Tommy hadn’t been home in years, returning now only for Mom’s funeral. He slowed as he approached the door. He took the key out of his pocket, put it in the keyhole, took a deep breath, and turned the latch.
“I’m home. Can I have a hot dog before chores and homework?” Tommy called out to the empty house. He turned on the lights and opened the fridge. It was bare. “I guess not.”
Tommy closed the fridge and headed through the living room. He paused to take it in. Same tired furniture. Same worn carpet. A spot on the wall bearing witness to an ancient repair. He moved on to his bedroom.
Mom left all his things just as they had been. Tommy ran his fingers over a constellation of scars in the middle of the hardwood floor.
He went over to the nightstand and opened the drawer. All the old familiar contents were there. The camera. The love letters. The comic books. The pocketknife.
Dad had given Tommy the pocketknife and a lecture when he was a boy. “You can never run around with the blade open,” Dad had said. “Only open it when you’re using it, then close it as soon as you’re done. You can whittle with it.”
“Yeah, like grandpa. You should ask him to teach you. He’d like that. And never, ever, threaten anyone with it—unless they are threatening you and there is absolutely no other way. Life or death.”
“Like the time a bear tried to kill grandpa and he stabbed it?”
Dad had chuckled. “That might be a tall tale, but yeah. Like that.”
Much later Tommy and Grandpa were whittling when Tommy asked him about the bear. “Well, you best not try to slay no bear, nor any monster, until you’re a sight bigger than you are now.”
Tommy picked through the drawer again. A collectible comic book, mint condition, still in its plastic holder. Dad used to fly around the country, installing communications systems. When he came home Dad would take Tommy to a store where Tommy would rummage through the rotating display rack of comics. This was his favorite comic book, and the first one he remembered Dad buying him.
He once had quite a stash of comic books. He used to trade or sell comics with friends who were also into collecting them. Tommy had bargained away all the good ones, saving only this favorite. The last batch of truly worthy issues he had sold to friends for some prom night cash.
In the back of the drawer he found his old instant camera. The last time he used the camera he was taking pictures of Denise. Hadn’t used the camera since. Apparently, no one else had either. It still had five exposures left.
Strewn about were a few love letters. He picked up one of the letters and started to open it but checked himself and put it back. He knew every word in it by heart, and re-reading now was about the last thing he needed. The last time he had read the love letter he had been riding the bus home from high school.
Tommy was on the bus, thumbing through a comic book. It wasn’t a great comic. Most of his coolest ones he had sold to a friend earlier in the day, and he ended up with this one as boot in the transaction.
He skimmed the pages. Too much onomatopoeia. “Boom! Bam! Pow!”
A thud. No onomatopoeia. Sharp pain. His ear was on fire accompanied by an echoing ringing. Bob Harris was at it again; flicking his finger off his thumb, hitting the back of Tommy’s ear like a catapult.
“Hey, cut it out asshole.”
“Or what, you will tell mommy?”
Tommy glared at Bob before turning back around and giving his attention again to his comic book. A catapult shot hit the other ear.
Tommy shot around, raising his forearm. “Fucking cut it out!”
“Watcha reading? Winnie the Pooh?”
“Oh yeah, I’m supposed to give you this.” Bob handed Tommy a piece of paper, folded like an origami envelope. Denise was friends with Bob’s sister, who must have passed the letter to Bob. But why pass it along this route? Why not just pass it along in class, like always? Tommy untucked the flap and unfolded the letter.
Tommy, I have given this a lot of thought. You are a great guy and I hope we can still be friends, but we are seniors and will be going in different directions soon, so maybe it is best for both us to have more freedom.
Anyway, please don’t make any more plans for the prom. We won’t be seeing each other that way anymore.
Tommy folded the letter in a flash to prevent prying eyes from seeing its contents. He tried to act cool like everything was okay.
The bus stopped and the driver looked this way then that to cross the busy street over to Tommy’s block. The bus crossed then stopped at the corner and Tommy got up to get off the bus.
“Guess you’ll be needing a new prom date,” Bob Harris taunted as Tommy landed on the sidewalk. Great. That asshole had read the letter.
He went inside the house and passed through the kitchen. His mom called out from another room, “You want a hot dog?”
“Sure, mom,” Tommy muttered. He trudged into his room and closed the door.
After tossing the letter into the nightstand drawer with the others, he grabbed the instant photos of Denise and the pocketknife.
He sat on the floor and spread the Denise photo collage in front of him. Reminiscing over the photos one-by-one, his eyes welled up more with each image. Upon reaching the last one he was full-on balling, tears rolling off the tip of his nose, dripping onto the floor in a steady stream.
He unfolded the pocketknife and stabbed the first photo he had perused moments earlier, burying the knife in Denise’s face. He raked the knife through the photo, slashing Denise to shreds, and repeated the destruction with the rest of the photos until the entire set was a pile of confetti. The task completed, Tommy promptly folded the pocketknife and put it away.
“Hot dog’s almost ready,” his mom called from the kitchen.
“Be out in a minute.”
Tommy scooped up the pieces of confetti and dumped them his garbage can. A series of slashes marked the floor. Tommy squatted over the marks and ran his flattened hand over them. How was he going to explain this?
He went into his bathroom, splashed his face with water, and dried off. Staring at himself in the mirror, he sighed and regained his composure before joining Mom in the kitchen.
She served him a plate of hot dog and chips when she caught a look at his face.
“What the matter?”
“Uh…well, it’s just girl trouble, Mom. Don’t worry about it.”
“Oh, dear. I thought you and Denise were getting on well.”
“I thought so, too. Anyway…we are not getting on at all now, so….,” Tommy said as he shrugged.
“Ohhh, that’s too bad. Well, your dad is coming home tomorrow. He might take us someplace nice, if he’s not too tired or jetlagged.”
“Or too drunk,” Tommy said under his breathe. His mom looked at him. He looked away.
“Yeah, that should be cool. Thanks for the hot dog. I’ll finish it later. Got some homework to do.”
The next day Tommy brought the pocketknife with him to school. He knew he shouldn’t, but it might be useful for barter. He didn’t need prom cash now and wanted his comic books back. The knife might sweeten the pot enough to close a deal.
No dice. Everyone knew Tommy was the resident expert on comics. If he wanted his books back only one day later, he must have realized he had made a mistake. Buyer’s remorse. The offer to throw in a cool knife only confirmed suspicions.
Back on the bus, Tommy was lost in his thoughts. He had managed to casually avoid Denise all day, which was good. No awkward moments. He fondled the knife in his jacket pocket. Oh, well. Even though he would rather have had the cool comics back, he still had the cash; and, he treasured the knife, too. Maybe it was for the best.
Thud. “Cut that shit out, man,” Tommy said over his shoulder. He gripped the knife in his pocket tighter. The bus approached the busy intersection.
Thud. “Fucking cut it out!” The bus stopped.
“Hey, I’m thinking of taking Denise to the prom now that she is available. What do you think about, that Tommy boy?”
The bus driver looked this way, then that.
Tommy shot around. He raised up on his knees. He put Bob in a headlock. He took his other hand out of his pocket. He pounded Bob; a river dance on Bob’s head and neck.
Tommy released Bob and darted to the front of the bus. As the bus came to a stop, the burly driver leaned over into the aisle, blocking Tommy. He stabbed the air with his finger, marking his words. “I saw that. You’re on report.”
Tommy gripped the knife in his pocket. It was still there. Good.
“You know you don’t come up here until we’ve crossed that arterial. I’ve warned you about that. I’m writing you up.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry.”
Tommy got off the bus and walked up the driveway. He could hear a heated argument inside, partially drowned out by the blaring television. The cacophony grew louder the closer he got. He approached the door at a slowing pace as if the sounds were physically resisting him—like someone pushing through thickets.
He passed through the kitchen. “Don’t. No. Don’t,” Mom cried out.
Tommy rounded the corner into the living room. His father held Mom’s blouse in a clenched fist, pinning her against the wall. He raised his other fist behind his head and thrust it forward.
Mom darted her head to the side. The fist missed its mark, punching a hole in the wall instead.
Tommy raced over and tackled his father. His father shoved Tommy with both arms. Tommy fell over backwards, hitting his head on the hardwood.
Darkness. Silence. Then a sound. “This is crazy, folks! Better act fast! This won’t last!” some used car salesman belted out from the television. Tommy opened his eyes.
His father was holding Mom by the throat. She was standing on tiptoes. The back of her head was buried in a cracked picture frame. Mom made gurgling noises. Her feet shimmied and kicked around. Her face was turning blue.
Tommy saw his pocketknife nearby on the floor. No time to think. No time to get help. He opened the knife and held in his clenched fist.
He ran over and did a flying kick into his father’s side, pushing him to the floor. Tommy stood over him, menacing him with the knife raised high in the air. “You ever hurt her again I’ll cut you.”
His father managed to roll over and collect himself. He lumbered through the kitchen and down the hall towards the master suite. Tommy followed from a distance, stopping in the bedroom doorway.
His father collapsed onto the bed like falling timber. The task complete, Tommy folded the knife back and raced to the living room. Mom had managed to get up and about. He grabbed her by the shoulders.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, I think so. Where is he?”
“I think he passed out.”
“Okay, son,” Mom said, whimpering a bit.
“You need to go to a doctor or anything?”
“No, no, no. I’ll be fine.”
Tommy went into his room and sat in front of the scars on the floor, staring at them. His phone rang. Denise. Great. Ah, what the hell? he thought. He answered his phone.
“Hey, listen to me. I know what happened.”
“Uh…what? How could you know what happened?”
“You’ve been avoiding me all day. Bob gave you that fake letter, didn’t he? And you fell for that? Grow. Up. Don’t be so gullible. You think I’m gonna ditch you? And so close to prom, when that’s all we’ve both talked about?”
“Um, well yeah, he kinda gave me a letter, but—”
“Kinda? What do you mean kinda? He did. I knew it. His sister’s got lots of stuff in my handwriting, and he took some of it and mimicked me. She caught on to him and ratted him out to me.”
“Uh, sorry. I guess I got a little confused.”
“I forgive you. It’s his fault, anyway. Why should we let him win his stupid, immature game? Just be smarter next time. And don’t be rash. Don’t get into a fight with him over it. Fighting isn’t worth it. Okay? Promise?”
“Yeah, yeah. Of course. I promise. Hey, uh, I gotta go. Got some family stuff to deal with. Call you back a little later.”
“Sure. Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
Tommy took the pocketknife out and looked it over, turning this way and that. He opened the nightstand drawer and tossed the knife in. He took a long look at the knife and said, “I hope I never see you again.” He closed the drawer.