“Do it! Do it! Do it!”
“Stop with the chant, boys,” I say, cracking my fingers to prepare for what we’ve all been waiting for.
“You too scared Ace?” A boy nicknamed Hunter asks mockingly. I ignore him.
“Hand it over.”
“Nah, don’t feel like it today,” I say right back to Trampdog’s face. That shuts his muzzle right up.
A pretty new member of the gang, a stocky boy of only fifteen years old, shouts, “Lemme do it!”
I stand up onto the cold metal bench and wait for them to quiet down by paying close attention to the condition of my bitten down nails. The air is warm and windy, fitting the spring season.
The balmy afternoon sky is an innocent shade of blue as the sun peeks through the trees’ leaves. I start speaking again when all is quiet in the abandoned park, our usual meeting place.
“Guys, chill. We’re gathered here today to perform our annual—,” I begin.
“Yeah yeah. Enough with the small talk, just do it!” Another boy nicknamed Roger says. The rest of the boys agree by slapping the metal table with their fists, creating a booming heartless echo.
“Fine, fine if that’s what you guys want. I’m gonna do it, just give me a sec,” I say. I hold my phone just above their heads as I watch them try and grab it out of my hands. It’s a pretty fun game for me, not sure if I can say the same for those playing it.
“Ace, it’s now or never. Hand it over or you'll be labeled as a ‘chicken’ forever in these parts,” a freckled boy much shorter than me says.
“Yeah, I don’t think so Pip!”
“It’s Piper! Now hand it over.”
He begins to stand up onto the table and pulls back his baggy t-shirt sleeves, preparing for a fight, but I dial the number and at once my gang falls silent, including Pip.
“911, what’s your emergency?” a strained female voice says.
I begin coughing into the phone’s microphone, activate my best damsel-in-distress voice, and say with feigned effort.
“Help! My house is on fire and I’m,” my gang starts to snicker in the background so I cover it up with, “My friends and I are stuck inside. We can’t find an exit and the firemen haven’t arrived yet.” I cough some more.
Another boy uses his phone to play some crackling fire on YouTube to make our act more convincing. During my fake coughing fit, I have to suppress myself from laughing.
“Ok, stay calm and get to a low area in your house. To send help, can you tell me your address?”
“It’s 3787 Jay Boulevard.” I hear the lady dialing a number and then,
“Help is on the way so try not to panic. If you can do this, use a damp rag and cover your mouths with it. Do you have a fire extinguisher? If so, use that to get rid of the flames closest to you and your friends.” Her voice is urgent, and I can tell that she's putting up a real hard effort to keep her voice calm for my sake.
“Ok,” I say. I’m beginning to feel a tiny bit bad for this nice lady who’s helping me, but there’s no turning back now.
She starts speaking again. “Can you still hear me? Next—”
“Hello? What do I do next? Bzzz, I think it’s cutting out—bzzz.” I make some pretend static and the boys join in, but my heart’s not in it anymore. I hang up and hide my frown.
Everyone bursts out laughing at the awesome prank we pulled off. I slide back down the bench as everyone pats my back and shakes hands with me as if I’d just won the Oscars Best Actor Award.
“Hilarious!” Wolverine shouts.
“I always knew you were a great actor. Never doubted it!” Another boy nicknamed Rior says.
“That was great, Ace! I wish I coulda done it, but you’re the boss and you deserve the honor.”
I hear sirens in the distance which is our cue to leave the park. 911 calls my number again, but I ignore it and mute my ringtone. We run off into a littered backstreet that leads away from my neighbor’s totally unscorched house.
Busted, I think.
“Yes Mom?!” I shout back from the bedroom I used to share with my older brother. I’m laying on my rickety bed reading a book.
“Get down here right now Alex. We’re gonna have a talk.”
Another huge blow. When Mom used my name twice it meant real bad trouble for me. I set my book down and get up against my will.
I slide down the half rotted wooden banister which leads from the second floor, my bedroom, to the first one. The railing sags dangerously underneath my weight as I go down it. We lived in a poor neighborhood and under even poorer circumstances so it was a miracle that our house was still standing.
I assume Mom is in the dining room, the least messiest area in our home. Stacks of books, magazines, letter ads, empty bags of potato chips, reused school textbooks, half drunk plastic water bottles, and dirty clothes line every square inch of space. Good thing we didn’t have a pet or else this house would be impossible to live in.
As I enter the said place I notice that the dining room table is in terrible shape. Time, age, wear, and the stacks of junk have caused the mahogany wood to peel and splinter. The four chairs that were usually tucked neatly under the table were pushed out and in front of each chair there was a mug of undrank murky coffee. I guess Mom had some company.
I look at the only occupant in the dining room and a sad sight met my eyes. A middle aged woman sits slumped down in one of the chairs. Her tangled and wispy mousy brown hair is tied up in a hasty bun with a rubberband.
Once, a beautiful woman lived inside her, but stress and betrayal had trespassed too often on her beauty and left dark shadows under her eyes. A mug of coffee with the corny phrase ‘Best Mom Ever’ is in her hand, a gift given to her by my brother, Dragon Slayer, who left us to go to community college.
She tiredly waves for me to join her at the dining room table, and I pull up a chair. We’re quiet for a few minutes and the only noise breaking the silence are the occasional sips of coffee Mom takes. She starts speaking after a quarter of her drink is gone.
She used my nickname, whew. I’m in the clear.
“Yeah?” I answer in a hopeful and positive tone.
“Do you know why I sent Charlie off to college?”
An unexpected question. I thought she’d ask about the prank call. Maybe she hadn’t heard about it yet, but that was unlikely.
Whenever I got in trouble with fights at school or drove with my gang past curfew on the weekend or received an F on one of my tests or tried a tiny bit of alcohol at a party; she’d always heard about it. It was scary and it was like she had a sixth sense to know what I’d done no matter where it was done.
“Um no, not really. I just thought that since he was all smart he wanted to go and since I’m all dumb I can’t and won’t go."
She takes another sip of her cold beverage. I don’t even know why she bothered when the liquid tasted like muck.
“Uh uh,” she wags her finger at me, “You’re not dumb Ace, you just don’t apply yourself properly. Your brother was the same way until some outward pressure forced him to do better and try harder in school.”
“I’m serious. Stop this smart aleck--”
“Oh, I can’t say what I feel?!” I yell, pushing my chair back and standing up angrily, “You know my name’s Alex so that phrase is pretty offensive to people with my name.”
I get up to leave the room but Mom’s fragile hand is too quick and grasps my arm to pull me back into my chair. There’s no point in arguing so I blow off my steam through maintaining silence.
The window in the room next door, the kitchen, is open and I hear it banging ominously against the shutters outside. A bird tweets outside and my fury resurfaces at how everything could be so peaceful when I was going to explode because of life itself. Maybe the silent treatment wasn’t the best way to cure my anger.
I cross my arms over my chest to keep warm. For spring weather, it was particularly chilly. I forgot to wear a sweater, but I didn’t plan on backing away from the cold. Let it bite me, I’ve gone through so much worse than it.
“I know it’s been hard ever since Dad left but you've got to listen to what I’m gonna say. No conversation will ever be more important than this one.”
This last line sparked my interest, but I let no sign of curiosity slip out. I'm still seething with rage, but I figure that I could at least hear her out. If nothing was in it for me, then I would be outta here. My silence gives way for Mom to speak again.
“I sent Charlie to community college for his sake. When your dad left us, CPS came to take both of you away from me. I told them to wait until I got both of you settled and that you’d both turn out alright in the end if they just gave me some time. I got Charlie on the right path, but you’ve been more difficult.
“CPS has had an eye on you for a long time and they think that I’m neglecting you because I’m too emotionally upset over things. They called me whenever you got in trouble: receiving straight F’s, drinking, driving past curfew, just to name a few. They told me that they could take you in and bring you up the way I never could.”
Mom hesitates on the last line, and I’m afraid that the water works are gonna turn on but they don’t. Miraculously, she streamrolls right ahead.
“The call that you made today was the last straw for them. They offered for me to pay a fee to excuse your behavior, but it was over my budget. I did everything I could to keep you by me, but I failed. I’m sorry Ace. They’re picking you up in an hour.”
I can’t grasp what Mom is saying. For some reason, I’m suddenly colder than I was when I first sat in my chair and it wasn’t because of the weather.
I’m drowning and gasping for a breath that I’ll never have the luxury to perform. I’m dunked under the waves of my conscience but no one can help me resurface. I’m tossed around from one side to the other. I’m so dizzy. I can’t think straight. Everything’s gone fuzzy. My thoughts are racing and so is my heart. I want to scream for help, but I can’t find my voice.
Throughout my internal panic attack, I keep a cool and level head. I’ve had a lot of practice of hiding my emotions ever since Dad left so I’m able to keep my voice steady. After only a minute of getting roughly tossed about by my conscience, I’m able to reply with an emotionless sentence.
“I knew that something like this might happen sooner or later, but I didn’t know when. I didn’t know that it was gonna be this extreme, though. It would’ve been helpful if you told me all this earlier, but I guess there’s no time like the present.”
I get up out of my chair and run up the old stairs before my tears leak out in Mom’s presence. I turn around just before I begin my ascent up the stairs to see Mom mouth the words ‘I’m sorry’ to me.
CPS took me away and temporarily placed me in the local juvenile detention center until they could find a foster family who would take me in. It all happened too quickly that I had no time to think.
I stare at the phone that I’d just used to call the only person who cared about me, excluding my parents, Dragon Slayer. I lick my cracked lips as I remember that he told me that he was gonna pick me up from the prison for juvenile delinquents in ten minutes flat.
After ten minutes have gone by, the entrance doors of my prison bang open to announce the arrival of my hero. Fitting to his nickname, Charlie’s wearing a black t-shirt with a curled up ferocious looking dragon smack in the middle who's breathing out neon orange fire.
His shirt was custom made, a gift from my gang for his nineteenth birthday, so I know that the words ‘Dragon Slayer’ are scrawled in block letters below the luminescent dragon picture even though his leather jacket covers it up. To top off the awesome image of my brother, Charlie's wearing sunglasses that look like they belonged to a cop.
Once inside, he flips back his long sandy brown hair to the right side of his face and faces the guard that’s standing next to me.
“I’m here to pick up my brother,” Charlie says venomously, pointing at me. The guard’s fingers squeeze tightly into my shoulder almost as if he’s actually nervous because of my brother.
“Um well, you kinda need documents to prove that you’re relations with this kid. Oh, and the CPS had specific instructions that, um, this kid was staying in our custody temporarily until they could place him in a foster family. Bottom line, this kid’s staying with me.” The guard’s voice grows stronger the longer he speaks, but it’s all done in vain.
In a flash, Dragon Slayer pulls down his cop sunglasses and takes out a switchblade from his pocket, lining it up just below the guard's Adam's apple. If the guard reached for his gun or called for help, Charlie would have already been through with him. My eyes stare at horror at my brother’s new side that I’m struck speechless.
A door behind us suddenly opens and Charlie’s switchblade retracts into his pocket. He pats the guard’s shoulder as if merely brushing off some dust. The guard scurries off down a hallway as I turn my attention to the stranger. The person who entered was from the CPS; I could tell because of her uniform.
“Is there a problem here? And who are you?” she asks curtly as the lady notices Charlie, looking him up and down with her all too pointy nose and cat-eye glasses.
“I’m his brother,” he jabs his finger at me, “And I'm here to take him home.” His voice returns back to his normal easy tone, and I’m beginning to think that I hallucinated.
“Documents?” she raises her eyes suspiciously.
“I. Am. His. Brother. What more do you want?”
“Sorry but your word isn’t enough for me,” she says to Charlie. Next, she crouches down to my eye level and says in a fake sweet voice, “Come on Alex, we found you a nice family and I’m going to drive you to them. Sounds good? Good. Now follow me, honey.” She leads me to the doors that my brother entered through without waiting for my answer. Typical with most adults.
Charlie blocks her way and says, “I have an offer. Give me back my brother for now but there’s a catch. If he sets a toe out of line since leaving this center, boom, I give you full permission to send him off to a foster family. You don’t need to give me a notice in advance or anything if you come to take him away.”
I gape at my brother’s proposition. How in the world does he expect me to be an angel? It’s not like I wanted to get in trouble so I can spend my days with a foster family. I never looked for trouble, it found me. When I faced it, I fought it. That fight or flight instinct my biology teacher droned on about? That’s a full out lie, I was haywired since the day I was born to program all my problems that I faced with the ‘fight’ response all the time, every day.
“But you have to promise that you can’t fine me for Ace’s behavior this time. I really can’t afford it, so do you mind helping out some poor kids? Just this once?”
It’s a total win-win situation for the CPS and a total lose-lose one for me. Without finding a fault in the offer, the lady nods and retrieves some documents from the lobby desk. After what feels like centuries later Charlie signs my release statement, and I’m free to leave the prison that robbed my innocence.
The familiar cracked wooden porch door stares me in the face. It’s eerily comforting. My backpack full of clothes and books weighs me down as I slowly push open the screen door. It’s unlocked as usual.
I enter and creep through the house. Charlie is unpacking some things from his truck, and I figure that I won’t be missed. I see Mom laying hunched over in the same dining room chair in the exact same pose I left her in.
I wrap my arms around her and before I start crying, I comfort both of us by stating the obvious with a grin on my face.
“Mom, I’m home."