By Matthew David Taylor
Jake\\'s body lightly bounced and vibrated with the movements of the
shuttle-bus as he stared forward, anxiously awaiting his arrival at the local county fair. With each bump of the crowded bus, his small head bobbled back and forth and he repeatedly struggled to regain his steadiness and to maintain his focus on the street ahead. His ear-to-ear smile reflected the excitement and joy he hoped to have this evening. After all, he had waited weeks for this night; years, really. This would be his first time at the fair. This was something he dreamed about doing since he was in the first grade, when he listened intently to a classmate tell his story and share souvenirs of the fair, during show and tell hour.
For such a young boy, he had strikingly good looks; large honey-brown eyes that were emphasized by his long, well-defined eyebrows, full lips, a strong jaw line, framed by a head of well-groomed, thick, sandy-blond hair that hung slightly down his forehead. In fact, the only noticeable flaw on his face was a small crescent-shaped scar near his left eye.
He sat on the very edge of the seat closest to the aisle, in the third row back from the front of the bus. The woman next to him didn't allow him much room. She was heavy-set, and the large bag she stuffed between them seemed to have a baby rhino in it. Although Jake had very little room, it didn't bother him much other than the fact that only one buttock fit on the seat; the other hung over the edge into the aisle-way. The woman was somewhat peculiar, Jake thought. She was wearing a loose-fitting yellow dress with large, bright red floral prints that seemed to purposely match her bright-red lipstick and equally red finger nail polish.
She wore a straw hat with a scarf made from the same material as her dress, wrapped around the brim and fastened in the back with two miniature red tassels that dangled slightly in the back. She had been relatively quiet since she boarded the bus thirty minutes ago, squeezing herself into the tiny seat designed for school-aged children. In fact, so far she had only chuckled periodically while reading a magazine that she now clutched loosely in her hands and rested on her lap.
Jake was content with the lack of conversation. It allowed him thinking time to concentrate and plan each hour he would spend at the fair. He knew very well his time at the fair would be short and he wanted to enjoy every moment. He also knew he may never have the chance to come back. He looked straight ahead, beyond the wide windshield of the bus hoping to catch a glimpse of the large rides at the fair, signifying his soon arrival.
Having become somewhat disinterested with the magazine and noticing that he seemed to by himself, the woman looked over at Jake hoping to start a conversation. After a brief pause, she decides on her question, "How are you doing young man?" " Fine thank you ma'am, and yourself?" Jake said, as he gave her a quick glance, then returned his focus to the front of the bus. "Well, I'd be a lot better if this bus got me to the fair a little quicker. It's darn near five o'clock and I'm supposed to meet my daughter and grandchildren at the front gate at five o'clock sharp."
Jake turned his head towards her, smiled politely and then again returned his focus to the front of the bus. " What, cat got your tongue, little boy?" Jake stared ahead, hearing the question but not really understanding it, he decided to pretend that he didn't hear it.
After getting no response, she asked another question. "How old are you?, making sure it was loud enough to hear over the noise on the bus, and giving Jake the benefit of the doubt for not responding to her last question. "I'm twelve years old", this time, giving her his full attention.
"Who are you with?", she asked, thinking he was pretty small for a twelve-year old. "I'm by myself." "By yourself, wow, you're a brave little boy to be going to the fair by yourself, are you meeting somebody there?"
"Um, no, I'm going alone, I have my parents' permission, and really twelve is not that young. My teacher tells me that I'm a very responsible boy. I'll be okay" he said, as he wiggled his butt to the left to try to get a little more room on the seat.
\"Where are your parents this evening?\" she asked. \" They both were kind of busy. They really wanted to come though, but you know how things can get with work and all.\". \"Oh, I know, believe me I know. What's your name?\" \"Jake\" he said, sort of slowly. \"Oh, I like that name, it's a strong name, perfect for a handsome boy like you.\" Jake looks downward, somewhat embarrassed by her kind words and then looked up again. \"What's your name ma'am?" \"Mabel, my name's Mabel."
\"Mabel, that's a name I haven't heard before.\" Jake said. With a proud grin, and looking directly at Jake, she said, \"Well, little fellow, unlike you, I was born a long time ago and in those years, a lot of parents named their daughters Mabel.\" \"It's a nice name,\" Jake quickly replies, \"And how old are you?"
The woman, quickly putting her hand on her hips as best as she can, considering the lack of room on the small seat, said, with a smile on her face, \"now Jake, didn't your parents teach you it's not polite to ask the age of a lady?.\" \"Oh, I'm sorry ma'am. It's just that you said you were born a long time ago and I was just wondering, how long ago. That's all.\" Jake's expression seemed to say, please forgive me.
\"Oh that's okay, Jake. Well, just out of curiosity, how old do you think I am\"? she asked, tilting her head slightly as she looked at Jake. \"Um, let me think...\" squinting his eyes to get a better look at her face. "If I were to guessum, I guess I'd have to say forty?" Her eyes widened . " Close, I'm thirty-nine, thank you very much,. plus a decade or three." She winked and let out a slight giggle.
Jake laughed and looked once again towards the front of the bus. "Well, your just a nice," The woman begins to say and is suddenly interrupted when Jake blurts out. "There it is! It's there, right there!", pointing ahead, as the large Ferris wheel came into sight.
"The Ferris wheel, look at it, it's so big. Can you see it? It's right there" Jake said, which gets the attention of most of the passengers sitting in close proximity to him. His eyes alive with excitement as he points in the direction of the Ferris wheel. "Oh, I see it. Yes it's there", looking in the direction of Jake's pointing finger.
"Well folks, we're just about two blocks away", the bus driver announces over the intercom system. "Please begin to gather up all your belongings; we will be arriving shortly."
"You seem quite excited to be going to the fair little fellow. You darn near jumped off the bus when you saw the Ferris wheel\", the woman said, with a chuckle. \"Oh, you bet I am Ma'am, I can't wait to go on the rides. I'm going on all of them, twice if I can. I'm going to eat cotton candy, caramel apples, and drink an extra-large cherry Icee.\"
\"Well, don't you get yourself all full of sugar now. My grandchildren do that and it takes them days to unwind.\" Jake paused a moment, studying the woman's face. Her eyes were clear blue, sunken slightly, into her full cheeks; her smile outlined by her bright-red lips. Jake smiled back and said; \"Oh, I intend to, the fair only comes once a year so I have all year to unwind.\" His eyes continued to study her face, focusing now on the tiny wrinkles extending from the corners of her eyes.
\"That's a real nice sports jersey you got there. Let me guess, football, right?" \" Yeah you're right, football. It's my favorite team's jersey. I love football. My Dad and me spend every Sunday watching football games on tv. So far our team is undefeated, it's still early in the season, but I think we've got a chance to go all the way to the Superbowl.\"
\"I bet your parents just love you to death, don't they? You're as cute as they come\", placing her hand on his left shoulder. Jake's eyes focus on her hand for a moment and then glance up to meet her eyes. He sits looking at her for a moment, but never answers her question.
After a few seconds, a loud voice once again sounds from the intercom system."Okay folks, were here. It's five-fifteen. Remember now, the fair closes at ten o'clock tonight, and the last bus leaves at eleven, so if you don't want to be stranded at the fair, I'd advise you be at the bus stop by ten-fifty. Have a great time and be safe."
As the bus rolled up to its designated stop, the woman takes three dollars from her purse, extends her hand towards Jake, holding the money out in front of him. \"Here you go, take this and buy yourself that cherry Icee you wanted.\" \"Thanks anyway ma\\'am, but I've got twenty-two dollars and sixty-eight cents to spend\", gently pushing her hand away. Before she could insist, everyone on the bus suddenly surged slightly forward as the driver applied the brakes and stopped the bus.
Jake could hardly control his excitement as he squirmed into the aisle. \"I hope you have a good time with your grandkids\", he said to the woman as he turned and then raced to the front of the bus. \"You too, sweetie, have a ball!\", directing her voice towards the front of the bus, hoping he could hear her. The doors opened and Jake bolted off.
As soon as his feet hit the gravel, he looked up only long enough to take in the full view of the fair, smiled and then made a mad dash for the entrance gate. There were several lines and Jake quickly found the shortest one and assumed his place at the end of the line, one hand deep in his pocket, searching for the money that will guarantee him a fantastic night. His small fingers wrap around a ball of what feels like crumpled up Post-it-notes. Once he has a good grip on it he wiggles his hand out, looks for the five-dollar bill that would cover his entrance fee, pulls it out from the rest, and shoves the unorganized clump of bills back into his pocket.
He looks up to discover the line is down to two people. \"Okay now, twenty-two dollars and sixty-eight cents minus five dollars is" he says to himself as he begins the calculations in his head, using his fingers to assist him,\"seventeen dollars and sixty-eight cents.\" He knows very well that he has to make his money last at least until ten o'clock when the fair closes.
The couple in front of him purchase their tickets and walk away from the ticket window towards the entrance. It's his turn now and he approaches the ticket window. \"One child's ticket please\", as he lifts up his hand and slides the five-dollar bill through the small opening in the lower part of window. The woman behind the glass takes the money, puts it in the till, and hands Jake his ticket. \"Thanks\", he said, and quickly runs over to the circular rotating entrance gate, hands his ticket to the gate attendant and enters the fair.
Jake can't believe his eyes. It's everything he thought it would be and more. The sounds, the multi-colored flashing lights, the smells, the people.
Everything seemed so spectacular. He stands there, motionless at first, but then his head begins slowly rotating left to right scanning everything. Just ahead to the left, he sees a carrousel ride with beautifully painted majestic horses whisking young children into some far away fantasy land as they go up and down and up again. The music of the carrousel fills Jake's ears and seems to captivate him, almost as if it were purposely luring him to partake in the magic of the ride.
Jake looks to the right, and just beyond a clown making balloon animals, he notices a father carrying his young son high on his shoulders. The man, reaching up to hold the hands of the boy, extending his arms out and trotting slowly as he veers to the left and then to the right, almost as if he too were a ride at the fair. The boy laughs loudly and looks high into the sky as his father makes sounds of an airplane in flight.
Jake begins to giggle, which quickly turns into laughter of his own, that grows louder with each passing second. He raises his arms high, to mimic a plane, and he too begins to slowly take flight. \"I'm the Red Baron,\" he says under his breath as he begins a slow jog. He takes a deep breath, filling his lungs and mouth with oxygen. His cheeks bulge out as he forces rapid darts of air over his puckered lips to make the sounds of bullets firing from the imaginary Gatling guns mounted on each side of his imaginary plane. \\\"too..too..too..too..too..\"
The sounds continue as he dodges in and around the crowds of people lowering his arms when necessary to avoid a crash. His body shifting left to right as he makes his way down the first graveled pathway of the fairgrounds.
His plane veers sharply left and as his head turns, he notices a booth with bright pastel-colored pillow-like objects encased in see-through plastic. They were hanging from small hooks placed all around the outside of the square, wooden frame of the booth. \"Cotton candy!\" he says.
The sounds of bullets quickly convert into the sounds of a plane coming in for landing, \"ERRRRRRRRrrrrrrrrrrrnnn\", becoming softer as he approaches the colorful booth. Lowering his arms, Jake takes notice of the sign that reads, Cotton Candy $1.50 . He reaches into his pocket to retrieve his cluster of money. Once he maneuvers it from his pocket, he grabs two-dollar bills and places them on the small counter-top. \"I'll have a blue one, please\" he says, as he shoves the rest of the money back into his pocket.
A high-school-age girl working the booth unhooks one of blue cotton candies and hands it to Jake. "Here you go", as she picks up the money. Jake takes hold of the white-paper handle and quickly tears open the plastic wrapping and throws it in the trash can next to the booth. Using his right hand, he pulls off a large chunk of the fluffy and very sticky candy. He places it on his tongue, sticking it out as far as he possibly could, and, resembling a frog with a fly, in one swift move he retracts his tongue and sucks in the blue concoction. "Mmm, this is good", the sugary substance dissolving in his mouth. He continues to eat bite after delicious bite.
" I better get going if I want to ride all the rides", he thinks to himself as he begins to walk. " I want to stick to my plan", reviewing it in his head. "First I'm going on the ZIPPER, and then to the BOBSLED, and then to the FUN HOUSE. But of course, I'll save the FERRIS WHEEL for last." His pace increases as he hurries down the aisle-way towards the ride section of the fair. By now his lips, teeth, and tongue are vibrant blue and the gritty sugar particles sparkle on his gums.
He's nearly finished with his treat and just in time, as he hears someone yelling from a booth. "Chili dogs, we've got the best chili dogs at the fair. Come and get a chili dog!" He quickly licks off the last remnants of blue sugar from the long paper cone, and within a matter of minutes is gulping down a semi-warm chili dog. "Oh, this hits the spot", Jake thinks to himself. It's been hours since his last meal and it was a small meal at that. So this is quite satisfying.
Jake spent the next three hours in the splendor of the fair, riding the rides, eating everything he could fit into his mouth, and visiting the petting zoo, which was great until he stepped in a fresh pile of llama poop. He spent time looking at most of the exhibits; his favorite was the classic cars. In fact, he bought a small replica of a Black 1967 Camaro Super Sport, with cool racing stripes. This was something he was going to be proud to show off to his friends at school.
He saw men walking on stilts, jars with live, very scary, extra-large bugs that were imported from far away countries. He sat for down for awhile in the stadium bleachers to watch a little bit of the rodeo. But something about the way the calves were wrestled down and tied-up bothered him, so he left quickly. Jack particularly liked the Zipper ride, except that it made his stomach feel somewhat queasy. He knew though, that it was probably due to all the food he has eaten and, in part, to the quick jerks of the ride.
The last three hours were fantastic for Jake, full of excitement and lots of fun. But he realized it was getting late and he had yet to ride the Ferris wheel. Not because he hadn't attempted to, but because the line was just too long every time he went. But now he had to go, line or not. Once again, he headed toward the ride section of the fairgrounds.
As he turned into the aisle way that led to the rides, Jake could see from a distance that the line for the Ferris wheel was short. Wasting no time and trying to avoid people getting ahead of him, he started to run. Slowly at first, but his speed increased as the realization of the excitement the ride offered flooded his mind. He arrived quickly, hands on his hips and panting. He was somewhat out of breath. He took his place in line and then looked up to marvel at the size of the ride.
"Perfect timing", he thought as the wheel slowly came to a stop and prepared to let the people off the ride. He knew by looking at the short line, that this time, he would get on. His heart, still pounding from his recent sprint, pushed at his chest. He felt nervous. The ride was awful high, he thought as he continued looking up at the massive wheel. As each car emptied, they were quickly boarded with new thrill-seekers. Jake could hear the nervous shrills of the people as they took their seats and locked the steel bar in front of them.
"One or two?" The man working the ride yells over to Jake. "What?" Jake replies, not understanding. "Are you riding alone or do you have a partner?"
"Oh, I'm riding alone." Jake said. "Well come on then, get yourself over here", the man says with a tone and a look that implies he's a little impatient. "Okay", Jake replies and quickly moves forward and boards the ride. Hurrying to get situated, he places his souvenir car on the hard cold metal seat between his thighs, hoping it won't fall during the ride.
The safety bar is locked into place and Jake's car suddenly jolts forward and rises ten feet in the air. "Whoooaa", Jake says half-scared and half-excited as his car rocks back and forth. As each new passenger boards, Jake's car rises higher and higher into the cool night air. His jersey offers very little warmth, nor do the jean shorts he chose to wear today. He can instantly feel the chill on his legs.
His hands grip tightly the cold steel safety bar in front of him. His eyes are tightly shut. His right-hand forefinger quickly finds a nick in the bar where the paint has been chipped off. His finger begins rubbing the nick in a circular motion, hoping for some type of comfort or at least a distraction from his fear. Higher and higher he goes. The sound of shrills and screams fill his ears, yet Jake remains silent.
Suddenly the lifting motion of the car stops. Jake is nervous but forces his eyes to open, only to reveal that his car is at the very top of the large wheel. His first thought is to quickly shut them again, but he changes his mind when his eyes gaze upon, what seems like a sea of sparkling lights. His view reaches far beyond the fairgrounds into the surrounding city. Suddenly his fear turns into amazement as he looks ahead with eyes wide open, seldom blinking.
He takes a long deep breath through his nose; his nostrils flare out slightly as they take in the cold, crisp night air that slowly fills his lungs. His skinny legs shivering from the chill that penetrates them, struggle to hold tight his coveted souvenir. Goosebumps cover his body. His teeth chatter slightly, only stopping as he swallows the saliva that has built up in his mouth.
"It's beautiful." Jake says in a tone barely even he could hear, as he looks ahead. "It's like twinkling stars have fallen onto the earth.\" His eyes capture all the lighted fair rides in full motion, twisting and turning against the darkened sky. He marveled at the ant-sized people walking throughout the fair below. The vibrant city alive with movement. "There are so many cars", he thinks to himself, as he watches the rows of cars that resemble long snakes, winding through the nearby freeway. Bright-white snakes on the left and ruby-red ones on the right. His imagination not affected by the chill, soars wildly. He has never seen the city from this height and he is completely mesmerized by the sheer beauty of the lighted city.
Slowly the huge, lighted wheel begins to rotate forward and Jake propels downward with the momentum of the ride. His stomach full of butterflies as the speed of the wheel increases. He grips the bar even tighter than before as he falls closer towards the ground below. Within seconds the metal seat-car is swooshing past the ride operator and quickly begins to climb up again, this time at a much faster speed.
At this point, Jake's seat-car is at the mid-way point, horizontal to the ground. He notices that from the seat-car directly across from him, on the opposite side of the wheel, is a small piece of material, resembling the tail of a kite, fluttering in the wind. It was yellow with large bright-red floral print. "Hey, it's the lady from the shuttle-bus", Jake thinks to himself, recalling her straw hat. "Hello Mabel, it's me, Jake, the boy from the bus!" He calls out in her direction but quickly realizes she can't possibly hear him.
The large wheel rotates upward and Jake, once again, is at the top. His eyes focusing intently on the wondrous sights, and then pausing briefly as they blink, as if trying to take mental pictures and store them in his memory. As the Ferris wheel begins its downward decent, Jake, caught up in the excitement and forgetting his fear, raises his arms high above his head, lets out a loud joyous shrill, "aaaahhhhh" and is whisked rapidly downward. Although he is by himself, he is having the time of his life.
Jake continued to fully enjoy the marvelous ride that is now coming to its completion. Decreasing its speed with each rotation, the large Ferris wheel comes to a gradual stop. As Jake's car nears the small debarking platform, he grabs his souvenir and prepares to disembark. "This was so cool, I can't wait to tell everybody at school. What a blast. Now it's time for my cherry Icee."
Jake rises slightly from his seat, as his eyes scan the area for the booth selling Icees. "I wonder what time it is, It seems kinda late." As he arrives at the platform, the ride operator unlocks and releases the safety-bar.
"Excuse me sir, but could you please tell me what time it is?" The operator looks at his watch and replies, "sure, it's nine o'clock on the dot." "Thank you", Jake replies, and it one quick movement jumps onto the platform and then steps to the ground below.
He stands there for a moment, near the platform, deciding which direction he should go. Struggling to see past the noisy crowds of people, he stands on his tiptoes. As he scans the area, he hears someone calling his name, softly at first, but then the voice becomes louder each time his name is called. "Jake, Jake." Jake looks in all directions hoping to find the source of the voice. He sees no one. "Jake!", the voice calls even louder now and with an angry tone. This time Jake recognizes the voice. It's the voice of his father.
Jake quickly ducks behind the platform and in a crouching position, tucks his head between his legs, one hand tightly covering his ear, the other clutching his souvenir. He is silent, shivering once again. This time, not from the coldness of the night, but from sheer terror. "JAKE", "JAKE", the voice calls out, now much louder than the crowds of people. " JAKE, DAMN IT, I'M CALLING YOU!" The voice screams with fury.
Jake's eyes now wide open. His body lying flat with his hands at his sides, he continues to shiver, now more than ever, as he clutches at his blankets. He's wide-awake now, his head resting on his pillow and staring up at the ceiling of his small dark bedroom. The magnificent fair, which gave him so much joy is now, within an instant, gone.
"BAMM". A loud pounding causes Jake to turn his head towards the bedroom door. His father yells, " Jake, you better open up this mother fuckin' door before I break it down and kick your mother fuckin' ass!" The pounding continues, "BAMM', 'BAMM', 'BAMM'. "Open up you little Bastard!" The door violently rattling with each powerful blow from his father's fist, makes loud cracking sounds as if it is being rammed by a raging bull
Jake, glancing up at the bright-red numbers illuminating from the digital clock, sees that it's four o'clock in the morning. He quickly rips off his blankets and makes a mad dash for the rattling door, unlocking it as he twists the knob and opens the door. Suddenly the dark room is flooded with a beam of light from the hallway, shining only on the lower part of Jake's body. His father standing there, towering over Jake, red-faced with fury. Jake standing stiff, like a soldier at attention, hands at his side with his eyes looking at the floor, trembling, fighting back the urge to urinate. "What took you so long to open the damn door!"
" Dad, I was sleeping and I didn't hear you." His father lifts up his hand high above Jake's head and Jake's eyes follow it. He releases a small trickle of pee as he stares at the horseshoe-shape ring on his father's clenched fist, knowing all too well the damage it can cause. With one swooping blow, his father strikes Jake's face. "Ow, Dad, I'm sorry", Jake blurts out as he falls to the floor wincing with pain. His father reaches down and grabs a handful of Jake's thick hair, gripping tightly as he drags Jake into the hallway.
Jake looks up, motionless, his eyes wide and steady, stare up at his father with the same stare of a rabbit looking up into the open claws of a hawk going in for the kill, realizing there's no time for escape. "what did you do with my goddam cigarette lighter? I know you have it!" "I don't have it Dad, I didn't take it, I" Jake tries to explain but is interrupted. "You fucking liar!", his father shouts, releasing Jake's hair and then wrapping his hand tightly around Jake's tiny throat as he lifts him off the ground and brings him to eye level. The familiar smell of whisky enters Jake's nose.
Jake can feel his airway closing tightly, barely able to breathe, he squeezes out a few words. "I'm not lying, I swear I don't know where your lighter is." Looking directly at his father, Jake's eyes seem to be saying, why are you hurting me? "Don't give me that pitiful look. You look just like you're fucking mother!" His father spits in his face and then suddenly releases his grip, dropping Jake to the floor with a loud thump. Jake is silent, holding in the tears while wiping the saliva from his face. Experience has taught him that if he cries it increases his father's rage.
"Go find my damn lighter, now!" On his hands and knees Jake starts to crawl towards the living room when he feels his fathers foot digging into his ribs, with a quick thrust. "Ugh." Jake feels the pain of the kick but continues down the hallway into the living room, his father following close behind him. Standing up now, he sees a young woman sitting at the table in the adjacent kitchen. She's holding a drink and swaying back and forth to the music from the stereo. He recognizes her as one of the cocktail waitresses from a local bar in town that he had, on several occasions, gone in looking for his father.
Jake begins franticly looking for the lighter. First turning over the cushions from the sofa, and then the chair. Looking under the coffee table and behind the television, he finds nothing. His father sits next to the young woman as he pours himself another glass of whisky. "Hey, what are ya lookin' for?" she says in a slow voice, then takes a sip from her drink.
"My Dad's lighter", Jake says as he reaches his arm under the sofa feeling for the lighter. "Ya mean this lighter?", almost falling from her chair as she reaches into her back pocket and pulls out the lost lighter.
Jake lets out a huge breath of relief. His father, turning up the volume of the stereo, yells over to Jake. "Get back to bed!"
Jake runs to his room, closes and locks the door. With his body leaning against it, he slides down until he slumps down in a ball on the floor. He sits up, leaning against the door, his hands on his ribcage trying to relieve the pain as best as he can. The room is cold. He looks over at the window, which is open slightly. The yellow curtains his mother made, move with the incoming breeze. They have a bright-red floral print and are secured in the center with red tassels. He goes to the widow and closes it. He grabs onto the curtains, brings them close to his face, and takes in a deep breath hoping to smell the scent of his mother. For a brief moment, the curtains comfort him.
He walks slowly over to his bed, climbs up, and lays his head into the permanent indentation on the pillow, hoping to be whisked away into another magical place. He can hear the music of the stereo in the living room. One solitary tear passes over his cheek and drops onto the pillow. Exhausted, but unable to fall asleep, he stares at the ceiling.
Six hours pass and he has not moved from his bed. His eyes focus on the different items throughout the room. The sun streaks through the opening of the curtains. It is now ten o'clock in the morning, Sunday. Jake gets out of bed and puts on his jean shorts and a white tee shirt. He slips into his tennis shoes, ripped and slightly worn out. He goes to the door, opens it about eight inches, and listens for a second.
Hearing nothing, he makes his way down the hallway and into the bathroom. After using the toilet, he walks to the sink and turns on the water. While waiting for the water to warm up, he looks into the mirror and sees the bruises from last night's beating. He stares for a moment, picks up the soap and washes his hands and face, feeling the pain as his hands pass over his sore wounds. He can almost hear his mother's voice saying don't forget to brush your teeth Jake. He brushes his teeth and makes his way down the hallway into the living room.
The young woman is asleep on the couch; his father lying motionless on the floor flat on his back, still clutching a glass of whisky. Jake, worried for his father, hurries over and crouches down, then puts his ear close to his father's face. Hearing and feeling his father's breath, Jake is relieved.
He takes the glass out of his father's hand and takes it to the kitchen. He opens the refrigerator and takes out the near-empty carton of milk. He pours what's left of the milk into a glass, filling it only half way. He walks to the sink, adds a little cold water, and gulps down the watery drink. He makes himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which he devours in a matter of seconds. Shortly after his meal, he washes the dishes, takes out the trash and finishes cleaning up the kitchen.
He walks through the living room, only pausing to cover his father with a throw-blanket, makes his way out the front door, picks up his skateboard and heads to his best friend Michael's house. Sunday is the day he watches football with his friend. Jake loves football; he plays with his friends any chance he gets. In fact, he hopes to play for the high school team someday. But that won't be for a least six years.
As his right foot pushes to propel the skateboard forward, he can feel the soreness in his ribs every time his foot hits the hard pavement. Passing the cemetery, as he does every Sunday, Jake looks towards the opposite side of the street. It's been four years since he was there last, and he always avoids looking over the short cobblestone wall into the cemetery.
He pushes harder and faster in an attempt to pass as quickly as he can. The pain in his ribs almost unbearable with the increased speed. As he reaches the end of the sidewalk he, along with his skateboard, jump off the curb and shoot into the street. Jake is particularly proud of his skateboard skills. With a sound of a loud horn he quickly veers right, out of the way of the passing car. Smiling as he hears the angry voice of the driver, "Jerk, stay off the street!" Realizing the last skateboard trick wasn't the best thing he could have done for his pain, he decides to take it easy.
Jake quickly arrives at Michael's house. He tosses his skateboard near the porch, walks up to the door and rings the doorbell, Ringgggg, Ringggg,. The sound of the doorbell always makes Jake laugh. He thinks it sounds more like a telephone than a doorbell. The door opens and Michael's mom says with a warm welcome, "Hi Jake, here for the game?" "Yes, hello Mrs. Thomas. Is it okay if I watch the game with Michael?"
"Of course, Jake, you know that" She says as she opens the door wider to let Jake in. "Give me a hug first, Jake", as she wraps her arms around him and squeezes tightly. He winces with the pain in his ribs but ignores it, welcoming the hug. It's been a long time since he's been hugged and the smell of her perfume reminds him of his mother. He smiles as he closes his eyes momentarily.
"Hey Jake, are you okay? What happened to your face?" gently cradling it in her hands. "Oh, Mrs. Thomas, you know. I'm always falling off my dang skateboard", hoping to sound believable. "You and Michael both. You look tired honey, didn't you sleep well?", asking with a loving look on her face. "No, there was this noisy cat outside my window. It woke me up early",. Jake replies convincingly. "Well okay then, go on get your butt in there and watch the game", pushing him in by his butt. "Michael, Jake is here", she calls to her son.
Jake enters the living room to see Michael sitting on the couch next to his father, both of them wearing their team's jersey. Jake, with envy, says "Hey, guys." "Hey Jake". They both reply back in unison. "Wow, Jake, what happened to you?", Mr. Thomas asked. "Skateboard", Jake replies.
Michael, knowing the truth, swallows as his father replies "Wow, buddy, you've got to be more careful. You kids nowadays go crazy with all the tricks you try to do" Before he can finish, Michael interjects. "Dad." Mr. Thomas continues with his lecture, "Well, you know boys" Michael interrupts again, "Dad."
"Okay, okay. Just be more careful, you two. Hey Jake, where's your jersey? I thought you said your Dad was going to buy you one this week."
"Oh, he said for sure next payday", Jake replies as he sits down in the chair across the room. Quickly their attention turns to the television as the sports commentator says with excitement, "he's caught the ball! Can you believe that folks? He pulled that one out of his hat, and there he goes! He's at the forty, the thirty, the twenty, the ten Oh my God, It's a touchdown!"
Mr. Thomas jumps up off the couch, Michael and Jake soon follow and they proceed to give each other high-fives and doing the touchdown dance.
"It's a touchdown, it's a touchdown, oh yeah, oh yeah". Mr. Thomas sings with his arms extended out and his hips jerking left to right. Jake and Michael quickly do the same. All three of them looking very much like Elvis Presley impersonators.
This continues for a minute or so until, attracted by the commotion, Mrs. Thomas walks into the room. "Hey you guys, are you watching football or having a dance contest?" All three of them quickly circle around her and continue with their silly antics and repeating their touchdown song. "It's a touchdown, it's a touchdown, Oh yeah, oh yeah." All of them laughing now.
Mrs. Thomas, still in the middle of the circle, looks up and raises her arms. "Help me somebody, call 911, I'm surrounded by a bunch of football dorks!" With that comment, Mr. Thomas yells out, "tickle her!" "No, please no", she pleads as she falls to the carpet with six hands tickling her. Her arms and legs flailing about to discourage their endless attack.. The room is filled with loud laughter.
"Okay, okay I give up. Please", laughing as she speaks. "Please", she begs, her sides exhausted from laughing so hard, her face flush. "That's enough now boys, I think she's had enough. Look at her face, she's tickled pink." Everybody now rising to their feet, trying to catch their breath. "Real funny Mister, you wait. Do you boys want some nachos?" "Yeah, mom, that sounds good.".
"Yes please, Mrs. Thomas", Jake says with a smile, happy at the thought of some warm food and pretending not to feel the soreness in his body. "I'll help you dear", Mr. Thomas says to his wife. "Dear, what's this dear? Don't try to kiss-up now, it's too late", she says laughing, as she walks to the kitchen. Her husband following, tickling her as they go.
Alone now, Michael and Jake sit together on the couch. They've been friends since kindergarten and share a lot of memories together.
"You're so lucky, Michael", Jake says, nudging his best friend in the arm.
"I know, hey is that true what you told my Dad? Is your Dad going to buy you a jersey next payday?" "No, I just didn't know what else to say."
"Your Dad did that to your face, didn't he?", Michael inquires, putting his arm around Jake. "Yeah, he did. All because he couldn't find his stupid lighter. His girlfriend had it the whole time. Man, I was really scared this time. He kicked me too. That was the worst", he said, lifting his shirt. "Oh man", Michael says, somewhat gasping as he looks at Jake's badly bruised body.
"That looks bad, Jake. You've got to let me tell my parents." "No, absolutely not. You promised you would never tell." Jake fires back quickly pulling down his shirt to conceal his wounds. "Besides, it'll go away, they always go away", Jake says, trying to relieve his friends worry. " You must hate your father" Michael said, with a look of disgust.
Jake looks directly at Michael. "No Michael, I don't hate him. I can't hate him; he's my father. You know a lot about me, but you don't know everything that goes on inside my head. Life's tougher for me than you think, In ways, Michael, I can't really explain." "You can't or won't?, Michael says, wanting to know.
Jake looks down now and for a moment is quiet, then begins to speak again.
"The beatings are not the worst for me, Michael, In fact, I'm used to them now. The real tough things are feeling that my father doesn't love me, that the man who should be protecting me is the man hurting me, and then my mother. That's tough too. I want my Dad to love me. I want what you have with your Dad. If I had a choice, I'd choose happiness. But sometimes..." He pauses and then looks up at Michael and continues, "sometimes, I feel happiness isn't somehow, meant for me. God doesn't seem to hear my prayers anymore and my Mom, well she left me."
"Jake, you can't possibly feel that God or your Mom meant for you to have this kind of life", Michael interjects, overwhelmed with sadness for his good friend. " No, of course I don't believe that they want me to suffer like this. But I feel like I have nobody."
Michael hesitates for a moment and then asks, "have you been to visit your Mom's grave lately?" "No Michael, I can't go, I want to but it's too hard", Jake responds. " I think you should go Jake. I think it will make you feel better", Michael says, with a matter-of-fact tone. Jake replies, seeming to ignore Michael's suggestion, "my Dad says I'm a nobody and sometimes, I believe him. But someday I want to be somebody. Everybody wants that. I want it real bad. For now though, I just wish my Dad would be my friend."
Michael, trying to comfort Jake's emotions, replies, "Jake, you know you'll always have my friendship, always." "I know Michael, I'm counting on that."
Hearing Michael's Dad coming down the hall, Jake quickly returns to his chair. " Remember Michael, don't say anything, You promised", Jake tells Michael before his dad enters the room. " I promise."
"Promise what?", Mr. Thomas says as he enters the room with a tray of nachos and three sodas. "I promised Jake that we would take him to the movies next weekend. That is Dad, if you can ever get your butt off the sofa long enough to take us." "What did you say to me, boy? Do you want me and Jake to tickle you too! Only we won't stop until you wet your pants, how about that?", Mr. Thomas says, as he sets the treats on the coffee table. "Besides Dad, Jake's birthday is next week, It can be a birthday gift." Jake sits quiet, with a half grin. He had forgotten his own birthday. "That sounds like a good idea Michael, let's plan on it. Okay, Jake?", Mr. Thomas replies.
The three of them enjoy their nachos and continue to watch play after play of the game. Everything is going well except Jake seems a little quiet. It's not that he's disinterested with the game, it's just that he can't stop thinking about Michael's suggestion: Feel better, how can Michael think that going to my mother's grave will make me feel better? "I can't go, I won't go", he continues to tell himself. Visions of happy times with his mother begin to fill his head. He sits for a moment and enjoys the fond memories. Suddenly he stands up and says, "I've got to go, I forgot I promised my Dad I'd mow the grass!" " But Jake,it's only the third quarter, you're gonna miss the rest of the game", Mr. Thomas replies.
"I know, I'm sorry guys, but I've really got to go." He makes his way to the door in a hurry. "Well, we'll see you next week, okay Jake?", Mr. Thomas says. Michael gets up and walks to the door with his friend and says, "hey Jake, are you okay? What's going on, you mowed the grass yesterday?"
"I know, but I just gotta go. Thanks for everything. I had a good time today. I'll see you tomorrow in school." "Yeah okay, I'll see you tomorrow."
Jake shouts into the hallway, "Thanks, Mr. and Mrs.Thomas, thanks for everything!" "Bye, Jake", Mrs. Thomas yells from the kitchen. Jake closes the door, grabs his skateboard and before he starts his journey back home, he carefully plucks a large pink rose from Mrs. Thomas's rose garden.
Jake is traveling faster than he ever has on his skateboard, his leg pumping like the leg of a racehorse barreling down the stretch towards the finish line. His hand clutching the rose close to his body, protecting it from getting damaged. His mind races faster than his small body is traveling. He feels emotionally confused, torn between visiting his mother's grave or not visiting it. As a coping mechanism, he locked away many of the difficult memories long ago, and seeing her gravesite may allow them to resurface, unleashing his pennedup anger and overwhelming grief.
"Should I go? Maybe Michael's right, it may make me feel better. How can seeing my dead mother's grave make me feel better? No, no, I can't go. It will make me sad again, angry again. What about her, though? Maybe she's sad 'cause I haven't visited her, I didn't think about that, I'd better go!" His speed increases even faster making his way through the streets.
Jake quickly arrives at the opening in the cobblestone wall that serves as the entrance to the cemetery. He sits down to rest for a moment on the short wall, his face beet-red. He is sweating and breathing heavily, mostly because of the fast pace in which he came, but also partly due to the anxiety he feels about entering the cemetery. He was eight years old the last time he came here. He watched the men lower his mother's casket into the ground and then cover it up with dirt. He cried uncontrollably, he was inconsolable. It was to him, the worst day of his young life.
After a few minutes, he picks up his skateboard, tucks it under his arm and holding the rose in his hand, begins to walk slowly down the pathway leading to his mother's gravesite. He remembers exactly where it is, under a very tall eucalyptus tree near a statue of a saint. He can already see the tree from where he is and he continues to walk, only much faster now, looking at all the tombstones along the way. As he arrives at the tree, he looks for the spot of his mother's grave.
At first, he can't find the grave marker with his mother's name, and then finally he locates it. It's overgrown with grass and barely visible. He grabs the small bud vase from its place near the bronze marker, fills it up with water from a nearby water spigot, places the rose inside the vase and returns it to its place in the ground.
He spends the next fifteen minutes on his hands and knees, clearing away the grass and weeds, saying nothing. When he is finished, he uses his mouth to blow away the remaining small particles of grass and dusts off of the grave marker. He lowers his lips onto the marker and kisses it very gently. As he kisses it once again, he begins to cry, softly at first and then grows very loud, as loud as he did on the day she was buried. His arms embracing the ground as if it were his mother, he continues to cry.
After a few minutes he sits up, wiping the tears from his face he says out loud, "I miss you Mom, so much and I'm sorry for not visiting you sooner, it's just that I felt mad because you left. I hope you're not mad at me. Nothing has changed much at home except that you're not there anymore. I'm okay though, don't worry, I know you always worried about me. Remember how you would play catch with me in the yard? It never bothered you that I would throw the ball over your head. You would keep chasing it over and over again and you would say 'it's okay Jake, one more time.'
Remember how much fun we had making popcorn at night and watching television? Oh, and remember when I was five, you made me that lion costume for Halloween; you used a mop for the mane. It looked good but my hair smelled like bleach for two days. I miss those times", he says, as he giggles and smiles.
Suddenly his smile turns downward into a frown. Remember how we had our secret hiding place in the attic. Dad could never find us. You would hold me tight and say 'Shhh, don't cry , he'll hear you. It's gonna be alright, I'm here honey, I'm here', remember, Mom? I'm sorry Dad hurt you, I wish I was bigger, I would have protected you." Jake stares down at the grass below him hoping to hear his mother's voice speak to him. "Mom, I know you're in heaven, but can you hear me?" He waits for an answer, but hears nothing. He looks around the gravesite and then up into the tall tree above him.
"Mom, are you here?" He sees nothing. "Mom, if you are here, give me a sign, can you?" He waits, very still, looking for any movement and listening for any sounds. He would love to see her beautiful face just once more. Nothing happens. Maybe she's not here, he thinks. Maybe she can't hear me at all. Maybe heaven is too far away. Suddenly he is overcome by sadness and somewhat let down. "Michael was wrong, I don't feel better, I feel worse", Jake says in a disappointed voice.
He gets up quickly brushing the grass from his knees. He looks up towards the sky and yells as loud as he can, "I love you, Mom, I wanna be with you again!" This gets the attention of a nearby family visiting a gravesite. They look over at Jake and stare for a moment.
Jake, feeling somewhat foolish, hops on his skateboard and heads for the exit as fast as he can, never looking back. The beautiful pink rose moves slightly with the breeze, releasing a petal that lies on top of the lonely grave. Perhaps this was the sign Jake was looking for.
In a very short time he arrives at his house, feeling very angry. He throws his skateboard on the porch with such force, it cracks slightly in the middle. Ignoring the cracking sound, he opens the front door. His father is not home. He walks through the messy living room and heads directly for his father's bedroom. He opens the door; the room is dark and smells of liquor. He walks in, goes directly to the nightstand on the left side of the bed, turns on the lamp and opens the small drawer. He looks at the black pistol for a moment, then takes it out. With his right hand, he holds the weapon close to his body. He is crying now and overcome by his emotions.
Why, God?" He mumbles as he looks up as if to pray. "Why her and not him? Don't you realize what you've done to my life? She loved me and I loved her. He beat her like he beats me and you didn't stop him, why? We relied on you and you gave up on us. Is this how I'm supposed to live my life, with a cruel father? Please tell me, I need to know, God. I need know that things are going to get better for me."
Jake raises the pistol to his temple. He winces as if preparing himself for the pain of a bullet ripping into his skull. His finger begins to pull at the trigger when he suddenly drops the pistol and collapses on the bed.
"I can't, I can't do it, I just can't do it", he repeats over and over again, with his hands covering his face. He quickly gets up from the bed, picks up the pistol and puts it back into the nightstand, turns off the lamp and rushes to his room, slamming the door behind him. He stands there for a moment realizing what almost happened, leaning against the door. The room is colder than normal, and the curtains move with the incoming breeze, this time, more than usual. He walks over to close the window but suddenly sucks in a quick breath of air as he notices the window is not open.
Goosebumps form on his skin as he looks up at a picture of him and his mother on the wall above his bed. "Mom, are you here?" He hears nothing but as he grabs hold of the yellow curtains, he can smell her scent. It's stronger than it ever has been. "You are here", he says as he continues to hug the curtains. "I'm sorry for what I almost did, I promise I won't give up."
Jake spends the next hour at the window and then walks over to his bed. He is exhausted physically and emotionally at this point. He's very aware that the reality is that his father will come home later tonight. He will probably be drunk and most likely, angry. Jake glides his hands over his pillow. "Thank you for taking me to the fair last night. I've always wanted to go. Thank you for taking me to places where I don't have to be afraid, where I can feel safe and without pain. Thank you."
With that, he slips into bed and lies his head once again onto his pillow, finding the permanent indention formed by his small head. He stares up at the ceiling for more than an hour, again unable to sleep. A short time later, his focus begins to blur until his eyes gently close.
His body lightly bounces and vibrates with the movements of the car as he sits in the back seat with his best friend Michael. The radio blares rock-n-roll tunes. "Hey Mr. Thomas, I love your new car!", Jake says with excitement as he hears the roar of the powerful engine. "Thanks Jake, but it's not so new. It's a 1967 Camaro Super Sport. It's older than you and Michael put together", Mr. Thomas says laughing. "I love the cool racing stripes, too!", Jake adds.
"Hey, by the way, where are you taking us?" "Well Jake," Mr. Thomas says as he pulls three tickets out of the glovebox and hands them to Jake, "we're going to an NFL football game!"Jake's eyes open wider than ever.
"Really! Wow, for my birthday?"
Michael reaches into a bag and pulls out a brand new jersey and hands it to Jake and says, "yes Jake, for your birthday." Jake, smiling ear to ear, reaches over and hugs Michael as Mr. Thomas says, "you know Jake, now that you're thirteen, you're a teenybopper." "Tennybopper? That sounds weird", Jake replies, as all three of them break out in a loud laughter as the car continues on the freeway towards the football stadium.
Jake has been whisked away to a place where he is unafraid. There is no place else where he can feel so safe.
His mystic pillow has worked its magic, yet once again.
Matthew David Taylor