Jeff is the only guy I know who truly appreciates dinky cars. My favorite is a navy-blue Hot-Wheeler Ford Mustang that goes super fast on the plastic racetracks that we have laid out all over his basement floor. It smells like oil down here, but it adds to the experience. Jeff has a Matchboxer fire truck that goes pretty fast too, but it doesn’t go around the loop-the-loop as fast as my Mustang. He loves fire trucks though, and his has a moveable yellow ladder on it that’s pretty fucking cool.
Jeff asks me, “Why don’t you let me use your Mustang this time around?”
“No,” I say. “You’ve got your fire truck. Stick with that, Orangelip.” I call him Orangelip because Jeff always has Tang residue on his upper lip. My mom was the one who first called him that. She has funny mean names for all the neighborhood kids.
Jeff looks down at his fire truck and rolls it around in his hand. “I never get to use anything that wins,” he says. “I never get to win.”
“Well, that’s just too bad for you, Orangelip,” I say. “A loser is a loser.”
After a while, we go upstairs to the kitchen for lunch. Jeff’s mom’s blonde hair is usually done up in pretty curls, and she always wears makeup and light-colored clothes. Now, she’s just wearing an old, beige bathrobe that has brown stains on it. She’s barefoot, has hairy ankles, and her face and hair aren’t done up at all. She stands behind the counter and scrapes a thin layer of Skippy onto a piece of white bread, then covers it with another piece and puts it on a plate. Then she gives us couple of plastic cups of water and a container of Tang, and walks out without putting anything away.
“Why is your mom so quiet?” I say, as Jeff starts spooning Tang into his cup.
“I dunno,” Jeff says.
“Your parents getting divorced or something?” My parents are divorced, so I feel bold about asking.
“No,” Jeff says, with his mouth full of sandwich. He takes a gulp of Tang to wash it down. I take a heaping tablespoonful of Tang for my water. We never get tasty shit like this at home. “But he lost a bunch of money,” Jeff continues. “The bank called my mom the other day and-”
Jeff’s mom appears in the kitchen doorway. “Eat your sandwich!” she says. Jeffrey looks up at her, then down at his plate. She keeps standing there, staring sometimes at us, sometimes at the kitchen stove as we eat in silence. Afterwards, we go back downstairs, put our dinky cars and racetracks away and go out. It’s too quiet at Jeff’s house. He should get a dog or something. We have a dog named Daisy. She’s fun, even though she licks herself all the time.
Jeff’s backyard has wooden, vertical fence on two sides and high, chain-link fence at the back. Beyond is a field full of trees and wild brush that’s called the Dead End. It’s at the edge of Foster Park, and I’m not allowed to go in there. But there’s a hole in the side fence that we can pass through into the neighbors’ yard, and from there it’s easy to slip through a gap in the fence and into the field. Jeff takes a look back at the house to make sure his mom isn’t watching as we go.
The week before, we’d explored a bit, and found a dead cat. It had grey, tabby fur and its eyes were green, and glazed open. Bugs were crawling and flies were buzzing all over it. Neither of us knew what it had died of. We decide to go find it again.
“Jeff,” I say. “What does your dad do?”
“I dunno,” he says. “Sales or something. But he’s not home as much as he was before. Now he doesn’t get home until after I’m in bed.”
It’s weird to me that Jeff doesn’t know what his dad does for a living. My dad is a textile dyer, and Jacques is a mailman with Canada Post. Mom’s a homemaker, like Jeff’s mom–only my mom is a much better cook.
We find the cat. Its carcass is flattened, and it seems to be just fur—a cat-shaped mat. There are a few tiny, white worms wiggling around on its surface.
“Touch it, Orangelip,” I say to him.
“You’re crazy,” he says. “I’ll get worms all over me.”
Jeff picks up a stick and starts prodding the dead cat. He digs the stick underneath the cat and starts lifting it up.
“I’m gonna throw it at you,” he says.
I back away from him. Jeff is walking towards me with the stiff cat out in front of him on the stick when he stumbles on a tree root. The cat falls off the stick and lands on Jeff’s left foot. He screams and jumps up in the air. The whole underside of the cat is covered with maggots, and a bunch of them get onto and in his shoe, which he yanks off. Jeff is screaming and has tears in his eyes.
We run from the Dead End back toward Jeff’s. When we get to his backyard I look up. Jeff’s mother is there and staring out the window. She probably heard Jeff’s hollering. Now, if it had been my mom, I knew I would be in trouble right away. She would know that I had done something bad. But I realize that we are going to be okay, because Jeff’s mom isn’t looking at us. She’s just staring out into the field.
Back inside, we play dinky cars some more. We stay downstairs, and Jeff’s mom stays upstairs. When it’s time for me to go home for supper, Jeff opens the garage door and I leave.
“See you later, Orangelip,” I say.
As I’m walking back, I see Jeff’s dad coming down Harmony Street in his rusty, brown Plymouth Reliant. I wave hello, but he drives right past me.
I get home and me, my mom, and Jacques eat spaghetti with meat sauce and Caesar salad for dinner. We’re in the kitchen and The City at Six is on our black and white kitchen TV. Daisy is eating kibbles out of her bowl.
“What do you suppose Jeff eats for dinner?” I ask my mom.
“Orangelip?” she says. “Tang, probably.”
After dinner, I do some homework, then watch a bit of hockey in French with Jacques, brush my teeth and go to bed. While Mom’s tucking me in, I come really close to telling her about the dead cat, but there’s no way I can do it without mentioning the Dead End. She would just know.
It’s later on that night that I wake up to police sirens. Through my bedroom window overlooking the driveway, I can hear Mrs. Andrews from next door talking to my mom on the front lawn. My clock says 1:20am. I kneel on my bed, pull back the blind and look out through the window screen. It’s a warm night.
Jacques and my mom are out there with Mrs. Andrews. Our French neighbors from across the street are out there too, standing in their lit doorway. Suddenly, a couple of police cars rush by with their flashers on.
“I’ll go see,” Jacques says to my mom. He starts walking down the hill. I see dozens of red and blue lights dancing on the houses where the street turns west toward Foster.
Mom sees me, and comes back into the house. I hear her walk up the stairs and through the hall to my room. She opens my door. Daisy runs in and jumps up on the bed. I pet her while still kneeling. She starts licking herself.
“What’s going on?” I say.
“Something,” Mom says. She puts her arm around me, and we stare out the window together.
Every few minutes there’s another police car, or special police van that goes by—then a couple of news trucks from CTV and CBC. People from the neighborhood are walking down the street to see what’s going on.
My mom and I are still awake when Jacques comes back. The three of us are in my room. “It’s at the Moodys,” he says.
“Is their house on fire?” I say.
“No,” says Jacques. “Go to sleep, Alan. We’ll talk in the morning.
“But, I want to know if—”
“Alan,” my mom says. “You’re safe. You go to sleep now. Do you want Daisy to stay with you?”
“Okay,” I say. Mom and Jacques leave, keeping my door ajar for Daisy to go out if she wants to.
I lie there for a while, thinking about Jeff’s house on fire. It probably started from the oil smell in the basement.
In the morning, Mom is sitting on my bed beside me. She is stroking my hair. “You up?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Come into the kitchen.”
Jacques is already there. “Sit down, Alan,” he says. I do.
Then he tells me what’s happened.
It doesn’t make sense. Jeff’s dad did something horrible, first to Mrs. Moody, then to Jeff, then to himself in the garage, and that I’d never see any of them again because they were all dead.
“Are you okay, Alan?” Mom says.
I don’t say anything. I just start to sort of shiver and cry. Mom and Jacques hug me and tell me it’s going to be okay, and that I’m safe.
But all I can think about is not being able to play dinky cars with Jeff anymore, and that it’s really too bad.
Orangelip would have loved to see real fire trucks in front of his house.
ADAM KELLY MORTON is a Montreal-based husband, father (four kids, all under-six), acting teacher, board gamer, filmmaker, and writer. He has been published in (mac)ro(mic), Soft Cartel, Spadina Literary Review, Black Dog Review, Fictive Dream, The Fiction Pool, Open Pen London, Talking Soup, and Menda City Review, among others. He has an upcoming piece in A Wild and Precious Life, an addiction anthology to be published in London, UK. He is the editor-in-chief of the Bloody Key Society Periodical literary magazine.
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