a stray sheep

It of course sounded unlikely, perhaps even impossible, yet the boys’ father had always lived under a stringent rule of integrity. They had never had cause to doubt him, and being they were so strictly forbidden to go beyond ‘the locked door,’ they had no way of testing his word. What choice did they have, but to have faith and fear the cellar? Hadn’t they, after all, heard on numerous past occasions the curious noises in the night? Wasn’t it likely the noises came from below? From Uncle Lu?

Regardless of the weak bits of rationale he devised in support of his father’s account, Jack suffered from something which could only be interpreted as a doubt—the very thing his father had warned him against—the weakness, the flaw which could someday land him in that terrible void beneath the house—the very thing he struggled to believe in.

***

The days that followed passed without incident. Approaching the middle of summer, the days became warm and dry. The boys rode their bicycles down the sidewalk to a small, city park, not far from their house. They sat in the grass under a shade tree watching a man throwing a Frisbee to his dog.

“Do you remember father talking about Uncle Lu when we were little?”

“Yeah, I think,” Judas said.

“I don’t.” Jack’s eyes drifted down to the clover near his feet. “Well, maybe. But I don’t remember what he said about him. Do you?”

“I remember him once saying that he was crazy, and mean … and he cooked one of his own kids alive.”

“You do not.”

“It was a long time ago, but I remember.”

“Well, why isn’t he in jail then? That’s murder. Or in the crazy hospital?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it was something else he said, but that’s what I remember.”

“And you believe it?”

“If that’s what father said, then yeah.”

“You don’t even know. You believe something you probably just imagined.”

“I don’t know. All I know is, we have a crazy uncle locked up in the cellar. I don’t plan on ever going down there. Do you?”

“But doesn’t it seem odd … I mean, the whole thing. Does father have him chained up or something? And how does he eat? You think father takes food down to him every day?”

“When we’re at school. And at night, when we’re asleep.”

“What about the time we went up north, that funeral? We were gone for—“

“It doesn’t matter! Father says he’s down there. I know he’s down there. Father would never lie.” Judas produced an impatient huff. “We shouldn’t even be talking about him.”

“What about Pucer? What’s that?”

Judas’s eyes jerked back over his shoulder for an instant, and then turned back to his brother. “I’d be very careful saying that if I was you.”

“Pucer Holflapper.” Jack said the name loud enough for the man with the dog to hear. The kids playing on a nearby set of swings might have heard, too, were they listening.

“Sheez, Jack,” Judas whispered, “you’re going to get us both killed. I’m serious.”

“All right, all right.” He looked at his brother and crossed his eyes. “What if I just whispered it? Pucer Dwain Holflapper.”

“Stop it.”

“Shit, Judas, you think he hears every little thing we say? Maybe we’d better not even think Pucer … Oops.” He slapped a hand over his mouth. “Sorry, I said the P word again. When we get home, I’ll gargle with Liquid Plumber. That should fix it, don’t you think?”

Judas pushed himself up from the ground.

“Where’re you going?”

“Home.” He hopped on his bike, and started peddling away. “I don’t want to end up in the cellar with you.”

“But he really can’t hear us here.”

His brother said nothing more, just kept on going.

A few moments later, Jack got to his feet, walked his bike over to the swings and let it fall to the ground. He plopped down in the one and only unoccupied swing, pushed off, then started pumping himself higher and higher.

“Hey.”

He turned toward the swing next to him and only then realized it was his neighbor, Lanny.

“You’re Jack, right?”

“Hi, yeah. I didn’t … I uh …”

“Wasn’t that your brother? Jim? Jake!”

“Judas.”

She began dragging her feet, bringing herself to a stop. “Yeah.” She glanced toward his bicycle lying in the grass, and then at Jack as he swung past. “Don’t you think it’s a bit weird that we live next to each other … and we never talk?”

Jack dug his heels into the sand beneath the swing, slowing down, bringing himself to a stop. Without looking at Lanny, he said, “It wasn’t me, you know? I don’t know why … well, I kinda do. My father didn’t like you guys.”

“You kinda do?”

“I don’t know.” He shook his head. “I guess it was all the cussing.”

“Well, fuck that shit.”

Jack turned. Lanny gave him a smile. “Yeah,” he said, “fuck that shit.”

“I remember your dad used to be kind of mean to you guys.”

He turned. “What?”

“I don’t mean, mean, but I guess … strict, you know?”

Jack swayed from side to side in his swing. “Really?”

“Stricter than most dads.”

He’d tried, in the past, comparing his father to others, but had never arrived at anything conclusive. His opinions kept shifting as his father seemed to shift. “He’s all right, as long as you aren’t bad.” He stopped swaying and kicked at the grass bordering the sand below him.

“Maybe that’s the same as any dad,” she said.

“I’ve met a few I’d gladly trade for.” His eyes became briefly entangled with hers before he managed to pull them away.

“Remember when Frank and I had to apologize for cussing … out on the front porch? Remember?”

“Ohhh … yeah.” He closed his eyes. “I’m sorry about that.”

“It doesn’t matter. That was a long time ago, and it wasn’t your fault.”

“It was stupid.”

She chuckled. “It was.”

“Yeah, well, that’s my father.”

“What’s he do?”

“What’s he do?

“Yeah. What’s he do for a living?”

“I’m not exactly sure.”

She gave him a curious look. “You don’t know what your dad does?”

“Well … he writes.”

“Writes?”

“Books.”

“Story books?”

“No, books, like … I don’t know what kind they are.”

“Oh.” She became quiet, thoughtful, then, “How come you don’t go to the same school as everyone else?”

He searched for a safe, acceptable answer. “I don’t know.” But he did know.

“A friend of mine told me you’re special. I told her I didn’t think so, though.”

“Huh?”

“You’re not, are you?”

“Special?”

“You don’t look like it … or talk like it.”

“What?”

“Well, where do you go to school?”

“Academy for the Past.”

“Oooo… that place is scary.”

“I don’t think it’s scary. My father always said that public schools are scary. This is my last year there, though. The Academy doesn’t take kids past the seventh grade. I’ll have to go to public school then.”

“Is it true, they spank you if you don’t do your homework?”

“Yeah, I guess. But everyone does their homework. They don’t do that in public school?”

“You can sue them for it.”

“Do you like it?”

She turned and gave Jack a twisted face. “Being spanked?”

“No! The school.”

She snorted—“Just kidding.”—then laughed. “It’s OK, I guess. I like some of it, but not all of it. I hate history. I hate Mr. Sadler. Ugh!”

“Well, if I go to public school, maybe I’ll see you there.”

“Maybe you’ll be in my class,” she said. “How old are you?”

“Twelve.”

“Oh, I’m thirteen.  Just had my birthday last week. That means you’ll probably be in the grade behind me.” She gave him a fake frown, followed by a quick, fake smile. “But I might still see you there, anyway. Will you say hi if you see me?”

“Do you want me to?”

“Yeah. I’ll say hi too.”

Jack looked at his watch. “Crap! I gotta go.”

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