By Brooke Waits
I got a concussion once from a crabapple when I was eight. Walking home from the 3rd grade, the back of my head caught a line drive from the Johnston twins. Jacob and Jamie were two rowdy boys two years older, making a two-man army with two curved fast pitches and two stacks of crabapples in their two dirty shirttails. Doing the math, I was down by twelve points, at least thirteen if my naivety bore any factor.
“We’ll give you five second’s head start,” they’d say. I jumped at their offer, gambling frail odds on the unlikely event of dodging the assault. With the school close and armed with adults, I made a break for it. Relief, however, soon saw to be a frivolous mouse to chase Jacob and Jamie, never intending to let me go. In the race for flight, my feet lost second to crabapples, already an airborne attack.
“Leave me alone, or I’ll tell on you both.”
“Oh please, anything but that,” said Jamie. They mocked me, oddly in sync, and continued the pursuit of knocking my block off.
Across from the schoolyard, there was a crabapple tree on its last leg. A strong wind would’ve been the end of it because whatever the insects hadn’t hollowed, the rain had rotted. Subsequently, a curve made its trunk in the shape of “C.” Without my glasses, I saw the tree very sad, hunched over like an old woman with brittle bones. Jacob and Jamie gathered the fallen crabapples as they found them. When their supply ran dry, both battered the branches like little rascals at wife-beating camp. It was a coarse sight to see agriculture as an elder, dropping an erratic spread in the grass. I wanted to cry because I thought the crabapples looked like green brains. At eight, it only made sense that a tree would have green brains. How ironic, having one’s own brains knocked out by brains.
I lived in a southwest Norman Rockwell suburbia where the assumptions of stereotypes, Christianity and gossip were basically true. Even eight-year-olds had expectations and social circles, so I’d heard the rumours about the Johnston’s, each one possessed by a memoir worse than the last and each one their own spotlight for havoc in a would-be quiet neighbourhood: the father a drug-dealer, the mother a cultist, an older brother serving two life sentences and finally, twin boys the crabapple-throwers of little girls (the latter being a fact I knew personally but never told). Even their pets were the subjects of word-of-mouth witch-hunts. The family’s pit bull mauled the arms of a four-year-old and their fat Persian cat, too, ran fugitive after smothering an infant asleep in his crib.
According to my community’s etymologic translation, the name Johnston actually derived from the phrase “rife with trouble.” My name isn’t Johnston, but I got their troubles when they moved in—that and their kin of perpetrators living in the house next door.
After they arrived, life went something like this: Once upon a time, I was eight, and then I was old.
“C’mon say it, ‘I’m a cunt licker,'” said Jacob. He pinned me to the ground, his face so close to mine he spat on my mouth when he spoke while Jamie laughed himself to tears. “Just say it, and I’ll let you up.”
“Let me up, or I’m gonna tell,” I said. Struggling seemed tedious, so I gave up the fight and let my body become limp and heavy. If nature’s laws took effect, maybe he’d think I was dead or go paw at a severed limb still wild with nerves. I was pretty sure I no longer had legs and the left side of my butt, too.
“Say, ‘I like to eat pussy,’ and then you can go.” His tone was generic for kindergarten lectures on how to tie shoes.
“Iliketoeatpussy,” my cheeks a sudden siren, “now can I go?”
Jacob milled over it, swishing spit between his two front teeth while I waited for something invisible and good to rush me away to the clouds.
“Don’t expect me to be so generous next time,” said Jacob. He lifted himself off me butcher-style, one pound at a time.
I scurried to my feet and had a quick celebration for my legs still attached. Brushing leaves and debris from my hair, both boys stuck me with a stare more unnerving than someone’s foot at my heels.
I should’ve kept running. A few feet of distance, and I cried Ollie oxen free too soon.
WHACK! Like a baseball glove in the 1932 World Series, my head took the heat of a crabapple slung so hard my eyes nearly rattled from their sockets. I’d found my coup de grâce that fateful day, and seeing stars, I went down.
Memory serves mute waves of it, black, scattered vision and falling like forever as I broke my nose on the curb.
Until then, the hitting was mostly harmless. Sometimes it scared me, but sometimes I liked it in a secret way that comes when something hurts. Dismissing the Johnston’s as simple boys with big talk was a safe assumption until the day they knocked me out cold.
I woke up, bloody and bones oozing, on the Johnston’s cool kitchen floor. My eyes were glued shut, sticky with sleep, and the room felt of nothingness and night, like a carnival ride turning me out in space. With my stomach at my throat and a skirt full of allergen weeds, I tried not to move.
Someone was cooking, and the haunted smell of it embodied the house; a ghost if a ghost could have stale breath. It was more like plastic melting than food cooking. The odour suggested the Johnston’s were having little green army men cooked in an Easy Bake Oven for dinner. I was familiar with the smell of three-inch men in flames, playing most afternoons with the older boy who lived three doors down. The two of us dug holes and burned toy figurines in them like a couple of prepubescent Nazis. It wasn’t supposed to smell, the boy three doors down assured me, saying, “It’ll burn without giving us away. See, it’s a clear smoke, so no one suspects a thing. And odourless is nothing suspicious and clear is just a word about something you can’t smell.”
“Odorless” had become more distinct than my mother’s Chanel No. 5.
I shot up from the kitchen floor, wide-eyed, as ammonia napkins under my nose. The air was intense and too hard to catch on my back. I saw Jacob, busy cooking, although it wasn’t plastic toys. It looked like candy but better, and; he was cooking cocaine into crack. For me, a drug was a drug was a drug, which made their variety seem beside the point. The Johnston’s, however, cleared this problem up for me rather quickly.
“You’re still alive,” he said. “I guess I can tell Jamie to patch up that hole we dug for you.” Across the kitchen, Jacob talked over his shoulder as he propped the stove-eye with one hand and held a spoonful of powder over the pilot light with the other. At first, I thought he might try to melt the spoon for bending into shapes. Like a clown with balloons, he was a bully with spoons.
“Hole?” I asked. “For me?”
“Yep,” I heard from behind me. “In the backyard. So, we can bury. You like. The others.” At my back stood a man with a shadow too slight for his body. I was surprised at the lack of length between us. He was close and looking. I guessed his serious eyes had aged him ten years too fast. He had cellophane skin, sucked airtight for slack and a habit of circling his jaw in crazy eight’s like a hula-hoop. The constant movement suggested that the lower half of his face was unhinged and caused his speech to be short and choppy. Listening to him was like an off-road ride in a car with no shocks. Hemorrhoids might’ve concerned me had I known what they were.
On his head, like sunshades, he wore a pair of prescription glasses, black, wide-framed with lenses the width of binoculars. I wondered if he was as blind as his glasses were as big and if seeing the world dissolve dissolved a part of him, too. I expected more of him to come around the corner to catch up, but nothing ever came. I decided that in a quieter light, he could resemble a secondhand Buddy Holly or Elvis Costello, maybe something hybrid. Being my dad’s true icons, I saw both musicians in everything too well. We built our house as a standing ode to the legends, but I was still up in the air on which one was dead.
I wondered if this man shared a similar taste with my father and if he knew all the words to “Veronica” without singing karaoke.
“Relax. You. We’re only being. Wise with. You,” the man said. He hadn’t batted an eye, still standing at my back with his baggage of ten extra years.
“You. Put some scare in. Us. The boys are. Real sorry. Some. Times they roughhouse, get carried away,” he waited. Scratched his head. “I’m Rand. It’s not short for anything. Not Randy. Not Randall. Just Rand. Like the writer.”
He excused himself past me with a gentle hand on my back and walked to Jacob, still busy with powders and pilot lights. Rand examined his work with a critical, well-oiled eye. Taking the spoon of putty from Jacob’s grip, he swivelled the silver around in careful motions, and I saw the stuff move to the edge, like mercury, and back. I imagined it the same flavour of oysters, raw and cool to the throat.
“It isn’t saleable. Nobody. Can smoke that,” said Rand, “put it in the freezer. Let it form a rock.” He took a seat at the kitchen table under a cheap chandelier, swinging low with a crack, probably from someone’s head. Guessing the kitchen was the largest room in their house. It was two rooms meshed together, like an eatery/live-in area in one.
Walking in, the stove was the first thing to see, straight back and designed so that whomever cooking faced with his backside out, unaware of other parties neither coming nor going. To the left was a refrigerator, covered in magnets suggesting safety tips for handling raw meat. Third-party beef vendors gave them away every year at the State Fair’s stockyards. “Beef Gives You Z-I-P: Zinc, Iron, Protein.”
Nothing but cabinet space made up the rest of the kitchen’s left side. Miles of it, fake wood, topped with small plastic Baggies rolled up and rubber banded. There was pipe paraphernalia of the sort: thin pipes, glass pipes, large ceramic pipes with multiple spouts for inhaling. In gallon-size freezer bags, a variety of powder is tightly packed, along with hunks of crystallized substances and colourful tablets. My blood sugar would’ve risen amid the Johnston’s candy circus had I not paid attention to the shiny cops with pretty pictures speaking anti-drugs at the third-grade assembly. “Just say no.”
I said, “yes.”
The right side of the wall was basically an enormous window. The kitchen spoke of cheap wood and fine glass, double-plated with custom etchings of a phrase in another language repeated around the edge. A sliding door with a torn screen leading to the backyard was less than two feet from the dining table. Narrow and deep, like a stab wound, the kitchen took a prize for the oddest room I’d ever seen. What with the essence of a stadium, the bitter smell of nothing burning and porcelain tiles on the floor. Mismatched summed it up, but then so were the Johnston’s with their modest house built over an empire that just wouldn’t wait.
“What’s your name?” Rand asked.
“Then I will call. You Little, Leila. Is that okay?”
I didn’t answer, which meant okay because that’s what he called me for the rest of the day.
“Come sit,” he said, patting his knee. I climbed up on his lap at the table, my small self a little lighter with the conscience fallen away. His knee felt solid and familiar, like a song or Buddy Holly, and suddenly I missed home.
A slow hand crept under my blouse from the back, Rand discovering the tender nubs on my chest. “What do you have here?” he asked. He fondled and cupped, dividing his attention equally among the two.
“I don’t know,” I said. My nipples grew hard, and it seemed to please him.
“It’s power,” he said. “Your ticket in life. You’ll know what I mean soon.” He took his hand from my shirt and retrieved a clear, private bag from his own shirt pocket. The content was white as snow in contrast to the pink of his palm. It formed a solid lump in the same shape of magic Jacob cooked in his spoon, only harder.
“Son. Bring me a lighter. Bring me a pipe.”
Jacob sighed in staccato, throwing down his project like a temperamental girl on the rag. “For fuck’s sake.”
“Boy. You watch you. Fucking language.”
Spit foamed in the corners of his mouth as he sidled up to the table and presented his father with the requested items. Rand dipped in the bag for a white crumb to smear at the tip of a thin glass pipe.
“Do you know? What it’s like to feel good, Little?”
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I thought about the straight A’s I’d made on spelling tests and the sand under my feet on family vacations. “No.”
“Then feel it. Now,” he said. “Hold this pipe in your lips. And when I say… Breathe in.”
I nodded, with the pipe propped on my lips. A pro before the flame began its tease of flicking tongues in and out at the white tip. I inhaled until black spots invaded my sight.
“Now hold it. There in your lungs. Hold it like you’re underwater,” he said.
I sucked in a gust of phantoms through the impressionable pink rising below an unbuttoned blouse. Seconds, everything changed, and everything felt slow like honey. Time became erotic, and time came apart—a clock or a metronome playing the piano in pieces, playing an octave too low. I was strange and estranged. Pasted and cut like Willy Wonka on the boat in the tunnel with chaos and chicken heads.
My pupils expanded over the whites as the world tapered down to something acute, and I heard it scream like a small train in my ears. My shy person grew large, feet crashing through the walls, and I was, as a boy, suddenly tall.
“Little? What is it you feel?”
“High. I feel higher than you.”
“Then you feel just. Right,” said Rand. “Now that you know. You won’t ever feel other than right.”
I watched Jacob produce from powder to spoon, to pilot light to soft solid—from Jamie empty-handed to ripe delivery and out the door again.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because drugs. Aren’t what they used to be. Not two years ago. A habit would’ve landed you in the hood. But now it’s about feeling all right. It’s about accountants and pilots. All right is middle-upper class, and I’m playing God. Lucky you. The messiah at last.”
“Why am I lucky?”
“Because this house is all you need.” Rand scooted the chair so far under the table it poked me in the bladder, and I nearly peed on his lap. “Almost yesterday. Business was dodging bullets in the ghetto. A black neighbourhood is what it took just to smile.”
“Some of my friends are black,” I said.
“Yes.” The Ronald’s lived three doors down, their son with whom I’d burned toy soldiers and played a little Nazi.
“He’s a Crystal-Meth man. The father. Not my taste, but still a drug scarce. And now it takes only my son. Or his legs to walk four doors down.” He stared at my giddy display—eyes filling the shoe of a saucer, teeth bearing the pressure of an earthquake in my jaw. “I see you share your father’s taste. His appetite for coke. Keeps me in business.” He cracked his neck on either side and saw his way back up my shirt. “My Little, it’s all about business, about money. We’re all working men and. We keep each other in business.”
With this man’s hand fondling my less than breasts, I couldn’t take the news of my father’s love for blow. I almost laughed and thought how we could use it together now, to hell with family night and Disney movies.
“What are you thinking?”
“What are those words in your door?” I pointed to the foreign phrase chiselled around the glass.
“What sorrow June can bring. It’s Latin.” Rand squinted at the words as if he’d never seen them before. “My wife. She left me because of me. And then. She died because of me.” He lifted the pipe with another dollop of white from the bag. “Cheers.” His mouth like a Hoover, one drag and the stuff was gone.
As if to say, “your turn,” the pipe was again at my lips with its fire and ramifications of “good.”
It was then that my life evaporated. I lost riffraff in transit, and I had no place for the “what” in-between.
“Are you okay?” Jacob asked. I’d forgotten he was there. The sudden interest in my condition made me suspicious.
“I feel nothing, and I feel everything. I want to fly a plane, and I want to go to bed.” It was the truest statement I’d ever make.
Rand bounced me on his knee, as I was on his own, and I enjoyed the attention too much to say.
“Keep this with you,” he said, tucking the bag of soft white and pipe down the front of my panties. “Feel good whenever you can because goodwill never leads you to bad.”
Jacob looked me over with something excruciating eclipsed in his eyes. “Sorry, we didn’t mean for this to happen, he said.” Angst and desperation at once in his voice, I was almost sorry for him.
“Making someone feel good forever. Is no reason for apologies,” said Rand. He held me tighter in his arms like we were a team like we had something in common, and I surrendered to the pull pushing me to please him.
He grabbed my hand as it fidgeted in mid-air and stuck it down the front of his pants, gapping at the waist. A hard lump growing harder and wrapped in soft skin came to rest in my palm. Rand’s eyes averted, and his lids fluttered a song. “You want to make me happy. Don’t you, Little?”
“Maybe you should come over more often. Run a few errands for me. Do some busywork. Have fun for free.”
Again, I nodded, willing to jump through hoops if he asked. Like a rearview mirror, a piece of my vision clipped Jacob, squirming not so far away. I saw him then as a boy, not a bully, with something to say. Next to the stove, balancing misery and loyalty, his lips parted on the verge of cracking a line both moot and profound. I waited, suspended… nothing, as he dissolved into more of a mouse than me.
“Then it’s a deal.” Rand didn’t ask but insisted.
“Yes, Mr. Johnston. I’d like to help you.”
He sighed in pleasure as I succumbed. “That’s a good girl.”
My body relaxed in no minor victory; I’d passed Big Brother’s induction test. But instead of excitement, I threw magic so as not to cry. Jacob, too, batted the tears away, cooking illicit cocktails and avoiding all contact with me.
Bang! Bang! Just then, there was a not so gentle beating at the front door. Rand’s long-rising excitement fell limp in my hand.
“Open the goddamn door!” a deep voice screamed from outside. Following, a steady series of fists pounding angry enough to get in. My lack of fright surprised me, so did my bored reaction to look up in faith that just wasn’t there. Instead of worrying not to be stopped, I gave my attention to the sky through the glass-laden kitchen. The moon was shallow in its place, shy and still pushing the sundown to sleep in its bed somewhere west. Looking out to the night was like primary art, blue construction paper and the windows, a quick chance at the sea.
After all of it: the crabapples, the concussion and crack, Rand, his proposal, and hand up my shirt. After the sky had blushed navy and the sun burned my shoulders, I lived the course of some number of days at the bargain price of sixty seconds. The sound of the front door shivering on its hinges echoed in the Fourier.
“Jesus Christ,” said Rand. “Jacob put the deadbolt on.” All the noise must’ve sobered him up because his speech went from breaking to battle.
“It’s locked,” Jacob squealed. His face sprinkled with hair and his voice deep for his age, he had a momentary lapse back to puberty.
“Little, you’re special. Remember. Now take cover in the cabinet.” I hopped from Rand’s lap and did as he instructed, taking shelter to the left, under the kitchen sink. I crawled over Jacob’s shoes to get there and hoped he, too, would join me, be Big Brother and protect me. But he didn’t, and neither did Rand. Instead, I listened to their lungs, breathing in panic and sweat, as the intruder bounced the door open and welcomed himself in.
I thought the wicked man never won, but his footsteps were already in the kitchen. Rand and Jacob were faint and hysterical in sound, pacing like nervous fathers because they could do nothing. Neither of them decided which way to go, their feet first facing left, then right and in the meantime touching the floor.
I felt like Anne Frank hiding away as the Germans uncovered my secret in the attic. The chemicals from cleaning solutions filled my eyes up with tears, and the assault of Clorox singed the hairs from my nose.
“You fucked me over,” said the intruder.
The man sounded familiar. But then all of them do. I was desperate to peek through the cabinet, but I was too scared and too high to move. Trying to calm my breathing, I pressed my forehead to the cool wood and listened as all hell broke loose.
“That’s ridiculous,” said Rand.
“That little son of a bitch is running bunk shit. I have a family. I have a kid to think about.” There was a second strange voice. Two intruders, only this one I recognized. It was my father, and I wanted him to take me home on his shoulders, holding my hands with my thighs around his ears.
“This is a mistake,” Rand pleaded.
“Fuck you.” Without missing a beat, four gunshots resounded, each with a racket unexpected and delicate, like bullets fired in shells of fabric softener.
“Where’s the other one? There are three,” said the one who was Dad.
In a struggle, my chest worked harder, harder still and left me lacking the instinct to fuss or feign over life. I smelled my breath consuming space in the cabinet, becoming quick, and I knew it was loud.
“He’s in the cabinet; I can hear him.” Then more rounds were shooting off and bullets parting the cabinet’s wood everywhere, like a hailstorm too close to my head. I felt a sudden sting, then throbbing in my right foot, and I knew it hit me. Hand over mouth, a private shriek, and the agony faded to numb. Eyes closed, almost asleep, the bullets kept coming and like Fort Knox with a short, the sparks rebounded from both sides of the plumbing pipes.
“C’mon, goddamn it, we got’em. Let’s go.” The last words spoken from the intruders before they fled was the last thing I remember besides the pain.
I didn’t budge from the cabinet for at least half an hour. Time somersaulted and went from immobile to a jockey on a purebred with the crowd on his side. It was the aftermath, the sock slurping up shock as my shoe filled with blood. I breathed in an air heavy with death and chemicals, new to both. My eyes and lungs flared wide and coated.
When I felt it safe to surface, the moon was full and careless, spilling the blood of Jacob and Rand like chocolate milk across the kitchen. My mind was a myriad of quick confusion and harshness. Where was my coupon for a childhood free? Where was my mother? Where was the sun in all of this? I couldn’t see that nothing came free. I couldn’t see my mother, her ears covered long ago, or the sun already melted on the floor in the Pacific. I couldn’t see a single sure thing, and wondering if anything true had ever been, I fled the Johnston’s house dragging a grudge and a gimp foot close behind. Dragging my sorry self through two overgrown yards and my bedroom window next door. Life felt of nothing. An atheist, and from apathy came energy.
“Later, I’m busy,” I yelled. My mother called me for dinner, and I was without concern. I crouched in the corner of my closet, chin over knees, trying to quiet my crash and cries. When too much became too much, I poked around in my panties until I found the bag of happy white Rand had given me for later. Jackpot. I felt myself a fruitful slot machine, the glass pipe and plastic bag of jewels secure where he’d left them, warm and riding up a goosy spot between my legs. I traced the procedure from memory, scooping a speck of white from the bag onto the tip of the pipe. Like a teapot, my head screamed an excitement enough to implode, and my heart sped from fast to eager to borderline attack. Sweat dribbled like drool from my neck, over my stomach, and sweat trickled from my palms, almost skipping down my shins.
With glistening hands, I gripped the lighter, leaving skin from my fingertips behind as I struck a flame. Tip pressed to flame; deafness came in spells while listening to the crackle of “good” coming to life in my ears. Things went up for me at last; my arm wore the wall as a bracelet, and I looked fine wearing a necklace of shingles. Life made sense again, the way it did when I sat in Rand’s lap, giddy to please him and first in line to be his daughter. I thought of “Veronica,” plane crashes and his Buddy Holly glasses. Then I thought of my father in shock and cold sweat, scrubbing blood spatters and willing to rid the Johnston’s from his clothes in the laundry room just below. I thought of the second voice, of it belonging to the father of the boy who lived three doors down. It came as a natural shock for the four of us to fit; the boy and I were ruthless in our private Nazi parties for two; my father and Mr. Ronald were secret partners in crime. Though I never knew them to mingle more than the mandatory neighbour “hello,” their fate together was inevitable or even sensible in a perverse light. They were strangers. They were star-crossed lovers.
These things happen, I suppose, just a nasty part of the business.
Looking down where I sat a small girl, I joined the mile-high club alone and got my thrills as an eye on the forehead of the Jolly Green Giant. I found it easy to disregard the death of my foot, the bullet still there many years later.
There was beauty in being a child—a subject strong enough to carry its own. However, being eight years old and addicted to drugs was an idea I remember like a spilled box of Crayola: too stimulating and too much of a mess to make right again. Nothing was so impressive anymore. After all, how can a chocolate bar or a pet goldfish compare to a nice fat blast of crack?
In the closet’s corner, high and chipping teeth, I appreciated the stout lapse of time to sling me from recess to rock in one afternoon. I swam around the exclusive little world milling about in my mind, debating everything and nothing at once. Ringlets of smoke swivelled over my head, and for the first time, I accepted the proposal of “clear” being a colour and “odourless” defining a smell. I wondered if I, too, would kill for a piece of the good. Anyway, what was good, and was it all that good?
With that, I closed my eyes for the pleasant ride and concentrated on the crabapple bump pulsing in the back of my skull. This was where I left myself, in this evening, to dissolve. And I felt a slow eradicating as I took off without my body. Much relief came in forgetting, so I forgot it all, and that was that. I cleaned house, ridding myself of Jamie, ridding myself of me. After all, family buried Jamie as a lone survivor. After all, Jamie was of the forgettable, forgotten by even death’s articulate swoop.
Although somewhere in the world, it’s Jamie who catches me still, never forgetting, and it’s Jamie who catches me still on the run.
Brooke Waitslives in the US, just outside of Dallas, TX. She recently took on creative writing full-time. Crabapples was published in 2010 by Mobius: A Journal of Social Change. She’s currently writing her first novel for publication.