(Posted July 24, 2018)
Denise and Da Nephew
Year of Water, Spring of the Aligned Raindrops
Friday, May 14th, 2004 - 7:33 pm
"He's taking my engagement hard," Mommy had said into the phone when she thought he wasn't listening. Technically she'd gone out to the back porch the way she always did when her nerves flared up, bundled in the fluffy pink coat that dribbled from her shoulders, her glasses pinned up in her thin hair. The only reason Kevin had even heard her was because he was fiddling with his soldering iron at his desk, and his bedroom window was open.
(Not that he'd left it open intentionally or anything.)
Her voice rasped like she'd been crying, which was a detail that Kevin-of-yesterday had purposely chosen to ignore, because no way was he going to let himself feel guilty about upsetting her when she'd just ruined the entire rest of his life with the mistake of some dumb lovey-dovey moment.
Mommy had paused, staring into the quiet depths of the pine forest around their little backwoods home, then said into her dumb, cracked phone, "I'm hoping he'll come around if given a little space. Yes. Yes, I already tried treating him to a big family vacation with Marvin and his daughter, but I'm afraid I only made things worse. Yes. Oh, she'll be staying with her aunt. Her late mother's younger sister. I've met her; delightfully bubbly woman. She'll have fun. Marvin is going with her. What? No. I can't leave in the middle of this project, and he and I need to be apart right now. Kevin's really a sweet boy. No, he won't be any real trouble, I'm sure of it…"
Kevin stung his thumb with the soldering iron. He'd shoved it in his mouth, sucking hard. Come around? Yeah. Right. Mommy didn't know him anymore. She didn't seem to care to, since she hadn't asked him if he even wanted a new stepfather and stepsister in the first place before she'd babbled "Yes, I will marry you!" A year ago, she hadn't been dating seriously. Yet now she'd gone star-smacking gooey-eyed over some slick-haired dork who only wore red and black and who drifted around the corners of rooms and breathed down people's necks when they were facing the other way. What was that about?
Kevin had already decided nine months ago that Marvin Oakes was a vampire. It made total sense. Mommy tended to be a little… weird when it came to vampires. Personally, Kevin preferred robots. Robots were cool. Robots were predictable. Robots didn't have moms who married creepy vampires with creepy vampire daughters.
"Spending three months with Uncle Denzel and Grandmama will be good for you," Mommy had said as she helped him pack a few of his things. In reality, she'd done most of the packing herself. Kevin spent the whole time on his bed, organizing the toolbox he'd balanced in his lap and trying to pretend it took longer than it did. If he had to leave for one fourth of a whole year, he wasn't leaving his tinkering stuff behind. That was final.
"I didn't know I had an Uncle Denzel."
Mommy had sighed at that. She'd pressed the final stack of clothes—his underwear—into the little blue suitcase with the airport tag still on it from when they'd flown to Bracken Cave three years ago. "And he didn't know he had a nephew, so I suppose you're even."
"If you trust him enough to send me to live with him, why haven't I ever met him before?" Kevin had given up fiddling with the toolbox and closed the lid. He'd leaned down to set it on the floor, arm swinging back and forth. While he was at it, he pulled up a fold in one of his socks. Socks were stupid. "Uncle Denzel's never sent me presents. Not even a card for my birthday, or maybe some cash. Shouldn't Grandmama have visited for Christmas or something?"
That had made her pause. "Grandmama and I haven't been on speaking terms for the last thirteen years."
"Why should I have to get along with her when you weren't even brave enough to tell her I exist right to her face?"
"Kevin," she'd snapped, and he'd sprung straight off the bed with a little "Gih!" sound. Mommy removed her glasses and rubbed her face with one poofy sleeve. "Kevie, baby, I know this is hard for you right now. But the fact is, Marvin and I are in love. Whether you like it or not, we're getting married next April. Please, angel." And Mommy's hands rested on his knees. "I didn't get to have a wedding with your father. Please be a good boy for me, and let me have this."
He'd squirmed, listening to the angel and devil on his shoulders argue about how this was his life too, and he deserved to have a say on bringing a new dad and sister into his life. Unable to come up with a response, he rubbed the lucky shark's tooth he always kept on a cord between his shirt and his chest.
"Someday you'll thank me," Mommy said. "You need this just as much as I do. I worry about you, Kevin. Robots are no replacement for real, human interaction. Please don't alienate your stepsister. She wants to be your friend."
"Molly talks to the blender and her baseball bat," he'd muttered. "And her fluffy teal tarantula is super creepy."
"You've always told me you liked Molly." She'd sounded hurt.
"Well, yeah, she's okay, but I didn't mean I wanted her for a sister. She drinks the milk straight from the carton." Was it petty for him to be upset about that? Come on, it was gross!
Instead of answering, Mommy had merely checked her watch. "I want you to take the fastest shower you can. The bus comes in forty minutes. It's an 18-hour ride to Dimmsdale. Be safe, and call me when you get there."
Kevin did not respond. He nudged his toolbox with his foot.
Denise Crocker brushed his scruffy hair back with her drooping pink sleeve and kissed his nose, right at the place the bridge of his glasses fell. Then, running her fingers around and towards his ear, she whispered, "I love you, Kevin. So much."
The words I love you too, Mommy, echoed only in his head.
Now, Kevin-of-today leaned his forehead against the dirty bus window, squinting at the passing houses as they all blurred together. It was actually funny. If there was such a thing as magic, he still wouldn't try to use it to stop his mother's wedding. She was his mommy, after all, and even though he was angry, he didn't really mean it. Marvin and Molly were okay. They had that awkward goth vibe clinging around them and everything they did, but they were still nice people deep down, probably? Maybe way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way deep down in there somewhere. The thing was, Kevin still wanted her to be happy. But what he did wish was that instead of being shipped off to some coastal town called Dimmsdale to stay with a grandma he didn't know and an uncle he'd never even heard of, his mother had sent him to visit his father.
And that, Kevin decided, grabbing his pillow and toolbox as the bus chugged to a stop outside Camp Learn-A-Torium, was actually a pretty sad and pathetic thing to pine for. He didn't really know much more about his father than he knew about his Uncle Denzel. Just that his mommy had known the guy since they were kids. Elliot Buxley (or whatever his name was) had been the perky, adventurous sort with a huge gap between his front teeth and scraggly platinum blond hair. And, of course, eyes that "glittered like chips of jade in the bottom of a jewelry box." Et cetera, et cetera, fluffy gooey romance mush, repetition, repetition. Traits that were still no match for the Crocker gene pool (No other family line ever was, according to his mother). But she was also the one who didn't keep a single photo of their relatives around. She'd simply claimed Kevin would recognize them when he saw them at the bus station. Okay, then.
It still would have been interesting to meet his father for the first time. 10th-born in a family of 11 kids and knowing there wouldn't be much left to inherit by the time he came of age, Elliot had struck out from Dimmsdale in search of adventure–dragging his unfortunate best friend Denise Crocker along with him. As the story went, those two lovebirds had spent six months hopping trains together halfway across America and back again before Mommy realized one day that she had a baby she needed to think about. Kevin didn't know all the details that followed, but he wasn't stupid. Mommy was needy and Pop was a free-range man who'd given his heart to the railway. It was only a matter of time before they split apart, leaving Mommy to settle in southern Idaho without him. She'd raised her baby boy alone, in a small farming town that had no robots to speak of, and where more electricity was produced by lightning than sockets and wires. What a way to go.
Now every time Kevin snuggled in his bed and heard a train engine rumble by outside, he wondered if it had once pulled the cars that his parents had lived in and loved all those years ago. Mostly, he wondered if his father had eventually left trains behind, or if Kevin might bump into him someday were he to ever follow in his footsteps. Would they even recognize each other? Maybe not.
Sometimes, those nights when it was late and his bedroom echoed with the chirping of soft crickets, Kevin wished he had someone to ride the rails with for six months. Traveling the country. Listening to metal clatter about. Tasting the freedom of the sky. The woodsy small town life just wasn't meant for him. Too many wooden buildings. Not nearly enough machines. Crops died in sudden frosts or storms. Animals keeled over without warning. You never knew what was around the corner, but the flutter it put in Kevin's gut wasn't one of curiosity and excitement, so much as one of nerves and fear. Even after eleven years, the life he knew just wasn't familiar. It wasn't predictable. It wasn't safe. Not the way his robots were.
Kevin-of-today jumped down the bus steps, slapping both his feet hard on the sidewalk. His suitcase bumped after him. No, even if a magic wand were to plop straight into his hand, he could never bring himself to reverse the impending marriage. What was the point? It wasn't like it was the worst thing in the world. Marvin would treat his Mommy right–Kevin didn't doubt that for a moment. Not only had he quizzed Molly face-to-face, but he'd run background checks on this Marvin Oakes guy a dozen times since his mother started dating him. He hadn't left his first wife. She'd died in a car crash along with their teenage son when Molly was seven. So that was something. At least Marvin hadn't up and left her. Maybe the guy wouldn't be a total creep.
But so far, Kevin hadn't found the slightest hint of evidence that could make him believe Marvin Manfred Oakes was good enough for Mommy.
Mommy happened to be what their neighbors called "eccentric." As if her vampire obsession wasn't oddball enough without an extra hobby on the side, she considered her one true calling in life to be "an artist devoted to capturing mythical creatures that only I believe in–on the canvas with a splash of paint." Most kids had parents who might embarrass their children by arriving unannounced with a forgotten lunch or a change of pants. Kevin had a mother who never cared whether his homework was done well or even done at all, as long as he could paint beside or pose for her for hours on end. He fondly recalled being dragged out of school at the age of 8 in order to help her select the color palettes and scenery for her latest project. She'd usually check him out for lunch and somehow always forget to bring him back. Kevin also not-so-fondly recalled being dragged out of school at the age of 10 in order to pose in dresses or heavy military uniforms or itchy powdered wigs.
It was for reasons like this the teachers always laughed when he tried to audition for the school play or sign up for sports. Other kids had stopped trying to invite him to parties and play-dates years ago. Kevin loved his Mommy, but for all her virtues, he fully recognized she was a respecter of no person's schedule but her own. He dreaded the day he moved out for college, because he fully expected her to walk into his dorm and drag him home again by the ear. She'd probably still be treating him like her baby when he finally made it into dental school.
But, he'd endured the taunts of "Mama's boy" and the wide berth his peers gave him years on end. His mother was as reclusive as the bats she loved to study (Probably even more reclusive–at least they lived in colonies). Kevin was all she had.
At least, Kevin was all she had until Marvin came into the picture. Kevin should have known from the start where those near-midnight dinners would lead. The man drank tomato juice from a wine glass and never touched garlic bread even when he was hungry. Mommy was hooked before she even had a chance to find out if he could cross a river.
Maybe, just maybe… he felt a little jealous. Mommy had never blown him off for anyone besides Marvin. Mommy had never cared about anyone except Kevin before. Mommy had never even suggested sending him away to live with his uncle until Marvin entered her life. Not even that time when Kevin was 6 and she'd gone hiking for three days chasing strange bats deep inside strange caves.
Come to think of it, this was the first time he'd ever left Peachfield not weighed down by cameras and his mother's insistence that they spend his entire vacation hunkered beside some guano-coated bridge or something.
None of the other few passengers unloaded from the bus after him. The bus pulled its door shut and rolled away again. Kevin peered both up and down the street. Then he stared across it to the other side. In the distant downtown portion of Dimmsdale, he could make out the silhouette of a building that looked vaguely like a pencil, with a yellow body and a pink penthouse office for the eraser and everything.
What was weird, though, was that this Camp Learn-A-Torium building behind him had similar decor around its edges too. Giant pencils formed the fence, coming together at one point to form the entrance gate where their tops interlaced, like parents after a soccer game. These Dimmsdalians must really like their pencils. But as Kevin stared up at the Learn-A-Torium, he couldn't quite shake the feeling that despite the friendly word "camp" in its name, it was even less inviting than that office downtown. The camp had several buildings behind the fence, including some massive alphabet blocks. Nothing looked like it had gotten a lot of use over the last thirty or forty years. Every window was blackened. Scattered litter decorated the ground. Spiderwebs spread between the posts of the fence, glowing faintly golden in the sunset. Oh yeah. Also, most telling of all was the yellow tape strung diagonally across the gate. It said one word: CONDEMNED.
Other than that? There wasn't much around. No people, either. Shouldn't his Grandmama or at least this Uncle Denzel character have been waiting for him at the bus stop? Kevin didn't mean to be bitter, but come on. He'd just spent 18 hours on a bus from Idaho, and then another half hour roaming town on the Dimmsdale Local. He'd crossed a time zone! Couldn't these oh-so-caring and trusting family members make a bit of effort to greet him with hugs and smiles? Or maybe a plate of snickerdoodles? He liked snickerdoodles, and the one thing Mommy had mentioned about Grandmama was that she could bake some really awesome snickerdoodles.
Well, at least he had their address. Kevin pulled his battered notebook from his backpack and flipped it over. He'd scrawled the numbers down in blue pen. The ink was starting to smudge, but the numbers were still clear. 4158 Woodnick Lane. That sounded a little too much like "wooden nickel" for Kevin's liking, which was kind of a little sketchy, but he shoved that thought down with a swallow.
Now… How to get there? Kevin tilted his head. He pulled on his backpack, stuffed his pillow beneath his arm, grabbed the handle of his suitcase in one hand, and picked up his toolbox with the other. The bus stop he'd been dropped at had a covered bench framed by plexiglas walls, and a map had been pinned to a strip of felt on one of them. It was waterstained and wrinkled from years of use, and Kevin stared at it blankly for two minutes before he even figured out where he was. Mostly because it was upside-down. Huh.
Putting the toolbox down again, Kevin felt in his pocket for his pen. He uncapped it with his teeth and drew a few big, fat circles along Strawberry Street. You are here. Hopefully no one would track him down later to yell at him for vandalism or something, but the splash of blue did somehow make the little bus stop a bit more friendly.
Bubbly laughter broke into his thoughts. Kevin twisted towards the street, the pen cap still in his mouth.
"See, what I tell ya, Fretty Francine?" teased a boy's voice. "There's nobody up here but us."
"Timmy," protested the girl.
Kevin squinted through the plexiglas walls and stepped forward. Two kids about his age, one with a green helmet and one with a pink one, had suddenly appeared down by the street sign that marked the corner of Strawberry Street and something else. Kevin didn't know where they'd come from. Camp Learn-A-Torium was perched on a slight hill, with the path sloping downward in both directions, and he hadn't heard them skating up. Nevertheless, they were obviously there.
"Come on, Clo. This hill'll serve you major air at the bottom. You're guaranteed to scrape both knees before you reach Shirley's, if you don't land on your face. It's the best place in town to practice split-second poofing under pressure. Especially when you go flying straight down with your eyes shut."
The boy was clearly more comfortable being on wheels, skating one-footed circles around the girl as she fiddled with her helmet's chinstrap. She already bore a few raw bruises and scratches down one arm. Still… honest, non-mocking laughter enveloped her voice like the petals of a blossoming flower. Kevin hadn't heard that sound in a while. She wobbled over to the start of the hill. Before she'd been there longer than two seconds, the boy—Timmy—took her shoulders and nudged her forward. The girl yelped, arms flying out to either side. She veered too far to the left. Timmy cupped his hands around his mouth.
"Don't worry, Chloe! Wanda won't let you crash… more than once! Probably! Unless it's funny!"
"That wasn't niiiiiice!" Chloe called back, giggling as her voice faded away. Her wispy blonde hair waved behind her like a flag in the wind. The boy gave his helmet two pats and took off after her. They were gone as soon as they'd appeared. The whirring sound of roller skates and occasional playful shout was all that remained. Even so, Kevin found himself staring after them in silence for almost an entire minute more. This Timmy, this Chloe… They looked like they were having fun together.
They looked like they were friends.
He shook his head. After giving his lucky shark's tooth one last, comforting rub, he started off towards Woodnick Lane.
He found the house more quickly than he'd expected to. At first glance, it looked as run down as a man who hadn't made it out alive from the Running of the Bulls. In the fading light of the sunset, Kevin almost couldn't see the cracks running along the chipped exterior walls. The roof had been patched with clumsy boards in some places, and the grass was overgrown and bleached yellow-brown. Wind whistled through two broken windows on the upper floor. Kevin waited a good full minute, watching the sky in case lightning struck above the roof. It wasn't raining, but it would have been fitting.
Well, this was the address. The number was right there beside the door. Kevin dropped his stuff on the front step, then stretched out his arms and rotated his wrists as he read the bright yellow note taped above the doorknob.
Dear Nephew Kevin,
Mother is out at Bingo Night and I had to make an emergency run to the hardware store,
but you'll find the key to the house inside the little knothole of the tree.
You know, the one in the front yard? Just let yourself in. Maybe have a snack,
or just weep those salty tears away in your nice fresh bed. Room's upstairs on the left.
Or, cuddle with Girlfriend: My hairless cat!
Hope to see you soon. That is, if the fairies don't get you first!
With much love, Denzel Crocker
Kevin read the note twice. Then again. "Fairies" was emphasized with random zigzags, the pen ink thick and smudged. With slow, puzzled footsteps, he made his way over to the lonely tree in question. It didn't seem very smart to leave a note on your front door telling everyone where you hid your house key. Especially since a knothole seemed like a much better hiding place than just under a rock or the welcome mat. You know, this Uncle Denzel could have just texted him. Kevin could have sworn he'd heard Mommy give him her number when she'd called.
When Kevin stopped in front of the knothole, he felt his foot sink into the ground. Glancing down revealed a sunken patch of earth, just like the kind you see in adventure movies when a booby trap gets activated. On that cue, a net of metal wire dropped from the branches, tangled around his limbs, and brought him to the ground.
"Gihk!" Kevin flung his arms around his head.
He watched, bug-eyed, as a panel in the wood of the tree slid sideways to reveal the grill of an enormous speaker. It crackled, then began.
"Hello! If you're hearing this message, then congrats! You're not dead! You've just stumbled into one of the many FAIRY traps around the premises of my house, which means you are trespassing! If it were up to me, you'd be roasting at a toasty 475 degrees in my crockpot right about now." Sudden cackling interrupted the message, causing the speaker to fizz and shriek. Kevin clapped his hands over his ears until the laughter died away. "However, while on my probation, I've been required to set traps that should only catch FAIRIES, and which any human who isn't Timmy Turner's Dad should have no real trouble escaping from. So as long as you aren't a fairy, good news! It's your lucky day! Don't call the cops!"
The speaker retreated back into the tree trunk. A second panel below it opened, and a tiny silver key stretched out on a tray, alongside a folded notecard. Sorry for the trap, Kevin. It's for the fairies. Love you!
Kevin stared at the key, unable to relax the tips of his toes. So there really was a key here all along? And his uncle had knowingly sent him into some bizarre security system trap anyway? Some loving relative.
The net, as it turned out, wasn't even that difficult to get out of, just as his uncle had promised. Kevin simply hunted around until he found the edge, lifted it up, and crawled underneath it. He swiped the key from the tree tray, then circled the trunk twice. The sliding panels had vanished as though they'd never been, and try as he might, Kevin couldn't manage to coax them out again. Even when he jumped up and down on the panel that had triggered the trap in the first place. He shook his head.
"Boy, if I wasn't 90% sure I just wet myself in terror, I'd be way more excited about this. Hmm…" Kevin narrowed his eyes and pushed out his lower lip. He tapped his chin with the end of the key. "No sane human would ever spend this much time and money turning their yard into a metallic, futuristic paradise. There can only be one logical explanation. Uncle Denzel must be…"
Kevin took a deep breath. He threw his arms above his head. "A CYBORG!"
Silence. A few crickets chirped at him. Kevin didn't allow their lack of enthusiasm to dampen his mood. If Uncle Denzel was secretly a cyborg (or maybe not so secretly), then his summer just became a whole lot more interesting!
With that thought in mind, he trotted across the yard back to the porch. Forgetting, of course, to keep a sharp eye out for more fairy traps along the way. No matter. He ripped the yellow note from the door and stuffed it in his pocket. The key from the tree fit perfectly in the lock. Stepping over his pillow and toolbox, Kevin swung open the door.
All was quiet. All was dark. There were two large windows in the front room, but both had their curtains drawn shut. Kevin stood for an extra second or two on the front step, not really sure what he'd expected to find when he first walked into the house his estranged uncle and Grandmama shared. Maybe a collection of fishing poles and neckties? A basket of knitting supplies with a half-finished project draped over the arm of a worn but padded chair?
The living room was nice enough, with a green couch and a small, out-of-date TV set. Cozy and practical. The faint set of kitty litter in the air confirmed his relatives kept a cat, or maybe more than one. The place might be a little dusty, but it didn't look so bad overall. Kevin felt around for a light switch, but yanked back his hand when the only one he could find was falling out of the wall with three of its wires sparking visibly. Fixing that up would definitely be on his list of projects starting tomorrow. But for now, Kevin simply dragged his things in from the porch and closed the door behind him.
He was just reaching for his shoes so he could (after 19+ hours by this point) take off his smelly socks, when three spotlights thudded on. One after the other. Clunk! Clunk! Clunk! Every one was aimed at him. Kevin snapped up his head, squinting into the triple lights. He blocked most of the glare with his free hand. He hadn't noticed until now, but apparently he was standing just behind a podium with a little microphone attached to its top.
"And now," proclaimed a voice from the shadows, emphasized by the speakers and underscored by its own shrill delight, "coming to you live from a living room near you, it's Dimmsdale's new favorite game show, Crocker or Fairy? I'm your host, Denzeeeeeel Crocker!"
Canned applause erupted from all sides. Kevin risked a peek between his fingers. A single, thinner spotlight focused on the other side of the living room, where a man in a white shirt and crisp tie stood on a small platform, arms raised to welcome all the clapping. Kevin was instantly struck by the similarities between the bizarre man before him and the mother he'd left in Peachfield: black hair, glasses, thin figure, pale skin, fading freckles and aging spots, the works. A second after that, he realized something else: Whoa. Not only is this guy a dead ringer for Mommy, but he looks a lot like…
This was followed immediately by the panic of, Oh wait, so that's what I'm going to look like when I get old. Boy, was that ever a sobering thought! Kevin studied the man nervously, holding his toolbox with a grip that could've crushed honeycomb. Hopefully when he grew up, he wouldn't have that same weird, bulging hump and stooped posture.
"Wh-what's going on, Uncle Denzel?" he managed to stammer out.
The man leered forward, grinning from ear to ear. Or maybe from eye to eye. "I'm glad you asked, Kevin! If that's even your real name. I've only recently learned of your existence in the first place, so rather than get to know you personally with a tender phone call, I chose to spend my time devising this intricate test that will help me determine whether you are exactly who you claim to be. So, before I commit to spending the extra dough I've scraped off the PTA fund I MEAN MY LEGITIMATELY EARNED TEACHER'S SALARY to look after you, I'm here to prove that you really are my estranged half-sister's son and not a FAIRY in disguise."
He twitched when he said the word fairy, his body briefly contorting into a twist. Bullets of sweat raced each other down Kevin's neck to his ears. He'd only known Denzel Crocker for thirty seconds tops, and he was really starting to think his estranged uncle was less of a super-cool cyborg and more of an escaped lunatic on the lam. "But I am your nephew Kevin, Uncle Denzel! Honest, I am! Call my cell phone and I'll prove it!"
"Ha! Like I haven't heard that one a million times before. That's what they all say, kid."
Kevin watched, jaw slack, quaking in his tennis shoes, as Uncle Denzel lifted an index card near his eyes. The twisted smile curling across his face could have pickled cupcakes. "Now, accept that I've trapped you into a living room quiz show like a big boy, and we'll get this game on the road. Get ready to play for your life on, Crocker! or! Fairy!?"
At that, Kevin's hand went up. "Hang on, did you just say 'my life?'"
Uncle Denzel pointed two finger guns in his direction. "Ooh, so sorry, but all questions must be phrased in a way that won't land me knee-deep in trouble with the law if I answer. Don't touch that dial, folks. We'll be right back!" And to Kevin, he scoffed, "What kind of crazy person even uses dials on their television sets anymore these days? Learn to press a button, hippies! Get with the program!"
Kevin buried his face in his folded arms, leaning all his weight against the podium, and tried very hard to pretend he'd never been born.
A/N - This multi-chapter but (relatively) short piece is an exercise in setting and movement. Setting is usually one of my weaker points as a writer, I think, but I'm pleased with how everything has come together so far. Let me know your thoughts when you review!