“You know I’ll tell her if you don’t. Or are you…?” Barry Levison folded his arms into wings and cluck-clucked on the pavement outside the Barnhovers’ place. Barry’s got sort of a big mouth. Contrary to what he tells people, we’re not friends either. We both like watching Chuck Norris movies. That’s as far as it goes.
An apocalyptic sun burnt the street dry and our bitter-faced neighbours had confined themselves indoors. Football games and quiz shows wafted on the hotdog air from open windows. There was no sign of anyone. The Barnhovers’ front window was open too.
“What about Mr. Barnhover?” I asked.
“He went out about ten minutes ago. I heard him shout goodbye to her. Said he was going to the shops and would be back in half an hour.”
“There’s not enough time.”
“There’s loads of time. I told you. It’s a Casio. He took it from me last month, and still has the football from last week. I want them back. This is the deal: you get my stuff back, I don’t tell anyone.”
This is Barry being friends.
“How’d he even get it off you?”
It occurs to me Barry could do with being more afraid of me. Chuck Norris doesn’t have these problems.
Barry crosses his arms, “Are you going or not? You’re the one who said you wanted to get him back.”
I sigh, “It’s a deal if you promise to shut up about last week. Just keep a lookout. If you see anyone coming whistle or something, okay?”
Of course I wanted to get him back. You’d tell your parents about Mr. Barnhover, but most of the time you’d just get a talk about how he was really just a harmless old man who got confused sometimes. If you ask me, Mr. Barnhover didn’t get confused – not in the sense of putting his underwear on after his trousers. Mr.Barnhover’s confusion was more along the lines of right and wrong. When he chased me with his hedge trimmer – that was wrong – frothing from that gaping mouth, sweat trickling down his face and his little red eyes burning from behind half-moon glasses. Only time he got confused was when the hedge trimmer stopped working because he pulled the power lead out of the wall.
Looking down at me a grin of satisfaction spread across his weasely face, and he laughed so hard he doubled over and had to support himself by putting one hand on his knee. “The look on yer face,” he wheezed.
I knew his chasing me was all an act, but it just made my humiliation worse. I couldn’t help what happened, and as I leapt back over the fence I left some of it on his lawn beside Barry’s football. I was wearing shorts. Right before the hedge trimmer cut out I wet myself. I always did have a weak bowel. Mum says it’s from Dad’s side of the family. But I can’t explain that to Barry Levison. Part of the joy in moving to this area last year was being able to reinvent myself as some sort of daredevil kid instead of the pisspant kid I grew up with since primary school. Barry Levison’s new and ill-advised friendship, borne of our gossiping mothers’ wish to cement their own relationship, threatened all that. Worse: it threatened the inroads I made last week with Lorna Baker when she fell off her bike and God placed me at the scene. She’d swerved to avoid Mr. Barnhover’s car as he pulled out of his driveway. In fairness I don’t think he saw her, but she’s furious about it.
Going back in there now I could win one back not only for her, but for everyone Mr. Barnhover had terrorised over the years. I’d be a hero, Barry would shut up, and my reputation in the neighbourhood would be sealed for life.
I ran between the gates, down the side of the house where a passage led to the back garden. Like all the houses round here the Barnhover house was a detached palace of the middle class. The layout was pretty much the same whether you were a retiree or parent with children. Kitchen, dining room and living room downstairs, all accessed with a thin hallway from the entrance. Three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. At the rear, the garden backed onto your neighbour’s garden on the next street across, separated by a high fence that was easy to climb. Mr. Barnhover’s place backed right onto the Levison’s. From my experience with the hedge trimmer I knew that Mr. Barnhover kept his garden in beautiful condition; the borders framed by high yellow privets on either side to stop nosey neighbours. There had been a hedge at the back too, planted as a defence against Barry’s weekly excursions to retrieve his football. This hedge, however, had mysteriously died back right around the time Mr. Levison, looking in his garden shed, commented how he could have sworn he had more weed killer than that, and Barry tried to look innocent.
If this hot weather continued, Mr. Barnhover would be spending a lot more time tending to his garden in the coming weeks.
The path ended near the open back door beside a trellis wrapped in pink and red flowers. Inside I could hear Mrs. Barnhover watching Blockbuster on TV. Through the kitchen door, past the worktop and toaster, the row of keys and microwave oven I saw clear through to the living room past the hallway. Mrs. Barnhover sat hidden behind the winged head supports of a garish throne-sized chair with overbearing flower-patterned arms. Her skeletal hand rested on the chair arm, hovering above the TV remote while the TV asked her,
What “R” refers to the act of getting your own back?
Mrs. Barnhover did not answer.
Revenge I thought.
Revenge. The TV confirmed.
At the far end of the garden, near the fence I had vaulted the week before, stood Mr. Barnhover’s garden shed. I hadn’t told Barry, but I wasn’t just going to get the kids’ stuff back. That wasn’t enough. I ran across the springy fresh-cut grass – my footprints melting away behind me as bees danced between the stinking flowerbeds. My additional, destructive revenge plan was leave a huge weed killer Smiley Face on the garden instead as a constant reminder of me through his summer. Lorna liked Smileys.
But the shed door was locked with a large padlock that should have been on a bank vault. I remembered the row of keys just inside the kitchen door. Mrs. Barnhover would never know.
I bounced back across the lawn, and at the doorstep came face to face with Mrs. Barnhover. I froze, but she didn’t appear to see me. She clutched the sink with one hand, a shaking glass grasped in the other, showering water over the basin. Her mouth sucked at the air. The glass dropped and shattered against the sink echoing around the kitchen like a thunderclap. As she fell I ran instinctively toward her and caught her arm, falling with her onto the kitchen tiles. She rested against my legs, light and small, quivering with her feeble arms scrunched up like a tyrannosaur. Her eyes stared out.
“John?” she said.
“No,” I replied, horrified.
“Remember to water the garden.”
It took me what could have been seconds or minutes to realise she was dead.
I had to call an ambulance, but couldn’t move, as if moving her would destroy her entirely.
But slowly, I wriggled from beneath her, laying her onto the cold floor. Her wrist flopped onto the tiles, striking them with a click of plastic as the face of Barry’s watch struck the floor from her falling hand, seeming out of place against the ancientness of her skin. I looked away. I wanted to lay something under her, some newspaper, anything so she didn’t have to lie alone on that cold floor.
I stood up, and then remembered I should call an ambulance first. But before I could think about the phone a shrill, panicked whistle came from outside, followed too quickly by the sound of car tyres popping over tiny stones on the driveway. The car door slammed and Mr. Barnhover’s old, shuffling feet scraped down the passage toward the back door.
I ran. Out of the kitchen, into the hallway, moving wherever my head pointed me. I ran upstairs and sat upon the landing as Mr. Barnhover’s voice wandered inside with the smell of flower blossoms and the buzz of worker bees, and the rest of the normal world creeping in around him as his own world fell apart. His shopping bags tumbled onto the tiles and he called her name in the ringing silence.
I sat upstairs as he stumbled into the hallway and fumbled with the phone, dropping it once clattering to the ground and cursing fearfully.
“Hello? Yes, ambulance. It’s my wife. She’s fallen over. Well, I…. I’m not sure. I don’t think so….”
The ethereal notes of his voice met the cadence of my thumping heart, and when he hurried back into the kitchen his breaking sobs cracked against the tiles. It was the most awful revenge, to witness his destruction, his complete destruction beyond anything I could have dreamt or planned, or wished for.
I looked away from the stairs hoping his misery would fade away. My eyes stopped on a small table by the bathroom door. A glass of yellow water containing a submerged set of false teeth rested upon a doily on the table’s surface. Beneath the table a plastic basket contained other goods: hair bands, dolls, Barry’s football – other confiscated items that no longer mattered.
In time, a distant siren echoed up the street. An ambulance pulled up, blocking the driveway. The paramedics ran down the side of the house. Curious neighbours craned from their windows and wives in summer dress leaned in doorways with cocktails balanced in their hands to see what all the fuss was about.
I heard the calm professional voice of a man and woman downstairs.
Heard his sobs.
Saw them wheel her into the ambulance’s waiting doors.
Watched it pull away, in silence.
I left after a few minutes via the front door, quickly walking back onto the street.
Barry Levison jumped out at me from a bush as I skulked away from the scene.
“You’re alive,” he gasped.
“When I saw the ambulance…. I thought maybe he’d….”
“Yeah. You know what Barry? You’re a real turd.”
I walked along the street with Barry following. He was sweating, but a cold reality protected me from the day’s heat.
“So,” he asked, “Did you get it?”
“No. Couldn’t find it.”
“Ah, man. Now what am I gonna do?”
“I dunno. Leave me alone?”
I wandered home alone, past lazy lawn dogs and men watering their flowerbeds with hissing hoses. Lorna Baker called to me from her bedroom window and asked me if I wanted to come in for ice cream. Leaning out in her rainbow bikini she fingered the plaster at her elbow from her fall. Dazed, I waved and carried on.
At home mum was on the phone – all gasps and consolatory whines. News spread quickly in our neighbourhood, slick and dirty like so many peoples laundry suddenly aired out in the open.
“Well, it was probably for the best,” mum said.
I continued through the house out into the garden and stood in Alice’s paddling pool, looking up into the sun.
“That’s bad for your eyes,” Dad said. He sat beneath the sun umbrella in the corner of the garden, sipping a pint of beer with the newspaper open on his lap.
Mum came out, “That was Millie. She said Mrs. Barnhover just passed away. That’s who the ambulance was for.”
“Oh?” Dad looked up from the newspaper, “It was probably for the best.”
“That’s just what I said.”
“I suppose Mr. Barnhover’ll sell that place and move somewhere smaller?”
“Millie thought so too. He must be very upset. Spending all his time looking after her. Ten years Millie said. If I ever get like that you can just shoot me.”
Dad raised an eyebrow but said nothing, returning to his paper. Then he added, “We’ll have to keep an eye on it. It’d make a great little rental property. Nice place to start off in a few years’ time, but good rental property in between.” He looked at me, “How d’you like the sound of that?”
I said something that launched them into a diatribe concerning ungrateful youth. But I didn’t listen. I couldn’t. I couldn’t shake the sense of those cold kitchen tiles.
I didn’t see Mr. Barnhover much before he moved out, but when I did he was very quiet, and looked just like a harmless old man. My parents tried to buy his place, but the Levison’s got there first. Barry’s terrified of going in there – almost as terrified as he is of me. He didn’t tell anyone what happened, but now every time I see him he asks me the same thing in that hushed frightened tone of his:
Did I kill Mrs. Barnhover?
The more I think about it, I don’t really know.