Hot Wheels and Ponies

Joey sat curled inside the pickup, the old-style bench seat pushed all the way back so there was room to prop one booted foot against the dash. The truck was an orange wreck of a vehicle with a wooden bed and three-on-the-tree manual shift. Welded iron circled the tail-lights and an empty spare-tire mount protruded off the front like a dwarf spear. The truck’s previous owner had “worked in the woods”, a phrase that Joey eventually came to understand actually meant “lived off the state” and going to the woods to fell trees for firewood. Despite the obvious cosmetic flaws it ran nicely and Joey had been terribly impressed with it. The bargain price of four hundred dollars had made it pretty much a no-brainer. Ultimately, it was a pick-up, his ideal vehicle.

Across the street, nestled into the darkness cast by the drooping presence of a very old Weeping Willow sat a small, green, vinyl sided house, all its windows dark, signifying the occupants were either not home or had gone to bed. Smoking his eighth cigarette of the night Joey sat staring at the house, his mind drifting aimlessly among vague, semi-forgotten memories, searching for something specific but wasting time with other things. He exhaled a could of toxic fumes at the half-open window, the smoke pooling for a moment against the glass before rising up and spilling over like a small creek flooding its banks. If he leaned forward just a bit and looked into the side-view he could see the other seven butts lying burned out on the dirt packed parking lot beside the door. He had been successfully avoiding significant memories for a couple of hours.

The parking area he was in had once been home to a small riding stable. The stable was long gone, replaced by a fire station and a four-story apartment building but that didn’t stop him from catching a faint whiff of manure and sweat soaked ponies. The smell was just a memory but for a second Joey felt his stomach jump in response. He had loved the stable. It was a bit of an anomaly for being right inside the city back then. His mom had said the city had just grown up around it.

The big wheel turned slowly as the ponies trudged along in the worn trench, each with its head hanging down, blinkers covering their peripheral view. The temperature had been into the high eighties that day. The animals were coated in white lather, the product of heavy sweating that stained their tack, giving the saddles a salted, wintery look on the edges. Sitting slightly hunched on the damp feeling saddle Joey gripped the saddle horn tightly with both hands. His pale, six year old face was brightened by the shine of utter joy in his brown eyes and he couldn’t seem to get the smile off his face. His light brown hair, barely streaked from the summer sun, hung straight against his skull except for that one bit on the left side that seemed to kick out no matter how his mother brushed it. She hadn’t used a bowl to cut it but the difference in appearance was negligible. He could see her watching him, her dark blonde hair tucked beneath a brimmed, blue hat with pink flowers on it. Her blue eyes shined back at him, reflecting his happiness each time he circled past her.

Breathing slowly Joey let the memory fade away. It wasn’t the one he wanted even though it made him a bit happier to be there. The ponies had come to his mind rarely over the past fourteen years but they had still come. He had no sadness with them. Not really.

The little house across the street called out for his attention, the light of the gibbous moon falling across its front porch with its nicely painted wooden supports beneath a neatly shingled awning. It had looked that nice when he had lived there. The supports had been peeling with old, white paint that flaked away like giant dandruff every time he had touched them. He had liked to rub his hands across the brittle, rather sharp paint and watch it crumble and fall onto the stained concrete porch. The awning roof had been shingled back then also but it was just as old as everything else it was attached to and tended to leak every time it rained, a problem that persisted into the small entry way inside the front door. His mother had strategically placed bowls to catch the drips, swapping them out as they became full.

“Joey, don’t you dare play by that door right now. If you spill even one of the bowls I’m going to make you clean it up and you’ll lose your Hot Wheels for the rest of the month.” Sticking her head out from the swinging kitchen door she looked sternly at him, her hair frizzing up on her head from the heat and the after-effects of her new afro perm that she had gotten two weeks prior. Joey looked back at her and recognizing her “for real” face had froze and quickly weighed his options. Driving his cars between bowls like an obstacle course was a powerful enticement. Losing his entire collection of Hot Wheels for the rest of the month? He had fourteen cars total and they all tucked neatly into the Official Hot Wheels racing box that was shaped like a tire. He was as proud of the box as he was of the collection itself. To get the whole thing taken away would be devastating. Joey carefully pushed his cars and their box out into the living room, well away from the rain catching bowls in the entry.

Taking a final drag from his cigarette Joey dropped it out the window to join with its brothers in the dirt and blew the smoke over his boot and the faded dashboard. His eyes sharpened and his mouth tightened into a thin line. Hot Wheels? Jesus, he had been such a dork as a kid. Small, timid and pale with no real friends. The least amount of attention from anyone would flip on a homing beacon in him and he would launch into orbit around that person until they chased him away. A faint flush rose in cheeks, not visible in the darkness but clearly felt.

WHUMP! WHUMP!

The sound didn’t quite penetrate his thoughts, but he wasn’t actually listening. Not at first. His mind struggled for a second, as though caught inside a wet t-shirt and not quite finding the hole for his head to poke through. He recognized it. He couldn’t tell exactly what it was but he knew that sound. His heart crept up into his throat and he turned wide eyes back toward the darkened house. The porch was still empty. Confused, Joey looked around for the source of the noise.

WHUMP! WHUMP!

His eyes darted back to the porch as the sludge of old memories began to ooze around in his head, slowly shoving pictures into his mind, one by one like a slide show. Another moment of resistance then he tried to relax and let them come. His whole reason for being here was to remember.

Doctor Sheffied and his foster parents had strongly discouraged him from making this trip. He wasn’t ready, they had said. He wasn’t old enough to face the facts of his childhood. He should wait a few more years and let the psychologist do his work.

Joey hadn’t exactly laughed at them, he respected his foster parents too much to give such a bruising and disloyal response as that but, Doctor Sheffied was, in his opinion, nothing better than a chalkboard. It was nearly the 90s and child psychology was barely a legitimate practice. It had been basically non-existent when he had entered the system. Through all the years of useless therapy he had learned two things very well.

First, you couldn’t pay somebody to care. Despite the State picking up the tab on all his Doctor approved coloring projects and doll house time the good Doctor Sheffield had proven himself to be ill equipped to deal with a six year old such as himself. Talking to him was useless. He was too shy and withdrawn for actual conversation with an adult. He didn’t draw well and didn’t care to do it. His renderings were more an exercise in mixing colors together that suited his mood than actually displaying his inner thoughts. As for the doll house? Joey raised a hand to rub roughly at his eyes in old frustration. Who came up with the idea of a doll house?

The second thing he learned was that nobody could actually fix what was broken. They all just wanted to see results. His foster parents had meant well and seemed genuinely concerned that he should make progress with his therapy. They tried to help him along with all their patting and outings and going that extra step to make him feel like he had a real family to fall back on. But he had known better. What was broken was going to stay that way. He wanted to please them, make them happy. He learned to tell them what they wanted to hear. He learned to act like he meant it. He learned to lie out of a sense of obligation to give them what they wanted. That was one more straw upon the camel’s back, he thought. One more thing he had to carry around with him.

Tipping his head backwards Joey let his skull rest against the gun rack and its lone occupant, a twenty-gauge, short barrel Remington that he had bought for himself just last year with money he had saved from working at the local lumber yard. The gun had been a rather expensive purchase. It had been worth it to him. Ever since he had gotten it he started sleeping better, more than four hours at a time. It was a profound experience for him to wake up at six in the morning and realize that he had been sound asleep since eleven.  It was his second best kept secret.

WHUMP! WHUMP!

Memory called again and now Joey answered. His eyes settled on the small, moonlit porch across the street and the sound continued to repeat inside his head.

The two pillar-like supports shook and large paint flakes dropped off like dandruff as he threw himself between them, bouncing back and forth like a slow-motion ball. The rebound feeling. He would toss himself against one wooden support pillar and, using his own muscles to increase the sensation would free-fall over to the other pillar..

WHUMP! WHUMP!

He was so completely engrossed in the process and its effects that he didn’t notice the front door open and the pair of dark, nearly black, squinting eyes fix on him through the screen.

“Jesus Christ Joey! You’re shaking the whole house!” The man was bent partly over, nearly eye-level with him and wearing nothing but a faded pair of jeans. His chest was dark and smooth, tanned from the sun and his abdomen pooched out just a little bit.

His stomach, already a bit unstable from all the forward and back game, seized up in shock as adrenaline flooded into it. He jerked in surprise, missed the rebound pillar and toppled off the small porch where he landed limply in the grass. Too scared to look up he just lay where he had fallen.

“You’re a real winner, aren’t you boy?” The door squealed on its hinges and began to close. “Leave the pillars alone you little shit. Go play in your room with your damn animals.” The door shut and the lock clicked loudly into the strike plate.

Digging another smoke out of the pack he had laid on the seat beside him he fired it up with one the gazillion free lighters he got from the gas station every time he bought a carton. The clear blue plastic showed plenty of fluid in the two chambers. Joey tipped it from side to side, moving the fluid back and forth then evening them up. He wasn’t really looking at it. His mind was now inside a small, plastic red barn that housed a cow, a horse and a sheep. It had been one of his favorite toys. He had spent hours playing with it, pretending the sheep and the horse were in love and the cow was trying to come between them. The feeling he had when he made the animals kiss was a strange one, something between excitement and horror, as if he had been doing something wrong. Hours were lost to the drama he had created with the barn and its occupants.

Dragging deeply on the cigarette he let the toxins fill his lungs as he dropped the lighter back onto the seat. In theory it was good for at least a month. The reality was different. Plenty of fluid was one thing but he knew the flint would fail and he would have to throw it away before it was even half empty. The free ones always failed.

Joey could remember his mother being rather attractive, at least as much as a kid could think his own mom was pretty, but she didn’t seem to have a lot of boyfriends. Jerry was the only one he could remember her dating for any length of time. The man hadn’t actually lived with them but he had been around so often and stayed over for breakfast enough that Joey’s young brain had awarded him a permanent position in the home. Doctor Sheffied always went carefully when they had talked about Jerry. Trying to explain the relationship from a six year old perspective wasn’t easy. He had come home from school many days to find the man chain-smoking at their green formica table watching the small black and white television in the kitchen, the one with the rabbit ear antenna and the tinfoil pressed onto it. Usually he was playing solitaire with a pretty worn out deck of cards. Jerry had never been a father-figure. Joey never knew what he had done for work and it never occurred to him to ask. He had kept his distance as much as possible. Jerry was interested in his mother, period.

Rumbling stirred the truck, vibrating the seat. A semi-truck rolled by at about forty-five miles an hour. When the truck’s trailer was fully past him Joey had a visual overlay, a memory of daytime playing out during the night. His stomach tightened.

“Go ahead,” Jerry urged. “Pump the air, like this.” He shoved a fist into the air over his and moved it up and down a couple times. The passing rig rewarded him with a blast of the horn. Joey shrank back from the noise in surprise, unconsciously moving behind the man, putting him between the street and himself. Jerry looked down at him, one black eyebrow arching upward. “Seriously?” Not understanding the question Joey didn’t respond. He dropped his eyes to the sidewalk and felt sick in his stomach.

“Shit kid.” Jerry stared him for a few more seconds then shrugged, turned and walked up the driveway to the kitchen door. Joey watched him go, scared and confused about what he had done.

The cigarette burned low, forgotten between his fingers. Fourteen years had not deadened his shame. At the time he hadn’t understood what made Jerry turn away from him. Now, his spine crawled with shame. He would have walked away from himself too. Rolling down the window he took a last drag and flicked the butt forcefully into the night, watching it arc gracefully over the glass while trailing a half-circle of smoke behind. It had taken him quite a lot of time to learn how to flick them. His fingers never wanted to cooperate when it came to things that required dexterity. That was part of the reason his art sessions with Doctor Sheffield always went so poorly. The only thing he could remember drawing well was the red ball.

A shadow passed across the light of the moon, dropping the truck into deeper darkness for a moment. Joey shivered, not really from cold as the temperature was rather warm. He glanced at the fire department to the right of the dirt parking lot. Did he remember it being built? He wasn’t sure. He remembered the red sticker though.

Firemen had come to school and given talks on what to do if a fire broke out in your home. All the kids had learned to crawl along the floor and carefully touch doors to check for heat before opening them. They had learned to stop, drop and roll if their clothes caught fire. At the end of the talk the firemen had passed out large, red stickers, red balls that children were told to put in their bedroom windows. The red ball sticker would tell a fireman that the room contained a child.

Excited about the sticker Joey had run home from the bus stop to show his mom. He had practically danced through the kitchen door to fin Jerry sitting alone at the kitchen table playing cards and smoking. A can of beer sat next to the half-full glass ashtray. Joey’s happy smile had frozen in place and his lips became pasty feeling. He stopped and stared at the floor, the pattern of the lime-green linoleum suddenly fascinating to him.

“Hey Joey. Your mom’s at the store. She left a sandwich in the fridge for you and a couple cookies on the counter.” Smoke from the cigarette curled toward him, tickling his nose. He nodded and shifted his feet back and forth, not sure which way to move. “Whatcha’ got there?”

“Huh?” Joey froze again, trying to make sense of the question.

“In your hand? What’s that red thing?”

“Oh.” His heart nearly broke in his chest as he held out the sticker and softly stammered through an explanation about the firemen, certain it was going to be last he saw of the red ball.

“Yeah?” Jerry tipped up his beer and drained the last of it. Belching loudly he bent the can in his fist before setting it back on the table. “Well then, let’s put it in your window.” Joey’s eyebrows shot up into his hairline and his heart sped up.

“Really?”

“Hell yeah. It’s something official, right?” Jerry stubbed out his cigarette and got to his feet. Reaching out he took the sticker from Joey’s hand and gestured toward the swinging door. “C’mon, show me where you want it.”

The walk from the kitchen, through the living room and down the short hallway that lead to his room was like a walk in the sun. He had followed in Jerry’s wake feeling gratitude for the man ahead of him. The bedroom was small but well lit. A small, wooden framed bed with a single mattress and a faded green bedspread sat in one corner. A wooden chest of four drawers commanded attention from the wall opposite the bed. It was covered in stickers of brightly covered rainbows, hearts, animals and smiling people. They were plastered on every side of the dresser. His mother had not complained when he started doing it and bought him stickers from the gumball machines almost every time she went to the grocery store. It had been a secret thrill to see what he would get every time she let him stick a quarter into the machine and turn the knob. She would call him a little gambler and ruffle his hair.

Jerry stopped a couple of steps into the bedroom and stood very still. Joey watched the man’s eyes move across his bed and dresser and small toy box in the corner with it’s over-flow of plastic and stuffed items and felt the sunbeam vanish behind a cloud. The blank look in Jerry’s eyes made him uncomfortable and he abruptly lost all desire to have the red sticker on a window. He wanted Jerry to leave and go back to the kitchen. He wanted Jerry to stop looking at the place he slept.

“Where do you want it kid?” The question was softly spoken, as though the voice it belonged to had just woken up. Without any thought at all Joey pointed to the window on the north wall facing the next door neighbor’s house. A small alley ran beneath it, too narrow even for him to ride his bike through. Jerry gave him a questioning look. “Are you sure about that?” Joey nodded quickly and looked down at the wood floor, studying the scuffs and scratches. He could actually feel the man shrug. Crossing to the window Jerry peeled the red circle and popped it right smack into the center of the glass pane, letting the half-circle backings pinwheel to the floor.

“There you go. Now you’re official.” Joey risked a small look up at him and was surprised to see a faint smile on his face. He smiled back.

“Thank you.”

“No problem kid.” Jerry turned and left the room. Joey listened to his footsteps move down the hall and eventually through the kitchen door that creaked gently as it swung back and forth and settled into its frame.

Joey recalled not seeing Jerry for a while after that. Life at home had become smooth and routine. He had not missed the man at all. Staring at the house now he could feel the old self-loathing crawl over him like an abrupt invasion of invisible parasites.  His skin shrank and twitched in revulsion. The memory he had been looking for came chugging into his brain like a steam engine finishing it’s last run for the night. Joey pressed his shocked skull harder against the gun rack. The muscles in his legs and back tightened painfully as sounds began to echo inside his head..

The screaming was blood chilling. Joey sat frozen on the living room floor, his Hot Wheels spread around him in the midst of a race. His mother’s voice pierced the air, shrieking for help at a pitch higher than he had ever heard it. All the noise had paralyzed him.

Only moments before Jerry had returned, his gray, windowless van screeching into the driveway and smashing into his mom’s red Dodge. The sound of the two vehicles becoming joined had sent a blast of adrenalin into his stomach that made his arms and legs shake violently. The back door to the kitchen crashed open. Joey could hear the mirror that hung on the wall right as you walked in shatter on the floor. His mother had made a startled sound and he could hear her voice as she tried to speak. He couldn’t hear the actual words, just the sound of her repeating something over and over. Jerry’s voice bellowed over top of hers.

“BULLSHIT!”

The walls began to shake.

The kitchen door swung open hard, hitting the wall and bouncing back only to be shoved open again. Jerry stormed through it, dragging his mother by her hair. Joey heard her say is name just once as she struggled, her eyes locking onto his for just an instant before she was forced into the front entry and out the door.

“WHORE!”

His mother’s scream split his head wide open.

The sounds of cars slamming on their brakes washed against his ears.

Voices. Lots of them. Sirens. People filing into the house, stepping on him. Staring at him. Patting him. Question. He didn’t look up. He didn’t answer. He sat on the floor and rolled his Hot Wheels around in a circle. His mind was a pillow.

Joey tried to stretch his legs and loosen the muscles. A small cramp gripped his right calf as he dropped his foot from the dash. It was three-thirty in the morning. The moon was getting on with its business. As the cramp eased he reached to open the glove box. The door flopped outward forming a small ledge with a round impression that was intended for a drink cup or can to sit in. Rolling into the hinged crack was a single shotgun shell. He loaded the Remington with steady hands, his mind still hearing his mother’s voice as she said his name. He had bought a short-barrel gun just so he would be able to reach the trigger without taking off his boots.

They had never quite understood, his foster parents and the doctor.  It didn’t matter that he had only been six.  What mattered was that he hadn’t moved.  He had been so fucking scared that he hadn’t moved.  His mother had died knowing her son was coward.  He couldn’t seem to get that across to the people that tried to help him.  He wasn’t going to get a do-over with this.  It was a one-shot deal and he had failed.  It couldn’t be fixed.

He had expected to go with just his mother’s voice in his mind but at the last second, as he pulled the trigger, his mouth watering from the taste of the metal, he heard Jerry.

“Shit kid. You’re a real winner, aren’t you boy?”

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Number Twenty-six

“Let me innnnnnnn.”

The scratching at my bedroom door with the hoarsely whispered words left me cold and trembling.  I didn’t think I was asleep.  I felt awake.  My bladder as strained with fear, threatening to release itself.  I scrubbed at my hair, feeling it stick up at all angles.

Scratch. Scratch.

“Let me innnnnnnn.”

Wrapping  my arms around my knees I held on tightly, panic flooding my brain while warm liquid flooded the crotch of my gray pajamas.  I couldn’t think.  Should I run?  Should I smash out my bedroom window and hurl myself through it?  What then?  Where would I go?  I was in my pajamas!  What if I broke something going out the window?  It would hurt… a lot… and I’d be stuck in the parking lot below.

“Let me IN!”  The whisper became a demand.

Oh God!  Why?  What was happening?

“Why?”  Laughter crowed through the closed door, followed by a mocking repetition of my thought.  “Why?  Why?  Why?”

Bang!  Bang!  BANG!

The door shook in its frame from the pounding.  Slapping my hands over my ears, I turned toward the window, the distant street light illuminating its pane like a ghostly mist.  If I hung by my arms, as low as I could before letting go, I could make it.  I might twist an ankle but I would still make it.  It was only two stories.

“QUIET TIME IS 9 PM TO 9 AM!”

I froze, one foot on the floor, leaned forward to stand upright.  Wait, what?  My black framed glasses glittered faintly from the bedside stand.

“LAUNDRY SNEAK!”  More laughter, this time low and more of a chuckle, sounding almost perverse.  “Now it’s your turn.”

Standing all the way up I faced the door, a semblance of reason reasserting itself in my mind.  I had to be asleep.  This couldn’t possibly be real.  I had heard about lucid dreaming.  Maybe I was just stuck between awake and asleep?

“Storage bin twenty-six.”

“Huh?”  My voice was a croak in the darkness, nearly as frightening to my ears as the voice on the other side of the door.  Cold sweat popped out on my forehead as my mind scrapped the lucid dream idea.

I had done laundry before bed, later than usual.  It had been ten-thirty at least and I had taken advantage of the lateness to poke around the storage bins down there, getting a nosy look at some of the things my fellow apartment dwellers thought they needed to hold onto.  Most of the stuff was what I would call typical; bikes, toys, patio furniture and grills.  

One bin, number twenty-six, was empty, very dark and, locked with the most amazing combination lock I had ever seen.  It was easily the size of my hand and had over 200 numbers on the dial.  Fascinated, I had lifted it, feeling the weight and spun the dial a few times.  It spun like a top, smooth and fast with almost no sound at all.  The numbers on the dial were silvery white and seemed to glow in the dark, a fact I found interesting since the basement was generally very dark.  Even the bare light bulbs, that required intimate knowledge to locate and pull their strings for lung-easing illumination, couldn’t possibly give enough light to charge those little numbers.  

As I had stood there, playing with the lock, the darkness inside bin number twenty-six suddenly seemed exceptionally dark.  Darker than the farthest corners where there was no light.  I eased the lock down and backed away.  The washing machine’s spin cycle was just screeching to a halt so I left bin number twenty-six behind.

“It’s your turn.”

“My turn for what?”  I took a step backwards, toward the window, picturing myself hanging and dropping to the asphalt below.  Dream or not this was too freaky to stick around for anymore.  The sweat on my forehead felt like drops of lead, not rolling down, just staying right where they were born.

“It’s your turn to own the lock.”

“I don’t want it.”  Another step toward the window.  I didn’t want anything that came to me from behind a closed bedroom door at three in the morning on the breath of a voice like that.

“Tough.”

To hell with trying to carry on a lucid conversation.  I turned and reached for the window, intending to slide it open and drive my fist through the mesh of the screen.  I never heard the door open or close.  I never heard footsteps or felt them come toward me.  I watched my hand rise heavily through the darkness to grasp the window and discovered the giant, silvery white lock in my fist.  I stared stupidly at it.

“It’s your turn.”

I was no longer in my bedroom.  I was in a darkness so thick I could barely see my own limbs.  Around me I could see shapes, some squarish, others lumpy and sort of round.  I could see frames and mesh.  I looked at my hand, the one that had been holding the lock.  It was empty.

“Quiet time is 9 pm.”  The voice was casual now and came from outside the confines of my location.  

A soft snick reached my ear followed by the nearly silent whisper of the big combination dial spinning like a top.  I moved forward, straining to see the creature.  It was male, dark hair stuck up around his head like he had just scrambled out of bed.  Dark eyes, a little squinty without the normal glasses that were still sitting on the bedside stand where I had left them.  His gray pajamas were wrinkled, the bottoms damp in the crotch.  He looked down, evidently aware of my gaze and laughed.  “I guess I need to change.”  He sighed.  “Oh well, at least I’ll see another sunrise.  Eh?”  He banged the flat of his hand against the chicken wire tacked to the storage bin.  “This stuff is the next best thing to shackles.  Just wait, you’ll see.”

Screams clogged my throat, jamming my speech.  I tried to talk but only heard rasping coming from my mouth.  I couldn’t move.  I wanted to grab the chicken wire and rip it from the flimsy wood frame.  I wanted to grab that man who looked like me and smash my fist into his face.  I wanted to do a lot of things.  I couldn’t.  My entire being felt wrapped inside something very tight.  My limbs stopped existing.  I was held in place, pulsing heavily and darkly.

“I won’t be visiting you,” the man said.  “I will be using the laundromat.”  He turned to go, pausing to give me one last look and patted the chicken wire again.  “Good old number twenty-six.  I hope you enjoy the lock.”

He pulled the little strings on all the light bulbs as he left.