“We’re out of large zipper bags,” his mother said, then turned and stepped back into the kitchen.
Andrew looked around. He was in the pantry again. It was a proper pantry, now, with shelves on two sides and rows of canned and packaged food. The shelves were only a hand’s length deep and the whole thing was only wide enough for the two shelves and an adult standing sort of sideways.
The last time Andrew had seen it, it had been more of a broom cupboard. The back wall, where Andrew was standing, had no shelves. That was where the brooms, poled dusters, mops and things were leaned. And Andrew, of course.
He wandered out slowly, letting his eyes adjust. “How long has it been this time,” he asked his Mother as he rubbed his head.
She was bustling around a huge pot boiling on the stove and didn’t seem to have heard him. Her back was ample and her frizzed grey hair came only to her shoulders this time. He didn’t expect her to turn around and look at him.
He rubbed some more. His hair didn’t feel dusty. Maybe she had thrown a sheet over him. He had suggested, once, that she should make an Andrew Cozy, to slip over him when he was on hold. It had made her angry. One of his brothers had told him later that she took it as an insult to her organizational skills. The question assumed that she planned to keep using the button, meaning that she didn’t have confidence in her abilities.
“But she installed the button. Wasn’t that implying everything that could ever be implied?”
“That was when Dad left. She had three preschool aged kids and no certification. No one could blame her for being a bit disorganized then.”
Except all their relatives, Andrew had thought. Except everyone who would point out that spacing children so closely in an unsteady marriage was a bad idea. He hadn’t said that, though, back then. He had only marveled that his brother could miss something so obvious. Of course, that had been back when he and his brothers had been closer to the same age.
He dropped his hand from his head as soon as he noticed that he was doing it again. He always rubbed his head when he came back online. He couldn’t feel the button, of course, although he knew it was there. He remembered the sight of it, red and blinking, when his Mother had installed it. Like a little live cube. She had been chanting lowly, a comfortable background sound. Then she put it on his head and he’d felt the shock and the rising darkness.
There was a clatter as his mother dropped a big wooden spoon onto a copper spoon rest sitting on the new granite counter. “Well?” she said.
He pressed his lips together in deliberate patience. “How long has it been and what do I need to know?”
“It hasn’t been that long.” She moved to the sink. What he could see of the side of one cheek was bright pink. Oh, good. She was embarrassed. That meant she was going to be prickly.
Keep the questions simple. “Do I still go to Goodman’s and is the money still in the nightstand?”
“Of course the money’s not in the nightstand.” Openly angry now, scowling. Still not looking at him. “Use your card. And Goodman’s closed. . . “ she broke off, standing rigid while the water ran in the sink.
Uh-oh. That sentence would have to end with some number of years ago. She had just said that it hadn’t been long and in the next sentence was having to say it was years. Would she decide that he had just called her a liar? The fact that the words had been hers wouldn’t matter. She was feeling shamed and it had been his question.
Might as well poke the bear again. “And what’s a zipper bag?”
“Argh,” she threw her hands in the air. “I can see you’ll be useless.”
She bustled around, turning things off. “I’ll go get them. You . . “ one hand lifted and made a rolling gesture, “. . . go tidy your room. Get acclimated.”
She pulled off her apron, threw it on the counter, and strode out, never once turning towards him. He heard a door open and shut. Then he heard a car. It started right up, so it must not be the car he remembered.
He turned around. The kitchen had been redecorated and looked more expensive, more organized, and cleaner than the last time he’d seen it. Well, she’d be gone for awhile and she’d expect him to be in this room when she got back. No telling how little time he’d have to look around. He’d better start with the front yard. There would be no warning of her return if he was standing there.
The hall still had the fake marble tiles and the flocked gold-tone wallpaper. The dry sink had been moved there and it was looking empty and decorative. There was a throw rug just inside the door. The door was still big, heavy, and made of foot-wide wooden panes, but it had been dusted and polished. The knob had been changed to something that looked like wrought iron. He turned it.
There were potted plants on the porch landing. The ones by the door were tall and the ones along the edges of the concrete pathway were shorter. A well mowed lawn spread to the right and a well-scrubbed driveway spread to the left. It had always been big enough for two cars and now there was an additional concrete pad on the other side. There was no sign of the oil drips that had been there.
There were three newspapers in the driveway. He picked through them to find the most recent date. What had the date been? He couldn’t remember. That didn’t feel odd. He tried repeating the date to memorize it, but when that didn’t feel like it was working, he tore off a dated corner and stuck it in his pocket.
As he turned to go back in, he notices a small sign where the lawn met a front flower bed. It said Walker Landscaping and Maintenance. Well, that explained that. She obviously had money, now. Had she re-married? She had always had a talent for magic. Maybe things had finally turned out the way she wanted.
Andrew stepped over a thick rubber doormat with Morgan on it in deeply set white rubber letters and walked back into the house. After cruising around various downstairs rooms, he wandered toward the staircase. He had been dreading the staircase. On the wall of the staircase would be the most recent family photos.
Andrew watched his feet for the first few steps on the carpeted stairs. Most people, he thought, would think that a person in my situation would look for a calendar. But the calendar couldn’t deliver the impact that the photos would. A calendar could only tell how much time had passed. Putting him on hold wouldn’t matter so much if she put all her sons on hold about the same amount of time. But she didn’t. Not ever.
Andrew looked up. He was shocked. There were three photos with thick wooden frames and numerous others with thin metal ones. They crawled up the wall, in line with the steps. The wooden frames were for the three sons.
Willy’s photo was highest up, since he was oldest. Andrew’s own was lowest. Eddie’s was in the middle. Only Willy’s photo wasn’t of Willy, it was of his family. It was hard to see how many because Mother had shoved a snapshot of Willy’s face into the upper left corner of the frame. Willy and a boy that looked to be about six still showed. Two sets of bare legs showed under the snapshot, so a wife and a daughter and the wife might be holding a baby.
“Damn.” Andrew said it out loud. In the snapshot, Willy’s cheeks were getting chunky and his hair was getting thin. He dragged his eyes to Eddy’s photo. It was a graduation photo. It was hard to guess if it was high school or college. Andrew’s eyes flicked back and forth between his brother’s photos, sizing them up. Eddy was lagged by a few more years than last time. At Eddy’s age, what would have caused that? Mother always told him it was because he was so young that he needed to be looked after. Couldn’t someone in high school look after himself? A chill ran down Andrew’s spine.
The rest of the photos would be aunts, uncles and cousins. Best not to think about them. Andrew ran for his room. Thankfully, it looked pretty much the way he had left it. He didn’t know what he would have done if it hadn’t. What he next, he did because it was what he always did when he was newly back on line. He threw himself on his bed and slept.
Being on hold wasn’t anything like sleep. You were in one place and time and then you were in another place and time and feeling dragged and groggy. There was no sense of time passing at all. Sleep reached up and folded you in and held you. You felt time go by as you slept, could slow it even, so that a half hour asleep felt like several hours gone by.
Andrew usually didn’t dream during his first post-hold nap, but this time he did. He was floating. Most of the time he was face up, watching the sky with clouds and tree branches gliding past. Sometimes he was face down, watching sunbeams dance through greenish water. At those times old toys and the floating bodies of his brothers at different ages swam past. They bobbed on the currents.
His first bicycle, a hand-me-down, floated past, laying almost exactly on its side. An orange crab walked along the frets of the front wheel in an endless circle.
But mostly it was the sky. He had a feeling he knew which river he was floating down, but it was not one he’d ever been to, outside of sleep. They had only ever driven by it, bridging from one side of it to the other, on the way to visit Grandma.
He woke. There was no way to tell how much time had passed. Sometimes the first nap was less than half an hour. He could remember things better now.
The walls of his room were the same familiar light reddish orange that his Mother called apricot and his brothers called pink. The sheets were white and the blankets were old army blankets. The saying was that boys liked army things, but basically they had been left behind by his Father who had got them from his Father who had been in the army and you didn’t throw away things that could still be used.
There were two white dressers, one upright and one long and low. There was a white closet door. There would be a jumble of things in the closet, most of them not his. His clothes would be in the dressers. He could see stacks of clothes on the low dresser. Some were in their wrappers, others hadn’t had wrappers, but had been cocooned in plastic wrap. He supposed they would be of different styles. Probably the clothes he was wearing were out of date. He wondered if they were odd enough looking to get him beat up.
He sat up and listened. There were sounds in the kitchen. She was back and working again. Odds were she didn’t want to see him particularly. She would wait. He was supposed to act like things were normal. Like there was nothing to discuss. It was going to be hard. But that was later. For now, she wouldn’t come looking for him. He had some time alone in his room.
His spread was a set of camouflage sheets sized for a full sized bed, not the twin that they covered. He twitched one corner up over the mattress. The jack was still there. He lifted the handle from under the bed, slotted it in and pumped.
Eddy had helped him set it up. Eddy was clever with physical things. The frame of the bed was set too low to slide much under, but with the linked hydraulic jacks, it could be pumped more than a foot higher. You could hide under it. You could hide things up inside the box springs. But Eddy had graduated and probably didn’t live here anymore. Andrew pumped.
Soon he was sitting on top of the bed and looking at his stash. The blankets had been turned down so that he could twitch them over his things to hide them if he heard his Mother coming. She probably wouldn’t, but it was best to be sure.
There were several calendars and a stack of blank calendar pages.
. . . .(Yes, I know I haven't gotten to the frog, yet.)