38 Years Old (Never Kissed a Girl): Chapter Fourteen
Author’s Note: This is Part 14 of a series of posts serializing my novella 38 Years Old (Never Kissed a Girl). For more information on the origins of this novella, including all disclaimers, and a complete chapter list, please see the announcement regarding this series.
At first, I thought it was a dream—a familiar dream perhaps, but a dream. I dreamt of a light tapping sound coming from beside my bed. It took a moment for me to realize that my eyes were open and I was, in fact, awake and yet I could still hear the sound. I had heard that sound many times over the years. My room faced the back yard. A small, single-paned storm-window was all that stood between my head and the weather. It had been a common route for Ricky and Tony, and sometimes for me, to use to escape when we wanted to be out after grounding, or to come in through when we missed curfew.
But Tony and Ricky hadn’t used the window since long before they moved out, and I hadn’t used it in years. These days it took an act of god to get the damn thing to open at all. The steel locks on the mechanism shredded your knuckles without remorse.
I jumped out of bed, and reamed on the latches with all my might. Only one person in the world would use that window, that night. The window flew up with a screech that could have woken the dead. I stuck my hand out, felt someone grab it, and hauled Mikey in with a giant pull.
“Jesus Christ, Donnie. You’re going to wake up the neighborhood.” In the dark I knew that he was smiling. But he sounded dead tired.
“Jesus Christ, yourself, Mikey. What the hell are you doing?” I pushed past him and pulled the window down. It didn’t make quite as much noise going down, but I could hear movement in the rest of the house. Mom and Dad would be coming in any moment now.
He didn’t say anything back. A light popped on in the kitchen, and the glow filtered under the door. Mom didn’t even knock.
“Donnie… Donnie, what’s going on?” She spotted Mikey in the shadows.
“Oh….. Oh Michael!” She rushed towards him and wrapped her arms around his neck. He gasped from the force of her embrace.
He was smaller than I remembered. I was a little taller than him now, and maybe a little heavier, but some of that was beer gut. He had somehow stayed in pretty good shape all those years in jail. His body was in good shape, that is. His face told another story. Even in the dim light of my room I could tell the years had been hard. Harder than you really saw in an unfamiliar place like the prison visitation room. Here, in a place where he had once lived as a boy, in a place where he had often been the one to tuck me in at night, I realized how much he had changed. He was no longer the cool, older brother sitting on the porch at night contemplating the meaning of life and the difference between a Ford and a Chevy. He was old, and strange, and different in so many ways. He wasn’t the brother I remembered. I took an involuntary step back and shuddered.
But Mom had grabbed on, and wouldn’t let him go.
“Oh, Michael. You’ve come home! I can’t believe you’ve come home. This nightmare. It’s over. Finally!”
“For the time being at least.” Pop stood in the doorway and scowled.
“You know how much trouble you’re in, Michael?”
“Yeah, I got a pretty good idea.” Mikey said in a slightly condescending tone. It was certainly not as respectful as it had been many years ago. My memories of all those conversations from the past flashed in my mind. Mikey had always been on a pedestal. This man was someone else. Someone I didn’t know.
“Laidlaw told me to call him if we heard from you.”
“Bob’s still around? I haven’t heard from that son of a bitch in a few years now.” Mikey disregarded the suggestion, as if Laidlaw had abandoned him to rot away in a jail cell. It had been quite the opposite. Laidlaw had fought hard, for years, even when we couldn’t pay him. But Mikey seemed to remember none of that, or if he did, he didn’t appreciate it.
“Oh, Michael.” Mom maintained her stranglehold around his neck. Mikey looked at me and I shrugged. He hadn’t seen Mom like this. She was always on her best behavior whenever we went to the prison. She never wanted him to see her weakness there. But here, she wouldn’t let him go, and I think, at that moment, had he tried to push her away, she would have crumpled to the floor and never gotten up.
He let her hug him for another minute, then said in his gentlest tone—the one that I remembered from years before—“Come on, Mom. Let’s sit down.”
He steered her towards the kitchen, and sat her down at the table. He took my chair, oblivious to the fact that seating arrangements had changed a little bit since he had been gone. I worked my way around to the other side of the table, pulled a stack of newspapers from the seat, and tossed them into a wicker basket in the corner. Mom clutched at Mikey’s hand and she stared at him, much like a mother stares at a baby the first time she sees him after birth.
“Michael, there’s a bunch of people looking for you,” Pop spoke softly. The curtains to the house were all closed, but I looked surreptitiously around to double-check.
“Yeah. There’s a couple of squad cars down the street.” Mikey nodded. Mom’s head snapped towards the door. A brief look of anger flashed across her face. I realized, at that moment, that she had not thought of Mikey having to go back. In her mind, he was home and done with that horrible place built of stone and bars. But Mikey, Pop and I knew better.
“We should call Laidlaw,” Dad suggested.
“Whatever.” Mikey nodded. He wasn’t about to disagree with Pop at that moment. But Pop’s face went from relief to simmering, and even though Mikey had been gone for a long, long time, he recognized the look.
“Are you okay, Mike? You ain’t hurt, are you?” I asked. Dried blood caked his knuckles. Dirt covered his fingernails. His clothes had been snatched from a clothesline somewhere along the way. A piece of an electric cord cinched his stolen pants, which were too short by three inches. Sweat and dirt stained his white T-shirt. His shoes were prison issued though, the same slip-on design, with no laces, and no heels. It was the shoes that stuck with me the most. I wondered what had happened to his old work boots.
“No, I’m fine. A couple of scratches, that’s all.” He picked at the dirt under a fingernail and checked a scrape on his elbow. For the first time I noticed a couple of tattoos on his arms. Prison jobs. Artistic in their way, but not the quality you might have gotten these days. One was a simple cross, done in black, about the size of a playing card. The other was black rose. Neither one meant anything to me at that moment, but I stared at them for a minute before I shook my head and asked Mikey the critical question.
“What happened, Mikey?”
“Long story.” Mikey’s glance begged me to not ask him any more details.
I stared back at him, with my best “Okay, for now” look. An uncomfortable silence slid into the room as we tried to figure out what was okay to talk about. I couldn’t make small talk, not at this hour, and not under these circumstances. Pop sat with his arms crossed, and watched Mikey interact with Mom, who was back in her make-believe world that everything was going to be okay. And that left me with one question that had to be asked.
“What are you going to do now?”
“Pop, what do you think I should do?” He looked over at Dad, and threw the weight of the world back onto Pop’s shoulders. The question took my breath away, and stunned Pop.
“Me? You want me to tell you what to do?” Pop’s simmer almost boiled over, but he held it in check—barely—for Mom’s sake, I suppose.
“If you want me to call Laidlaw, I will. Otherwise, I’m going take off.”
“Michael.” Pop avoided looking at Mom. I knew what she would say, given those same options. Mom wouldn’t only tell him to run. She’d go with him, and care for him like the little boy she thought he still was. Pop sat there for a moment, biting the inside of his lip. He shook his head as he spoke. “I can’t tell you what to do.”
I don’t know how Pop maintained his composure. He shifted into a gear I didn’t know he had. Maybe I had seen it once, when a siding salesman had weaseled his way through the front door and Pop had been forced to sit through the whole spiel. He looked at Mikey like Mikey was that shill, a stranger in stolen clothes, sitting at his kitchen table.
Mikey glanced back at me, and recognized the anger in my eyes. But he was oblivious to the cause. In his mind, I knew he was asking his father for advice. But he had put Dad in the worst circumstance possible: a choice between honesty and his family. Blood was thicker than water, they say, but Pop was a God-fearing man. Maybe, back then, that meant more than it does today. Mikey should have known better to ask that question, but he also should have known better than to break out of jail, too. Mikey’s judgment hadn’t been great that day.
“Fine.” Mikey sat back in the chair. It creaked, as if the wood was about to give in to too many years of accumulated stress. I knew the feeling, and saw it manifested on the faces of my folks. Mikey swept the room with his eyes, his gaze stopping on all the things that hadn’t changed since he’d last sat at this table, eighteen years before. Then he looked back at me. I still stewed in my anger across the table from him.
“What’s wrong, Donnie?”
I said nothing. Whatever I was going to say would have been full of expletives, and no matter how upset I was, I knew this was my mother’s house, and I was not going to push her any further than she had already been pushed that day.
Mikey got up, picked up my pack of smokes off the kitchen counter, and lit one up. He eyed the door. I could see his mind running, remembering back to the days and nights of sitting on the porch. He took a step towards the porch, as if he wanted to go out there and see his old room. It was a storage area now, filled with junk collected through the years. Years that he had been gone.
“Why’d you come here, Mike?” He was no longer Mikey to me. He was Mike. Someone I no longer knew: a stranger, a convict, and a fugitive.
His eyes glazed over in confusion. Mom seemed aghast that I would ask the question.
“He’s home, Donnie. That’s all that matters.”
“This isn’t his home, Mom. Not right now.”
“Donnie!” Her hand flew up off the table towards my face. I would have let her slap me, if that’s what it took for her to see how far around the bend she had gone. But she stopped short as a voice from outside, amplified by a squad-car megaphone, shook the house, and certainly did wake the neighborhood.
“Michael Mallory. This is Chief Mackenzie. We know you’re in there Michael. You need to come on out.” The megaphone let out a short squeal from feedback. The chief cussed as the sound rattled through the neighborhood.
Dad’s head slumped. Mom’s hand, stretched and ready to hit me, went back to her mouth. Mike took a slow drag on the cigarette as he eyed the door to my room, and the window beyond. I saw the look on his face. He took a step. But I was quicker. I leapt from behind the table, and caught him as he reached my door. My hands slammed into his side, and the two of us crashed into the doorjamb. The wall shook. A small picture of the family, taken before the troubles, crashed down. The glass shattered into a thousand pieces.
“Mike. Don’t even think about it.” My fingers latched onto his T-shirt, and pulled him back into the kitchen. He fell to the floor, colliding with a cupboard. Dishes rattled from the impact.
“Donnie…” He tried to get back up and to get past me, but I pushed him back down. He didn’t try very hard. Deep down, I’m sure he knew what was right and what was wrong. He didn’t want to be forced to make that decision on his own.
“No, Mike. You need to sit down.”
“Donnie. You don’t need to get involved.”
“I’m already involved. What did you think was going to happen, Mike? Did you honestly think they wouldn’t find you here? Did you think that coming here wasn’t going to cause trouble? For all of us?” I looked back at the face of my mother, and knew the troubles we had seen up to this point were only the beginning. Mike glanced back at Mom, and, just for an instant, a flicker of recognition crossed his face. So much in the house was the same as it had always been. But so much had changed. The people had changed. Grown. Gotten older.
Mom vaulted from her seat and ran to him. She had stayed quiet during the whole confrontation, but she threw me a look I’ll never forget. Daggers of hard, drop-forged steel lanced from those eyes and into my heart. She knelt down next to Mike, wrapping her arms around him, and pressing her lips to the side of his head. She gently rocked him, as if he were three years old and had skinned his knee.
I took a brief look back at Pop. He was standing now, by the table. Our eyes met, and he gave me a slow nod. His eyes watered. He wiped them with the back of his hand, then turned his face to look into the wicker basket of newspapers. His Adams-apple slowly worked to control a sob. That nearly broke me.
Instead, I walked past Mike’s outstretched legs, towards the front door. Mike leaned back against the cupboard, with Mom still in a stranglehold around his neck, whispering “It’ll be okay, Michael,” over and over again. I paused briefly at the door, undid the deadbolt, and turned on the porch light. I opened the door a crack, and stepped to the side.
“Chief, this is Donnie Mallory. Come on up to the door. There won’t be no trouble.” I turned to look at Mike. He hadn’t moved an inch. He nodded. Mom wouldn’t look at me. She buried her face into Mike’s shoulder.
The screen door on the porch squeaked. Heavy footsteps worked their way across creaky boards. Those same boards that creaked eighteen years before still squawked that night. I opened the door a little further, and stood where the chief could see me. We knew each other from the days of the trial, and a few times since, usually for reasons that didn’t involve me coming home in a squad car. The chief was a pretty good guy, and I trusted him.
“Hi, chief.” Another officer stood slightly behind him. Their guns were holstered, but the snaps were loose.
“Hi, Donnie. You’ve grown a bit since the last time I saw ya.” He smiled, looked me in the eye, and nodded.
“Yeah.” I opened the door far enough for him to see everyone in the room. He nodded to Pop, who returned the brief, uncomfortable greeting with one of his own. Mike sat there, and waited for him to acknowledge his presence. It was so calm, it was surreal.
“Come on, Michael, son. We’re taking you home.” He held out a pair of handcuffs. Mike slowly unwrapped Mom’s arms from around his neck, and stood. He tried to pull Mom up with him, but she would not move. He was abandoning her. She turned away from him, and covered her face with her hands. Mike stepped slowly towards the two officers, turned around halfway across the room, and put his hands behind his back.
“Bye, Mom. Bye, Pop.” He didn’t look at me as he left.
I shuffled back into my room, and closed the door. The doors on the squad car slammed shut. The engine roared as it pulled away from the curb.
Just like that, Mike’s run for freedom ended—not with some high speed chase across half the country, but with a short altercation between two brothers, separated by fourteen years at birth, and eighteen years of life.
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“Mikey disregarded the suggestion, as if Laidlaw had abandoned him to rot away in a jail cell. It had been quite the opposite. Laidlaw had fought hard, for years, even when we couldn’t pay him.”
My issue here is that it didn’t actually seem like Laidlaw fought that hard during the trial. Or rather, maybe he did but we were never given the opportunity to understand what kind of defense he mounted. But it amounts to the same thing: I’m still left with the feeling that Laidlaw didn’t take what seem to me like really obvious strategies that, as far as my layman’s knowledge of the law goes, ought to have worked.
Also, since the story skips the 18 years between the trial and now, we didn’t have the chance to see any of this “fought hard, for years” business for ourselves. This information comes to us here as a “tell”–and what other form could it take, really, given the circumstances?–that clashes with the conclusions the reader already made back in the trial sequence. Show always trumps tell. Readers will always believe their own conclusions more strongly than a “tell” which attempts to convince them of the opposite.
All in all, I’m left siding with Mikey’s dismissive attitude towards Laidlaw.
“Mom clutched at Mikey’s hand and she stared at him, much like a mother stares at a baby the first time she sees him after birth.”
You may know that look, but would Donnie? It doesn’t seem like this is a narrator who has first-hand parenting experience.
“Mike took a slow drag on the cigarette as he eyed the door to my room, and the window beyond. I saw the look on his face. He took a step. But I was quicker. I leapt from behind the table, and caught him as he reached my door. My hands slammed into his side, and the two of us crashed into the doorjamb.”
That right there is a really interesting contrast between Mikey’s response and Donnie’s. Mikey’s is instinctive; not based in rational thought. It’s pure fight-or-flight. Donnie’s is based in a broader, reasoned view of circumstances and potential consequences. The way they come together like this in physical conflict, that’s nicely done.
“Our eyes met, and he gave me a slow nod of approval.”
Minor thing: “of approval” is an interpretation. We don’t need it.
And one bit of awkward repetition: “His run for freedom had ended, a couple of miles from where it had started.” and “Just like that, Mike’s run for freedom ended.”
Thanks again, Jason. I fixed the repetition issue, as well as the approval issue. The other issues would be a little harder to fix. I’ll keep them in mind if I ever go back to rework the story for any reason.