Like my daddy’d say, ‘Never leave home without it.’” The tall man chuckled and then raised the flask to his lips for a drink:

“Ahhh! Damn that’s good!” he yelped. “Y’want some?” He held the flask out towards Brady who, by this point, had back-stepped to put a good distance between himself and the leering stranger.

Raising his long leg over the fallen tree trunk, the tall man stepped further into the clearing, coming to rest beside Brady’s backpack. By the lights of the city, Brady could make out the tall man’s features. His nose was long and sharp; there was a band-aid across the bridge to help him breathe better, or perhaps to combat allergies. He hadn’t shaved in a few days and there were grayish circles under his eyes – the whites of which were massive and shiny in the dark that fell down from his hat-bill, and inside each eye there was a black pin-prick that must’ve been his pupils.

“Nah-no thanks,” said Brady, stammering. “I gah-gotta go home now.” And he made a motion to leave.

Sudden and blunt, like the falling of a guillotine blade, the tall man spoke out:

“I seen what you did. I seen you stab that Indun boy. Seen him go off in an amblance and everthing…”

Brady stopped in his tracks, his eyes training acidly on the tall man.

“Yep. I seen it all…and I’ll even bet a million dollars there’s people’d like to know who done stuck that little Indun boy. Huh? Huh?”

Brady let fly a few very bad words.

“Whoa-ho-ho there buddy, what kind of a way is that to talk to someone who’s got something over on ya? Come on now. Why don’t you juss settle on down. We’ll have a drink and iron this whole thing out. What do you say to that?”

“I said I gotta go now,” Brady hissed, his voice ornery and covered in thorns. Then his eyes traveled down to settle on the backpack still resting by the tall man’s cowboy boots.

Watching the boy’s eyes, the tall man looked down too, and then he chuckled. “Well alright then. If you gotta go then you gotta go. But, say – aint this yer bag here?” Stooping from the knees the tall man gripped the backpack, to dangle by his side, as he stood up.

It was as if he was being dared to admit something he didn’t want to:

“Yes,” said Brady.

“Listen, I was juss kiddin you earlier about tellin on ya – fact, I got a real kick outta watchin you stick that other boy.” The tall man laughed and held Brady’s backpack out to him, stuffing the other hand inside of his vest pocket then rocking back and forth on his boot heels. “Shit, you ack like you never been teased before, boy! Here ya go. Here’s yer bag back – I won’t bite ya or nothing. Heh-heh. Seriously. Go on and take it, if ya have to leave so bad.”

The beer mixed with his hesitation and Brady started to feel lethargic, unsteady on his feet and in his judgment. As fast as he could, he debated on whether to take the backpack, or just leave it behind and try to run past the tall man for home. His logic felt clumsy, like a prosthetic he was still learning how to use. His mind swarmed with images of his mother and of the Indian boy bleeding on the ground. Brady’s every limb felt weighted down and feint, almost as though he could be pushed over by one finger. Suddenly he was jolted outside of his head once more, yanked from his stupor by the screech of anger now crackling through the tall man’s voice.

“Shit, boy! Take er already,” he said, snorting with impatience. “I aint got all damn night juss to hold this, while you stand there pussyfootin. Now take er!”

Brady hardly knew what he was doing before he raised up his hands and had done it; his fingers clutching at the backpack, he went to yank it free, only to find it didn’t come loose right away. The same instant that Brady felt the urge to pull the backpack harder, the tall man’s hand glided out of the vest pocket and, with a tiny crackling spark, dug the stun gun into Brady’s ribcage, releasing a 19,000,000-volt charge through the boy’s body.

Brady’s eyes bulged and rolled wildly in their sockets, his whole body twitching and convulsing like a trout on dry land. His legs went weak. The red baseball hat came off his head, as he plummeted forth into the backpack that hung still from the tall man’s grip. His frail body came down hard on the tree trunk, so that his arms lay strewn in the dirt on one side while his bare legs rested on the other.

Splayed and helpless, Brady heard the tall man mumbling and snickering above him, his voice hovering off, and then starting up again, louder, from behind. It all sounded vague, and like it was happening in some other place far removed from the conscious part of him. Like a dwindling flame, Brady’s eyes soon fell shut and his resistance was lost, carried off under the waves of black that poured down through the trees.

 Some time later, the tall man emerged from the woods and hiked up the lawn, putting himself in order as he walked, and whistling cheerily all the way to the parking lot. Then glancing up at the window from which he’d once spied, he found now that it was lit up with an amber-colored glow.

His head fell cocked to the side as he stared up at the lighted window, his mouth letting through a glimpse of a pearly white canine tooth. A shadow was cast on the wall inside, as of someone plodding around and tending to things about the apartment after a long, tiresome journey. He watched a moment more, and wondered if he should go up and ask about her trip to Florida. But figuring he would hear all about it at their mother’s house the following night, over turkey dinner, he decided not to go upstairs. His mind made up, the tall man turned to the side and resumed his whistling as he struck off to his truck. It was starting to drizzle.

A minute later the headlights of a pickup truck came on, casting a yellow glow onto the branches of drooping fir trees. The tall man put the truck in gear, pulled out of the parking lot, and headed off down the road.

 

Nick Wenzel grew up in the Pacific Northwest and has since relocated to Los Angeles, where he lives with his girlfriend, their dog, and three cats. He graduated from Evergreen State College in Olympia. His most recent publications consist of one story at Quail Bell Magazine, a poem in the Sixfold annual, and another short story in the Percival Review. And he writes because there are things in this world which require the writer in order to be heard.