My new novel, A Laughing Matter of Pain, is now available for purchase here.
Damp. Dank. Dusty. Dirty.
It’s become a kind of game. I’m good at games. How many words that begin with the letter D can I come up with to describe this place?
There’s another point for me. 1-0, Hank, old boy.
Of course, you never talk much. I’m lucky to get the occasional grunt from you, Hank.
I roll onto my side, the lumpy mattress beneath me protesting as it pushes back in all the wrong places. Hank’s sleeping, if you can call whimpering and moaning while he pisses himself sleeping. Nightmares, of course. Not that Hank ever has much to say about that.
But back to my game. It’s not like I’m going anywhere.
Dank. Yep, that smell of musty, rusty mold growing on mold has attached itself to my nose like a cold that doesn’t leave. It’s my constant companion, whether I want it or not. I suppose it’s like the games I’m so good at. So good, in fact, that when I lost one, boy, did I ever lose.
I don’t know what nightmares plague Hank. Maybe it’s what landed him here that’s got him all caught up in nightly visions of Hell. Rumors say he killed a man in cold blood, but a man who wets himself like that ain’t a cold-blooded killer in my book. Whatever his problems, I’ve got enough of my own.
I damn near laughed when the guard who swung by last week said Prohibition ended. Fourteen years of outlawing alcohol, and now part of the reason I’m here’s legal again? How’s that for justice?
Alcohol’s my problem. Yeah, I admit that, but that’s not my nightmare. Green accusing eyes, cruel laughter falling from a red-lipsticked mouth that kissed me silly too many times to count, and the red hair to match…like flames that burn my insides every time I close my eyes. I don’t have to be sleeping to see her. Red everywhere, from the smashed in windshield, to her smashed in face, decorated with shards of glass as her stunned expression stares back at me with those eyes. Always those damn eyes. Even empty, they accuse.
* * *
Eight years earlier…
It’s late, but the dusk is still dimly lighting the western sky. Overhead, the stars poke out from the black. Most wouldn’t believe I have the calm inside me to stop and notice. When the others aren’t looking, I sneak away into the back yard, that dewy grass tickling my neck as I lie in it and watch the stars.
Footsteps disturb my concentration. I bolt up, my eyes adjusting until a man’s silhouette rests against the freshly painted white siding of our house.
“What’re you doing, Harry?”
“What’s it matter? Is Ma looking for me? Tell her I already put the delivery away.”
“Ma said Mr. Morris was here hours ago and that you didn’t touch the stuff till after dinner.”
I try not to roll my eyes. “Then what’s the problem, Erik?”
My brother plants himself in the grass beside me and sighs. Even in the near darkness, he’s the pretty boy every girl wants. He got all of Pa’s charm and looks: the blond hair, the blue eyes, the smooth-talking way with the girls.
“It’s tomorrow,” Erik says. “Graduation.”
“Yeah? And? You haven’t shut up about it for weeks, even months. What, you scared you won’t be the center of everyone’s attention anymore? No more calls from girls? Hell–”
“Harry, if Ma heard you–”
“Well, Ma’s not here, is she? Virginia Williams called again, didn’t she? I heard you,” I say lightly, jabbing him in the side. “‘Oh, Ginny, honey…’” I raise my voice an octave, but Erik cuffs me roughly. “Jeez, what’s that for?”
“Can you be serious for a second, Harry?”
I raise my hands and eyebrows at the same time. “All right, I surrender. You wanna wrestle it out for old times’ sake? This grass has our names written all over it.”
Erik glares. “This was a mistake. Goodnight, Harry.”
As he retreats, he kitchen light goes off once he clicks the back door shut.
“What’s got his undies in a twist?” I mutter to the stars.
Erik and I were always scrapping in this yard as boys, always inseparable. In a few months, I’m gonna start tenth grade, and he’s off to college. Not only does he have the looks and the ways with girls all right, but he’s got smarts and talent on the field. Star pitcher of Benny Frankie High in Cleveland, Ohio.
Sighing, I stand and brush the grass from my pants. I head inside and find my annoying little sister standing on the landing of the stairs. It’s Hannah, the older little sister. Irma’s the other one, who’s still so young that she really is little.
“Hey, Hannah-panna,” I say, smirking.
“Oh, stop it, Harry. You think you’re so funny.”
“Ma was looking for you.”
“Wow, I’m a popular guy. I almost feel like Erik, I’m so popular. Did a pretty doll give me a call?”
Hannah places her hands on her hips in a manner that’s suited her well for years and sticks her tongue out. I laugh as she turns and stomps up the stairs.
“You know, for a young lady, you’re pretty immature,” I call up after her.
I quietly chuckle to myself. Hannah’s always easy to get a rise out of. Sobering, I climb the stairs, and when the third step from the top creaks, I tip my imaginary hat at it.
“Goodnight, old friend.”
I turn for the second door on the right, ready to see my esteemed brother. The door to my parents’ room opens and Ma steps out.
“There you are.”
I stare back at my twin–well, except that Ma is a good thirty-five years older than me and female, but the mousy-brown hair, the square jawline, and the plain face, yeah…thanks, Ma. I got Pa’s baby blues, at least, but I ain’t complaining, I swear.
I pretend to yawn. It’s a convincing act, my mouth all wide and my eyes screwed shut, but Ma doesn’t buy into my cheap acts.
“Tomorrow is an early day. I trust you’re on your way to bed.”
I smile. “Righto. Erik’s big day. ‘Night, Ma.”
I kiss her gently on the top of the head. I’m taller than her now, so she tilts her head up.
“What was that for?” she asks.
The question’s so simple, but it’s not. Deep down, just like the times I seek out the stars by myself, some part of me reaches for my mother. I laugh instead.
“Can’t a son give his old ma a kiss? Maybe I’ll lay it on sloppy next time, like Flossie.”
Ma isn’t buying this, either. She doesn’t seem interested in anything I’m selling these days, but maybe what she’s buying into is more than just cheap tricks and one-liners.
“Harry, are you all right?” Her glistening eyes search me.
This look unnerves me. All the times Ma’s glared at me don’t probe me the way those hazel eyes see me now, like stripping me bare to my soul.
I shrug and smile. That’s what she expects. What they all expect. Why give her anything else? “I’m fine.”
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My novel, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful, is available for $5.99 here.