Billy scuffed his shoes at the weeds leaning in the sidewalk cracks. He looked again at the letter from Mrs. Maurico, which read “Mrs. Olivia Anderson” in all capital letters that slashed across the exact white center of the envelope.
“Billy. Please give this to your mother.”
Mrs. Maurico’s voice had been pleasant, but not her eyes. Her eyes had been different. As if she wasn’t just looking at him, but into him. It made his own eyes slide leftwise off her face, slip down the side of her black suit and stockinged leg to rest on the floor next to her pointy shoes.
Now he lifted the envelope so that it was backlit by the staring yellow eye of the sun. The inside had some kind of pattern on it so he couldn’t read the letter, but he knew what it was about – stupid Jenny Gregory had told on him.
He’d given her a stuffed octopus- it had soft, plush white fur and felt eyes as blue as the ocean that time Billy and his dad had gone to Mexico, just the two of them. It also had red heart-shaped lips that reminded him of Jenny’s, which is why he had tried to kiss her. She’d run away crying and tattled to Mrs. Maurico, and now she was sending him home with a letter.
He looked around the empty street. Every window was curtained, shuttered, blinded. Satisfied no one was watching, Billy opened the envelope. He was careful but the glue was even more careful; the flap tore in two places. The letter unfolded with a thick, important slowness. He read it slowly. He read it five times.
It is my regrettable task to inform you that I have received a complaint from one of our young ladies regarding Billy’s inappropriate touching. There was at least one witness to the incident who confirms the complaint.
As I’m sure you understand, this is a very serious matter. In my experience, when a child acts out at school, it is often because of some stress in his home environment. Here at Wellebridge we are concerned about the total wellbeing of our students – mind, body and spirit. Perhaps you and I can discuss what may be troubling Billy and work together to address the issue at its source? Please call me at your earliest convenience to arrange a conference.
The name Margeaux Maurico was signed at the bottom in a red pen, the same color she used to write “F” on her surprise quizzes.
A nerve beneath Billy’s eye fluttered like a small sparrow trapped beneath the skin. It always did that now.
He sensed movement and jerked his head around but it was only an orange cat. It scraped itself along the side of one of the nondescript little houses, briefly caressing the corner with a hook of tail before oozing out of sight.
The letter fluttered from his fingertips like a stiff white flag. His eye went tic tic tic.
He looked at the envelope. No way could he give it to his mother now – she would see right away he had opened it. If he threw it away, Mrs. Maurico would just write another. But first she would ask him Did you give the note to your mother, Billy? She would look at him again, trying to pry into him. The thought started an orgy of ticking.
Even if he could fix the envelope, he still couldn’t give his mother the letter. She might make him go live with Father and Mindy.
“I can’t,” he whispered to himself.
He walked some more. Each left foot was an “I”; each right foot was “can’t”:
his feet said, until they were so tired he finally had to sit on the curb.
He looked around. He didn’t know this street, this neighborhood. It was probably no more than a mile from his own house, but it was as different from his neighborhood as the desert is from Disneyland.
There were no trees stretching stately limbs to form a canopy over the street, no Mercedes or Saabs purring around corners, no brown-faced little gardeners grooming beds of azaleas.
The street was a cracked gray tongue of asphalt that licked between houses the color of dirty ice. The houses themselves were small and square and fattish, squatting like rows of toads on blasted brown patches of lawn. Air conditioners jutted from the windows like the osteopathic humps of the old people that always crowded the first pews in church.
Even the mailbox was different. The one on his street was blue, with a domed top like a pirate’s chest and a drawbridge door that let you put letters in but not take them out .
Once, right after his father left, Billy had dropped a wad of chewed-up gum into the mailbox nearest his house. Afterward, he’d expected the mailman to appear at his door, gum in hand and asking to speak to Billy’s mother.
Billy waited, first with fear, then excitement, then with scorn. But the mailman, a tall blade-nosed man who unsmilingly touched the brim of his cap instead of saying ‘hello’, never came to the door or said ‘boo’ to Billy.
So Billy began dropping other things – a handful of rocks, a desiccated dog turd, a road-squashed frog. Once even a live kitten. (His eye always ticked crazily before the drop). He did this over a period of months, but the mailman never suspected Billy, just went on touching the brim of his hat.
The top of this mailbox was domed, which is perhaps why he automatically thought mailbox when he saw it – but that was the only resemblance it bore to the standard Post Office-issue receptacle.
For one thing, it was yellow rather than blue.
For another thing, it was a yellow that was wrong. It was not the yellow of the hot smiling sun of summer vacation. This yellow was infected looking, like pus.
It wasn’t even paint, Billy saw. The sulphurous yellow was actually the color of the metal.
And for another thing, it was bigger than a regular mailbox, standing about five feet high, and slightly wider than it was tall. On the front near the letter slot someone had slapped a bumper sticker – scratches and weather had obliterated some of the letters, but Billy found he could fill in the blanks easily enough.
Re-ele t Ja k Ande son
Re-Elect Jack Anderson for Congressman. He should be able to fill in the blanks; after all, Jack Anderson had been his father. Still was, on the occasional weekends he could spare to visit Billy – always with Mindy, of course.
Tic, went Billy’s eye.
He looked at the letter again (Perhaps you and I can discuss what may be troubling Billy) and almost without thinking he reached out and tugged the mail slot open. For some reason he expected resistance; maybe because the box looked as it had stood for centuries without being opened. But the door opened easily.
It was surprisingly heavy – he had to use both hands – and it tilted outward with a screech of hinges that made him jump and look guiltily around. But the neighborhood was as dead as before, the houses bland and indifferent.
A smell wafted out. It was a little like the monkey cage at the zoo, if the monkey cage was filled with burning tires. He’d gone with his mother once to the salon, his eyes smarting from the chemical smell of the stuff they put on her hair. This smell was like that, too.
Billy dropped the letter in. When he released the door it banged closed, gulping at the letter like a voracious yellow mouth. He stepped back nervously, the deed done.
Did you give my note to your mother, Billy?
He decided he would nod yes to this question – it wasn’t quite the same as lying. If his mother ever demanded to know what happened to the missing letter, he would simply use the all-time number one defense: I don’t know. With a shrug.
Besides, he thought drearily, it didn’t matter. Mrs. Maurico would eventually call his mother, or send a second letter – and she wouldn’t give Billy the second letter, oh no. She would find her own mailbox, this one standard and blue, and drop it in herself.
He saw that some time had passed; the toady houses were casting long shadows across the dirty lawns. Now he’d be late for dinner.
Billy walked slowly home, his eye ticking off the paces.
His mother didn’t notice he was late.
“Got a letter from your ol’ dad today, kiddo. ‘Member him? Course you do. Kid doesn’t forget his father. Father might forget his kid, but a kid doesn’t forget his father.”
Billy’s mother regarded him over her wine glass. The rim was smeared red with lipstick, as if she’d been biting the glass instead of sipping from it, filling the glass with blood instead of emptying it of wine.
Billy said nothing. He’d heard it all before – especially on nights when Mitch, her ‘personal trainer’, didn’t call.
“So I get this letter today. A letter! Bastard can’t even pick up the phone to call me. But why should I expect a call when he can’t even spare the time to visit with his own son. Poor baby.”
She eyed him redly. Billy said nothing.
“So you’ll never guess what he wants.” She set her wine glass down with a sloshy thump.
“Says he won’t increase the child support. Because they’re having a baby. Can you believe it. You’re gonna have a half-brother. Or half-sister. Or should I say half-bimbo, if she’s anything like her mom. Or maybe half-weasel, that’s a better word for a husband thief.”
The spot under Billy’s eye jumped and fluttered. His mom stared at him for a moment, perhaps seeing it.
“Awww. Go on, you’re excused. Go do your homework. And no computer ‘til you’re finished. I mean it.”
Tonight Billy had math. He liked doing math homework.. He never understood why so many kids hated math – Billy loved it. You followed the rules, you got the right answer. It was better than magic.
Later he found his mother in the media room. She was watching TV with the volume down. She always did that so she could hear the phone ring if Mitch called.
The room was fogged with cigarette smoke; a lazy S curled above her, a question that was never answered.
“Finish your homework?” She pointed her chin at him, but kept her face towards the television, where the news was on.
“Yes. It was easy.”
“That’s my boy.”
They watched the silent television for a moment. On the screen a reporter was talking excitedly. Behind him, an ambulance idled, its red emergency light flitting around like a splotch of blood that couldn’t decide where it wanted to land.
His mother stubbed out her cigarette. “Mitch is coming over tomorrow. Maybe after my workout we can all go out for a burger, or something.”
“Sure, that would be nice.” Billy told her.
“Good, then.” She jutted a cheek at him without taking her eyes from the screen, where, a picture of a pretty woman with long dark hair was now suspended in the upper right hand corner. Billy kissed the proffered cheek and turned to leave.
His mother struggled upright. She pointed at the television with her cigarette, the smoke describing an excited zigzag. The reporter was still talking; behind him two men loaded a gurney with a black bag into the ambulance
“Isn’t that your teacher? What’s her name? It is!”
At the word ‘teacher’ Billy’s heart gave a funny little skip. His eye ticked.
The picture on the TV was Mrs. Maurico – he hadn’t recognized her with her hair down, looking so young and pretty.
His mother turned the volume. The anchorman’s tone was serious.
”A teacher at the prestigious Wellbridge Way middle school was found dead in her home this evening, the victim of a brutal murder.”
Billy’s face felt slack and loose, as if the skin was suddenly too big for his face.
“Aw, honey,” his mother said. She reached out and gave him a one-armed hug, wreathing him in smoke.
“Do you want to talk about it? I mean, holy shit, murdered! What’s this world coming to, that’s what I’d like to know. Murder, betrayal….it’s all going to hell.”
“I think I’ll just go to bed,” Billy told her.
She looked at him closely and opened her mouth to say something, but the phone rang.
“H’lo? Mitch? She rotated the mouthpiece upward and squinted at him. “You sure you don’t want to talk, honey?”
For a moment his eyes felt hot and stinging again. But that could have just been the smoke.
“I’m sure,” he told her. ‘Goodnight, mother.”
He lay awake for a long time, trying to connect Mrs. Maurico to the lumpy-still black bag on the gurney, to the bloody flashing light, to the word dead. He tried to feel sad, but his relief kept getting in the way. Now his mother would never meet with Mrs. Maurico to find out what may be troubling Billy; she wouldn’t be able to pry into Billy’s mind, body and spirit. Which was fine by Billy.
He decided it wasn’t bad to feel relieved. Mrs. Maurico had just … believed everything that Jenny Gregory said. She never even gave Billy a chance to tell his side…and every one knew there were two sides to every story. He learned that in civics class – that you were supposed to be innocent until someone proved you were guilty. Those were the rules, and Mrs. Maurico had broken them.
In the morning he felt better. He barely noticed the black high-heeled shoe that was laying on the floor near the foot of his bed. His mother must have tiptoed in, shoes in hand, to kiss him goodnight. She was always doing stuff like that. He kicked it under his bed without a second thought and went to school.
The principal gave a speech in a voice nothing like her normal clipped tones She spoke tremblingly of losing a dear and valued teacher. A selfless woman dedicated to the nourishment of young minds.
Billy looked for Jenny and saw her standing with Bradely. Bradely saw him before Billy could turn his head.
“Hey sissy boy. I saw that puking toy you gave Jenny,” Bradley sneered. His red hair was cut so short it stood up in front like hundreds of tiny angry exclamation points. He poked his finger into Billy’s chest and pushed his face close to Billy’s.
“She told me what you did, faggot,” Bradley’s hot breath – a mixture of Doritos, halitosis and sour milk – forced its way up Billy’s nose. Then Bradely shoved him against the lockers hard enough to make them rattle. Jenny came running up. But instead of asking Billy if he was OK, she took Bradley’s arm.
“Come on Bradley,” she said, without even looking at Billy.
“Later, pal,” Bradley promised.
Instead of a substitute teacher they had a grief counselor. The grief counselor gave them workbooks and told them they would be meditative today. They could write down their feelings, or draw. The grief counselor emphasized that it was OK to feel sad, or scared or angry.
Billy wrote I H J in his workbook. He wrote it in tiny letters so that to read them you’d need a magnifying glass. He wrote the letters over and over, rows and rows, pages and pages. And the grief counselor was right – he felt angry at first, but after awhile he only felt…meditative. His eye didn’t even tic once.
He took his time walking home, knowing if he did so his mother and Mitch would simply go out to eat without him. While he walked, the thought about Jenny. His face burned.
Come on Bradley.
Jenny shouldn’t have told Bradely. It wasn’t Bradley’s business. Besides, she had kept the octopus. If she didn’t like Billy, should have given it back. That was only fair.
A sound, like a metal door slamming shut on its hinge, boomed in the late afternoon quiet. Billy stopped walking and looked around. He was in a strange but familiar neighborhood.
The street, a long lick of asphalt.
The squatty toad-houses, the windows like eyes reflecting the sun’s bloody last light.
The treeless landscape, the carless driveways.
And the mailbox, seeming to glow a dirty molten yellow in the dying afternoon light.
Almost without thinking, Billy opened the mailbox mouth, which glided silently in his hand – it seemed lighter, somehow, than it had the other day – and dropped the workbook full of I H Js into the yellow guts.
The mailslot slammed shut with the same booming sound and Bradley jumped. He looked around, but the only person on the whole street was four or five houses down the block. And she was just standing on her porch, staring straight ahead and not even looking at Billy.
Billy squinted at her. Something about her black skirt and long hair looked familiar. Maybe it was the mother one of the kids at school.
He shrugged to himself and headed home. His mother and Mitch would be gone by now, and he’d have the house to himself.
That night Billy had no homework – the grief counselor said to talk to your parents, or keep being ‘meditative.’
Billy played Zombie Invasion. The computer game was a gift from Mindy; and it hadn’t taken Billy long to decide he didn’t like it. The zombies were too unpredictable. Some of them moved slow while others could move fast; some of them fell when you shot them, others just kept lurching toward you. They didn’t subscribe to any zombie rules.
The creators probably thought that made it ‘challenging’, but Billy thought it was a stupid cop out; they were just too lazy to come up with any thing really good.
He killed a bunch of zombies but it wasn’t even fun – it’s not like he was outsmarting them or anything. It was just random. And they kept coming at him out of nowhere, with new behaviors you couldn’t even predict so you were bound to lose.
Billy stabbed his finger on the eject button angrily, and the computer spit the CD smoothly out. He hated it, that the game makers thought they could get away with that.
He took out his special spiral-bound notebook. He wrote in it every day. It was where he put his thoughts, the thoughts that would make people like Mrs. Maurico think she knew his mind and his body and spirit. But they didn’t.
I hate Bradley,
He heard the front door slam. His mother’s voiced murmured in the hall; a low masculine voice answered her.
I hate Mitch,
His mother poked her head into his room without knocking. Tic.
“Dja do your homework, kiddo?” She had a full wineglass in one hand, cigarette in the other. He could hear the faucet running in her bathroom down the hall.
“Olivia” a man’s voice called in slurred tones.
She gave Billy a crooked smile. “Not too late now, you hear?”
“And clean this mess up. It’s starting to smell like a zoo in here.” She blew him an air kiss and closed the door.
Billy reflected. Wrote.
I hate her too.
Guiltily, he hurriedly decorated the white space around the and between the letters – a tangle of curlicues and flowers and geometric shapes until the words were obscured and no one but Billy knew they were there. His eye tic ticked steadily as he worked.
Eventually he found that if he concentrated hard enough, he couldn’t hear the sounds coming from his mother’s bedroom. That was good. But when he put himself to bed he wore his ear phones and played “Puff the Magic Dragon”, just in case.
In the morning he’d actually dressed and was brushing his teeth before he noticed his bathroom mirror was reflecting the octopus. He whirled to see with his own eyes and yes, there it was – the octopus sitting on the shelf it had occupied since the Mexico trip, the same spot it had been sitting for two years until he took it down and gave it to stupid Jenny Gregory.
Now it was back, staring at him with insouciant blue eyes and a smiling red mouth.
Maybe mother got me a new one, he thought. Maybe she snuck in here last night and put it there to…to surprise me.
It was his mother’s voice that answered this thought. It smells like a zoo in here.
Billy sniffed. It did smell like a zoo in here. A low yellow smell.
He looked back at the octopus. It was the same octopus he had given Jenny, all right. It was the same, but not unchanged.
Billy turned slowly and resumed looking at the thing’s reflection in the mirror. It seemed safer, somehow.
The formerly pristine white plush fur of the octopus was now matted with blood and missing two legs but had somehow gained an eye –a blue eye that was glazed and surrounded by red strings of goo but all too recognizable just the same, an ocean blue eye caught in the heart-shaped bow of its lips.
It stared at Bill with a sort of glittery interest. Billy stared back at it in the mirror; then he stared at the spot at the foot of his bed, where a pointy black woman’s shoe stuck out. A shoe his mom would never wear.
Billy grabbed his notebook and ran out of his room.
At school there was quiet pandemonium. Girls stood around in pastel clusters of sweaters, their eyes red. Some were hugging, some hiccupping with tears. The boys stood or sat at the periphery of these clusters, watching the girls closely, their feet and hands awkwardly shuffling. Whispers filled the hallway.
My mother said she was still alive when they found her…
..chewed her arm off, they said, and….
…said it was the same guy, that he…
Billy walked past them, looking for Jenny. But Jenny of the blue eyes and red lips was not there. Just Bradley with his angry hair, standing in a cluster of bigger boys.
They assembled in the auditorium. The principle gave another speech.
“Children, this is a sad and difficult day for all of us. We have lost not just your dear teacher Mrs. Maurico but your lovely young friend Jenny Gregory. So senselessly, brutally murdered…” her voice quivered and she strangled a sob into her handkerchief. At the word murdered, many of the girl students began wailing.
Now the grief counselor took over, speaking in a mellifluous voice full of sympathetic italics: now was a time for communicating, and healing, and how they shouldn’t be afraid of their feelings….
The grief counselor droned on. Billy didn’t hear him – he put his head in his arms, as many of the girls students were doing. His mind was a gerbil wheel going round and round.
Mrs. Maurico! Jenny Gregory! Mrs. Maurico! Jenny! Mrs. Maurico! Jenny!
Their names flapped madly around in his head like crazed sparrows.
Both dead now. Not just dead – murdered.
It seemed significant, somehow, that something had happened to both of them. Not just because one was his teacher and another a fellow student.
Billy pictured them in his mind’s eye, the way they had looked when he last saw them; Jenny, red-faced and accusing, Mrs. Maurico, disapproving and probing.
He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was somehow involved.
Not me! I was right at home, mom saw me!
But someone had killed them. Someone (something) like Billy, who was mad at both of them.
Unbidden, another picture rose in his mind: the jaundiced yellow mailbox where he had dropped the letter. First the letter, then the notebook. In the cave of his arms his face flushed darkly, pulling the skin dry and tight.
That night he dreamed of the mailbox. It loomed above him in the moonlight, a dirty yellow monolith. As he stood trembling before it, the letter slot opened, revealing a maw darker than the night around him. The slot closed, opened, closed, opened. Billy thought it was trying to talk.
“What do you want,” he asked it.
In answer, the slotmouth opened and closed even faster.
Billy fell to his knees.
“Are you hungry?” he whispered.
The mailbox leaned down towards him and Billy’s nose filled with that yellowy zoo smell. It moved, screeching metal sparks on the sidewalk. Billy saw that it left something like footprints – four indentations where its stubby legs had been, as if it had dropped from the sky so long and fast and hard it had sunk right into the concrete when it landed.
The mailbox mouth opened wider than ever, as if it would eat him. It roared. It had a cavernous throat the same dirty pus color as the outside.
He woke just before he screamed, the spot below his eye jumping like a grasshopper in a jar.
Billy walked with his head down, kicking at stones. When he finally stopped and glanced up, he was not really surprised to see the yellow mailbox. He told himself he hadn’t known he was coming here, he’d just been walking.
Yet, here he was.
Once again the street was empty, not a car in sight.
Once again the houses crouched in the quiet.
Billy reached out and tugged the letter slot, squinting his eyes against a dry snowfall of paint flakes….but this time, the handle did not budge. He tugged harder. Nothing – it was stuck fast.
A gleam of silver caught his eye. He looked closer and saw deep grooves freshly scored into the yellow surface, so deep that the dull glint of metal shone in the slim belly of the furrows. The ends of the scratches were red; when he touched them, his fingers came away red, too. Red and sticky.
The scratches had obliterated even more of the bumper sticker letters – now, Billy would have a hard time filling in the blanks, father or no, for the sticker now simply read:
What had made those scratches?
Something not very tall, his mind promptly answered. Something that had to claw its way up, so it could crawl back in. Something that smells like an animal, but isn’t.
His mind tried to present him with an image: a thick, hairy, crawling thing climbing nimbly up the yellow mailbox, and he shook his head, hard, to make it go away.
He reached up quickly and yanked at the handle of the letter slot, as if to surprise it into opening.
Nothing. The box only squatted there yellowly and smiled its closed-mouth smile.
He braced a foot against the belly of the box and pulled as hard as he could. Nothing moved.
He braced his other foot and pulled, leaning back like a water skier. Still, nothing moved.
He dropped to the ground and stood glaring at it, but the box didn’t move. The box kept itself to itself.
It will only open if you want to put a letter in. he suddenly thought.. Those are the rules. He didn’t know why he thought that, but he did. It just felt right – the way rules always did.
He reached into his backpack and pulled out his spiral-bound notebook. Turned to the page that read: I hate Bradley. I hate Mitch. He tore the sheet out, and hesitated. Voices filled his head; his eye ticked.
Hey sissy boy, I saw that puking toy you gave Jenny!
Come on Bradley.
“I don’t care,” he whispered. “They broke the rules.” Besides, he was only trying to see if the mailbox would open. He didn’t know anything else – not for sure.
This time when he reached for the drawbridge slot, it tilted readily open on smooth, silent hinges – as if it had been recently oiled.
The zoo smell was thicker.
Billy hesitated, then dropped the paper in. Wiping his hands on his pants, he turned to go.
A door slammed. Billy turned toward the sound.
Four houses down a woman stood on her porch. It was the same woman from the other day, her long dark hair lank on her shoulders. There was something funny in the way she stood – like she was uneven, or tilted in the way his mom got after too much wine.
Billy studied her for a moment and then realized why: the woman was wearing only one high-heeled shoe. The other foot was covered in only a stocking.
Billy recognized her now – it was the third time, after all, he was seeing his teacher with her hair down.
Fear filtered in now, filling him up like smoke.
Another door slammed, this one only two houses down from where Billy stood by the mailbox.
The girl on this porch was smaller than the woman, and blonde rather than dark, her bright hair picking up and throwing back the last rays of the sun. Even from here Billy could see the perfect red bow of Jenny Gregory’s lips.
They turned their heads to stare at him in silent unison. Jenny’s ravaged eye socket was a black splotch on her face, a hole as deep and impenetrable as the mailbox itself.
They were watching him.
I was at home! he wanted to tell them. Ask my mother! But he couldn’t – there was something wrong with his voice, as if the mailbox had swallowed it along with his latest letter.
They stood there, staring.
After a long while, Billy made a savage gesture with his arm – a go away gesture – but they neither flinched nor went back inside.
With a nonchalance about a million miles from the way he felt, Billy turned and walked home.
That night he dreamt again of the mailbox. He was on his knees before it. This time when it opened it’s yellow slotmouth, it did not roar, but only belched forth a flock of white doves. No, not doves – papers. Billy reached up and caught one of the fluttering sheets. It had no writing – only doodles. Curlicues and flowers and geometric shapes.
The slotmouth opened again, and a hairy thing emerged. Like a hand except that the hair and long metal claws make it seem pawlike. The tips of the claws he saw, were dark and stained the muddy brown-maroon of old blood.
He turned to run then, but the air had thickened and his dream legs were heavy. He’d taken only two steps when he heard the thing grunting and snarling as it squeezed itself out of the mailbox.
He woke in a cold sweat, his heart an insistent little fist in his chest.
I hate her too, he’d written. Then covered it with curlicues so no one could read it but him.
But her name wasn’t on it. Just ‘her’. And ‘her’ could be anyone, right? Maybe that counted. Probably that counted.
But what if it didn’t?
You could get it back, his mind whispered.
In answer came the prompt knowledge: It won’t let me. It only lets me put letters in – not take them out. Those are the rules.
You don’t know that for sure, though. You could bring a yardstick or something! The pool skimmer. Stick something on the end of it, like gum…..
Someone might see me.
At that the voice was silent. Apparently it didn’t like the idea of going to the mailbox in the dark, opening the maw of the box and sticking his long stick in there, maybe poking whatever it was that lived inside, waking it up….
Billy, she’s your mother! You have to get it!
But he couldn’t. He couldn’t go there, not with some clawing zoo smelling thing in the box..and not with these people, these people that looked like the people he knew even though he knew they weren’t, couldn’t be, because dead people didn’t come back, they stayed dead. It was the rules.
It’s not my fault, he thought wildly. Besides, she shouldn’t drink so much, that’s why dad left, that’s why he went with Mindy. And then there’s Mitch….
He dove under the covers and made himself into the tightest ball possible, rocking back and forth until his heart resumed something like a normal rhythm.
The next morning he skipped breakfast and hurried off to school. He did not knock at his mother’s door, which was closed, but that wasn’t anything new, a closed door might mean a hangover or, worse, Mitch, both being situations in which she wasn’t inclined to talk to Billy, or he to her.
“Bye mother. See you after school,” he called from the foot of the steps. He left quickly, then, so he would not have to listen to her silence. There was an easier way to find out what there was to find out, wasn’t there? Yes.
He detoured on the way to school, his feet leading him. He stood by the mailbox, waiting.
The first door slammed, then the second. He could feel them staring at him, but found it didn’t bother him so much today.
After a little while a third door slammed. He didn’t look, but his mind whispered what his eyes didn’t see. (Bradley) Then a fourth door slammed. (Mitch) He had to struggle not to slam his hands over his ears, even though he knew the voice was inside him.
And after a long, long while – so long he almost started to feel relieved, almost started to turn and walk to school – a fifth door slammed.
He willed himself to look at that fifth porch. But he didn’t need to. His eye ticked like a bomb.
Billy walked to school. He waited quietly in his seat, and when the principle interrupted the class to call Billy to the door, he ignored the whispers of his classmates. He ignored the sympathetic looks of the teacher and principle. He looked only at his father, who stood tall and dark suited and out of place in the hallway. And when his father hugged him and said “Bill, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news,” he felt better. A little.
There was the funeral, the viewing, the wake, the moving in with his father, and he did not visit the mailbox for three days. He might have forgotten about it – for a little while, anyway – if not for his dreams.
In them, the mailbox stalked the streets on its stubby yellow legs, alien metal screeching and sparking against the concrete, the letter slot slamming open and closed like a hungry mouth.
It was looking for him, the burning animal chemical smell filling the air…
He awoke one night with his nostrils distended. He knew immediately that he was not dreaming: the smell was here, in his room.
He lay perfectly still, his heartbeat a live thing in his ears, his controlled shallow breathing threatening to burst free in a gasp.
He heard a thump, followed by a light rapid padding. A sound of breathing that was almost-but-not-quite-panting.
There was a long silence, then the sound of shuffling. Things being moved around on his desk. A light tearing. More shuffling, and then something cool and firm tickled his nose.
Billy squinched his eyes tight, not caring that it would know he was faking sleep. He wondered if it would hurt as bad as it smelled.
The nose tickle again, this time more insistent. A soft thump and a crinkle on the mattress.
He cracked an eye open. His blue Parker pen lay in front of him.
After a moment a grunting breath. The smell was low and feral and strange: rubber fried in Drano with a side of burnt monkey hair. A sheet of lined notebook paper, it’s edge ragged where it had been torn from his book, wafted down to join the pen.
Understanding washed through Billy.
Slowly, he walked his fingers to the pen. Even more slowly, he sat up. He didn’t dare lift his eyes. He wasn’t supposed to see it. He didn’t know how he knew that, but he did. It was another one of those rules that just felt right, the way the good ones always did.
He brought the sheet to his lap. He brought the pen to his lips, thinking. (there was a grunt at this, whether from anticipation or impatience, he couldn’t tell). He thought. Wrote. The sound of the pen scratching across the paper seemed very loud. He was careful to write neatly. It might not care about scratch-outs or misspellings; then again, it might. Billy didn’t want to find out.
He held the letter out sideways, keeping his eyes on his lap. A shuffling sound and the paper was snatched from his hand. A grunt, this time unmistakable in its satisfaction.
He only dared to breathe when he heard the gritty sliding scrape of the French doors. He only opened his eyes when the night wind puffed past the curtain and cooled his face.
And he only screamed when he saw what the Congrman had left for him on his desk (a warning? a gift?): a strip of something, a long strip with hundreds of tiny angry red exclamations points sticking up from it.
At breakfast Jack Anderson made stilted conversation with his son.
“How are you doing at school, Billy?”
Jack smiled automatically at his son.
Billy took a deep breath. “Where’s Mindy?”
His father frowned. “Oh, she had a doctor’s appointment. For the baby.”
“Wow,” Billy said. “That’s an early appointment.”
His father looked at him. Billy looked innocently back.
“And how are you doing with that young man, the one you were having trouble with. Did you talk to him, as I suggested? Reason with him, man to man?”
“I handled it,” Bill answered, which was perhaps less than truthful. But not exactly a lie, he thought virtuously. Lying was against the rules. He fingered his notebook and pictured Bradley on his porch and suppressed a smile.
“Hey dad, do you think you’ll run for re-election?”
His father sighed. “It’s hard to say. I’d like to, but this new guy has a lot of soft money support. He’ll be hard to beat.”
“What’s his name again?”
“Robert Zielinski.” He snorted. “A pig at the pork barrel if there ever was one.”
“Zih-lin-skee,” Billy repeated slowly. He opened his notebook. “That’s a funny name. How do you spell that?”
“P-o-l-a-c-k,” his father said. Now get ready for school. I don’t have all day.”
Leaving the dining room, Billy saw his father check his watch again. His forehead creased with worry – or maybe it was just anger.
Don’t worry dad, he thought. She broke the rules, you were already married. You had me and mom. But I fixed it. I can fix everything.
It was very late but the moon was a far bright slice, casting a glow that made the mailbox seem almost to float above the sidewalk.
“Congrman,” Billy whispered, his heart fisting away.
Nothing stirred. Whatever was in the mailbox slept – or was abroad in the night, a letter of Billy’s in its unimaginable hand.
He reached up and dropped his envelope into the mail slot – it opened easily now, the rust completely gone. The smell, however, was not gone – in fact it was worse than ever, a noxious cloud belching up from the belly of the box.
Billy found he didn’t mind the smell so much anymore. It was consistent, that smell, and who was he to complain? He didn’t make the rules. Besides, he could always hold his breath. It didn’t take long to mail a letter, even a very long letter.
As his letter disappeared into the stinking yellow mouth of the box, Billy felt a surge of pride. He knew he’d spelled it right – he Googled it. For a moment he wished his father could see him – but that would have to come later. Now there was just too much work.
He looked down the street, at the pallid faces turned toward him. There was even an order to who stood on which porch, he’d learned; a kind of system. His mother and Mindy stood nearest; the people he didn’t know or like (or like him) stood farther down the block.
Billy no longer feared them. This was his street. It was filling up fast, but there were other streets. He sensed there could be a whole town if he wanted. A city, even. Maybe more. After all, there were a lot of people who didn’t follow the rules.
Now there was a place for them.
© Copyright Sandra Stephens (nee Sandra Miller)