When her son, Tavo, first came into her room – light on, 3 a.m., cat swiveling its head away from the noises in the yard below to the son at the door – he asked, “What are you doing?”
Alice was nearly hidden, asleep – well, not now – not on the bed, but pulled beside it onto the wood floor beneath the wide windows.
“I was itchy. I couldn’t sleep.” It was strange for her to be on the floor, stranger for him to wake her. She knew, absently, that he’d knocked before the door opened. It was Tavo, the youngest. Not TJ, and her mind wandered, placing him in all the places he could be. “What time is it?”
“High Impact Security is at the door. They want to know if we left the gate open.”
“He said there was a break-in down the road. They chased someone down between the houses. They want to know if we left our gate open. They want to talk to you.”
The lights were on. That’s right. She’d fallen asleep reading The Milkman. The boys playing on the computers upstairs, then they would have gone downstairs and slept on the sofas. Like babies in their teens, falling asleep to the nightlight of the tv. She didn’t care. All those rules that would never matter, but they’d always remember the years they stayed up late together. There’d be time, sometime, wouldn’t there, when they were all each other had.
“You answered the door? You talked to them?” That seemed impossible: no matter he was six foot, by now. No way either of her boys could answer the door to the dark, no way either could answer the door alone. “Security. Not the police?” Her mind ran again to TJ. “What time is it?”
“Mom. He asked to talk to a parent.” Tavo stood waiting, middle of the room between the bed and the door. She wasn’t moving. But calculating, wasn’t she, in this world they lived in, whether a bullet could arc through her wide window from the middle of their back garden and reach her son there, at his tall height, in the middle of her room, so well lit the way he was.
“Sit down,” she hissed. “Sit down,” her eyes pointing the foot of her bed. “Quieter!” as if no one might know they were here, in this lantern-lit room in the pitch of night. Could imagine the glow of them, some free entertainment, vicarious thirst of a passerby, a burglar, security, crouched cops, anyone there in their garden, free to popcorn watch their lives play out through the framing palms.
Whispers echoed between the cement walls of their house, the neighbors’. Sound of the fence. Sound of her breathing, of Tavos’.
She asked. “Where’s TJ?”
Some things you don’t ask for the fish of fear it casts swim beneath your sons’ eyes. You carry it. You let your heart beat, I’m sorry, but never say.
Tavos’ chin rose, that same angle when he’d baby-boy beg, but his voice held low, calm. As if they’d trained for this. “Mom, he’s waiting.”
“It’s 3 a.m., I’m not going to the door.” They couldn’t make her. “They can’t make us. They’re not police. Stay upstairs. You hear me?” Her eyes held his, then. “Too many damn guns, god knows who’s got one. You stay upstairs, down low. Away from windows, out of sight.”
Tavo walked away, not all the way down the stairs. Listening. She listened too, the way you do, so trained to the pops and motors and squawks and breath of palms in your own yard, for something out of place. Something metallic, plasticky – click it through your mental forensics, rapid sort against all the sound samples you know. Someone was down there. Security, armed assassin, car-thieving teen, neighbor, prankster, ghost. Could be they’d called the police by then, could be one, could be a dozen. Could be a raccoon. Run every chance through your mind, sickening. Phone in your hand, but no one to call.
Back at her door, Tavo said, “You made me mad.”
They were allowed to say that to her. Were allowed to swear. Could conjugate all forms of the f word by 15. One of them had been allowed a tattoo. She’d even paid. All the shit their age was growing up with. Let him call her out.
“You didn’t go talk to them. It made me look stupid.” Then it wasn’t her who made him mad, but the security: “Like I’m a little kid. ‘Do you remember if you left the gate open?’ I told him sometimes we did, I don’t remember, and he’s like, ‘Is one of your parents here?’ like I wasn’t right there answering his question.”
Her boys, little men. They’d push your car out of the intersection if it died, rebuild it if they had to. They’d work a job and loan you money. Haul trees that blocked your drive after a hurricane. They’d drive you to the doctor if you were sick. The boy could answer a damn question. The boy could roll his eyes about the loose latch, the pettiness, if someone was really running among the houses, of knocking them awake over whether a gate had been open or closed. Wake them for broken glass, an explosion, a body, for fire, for blood.
“I don’t want you answering the door, do you understand? I’m not saying you did something wrong. Just. I’m telling you, no one has to answer the door after 10 o’clock. And not alone.”
Beyond the edge of the mango tree, a cloud lit up like a paper lantern. The moon. The moon was inside it. One of them – someone – was rustling down in the yard between the houses. They’d set off the neighbor’s motion sensor lights. No worry there’d really been a break-in. But over-hyped Security, over-hyped cops. The windows.
Tavo was safe, in the shadowed hallway at the top of the stairs. She called to him, soft with apology. “They’re not the police. They can’t make you.”
She started to say, but didn’t – wouldn’t remind him – that there’d been the one time she’d been made to answer, two am. That time it was cops. Two of them. The woman she didn’t know talked first and was a bitch, tell the truth. Pissed her off, hand on her nightstick, hand on her gun, no matter Alice was there in a nightgown and blurry eyes. They had no business waking her at two am and she said so.
But Officer Quinton stepped onto the porch in her place. They knew Quinton. He’d been in the neighborhood since her boys were rolling around in their little plastic police car they pushed with their feet.
Quinton told the bitch to wait at the car. But wanted to talk to her. To TJ’s mom. Had something to Say, capital S. Forty-five minutes at two am. He talked to her about how her baby boy was heading the wrong way. He wasn’t here now, was he. Didn’t know where he was. Quinton talked to her like her boy was a liar. With that impatient disgust saved for people who just choose not to see, not to believe, who think, not my kid, who believe the excuses, the lies. Quinton wanted her to believe her son and Amarian had been involved in that wrench dropped in the middle of the street. Wanted to know why her son had picked it up. Wanted to know why two sixteen-year olds would have a wrench.
“He works on motorcycles,” she said.
“I know,” Quinton said. He did. He did know that.
But it was bullshit, didn’t she know, and couldn’t she let it through to what he knew, as a professional, as a witness, as one who saw the neighborhood boys when she didn’t see, as a cop who knew these things.
No, as someone who’d grown up in this neighborhood.
“Let me tell you about my brother,” he started. His brother had been in her son’s shoes and made the wrong choices. He got in with the wrong crowd, made the wrong decisions. His brother did time, and look at Quinton now, look at his brother, see how one man’s choice changed all the chances in his future.
She was not patient that night, near cursing, wasn’t she, as if they had any right to keep here there in her doorway at 2 am, gone 2:45.
But she’d find Quinton. One of these days, she would see him idling along the main cross street, watching as the school kids filed home from the buses to see it was only them, no one here to make them trouble. She’d pull up next to his car and thank him.
Pissed her off, that night, to be kept for 45 minutes in her pajamas on her doorstep, told stories. But she felt it then, the love in Quinton, the genuine effort he was making to fend one off the path. She’d thank him.
Because yes, she’d had issues with her son and one of the neighborhood boys. Not the one Quinton named but the one who smiled sly and sexy, some perverse Eddie Haskell, even when she’d seen the mason jars and smelled the skunk, and knew he’d sat right there in her garage packing weed to sell.
Because, yes, she was scared for her son and his testing nature.
Because, yes. That night when Quinton came her son had been gone and she hadn’t known where he was and there would be other times that she’d call on Quinton for help.
But what she wanted was her boys healthy and safe and alive.
Stealing and weed weren’t the fears. One phase he’d gone through, tested, got bored and moved on. There are worse dangers.
“Tavo, you there?” She spoke in an even voice, knew he was listening to every crackle in the yard and would hear. There was a long pause. She could hear his breathing, feel his eyeballs searching the dark, feel his hands on the wall outside TJ’s room. Feel him wrestle between loyalties. “Is it still here?”
He didn’t answer, but she heard him move, cat quiet. She rolled low across the floor, and went to the landing. He’d gone downstairs. From here, she could see out the uncovered windows: shadows moving in the narrow side yard, barely a walkway between the houses. Tavo was in the family room, in the dark, blue night shadows cast just beyond her sight. From the bend in the stairs she could see him at the back door, and tensed, feeling the movement of air to gauge, was that door now open or closed?
She heard him then, talking, not to her.
His voice spy quiet. A private language, the way her boys talked to each other. In half-stories, a code you couldn’t follow from the outside, their voices deep now, that much harder to make out the highs and lows, almost men.
“Bro I got the locks. From Lowes. The back windows.”
Her eyes swept the wide back window, directly below her own. These aluminum frames that warped, corroded; the tensioning springs that urged them open more readily than closed. Screens bent to make it obvious which window could be forced, from all the times the boys forgot their key, this fear now how anyone could break in. Their old dog died, no security system. Just her tall baby boys as security. That anxiety. This world. Everywhere, everyone, everything, never safe. It had been TJ’s obsession: how anyone could pop those windows open. How they needed a gun.
“I screwed them on,” Tavo said. Like some YouTube, setting it out: how he’d opted for the heavy-duty white metal clamps had two screws to grip the frame, how he had installed them. twice the resistance to keep anyone from lifting those windows open.
“Tavo!” she whisper-yelled, crossing the floor.
There was a long silence. Once, in this overly armed world, they’d watched black kevlared, helmeted officers creep-walk through their back garden, pistols tripoded out before them like divining rods. No knock, no warning, no later explanation. Just their eerie drift, the invisibility of sharks on a reef no one saw in the dark of night, no matter that was her patio, her bird of paradise, her lounge where she sat and read and talked on the phone and took the sun.
“Was it you, man?” she heard Tavo ask. Baby squeak breaking his near-man voice. “Was it you Security chased into the yard?…I’m here, man. I’m at the door. Step onto the patio and I’ll let you in… I’m looking out. I don’t see you.”
“Is it TJ? Is he there at the door?”
“No. Mom.” Tavo bent away from her, curved around the latent glow of the cell phone in his hand. “Go back upstairs.” He’d been doing the same as her: calling, getting no answer, only able to leave a message.
If you walked close against the staircase wall, you could get right up to the front door, even into the sofa beneath the front window, without anyone seeing you’re there.
Tavo was always the one to get the door. He knew what came in, he knew who came in. Even now, there were mail and a package piled by the door. She wasn’t blind. TJ tried everything. Vapes. Ninja throwing stars. Muscle milk. A folding knife. A glowing keyboard. Condoms. Nicotine patches. You could order the most dangerous things. No gatekeeper, no embarrassment.
What it must be, inside Tavo’s mind, his heart – to know it all. To not say. Because you don’t tell. But how heavy, to be the one who knows.
She pressed her ear to the cold metal lining of the front door, heard the Security boys’ voices then the soft rise of the cars pulling away, then nothing but the palms. She couldn’t bother about them and their burglar. But for hours, until she fell asleep there waiting, she shook in her ribcage with the knock she was braced for. The earth didn’t breathe these long hours, teasing with whether that knock would ever come or if, god help her, she’d get her boys safe past these fragile, crossfire years.
It was her fault he was gone. They’d been in the car, on the way home from a doctor, when TJ said to her, “I’ll kill myself.” There was a checklist you run through, she was deep enough to know. Do you mean it? Do you have a plan? Do you have means? “You understand what you are saying to me?” Yes. “You know what I have to do? You know I can’t ignore that.”
Knowing he’d run from a hospital, she drove to the police, right to the side of a cop’s car and asked for help.
“We don’t do that,” the cop said.
“Please,” she said. “Please help me.” And heard the sound of TJ scooping up his shoes and his phone, cursing her and escaping out the passenger door.
“He’s going to run,” she said.
“He’s going to run,” the cop repeated. “We got a runner,” he said into the radio on his shoulder. And they ran, perverse closing scene of a Benny Hill, four middle aged cops scrambling after her boy as he ran a zig zag, legend-trained by Nat Geo for Kids how to outrun a hippopotamus or alligator on land, and still too fast for them, disappearing across the patches of municipal parking lots, past the fields where he’d played soccer and little league.
There’s the weapon, nicked bone, slicing cold to her heart: her baby TJ, awkward penguin run, hobbling away carrying his shoes, his phone, cops losing him as he disappeared across the highway.
She followed noises and found Tavo in the garage, without having turned on the lights, digging by feel through the tools in TJ’s tool drawers. The rattle and scrape of metal echoed in the drawers, echoed in the garage, likely carried down the street. Beneath it was the muffled sound of an animal howl, low and breaking, forcibly smothered inside his chest. She just made out words: “It wasn’t him.” It wasn’t TJ, chased through the yard.
“I know.” Neither saying how much they’d wished it had been.
She slid hands through dust on the storage shelves, felt in the box of holiday lights. The empty boxes and bubble wrap from unpacked purchases. “Tavo. Did he get a gun?”
The answering sound was a choking, high howl, swallowed forcibly down, and another drawer dumping onto the concrete floor.
It was nearly 5 but still the pitch of night when Alice woke again. Screaming was what woke her. Under the last of a late moon, under the row of palms and the dormant mango at the back of the yard, she could see Tavo outlined silver, contorted with rage.
“TJ?… Thomas Javian!… Thomas Javian Toymaker, your motherfucker! Where are you?”
Echoed off the canal, echoed between the close walls of the houses left and right, rose far out over the industrial plaza beyond the canal, through the lanes and courts where Security roved and doze, drowned the low buzz of traffic on the interstate.
The first shot was like a party cracker, elastic sound fired then fired back off the close walls. How many times with these six billion guns had someone said, “Is that gun shots or fireworks?” No question, in your hand. Tavo cried out at the shock of noise and kick.
Then screamed again. Aimed at the moon in its stupid fucking face, still there hanging in the mango like it didn’t know it was morning, time to be home. Bam! Raging all the joy and love and fury of TJ teaching him to balance on his first scooter, TJ bloodying his lip with a lightsaber, TJ laughing til tears streamed and he couldn’t speak over some stupid fucking TikTok. TJ. TJ. TJ. Bam. Bam bam bam bam bam bam bam.
All the while screaming. His brother’s name. His brother’s name. His brother’s name. “Get the fuck home!”
And Alice, coming out the open back door behind him.
I am an ancient world history and ESE teacher at a school for the arts. I’ve had work in Conjunctions, Scary Mommy, Sun Sentinel, Writer Unboxed and others. I’m a graduate of VCU and UF, and have attended juried workshops at Bread Loaf, Aspen, and others, with writers including Hannah Tinti, Paule Marshall, Ann Hood, Randall Kenan, and Ben Percy. I live with my sons in a diverse, multi-national neighborhood in Florida.