I WAKE UP TO A QUIET WORLD.
There’s this stillness so strong that I can feel it in the hairs on the backs of my arms, and I can right away tell that this quiet is the sound of a million things and fourteen bodies not here and one boy breathing alone.
I open my eyes.
I can’t believe I slept.
I sit up and swing my feet to the floor. I’m wearing my shoes, and I’m staring at them like I don’t recognize them, but they’re the shoes I wear all the time, these black canvas high-tops from Target. My mom bought them for me. I have that kind of mom.
I can feel how cold the tile is. I can feel it through my shoes.
I make kissing noises with my mouth. Nothing answers. My brain is telling me, my brain has been telling me for every single second since I woke up, exactly what is different, but I am not going to think it, I won’t think it, because they’re all just hiding or upstairs. They’re not gone. The only thing in the whole world I am looking at is my shoes, because everything else is exactly how it’s supposed to be, because they’re not gone.
But this, this is wrong. That I’m wearing shoes. That I slept in my shoes. I think it says something about you when you don’t even untie your shoes to try to go to bed. I think it’s a dead giveaway that you are a zombie. If there is a line between zombie and garden-variety insomniac, that line is a shoelace.
I got the word “zombie” from my brother Todd. He calls me “zombie,” sometimes, when he comes home from work at three in the morning—Todd is so old, old enough to work night shifts and drink coffee without sugar—and comes down to the basement to check on me. He walks slowly, one hand on the banister, a page of the newspaper crinkling in his hand. He won’t flick on the light, just in case I’m asleep, and there I am, I’m on the couch, a cat on each of my shoulders and a man with a small penis on the TV telling me how he became a man with a big penis, and I can too. “Zombie,” Todd will say softly, a hand on top of my head. “Go to sleep.”
Todd has this way of being affectionate that I see but usually don’t feel.
I say, “Someday I might need this.”
“The penis product?”
“Yes.” Maybe not. I think my glory days are behind me. I am fifteen years old, and all I have is the vague hope that, someday, someone somewhere will once again care about my penis and whether it is big or small.
The cats don’t care. Neither do my four dogs, my three rabbits, my guinea pig, or even the bird I call Flamingo because he stands on one leg when he drinks, even though that isn’t his real name, which is Fernando.
They don’t care. And even if they did, they’re not here. I can’t avoid that fact any longer.
I am the vaguest of vague hopes of a deflated heart.
I look around the basement, where I sleep now. My alarm goes off, even though I’m already up. The animals should be scuffling around now that they hear I’m awake, mewing, rubbing against my legs, and whining for food. This morning, the alarm is set for five thirty for school, and my bedroom is a silent, frozen meat locker because the animals are gone.
Here’s what happened, my parents explain, weary over cups of coffee, cops come and gone, all while I was asleep.
What happened is that I slept.
I slept through a break-in and a break-out, but I couldn’t sleep through the quiet afterward. This has to be a metaphor for something, but I can’t think, it’s too quiet.
Broken window, jimmied locks. They took the upstairs TV and parts of the stereo. They left all the doors open. The house is as cold as October. The animals are gone.
It was a freak accident. Freak things happen. I should be used to that by now. Freaks freaks freaks.
Todd was the one to come home and discover the damage. My parents slept through it too. This house is too big.
I say, “But the break-in must have been hours ago.”
My mother nods a bit.
I say, “Why didn’t I wake up as soon as the animals escaped?”
My mom doesn’t understand what I’m talking about, but this isn’t making sense to me. None of it is. Break-ins aren’t supposed to happen to us. We live in a nice neighborhood in a nice suburb. They’re supposed to happen to other people. I am supposed to be so tied to the happiness and the comfort of those animals that I can’t sleep until every single one is fed, cleaned, hugged. Maybe if I find enough flaws in this, I can make it so it never happened.
This couldn’t have happened.
At night, Sandwich and Carolina and Zebra sleep down at my feet. Flamingo goes quiet as soon as I put a sheet over his cage. Peggy snuggles in between my arm and my body. Caramel won’t settle down until he’s tried and failed, at least four or five times, to fall asleep right on my face. Shamrock always sleeps on the couch downstairs, no matter how many times I try to settle him on the bed with me, and Marigold has a spot under the window that she really likes, but sometimes she sleeps in her kennel instead, and I can never find Michelangelo in the morning and it always scares me, but he always turns up in my laundry basket or in the box with my tapes or under the bed, or sometimes he sneaks upstairs and sleeps with Todd, and the five others sleep all on top of each other in the corner on top of the extra comforter, but I checked all of those places this morning—every single one—and they’re all gone, gone, gone.
Mom always tried to open windows because of the smell, but I’d stop her because I was afraid they would escape. Every day I breathe in feathers and dander and urine so they will not escape.
My mother sometimes curls her hand into a loose fist and presses her knuckles against my cheek. When she does, I smell her lotion, always lemongrass. Todd will do something similar, but it feels different, more urgent, when he does.
The animals. They were with me when I fell asleep last night. I didn’t notice I was sleeping in my shoes, and I didn’t notice when they left.
This is why I need more sleep. This is how things slip through my fingers.
My head is spinning with fourteen names I didn’t protect.
“We’ll find them, Craig,” Mom says, with a hand on the back of my head. “They were probably just scared from the noise. They’ll come back.”
“They should have stayed in the basement,” I whisper. “Why did they run away?”
Why were a few open doors enough incentive for them to leave?
I shouldn’t have fallen asleep. I suck.
“We’ll put up posters, Craig, okay?” Mom says. Like she doesn’t have enough to worry about and people to call— insurance companies, someone to fix the window, and her mother to assure her that being this close to D.C. really doesn’t mean we’re going to die. It’s been thirteen months, almost, since the terrorist attacks, and we’re still convinced that any mishap means someone will steer a plane into one of our buildings.
We don’t say that out loud.
Usually this time in the morning, I take all the different kinds of food and I fill all the bowls. They come running, tripping over themselves, rubbing against me, nipping my face and my hands like I am the food, like I just poured myself into a bowl and offered myself to them. Then I clean the litter boxes and the cages and take the dogs out for a walk. I can do this all really, really quickly, after a year of practice.
Mom helps, usually, and sometimes I hear her counting under her breath, or staring at one of the animals, trying to figure out if one is new—sometimes yes, sometimes no.
The deal Mom and I have is no new animals. The deal is I don’t have to give them away, I don’t have to see a therapist, but I can’t have any more animals. I don’t want a therapist because therapists are stupid, and I am not crazy.
And the truth is it’s not my fault. The animals find me. A kitten behind a Dumpster, a rabbit the girl at school can’t keep. A dog too old for anyone to want. I just hope they find me again now that they’re gone.
Part of the deal was also that Mom got to name a few of the newer ones, which is how I ended up with a few with really girly names.
But I love them. I tell them all the time. I’ll pick Hail up and cuddle him to my face in that way that makes his ears get all twitchy. I’ll make loose fists and hold them up to Marigold and Jupiter’s cheeks. They’ll lick my knuckles. “I love you,” I tell them. It’s always been really easy for me to say. I’ve never been one of those people who can’t say it.
It’s October 4th. Just starting to get cold, but it gets cold fast around here.
God, I hope they’re okay.
I’m up way too early now that I don’t have to feed the animals, but I don’t know what else to do but get dressed and get ready for school. It takes like two minutes, and now what?
A year ago, back when it was still 2001 . . .
Back when we still clung . . .
Back when I slept upstairs . . .
There was a boy.
A very, very, very important boy.
Now . . .
Lio. I knew how it was spelled before I ever heard it out loud. It sounds normal, like Leo, but it looks so special. I love that.
I started talking to Lio back in June. I’m this thing for my school called an ambassador, which basically means I get good grades and I don’t smoke, so they give out my email and a little bit about me to incoming students so I can gush about how cool this place is or something like that.
He sent me a message. He said he’s about to move here, he’s going to be at my school, we’re the same age, and this is so creepy stalker, but you like Jefferson Airplane and I like Jefferson Airplane too, so cool, do you think we could IM sometime?
So he did and we are and I do and we did.
Lio is, to sum him up quickly, a koala. I realized that pretty early on.
He gets good grades, but he smokes, so he could never be an ambassador. There are a few reasons it’s really, really stupid for Lio to smoke, but that doesn’t seem to stop him. I don’t know him well enough to admit that it scares me to death. And really, it seems like everything scares me to death now, so I’ve learned to shut up about it.
He’s not a boy to me, not yet, because boy implies some kind of intimacy, but Lio is a boy in the natural sense of the word, at least I assume so, since I’ve never seen him with his clothes off and barely with his coat off, to be honest. Though I can imagine. And sometimes I do. Oh, God.
He wears a lot of hats. That’s how we met for real, once his family moved here. I thought he’d come looking for me as soon as school started, but I couldn’t find him anywhere, which was immediately a shame, because I was beginning to get sick of eating my lunch alone every day.
Then Ms. Hoole made both of us take our hats off in honors precalculus last month, on the third day of school.
“Lio, Craig,” she said. “Your hats, present them here.” And of course I didn’t give a shit about my hat, because I had found Lio.
Lio didn’t say anything, but his eyes said, bitch, and when he took his hat off I could see his hair was a chopped-up mess of four different colors, all of them muted and faded and fraying. Lio has a head like an old couch.
After class, he didn’t go up to collect his hat, so I got both and brought his to him. He was rushing down the hallway, unlit cigarette between his fingers.
I said, “Lio?”
He looked at me and nodded.
I smiled a bit. “You weren’t listening? I’m Craig.”
He bit his bottom lip like he was trying not to laugh, but not in a bad way. In a really, really warm way, and I could tell because his eyes were locked onto mine.
There was a whole mess of people and he was still walking, but he kept looking at me.
“I like your hair,” I told him, because it was difficult not to make some sort of comment.
Lio leaned against the wall and studied me. And even though I know now that Lio’s really uncomfortable without a hat on, and he was really mad at Ms. Hoole for taking it and really mad at himself for being too afraid of talking to go up and ask for it back, he didn’t pull the hat back on right away. He kept it crumpled up in his hand and he watched me instead.
And he covered his mouth a little and he smiled.
So here are some facts about Lio:
He has either five or six older sisters, I can’t remember, and one younger sister, and they are all very nice and love him a lot and call him nearly every day, except for his little sister, Michelle, and the youngest of the older sisters, Jasper, who are in middle school and high school, respectively, and therefore live with him and therefore only call him when he’s in trouble or they want to borrow his clothes. I’ve only met Jasper. She is a senior, and much prettier than Lio. They all have cell phones, every single one of them, because they are from New York, and Lio says everyone has them there, and I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m really jealous.
He likes Colin Farrell, so when that movie Phone Booth comes out next month, we’re going to go see it together. I don’t know if this is a date or what, but I’ve already decided that I’m going to pay, and if he tries to protest I’m going to give him this smile and be like “No, no, let me.”
He used to be a cancer kid—bald, skinny, mouth sores, leukemia. That was when he was five until he was seven, I think. He got to go to Alaska to see polar bears because of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He said one time that the thing about cancer kids is no one knows what to do with them if they don’t die. He’s fine now, but he shouldn’t be smoking cigarettes. He had a twin brother who died.
Today I come up to Lio’s locker and he nods to me. The principal gave us American flags to put up on our lockers on September 11th, for the anniversary. Most of us put them up, but we also took them down again afterward, because they were cheap and flimsy and because it’s been a year and patriotism is lame again. Lio still has his on his locker, but three weeks later it’s started to fray. My father gave his school flags too. He’s an elementary school principal. My mother is a social worker. My family is a little adorable.
Lio’s flag flaps while he roots through his locker. He takes out a very small cage and hands it to me. I’m excited for a minute, thinking he’s found one of the animals, maybe Peggy, the guinea pig. Even though there’s no way she could fit in there, I’m still hoping, because maybe maybe maybe. But it’s a small white mouse. Really, really pretty.
But it makes my head immediately list everyone that I’ve lost.
Four dogs: Jupiter, Casablanca, Kremlin, Marigold.
Five cats: Beaumont, Zebra, Shamrock, Sandwich, Caramel.
One bird: Fernando.
Three rabbits: Carolina, Hail, Michelangelo.
A guinea pig: Peggy.
“Made me think of you,” he says, softly.
Because Lio says so few words, every single one has deep, metaphorical, cosmic significance in my life. And my words are like pennies.
I talk to the mouse very quietly on my way back to my locker. I think I’ll name her Zippers. I’m not sure why. I’m never sure why I choose the names I do. Maybe I should let Mom handle all of them, although she’d probably name this one Princess or something.
I should ask Lio what he’d like her to be named. Or where he got her. He doesn’t know about the deal I have with my mom, and I feel no need to tell him.
I set her cage on top of my books.
Lio’s there a minute later. He bites his thumbnail and fusses with his hat. His hair’s still a mess, but it has nothing to do with the cancer. He’s just sort of a psycho with his hair.
“My therapist says I’m a little fucked up,” he explained to me one time, when I barely knew him, and that explanation terrified and intrigued me all at the same time. He sniffled and rubbed his nose. “Yeah.”
Once I told him therapy is bullshit and he seemed offended, so I don’t tell him that anymore, even though I still believe it.
“My animals are gone,” I tell him now.
He looks up.
“Someone broke into my house last night. They broke the windows and left all the doors open, and all my animals left. They just ran out the doors or something . . .”
He watches me. Sometimes he does this, looks at me when I’m in the middle of talking, and it’s like he’s interrupting without saying a word, because I can’t think with those eyes all blue on me. I can’t think of anything else to say, and it makes me want to cry. Usually I can handle this, because I’m only talking about my brother or a class or my day. But right now it’s a little more than I can stand.
I need Lio to say something.
But he doesn’t. He reaches out and touches the tip of my finger with the tip of his finger.
He says, “Did you look under the couch?”
Even stuff like that sounds profound from him, and I hate that all I can do is nod while I’m trying to get my voice back, because I always like to give Lio more of a response when he talks to me, since it’s so hard to get words out of him.
“Yeah,” I say eventually. “We looked under the couch.”
Lio’s never seen my animals because he’s never been to my house, but he’s heard enough about them. Plus there are pictures of them all over my locker. I touch a Polaroid of Jemeena, this excellent hamster I had who died a few months ago. I couldn’t bring myself to get any more hamsters after her.
I look at Lio.
I haven’t been to Lio’s place either. He says it’s still full of boxes, because their apartment is so big that they don’t even notice them taking up space. I think he’s just used to his old tiny apartment in New York.
“I need to put up posters after school,” I tell Lio. “Will you come help me?”
“Thanks.” The bell goes off and I close my locker door. “I hope they’re still alive.”
“It’s not cold yet.”
He probably wouldn’t say that if he’d gone a whole night with wind pouring into his house. Getting out of the shower felt like a punishment. I say, “I know. They could probably have survived last night, I hope. What if maybe someone stole them off the street? I hope not.” I breathe out.
He nods a little. “We’ll find them.”
We start walking to class, and this girl passing us waves to Lio, this tall blond girl with glasses and a pretty smile.
I say, “She’d be really hot if she were a boy.”
Lio watches her go and nods slowly. I wish I knew what that meant. It would be something else to think about.
Todd is at my locker after second period. He substitute teaches here sometimes, so it’s not that weird to see him, even though I didn’t know he was working today. The substitute teaching thing isn’t his real job. Really, he works nights at a suicide hotline, which pays even less than substitute teaching. He’s taking classes to get his masters in environmental science. Then he’s going to save us all before the world explodes.
He holds up a paper bag. “You forgot your lunch.”
This is why people need sleep. “Thanks,” I say. I bet Mom made him bring it to me. She’s pretty intense about lunch. She still packs mine every day, because she wants me to get a lot of vitamins or whatever. I usually end up giving half of it to Lio and eating chips instead. I’m not going to tell Todd that.
“You doing okay?” he asks.
He says, “Just checking in,” and he gives me a hug with one arm and then leaves. I open my lunch bag like I think there’s going to be some explanation of why he was so affectionate, I guess because I wish it were something better than because he feels sorry for you and your lost animals. But it’s just an apple and a sandwich and a bag of walnuts. I rip off a bit of the apple for Zippers and stuff everything else into my locker before I head off to my next class.
Lio is against the wall, standing with some girls that he is half friends with. It’s probably hard to be friends with a kid that quiet, but I wouldn’t know, because it’s been very easy for me to be whatever Lio and I are.
He smiles at me with the corner of his mouth when I walk up. I give him the smallest little kick above his shoe.
“Has Lio been entertaining you with his witty banter?” I ask.
The girls look uncomfortable, like they think maybe I’m being mean. Lio looks away from me, but his smile is a little bigger now. Heh. I couldn’t even tell you what any of these girls looks like, or whether I’d like any of them if they were boys.
Silver Spring is a half city in the same way Lio is a half koala. Lately they’ve been developing it more and more—sticking in Whole Foods and rich hippie stuff like that, and they started redoing the metro station so it’s easier to get downtown, which my parents say doesn’t matter because there’s no way I’m riding the metro alone until I stop tripping over my feet and talking to strangers. But I guess it’s okay as long as I’m with Lio. I didn’t ask.
We’re at the Glenmont station now, me and Lio, to put up signs. MANY MISSING PETS. DOGS, CATS, SMALL ANIMALS. PLEASE CALL. REWARD.
A GUINEA PIG
I don’t know what I’m going to do about a reward. The mouse Lio gave me makes tiny chirping noises in my backpack. I make sure she’s safe in there, and she gets another bit of apple for being so good all day.
In the corner a man plays a harmonica, but he has an empty guitar case in front of him to collect money. He looks sort of like Lio—very small with big hands, a little grungy.
Lio isn’t exactly grungy, but he’s definitely more hardcore something than I am. At least, he’s into ironic T-shirts—the one he’s wearing now has a picture of a football with SOCCER over it—and jeans that sit too low on his hips. Usually black ones. I’m either preppier or lazier. I still wear the kind of clothes my mom said looked good on me when I was ten. Except I’ve grown nearly a foot since then, so I look older than fifteen, but I feel younger, and I think that’s a big source of trouble for me.
It’s five o’clock, and this is the last station we’re covering today. Our hands are sore from stapling up posters, and we’re still a little red because one of the guards at Shady Grove yelled at us and asked us if we had a permit or something. At every other station, we were left alone. It figures. I’ve never met a nice person at Shady Grove, ever.
We go up the escalator and into the outdoor area underneath the awning. “We could catch a bus,” Lio says, though I don’t know why, because I assume we’re going to get on the metro and go back to Forest Glen, where I live, and he already said his dad would pick him up, no problem. I would be excited about the idea that he’s coming home with me if it didn’t mean that he was going to see my house without animals, so I made up some lie about how my parents don’t let me invite friends in when they’re not there so we’ll just have to wait on the porch until his dad gets there, and I think maybe he knew I was lying and maybe he thinks I don’t want him there. But it’s just because of the animals. That’s all it is.
It’s just that I haven’t invited anyone in for a really long time, I guess.
Anyway, there’s no reason either of us should catch a bus.
Then he says, “We could get on a bus and go really far away.”
I put my hand on his back. “Like New York?”
“Like outer space.” He stiffens a little under my hand, so I take it away.
I try not to think about it, but I really don’t know what I’m doing with Lio. I guess we’re friends, sort of, except we don’t really talk. We’re the closest either one of us has to a friend, because I can’t stand most people anymore and Lio left all the people who were used to him in New York, and it’s pretty damn depressing until you consider that I really like being with Lio, and I hope he likes being with me. And we do spend a lot of time together. I don’t know if Lio’s into boys. It seems like a stupid question, because I don’t know what difference the answer will make. The question isn’t whether he’s into boys. The question is if he’s into me. I know lots of gay boys, after all—I’m in drama club—but here I am without a boyfriend.
It’s starting to get dark. If the clocks had changed already, it would be Todd-coffee black out here by now. I guess we’re lucky.
There are two guys, definitely older than us, slumming on the gate that separates the metro station from the church. Actually, they’re not slumming. One of them is sitting on the gate and the other is swinging it back and forth, like he’s rocking him to sleep. Except they’re laughing.
A part of me loves Glenmont. I love the water tower here so much more than the one back at Forest Glen, which is short and fat and always looks like it’s watching everything. Here, everything’s dirty in a beautiful way. Grimy, I guess, is the word I’m looking for. Everything’s covered and maybe protected by a layer of grime. I wish we went to school here instead of in Forest Glen, where all the houses and schools are tucked into little neighborhoods, like we have to hide. My school and my house are both in that one part of town, so it’s like I can’t ever get out of it.
“There’s no way the animals would have gotten this far,” I say. “They don’t even know how to ride the metro. We should just go home and look there.”
So we head back and get off the metro at Forest Glen and start walking toward my house. Todd’s car is in the driveway. There goes my home-alone excuse.
“My brother can drive you home,” I say.
He shakes his head. “Dad’s coming at five fifteen.”
“And it’s, um, a little past five fifteen.”
I guess that’s good, because I don’t think either he or Todd would really enjoy being stuck in a car together. Lio isn’t known for responding well to normal social cues, never mind Todd’s neurotic ones.
I guess I should invite Lio inside while we’re waiting. That’s not a big deal. It’s just into the kitchen.
Lio says, “Craig.”
I look up as he scurries under a bush and comes out with a little white kitten. Sandwich.
She’s the newest of my animals. I was at the vet picking up antibiotics for Marigold, and she was there in a little box with four sisters, her eyes begging me, hold me hold me hold me, and I’ve never been able to resist that, ever, and now I take her from Lio and I have her. She’s home. She didn’t go far. She was just waiting for me.
“Yours?” he asks.
I nod, because I’m not sure I can talk right now, or that I could say anything but Sandwich’s name if I did. She’s so dirty, and little bits of sticks cling to her. She looks up at me and mews again. I pet her cheek with my thumb, and then I give Lio a big smile.
He strokes her head for a minute, then says to me, very quietly, “Happy?”
He leans in and kisses me.
It’s soft and small. It’s 5:20 p.m.
My parents decide we need to have BLTs with our pork chops in honor of Sandwich’s return. It’s weird, because we usually eat in front of the TV, but now we’re all sitting at the table together, and it’s so quiet without the news in the background or the animals underfoot.
Sandwich paws at my shoelace.
My father has this way of chewing that makes it look like a job. It’s like he’s considering every muscle in his jaw every time he uses it, like he’s constantly reevaluating to make sure he’s working at the right pace and pressure. When he was sixteen—only a year older than me, but when I imagine it he always looks twenty-five—he was a big-shot football player who got sidelined with a major head injury and had to do rehab and staples in his head and all of it. He and Lio should start a club of people who shouldn’t be alive, and Mom and I can start a club of people who shouldn’t be jealous but are, a little, because we will never really understand. My ex-boyfriend could be in that second club too. Or maybe he’s my boyfriend. This isn’t the kind of thing I want to think about.
Anyway, Dad says he recovered all the way, and Mom didn’t meet him until years afterward, so we have to take his word for it, but whenever he does something weird like chew like a trash compactor or leave his keys in the refrigerator, I always picture these football-shaped neurons on his head struggling to connect to each other.
I can’t believe Lio kissed me. Well, I can, but I think it’s weird that he asked me “Happy?” first. If I had said no, would he have kissed me? Was it a reward for being happy, the same way I reward him when he talks? Was he thanking me for being happy?
It’s been ten months since my last kiss. I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve really been happy, but ten months is a good guess.
Todd rubs the skin between his eyes. I think his head is still bothering him.
Mom didn’t have any luck finding the animals, but we’re going to go back out tonight after dinner and keep looking. Mom says if Sandwich was out there, safe, the others must be too.
Dad says, “It’s probably for the best.”
He says, “This isn’t a barn, Craig. Maybe now you’ll get out of the house, hmm? Start going out with your friends again.”
“I don’t have any friends.”
“Are there any nice boys at school?” he says, in that way, and I guess I should be thankful that he says this no differently from how he asks Todd about girls at work, but I’m not, I just want him to pretend I’m a eunuch or something, especially since I pretty much am at this point, anyway.
Mom gives him a stern look. “We’ll find them.” She looks at me. “You know, your friend could have stayed for dinner.” Now she’s totally giving me a chance to tell her that Lio’s more than a friend, and I have no idea what to say. The fact that my parents are entirely okay with my homosexuality makes talking about it kind of difficult, because when you’re gay and single the only thing you have going for you is imagined shock value. The reality is that it’s pretty boring to be like, hey, parents, I’m gay, and there’s absolutely no reason for you to give a shit right now.
So I just say, “That’s okay,” and concentrate on cutting my pork chop.
And to be honest, calling Lio my friend seems wrong, probably because I don’t remember, really, how to have friends. That sounds so pathetic, because I used to have friends, but then I had a boyfriend and sort of ignored everybody, and then after the boyfriend exploded I stopped being fun and started blowing people off when they asked me to hang out. It’s not like everyone hates me, and I have people to talk to in classes but not once we’re out in the halls, those sorts of friends. And I spend a lot of evenings here with the animals, and they were enough, in a way my parents could never appreciate and could barely tolerate.
Now what? Now I don’t know, I guess maybe Lio’s my new animal. And Sandwich, of course. And Zipper. I should make a picture book about us or something. Two teenage boys and two animals—this is the 2002 version of the blended family.
I can’t believe I’m thinking of him as a familial candidate. I mean, come on, I barely know the kid. What do we even do together? Sometimes we go skateboarding because, I don’t know, I guess we think we’re eleven. He smokes clove cigarettes and I pretend I don’t hate the smell. We drink Slurpees and . . . we do stuff like push each other on gates, I guess.
I wish I knew what was going on.
I really can’t get into this right now. I probably shouldn’t have kissed him back. But I’ve sort of wanted to kiss him ever since I saw his fucked-up hair that day in Ms. Hoole’s class, and really since the conversation right after, when he told me he cuts it when he’s nervous, and I immediately wanted to know everything in the whole world that makes him nervous, and everything in the whole world about him.
I should have invited him to stay tonight. He’d fit well into this silence at the dinner table. I think it’s bad when I’m allowed to dwell in my head for this long. Someone should be dragging me out into conversation, but usually it’s someone on TV and tonight there’s no TV.
It’s not that we don’t get along—my parents and my brother and me—it’s that we don’t have a whole lot in common, and we all have these different ideas of how to use this house and this family. My dad wants a house full of books and rousing dinner-table discussions about whether or not Lolita was a slut. My mom is already talking about arranging a Secret Santa thing among the four of us, won’t that be fun? My brother wants this to be his airport, his temporary base in all his running around, complete with full-service restaurant and four-dollar massages, and he’ll pay for us by the hour, no problem, if we will just treat him as well as he deserves. But we never do, even I know that.
And I want something to take care of.
We listen to Dad squeak his knife around for a minute. It’s brutal. Todd clears his throat, then he stands up and turns on the radio. He plunks it down in the center of the table like it’s something for us to eat.
My father sighs, a little.
Todd tunes the radio to a news station and settles back into his green beans. The radio switches from weather to local news. A few car accidents, a stabbing, and two shootings, both in Glenmont. One was through the window of this craft store, Michael’s, about a quarter mile from the Glenmont metro. The bullet didn’t hit anyone. An hour later and two miles away, a bullet did—someone in the parking lot of the Shopper’s Food Warehouse. He’s dead.
My father shakes his head while he drinks.
“Weird it made the news,” Todd said. “People get shot all the time.”
My father says, “Not while they’re shopping,” which is pretty representative of his world view. My dad’s old enough that even September 11th didn’t change his mind that violence only happens to violent people. The only people who get stabbed are in gangs. The only people who get shot, shot someone else first. As much as my bleeding heart wants to convince him this is wrong, the truth is most of the violence here is revenge-driven or gang-related. I should know, I mean, I go to public school.
The first shooting was at 5:20. That was when Lio kissed me, that was the exact minute. I know because I checked my watch afterward because I wanted to see how long it lasted, then I realized I hadn’t checked my watch before he kissed me, so I’d never know. But I don’t think it was very long, really.
No one died in the 5:20 shooting, which would have been kind of crazy romantic in this horrible way, and it would have given me an excuse to call him. But I don’t think he would like the symbolism of “so, we’re just a like a bullet that didn’t hit anybody” any more than I do.
God, I hope he wouldn’t like it any more than I do.
My mom finishes her dinner and stands up. “Ready, Craig?”
I say “Yeah,” and pull on my jacket. I hope I don’t get shot. That’s pretty weird. I’ve never thought anything like that before. That kiss has me all screwed up.
We swing our flashlights back and forth, whistling and calling out names. Mom checks behind bushes and under the railing of the walkway to the metro. There’s a couple making out on the bridge above us. I think it’s one boy and one girl. Todd swears that he saw two homeless people having sex up there once—one boy and one girl.
“There are a lot of frogs here,” I say. “We could get a frog.”
She laughs in this way that says she doesn’t know if I’m kidding.
“I only go for the fuzzy ones,” I tell her.
I take my comment out of context in my head and giggle a little. I only go for the fuzzy ones. Heh. This is a gross thing to be laughing about in front of your mom.
She’s wearing the brown patchwork jacket I got her a million Christmases ago. She blows on her hands and runs them through her hair. “I hope we find Casablanca,” she says. “She’s my favorite.” Casablanca is a Labrador retriever. She’s old and missing a leg.
“We’ll find her,” I say. “She’s easy. Easy to describe in posters and stuff. Easy to hear coming.”
But the cold is making my nose run and making it a little hard to breathe, and right now nothing sounds very easy.
I wipe my nose.
Mom flicks her flashlight beam to me, and I look away quickly. “It’s cold,” I say stupidly, and crunch some of the leaves on the ground. It’s not like she’d get upset if I were crying. I cry like three times a day, so it’s the opposite of a big deal. It’d be like getting concerned every time I eat a meal.
Mom says, “I called the shelter this morning. They have all their descriptions, and they’re all looking out, just waiting for someone to bring them in.”
She says, “I’m so sorry this happened, sweetheart.”
“We’re going to find them. We’re going to find all of them. That’s right, yeah?”
“Yes.” Mom cups her hand around the back of my head. “That’s right.”
I felt better when Lio comforted me, but it’s still nice to be here for a minute, with Mom, searching for animals that she never even wanted.
We find Jupiter, who’s this amazing Chihuahua-pug mix, trying to pick a fight with some bigger dogs a few blocks away. We start to head home with him, and my heart is pounding against his little body, and then we find Caramel, and just when everything feels so, so amazing, we find my parakeet, Fernando, except he’s dead.
It’s like a punch in the chest.
But Caramel and Jupiter scurry out of my arms as soon as we’re home and go rub up against the couch and chew on the rug, and everything feels a little more possible again.
I leave them for a minute to go outside. I make a cross out of sticks and scratch Fernando’s name in the dirt, then I cross it out and write Flamingo instead. He would have liked that.
But he isn’t buried here. I didn’t move his body from where we found it by the side of the road. I was too scared. I didn’t want to touch it. I suck.
We’re still missing:
A guinea pig.
I close my eyes and listen to the animals inside my head and the memory of his chirping and the silence all the way around me.