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ADELAIDE Independent Quarterly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Trimestral, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE RIDE HOME
By Megan Paske

 

April, 1989.
He never told them what really happened.

When Seth regained consciousness, the stinging in his palms temporarily distracted him from any fear or disorientation. His head, foggy, lifted itself off the floor. A mixture of dried grass, dirt, and dust clung to new wounds on his forehead, and stuck into clumps of his hair. Small drops of blood from a cut on his left temple left tiny, pink snowflakes on the dusty concrete.

Seth looked down at his hands, inspecting slivers of wood poking through the top layers of his skin. Some, imbedded deeper, began to throb. He sat up and took an inventory of his surroundings. An intolerably small space—either a shed or very small garage—consumed him. Seth’s dust-covered surroundings remained quiet with the exception of a muted scurry. Mice? A combination of mildew and the reek of death made its way to his nostrils. Gagging at the organic, musky smell, he slowly began to remember.


***


Seth was 11, the youngest of three. His oldest brother, Jessie, was 19 and away at college, getting a degree in something successful. His second oldest brother, Jon, was 15. Jon was always in trouble. But Seth looked up to him the most. Jon was cool. Jon could do everything. He skateboarded in competitions, he got his picture in the paper. He played the guitar, he sang and even wrote his own songs. Jon could breakdance.

Jon drank beer and smoked pot. He threw parties when their parents went out of town. Seth hid in his room, listening through the walls.

Seth’s brothers were handsome. Jessie had his father’s striking good looks: thick, dark hair, and muddy brown eyes. Jon inherited his mom’s piercing blue eyes and chiseled cheekbones. Jon grew his wavy hair out long, below his chin. He hung out with the skaters and the garage-band kids and always wore the coolest brands. Vans, Mossimo.

Seth was different from his older brothers. He didn’t think he was ugly, but he had heard his mom talk about him in hushed tones to her friend, over coffee on summer mornings.

“He’s just going through an ‘ugly duckling’ stage. He’ll grow out of it.”

He knew his mom would never try to hurt him—she loved him just as much as she loved Jon and Jessie—but her words stung.

Seth wanted his own wispy, sandy blond hair to be long like his brother’s. His mother insisted on keeping it neatly trimmed. Once, every six weeks, she pulled out the hair trimmer and scissors, wrapped a towel around his neck, and sat him at a kitchen chair. He loved the attention as she hummed songs to him while she clipped. His haircuts were conservative and safe. He always felt clean afterwards.

Seth knew he was clumsy and awkward-looking but that never bothered him. The other kids at school left him alone. Except for Billy.

Seth never tried to make friends with Billy. Billy had singled Seth out, all on his own. Billy always found Seth on the playground. He decided when and where to hang out after school. Sometimes at Seth’s house. Sometimes at Billy’s. Seth often silently lamented the time lost between school and dinner. He played with Billy anyway. Billy didn’t have other friends. Seth was ok with his solitude; he suspected Billy was not.

Billy had a short, bleached blond hairdo that he gelled up into spikes. The only time Seth ever saw Billy’s hair any different was when he would slick it back for the Skate Night the older grades got to go to every couple of months at the roller rink. Billy always went on the Moonlight. They turned the lights down low, played slow music, and kids paired off, boy-girl, and skated around, holding hands. Billy always found one girl or another to skate with. He had better luck skating on the Moonlight with girls, than he did making friends with boys. Seth always watched from the side of the rink.

Billy didn’t have the newest brands of clothes or fancy shoes, but he road BMX bikes. Seth coveted the spins Billy showed off on his Mongoose trick bike. Seth had a ten-speed—a hand me down from his brothers. He was faster than Billy. He knew that he could always outpace Billy, by a good ten yards, if they were to race. But what Seth really wanted to learn were the spins.


***


That afternoon, Seth had planned to ride home right from school. His mother worried less about him misbehaving, and more about the county roads. She trusted Seth to make good decisions. And he almost always did. He road carefully on the correct side of the street, used proper turning signals, and always wore a helmet. He was particularly watchful of potholes and road kill.

The road kill made Seth sad. He once came up on a dead kitten that had ventured too far from the barn. With two sticks, Seth carefully moved the tiny carcass into the ditch and covered it with dead leaves and grass. He said a short prayer, remounted his bike, and made the rest of the trip home with his mind in peaceful silence.

Seth knew he was supposed to be on his way home, not hanging out with Billy. Billy was grounded. He was always in trouble for something: stealing his mom’s cigarettes, skipping school, shoplifting, detention at least once a week for cussing out a teacher, the principal’s office at least once a month for getting into a fight.

Seth was a rule follower and Billy knew it. Seth’s friendly and naïve nature gave kids like Billy plenty of opportunity to take advantage. And when Billy wanted someone to hang out with—other kids were frightened by him—Seth obliged. Seth felt a degree of sympathy for Billy. More for what Billy didn’t have. Billy came home to an empty house most afternoons. He fended for himself for his dinner, never had breakfast, and resorted to stealing other kids’ lunches, or their money. Seth often split his lunch with Billy.

Billy had asked Seth if he would walk him home after school. It was only a couple blocks out of his way. Seth agreed and walked his bike to Billy’s 800 square-foot box of a house. The detached garage, dwarfed by the other houses and garages surrounding it, stood at a slant, a few steps past the back door. Billy slipped through the unlocked side door.

Seth prepared to mount his ten-speed and continue his own commute home. The chain stuck; he fiddled with it until it was back on the track, then heard Billy shout, “Hey Seth, wait up.”

Billy had opened the manual garage door about halfway, hoisting it up by an invisible support. It hovered precariously over the cracked and uneven pavement. He squeezed his way under with his Mongoose.

“I thought you were grounded…”

“Screw her. She ain’t home. Let’s go.”

Billy’s mom worked second shift. Seth had never actually met her. She might not have even been aware he and Billy were friends, or if Billy had any friends. Seth didn’t even her first name.

Seth’s own mother, Maggie, knew Billy very well. Anytime he came over she tried the best she could to make him welcome. Seth’s mom treated Billy like she treated any of her sons: with acceptance and a degree of patience that Seth himself had a hard time displaying for Billy. Maggie understood Seth’s lack of discretion when it came to making friends. He attracted those that took advantage of him and she tried to help him understand the risk, without interfering with his natural sense of compassion and genuine wish to make people happy.

Seth, even at 11, was painfully aware of his nature. He silently cringed at Billy’s request. All he wanted to do was go home, eat some pizza rolls, do as little homework as he could get away with, and play Nintendo. He imagined his mom in the kitchen cooking pork chops—the smell from the onions frying and meat browning in the pan making its way up to his bedroom. They would wait for his Dad to come home so they could have dinner together. Jon may or may not join them, in between practicing his guitar and listening to his records.

Seth looked at Jon, not with jealousy, but with a defeated admiration. He never had an outlet like Jon did. Seth had his kind nature and good heart, and friends like Billy.

Seth begrudgingly set out after Billy. The boys weaved about on the narrow residential sidewalks. Seth’s ten-speed clumsily bumped over every crack. He kept it going in as straight of a line as he could manage. Billy avoided the cracks. He liked to impress Seth, doing a flip every once and awhile over a flower planter, or spinning out over a curb and back up a driveway apron. If Billy hit something with his back tire, he kept going, either not noticing or pretending not to. Seth dismounted and reset whatever fell over in Billy’s wake.

Eventually Billy bored of the bike trip which took them only a few blocks out and back from where they had started. Seth, relieved, slowly came to a stop and let his kick stand down on the overgrown grass between the sidewalk in front of Billy’s yard and the street. Waiting to say goodnight to Billy, he grabbed the backpack he had set a few feet away, before their brief ride.
“Wait, Seth. I want to show you something.”


***


Seth looked down again at the palm of his hands, beginning to swell. The punctures around the splinters were becoming discolored. Continuing his inventory, he looked up. He noticed a cinder block under a broken-out window just big enough for him to squeeze through. Was that what he had been doing? He noticed scrapes on the tops of his knees and felt a throbbing coming from the back of his head. He touched at it through his recently trimmed hair, and felt the bump emerging. His head pounded from several directions—a buzzing coming and going with each movement he made.
Seth concluded he must have been trying to lift himself out of the window. He rose to his knees. They throbbed. He reached for his left temple again and was startled by how it smarted. What had happened and how he had wound up on the floor, covered in cuts and scratches, started to come back.


***


“C’mon, Seth!!” Billy prodded.

Reluctantly, Seth moved the well-loved red and black ten-speed—he couldn’t recall which brother had originally owned it—to the overgrown patch of grass and weeds that served as Billy’s front yard. Even though he truly wished to get back on his bike and ride home—even though he had a feeling Billy was pulling another one of his jokes on him—Seth followed him into the garage anyway.
Seth ducked under the half open door: a jury-rigged panel of sheets of plywood held together by rusty hinges. It was barely functional. It didn’t even open all the way. Inside the 200 square feet of filthy, dust-filled space (more of a shed than a garage), Seth grew uneasy. A car would never fit. The four walls and a roof enclosing the boys were filled with decaying, rusting items. Old gas cans, dented coffee tins filled with soggy cigarette butts. Pieces of old car parts thrown into the corners, wooden boxes full of old magazines, and random, inoperative, tools strewn about. There were torn up rolls of molding carpeting, leaning against its sagging walls. He saw a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye—must have been a mouse—and then caught a faint whiff of what could be no other than a dead animal. Somewhere inside this garage, there was a dead mouse, or bird. Maybe a rabbit?

With the exception of Billy’s bike, a dilapidated lawn mower, and a couple of snow shovels that could easily have been older than Seth, nothing of use stood out. Cobwebs touched every corner, every bit of rubbish, and every item except for Billy’s bike. The Mongoose had its own, cleaned out corner, and just by that fact, Seth understood that Billy did have the capacity to care after another thing—even it were an inanimate object.

Seth ruminated over the contents of the garage-shed. He never saw it coming. Billy shoved Seth, face first, toward a cinder block under the only window in the garage-shed—the only source of light. Seth caught himself by the wrists after nicking the side of his left temple on the corner of the cinder block. It was enough to stun him. He remained on his knees, trying to hoist himself back up.

Billy immediately left through the side door, returned to the front of the semi-sliding plywood garage door, and slammed it shut, flush to the ground. Seth stood up, getting his feet underneath him. His confusion caused him to laugh out loud. Seth tried to open the side door. Billy had locked it somehow from the outside.

“Ok Billy, funny.”

No response.

“Billy? Hey, where’d you go?”

Still no response.

Seth looked down at his wristwatch—it was nearing four o’clock. His mom would not expect him home before five.  Sometimes he took his time on his way home, even when he was not hanging out with Billy. He liked to explore the little creek beds that aligned parks near the school. There was a cemetery that he often visited. But he always made it home before dinner. His mom knew he was a good kid and never worried about Seth getting in trouble. She was preoccupied with Jon and his friends most of the time. But Jon wasn’t like Billy. And neither were Jon’s friends. They weren’t mean. They wouldn’t lock him in a shed.

Seth went over to the garage door. From the inside, it looked like a wall. How had Billy opened it before? There had to be a latch or something.

“Billy!” Seth banged on the inside of the garage. “C’mon this ain’t funny. Lemme out!!!”
No response. Billy either had run off, gone into his house, or was sitting outside, silently listening to Seth. A lump developed in his throat that Seth promptly swallowed. With two older brothers, no matter how well his family got along, he learned quickly how to bite back his tears. He continued to yell for Billy. Billy was gone.

Panic set it. Seth’s restraint shattered. He wailed, screamed for Billy—for anyone—to let him out. Seth had never experienced claustrophobia; he had never even heard the word. The walls slowly drew in on him. He wheezed and put his hands on his thighs and his head down near his knees, which throbbed from Billy’s initial shove.

What the heck is going on? How am I going to get out? Where did he go?

Seth’s thoughts raced from terrified visions of being trapped forever, to practical terms of how to bust out. As an eleven-year-old boy he had a mix of fear and adventure in him, even in the precarious situation he had gotten himself into. Where Billy had put him.

Seth’s voice had turned hoarse. He stopped willing the tears back. His cheeks were smeared with tears and dirt. His head stung from scraping the cinder block and he was angry. Seth, on occasion, had gotten angry with his brothers, but this was a different kind of anger. Billy had set him up.

Seth stood straight up and tried to stop all thought. He needed to formulate a plan. The light from the only window was beginning to wane, and if he wanted to get out of there, he needed to do something soon. He focused on the garage door. He looked for a catch. He looked up for a rope or pulley, to see how Billy had opened it earlier. Nothing.

Abandoning figuring out how Billy had so easily opened the door, Seth grabbed one of the ancient shovels from the ever-closing-in walls. He wedged it between the ground and the bottom of the door.  He pumped it up and down like a lever but the door gave only a few inches at best. He kept going—harder and harder until he rammed his sternum right into the butt of the handle. Seth fell backwards, landing on his tailbone and knocking the wind out of himself. He choked and silently screamed.

Seth tried his hardest to recover as quickly as possible. Through the agony of his sudden, temporary asphyxiation, panic rose. His newfound claustrophobia heightened. His head spun. Desperately, he crawled to the garage door again and slid his fingers and palms under what little headway he had made in opening it. He got back onto his knees for more leverage and hoisted up with all the effort his four-foot, six-inch, 76-pound frame could muster. It did nothing but drive dirty, jagged splinters into his palms.

He got up to his feet. Still reeling from the blow to his sternum, he squatted and tried again. More splinters, no budging.

He felt like he had been in the shed for hours. It was closer to 30 minutes. He had little hope of Billy coming back to let him out. Seth’s mom and dad would be worried—not angry—if he did not show up for dinner. He looked down at his watch.

4:25.

Seth started screaming again. Not for Billy, or for anyone else. Just screaming. He banged on the door. He threw things around the garage-shed and rammed himself into walls. He noticed small holes in the plywood door and started kicking at them. His own physical weakness, on top of the injuries he had suffered, left little energy to make any dents.

Defeated, Seth turned around and desperately scanned over the interior of the garage-shed again. He noticed the window above the cinderblock. He absently touched at his forehead, renewing the sting from the cut that the block had given him earlier. The cut that Billy had given him. Seth looked up at the window, the daylight continuing to dim. New hope refocused his thoughts.

He stepped up on the cinder block. From the tops of his toes he could see Billy’s backyard. No Billy. Fresh splinters from the mildewed, wooden window sill jabbed at his already shredded palms. He examined the size of the window. If he could get it open (or throw something through it) he might be able to squeeze his way out. He had no way of knowing what lie beneath, or what didn’t, to catch his fall.

He tried prying the window open from the rusted latches on the bottom. One snapped off in his hand. The other gave him a fresh prick on his left thumb. Seth stepped down from the cinder block, looked around, grabbed one of Billy’s bike helmets, and chucked it at the window. The thin glass shattered instantly and Billy’s helmet flew through the window, landing somewhere below. Seth wasted no time in getting back up on the block. He gingerly cleared the remaining glass fragments away from the window, flicking them with his fingers so as not to give himself any more cuts.

When he was sure the sill was free of any jagged glass (he triple checked), he hoisted himself halfway through the tiny opening. He managed to get out through to his waist and was teetering outside the back of the garage with his legs dangling a good three feet over the cinder block inside.
Billy’s helmet lay in the dirt and dead rose bushes directly below him. It had cracks and scratches in it. He realized his chances of lowering himself to the ground, without landing on his head were hopeless. Seth was not about to take that chance.

Seth’s heart sped up. A new panic emerged as he tried to lower himself back down into the garage. His elbows first, then his torso. By the time his head reached the top of the window, he could feel the block with his toes. He couldn’t get his footing. He knocked the back of his head on the top of the window sill, slipped on the block, and fell sideways. He was out for less than thirty seconds.


***


"BILLY!! LET ME OUT.”

Seth was crying, snot flying out of his mouth, his jeans and t-shirt torn.

The side door to the garage opened. Billy grinned widely at Seth. Without saying a word, he turned, and ran.

Seth looked at the door, contemplating an exit, but waiting for another of Billy’s tricks. He knew it was over, but he had not yet committed to trusting the open door. A cool breeze whipped through the open frame and pushed around trash at his feet. Time and reality resettled into Seth’s mind, just as quickly as the goose bumps overran his arms and neck. Seth bolted. He ran out of the door and scrambled to his bike. He had the presence of mind to grab his backpack and sling it over his right shoulder. He mounted his ten-speed and tore down the street in the direction of his home. Seth was far too upset to notice the various scratches and wounds throbbing all over his small body. He was too upset to look back. Too upset to clip on his helmet.

He remembered Billy’s helmet. He remembered throwing it through the window, and he remembered the image of it scratched up in the dead rose bushes. Panic returned. Seth became instantly terrified again. When Billy found that helmet, cracked and lying in a heap in the dirt, Seth would pay for it. He knew it.

Seth came up on a corner, new anxiety over Billy’s helmet festering within him. The intersection was clear but Seth’s mind was far from focused. The ten-speed’s front tire caught the edge of the curb and the bike abruptly came to a halt. It bucked Seth off like a wild horse. He landed on his left arm. He scraped his temple again, and fresh blood began to slowly ooze from the clotting wound. He turned over onto his knees, digging fresh dirt and gravel into their scrapes.

Bloody, dirty and exhausted, Seth stood up. The past hour coursed through his memory in a series of jagged movements: screaming and crawling and sitting and standing and falling. All he wanted was for it to be over. A searing burn in his left arm diverted his attention from his wandering thoughts and brought it back to the present. Back to the intersection with his overturned bike and newly scraped knees and face.

Seth looked down, not wanting to, but he had to know. His arm was slightly bent but in no natural way. It pulsated with the sharpest pain he had ever experienced bringing on waves of heat and clamminess and dizziness. Even if he wanted to he knew he couldn’t remount the bike. Fighting back pain, nausea, and tears, he guided his scratched-up ten-speed the rest of the way home with his right hand, limply holding his left arm up, at that awkward angle, into his side.


***


“Oh my God Seth, what happened?”

His mom ran to him, started to give him a hug, then noticed his arm.

“We need to get go the hospital now. Dan, get in here.”

Seth’s dad ran from the kitchen, folding a newspaper into the crook of his arm. He dropped it and the beer he was holding when he saw his son. Even Jon had enough concern to peek his head out his door and jog down the stairs to see if he could help his little brother.

Seth was instantly uncomfortable with the attention. The digger he took off his bike spoke for most of the injuries he sustained while being trapped in Billy’s garage-shed. He kept his gaze down, fighting back more tears, knowing it was useless. Seth quietly cried into the sleeve of his good arm. He gingerly accepted the hug from his mom as she pulled him close to her and bent down to kiss him on the head. She never noticed the bump on the back of his head or the splinters in his hands.

“I fell off my bike.”

He never told them what really happened.

 

 

 

megan

About the Author:

Megan Paske studied Journalism at UW Madison and was published in various newspapers as a columnist. Since then, her fiction has been featured in literary publications, including “Forge Journal” and “Riding Light Review.” She is currently working on a memoir of her life with Bipolar Disorder. She uses her creativity as an outlet and as advocacy for mental illness and its place within the creative arts. Outside of writing, Megan is a yoga instructor and piano teacher. She lives with her husband and their five cats, in Neenah, Wisconsin.

 

 

 

 

 

     
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