One: A Walk in the Night

 

IN THE end, everybody wanted to know how it happened. That was the question I got, over and over. But what they really wanted from me was not how it happened but what happened. They wanted to hear every single dirty detail. I could tell that from all the damn whispers that went flittering behind my back.

I hated what they said, the rumors that went around. I hated what they did—what did—to a person who is decent and honest. Even so, I never would have talked about what happened. But I had to… in the end.

It began at 2:45 a.m. on a Wednesday, with me, fifteen-year-old Brodie Baker, in a neighborhood bar.

“Come on, Mom. You have to get up.” I shook my mom’s shoulder carefully, as though she were a piece of fine glass and might crack. Sprawled facedown across the bar’s counter, she stirred and mumbled something at me that sounded like a mashup of a gag and gospel singing.

Mom was totally dressed up. She wore a black pantsuit with black leather low-heeled shoes—work clothes. She must’ve come here straight from her job, which meant she’d been in that bar for damn near six hours. Jeez. I shook her again, harder than before, and she finally, slowly started pushing herself up from the counter. Her black corduroy jacket lay over the back of the stool beside her. Her hair, somewhere between brown and blonde on the color scale, was only slightly mussed on the left from where she had been resting her head on the bar. There was a faint smell of alcohol about her. It seemed to be coming from her pores, mingling with the light, flowery scent of the perfume she wore.

Once she was sitting upright, she stared blearily at the mirror on the opposite wall, her fingers curled around the stem of an empty wineglass. I felt both invisible and intangible, a ghost looking on from the other side of life. She didn’t seem to notice that her only kid was standing next to her in a fricking bar with his hands on her shoulders.

I hated when she was like this. “Mom, you have to go home.” I shook her even harder, trying to make her hear me. “The place is closed. Mr. Greg’s ready to lock up. If you don’t leave now, he’s gonna call the cops.”

There was no chance Greg, the bartender, would have the police haul Mom away. After all, he was the one who called me to come for her. Greg always looked out for Mom when she came to the bar, making sure no one bothered her, making sure she made it home all safe and secure. In the past, he’d called my dad after she drank too much. Dad flat out refused to come for her anymore, so now Greg called me.

“Mom, please.” Yeah, I resorted to begging. The anxiety was making me feel sick to my stomach. I was going to be in major trouble if Dad discovered I’d sneaked out of the house, and Greg would maybe get in trouble if the police found out he was letting a kid into the bar, even if it was after hours. “Please let me take you home. Okay? Come on, I’ll help you.”

I took my mother’s arm and pulled gently, trying to coax her off the barstool. She leaned away from me, lifting her arm as she tried to tug it out of my grip. When that didn’t work, she pushed at me with her free hand. Her movements were slow and out of synch, as if her arms and legs were working against each other. She frowned, her gaze going from the mirror down to the rows of liquor bottles on the shelves below. So far, she hadn’t looked directly at me even once.

I was kind of hurt that she avoided eye contact. It was like being a fly or something. She was annoyed with me, and I could almost feel her wishing for me to disappear. Yeah, that hurt almost as much as seeing her drunk for the umpteenth time. I grabbed her chin and tried to turn her face, tried to make her see. “Mom, it’s your son. It’s Brodie.”

She resisted. She jerked her head away, hitting me in the shoulder with her fist as she muttered, “Stop it….”

I grabbed her chin once more. I didn’t want to hurt her, but I had to make her see me. Maybe that would calm her down. “Mom…. Mom, look at me.” I kept pulling at her.

Finally I got her head turned enough that she saw me. Her eyes were sort of unfocused, but still, recognition lit up her face. She smiled slowly, as if she wasn’t quite sure she could trust what she was seeing.

“Brodie,” she slurred. She patted me on the shoulder and smiled in that dreamy, distant manner she developed when she was drunk. “My baby. My sweet little boy. When did you get here? You look so amazing.”

“So do you,” I said, and I wasn’t just blowing smoke. Even with her makeup smeared on the left side of her face, Mom was really pretty, her eyes a wonderful dark green, her cheekbones high and full of color. “But it’s time to go home.”

She frowned, confused. “Is it?”

“Yes, it is. Come on. I’ll walk with you.”

“Oh. Okay.” She kept looking at me. Her smile faded. “I haven’t seen you in such a long time. Where have you been? I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you too, Mom. But it hasn’t been that long. I was at your place this past weekend. We made dinner together Sunday. Beef tips and rice. Remember?”

She looked confused again. “Was that Sunday? It seems so long ago.”

I took her by the hand, surprised to see that my own was shaking now. “Let’s go. It’s a nice night for a walk.”

Mom slid off the stool and planted her feet carefully. She smiled at me again. Then she frowned. “Wait. Did I bring a handbag?”

I reached over and grabbed the black clutch purse off the bar top. “It’s right here,” I said as I put the purse in her hands. Then I grabbed her jacket and draped it around her.

“Thank you, honey.”

Mom took a couple of slow steps, her body unsteady as she weaved to her left. I took her right arm and pulled it over my shoulders for support. “I’ve got you, Mom.” As we turned toward the door, I looked back at Greg. He was this wiry middle-aged man who dressed like a punk rocker—loose black jeans with rips up and down the legs, a neon-green devil skull T-shirt, and a Mohawk that was mostly gray. He leaned against a column near the cash register, watching us go. For some reason, the compassion in his eyes made me feel even worse. Shit. I made myself smile at him and mouthed, “Thank you.” Greg nodded in response.

The lights in the place were still dim. A short young guy I’d never seen in the bar before was moving among the tables, collecting dirty glasses and stashing them on a wide plastic tray. I guided Mom across the floor. Short guy stopped what he was doing, hustled over, opened the door for us, and I led Mom outside.

It was the middle of October, and the night air was crazy cold. I could feel the chill through my hoodie. That was stupid: I should’ve worn my jacket. Little traffic flowed over the way-too-quiet street, which fed into Deacon Avenue, the main business artery in Jeddersville, Tennessee. That’s my hometown, a spit and a holler northeast of Memphis, as Grampie used to say. Jeddersville was a thriving suburb, its growth fueled—like all the other little towns of West Tennessee and northern Mississippi—by the industry and outflowing population of the Bluff City. I had my arm around Mom’s waist; she leaned against me for support, and I struggled to keep her upright and moving. That must’ve looked really odd since I was still a bit shorter than Mom.

The divorce was a little over a year ago. Mom came out of that fiasco with no alimony. Her choice. She fell behind on her auto loan payments, and her car got repossessed. “Well, that’s a blessing,” Dad had said when he got that news. “Maybe she won’t go driving drunk again.” I’ve got to admit I was kind of relieved myself.

Mom mostly took cabs these days, but there’d be no taxi ride for us tonight. I was majorly broke, and there was no way in hell I was going through Mom’s purse to look for money. Anyway, Mom had probably spent all her cash at the bar.

Mom walked pretty fast when she was sober and not so fast when she was drunk. It seemed to take forever to cover the four blocks between the bar and her apartment.

The apartment building was nice, in a quiet neighborhood. I half carried Mom to the main entrance, which was lit up by floodlights. No hiding in the shadows out there. The door was kept locked. I punched in Mom’s security code on the keypad, and the glass door slid open. We passed through the foyer where the residents’ mailboxes lined the walls on either side like an array of metal tiles. Then we walked across the lobby to the elevators.

By the time we reached the third floor, Mom was well on her way to passing out again. The weight of her body dragged on me even more as we left the elevator. I gave her a gentle shake to rouse her. “Just a little farther, Mom,” I said, the first words between us since we left the bar.

I got out the spare key she gave me months ago and unlocked her apartment. Once we were inside, I took her directly to the sofa. She lay down at once, curling on her side, and was asleep in seconds. Streaks of her makeup were smeared across the fabric of the sofa’s armrest. She looked terribly uncomfortable with her clothes twisted on her body. The idea of undressing her crossed my mind and got booted one second later. I went to her bedroom, grabbed a blanket, and covered her. Then I kissed her cheek and walked out of the apartment, careful to lock the door behind me.

It felt colder now as I hurried through the dark streets toward home. With my head down and my hands stuffed in the pockets of my hoodie, I started my usual freak-out. Jeez, if Mom kept getting wasted like this, how long would it be before something terrible happened to her? Especially now that she was living on her own, with no one to really watch out for her. Dad didn’t seem to give a crap about her anymore. And without a license and car, I could only get to her by taxi, on foot, or bumming a ride from one of the neighbors, which wasn’t easy to hide from Dad. It had taken almost forty-five minutes for me to reach the bar after Greg called tonight. Anything could have happened to Mom in that time.

I was anxious to get home. Traffic was heavier now on Deacon Avenue, either from early workers beginning their predawn commute or weary third-shifters heading home. That took my mind off Mom for a bit, and I breathed a little easier. While it didn’t have a crime rate anywhere near that of bigger cities in Mississippi and Tennessee, Jeddersville still had its (thankfully small) share of muggings and robberies. The more drivers on the road, the more secure I felt.

Forty minutes later, I reached the brick bungalow where I’d lived all my life. A pale pink glow suffused the sky at the eastern horizon. I sneaked along the side of the house and hauled myself over the fence into the backyard.

From the darkness to my left came a rough rustling sound, followed by heavy panting. I looked and saw Misty, the golden retriever who belonged to our next-door neighbors, the Braxtons. She had pressed herself through the bushes and was staring at me through the chain-link fence that separated the two properties. Her mouth was open in what looked like a grin while she wagged her tail enthusiastically.

“Hey, girl,” I whispered to her, and right away I put a finger to my lips, hoping she wouldn’t bark a greeting in return.

Carefully, I pushed open my window, reached in to pull the cord that raised the blind, and climbed into my room. I paused for a moment and listened. There was no sound from within the house. Great. I closed the window and let the blind down again.

Moving slowly and quietly, I took off my hoodie and hung it in the closet. Damn, I froze my ass off out there. I stripped down to my underwear, leaving my clothes scattered across the floor, and climbed into bed. Shivering, I pulled the covers up to my neck and curled my body into a knot.

Three minutes later I was knocked out.