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Authors: Bentley Little

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BOOK: Dispatch
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"Anytime, anyplace."

"After school," I said. "Four o'clock. After everyone's gone." By four o'clock I would be safely home.

"I'll be there," Brick said, and spit on the ground. He walked away.

I was safe for today, but what was going to happen when I arrived at school tomorrow? Everyone would know I chickened out, and Brick would kick my ass to boot. Not only would I end up beaten to a pulp, but my reputation would be ruined.

Maybe not. I had an idea.

The next morning, I walked to school with Edson. A worried Robert waited for us in front of the office. His mom had dropped him off on her way to work. "Brick's looking for you," he said. "You better get your ass to class fast."

"I'm looking for
him
," I said loudly.

My friends in tow, acting as unwitting moral support, I strode around the building, past the little kids' playground, to the basketball courts, where I knew Brick would be hanging out. There was an almost visible current that swept through and energized the gathered throng of students as I stepped onto the blacktop. Brick turned slowly toward me, but before he could say a word, I advanced on him, pointing. "Where were you?" I demanded.

He wasn't quick on the uptake, as I'd known, as I'd counted on, and, confused, he tried to think of something to say. He'd obviously and with good reason been planning to ask me the very same thing, and now that I'd stolen his thunder, he didn't know how to react. "I waited for ten minutes," I said.

"Where were
you
?" he finally got out, and the anger in his voice made me step back. I had to play this exactly right or my teeth would soon be on the asphalt. "
I
waited for a half hour!"

"Where?" I asked.

"Right here!"

I nodded my head, letting everyone know that was the problem. "I was over by the bike rack," I said.

"We were gonna fight right here!"

"We never spelled it out, and I guess we both got mixed-up." I glanced around, as though checking to make sure no teachers were around. "Today," I said. "Here. Four o'clock."

"Right here!" Brick angrily pointed to the ground at his feet.

"Right here," I agreed.

"You're dead meat!"

"We'll see," I said.

Robert, Edson and I walked away, and as soon as we got around the corner of the building, we stopped. I leaned against the wall so as not to fall down. My legs were trembling. "That was brilliant!" Edson said.

Robert was grinning. "So what's the plan for tomorrow?"

"I don't know," I admitted, "but I have to come up with something."

There was going to be a big turnout for the fight—a lot of people had heard us—so the next morning, I lied and said that I'd shown, but I'd left because there were too many people hanging around. This was supposed to be between me and him. How could I be sure that someone in the crowd wouldn't narc? He tried to argue, but he wasn't good at it, and finally he ordered the assembled kids not to show up to watch; it was just between the two of us.

We rescheduled the fight, and the next day I was even bolder. I accused him of chickening out, but I did it while there was a teacher nearby so he couldn't attack me then and there. I called him a pansy and told him I was tired of this, I wasn't going to do it anymore, he could go fight someone else instead.

And it worked. Although we attended the same school and would occasionally see each other across the playground at recess, the fight never took place and there were no more confrontations. I had successfully avoided my first fight.

The celebration was short-lived, however, because Paul moved.

That came completely out of the blue. I'm sure that's not really the way it was; I'm sure his parents had endless discussions with each other over whether they should uproot the family for a career opportunity. But from a child's point of view, it happened all of a sudden. One day we were playing, working on the go-cart, and the next he was having to gather all his stuff together because they'd be leaving in a week.

We didn't know how to react. We were kids, we were boys, and although I'm sure he felt as angry about it as I did, we didn't really talk about it, even when I was helping him pack his toys and collections. All I could think of was that I'd be alone on the street, stuck with my parents. There would be no more weekend days and weekday afternoons spent at Paul's house, getting away from my own troubled home, pretending as though I were part of a happy, well-adjusted family. I felt sick and upset, and I wished they could adopt me and take me with them, too.

They moved on a Saturday, and it was the first Saturday in a month that I didn't get a letter from Kyoko. Just a bad day all around. I went down the street to see Paul off, and he was already in the packed car, his dad getting ready to start the engine and take off. If I'd been three minutes later, I would have missed them altogether.

Paul rolled down his window. He was crying. Not sobs, just a few silent tears. And although I felt kind of like crying, too, it still seemed kind of pussyish for him to do that. "I'll write to you," Paul said, trying to smile. "We can be pen pals."

"Yeah," I said. "We'll write."

But we never did.

And the last time I ever saw him, he was waving at me through the back window of the car as his parents drove away to their new home.
 

Life went on.

More plates were broken in more drunken nighttime arguments, and my dad beat Tom for something he did, although no one would tell me what it was. "When I'm eighteen, I'm hitting the fucking road and never coming back," Tom said, and that was probably the closest we ever came to brotherly intimacy.

One warm Saturday near the end of March, I stayed overnight at Robert's house, camping in the backyard. My mom had never allowed me to sleep over at a friend's house before, and it was a shock that she agreed to it this time. But Robert's mother called with a formal invitation, and I guess my mom found it hard to say no to another adult. If I'd been the one to ask, I'm sure she would have turned me down flat.

But there I was, small suitcase packed, and my mom grudgingly drove me over to Robert's house, putting on a false face and engaging in some light chitchat with Robert's mom before giving me a big hug and a kiss on the forehead and telling me to have fun.

I could not remember the last time my mom had hugged or kissed me.

Then she was gone, and I was free. Edson arrived a few minutes later, and for a goof, Robert and I hid in the garage behind a box, pretending not to hear Edson's increasingly whiny cries of "Robert! Jason! Where are you guys?" Finally, Robert's mom ordered us to come out and play with Edson, and we emerged from the garage laughing uproariously.

We lounged around Robert's room for the next couple of hours, eating Pringles, drinking Cokes and listening to records. Robert had a real stereo, not just a little record player like Edson and I had, and his dad actually had cool albums that he let Robert borrow. We listened to Yes, Supertramp, Heart and Jethro Tull, feeling like teenagers as we took turns putting on the headphones. That got boring after a while, though, and we went outside to play basketball in the alley. There were no adults around, so instead of "Horse," we played "Fuck," and I was the first one to spell the word. We then played "Ass," but the structure of the game was starting to get to us, and we decided to just shoot randomly and not play anything.

Robert made a granny shot from the fence across the alley. "I don't like my pen pal," he said. "The kid's a dick."

"Mine's just boring," Edson said, throwing a hook that fell short. "When's this stupid program going to end?"

I didn't say anything. Both of my friends knew that my pen pal was a girl. Although I'd led them to believe that she had been assigned to me, I'd never said anything negative to them about Kyoko, and I wasn't about to start now. It was a point of honor.

They looked at me, waiting to hear my complaints. Robert's eyes narrowed with suspicion.

"If you don't like your pen pals," I told them, successfully diverting attention from myself, "then get them to stop writing to you."

"How do we do that?" Edson asked.

"Pretend you're a fag," I said, grinning.

"No
way
," Robert said emphatically.

"You wouldn't
have
to pretend." Edson snickered.

Robert nodded. "Yeah, but
we
couldn't get away with it."

"Then do something else. Write something crazy. Scare them."

Edson's eyes lit up. "I could pretend I killed someone and I'm on the lam and I need a place to hide out! I could ask him if I could stay with his family!"

I grinned. "Now you're thinking."

"Or I could say I'm in an insane asylum!"

Robert shook his head. "My guy'd never believe it."

"Why not?" I asked.

"He knows me too well."

"Knows you too well?" I looked from Robert to Edson and back again. "Have you guys been telling your pen pals the
truth
? What's wrong with you?"

"I have to write something," Robert said defensively.

"Yeah, but it doesn't have to be the
truth
. Look," I explained, "you're never going to meet these guys. They don't know who you are. You could pretend to be ... Murdoch. Or Brick Hayward. Pick someone. They won't know the difference. And you only tell them things that you want them to know. Make yourself up. Be who you want to be. Be smarter, more popular, older, cooler, whatever."

"Is that what you do?" Edson asked admiringly.

I smiled in what I hoped was a mysterious manner. "That's for me to know and you to find out."

"Yeah, but your pen pal's a
girl
," Robert said derisively.

I said nothing, and the meaning of that sank in.

"Do you guys write anything ... nasty?" Edson asked, and there was a gleam in his eye.

"Me to know, you to find out." I grabbed the basketball from him, made a layup, rebounded my own ball and did it again.

It was weird that evening eating dinner with a functional family, where the parents got along and children were not just an annoyance. At the table, everyone laughed and joked and had a good time, just like people on television did. The angry silences and hostile put-downs that I was used to were nowhere in evidence. After dinner, we all sat down to play Monopoly, even Robert's parents, and it was fun.

This wasn't
The Brady Bunch
, though. Robert was still a regular kid, and after his dad set up the tent and sleeping bags in the backyard, then returned to the house and closed the drapes, the three of us sneaked out to see what was happening in the neighborhood. A little brat named Stevie lived a few doors down, and Robert's idea was to hide in the bushes under the kid's bedroom window, make spooky noises and scare the shit out of him. But a dog started barking the second we stepped onto Stevie's lawn, and we beat a hasty retreat. We ran all the way to the corner. A Mustang full of teenagers sped by and from the open rear window flew a water balloon that smashed on the sidewalk at our feet. "Eat it!" someone yelled.

My eyes followed the car as it roared away, but halfway up the block my attention was grabbed by a smaller figure hobbling down the sidewalk.

The witch.

That old hag was haunting me—I'd run into her at the post office again while dropping off a letter to Kyoko—and seeing her by moonlight sent a chill down my spine. "Check it out," Edson whispered, pointing. He looked from me to Robert. "Think we should follow her? See where she lives?"

In answer, Robert put a finger to his lips and scurried down the sidewalk, keeping to the shadows as much as possible, avoiding the circles of light created by the streetlamps every three houses or so.

We followed her down the street. I thought the sound of our movement would be covered by the loud tapping of her cane, but she heard us, and at the end of the block she stopped next to the mailbox and suddenly whirled around, pointing her walking stick in our direction. The cane made a sweep in the air from left to right, and she said something that sounded like "Don't try." As if on cue, a pigeon dropped from the sky and landed dead on the sidewalk halfway between us. The witch smiled, then turned away and headed down the cross street.

"Let's get out of here!" Robert said, and the three of us ran like hell back up the block and around the corner, not stopping until we were once again safely ensconced in our tent in Robert's backyard.

I couldn't wait to write to Kyoko and tell her about this. As soon as I got home, I would lock myself in the bathroom and write her a long letter about staying overnight at my friend's house and our adventure with the witch.

We got into our sleeping bags, compared notes on what had just happened, made plans for tomorrow arid bullshitted for a while until gradually the conversation faded away, overtaken by the night. Robert nodded off, then Edson, but I remained awake and alert, so excited thinking about what I would write that I could not sleep. I suddenly realized that, to me, real life was important only as fodder for my letters. Odd as it was, I cared less about experiencing events than writing about them. I didn't write letters to describe my life—I lived my life to have something to write in my letters.

Or to have a springboard from which to launch my lies.

I stared up at the peaked nylon roof of the tent. To give myself credit, I didn't always lie. If something interesting happened, like our experience with the witch, I would incorporate it into the tapestry of fiction I was creating. It was just that, usually, not enough interesting things occurred to justify the frequency of my correspondence—so I simply pretended they did and made things up.

And Kyoko believed it all.

Was she doing the same? I didn't think so. Her stories were too mundane, the things she wrote about too ordinary. She had no secret-scientist father, she was not related to anyone famous or important, she was not a popular surfing champion, she encountered no witches. But that only made me like her all the more. She was enamored with my fictional self, she genuinely cared about her American pen pal, and that made me care about her.

BOOK: Dispatch
13.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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