[Several web sites offer randomly generated suggestions for conflicts, characters, scenarios, etc. which blocked writers can use to kick start their creative process. Or you can do something really dumb and ask your Twitter pals for suggestions on situations that create conflict. This one is for Dan (@dbw780). Or, alternatively, this one is Dan’s fault. – KHN #52Weeks]
A short story by Kim Norris
Nothing obscured the sound of their shouting; it was about all he could count on these days – them shouting. Listening to Dick and Ingrid scream at each other reminded him of when Dick and Mom used to go at it. Dave had been younger then, but he remembered the yelling. By the sounds of things, Dick – Dad – was heading for divorce number two. Dave unzipped the top of the backpack as he made his way to the mini fridge behind the bar in the basement rec room. The twelve giant steel cans of beer that Ingrid had brought back from her latest flight to Australia barely fit in the small icebox. He grabbed two and stuffed them in the top of the backpack, rearranging the rest of the cans to fill the empty space.
Dave slid the back door shut as quietly as he could, freezing at the point where the frame of the heavy, double-paned glass hung on the track, clunking as it cleared whatever unseen obstacle made it lurch up and down like a wooden roller coaster. He need not have worried tonight – nothing was cutting through the melee coming from the living room upstairs, but it was good to stay deft. Once outside, he looked up on instinct, but the remnants of the morning’s storm still obscured the moon. He covered the short distance between the door and the curb, grateful as always for the cedar hedge that shielded the living room windows from the street. He’d be around the corner and halfway to Mattie’s before anyone could spot him.
He saw his best friend waiting at the pre-appointed spot, shifting from one foot to the other nervously, like he always did. It made Dave smile. Most of the kids at school ridiculed Mattie for being heavy, clumsy and smart. Dave found in the shorter, shyer, lumpier classmate a good ear to bend and someone who didn’t get all pissy if Dave did better at sports or girls. Mattie expected to get picked last, Dave mused. He didn’t deserve it, but since Mattie expected it, it never seemed to hurt him.
Mattie shifted nervously, grateful for the clouds that kept the moonlight from revealing his location, out of doors, way past curfew. He couldn’t remember why he so badly wanted to sneak out tonight, but there was no going back to bed. Anyway, it was the first night of summer vacation. The group home that Father Dick was building in the field behind the church had intrigued him the moment they broke ground and curiosity beat out his normal caution. He and his family had lived across the street from and attended the brick Episcopal church his whole life, and the field behind the Small Woods had always been a part of it – he spent hours in the summer stalking fireflies at night, flying kites or building shrub forts during the day. In the spring wild flowers bloomed; come the fall he could hunt for fat brown rabbits, which he never managed to catch.
But not this fall. The church, under Father Dick’s leadership, had decided to take their charity in a new direction, building and sponsoring a group home for low IQ adults. Concrete trucks had finally poured the foundation and framers were making fast progress in the warm, mostly dry late spring weather that Virginia Beach often experienced. It started to look interesting when the roof trusses went up. Dave said they could go in, but not when the workmen were on site. He had assured Mattie earlier that it wasn’t actually trespassing. After all, the building was on church grounds, to which, as a resident of the vicarage, Dave had full access.
Finally Mattie saw the silhouette walking toward him – it had to be Dave – that confident swagger. Mattie texted, just to be safe **that u?**. He could hear the chirp from Dave’s Smartphone, but the text went unanswered. As the form passed underneath the street light directly in front of the church, Dave’s face showed clearly for a brief moment. Mattie relaxed a little and started to walk toward him.
“Why did you text me?”
“I wasn’t sure it was you.”
“Who the fuck else would it be?” Dave stopped in front of the church. From this angle, the house that the church maintained for the current preacher and their family to live in could not be seen.
“I don’t know. Hey do you think the church is open?” Mattie shifted from one foot to the other.
“Doubt it. Why?”
“I’ve got to take a leak.”
“Go over there.” Dave pointed to a dark corner of the church where waist high bushes covered the building foundation. Although the entrance to the sanctuary was well lit at night, the angles of the light fixtures missed this corner completely.
“Are you crazy? I can’t go there!”
“Why not? No one will see you.”
“It’s a church!” Mattie cried. “You can’t piss on a church!”
“It’s just a building. You don’t really think God gives a crap if you pee on those bushes?”
“Not risking it.”
Dave laughed out loud at Mattie’s determined tone. “Wussie.”
“Because Hell might be real, dickhead!” Mattie cut through the church’s side lawn toward a cluster of trees behind the building, the beginning of the Small Woods, as the neighborhood called them, found a suitable tree, and re-emerged a few minutes later.
Dave laughed again, more because he was sure it annoyed Mattie than out of a sense of mirth. He couldn’t help thinking to himself, Hell is real, amigo. We’re living in it.
Mattie intoned a small prayer for forgiveness as he relieved himself. The very idea of whipping it out onto the side of the church felt sinful. The act itself was unthinkable. Dave had always been a mystery to Mattie. But this – Dave’s dad was the preacher – how could Dave even suggest it? Even as he silently judged his friend, he felt the usual stir of admiration that bordered on envy. Dave never seemed to fear anything -- not grownups, not girls, not failure… .The coach of every sport in high school tried to recruit Dave to the team. Only the track coach had any luck.
Mattie didn’t get that either. Mattie despised running. Okay sure, if Mrs. Gomez’s stupid dog got out again and gave chase, Mattie could outrun the little rat, but Dave said he liked running, which Mattie could not comprehend. You might as well like the dentist. Yeesh!
“Okay, I’m ready,” Mattie said as he walked back toward Dave. “Which way?”
“Let’s skirt the edge of the Small Woods and cut across the field. It’ll be quicker than walking around the block. Fewer eyes.”
“I thought you said this wasn’t trespassing.” Mattie tried to cover the nervous quaver.
“It’s not. Technically. But we still don’t want Dick to see us.”
“You shouldn’t call your dad by his first name. It’s disrespectful.”
“Respect.” Dave spit on the ground and kept walking forward, his stride lengthening with each step.
Mattie jogged a bit to keep up beside Dave, and they moved in silence.
The dark field brightened as the clouds broke up, revealing the old moon, large just three days past full. Dave hitched the backpack up on his shoulder and quickened his pace.
“Keep up!” he yelled over his shoulder. “You want someone to see you?” He ignored the reply and broke into a jog. The moonlight cast long strange shadows on the place he was heading, erasing the hard edges and transforming the structure into an amorphous space defined by varying degrees of darkness. Where the roof was still missing, pearly moonlight reached all the way down to the subflooring.
He heard the plea, “Wait up!” Mattie’s voice was more distant than he expected, but he kept moving. Shadows took form, becoming framed walls and corner studs. He walked through the opening where he knew the front door would hang one day and made his way to the center of the structure. Moments later, he heard his best friend’s heavy breathing and clumsy footsteps.
“I’m over here,” he called. The roof had not yet been put in place here, and moonlight filled the space. He put the backpack he had been carrying on the ground and sat down beside it. He listened as Mattie tripped over something and chuckled quietly at the expletive, “Crackers!”
“Just say, crap.”
“Keep talking so I can find you.”
Dave said nothing and unzipped the top of the backpack. He removed two quart-sized cans that had “Foster’s Lager” printed on them. He set one can down and pulled the tab on top of the second can. He hadn’t counted on how much his jogging had shaken the backpack contents, and beer began spurting from the top as soon as he opened it. “Shit!” he yelled as he hastily held the spuming can at arm’s length. Mattie made his way to where Dave sat and goggled at the beer cans.
“Where did you get those?” he asked with hesitation.
“Ingrid brought them back from her last flight.” Dave handed Mattie the unopened can. “Come on, sit down. It’s the first night of summer vacation. The moon is full, the beer is cold...careful when you open it. They got shook up a little.” He instantly regretted giving the warning; if they got caught, it would go better for Dave if Mattie smelled like beer too.
“I’m not allowed to drink.”
“Neither am I, dipshit. Bottoms up.”
Mattie picked up the can then set it back down heavily. He pulled the tab off the top. Beer foam surged through the opening.
“Slurp it! Don’t waste it!” Dave brought his own can to his lips and demonstrated. He watched as Mattie sucked up the beer that had accumulated at the top. He hadn’t actually expected Mattie to drink any of it. Instead, Mattie took a long pull and then burped with gusto.
“It’s sort of like soda. All the bubbles,” said Mattie.
“It ain’t soda.” Dave opened the front pocket of the backpack and pulled out a plastic sandwich baggy and a pack of matches. He saw Mattie’s eyes widen in horror. The sight of it was so comical Dave laughed out loud, registering with increasing amusement the angry look on Mattie’s face. “Oh Jesus, lighten up! No one’s gonna catch us.”
“You don’t know that. If your dad finds us, we’re both going to Hell.”
“This was your idea!”
“Sneaking out was. Not drinking. Not smoking cigarettes.”
“It ain’t a cigarette.” Dave opened the baggy and pulled out a hand-rolled joint. Putting it between his lips, he struck a match and held it to the end. The paper and weed caught, glowing bright red as Dave inhaled. He started to cough, pinched his nose to keep smoke from coming out, then lost it completely and hacked loudly as smoke billowed around his head. “Here,” he passed the joint to Mattie.
“Where’d you get that?”
“Never mind where I got this.”
“I don’t know, Dave. What if it makes me go insane?”
“No one would notice.”
“Ooooooh. Mattie used a swear word.” He waved the joint. “Take it. Live a little. You’re so fucking uptight.”
Mattie took the joint and sucked hesitantly on the unlit end. He inhaled a small amount and stopped.
“Go on! You have to cough to get off.”
“You’re so full of shit.” But he took a larger puff and was soon choking, his eyes streaming as his lungs burned.
They passed the joint in silence, coughing less with each hit. Dave sipped the beer after each toke and was soon feeling lightheaded and giddy. He looked through the unfinished roof up at the moon. It seemed larger all of the sudden. Brighter, too, and the face in the moon seemed to wink. It’s the man in the moon, people said, but it looked like a lady to him. It always had.
“A toast.” Dave said suddenly, lifting his beer can in the air.
“Here’s to sin and here’s to virtue. A little bit of both won’t hurt you.” Dave tilted the beer as he drank.
Mattie began to giggle, then laugh, then guffaw. “That’s a good one.” He took a large swallow of beer.
“Dick says it all the time.”
“Your dad? Father Dick?”
“He’d know wouldn’t he? About the sin part anyway.”
“What do you mean, Dave?”
“I saw him. With Mrs. Neroni."
Mattie’s eyes widened again. His tongue touched his upper lip. “Where?”
“Right here.” He pointed to the floor they were sitting on.
“Ew!” Mattie started to stand up hastily, but Dave pulled him back down.
“They weren’t doing it. Not yet anyway. But I saw them holding hands. They didn’t see me.”
“Maybe he was just comforting her. You know, giving her spiritual guidance. Didn’t her husband just move out? I overheard Jenny Neroni talking about her dad leaving at the school dance last week.”
“Maybe Dick's the reason Jenny’s dad moved out,” Dave said darkly. “Maybe Mrs. Neroni is the reason Dick and Ingrid spend every waking moment they are together hollering at each other? Fucking grownups – screwing around and screwing up our lives…”
“What do you mean, Dave? How is your life getting screwed up?”
Dave didn’t answer. He took another drink of beer, studied the can as he swallowed. He was definitely beginning to feel the effects of both it and the joint. He’d been high before, one other time, at Joey’s house. They had used a water bong. He coughed until he thought his lungs would flip inside out and fly out his nose. He’d been drunk a time or two also, once on sacramental wine, once sneaking beers at a church picnic. He’d never put the two together before tonight. Hell, he rarely had access to either, much less both, but a perfect storm of opportunity presented itself. Ingrid had brought a case of the beer back from her last flight to Sydney, Australia. “It’s their national beer!” When Dick pointed out you could get Foster’s in the USA, a fight ensued. Dave figured he was doing everyone a favor by getting it out of the house.
The joint, too, had simply presented itself to him. Last week at the final dance of the school year, Dave had hooked up with Gretchen, a senior who was two years older than Dave. Generous Gretchen – Dave smiled as he remembered how the evening had ended, in the back seat of her car. She had let him drive home even though he only had his learner’s permit. And she’d just given him the joint when she kissed him goodnight. It made him feel a bit “paid for.” He kind of dug it.
Mattie’s voice jolted him back to the present. “What do you mean, Dave?”
Mattie’s voice jolted him back to the present. “What do you mean, Dave?”
“I mean, I think Dick is looking to move again. To a new church.”
“I thought you moved here because it was the hub town for Ingrid’s airline.”
“Yeah, I don’t think Dick is all that concerned about Ingrid’s needs anymore. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. They fight non-stop now. It’s hard to sleep.”
“But, you’d still be in town, right?” Mattie sounded crushed.
“Doubt it,” Dave said quietly.
Mattie felt the world drop out from under him when Dave said he might move away. He had taken for granted that Dave would stay, now that they were friends. Dave was the best friend he ever had; Dave didn’t judge Mattie the way the other kids did. He didn’t call Mattie a “brainiac” like it was kind of disease. He listened to Mattie.
“You could stay with me? I could ask my parents. You know, until we graduate high school.”
“I think I might go live with Mom. She’s in Clearwater Beach, Florida these days. It’s a nice town, lots of hot chicks in bikinis. You can come visit during Spring Break.”
“It won’t be the same as seeing you every day.
“No. No it won’t.”
Dave staggered to his feet. The moon was setting and darkness once again overtook them.
“We better head home. It’ll be dawn soon. Anyway, I need to take a piss. All this beer.”
“Me too.” Mattie tried to stand, got his left foot entangled underneath his right leg, and fell back down, laughing. “Ah shit, I’ll pee my pants if I don’t go soon. Help me up.”
Dave held out his hand and pulled Mattie to his feet. They retraced their steps out of the building, but instead of crossing the field, they circled around to the building’s side that faced the far end of the Small Wood. From this side, through the trees, they could see the steeple of the church, luminescent in the failing moonlight. They followed the line of trees, skirting the deep field grass that dripped with dew, soaking their shoes and the edges of their jeans. The Small Wood ended at the church’s backyard. Mattie paused at the edge of the trees again and unzipped. Dave strode forward, across the lawn, past a small swing set and up to the church. The last of the moonlight cast his shadow large against the wall.
“Dave, don’t” he heard Mattie whisper-shout, but Dave ignored him. With the moonlight failing, stars blazed across the sky; Dave dared the universe to stop him. He grinned in relief as a somewhat revised form of Australia’s national beer splashed down the brick wall and returned to the earth from whence it came.