The girl with the pink hat let out a shrill laugh. More of a cackle really.
“Look! Look at this! Look at it!”
Her friend glanced at the screen she brandished and forced a slight laugh, seeming far less enthused than her friend had been. Obviously she didn’t quite see the level of humour that her friend had.
“It was Sunday, but I got home so late Sunday!” cried the shieker.
The second girl, the one with the blonde hair, nodded again, forcing another laugh. She didn’t exactly seem uncomfortable – the two were obviously friends – she simply seemed to have different standards of humour.
“She just gave me that look, and I was all, like, Oh my God!”
Blondie nodded, finally getting a word in. “It’s not stressful by any means. She gets twenty bucks an hour.”
“I know, right?!”
Girl two nodded. “I’ve known you long enough.”
I took a sip of my coffee. Placing my earbuds in but leaving the music off, I began to write.
Listening for snippets of other people’s conversations fascinated me. To my ears, the conversation of the two girls was unintelligible nonsense. To them it was an in-depth exchange of information, the processing of shared experience and knowledge. Yet without the clarifying lens of context, their conversation was open to a vast amount of interpretations and meanings, such that the words themselves were inherently meaningless. I found the openness, the unlimited possibility present within the mere transcript of any encounter – words without their surroundings – to be both fascinating and inspiring.
I spotted Cal before he saw me. I just happened to be looking up at the right time, stretching and glancing around the Tim Horton’s. He stood on the opposite side of the restaurant, by the ATMs, scanning the crowd. My immediate reaction was to look away lest I make eye contact with him. I could feel my heart rate rising as my palms began to sweat. I stared purposely at my computer screen.
Maybe he’d leave. Maybe he wouldn’t see me. Maybe he’d go sit with someone else.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see him; compared with most of my interactions, my conversations with Cal had been relatively enjoyable. I liked the guy, and I found our theological debates quite stimulating.
But the initial contact, that first breach of the gap between two individuals… my god, that was terrifying.
As it turned out, he did see me. I recognized the hoodie as he came towards me, a thin blue blur in my periphery growing slowly larger.
“Hey, man, how’s it going?”
I looked up, feigning surprise, and pulled out my earbuds.
“Not too bad, dude.” I cringed inwardly as self-consciousness reduced me to using the word dude. “You?”
“I was looking for someone I knew, but you’re the only person I see.”
An awkward pause. Casual conversation wasn’t my forte.
“So hey, when are we going to connect?” he asked after glancing down at his phone for a few seconds. “When are you free?”
I paused, making a show of thinking, going through my imaginary full schedule. What I was really trying to figure out was when would give me the least amount of stress with the greatest option for cancellation. I knew I’d probably enjoy speaking with Cal when I saw him, but actually committing to a meeting was something I had a slight problem with.
“Maybe Monday or Wednesday next week?” I said finally.
“Hmm. Yeah. That might work. What time Wednesday?”
“Any time, morning or early afternoon.”
“How about eleven thirty?”
Another pause as I prepared myself to say yes, to commit.
“Great, let me write it down. I know for a fact that I’ll forget otherwise!”
He laughed expectantly, which somehow seemed to fit well with his lazy posture and badly gelled hair. Cal didn’t really look like the forward-thinking Christian genius he tried to come off as. He slurred his speech too much, slouched, and wore too many dirty hoodies, carrying an air of arrogant confidence around that suggested an inherent closed mindedness. I knew from debating him that Cal was certainly smart and quick-thinking, but he wasn’t quite as intelligent as he liked to think. He often defied the reason and logic he claimed to support, while his arguments sometimes displayed a certain naiveté. In terms of intellectual forward thinking, I was of the opinion that he reached just a little too high, thought himself a little too ground-breaking, which resulted in the magnification of his present faults.
I typed a reminder note into my open laptop while he leaned down and wrote in a little notebook.
“Fantastic,” he said, straightening up. “This actually works well, as I know for a fact that Jake’s free at that time. He’s supposed to be with me.”
Another expectant laugh. I chuckled awkwardly, feeling like the girl I’d been observing earlier. Why was he laughing? That wasn’t even funny. Jake was Cal’s friend, a member of the same Christian debate group. I’d met the two of them a few months back, and Jake had been present at all of our conversations since, though I hadn’t spoken with him directly as much as I had with Cal.
Cal gave his phone another glance then looked back at me. “How’s your semester been going, man?”
“Eh, not too bad. Had better, had worse.”
“What are you working on?”
“Creative writing assignment.”
“Ah, nice. What is it?”
“Just a short story. Fairly standard piece of homework for this sort of class.”
He gave an approving nod. “Nice. Better than an essay, right?”
I wasn’t sure why I lied about the assignment. Was I worried about some sort of judgement? Perhaps I worried he would be pissed off at me for eavesdropping on people.
Another pause, another glance at the phone. “Well alright, man. Look, good luck with that assignment, alright? I’m gonna find somewhere to sit upstairs.”
“Okay, yeah,” I said, “It’s good seeing you.”
“You too. I’ll see you tomorrow. Take it easy, man.”
As he turned to leave, I thought about stopping him, catching him and calling him back to clarify when about our meeting. After all, I’d said I was free on Wednesday next week, while he’d said tomorrow, which meant he’d turn up here tomorrow morning to find me not here. Shouldn’t I call him back? I’d put him off a lot, and he’d shown more interest in me than I deserved, given my habitual awkwardness and avoidance. Didn’t I owe it to him not to stand him up again, to refuse to let my insecurities get the better of me?
Cal rounded the corner and headed down the hall out of sight. I put my silent earbuds in and went back to my writing. The girl with the pink hat let out another shrill laugh.
Ritchie’s pack had grown heavy in the trek through calf-high, moon-dappled snow. His M1 Garand thumped against his back. The two fire teams followed their squad leader deeper into the forest, far in advance of the lines and into country that, because no one had claimed it, made it one of the most dangerous places on Earth. The snow might hide mines, and snipers might crouch in the trees.
Animal trails disappeared into the undergrowth. No wolves, not yet, but they had heard their unnerving cries in the distance. It was easy to believe the forest would kill them one way or another. They had witnessed such horrors already, and heard of others so ghastly he hadn’t yet made up his mind if he actually believed them or not.
A blast of icy wind shuddered through the creaking branches, threatening to topple more trees. Many already leaned against their neighbors like drunken servicemen at the USO Christmas party. Their pale, peeling bark resembled the raw skin on his knuckles. The men—wasn’t that a generous designation, when he was all of nineteen—ducked their faces into their coats. The sharp air lanced Ritchie’s lungs like a bayonet, burned his nostrils, and crystallized on exit. It tasted like cold tin. Staff Sergeant Barnes had assured them it wasn’t far to their bivouac, another kilometer or so, but it might as well have been a trip around the world when they were suffering the initial stages of frostbite.
The war should have been over by now, except for that Heinie son of a bitch who wouldn’t admit defeat, even with the Reds pushing his forces back and back. Ritchie and his fellow riflemen ought to be home, going out with their girls or starting jobs in the factories where their daddies had worked for twenty years and now their mothers did, because the war had stolen all the men away.
He hated the bastards with a fury as hot as this godforsaken forest was cold. He’d shoot every goddamned one of them if he could. He was hungry; he was tired. He couldn’t feel his fingers, toes, or nose. He missed the girl whose reputation was ruined if anyone found out what they really did on Saturday nights when he told Mom and Pop they were getting a burger and catching a movie.
Staff Sergeant Barnes was keeping close to the bank of a river frozen along the edges, with a narrow channel of free-flowing water in the center. He came to a sudden halt and held up one gloved hand: Be quiet.
A squad of soldiers—kids, really—encamped on the riverbank. The ice in Ritchie’s bones began to thaw as he gazed at the crackling fire, and froze again when he recognized the white, padded parkas they wore.
Staff Sergeant Barnes readied his rifle. “Don’t move!” he barked. Ritchie and the other riflemen had equipped their weapons as well and aimed them at the boys.
Startled, the soldiers instinctively reached for their P38s. Barnes fired a round into a tree; they dropped the pistols and raised their empty hands.
“Turn around. Line up and face the river.” He gestured with his rifle in case they didn’t understand English.
He clenched his jaw the way he did whenever Jimmy Turner opened his mouth. “Shut up, Jimmy.”
“But shouldn’t we bring them back to—”
Barnes’ eyes sparked with firelight and something far less comforting. “You have any idea how far we are from our lines? We can’t take them anywhere. We let them go, and we’re as good as dead. They’ll report us.”
Jimmy’s bottom lip wobbled. He’d always been softhearted, the kind of guy who had sobbed and thrown up after his first kill. When they talked about their girls, he nattered about his mother. Everyone thought he was a queer, but no one said it to his face. “But…”
“You have to understand, Jimmy, they ain’t like you and me.”
Ritchie had presumed their captives would protest in their harsh, angry language. Instead, they silently did as instructed, and he was glad he no longer had to see their faces. He almost wanted them to fight. Not simply to obey, to follow orders as they’d been programmed to do.
“…tie them up,” Jimmy was blubbering. “Leave ’em somewhere…”
There would be no children after this war, Ritchie thought. They might still resemble children on the outside, but their eyes would betray them, as eyes always did.
“There’s one for each of you, boys. Let’s get this over with.”
“I can’t, sir.” Jimmy shook his head so violently Ritchie expected it to fly off into the snow, a fired cannonball. Tears were freezing in his eyelashes. “They didn’t do nothin’ to us.”
Barnes slung his rifle over his shoulder and shook Jimmy. “But they will, you get me? They will. They don’t understand mercy. They ain’t like us.”
The enemy soldiers remained quiet and still, kneeling before the whitecaps that rushed through the river’s interior. Ritchie wondered about their families, their friends. What they liked to do for fun. Whether they had girls back home with soft, sweet breasts and whether they were going to die as virgins. But these were treacherous thoughts that invited in sympathy and the lie that they might share some common ground. The most perilous thought of all: that only geographic accidents of birth had made them adversaries.
He shot first, ejecting with the bullet those treasonous ideas. The boy slumped forward into snow that blossomed red beneath him. The other soldiers mumbled softly and in trembling voices—prayers, probably, but God had abandoned Europe years ago.
Seven more cracks split the night. The boys toppled one by one.
Jimmy was standing with his arm propped against a tree and his face buried in the crook of his elbow, his shoulders shaking. The rest of the riflemen gathered weapons and whatever they could carry in their packs. Winter would not relinquish its hold for another two months, concealing the bodies beneath a snowy mantle.
Ritchie conducted a thorough search of his man. A hidden inner pocket turned up a faded photo, ragged around the edges, of a beautiful girl with dark hair and penetrating black eyes.
She’s Jewish, he thought immediately, and stared at the oozing hole in the back of the boy’s blond head. He stuffed the photo into his pack.
What if they were deserting?
More poison in his brain. Everyone knew Heinies didn’t defy their leader. If they did, the world wouldn’t be in this mess. And Ritchie would kill them again in a heartbeat if it meant going home alive. Him or them. The law of the jungle.
“Warm up for a minute, and let’s go.” Staff Sergeant Barnes sneered at Jimmy. “Pull yourself together, Turner. We’re moving on.”
Jimmy swiped at his eyes. He grabbed one of the soldier’s sidearm and trudged behind the rest of the fireteams.
The weak didn’t see the end of the war, whatever side they were on. Even the survivors went home with a part of them missing or dead. You accepted compromises like that to be one of the good guys. To save the world, maybe, but mostly yourself.
Decades later, when every tick of his heartbeat might be his last, Ritchie had told his children and grandchildren every war story at least three times. He’d told them about Jimmy, who never did get married but who was, by all accounts, the most generous and kindhearted man his little town ever knew. When he died at the ripe old age of ninety-seven, the town erected a bronze statue in his honor and named a school after him.
He didn’t tell them about Sergeant Barnes, who was the one that ended up putting a bullet through his brain.
He didn’t tell them about the voices at night, because he never did quite establish whether it was his conscience or the dead who did not intend to let him forget them, who had decided that remembering them was his purpose for surviving at all. He told the kids about eight boys on a riverbank but not that their faces haunted his sleep. He didn’t tell them that one had loved a Jewish girl who never saw him again—because of Ritchie, or because of the Heinie bastard who hated people like her; there was no way of knowing who was to blame in the end.
Most of all, Ritchie never told them there could have been an alternate scenario in which he let the boy go, in which he defied orders as he wished they had. Where the kid returned to his girl—in hiding, of course—and helped her out of the country. Maybe they escaped to America or Canada and started a new life. Ritchie never questioned what he’d done, because then he couldn’t be sure he was one of the good guys. And being one of them was the only way he had lived with himself and that boy’s ghost all these years.
My father was driving us through the dark. The headlights lit up a tunnel down the black road, a two-lane with trees on either side. One way was forest. Something deep and complex without pathways. My mind saw me lost in there, slow slogging through fallen trees and the uneven wickerwork of branches with moss layers and gaps a leg might slip through and break. The other way was the lake, a deeper darkness through a thinner veil of trees. I couldn’t actually see the lake. I knew it was there. Knew it was not nothing as it appeared.
I was just a kid, about to hit double digits. Bewildered. My father was a stranger who had left and was now back haunting. This was just after the separation. He reappeared once in a while, saying, hey buddy let’s go to the driving range or see a movie, and it was like he had never left. Then he would disappear again. It was like being in a time loop.
This time, when he appeared at the house and came in like it was still home and we were still family, he said, “You want to go with me out to Jerry’s” he asked me.
I said, “Sure.”
The cabin by the lake rose up in the headlights. A grass field sloped down to the water. Summertime. Ending of Summer. Jerry’s son, Sam, was standing on the back porch looking at us. The retinas in his eyes flashed red.
Fireflies flew along the ground, creating little green electric tracer strings. The ping pong ball came at me. I hit it back. The table tilted on the lawn. Light from the screened-in porch came down, illuminating our space. Out there, the black lake. I could hear...something.
“Your parents are getting divorced?” Sam said.
“No.” I said. It wasn’t an out and out lie. Not like telling people that my father was dead, killed in a plane crash, which is what I was saying at school, even to the teachers.
“My dad said they were,” he said.
We went back and forth a few more rounds. He won the point. Why did it bug me that he knew about my parents? Smug, pudgy rich kid in his summer home on the lake--
My father was smiling. Smoking and smiling, a beer in his hand, a whiskey bottle on the table, two shot glasses next to that. He and Jerry were throwing down cards in a friendly, shit-talking rummy match.
“Take that, ya cock sucker!” Jerry said.
A few adjustments in the order of the fanned out cards in his hand, a grin, and…“There! Up yer ass, fucker!” My father said.
Sam and I went up the lawn and into the house. Black screen-meshed windows surrounded the back porch, and mosquitos and moths pinged and fluttered up against those screens and wouldn’t stop.
“Hey, boys,” Jerry said, “and you—kid—how’s your summer going?”
“Good,” I said.
“Well, good, good…good to have you here. You stay as long as you like!” And he exhaled a blue stream of cigarette smoke that joined the blue cloud of smoke already hanging in in the room. Then he laughed that big gusty laugh of the sure man, the tough guy who puts the pledges through their paces during the hazing with a little bit of the sadist in him, slapping their backs after some kind of humiliating torture, saying something like, all in good fun, eh? I knew you could handle it! That’s how my father knew him, from the fraternity. There’s was the one with the bad reputation. The dirtbags. And this was his kingdom: wood paneling, dartboard, wet bar, big screen, sports jerseys and photographs of him with big fish. No woman around.
“Here—there—” sloshing another shot for my father and himself. “And here—” yanking two beers out and tossing one each to Sam and me.
I looked at my father.
He smiled and nodded his head.
It wasn’t the first beer I’d been given and drank.
“Hey, now! Why don’t you boys put the gloves on?” Jerry said.
Two pairs of red boxing gloves hung by a nail next to the back door. It’s true. Sam went and got the gloves and tossed a pair at me. His father’s son, you didn’t have to ask him twice.
Vulture-hunched, sitting on a stool by the bar, I pulled the gloves on and glanced at my father. His eyes were narrow, impenetrable. He seemed like he wanted to say something, like his mouth was about to open and some saving words come out of it, but no. Nothing.
“A friendly little match,” Jerry said.
I stepped into the space between the bar and the back door. Sam was waiting for me. I put my hands up like I’d seen on TV. Sam stood back. He was bigger than me. He was smiling. I got the feeling that he wanted me to throw the first punch. So, I did. I hit him in the shoulder. He threw a few jabs. His weight came through, jarring. He caught me in the gut and I lost my breath for a moment. Fear swinging, I threw a few more hits out there and by pure luck caught the side of his face. He shifted a bit, anger flaring, and came at me, hitting harder. I protected my face, his blows hitting my shoulders, my head, my sides.
I was breathing hard. So was he. I went into a fury of fast blows, throwing them out there. He curled and took them. Didn’t seem to faze him. He came back, hitting harder. At this point it was pretty clear I was getting beat up.
“Okay, there…hole up!” Jerry said, and Sam stepped back like he was yanked by a rope.
I lowered my arms.
We were sweating and flushed. The room was full of smoke like a real old time boxing ring.
“Take a break, there, killers!”
I hunched back on the stool.
“Nice job,” my father said. I couldn’t tell what he was looking at. Jerry poured them another drink.
“You kids got heart,” Jerry said. “I give you that!”
He and my father drank their shots.
“Ah!” Jerry said, slapping the shot glass down and looking at me. “Isn’t this fun?”
I looked at my father. With a narrow gaze, he smiled, nodding a little, and winked.
The old neighborhood was nearly unrecognizable. But, then, so was Ned, to anyone who might still be living here. The last time he could remember standing on the sidewalk in front of his childhood home, he’d been about four and a half feet tall with a full head of thick, brown hair, two skinned knees, and a bandage on his forehead where Tommy Garagiola had hit him with an out-of-control fast ball.
The house seemed to have shrunk in direct proportion to the amount Ned had grown. At well over six feet, he wondered if he could even enter the front door without having to duck.
“Bring back memories, hon?” Phyllis called out. His wife was still sitting in the car, impatient for them to get back on the road.
“Yeah,” he said, wondering what kind of reception he’d get if he knocked and told the present owner he used to live there. The place seemed sad and worn down, like a man who’d lived hard and was staring at the downslope of his life. The windows were dirty, the wooden siding and trim chipped and faded, the roof missing a couple shingles. Run down. Neglected.
Damn. He remembered how hard he and his dad had worked, keeping the place up. Ned’s job was to mow the grass, which was now mostly weeds. He’d helped with the painting, too, but wasn’t allowed to climb the ladder. Which was stupid because, back in the days of playing war, he had regularly shimmied up the downspout to the top of the roof and jumped off, landing in a roll at the feet of the evil Commies, surprising them with his derring-do.
Dad didn’t know that, of course.
Did the place still have only one bathroom? Ned remembered all those school days with him banging on the door, trying to dislodge Martha from her regular morning ritual that seemed to consume hours—wasted hours, considering there was no improvement in the looks Nature had already given his older sister. One time, he’d been so desperate, he’d been forced to run out the back door and pee against the side of the house.
“Come on, Ned,” said Phyllis. “Let’s go. Otherwise, we’re going to get stuck in rush hour.”
Tommy Garagiola had finally got control of his pitching and had won a baseball scholarship at Arizona State where he spent most of his freshman and sophomore years in the bullpen and then just walked away, claiming he’d lost interest. More likely, he’d gained interest—in that voluptuous blond co-ed he’d married while they were both undergrads. Were they still married with three kids and a dog? Or was Tommy one of a legion of guys Ned seemed to know whose first marriages had hit the skids with them paying alimony and child support and wondering how they were ever going to catch up, let alone get ahead.
Ned had been smart to wait. To get his military service out of the way, launch his career as a Ford salesman, now dealer, put money away, and then start thinking about a wife. He and Phyllis had been married thirty-five years. Two kids, five grandchildren, but never any pets. And never in a neighborhood in transition like this one seemed to be. He looked at the boarded-up house across the street where the McGuires used to live. There were stickers plastered all over the door, and a huge dumpster parked in the front. Soon it would emerge like a phoenix from the ashes of urban decay, a beacon to young people who preferred city living—at least until the first child came along.
He heard the car door open and turned to watch his wife struggle out of her seat. She’d once been slender and petite. Now, she was just petite. But she still had that same open, cheerful face with the light dusting of freckles across her nose and the wide, welcoming smile. Anyway, who was he to be critical? She probably looked at him and wondered how the big strapping guy she’d married had become bald and stooped and grizzled like the old fart he now was.
“Shall we try to find a motel?” she asked him.
“Naw. I’m done here.”
“At least take a picture, hon.”
“Right.” He fumbled the phone out of his pocket, turned and held it up, turning it sideways to get more of the house.
“Hey!” The door flew open, and a beefy man stood there, shotgun in hand. “Whaddaya think yer doin’?” Even from where Ned was standing, you could see the guy’s nose had once been broken. He was wearing a dirty white T-shirt and frayed, faded jeans.
Phyllis let out a tiny squeak. Ned lowered the phone. “I used to live here,” he said. “I just thought I’d take a—”
“Think again, asshole.” The man raised the shotgun and aimed it at them.
The place they finally found not only had a vacancy but also a restaurant. It was late, so they went out to a Wendy’s and brought the food back to their room. “I’ve never been so scared in my entire life,” said Phyllis. “What made that man so angry?”
“Wasn’t that,” said Ned through a mouthful of hamburger. “More like he was afraid.”
“Of what? Two old fogeys like us?”
His wife had a point. “I guess the neighborhood’s gone a bit downhill since I was a kid. You saw the house. It was a disgrace.”
“Well, these things are cyclical.”
She ought to know, having spent twelve years as a realtor after their nest had emptied. “That dry cleaners on the corner? It used to be a grocery store. We’d go there all the time for candy and soda pop.”
“Be thankful it’s not a liquor store with bars on the windows,” she said, leaning over to pat Ned’s arm. “The only thing that matters is what it was like when you lived there. I remember those stories you’d tell me about the backyard barbecues and the water balloon fights and that time you had to get stitches in your forehead.” She ran her finger over the barely visible scar. “That’s what you should treasure. Things change. Time marches on.”
She mouthed a few other clichés, but Ned tuned out, thinking, The only thing I’m going to remember now is a guy with a goddamn shotgun.
Phyllis never woke up in the middle of the night. She wouldn’t have a clue that her husband was now standing on the sidewalk in front of the house where he’d lived as a kid. Through the window, he saw the flickering lights of a television. “What the hell am I doing here?” he muttered.
He could almost hear his father’s voice, echoing the same sentiment: “What in blazes do you think you’re up to, son?”
Good question. That awful word closure might explain it, but only partly. However, now that he was here . . .
Ned stepped up onto the porch. Back then, Dad had painted the damn thing every spring so that it would be smooth and cool for bare feet in the summertime. No parent would ever let his kid step onto the porch now. The paint was cracked and peeling. Splinters, even gouges, in the wood made it appear as if somebody regularly rolled a lawnmower or maybe a motorcycle up onto the porch, dragging the kickstand across the floor.
He knocked. The muffled sound of the TV went silent. Man, if that guy shot at him through the door, it would be all she wrote. Ned moved to the side.
The porch light came on, and the door opened, still on its night chain. “I don’t want no Christian literature,” the guy said, and then he blinked. “You again?”
“Uh, yes. I was just . . .” Just what? He could smell beer on the guy’s breath.
“I don’t have the money, okay? I told Rich that yesterday. Ya can’t get blood out of a—”
“—I’m not here about money,” Ned jumped in. “I really used to live here. Back in the Fifties when I was a kid.”
“Right. And I got little wings on my shoulders so I can fly.”
“Is there still only one bathroom?” he said. “With black and white linoleum on the floor?”
The door slammed shut, and Ned turned to go when it opened again, and the beefy guy stepped out onto the porch in his bare feet, still wearing the soiled T-shirt and torn jeans. His head was shaved, showing gray stubble, and the red veins on his cheeks warned of alcohol abuse. “I don’t know what your game is, mister, but yer not gettin’ inside, okay?”
“The kitchen had one of those dishwashers you wheel up to the sink and attach a hose to the faucet.”
“Well, I suppose some improvements have been made since—”
“Cut the crap, willya? Tell Rich he’ll get his money in a coupla days. When I get my unemployment.”
“The name’s Ned Walker.” Ned stuck his hand out, but the guy simply stood there, arms crossed over his massive chest. “I live in Chicago now. Own a couple of Ford dealerships. I don’t know anybody named Rich, and I only wanted to take a picture of the place ’cause I used to live here back in the—”
“Glory days. Right? I know whatcha mean. Play some ball when you was a kid?”
“Me, I was third base. But I could hit ’em outta the park pretty regular.” He scratched the stubble on his chin. “Man, those were the best times. Chicks getting’ all hot over ya. Had to beat ’em off with a stick.”
“Yeah,” Nick said. “Then, before you know it—”
“—All gone. Over. And. Done.” The guy was looking across the street and into a past that had to have been much better than now. “Aw, hell. I’m still not lettin’ you inside, man. But, you want, go ahead and take a picture.”
What for? The guy was right. It was over and done. Besides, there were probably zillions of fading snapshots of the place in those old photo albums that Ned had never looked at after his mother had passed away back in ’95. Still, he’d come this far, hadn’t he? A before-and-after might be amusing.
“Thank you,” he said. Pulling his phone out of his pocket, he stepped off the porch, walking out to the edge of the curb where he could get the whole house, including Mr. Glory Days, in the frame.
“Wait,” said the guy, holding his hand out. “No way yer shootin’ me.” He backed through the door, slamming it shut, even turning the porch light off before Ned could snap his picture.
Nick was halfway down the block, thinking he’d missed something back there. Something important. Then he turned around, parked the car in front of what had once been the McGuire house, and crossed the street to the home where he’d enjoyed a childhood full of adventure, where the days were going to go on like that forever, the only change being him getting bigger and stronger. He pulled a wad of bills from his pocket. Two hundreds, a fifty, and three twenties. The guy would use it to pay Rich or just spend it on booze or . . . Who the hell cared what he did with the damn dough. Of course, Phyllis wouldn’t like it, but that’s what ATMs were for. Folding the cash, Ned slipped it beneath the front door in the gap left by weather stripping that had long been missing.