by Tom Pyun
Lois met Barry at Salon du Piel Nouvelle. He was a walk-in and she didn’t usually cut men’s hair or take unscheduled clients, but her regular blowout had canceled. She also thought he was kind of cute; even told her teenage kids so later that night. At the end of the cut, Barry said he noticed none of Polaroid’s tacked on her mirror included a man and asked her to dinner.
When he came to pick her up for their date, her son, Jared answered the door. Lois shouted from behind the bathroom door that she needed a few minutes, so Barry waited on the tweed couch in their tiny living room that also served as her bedroom. To Jared, he looked like a dad out of a TV sitcom with his friendly face, athletic build with a slightly doughy middle, and freshly cut sandy hair deeply parted to the side with flecks of grey at the temples. They sat in silence until Jared, unnerved by having a stranger in his living room, blurted a winding, almost manic monologue about himself. He told Barry his age, he’d recently turned thirteen; his favorite subject in school, biology; his future career aspirations, doctor or astronaut; his birthday, April 14th, which fell on Easter two years ago; and his instrument in band, tenor saxophone. He also confessed that he didn’t take good care of the instrument, the mouthpiece and reed often got moldy from lack of cleaning, and how his mom was pissed since she’d recently bought it after renting it for the past two years. It didn’t matter anyway since he planned on quitting marching band to try out for the junior varsity lacrosse team.
“I played lacrosse at my alma mater,” Barry said.
“What’s an elmer matter?”
“Alma mater is Latin for college.”
“Where’s Alma Mater College?”
“It’s not a college, it’s just a term. I went to Marist College, upstate in Poughkeepsie,” Barry said. Jared noticed that when Barry explained things he didn’t laugh at him for not knowing stuff like some adults did or roll his eyes like his sister when he asked her questions. Barry made eye contact when he explained things. He listened with every cell of his body.
The following weekend, they practiced lacrosse skills – scooping, passing, catching, cradling, and shooting – at the high school soccer field using Barry’s old sticks. After practices, Barry would shower at the apartment before taking Lois to dinner on their weekly date. One weekend, after Barry exited of their tiny bathroom freshly showered and smelling of Old Spice, Jared asked why they never went to Barry’s house.
“Don’t be rude,” Lois said.
“No, no, it’s fine. I should have you, your mother and sister over for Labor Day. Celebrate the end of summer with a barbeque.” Barry offered a high-five with one hand and tousled his hair with the other, which made Jared feel like a little kid, but in a good way.
When Barry opened the door to his palatial home perched on the marina, Jared pushed past him and ran up the stairs, soaking the central air conditioning into his sweaty skin and digging his heels into the plush carpet. Each of the five bedrooms was spare and unlived-in, holding only a neatly made bed and a dresser. When Jared entered the smallest bedroom that faced the marina, he froze at the picture window next to the twin bed. He clutched the bottom of the window’s frame, gazing at the array of white boats docked in the shimmering dark blue water.
“I want this room!” he said in a high-pitched voice that defied his pubescence. The spell he was under broke when he felt the sting of a smack on the back of his head.
“What’s wrong with you, you greedy little freak. It’s not your fucking house,” his sister Jenny said. Her spit sprayed his face as she said it. The safety pin pierced through her black lip liner quivered.
After they ate barbeque ribs and burgers in the backyard, Barry took the three of them on the boat. Soon after they left dock and floated into the Great South Bay, Jenny asked Barry how he got all his money. Lois slapped the back of Jenny’s head and told her to stop being rude, which Jared found satisfying. Barry laughed at the exchange, which Jared found even more satisfying. With one hand on the boat’s chrome steering wheel, Barry explained that he worked on Wall Street after college and when his father died ten years ago, he quit his job and took over the family asbestos removal business. Jared didn’t know where Wall Street was located nor what asbestos was, but he did know he wanted everything that Barry had – central air conditioning, a big house, a boat, and an alma mater. Instead of asking Barry more questions and risk incurring Lois’s wrath, he looked out onto the Bay and let the bay breeze cool his face. A much larger boat, a yacht really, sailed toward them. The driver, a young man with red, spiky hair waved at them. Though he was at a distance, he locked eyes with Jared before veering away. Barry waved back with one hand, the other gripping the wheel. “My neighbor,” he said to Jared who stood to his right. “Nice guy. Very successful for his age.”
Jared swore that he would have all of this when he grew up. He’d work hard and do whatever: work on Wall Street, remove asbestos, cut open sick people or do whatever men did to make gobs of money.
The relationship didn’t last past Halloween. Lois listed all of the reasons over frozen dinners in their apartment’s cramped kitchen: he wanted her to quit smoking, she wasn’t ready; he wanted more kids, she’d gotten her tubes tied a year earlier; he wanted them to all go to Mass with him, she was a proud, lapsed Catholic; they didn’t have enough in common; they didn’t have anything to talk about; he was an old bachelor and stuck in his ways. Jared slumped in his chair and traced slushy mashed potatoes in the cardboard tray with his fork. Lois squeezed his shoulder. “I am sorry sweetie, I know you really liked him. It’s better to end it now, it’ll only get harder.”
“He was a fucking douchebag anyways, ma’. You can do better,” Jenny said.
“Language,” Lois said gently before turning to Jared. “He’s a good guy and he liked you a lot, too. Told me to tell you he thinks you have a lot of potential. I think the word he used was ambitious.”
“More like a greedy little freak.” Jenny rolled her eyes. “I’m glad you’re not gonna become some Stepford wife,” she said to her mother, her mouth full of Salisbury steak and mealy potatoes.
Jared excused himself from the table, telling Lois he was headed to a friend’s house to compare Earth Science notes. He rode his bicycle on the empty sidewalk along the Sunrise Highway as cars whizzed by and then through a patchwork maze of side streets. The dim streetlamps guided his way and the autumn chill grazed his face and goose-bump covered arms.
“Hey, what are you doing here?” Barry said, opening the front door of his blue-shingled colonial. He wore a Yankees cap and a plush bathrobe. Jared had never seen him in his pajamas before and believed there was a newfound intimacy between them as a result. “You must be freezing. Come in.” The house was warm. Barry offered a glass of apple juice and Jared drank it in three gulps.
“Can we still hang out?” Jared said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. His voice cracked. He was shaking. He was going to cry, he could feel it in the back of his throat, but swallowed hard instead.
“Buddy, me and your mom talked about it. She doesn’t think it’s a good idea.” At this point, Jared stopped listening. Something about not getting too attached. Barry was getting busy at work. Lois couldn’t guarantee that Barry would be around, which bothered her. Everything in his spare living room seemed to float far away from his periphery: the TV playing football on mute, the French doors that led to the deck that oversaw the marina, and Barry himself, perched on his leather recliner, leaning forward, explaining why they couldn’t be friends. Barry offered Jared one of his lacrosse sticks. Jared said he couldn’t carry it while on his bicycle. Barry offered Jared a ride home. Jared declined. When Barry insisted he borrows a sweatshirt for his bike ride home, Jared bolted out of the house and rode off. Instead of heading home, he pedaled along the marina. He stopped on the pier, let his bike fall to the ground, and fell to his knees. He leaned his head back and released a guttural wail. Jared cried, shoulders heaving, his fists grinding into this eyes.
“Hey, you okay, kid?” asked a male voice laced with concern. A tall man with red spiky hair hovered above him. Jared used the bottom of his shirt to rub his face dry and nodded. “You know Barry, right? I’ve seen you around,” the man said. He offered his hand to Jared who reciprocated. “I’m Dylan. I’m a good friend of Barry’s. My boat is right next to his.” Dylan pointed diagonally to his yacht, an even larger version of Barry’s boat that featured high, tinted windows stretched across its towering cabin. “You should come inside and take a look. I have hot chocolate.” Jared picked up his bike, but couldn’t find words.
“What’s your name?”
“Leave your bike here, it’s safe.” Without hesitation, Jared followed Dylan through the dimly lit pier and into his yacht. Inside the cabin, he could see Dylan more clearly. His hair was less red and more strawberry blonde under the strips of chrome track lights. He was gangly and freckled and looked about the same age as his sister, seventeen, maybe eighteen.
“How old are you?” Jared asked.
“Twenty-four,” Dylan said. He smiled and poured hot water into his kettle. “You like hot chocolate right?” Jared nodded. He sat in the L-shaped bench next to the galley kitchen with a fleece blanket over his lap. His wide eyes roamed the cabin, small by most building standards, but spacious for the inside of a boat. The walls were lined with pebbled brown leather in between strips of smoky, floor-to-ceiling, mirrors. Barry’s boat seemed simple and tiny, almost drab by comparison. Jared had never been in a place so luxurious.
“Just going to add a little something sweet to our drinks,” Dylan said, pouring a silver flask into the two mugs.
An instinct flared within Jared. He shot to his feet, letting the blanket fall to the floor. “I think I better go home, my mom will be worried.”
“Just stay for a hot chocolate, I can drive you home. I can put your bike in the cab of my truck.” Dylan carried the two mugs and sat down on the velvet sofa.
“I better call her, do you have a phone?”
“It’s not working now. Just sit down and have a few sips.” Dylan slapped the empty seat next to him on the sofa. “I don’t use those pathetic dehydrated marshmallows. These are real marshmallows, the kind you eat camping. You’ve ever been camping?”
Jared shook his head.
“Oh man, you gotta go camping! Every boy has got to know about wilderness survival. I was an Eagle Scout. I could take you some time. Would you like that? Just me and you camping.”
“I’d probably have to check with my mom first,” Jared said.
“Yeah, sure. But you’d like to go camping with me right? You wouldn’t want to disappoint me?” He made a puppy face. The freckly skin around his cheeks and chin drooped.
Jared nodded and took a sip from the foamy mug. It had a sweet nutty flavor with a bitter aftertaste that overpowered the chocolate.
“I added some hazelnut syrup to it. You like it, right?”
“Yeah, its good,” Jared nodded again. “Maybe it tastes a little funny.”
“So you probably want to know how I got all of this at my age,” Dylan said changing the subject. “I’m a banker in the city. Took today off and lucky me, I met you.” He slapped Jared on the back and started rubbing it. His hand moved to Jared’s shoulder and he massaged it. Between the hot chocolate and the warmth of the cabin, Jared became drowsy. Dylan started talking a lot. He talked about his job and how much he hated his commute. He talked about his parents who lived in Florida half the year. He also talked about his older brother with whom he shared the boat, and how he didn’t take good care of it. Jared tried to listen intently, but was getting drowsy. “You’re so tense,” Dylan said. He squeezed Jared’s shoulders again, this time harder with both hands. “A good-looking young guy like you. You don’t have any problems.” Jared slid to the other side of the sofa away from Dylan who released his grip. Jared took a large gulp of the funny-tasting cocoa; the faster he finished it, the sooner he could leave. “Let’s have a contest. Whoever finishes his hot chocolate faster, wins. If I win, you get twenty bucks,” Dylan said.
“And if you win?”
“I’m the adult, I don’t need a prize.”
On the count of three, they chugged in synch.
And that was all Jared remembered.
When he woke up, his left cheek was pressed up against the kitchen’s marble countertop. He was bent over the bar and his track pants and briefs were down by his ankles. His only view was of the bronze faucet of the kitchen sink. Groggy, his head throbbing, Jared tried to lift his head off the bar, but the force of a hand pushed it back down against the cold slab.
“Relax, just relax,” Brett said through gritted teeth. Jared heard the light clanking of a belt buckle behind him.
Adrenaline kicked in and Jared tried to wiggle his body free, but Dylan was too strong. Jared felt a sharp pain in his upper back that pinned him against the counter. Was it an elbow? A knife? Jared’s arms flailed and he punched the air from behind, but he couldn’t reach him.
Jared yelped. A hand covered Jared’s mouth and muffled his voice.
“Shut up!” Something hit the back of his head. Pain silenced him. He stopped wriggling and cried so hard, he convulsed. His diaphragm pressed and vibrated against the cold counter.
“Nooooooooo!” A palm pressed hard against the tip of his nose and bottom of his mouth. Jared thrashed around, but couldn’t turn around.
He muffled noises through the hand covering his mouth. Jared shook his head harder, yet the palm moved along with him. After jerking around more, the palm loosened. Jared bit, but missed. He bore down so hard that his top and bottom molars collided, igniting a ring in his head. He chomped again and caught fingers this time, bearing down as hard as he could, clenching and shaking his head like a stubborn puppy with a bone. Dylan pulled Jared off of the counter by the back collar of his t-shirt and threw him onto the floor.
“You little fucker!” Dylan violently shook his hand in the air.
Jared pulled up his track pants and ran. The bike lay on its side under an overhead light as if waiting for him. He pedaled with all of his might, telling himself that he would never tell another soul what had happened since it was his fault.
His sister’s words echoed in his head the entire way home, “What’s wrong with you, you greedy little freak?”
Tom Pyun was recently a fellow with Vermont Studio Center, Gemini Ink, and VONA/Voices. His stories have appeared in the Rumpus, Blue Mesa Review, and Reed. Tom has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net award. An excerpt of his novel-in-progress was recently published in Joyland Magazine.