“Gran, Mom’s home, you can go now,” Davey shouted from his perch at the front window. His gran grumbled from the living room, something about finishing her story first. Davey rolled his eyes, bored of the refrain. He watched his mom dig her bags out of the car and ran to open the front door for her.
“Can we go to the park?” Davey bounced on the step as his mother brushed past him.
“Davey, I just got home! Give me a minute.” Davey watched his mother put away milk and eggs, hopping from one foot to the other. “If you’re just going to stand there, put this away.”
Davey took the package of spaghetti and made a face. “Again?”
His mother blew out a breath and the hair on her forehead lifted. He knew when she did that he’d better watch his step. He scuffed his feet down the hall and opened the pantry door.
“Don’t just shove it in there!”
Davey snarled as he found room on the shelf, put the pasta there. “We’ve already got spaghetti.”
“Now you have more.” Gran patted his head as she carried her teacup out of the living room. “You good now, Carolyn? If I leave now, I can be home before commercials are over.”
Davey came back into the kitchen in time to see Gran swing through the door. “Her stupid stories, that’s all she cares about.”
“That’s funny, because I see a bowl in the dishrack, so that means you had cereal for breakfast, and a plate, so she must’ve made you a sandwich.”
Davey was bored, antsy. “I made my own, she just gave me the stuff. Can we go to the park? You promised.”
His mom sat down at the table, a cold glass of water besdie her, and her phone in her hand. “I said maybe we’d go tonight, if you were good.”
Davey picked up his foot to stomp then thought better of it. “I was good. Ask Gran. I played with my legos, and cars, and didn’t bug her during her shows. Well, okay, during her morning game show, but that was only because I couldn’t reach the cookies.”
His mom looked at him, the ghost of a smile from whatever she’d seen on her phone fading as she frowned. “You couldn’t reach the cookies because you weren’t allowed to have any, remember?”
Davey felt his irritation grow. “I didn’t know, but Gran told me. So I had stupid apple slices instead.”
His mother’s attention was back on her phone. “Go play for a bit, okay?”
Davey stormed down the hall to his bedroom, slamming his door as hard as he could. It wasn’t fair. He’d played with all his stupid toys all day, even the ugly cowboy and horse dolls his Gran had bought him at a garage sale. He threw himself on his bed, punching his pillow. It’d been ages, like forever, since he’d been to the park. He didn’t care about swinging or slides but there were bound to be other kids from school there to play with. It wasn’t fair. His mom could go on her phone while she sat waiting for him – she usually did anyhow. What difference did it make if she sat in her car or at the kitchen table? He’d done what she’d said, put away his laundry. He’d only given sass to Gran when she’d tried to make him eat his apples without honey to dip them in. Not his fault his mom decided he wasn’t allowed cookies for a snack anymore.
He glared at the stupid puzzle he’d tried to do, the one his mom bought at the discount store. Missing three pieces? There were only forty to begin with.
He slid off the bed and went into the living room. At least with Gran gone he could watch TV. He found a cartoon and sat on the floor in front of the coffee table, playing with the cars he’d left there earlier. He’d seen this one a hundred million times. He flicked through the channels, stopping when something caught his eye, like a cereal commercial, or loud jingle. His mom said when she was little, there was more to watch, but only certain days and times. All his friends in kindergarten talked about shows he couldn’t get on basic cable. His mom said it was because they were rich and didn’t have a useless ex paying a pittance in support. Davey figured she was right, because his dad was even poorer than they were – he lived in an apartment that was one room, two if you counted the washroom behind the curtain.
Davey found a show with kids playing outside, laughing and chasing each other. The park near his school was way better than the one on the show. He went back into the kitchen hoping his mom would be ready to go.
“Mom, can we go now?” His mother didn’t look up from her phone. “Mom!”
She tapped her screen. “What?”
“Can we go to the park?”
His mother got up and got her charger; Davey’s spirits soared until she sat back down and plugged her phone into the wall. “When my phone’s done charging.”
Davey peered at the screen. Her phone was at 4%. That would take forever and ever and ever. Not fair. “You’ve got a car charger!”
“The car overheats if I keep it running, you know that. It won’t charge if it’s not running.”
Davey wanted to scream, shout, cry, but he knew better. He went back to the living room, watched the stupid kids playing hide and seek. One of them said they had to go home for dinner and left. Alone. Davey watched as the group of kids went the other way to their houses, with no adults. They were his age. His heart started to pound in his chest. His mom always drove to the park, but it only took a minute. She never had time to walk plus she said they could stay longer if she drove. The park wasn’t even as far as the school, so why couldn’t he go alone? He crept to the front door, slid his feet into his old Velcro shoes, and opened the door as quietly as he could.
He tripped on the loose deckboard, almost fell and skinned his knees. He wiped his forehead, grateful he hadn’t. He hated blood and if he’d fallen, his mom would’ve been so angry she might spank him for sneaking out.
He went the long way around, not wanting to risk walking past Gran’s little house and getting caught. He stood on the street corner, trying to remember which way his mom turned when they went to the park. Figuring he better not risk crossing the busy street, he went right and trudged along, kicking stones and empty Styrofoam cups. He didn’t recognize the buildings he passed, but that didn’t concern him – it was hard to get a good feel for where you were when you were stuck in the middle of the backseat in a booster seat.
A bus passed, belching smoke. Davey wrinkled his nose and waved the air in front of his face. He started to wonder if he’d gone the wrong way when he’d been walking for ten hundred years and didn’t see anything familiar. Boarded up stores, a few cars, the distant boom-boom of someone playing a loud radio. He spotted a skinny cat skulking under a rusty car, and snapped his fingers, made a clicking, kissy sound.
“C’mere, kitty-kitty-kitty. C’mere.”
A squirrel ran across the road, and the cat tore off, chasing it into a jungle of tall grass. Davey wanted to stop the cat, but, almost thrillingly, wanted to see it hunt the tree-rat down. Davey ran as fast as he could, jumping over bags of garbage, over an old TV. There was a small building ahead, kind of like the one his dad lived in but in worse shape. The windows were broken on almost every floor, and the cat chased the squirrel around back of the building. Davey felt a stitch in his side so he gave up the chase, bent double, chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath. Mrs. Jamieson would’ve been happy with the running he’d done, she kept telling him faster, keep going, during gym class in JK. He wondered if she’d be his senior kindergarten teacher this year, he could tell her all about keeping up with the cat and squirrel.
Davey wiped his sweaty face with the bottom of his t-shirt. He wanted some cold water to drink, then to dump over his head the way they did during televised sporting events – all sports. Davey thought he might like to be a baseball player, or else football, and that was one of the exciting things, seeing how they swigged water, swooshed more in their mouth, spit, then dumped the rest over their heads.
When the pain in his side stopped, when he could breathe normally, Davey turned in a slow circle. No cat, no squirrel, no street. Just this broken building, and broken pavement covered in dirt. He wondered if people lived there because there were broken bottles and cigarette butts scattered on the ground. This place made his house look fancy. He could hear cars coming from the other side of the building, so he shrugged and kept walking. Maybe he’d just taken a long way to the park.
He’d taken a couple of steps when someone spoke. “Hey, kid, what’re you doin’ here?”
Davey spotted a guy, younger than his mom but still old, like even older than the high school kids who walked past the park to go to the teenager hangout. “I’m going to the park.”
The guy snorted, spit into the tall grass by the stoop where he sat. “What park? Ain’t no park nowhere near here, kid.”
Davey froze, his thoughts spinning so fast in his head his heart couldn’t beat fast enough to keep up. “There’s not?”
The guy sucked on his cigarette, and Davey caught a scent of weird smelling tobacco. Not like what his dad used to smoke before he quit. Almost like a skunk. “Ain’t nothin’ round here but us rats.”
Davey let out a nervous laugh. “You’re not a rat.”
The guy squinted, staring hard at Davey. His eyes were all red, like his mom’s sometimes got when she was crying but lying to Davey saying she had something in them. Shiny, too, like glassy marbles or polished stones. His hair was shiny, too, beneath his dirty ball cap. “You lost?”
Davey shook his head. Somehow, lying seemed better than admitting the horrible truth. “Just took a wrong turn, followed a cat chasing a tree-rat.”
“Skinny cat, black and white?” Davey thought for a second, nodded. “That’s Mama. She got kittens nearby, prob’ly looking to feed so she can feed her babies. Did she catch the squirrel?”
Davey shrugged. “Can I see the kittens?”
The guy scraped his cigarette on the ground to put it out and tucked the butt in his pocket. “Nope. She keeps movin’ ’em whenever she sees a coy-ote. Think she’s in one of the apartments, but I ain’t gonna go messin’ ’round in there, never know who’s up to no good, who’s sleepin’.”
“People live here?” Davey gaped at the guy. “Do you live here?”
“Sometimes. At least ’til they come and tear it down. Whole area is bein’ leveled, but ’til then, sometimes I stay here.”
Davey didn’t like to admit he didn’t know things, but curiosity got the better of him. “Tear what down? What’s level mean?”
“Ka-boom, bang! Poof, gone.” The guy clapped his hands and moved his arms straight in front of him.
Davey thought he might like to see that. “Are they doing it today?”
The guy shrugged. “Prob’ly not, it’s end of the day for workin’ folk. No big equipment, neither. Figure they’d have heavy machines before they do the blowing up. What’s your name anyhow, kid?”
Davey was disappointed. “Davey. What’s yours?”
The guy stood, stretching. He was tall, and as skinny as the mama cat. “Clem. Nice to meetcha.”
Davey shook the filthy hand the guy offered. “Well, I better go.”
The guy pulled his cap off and scratched his head. “To the park. Right. What park you goin’ to? Might be goin’ the same way.”
“The one with the jungle gym, the tall one. The one at the school is lame.” Davey walked along beside Clem, grateful not to be alone. The smells here were like nothing he’d smelled anywhere. Rotting garbage, filth, skunky cigarette smoke, and worse.
“Near the skateboard park? Like across the street a bit?”
Davey shrugged. “Think so. I’ve never been allowed to go there, but the teenagers all hang out near there.”
Clem whistled through his teeth. “You sure got turned ’round real good. Ain’t nowhere near here.”
Davey felt his heartrate pick up again, felt a bit of panic. “How do I get there?”
“It’s your lucky day, lil Davey. I’m headin’ there. Got some business with the teenagers at the skateboard park.”
“What kind of business? My mom says the older kids are trouble, do bad stuff.” Davey kicked a rock and watched it roll into the tall grass beside the cracked pavement.
Clem laughed until he coughed. “Your mom’s smart. But if I tell you why I’m goin’ there, you gotta promise not to tell.”
Davey walked beside Clem, contemplating his choices. Ms. Wilkes, the principal at school, had given his class so much trouble last year because they’d been mean to the supply teacher, and while only Joe had been the one to put gum on her seat, everyone had known and no one told the supply teacher. Davey had felt terrible, the teacher had almost cried, and the principal told them that she was new, brand-new to teaching, and how horrible it was that everyone had kept Joe’s secret, how they should be ashamed of themselves. But Davey wanted to know what went on at the big kid park, wanted to know what kind of business Clem did. Finally, he crossed his fingers behind his back. “I promise.”
“M’k then. My little bro, he’s sixteen. He goes there late at night, and I go to make sure he don’t get into trouble, y’know? Like that he’s not drinkin’, smokin’, stealin’.”
“Do you drink? You smoke, I saw you put the weird half smoked cigarette in your pocket. Do you steal?” Davey tripped on a broken bit of sidewalk, he was staring so intently at Clem.
Clem righted Davey and continued walking. They walked for so long, Davey thought he wouldn’t answer. Finally, Clem took his ball cap off, smoothed his hair, and jammed it back on his head. “I do all that, and more. That’s why I look out for Calvin. Make sure he don’t get into the same sh—stuff I did. Meet the same guys I did.”
Davey didn’t understand, and his confusion made him forget his manners. “Why’s it a secret? Don’t you tell Calvin to stay away from the bad guys? And why don’t you live with your brother? And what stuff, besides drinking, smoking, and stealing?”
Clem groaned. “Shoulda kept my mouth shut. That’ll teach me, huh? Calvin don’t know I’m there. I just watch out, y’know? The guys I’m tryin’ to make sure Calvin don’t get friendly with? They know not to talk to him, but some of ’em are a—jerks. So now and then, I swing by, make sure they’re not talkin’ to Calvin.”
“Is that why you don’t live with Calvin? Is he mad at you because you drink, smoke, steal, and other stuff? That’s stupid though. If I had a big brother, I wouldn’t care if he did stupid stuff, as long as he took me to the park, hung out with me, talked to me.”
Davey thought Clem might be irritated with him because he blew out a breath like his mom did when she got annoyed. “I haven’t lived with Calvin in a long time, since he was like ten. And it’s not Calvin so much as my parents. They said I wasn’t never allowed to talk to him again.”
They were approaching a busy street, not the same one where Davey had been, but somehow reassuring after his stint in the barren wastelands they were emerging from. “That’s just dumb. Maybe Calvin wants to talk to you. Maybe Calvin wants to see you.”
“Dunno. I don’t do the same stuff I did, y’know. I still smoke the wacky, but that’s legal. Like drink is. But don’t do that much, neither. Thought about goin’ back, maybe makin’ friends with ’em. Problem is, ain’t no one wants to help someone out, y’know? Like I been bad, done bad, so I’m forever gonna be bad because no one thinks bad can turn good.”
Davey thought for a few seconds, shook his head. “That’s dumb. My dad, he got a dewey eye –”
“DUI?” Clem snorted and Davey glared at him.
“Yeah. He went to jail and everything. My mom left him because of the dew-DUI. But when my dad came out? He got a job, says it’s not a great job, but if he keeps going, keeps trying, eventually they’ll let him move up. Not really sure what that means, except he’ll make more money. And then he can move into an apartment with real rooms, maybe even two bedrooms so I can sleep over. He doesn’t drink anymore, either. He’s like old, really old, like my mom, but not as old as Gran. I think he’s thirty? Mom gave me a card to give him for his birthday, and it had a three and a zero.” Davey considered his wish, the wish he’d had since his dad went to jail, and decided to share with Clem because while he didn’t understand Clem’s secret, he felt he owed him one. “I’ve got a secret, too. My mom still loves my dad. And he still loves her. I wish they’d get back together more than anything.”
Clem frowned down at Davey as they joined the heavy pedestrian traffic. “You sure you not just dreamin’ there, Dave? Like, don’t most kids wish their parents’d get back together some day?”
“Nah. I heard my mom telling her friend, when I was supposed to be sleeping. She’s scared to tell him, in case it makes him drink again.” Davey wasn’t sure that was exactly what his mom had said to Beth but figured it was close enough. “And my dad? He gives all his money to Mom, as much as he can. He goes to the foodbank so he can give her more. I’m not allowed to tell her though. He bought her chocolate ice cream for her birthday but he made me lie and say I’d found the money in the sofa cushions and it was my idea. I don’t like chocolate ice cream so she believed me that I bought it for her, but I wanted to tell her I’d have bought Neapolitan because then we’d both have ice cream. Dad’s favourite is vanilla, mine’s strawberry, and Mom’s a sucker for chocolate.”
Clem put a hand out to stop Davey from walking when the walk sign started to flash. “Maybe you should just tell your parents, y’know?”
“What, break their secrets?” Davey considered. He’d been tempted, many times, but remembered what the principal said. “Maybe.”
Davey heard sirens, tires squealing. Clem shielded Davey as they backed away, looking everywhere for whatever was the cause of the ruckus.
“Freeze, put your hands up!” A police man shouted from somewhere ahead of Clem. Davey poked his head from around Clem, trying to get a glimpse of whatever was going on. His jaw dropped when he saw the cop had a gun pointed at them. “Let the boy go!”
Two more officers ran at them, one grabbing Davey and roughly pulling him away. Clem’s ballcap flew through the air and landed on the road as the other officer forced him to the ground, handcuffs circling his thin wrists.
“Stop it! Stop it! You’re hurting him!” Davey screamed as the officer pulled him towards a cruiser. “Stop, please stop!”
“You’re okay, son, you’re safe now.”
“I’m not your son! Stop, they’re hurting him!”
Two officers were pulling Clem roughly to his feet. A crowd had gathered to watch. Davey felt tears burning as he fought the officer holding him back, he didn’t care who saw him cry. He heard a car screech to a halt, two more doors slammed.
“Davey! Davey! Thank God you’re okay!” Davey heard his mother screaming as he turned towards her.
Davey, caught by surprise, forgot for a moment the terror. Shock wiped everything else away when he realised that it was his dad, not his gran, with his mom. “Mom? Dad?”
“We’re here, we’re here. What happened?” Davey’s mom knelt in front of him, but his dad strode towards the two cops about to throw Clem in the car. Davey felt sick, his dad was storming like he was going to kill.
“Dad! No! He’s my friend!” Davey broke free of the officer, knocked over his mom, as he ran towards Clem. “Stop!”
The officers tried to block him, but Davey squeaked under their outstretched arms and wrapped his arms around Clem’s waist. “If anyone’s been bad, it’s me. I snuck out, and Clem was helping me get to the park. He wants to make sure the bad guys don’t bug the teenagers, and he’s my friend!”
Davey’s dad put a hand on Davey’s shoulder, staring at Clem. “Davey, let go, okay?”
“Not until the police promise not to take him away.” Davey clung tighter to Clem’s middle. “Make them take the cuffs off, please Dad?”
“We have to fill out a report, get statements.” The officer was talking to Davey’s mom, but he uncuffed Clem. “Don’t take off, make our job harder.”
Clem rubbed his wrists as he nodded. “Whatever. Get off, kid.”
Davey didn’t like Clem’s tone but then he saw where Clem was looking. A group of teenagers were standing on the corner, gawking. One of them held Clem’s hat. Davey thought he might look a bit like Clem, except his eyes weren’t all red and shiny. On a hunch, Davey ran towards them, stood in front of the one with Clem’s hat. “Are you Calvin?”
The guy nodded, still staring at Clem. Instead of grabbing the hat, Davey grabbed his arm. “Come on, come here.”
The crowd was dispersing, all the police cars but for one pulling away. Davey led Calvin to Clem, his eyes on his new friend. Clem brushed his hands through his stringy, greasy hair. “Hey, Cal.”
Calvin nodded, his eyes never leaving Clem. Calvin’s cheek clenched, and Davey started to wonder if he’d made a mistake because Calvin looked like his dad did when he was angry. Then, before Davey registered the movement, Calvin flung his arms around Clem.
Davey stood on the sidewalk, smiling up at Clem. Then he saw Clem’s eyes were red and glassy again, only this time because of tears. Davey wasn’t sure, but he thought maybe they were what his mom called happy tears. Like when she cried at the end of a cheesy movie.
“We still need to fill out the report.” The cop cleared his throat.
“Can we go home? Fill it out there?” Davey forced a yawn. “I’m kinda beat and sh-stuff. Can Clem and Calvin come over? Fill out the report at our place?”
Davey rode in the cop car with Clem and Calvin, insisting he had to to make sure they didn’t take Clem to jail. He watched his parents as the cruiser drove past, hugging on the sidewalk. Who knew going to the park could be such an adventure, and have a happy ending?