If the stars had aligned better, the boy could’ve been the son of a teacher, a scientist, or a business tycoon. He might’ve spent his days blowing out birthday candles, playing catch outside with dad, or singing silly songs with mom, full of elaborate gestures.
The itsy-bitsy spider, perhaps. Or He’s got the whole world. That one about that bridge that kept falling down. He’d settle for the alphabet song. Johnny Cash. Sabbath. The Doors. The son of son of a sailor. Anything, really. Was it so much to ask?
Other kids did such things. He’d seen it, out in the world, the few times he got to go. But not this house. Never here. It could’ve been a fairy tale for all he knew. Make believe. Something in a faraway, near forgotten dream.
He often swipes a grimy paw at his overgrown hair. It is forever falling in his face—pasting to one of his cheeks, poking him in the eye, or crawling up a nostril—always itching something awful.
It’s a blonde like you rarely see, not so much a color as a—shade, tinge, highlight, that’s it—a light. It seems to emit its own luminance, an untamed radiance of tangled muss. Paired with those ice blue eyes and a devilish perma-grin Kool-Aid stain, he’s impossible to forget.
Even if he wasn’t yet three and already scrawny for his age.
Those cold eyes, that wild flame-like hair. They burn in your soul, alive and living, as he was, beyond the outer fringe of nightmares out at reality’s bitter edge. That fiery hair, those frozen eyes, consuming . . .
The Fuzzies came on bouncing, bounding footses into his hidey spot, his hole, his safe place, beyond the Owey pokes that make you bleed. He found it following Bunnies. They were always outside. Light and Dawk. Nibble, nibble. Hawp, hop, to over they-yuh.
Thems eated da gwass.
The boy snatches a tuft of winter-burned stems, holds it high. Grass, he meant to say.
The man with the long dark hair listens intently, looks on in bemused disbelief.
“No thanks,” the man says, his voice deep, mellow. “I got my own.”
He laughs like a whisper, airy, holds up funnel-shaped hand-rolled, the smoke curling and vanishing. Curling. Swirling. Gone. Curling. Delicate. Swirling threads. Kitty whiskers, the boy tried to say once, then vanished and gone.
The man never understands him.
He comes out every day and sits on the wooden steps, smokes his smoke beside the half-opened back door. Twirls of smoke vanish in the cold air. Smells so good to the boy. Not the smoke, but behind that door.
He can’t tell him that. He doesn’t know how. No one taught him how. But the coffee brewing, butter melting, eggs browning, sizzling bacon: The boy’s insides churn each morning, his senses keen. Like something wild. Half-starved wolf cub. Always the same.
The man never understands.
Often, at night, the boy raced off in the dark. Had to, you see. Got crazy inside. He made the red-dirt yard in seconds flat, dodging minefields of junk, rusted, jagged-edged cans, busted crates spilling broken bottle shards, sharp as razors and hidden by night. Barefoot, of course, but much safer there than he was inside. He spied the secret path deep into the thorny brush. He knew the spot well. He had used it too many times before. They never ever wake up it seems, when darkness gives way to light. They stay up moaning, screaming, fighting is what it sounds like to the boy, and it goes on all night. Don’t try and wake them, though, or walk in when there’s noise. They get awful mean. They just don’t like little boys. Or perhaps they do—too much—that’s what sets them off. But it’s times like those, when they caught him, he thought he wouldn’t make it out. They’d hit with belts and boards and fists, often swinging blind in the dark. Twice they’d connected when they lashed out like that, and twice they’d knocked him out.The Preacher, everybody called him, and with him always that skinny white, white pink-eyed man that everybody called the Ghost. They were always trying to hurt. Just last month, the little boy, stuck his finger in a door hinge, a stupid thing to do. Split his finger and his nail, got blood all everywhere. Over the next few weeks, though, it was healing. Until Preacher stomped it flat at church. Ghost grabbed his head and shoved him to the floor. That wasn’t bad, though. Not until Preacher took his heel and ground round, mashing it hard into the floor, like he’d seen the Hunter do with cigarettes when he was through. He never heard anybody call Hunter anything. Everybody was scared of him because he was always mean. He carried a big, bone-handled knife and had taken it to the boy once or twice. It doesn’t hurt so bad, getting cut by his knife. Nothing like when they hit him instead. The last time he got hold of him, he turned his whole bed red. The Candyman was hardest of all to read. One minute he’d be almost nice, the next he’ll beat you half to death. And he does things, awful things, that hurt so bad. Just know you need to run hard and fast, no matter how hungry you may be, you ever hear him ask Want some candy, baby boy?
So, mornings the boy always spent outside. Most days, he was already there anyway. And one day, he tried to catch a bunny. The boy thought he’d finally have a friend. They’re always hopping around, nibbling on this, then hopping over there. But whenever he got close, they ran away. Ran away fast. He followed it one day, down its hidden bunny trail, to see where it went. What might be there. Perhaps he’ll find bunny houses, or big piles of carrots someplace. He sure could eat a few. Fuzzy warm mommy bunnies. He can go live with them. She might even sing to him. Teach him the words to that bridge song.
The spines on the bushes left him several oweys, they burned for days and bled and bled. Took several tries to get it right, but he could run full speed and dive like superman, his belly in the dirt. The bunny may have disappeared, no bunny house ever found, but the boy had a new hidey hole. One even THEY wouldn’t brave. Not Preacher or his Ghost, Hunter nor Candyman, even Maybelle, too. None of them got to him here, and all of them had tried. Hunter even tried to burn it down, with fire and a can of gas. Almost burned down that awful house instead. The boy would have been glad.
Its entrance hidden beneath sprawling boughs, pointy thorns like needles, some as long as the boy’s hand. Unlike before, too, when he ran out in the night, this time he brought a blanket. Probably not a blanket, really. Probably more like a towel. He wasn’t exactly toasty warm now, his breath hanging in white wisps about his face, but it was better than nothing. He nearly froze to death that last time without it, when the snows almost buried his boney hide, his secret hidey hole. Still, better than inside. He didn’t dare go there. That’s the fringe of nightmares . . .
Run away, if you can. It only hurts in there.
If only he had something to eat. But each time’s the same.
The man with the long dark hair never understands.
The man with the long dark hair considers the boy with matted fiery hair. He only appears after he’s had his pain pills, dabbed the salve on the wound by his heart that never wants to heal, and lights up on the back stoop. The boy never appears until the pills kick in, until he’s smoked half his smoke. Not every time, but often enough. He’s not quite sure if he’s even real.
Maybe it’s the mix of those pills and the smoke. It doesn’t help that he’s always alone whenever the boy appears. His old lady said it’s just a hallucination, a vision, something she read about in a book.
He just doesn’t know.
The last time the boy appeared, the man with the long dark hair stuck his hand in the wound by his heart that never wants to heal. The pain was real enough. Even the boy’s strange babble seemed real, too. He couldn’t make it out, quite yet, but he knew he was close. His old lady, though, cooking breakfast just beyond the door, said she heard nothing, just the man with the long dark hair talking to himself.
So, that’s his routine now, every day. Pills. Salve. Grass. The boy doesn’t appear every day, but enough. He tries to interpret what it means when the boy appears, if it’s omen or luck. He hasn’t figured that out either. His old lady says it’s just him, starting out the day too fucked up. He’d love to latch on to the boy, bring him inside, dangle him by one of his scrawny arms, show him to the woman beyond the door cooking breakfast. But he can’t. His pain is always worse at first light. Plus, for all he knew, his hand might pass straight through. The boy, that is. But at least he’d know if he’s real . . .
It doesn’t help that the boy always looks the same whenever he appears, barefoot and barebacked, heavy diaper he’s always hiking up. Covered in grime, always the filth, babbling away beneath his matted fiery hair. It doesn’t matter, stiff north wind or fresh fallen snow. When he appears—if he appears—it’s always barebacked and barefoot.
So, he keeps his routine. Pills. Salve. Grass. Then he sits, he sits and he waits. Every day. Sometimes the boy appears; others he does not. But it’s happened enough, he wonders if today will be the day. He found his grass in jungles far away, where he got that oozing wound by his heart that never wants to heal, won’t let him work, forever oozing. The medic told him they couldn’t get it all out. “Liable to fester a while,” he’d said, right before they shipped him home. Medically discharged, but not because of that wound by his heart. No, according to the papers he had, his brain had gone bad out there in the jungles. There was a mix-up of some sort, that day in the jungle, something they called friendly fire. It wasn’t the Slopes that shot him and left him for dead. His own sergeant, the crazy bastard, shot him.
The part that truly peeled back the man with the long dark hair was the fact he couldn’t get his military award, his Purple Heart. Wounded in battle, he was, right there by his heart. They discharged him at the capital, when all was said and done, him and his bad brain. The first stop he made, down back alley street, was a seedy old pawnshop. He got him his heart, purple and proud, an ornament made for another man’s wound. But still he wore it on whatever he had on that day. Some days, there on his stoop as he plays out his routine, he’ll have only a blanket draped on his shoulders, like a cape. And always—every time—if you look close and hard, you’ll see that gold medallion, it’s ribbon purple and white, pinned to the blanket he bled on that night.
He’d left DC for California in a second-hand car, his pills, his salve, his purple heart, and his smoke. When his wheels gave out, just half the way there, he hit the local paymaster, withdrew his combat pay, and decided to stay there. He bought him the little wood-frame house, with the stoop where he now sat, right on the edge of town. Right on the fringe of madness and nightmare, it turned out. His yard was haunted by a small, babbling boy. Or maybe, just maybe, the jungle had indeed clouded his mind. He wished he knew of some way he could really tell.
Loooka! The boy, commanding the attention of the man with long dark hair, hops, circular in snow. Barefooted, barebacked. Filthy. Just the heavy diaper he has to hike up. He stops hopping. He points, stamping tiny foot.
Looka, fuzzies house.
The man with the long dark hair and the wound by his heart, shrugs his shoulders.
“I don’t understand, little man,” he says. “What is it you’re trying to say?”
The little boy looks up at the man, whose long dark hair is tied in back to make a tail. Most of it lies on his right shoulder, but falls behind him, strand by strand, each time he shrugs and takes another long drag. He never understands. As the boy kicks his bare foot, he hears another whispery laugh from the top of the stairs, the man with the long dark hair, sitting on his stoop, beside an open back door.
It visibly bothers the boy, that much is clear to the man. It frustrates him, this talking gap.The boy stares at the ground, hikes that heavy diaper again, left handed, while grimy right bats the tangled sticky bangs from his eyes. Arm twists, pretzels. He rocks the knuckles of that grimy right, back, forth, back, forth. Thinking.
He wants words. So much to say. Doesn’t know how.
The boy stops sudden. Frozen, head cocked. Listening. His hands out, fingers spread. Elbows at forty-fives. Angled and frozen. The man with the long dark hair listens. He hears something, too, maybe four or five houses down. The places get progressively worse, the farther down the road. His wood frame house, although not very large, was a palace in comparison to some of those at the end of the road. If it’s coming from one of those places, no wonder the little ghost boy seems so scared.
An old screen door opens, the popping thrumming sound of the door spring stretching, the needs-oil creak of a rusted hinge. The sound of someone stepping out, followed by the familiar pop, wood smacking wood when the spring snaps back. A crisp new sound rings out on the cold morning air, the chingle of shattering glass. The man with the long dark hair looks down at the little boy. He, still frozen, a tiny statue, unmoving. Well, not entirely unmoving, he appears to be keeping tabs of each new crash of glass.
“Aw man,” the man with the long dark hair says. “I didn’t know we were—”
The boy silences the man with the long dark hair, popping up his hand like a traffic cop. He cocks his head, listening. From the sounds of it, someone was getting rid of a whole box of bottles. But these weren’t typical beer bottles. They sounded larger, heavier, like wine bottles, or pop bottles. Surely, they wouldn’t dispose of them. Those are worth money, probably a buck or two by now, he estimates.
The ringing stops. A deep smoker’s hack rings out.
“OH-oh,” the little boy with matted fiery hair says, not at all loud, but clear and distinct. His sergeant, the one who shot him, had a voice like that.
“I galla go,” the boy says, but before he vanishes from sight, the man with long dark hair suddenly perks up, snaps fingers, and points at the boy. “You said you gotta go!”
The boy smiles, mimicked his point. Some other time, maybe, he’d teach him that snap. He looks back to where all the noise had come from, four or five houses down, cautious at first, peeking inch by inch around the corner. Then wink-quick, seeing it clear, he bolts round the trees and is gone.
The man with the long dark hair sucks at the nubbin, but just as he is about to flick his roach down to the red dirt, a very thin, very pale, very unusual man walks up, slow and quiet, craning his neck this way and that, checking the space between the houses. Something about him, the way he moved—the man with long dark hair couldn’t put his finger on it—was just off. Unusual.
The man with long dark hair hardly breathes. The only thing moving, aside from the thin line of smoke rising, curling into the sky, is the wounded soldier’s eyes. The pale man, rail thin, has a thick navy coat, the kind you’d see on men working the docks. Red corduroy pants, poking out from below the coat, twig thin.
Seeing him, dressed so warmly, only lent credence to the impossibility of the boy. This fellow pulls the top of his coat tighter, as if, despite all those clothes, he were still cold. There’s no way that a baby in diapers and nothing else could possibly be out here. Barefoot and barebacked. Besides, pale as this cat was, he’s probably just another backyard premonition. It’s why he looks so damn weird. His face, pale as snowfall, could’ve been whittled from wood for all the expression it held. He’d be impossible to beat at Five Card Stud, face like that.
And very thin. Very pale. Very unusual.
The fellow keeps scanning the ground, this way then that, like a pigeon following an old man round a park, looking for handouts from that bag of popcorn he smells—or as if he’d passed by earlier and dropped his favorite dollar. The man with long dark hair stays statue-still, moving nothing but his eyes, which stay glued on the pale man, who falls flat to the ground, as if his drill sergeant just hollered to give him twenty. He never gets around to the push or the up. Rather, he stays down there a good minute and a half, at least, staring deep in the darkness underneath the house.
Just as the man with the long dark hair decides to ask the dude if he’s OK, he rocks on his knee and stands back up, moves on to his house to peer at its underside. Before he does, though, the unusually pale man notices a blue metal five-gallon can there at the foot of the stairs. The man with the long dark hair watches the pale man open it up, remove a combat boot that’s inside. He squints his eyes, peering at the boot.
The man with the long dark hair has had enough: “Morning,” he says. The pale man jumps. He obviously had no clue the man was there, but it has positively no impact on the color of his cheeks. They’re practically clear.
He mumbles something. “What was that?” asks the man with long dark hair.
Through a significant hair-lip, the pale man speaks: “Have you seen a little boy come by here?”
He’s seen him, too. But how? The man with the long dark hair doesn’t understand. He rises and steps through the half-open door, closes it behind him, and bolts the lock.
The little boy with fiery matted hair has disappeared in the brush long before Ghost wandered over. He decides to go exploring, down Bunny Biways, trails running this way and that, all over the ground, like a tangled-up net. Intertwining, Bunny internet.
Then there comes a loud sound, like a bucket of gravel dumped on an old tin roof. The boy goes toward it, having never heard anything like it before. Not knowing what the sound is, he comes up slowly, keeps his cover in the in brush. He lets out a small squeal from his spot in the trees when he sees. The Fuzzies! All there in a pile, all playing and biting and—Wait a minute. What are they biting?
The boy stands at the edge of the brush, checking for people. He’s not sure who here he can trust. He looks as far as he can one way, then spins round the other way, checking, ever so careful. He doesn’t want to be found. It appears the coast is clear.
He doesn’t relate the two, what he sees with the noise that he’d heard, but his buddies, the Fuzzies, are all there.
Someone has laid the lid to a trashcan in the middle of the red dirt yard and in its center, piled nice and high, what looks like a cereal of some sort, the kind that comes with a toy. The Fuzzies sure seem to like them. And he’s so hungry . . .
“Gots any fo’ me?” the boy asks the fuzzy little dogs, all too immersed in their meal to pay much mind to the boy. He walks behind them to the huge serving tray, and sits right down in the middle of all his Fuzzy friends where he can reach the pile, too. His buddies all round him don’t mind in the least. And the boy couldn’t be happier. His little buddies had found him a feast. The cereal they ate could’ve sure used some milk because it was awful dry. It didn’t have much of a taste either. But this was his first food in a couple of days. His buddies, the Fuzzies, had found him a feast.
So there, surrounded by eight little mongrel pups, the baby boy and baby dogs form quite a sight, especially when he points his diapered butt up the sky so he can eat like his friends. For once in his life he looks like the biggest pup in the pack. And as he swallows kibble, there in the yard, wouldn’t you know it, he’d let down his guard.
The boy in the house is looking out the window while his momma warms up some chicken soup for him and his brother from a can. Why the woman bothered with such nonsense like heating it he’d ever understand. She stood there stirring, stirring, stirring for like ten minutes. Then it sat on the table for next to forever so it could cool off enough to eat. What a waste!
So, while she stirs, stirs, stirs over the stove, the boy watches as another boy wanders into his yard, plops next to his dogs, and eats their food.
“Momma, there’s a baby outside eating with the dogs.”
“Sure there is, honey. What’s his name?
“I don’t know. I was gonna ask you.”
“That’s nice honey. . . . Listen, mamma needs to make a phone call. Why don’t you go get your brother so y’all can get going.” She grabs the receiver and dials her number, dial whirling, again and again. They wash up like they’d been told. The elder of the two finishes faster, wipes his hands on his pants. When the smaller one comes, he joins he brother, looking out the window.
“Whatcha looking at?”
“Uh-huh. He was eating their food walla-go,” big brother says.
If only the stars were better aligned . . .