With the release of my newest book, A Laughing Matter of Pain, I’m going to be sharing the first four chapters with you in the month of October! Check back every Saturday for the next chapter. The book is available on Amazon here.
The moment I wake up, Ma’s on my back like a heavy rock to do my chores. Erik and I pour sweat in buckets as we work in the garden. Every morning starts like this. Then Erik and I shovel vegetable soup into our mouths like we’re starving at lunch. When done, we dart outta Ma’s way before she smacks us for no manners.
“Honestly, you two,” she says, her brow stern, “act your age. Don’t forget that you have to spend the next hour either reading or sewing.”
“Since when have we ever chosen sewing, Ma?” I ask. “Even Pa thinks it’s ridiculous.”
“C’mon, Harry,” Erik whispers. “Best to just get it over with.”
We go upstairs before Ma can say another word. Erik picks up a tattered copy of Crime and Punishment and lies on his bed, immersing himself in the novel, his nose practically buried between the yellowed pages.
I sigh and pick up Huckleberry Finn.
After five minutes, I say, “That book should be a crime and a punishment to read. It’s certainly a punishment. Look how thick it is.”
Erik lowers the book enough to look at me. “You know, Harry, some books are actually quite good. You never have the patience to give anything a chance. This story teaches us about the human condition.”
“The human what?” I shake my head and reach between the mattress and the box spring and pull out my new pulp magazine. I slide it into my book and pretend that Huck Finn is as interesting as an alien invasion.
At the end of the hour, Erik remarks, “Don’t think I didn’t see that. What garbage are you reading now?”
“Nothing so enlightening as Crime and Punishment, I’m sure.” I make to set the book aside, but Erik is too fast and snatches it from my grip.
“Attack of the Killer Moonmen?” He chuckles. “You don’t really think men live on the moon, do you?”
I shrug. “Maybe, but who cares? Our time’s up, so let’s get outta here before Ma comes up with another list of chores.”
Erik hands me the book back, and I stuff the magazine back under the mattress, placing the book on the night table.
Erik’s already gone, and I wonder whether I should follow him. As I walk past the bathroom, I catch a glimpse of my reflection. There are three tiny hairs on my chin. I touch them almost reverently and smile. I’m becoming a man. I run my hands through my hair as I continue walking, feeling the botched job on top of my head. Ma was too enthusiastic with those scissors last week, so my hair sticks up in every direction.
When I reach the bottom of the stairs, I find Hannah practicing the piano in the living room. The music’s been coming up through the floorboards for the past fifteen minutes, but I’ve learned to tune it out. I watch her move her hands over the keys in well-practiced fashion, a bit envious that she has such a talent. She stops playing and whirls around on the bench.
I lazily clap. She scowls.
“What are you doing, Harry?”
I smile to indulge my little sister. “You always think the worst of me, Hannah. It’s like you don’t trust me.”
“I didn’t say that, but you’re usually looking for trouble.”
“Yeah, well, you know what they say about trouble and middle names. I’m officially changing mine to ‘Trouble’ when I’m of age.”
She smiles. “You’re completely bananas.”
“Mmm, bananas…sounds good to me. See ya later.”
Ten minutes later, I walk down Madison Avenue with a half-eaten banana in my hand. There’s no sign of Erik, so I check to see if Mitch Woods is home. I’m in luck as he comes to the door, and when my buddy sees the peel, he asks if I have any more food.
“Nah, sorry,” I say as we walk along the sidewalk and toss the peel into a neighbor’s trash can.
Mitch is two years older than me and has been friends with Erik and me since before I can remember. Plain’s the word to describe us. We don’t stand out with our brown hair and average builds.
“You haven’t seen my brother around, have you?” I ask.
I shrug. “Just askin’.”
“He’s off to college, right?”
“Yeah, soon. We won’t be seeing him for a while, but enough about my brother. So, what do you wanna do?”
Mitch eyes up Hatford Park across the street. “Remember?”
I share a devilish grin with him. “How could I forget?”
We dash across the street with the boldness of idiots. A few kids run around the picnic tables playing a game of tag, and off in the distance, a man is throwing a ball to his dog. Other than that, the place is empty. We approach a cluster of willow trees, the July breeze gently swaying the branches. Beyond the trees, the pond–what we called a lake when growing up–sits calm.
I chuck a rock into the water, creating ripples. As I throw another and then another, I don’t know what’s come over me, except that I want to disturb the peaceful water. “The girls were always trying to bust us when we were kids,” I say.
“Yeah, but they thought it was funny to spy on us.” Mitch chuckles.
“Ever think of doing it again?”
He looks at me like I’ve lost my marbles. “You crazy? We can’t go skinny-dipping anymore.”
I see the flush on his face. “Damn, you burn easy,” I tease. “We can afford to live a little.”
Mitch shakes his head. “In broad daylight?”
“Where’s your sense of adventure, old boy?” I take off my shirt. “I won’t let you live this down.”
Mitch turns around as I strip down completely.
“What’re you so worried about?”
I don’t wait for his answer as I back up and get a running start, then dash toward the water. I cannonball into the pond, and as my body makes contact, I close my eyes in the thrill of the moment. After a brief stay underwater, I bob to the surface, laughing. I swim around the pond in large, exaggerated breast strokes and roll onto my back, gazing at the sun.
Then I hear the voice that seems to have a hobby of following me lately. “What the hell?”
I stop swimming and am not surprised to see Erik standing next to Mitch. I’m not sure whose face is more amusing, but I’m too caught up in having a good time to feel any shame. Erik’s face changes from stunned to disappointed to downright disgusted.
“Get out and get your clothes on.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I grumble.
My good mood pops like an over-inflated balloon because of my brother’s over-inflated ego. I swim until the bottom touches my legs, then stand and leave the water. While grabbing my clothes, I keep my gaze on an interesting patch of bark on one of the trees and dress.
“Where’d you go, anyway?” I glower at Erik.
“What’s it matter?”
I turn toward Mitch, in the hopes that he might have grown a backbone in the past thirty seconds. I’m sorely disappointed to find him backing away with his hands held up in front of him.
“You know what, guys?” he says. “I just remembered…my mom wanted me to, uh, clean the toilet bowl before the day’s done.” With that parting remark, Mitch is gone.
“I don’t wanna argue with you, Harry.”
“Oh? That’s news to me. Seems to have become a habit for you lately.”
“Maybe I’ve grown up.”
I hate that I want to punch my brother in the face, but I also want nothing more than to wipe off that smug look. “You say you don’t wanna argue. Then what’re we doin’?”
Erik steps closer. For a split-second, I think he’s going to take a swing at me, but maybe that’s because my hackles are up. “You’re reckless. You don’t take anything seriously.”
I laugh bitterly. “You used to call it fun. Egging that cad Theodore Wilson’s house was worth it. He picked on me all last year.”
“What about when you tried smoking in eighth grade? I covered for you.”
“So, what? It’s called living a little. Ever think that maybe life isn’t all about grades and books? Real life, Erik…”
“Ah, so it’s experience you’re looking for? That’s your reason?”
“You say I’m never serious. Well, how’s this for serious, brother?” I storm up to him, even though he’s a good four inches taller than me, and shove him in the chest. He stumbles backward and falls hard on his ass. When I march off, he doesn’t pursue me. I wonder if that stick he’s got up his backside fell out when he hit the ground.
I don’t return home for several hours. By the time I approach the back door, darkness has settled in. I stop, in no hurry to enter and receive an earful from Ma for being gone all day. While I wonder if she left any food for me, my gaze falls on the board that covers the window on the door. There used to be glass in that window, but I couldn’t tell you how many times Erik and I broke it over the years from playing ball. Finally, Pa just put a plank of wood there and left it. I look up. No stars tonight. Only clouds. I grimace and make for the door.
Beyond the kitchen, light from the dining and living rooms spills through the doorway. The radio’s on, the volume low. I expect to find my parents in their usual spots: Ma in the rocking chair with her knitting, glasses perched on the end of her nose, and Pa in the armchair, listening to the jazz music that Ma so dislikes. Before I can take another step, Ma is upon me, throwing the kitchen light on.
“Oh, thank the good Lord,” she breathes, pulling me into a tight hug.
I awkwardly place my arms around her. “What’s wrong?”
“We had no idea where you’d gone off to. Erik returned hours ago and said he hadn’t seen you.”
“Sorry, uh…I’m fine.”
“Don’t ever do that again, Harry.”
Pa joins us and frowns. “You had your mother worried sick, son. I’d ask where you were, but I suppose we should just be glad you’re home in one piece. Never again, you hear?”
“Yeah, Pa. Sorry. I didn’t do anything, uh, bad if that’s what you’re thinking.” Pa’s disappointment stings worse than anything Ma could say.
Ma yawns and waves me off. The frown lines around her mouth are deeper than normal. Her puffy eyes are shadowed. “Eat something and be off to bed.”
She’s kept my plate covered. With nothing short of affection for Ma, I sit down and eat the chicken, potatoes, and vegetables. Despite the cold food, it sits well with me as a warmth at being missed settles inside.
The lights are out when I go through the living room and up the stairs to my bedroom. “Don’t tell me you’re still reading that garbage,” I say in way of greeting when I find Erik still up.
Erik lowers Crime and Punishment and glares.
I drop onto my bed. “You didn’t tell them about the skinny-dipping.”
“And risk Ma having a heart attack?” Erik’s tone is light, almost teasing.
Our gazes meet across the short distance, and even though Erik isn’t quite smiling, I think he’s trying hard not to.
“Thanks,” I say.
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My novel, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful, is available for $5.99 here.