As soon as I step in through the door, Ethan, Andy, and Tony are hollering at me from the bar.
“John! The man, the myth, the legend!”
“Welcome home buddy!”
“Let me buy you a drink!”
By the time I walk up to them, there’s a shot with my name on it sitting on the bar. They each have one, too.
“To having our John back with us!” Ethan says ceremoniously.
“Cheers!” Andy yells out.
“To friendship!” Tony adds.
“To drinking!” I close out our circle.
“So, how was it down there?” Ethan asks eagerly, as soon as the empty shot glasses hit the bar.
“Eh, same shit, different day. The weather is a bitch this time of year but it’s a part of the job,” I shrug.
“I don’t understand how you do it,” Ethan says.
Ok, Ethan, we get it. Every time I come back you give me this spiel like I’m a hero for doing my job and how you couldn’t do it etc etc etc. I get that you mean well, but you’re my friend. I want to have a real conversation. Tell me about your life. What’s been going on in town? I miss this place and you four suckers that I grew up with. Wait a second–Todd isn’t here. The kid’s never late. He’d show up early for his own execution, except no way that wouldn’t happen in a million years. I doubt he’s ever jaywalked in his life.
“Say, where’s Todd?” I ask, checking my watch.
The three of them look at one another, back and forth, without saying a word.
“You don’t know?”
“Know what?” I ask.
Another exchange of looks.
“How long were you gone again?”
“I left in late January, so a little over five months.”
“Oh shit, he really doesn’t know!”
“Yeah, you missed it.”
“No one told you?”
Okay the three of you need to stop fucking echoing each other an tell me. Why don’t they just tell me?! This is starting to freak me out.
“Told me what?!” I make sure my tone of voice lets them know I’m running out of patience.
“He’s gone. They left. The whole family. Moved.”
“What?! When? Where?”
Once again, the three of them trade glances.
“Must’ve been just a few weeks after you left, right guys?”
“Well, we didn’t get to celebrate Todd’s birthday together. I know that for sure ‘cause the kid was born on Valentine’s day.”
What does that mean, Andy?
“Since when do you care about Valentine’s day?” I ask him.
“Well I could always get out of taking Ally out on account of that, all eight years we’ve been together, never had to do shit ‘cause it was my buddy’s birthday. This year, I took her out, fancy dinner and all, had to dress up and shave, the whole deal.”
“And neither of you thought to tell me this?! Every week at least one of you pukes and passes out and you text me the picture, I know the score of every freaking little league game Tony’s kid’s ever played, but you don’t think to mention when a friend moves away?!”
“I don’t know….I guess it wasn’t my news to tell.”
I smell bullshit.
“Oh come on! There isn’t a fart in this town you don’t tell me about.”
“But this is big. I wanted to let him tell you himself,” Tony chimes in.
“Exactly,” Ethan echoes. “I know you really cared about the kid.”
“Care. I care about him, he’s my friend. I thought y’all do too.”
“So why didn’t he tell you?”
I must admit they have a point.
“Come think of it hasn’t talked to me in a while...” I pull out my phone to check when we last talked. Scrolling down my message feed, I get impatient.
“Alright then, spill it. What happened?
None of them speak up. They look around, avoiding eye contact with me and each other.
“You’re unbelievable!” I dial Todd’s number. Immediately, get voicemail.
“Hey Todd! It’s John, I just got back home and the guys are telling me you moved away. So I--uh, I guess I’m checking in how you’re doing. Miss you man!”
The guys exchange weird looks and order another round of shots and then drag me to the pool table to change the subject.
I don’t know what time I got home last night, which is typical for my first night back. I remember going to Limbo, the new club, after the pub closed, but not much after that.
I rip the security bracelet off as I roll out of bed for my morning jog.
I can’t get this Todd thing out of my head. He was our friend but also the youngest of the group by a couple years–IS, he IS our friend dammit. We taught him how to drink and play pool like a champ, and we always made sure he got home safe, I think his mom respected that. She’d often make him leave early and go home. And if he got too drunk and ended up crashing at one of our places? She raised hell the next morning. But come on, what else is a kid to do in a town like this?! Maybe that’s why they moved: school or job, some other opportunity somewehere else. But then why wouldn’t he tell me?!
Then it hits me–I gotta go swing by their place. See it for myself. Maybe I’ll find a clue. Who knows, but I wanna see.
I take a turn off my usual jogging route and follow the sleepy morning streets to what I’ve known to be Todd’s house.
First thing I see when I turn the corner onto his street is a “For Sale” sign on the house across the street and one of the windows is covered up with plywood.
Weird. Two families on one street in our tiny town moving within a few months?!
The grass on Todd’s lawn is overgrown. Letters and bills of all kinds spill out of the mailbox, which is still adorned with “OLSON” in big wooden letters, which I helped Todd make, I remember this like yesterday. Newspapers litter the driveway, covered in dirt and debris. They are gone alright. I stop running and walk up to the house. I ring the doorbell and try opening the door. It’s locked so I peek in through the window. Coats hanging by the door, bookshelf full of stuff, TV, couch, furniture–everything looks untouched. What the hell?!
“Hey you! Get out of here! That poor family’s had enough!”
I turn around and see a man yelling at me from the neighboring yard.
“Why do you have to come back for more?! Haven’t you done enough?! Leave us all alone!”
“What are you talking about?”
I get off the porch and approach him. He’s behind the fence but still backs up a few steps. As I pass by the house I can see that there’s a big swatch of white paint just a few feet above the ground, an eye sore on the pretty yellow house paint.
“That’s right, I covered up your liebesbrief! Now get lost!”
Who the hell says “liebesbrief?” I take a few steps closer and see a wrinkly face under the baseball cap. I know I’ve met this guy in town, but what was his name?
“Hey, listen–Mr. Warren, is it?”
He stands down just a little bit so I take a few more steps towards him.
“I have been out of town for months. Last I know, my friend Todd lived here. I’m looking for him.”
He takes his hat off and scratches his forehead with a deep exhale.
“Oh Todd. You missed out on quite the–you’re John right? You’re Mary’s son, you do that boat tour thing, right?”
“Cruise ship captain, doesn’t matter, yeah.”
“Well, John, the family moved away months ago.”
I can’t beat around the bush any longer.
“What happened here? What was written on the wall? And what about the Adams’ house, did they move too?
“Yeah,” he sighs. “It’s been ugly.” He scratches his forehead again. “Why don’t I make you a cup of coffee?”
As I sit down on Mr. Warren’s porch, the street is slowly waking up. The sun was now hitting the opposite side of the street directly and a few houses down the kids run out into their yard with a soccer ball. He disappears inside and comes back moments later with his wife’s walnut brownies. I’ve heard legends about these.
“Please, help yourself. Susan just made these yesterday.”
“Thank you,” I say, biting in.
“Wow, these are amazing!”
Mr. Warren bites in himself.
“Come think of it, Todd was always telling me about his neighbor’s amazing brownies. This has got to be what he was talking about!”
“Oh, I suppose so,” Mr. Warren says, looking away.
“Alright, will you please tell me what’s going on? I’m sorry to be so blunt but no one has been willing to give me a straight answer.”
He slowly turns his head and meets my gaze.
“Let’s see…” he’s looking at me intently, seems to be forming his thoughts. Just then, the front door opens and his wife walks comes out with a tray, carrying coffee, mugs, sugar.
“How do you take it?” she turns to me.
“I have cream in the fridge, too.”
“Black is good, really.”
“Sit down with us, hun,” Mr. Warren says to her and she does. Indeed, she brought a mug for herself as well.
“Mr. Warren, you were just–” I say, wanting to get back to the topic at hand.
“Oh, please, call me Rick!” he offers with a big smile.
“Thanks, Rick. Anyway–”
“John, remind me what it is that you do,” his wife jumps in.
“I’m a cruise ship captain, ma’am.”
“Oh, John! None of that, please, my name is Susan.”
At this point, I don’t care if it’s the Queen of England! Stop changing the subject!
“Oh, thank you Susan.” I say and I sip my coffee.
“Your brownies are exquisite, by the way!”
“Why thank you, I have the best taste tester right here,” she pokes Rick and giggles.
“In fact I was just telling Rick that Todd used to tell us all legends about his neighbor’s brownies and this has got to be what he was talking about!” I take another bite. Their faces drop at the mention of Todd’s name. They’re quiet for a moment.
Then, finally, Rick speaks.
“Well, John, what happened to Todd–the whole family, really–is hard to talk about. I want to apologize for my reaction earlier, but you gotta understand where I’m coming from.”
“All I’m doing is trying to understand. But I don’t know what happened, so I can’t know where you’re coming from. I just want to understand what happened to my friend.”
“Your friend…would you say that the two of you are close?”
“Yes, I would. I mean, I travel a lot for work but I’ve always felt he was like a younger brother to me. He’d always go out with me and the guys and I’d make sure he was alright, we showed him how to do a lot of things.”
“What kinds of things, John?” Rick asks.
“You know, pool, darts,...drinking. How to have a fun night but not get in too much trouble.”
“Guy stuff?” Susan jumps in.
“Yeah, I guess you could call it that,” I nod.
What’s the point of this?
“Well, John, this will probably come as a shock to you..” Susan says.
Ok, out with it already.
Rick grabs her hand, squeezing tightly, and jumps in.
“Todd doesn’t want to live as man anymore, John. That’s the best I know how to explain it.”
“The word is transgender, honey. It means he feels like he was always supposed to be a woman and now he wants to live like that,” Susan jumps in. “I was reading up on it when his mom first told us. He doesn’t want to be called Todd anymore, he–I mean she–wants to be called Theresa.”
Todd? This doesn’t make sense. This can’t be!
“Anyway,” Rick takes over. “He started to come out dressed as a woman, with make up and all, I’ve heard rumors that there is some doctor that was going to do surgery on him to cut--”
“It’s ‘her,’ Rick, you gotta say ‘her,’" Susan jumps in.
Rick shakes his head in disbelief.
“Are you okay, John?” Susan turns to me.
Todd a woman? I just don’t understand that.
My face must be quite the sight. My mind it racing but I try to collect myself.
“Well that’s all really weird and hard to believe, but what happened?” I say, pointing towards the house, then across the street. “And the Adams house?”
“Things got ugly, fast. A lot of the people here in time didn’t approve of Todd–” Rick starts to say.
“Theresa, honey,” Susan jumps in.
“Right,” Rick says, his face betraying that he’s not really on board with it. “Anyway, people would show up here and mostly just loiter and yell mean things, they kicked over the platers, sprayed hate and slurs on the wall …” He sighs and pauses. “It doesn’t sound like much, but it was hard even for us to live our lives and all this wasn’t even aimed at us. We decided to go out of town for a few days, my brother has a cabin by the lake...Honestly we just didn’t wanna deal with it.” Susan puts her hand on his knee, as if to give him courage to continue. “Then one night somebody threw a brick through the Adams’ window. You know they have a three year old, so they were terrified and went to a hotel immediately. I wish I had been here, maybe could have caught the bastard!”
“Honey, you can’t think like that.”
“Come on, Susan, you know it’s true. The guy got the wrong house for god’s sake, this was clearly no genius. But it really scared everyone, understandably. So the Olsons packed the very next day and left, I don’t know where they went or for how long, or even if they’re coming back. I understand they left most of their belongings and I hear they didn’t tell anyone where they were going. I guess they were worried about their safety.”
“And can you blame them? It’s so horrible, I can’t even imagine,” Susan chimes in again.
“The whole thing is rotten. I covered up the sign on the wall, it made me sick to see it.”
I don’t know what to make of this. I just sit there, looking at the two houses. I don’t know what I was expecting to find, but this is certainly not it. It’s hard enough to wrap my mind around this Todd/Theresa business, but two families being forced out of town in a matter of days, that’s something else.
“Look at the time!” Susan jumps to her feet, pulling me from my thoughts. “Would you excuse me, I have to go start getting lunch ready.” I take that as my cue.
“I’ll be going, too. Thank you so much for your hospitality. I appreciate the information.”
“I’m sorry John, wish we didn’t have to tell you.”
I thank them again and head home. I walk slowly, trying to understand. One way or the other I have a lot of questions for the guys.