Don Esker looked over his boyhood neighborhood and wondered where the skeleton lay, the lonely bones hidden so long they would likely never be found. Maybe an archeologist would dig them up in a future century and scientists would scratch, pick, and peer at them, trying to divine mysterious burial rites from 1975. Why was this boy buried so differently from the customs of the age? Why all alone? Would murder cross their minds?
Maybe shoppers walked over the boy’s remains in the mall, which was an undulating, thick field of crab grasses, toothwort, bloodroot, and spotted wintergreen back then. Maybe the bones rested in the backyard of a large home in a fancy housing development up the road, delicately landscaped with tasteful hills and ornamental ponds, in place of the flat, husky cornfield of Don’s youth.
Don walked to the mailbox at the end of his parents’ driveway as dusk descended. Wood and brick houses lined the road, with neat trim painted in bright contrasting colors. Small flourishes individualized the yards. He sometimes spotted a pink flamingo or a pointy-hatted gnome left over from his youth, bleached from years of service.
The musty, distinctive smell of autumn filled the air. The trees bristled with anticipation, edged with the first traces of their annual, exuberant transformation, a party of such riotous abandon they dropped their leaves in exhaustion and needed months to recover. He’d been there and understood.
At some point after Don moved away from North Homestead, Ohio, his dad had replaced the old aluminum mailbox with a heavy plastic version. Almost everyone else had, too, thwarting teens with baseball bats who sped down the streets leaving a trail of leaning, dented carnage.
Don waited for a car to pass before retrieving a small stack of letters and colorful store circulars. He flipped through the envelopes as he returned to the brick house where his parents had raised four sons born roughly two years apart. Tim was the oldest at fifty-nine and Randy came next at fifty-five. Don was fifty-three. Rich floated in the four-year gap between Tim and Randy, always sixteen.
He entered through the kitchen door. Panels of tan wood brightened the room, and cream linoleum covered the floor. His mom, wearing a soft pink sweatshirt, her short hair curled, turned from fussing at the sink. He tossed the mail on the table.
“Anything good?” she asked, meaning a personal letter or a card, something with a handwritten address.
“Just bills and junk mail.”
She looked through the envelopes and ads, tossing them aside while shaking her head. “Does anyone ever buy this stuff they advertise in the mail?”
He turned on his laptop to check the new Wi-Fi he’d installed that afternoon and got a powerful connection right away, a big improvement on the older system he’d set up two years before.
His mom watched as he tapped and clicked. “Did you really have to go to all the trouble? Your brothers said the old one was perfectly good.”
“If I’m going to stay here a while, I need to have good Wi-Fi. I have to be able to share docs and Skype with my clients.”
She shook her head. “I don’t even know what you just said. Here, I need you to do something.” She opened the refrigerator and removed two plastic containers with blue lids. Inside, red sauce mottled with pasta and vegetables, the remains of dinner. She cleared her throat and gave a quick flick of her head, as if steeling herself. “Can you take these across the street for Chief Tedesco and Billy? I should have asked you before you got the mail so you’d only have to make one trip.” She set them on the table.
“Mom, are you kidding me? You feed them?”
She flicked a washcloth and wiped a counter that was already clean. “Since Patty died, I make sure they have a home-cooked meal at least two or three times a week. The food they deliver from that home meal service…I’m sure they do the best they can, but I wouldn’t feed it to a dog.”
“Dog food is too good for them. Let them starve.”
She clucked her tongue. “That’s very unkind. You’re better than that, Donnie.”
“I was here just a few months ago. You didn’t ask me then.”
“You were only here for a few days, and you didn’t notice when I took it over myself. But I’m not going to hide it from you while you’re helping with daily chores for the foreseeable future. I’m also not going to stop. In spite of everything that happened, they’re our neighbors and they’re in need.”
“How does Dad feel about that?” Don gestured in the general direction of the room down the hallway.
She looked at the floor, and Don regretted his question. It wasn’t fair to involve Dad.
“Forgiveness isn’t just a virtue, Don. It’s the only way to heal yourself. It’s in your own self-interest to forgive. You should have learned that by now.”
“I have, Mom. But some things are unforgivable.”
“Maybe. But if I can do it in this case, you can, too.”
He’d never told her everything about that time, so he couldn’t argue.
She went on. “Now, please. Just humor me. I don’t want to fight about this. I’m not going to let a neighbor go without nutritional meals.”
He sighed. “I’ll never fight with you, Mom. If you want me to take them over, I will. But I’m doing it for your sake, not theirs.”
She looked relieved. “Thank you. And remind the chief to take his medicine. He’s so cranky, but remind him anyway.”
Don took the containers, and the spring-mounted storm door hurled closed behind him. Except for distant headlights, Stearns Road was clear. Don crossed, looking about.
The city had ruthlessly scrubbed away all traces of the neighborhood’s distant past as a farm, as if to erase all reminders of the summer of 1975. Today’s parents wouldn’t let their kids anywhere near fields with rusty farm equipment hidden among the weeds, or a weathered chicken coop up on stilts, and especially not an old barn with an empty hayloft hung with chains you could swing over the ledge. As a boy, he’d thought they were permanent.
As he walked up the Tedesco driveway, neglect not apparent at first glance surprised him. The white trim bubbled and peeled, spouts held teetering gutters in place, and the porch railing looked as rickety as a Popsicle stick project.
Walking across the porch, he wondered how many times he’d raced across this very concrete slab to meet up with his best boyhood friend. Billy was his first love, his first kiss, his first sleeping companion.
Billy pissing in the weeds. “What are you looking at, faggot?” Billy’s hair ablaze with white fire as he descended on Don with steel-toed boots.
Don took a deep breath and jammed the doorbell. The classic ding-dong rang inside. Excited feet stomped to the door. It opened with a yank, and Don braced for the visual jolt.
On the other side of the thin glass of the storm door, Billy’s face broke with joy.
Before this moment, Don had only seen Billy’s head injury from across the street, where it still had impact. A canyon fissured his skull from his forehead to his crown, like a spear wound from an ancient battlefield. Thick scar tissue, glossy and white, flowed into the hairless valley. Gray tufts covered the rest of his head in the random lengths of home haircuts. The location and size of the injury made brain damage obvious. Billy was the poster boy for not staggering aboard a motorcycle while drunk.
“Don!” he cried, the name somehow half-formed, a man’s voice with a boy’s enthusiasm. Billy threw open the door, but it swung outward and Don jumped back.
Billy wore a grungy white T-shirt that ended at the middle of his rounded, hairy belly. His jeans sagged, crumpled between his knees and ankles. His eyes filled with tears, and he slapped Don about the chest and shoulders as if to confirm that he was real.
“Who’s there?” demanded a sour, suspicious voice.
Don clenched his teeth.
“It’s Don!” Billy cried with wonder and happiness. “Don!”
Billy grabbed Don and pulled him inside. Don stumbled over the threshold, gripping the containers in surprise, but he quickly restored his unfriendly glare.
The whir of an electric wheelchair came as relentlessly as a buzz saw, and the metal contraption soon rolled into the archway of the dining room.
“Donnie Esker,” the chief asked. “Is that you?”
“It’s me,” he replied in a gruff voice to North Homestead’s former chief of police.
Don saw the Navy SEAL memorabilia still on the living room walls, the core of the chief’s legend. For years, the people of North Homestead had reveled in his status as a member of the elite group of warriors trained for clandestine and rugged adventures in remote regions of the globe. Don remembered people gawking at these spit-polished mementos of gung-ho military glory. Mayors came and went, but Chief Tedesco held his job the way George Washington was always on the dollar bill.
In his wheelchair, the chief looked as insubstantial as chicken bones. His useless legs leaned to the side, and his arms slanted to his lap.
Don recalled when, many years ago, his mom told him about the chief’s tumble down the stairs that paralyzed him from the waist down. Don had made a joke about the unfortunate timing, that a paralysis below his waist should have happened a year before Billy’s birth. She hadn’t laughed.
The chief looked him up and down. “Been spending time at the gym? You were a little wisp of a kid. You look like you could be on those wrestling shows on TV, except you’re probably too old.”
Don raised the plastic tubs, but the chief ignored them. “How’s your old man doing? He still has a few months, right?”
“I think he’ll make it through the holidays.” Don’s voice thickened with meaning. “But he’s got a lot of unresolved things on his mind.”
The chief chuckled and gave his wheelchair arm a light tap. “I understand that, stuck in this thing for so long.”
Don drew in a breath at the chief’s audacity, as if he’d meant that his dad felt wistful about never seeing the Mona Lisa or hiking the Andes. “I think he’s more worried about being falsely accused of murder.”
The chief paused before nodding. “I had a job to do.”
“A job you didn’t do. You let the killer get away.”
The chief’s face crinkled, but with a touch of understanding and admiration in his eyes. “I respect a guy who defends his family. That’s partly what I was doing, too. I had a responsibility to those other families and the community, but you need to remember that it hit us hard in this very house. My wife was destroyed. None of us was ever the same.”
Don dropped his voice. “Neither were we.” He held out the tubs. “My mom wanted you to have these.”
“Billy,” he barked, and Billy jerked to life, took the containers, and disappeared into the kitchen.
“The kid’s a godsend,” the chief said. “For forty years, I couldn’t get him to do a damn thing worth doing. Screwing off, drugs and girls and booze. A bunch of kids he never saw. Couldn’t hold a job. The kind of low-life trash I used to enjoy locking up. Crashing a motorcycle isn’t the best way to get your life on track, but in his case it was an improvement.”
Don paused. “My mom says to remember to take your medicine.” He pushed his way out and made it halfway across the porch before Billy cried, “Don!”
Don stopped. His old friend stepped outside and moved in his direction, eager and yet consumed by caution.
“Billy, get your ass in here!” his father shouted.
Billy’s face fell. His eyes flicked, wrestling with his impulses.
He hurried inside, shutting himself up with his father.
As the summer of 1975 began, both Don and Billy were ten years old. Billy’s little brother Eddie was six. Billy hated Eddie, and since Billy was his best friend, Don took his side, but he felt sorry for Eddie. Don’s three older brothers treated him like an afterthought, a radio in the background, a teacher at the chalkboard, something easily ignored. Don wished Billy treated Eddie the same way.
Billy shared a bedroom with Eddie. One afternoon, Don and Billy sat Indian-style on Billy’s bed, flipping through comic books. Across the room under the window, Eddie played with plastic soldiers on his blue cowboy bedspread, making musical sounds and twirling them by the heads, dancing instead of making war.
“Come on,” Billy said, ripping the comic book from Don’s hands. “Let’s go play in the chicken coop.”
Eddie sat up, thinking he was invited. Billy set him straight with, “You are not coming with us. I hate the way you always follow me around.” His brother’s face flushed with disappointment, tears flooded his eyes, and his lips quivered. Don felt a stab of sorrow.
Comic books in hand, Billy knelt in front of his dresser. Quietly, he removed the bottom drawer and set it aside. He threw the magazines into his secret compartment, a shallow dip in the dresser bottom.
A minute later, the two friends raced outside. As they doubled back in front of the porch, Don saw Eddie peering from behind the summer screen of the storm door.
They crossed to Don’s side of the street, heading for a field of tall weeds that grew above their heads. This area of North Homestead was a farm in the nineteenth century. Stamped down with no regard for the farm’s structure, suburban lots held scattered remnants of that past. An old chicken coop towered on stilts near the tree line of the field. The farmhouse itself stood a few doors down from Billy’s house, now just another home lining the road.
It looked haunted beneath huge trees, and the old-fashioned, massive windows rattled loudly enough to hear down the street. A very poor family by the name of Hartner lived there, headed by a gregarious, gangly man with thick glasses who always wore white shirts and black slacks and who loved Jesus. His wife always smiled tenderly. The Hartners had three girls and a severely retarded son.
On Don’s side of the street, large fields concealed rusting farm equipment sinking into the earth. Storage sheds poked up from the weeds, melting into bristling cones of weathered planks, spiky with nails. The chicken coop stood tall and straight.
The farm had grown corn, but someone had planted a strawberry garden near the chicken coop. Over the years, the plants went wild, and the berries shrank to the size of pebbles. All the kids spent hours crawling through the weeds looking for the jagged, dark green leaves. Pushing them aside and finding a red, sweet strawberry or two felt like winning a prize.
The field held many other unwanted things like old chairs with missing legs, soggy rolls of carpets hosting swarms of bugs, mangled tires, busted lamps, and even an old green refrigerator.
A storm had blown through the other night, and Don and Billy balanced against falling when their sneakers slipped in mud. The first mugginess of summer thickened the warm air.
The chicken coop looked like a tiny house, thin and pointy. Don and Billy clambered up a narrow staircase, so steep it was more like a ladder. The door was long gone, and they jumped inside where sunlight streamed through the uneven cracks of poorly fitted slats. Three wooden tiers lined both sides. A rusty chain hung in the center. The uneven texture made it easy to grip, and they took turns pushing off the back wall and swinging through the doorframe.
“Let’s play in the refrigerator,” Billy suggested. They wiped their rusty hands on their jeans before leaping into the weeds.
The old refrigerator lay on its back at a slight angle, its white interior cracked and dirty. A brackish puddle filled the bottom. Everyone knew kids could suffocate inside an abandoned refrigerator, so someone had removed the door and left it slumped on the ground alongside. They tipped the refrigerator until they’d drained away most of the water.
They settled in next to each other, dangling their feet over the side. It was fun to be inside a refrigerator, a place usually inaccessible. Don and Billy looked at each other and grinned.
Don knew boys were supposed to feel strongly about girls. You have to go steady with them, buy them presents, dance with them and eventually kiss them. Lots of boys and girls at school did these things, but Don felt an immense and powerful tug from Billy, and he knew Billy felt the same way.
If people can be in love, then I can love Billy. I don’t have to love a girl.
They leaned in to kiss. They did it a lot when they were alone. Someone at Billy’s school, Hollyhock Elementary, told him that kissing meant moving your lips around, not just planting your mouths together. Don went to St. Anne’s, where nobody knew about such things. The revelation filled Don with happiness, and new feelings stirred somewhere inside, mysterious and somehow immense.
“What are you doing?” Eddie asked, giggling. He’d followed them and smiled nervously, a finger hooked in his mouth.
They scrambled from the refrigerator. “I told you not to follow me!” Billy yelled.
“I just wanted to play with you,” he replied, his voice breaking.
“You want to play with us? Fine, get in the refrigerator.”
Eddie didn’t move, so Billy picked him up and slid him inside. “Play!” he ordered.
Confused, Eddie looked around. “What am I supposed to play with?”
“We’re gonna play prison, and you’re the prisoner, okay?”
Eddie’s face popped with overwhelming joy to be included in such an exciting game.
To Don, Billy said, “Come on.” He knelt to lift the top half of the refrigerator door. Don didn’t like this game, but didn’t say anything and lifted the bottom end.
As the door loomed down on him, Eddie shrank with fear. Billy said, “We’re the prison guards, and you have to stay in there until we bring you some bread and water.”
They wiggled the door until the latch, an old-fashioned long metal handle, snapped into place with a solid click. They stepped back, sharing a questioning and worried look.
Immediately, Eddie began pounding on his prison ceiling, his yells sounding impossibly distant.
No wonder kids suffocate in refrigerators, Don realized, listening to Eddie’s muffled screams. Don always thought as long as you made enough noise, someone would rescue you in time and that only stupid, silent kids died this way.
Billy grabbed the handle and pulled.
The door wouldn’t open.
Panic seized Billy’s face, and he tried again, harder this time, using both hands.
The door wouldn’t budge.
Don frantically examined the hinged side. It fit snugly against the unit, but he wriggled his fingers into the crack and lifted the door about half an inch, as far as the lock on the other side would allow, but it gave Eddie some fresh air.
Eddie’s chubby little fingers swarmed frantically along the opening, his hands pushing up. It broke Don’s heart. Eddie had no hope of lifting something it took two ten-year-old boys to move.
“Eddie, put your mouth against the crack and breathe!” Don shouted, but he knew Eddie couldn’t hear him above his own screams.
White with fear, Billy held his hands at his mouth.
“Go get help!” Don shouted.
Instead, Billy leaped on the door, crushing both Don’s and Eddie’s fingers. Don cried out and stumbled back. He hopped about, his hands throbbing with pulses of pain and ease, pain and ease.
Billy crouched on top of the refrigerator. He grabbed the handle and lifted with all his might, his face red with effort. After a moment, a screech ripped out as the handle wrenched free, followed by two coils that looked like metal guts.
Billy stumbled to right himself and shot Don an inquisitive look. Were the coils a good or a bad sign? Had he destroyed the latch or broken it so that it would never open? In either case, there was no handle to pull.
“What are we going to do?” Billy screamed while his little brother pounded beneath him.
“Go get help!” Don yelled again, and Billy scrambled off and started to run.
Don suddenly realized his injured fingers would prevent him from lifting the hinged side any longer, trapping Eddie without air. He should have been the one to run for help, not Billy. They were doing everything wrong, and his mind whirled with how quickly things were spinning out of control.
He screamed, “Billy, come back!” as he tried to work his fingers into the crack, but his world went white with pain and he staggered back. Eddie screamed and pounded.
Desperate to do something, Don cried out and charged, slamming into the refrigerator. The door slid a few inches. Billy had destroyed the latch. He leaned in to push, keeping his throbbing fingers up, the way Mom held hers when waiting for her nail polish to dry.
Billy returned, saw that the door was moving and pushed as hard as he could. They sent the door tumbling away.
Eddie flew screaming from the refrigerator and raced off into the weeds.
“You stupid kid!” Billy yelled in his brother’s wake. “I told you not to bother me!”
Don’s three older brothers thought the black and blue bruise across the top joints of his fingers looked cool, like a racing stripe, and Don was proud that his injury impressed them.
Billy was nicer to Eddie, and sometimes even asked him to join in games or to watch TV. Eddie gleefully accepted these invitations, and Don hoped Billy wouldn’t be so mean to Eddie from now on.
A week later, Eddie Tedesco vanished.
Linnette was the hospice nurse, roly-poly and middle-aged in that vague space between forty and sixty years. She parted her gray hair on the side, wore little makeup, and used the glasses that hung about her neck only to read, bringing them to her face with no-nonsense precision.
“How long are you going to be staying to help, Don?” she asked, seated next to Dad’s bed. She closed her notebook and rose, adjusting the strap of her large purse across her shoulder.
“As long as I’m needed.”
“He means he’ll stay until I kick the bucket,” his dad said, his voice fuzzy with morphine.
“Oh, now,” Linnette said cheerfully, giving his arm a quick squeeze. “You’ll have to do better than that if you’re trying to shock me. I’ve seen and heard it all.”
Dad smiled. He and Linnette had hit it off like a house afire.
She said to Don, “You have my cell number, so call anytime. Now, you’re sure you understand all the medication?”
He held up the schedule. “Got it.”
“Great.” She drew him into a hug, which surprised and pleased him. “I know your mom’s relieved to have you here.” She winked. “And I’ll bet some of the local ladies would like to make your acquaintance, too.”
“He’s got two older brothers who live nearby,” Dad said, sailing the carefree skies of morphine, “but the gay one has to come all the way from his fancy condo in San Francisco to help out the old man.”
Linnette’s expression flashed with brief surprise, but after a beat she replied, “And he can give you fashion advice at the same time.”
Don chuckled along with his dad and Linnette. The stereotype didn’t apply to him at all, but her kindly motive neutralized any offense.
After Linnette left, his dad closed his eyes, breathing deeply.
Don was used to the emaciated frame of his formerly robust father, like sticks under the sheets and woven blue blanket. The papery skin on his face revealed the shape of his skull. All his hair had fallen out a while back, even his eyebrows and the bushy, gnarled growth in his ears and nose that afflict most men as they age.
“Oh, Don,” his dad said, taking a deep breath, his voice suddenly serious. “I know I don’t have long, and I appreciate you being here.”
A portable commode sat at the foot of the bed. Medicine cluttered the nightstand, along with a plaster statue of Jesus carrying a lamb, draped with a rosary.
Dad said, “That Linnette is something else. She’s so nice, isn’t she?”
“Yes, she is. You’re lucky to get such a cool hospice nurse.”
“Lucky to get someone who doesn’t recognize my name,” he muttered.
“Nobody remembers any of that, Dad.”
“I remember it. You remember. Your mom. Your brothers. Everyone in the neighborhood.”
“You’re wrong, Dad,” Don said, firmly. “Most people around here don’t have any idea.”
A long silence filled the room.
“I wish to God for only one thing, Donnie. I wish I could clear my name before I go.”
“Your name’s been cleared, Dad.”
He shook his head slightly. “No. They never caught the bastard.”
“It doesn’t matter. You had an alibi, and everyone knows you didn’t do it.”
His dad sighed. “I wish I could believe that, but it isn’t true. There will always be suspicion.”
“Your family knows.”
“But justice means everyone knows, and I’m old enough now to know that the idea of justice is a joke, Donnie. A frigging joke. You’re lucky if you get justice in just one part of life. Work, home, school. If you get justice in one, you should thank your lucky stars.”
Don didn’t know what to say. He agreed with his dad. Why try to improve his mood by arguing? Dying doesn’t make you stupid.
“Ah, shit, Donnie, don’t listen to me. I can’t think straight on these drugs.”
At that moment, when his dad rushed to deny his grim analysis of justice for his son’s sake, Don realized how solid his dad’s wisdom and kindness were, strong enough to bust through even morphine.
The night Eddie disappeared, Don and Billy had played in the woods before separating at bedtime. Don read the rest of the story in the newspaper: when Billy returned home, he didn’t turn on the light, and assumed Eddie was already asleep.
When Billy woke in the morning, Eddie’s bed was already made. Hollyhock Elementary hosted an arts and crafts class every weekday at ten o’clock to keep the kids busy during the summer. Eddie enjoyed the classes so much, he leaped out of bed first thing.
In the kitchen, Billy’s mother served him breakfast and asked, “Why is your brother still sleeping?” Eddie’s empty plate sat waiting, and Billy realized something was very wrong.
By noon, all the police in North Homestead were searching for the chief’s son. Officers talked to all the kids in the neighborhood, and Don said he remembered seeing Eddie around seven the previous night.
Don and his brothers joined Billy in running through the fields and woods, calling out for Eddie. They knew the hidden places to search: the small cave in the creek bed running through the woods where older kids drank beer and smoked cigarettes, the secret tunnels made by fallen trees, the hidden structures they called “huts” fashioned from high weeds, bent to form a roof, the interior cleared. They couldn’t find him anywhere.
As dusk fell, the adults called the kids back home. They looked stony and fearful.
Don’s family piled into the station wagon and drove to St. Anne’s, where an emergency vigil gathered for the son of the chief of police. The church was full, and people stood in back and around the sides. It surprised Don that many families weren’t even Catholic, like the Hartners.
Billy sat with his mom in the front pew, his dad undoubtedly still organizing police efforts, and Don was upset he couldn’t sit beside his best friend. Instead, Mayor Shadowski occupied Don’s rightful seat.
Father O’Shay talked of grace, prayers, and miracles. People sang. They prayed. They lighted candles, and they agreed faith was essential, prayers would work, and God would look after little Eddie. Don found it both thrilling and comforting. The nuns from the neighboring convent led the congregation in saying the rosary, and Don found their soft, sweet voices soothing and safe. The non-Catholics bowed their heads and said their own prayers.
Just before the vigil concluded, Father O’Shay announced the police were forming search committees for the following morning, and that nobody’s employer would mind if they couldn’t make it to work the next day. All the dads approached the altar to find the nearest meeting spot.
Everyone parted as Billy and his mom left. She was tall and thin with dark curly hair so tight against her scalp, it looked like a cap. She wore huge glasses with square frames, and she acknowledged the soft promises of prayers with slight, fearful nods. Don tried catching Billy’s eye, but his best friend looked at the floor.
The next morning, Mom woke Don and his brothers early, having prepared an enormous Sunday breakfast of hearty foods even though it was only Wednesday. “You’ll need your strength for the search.”
Dad drove them to the nearest meeting spot, about two miles up the road, to the edge of a vast field of deep green, mid-length early summer corn. Cars leaned to and fro along the ditches and scores of people arrived, including packs of uniformed Boy Scouts and 4-H kids.
Fueled by pancakes and bacon and scrambled eggs, Don was raring to go, to run through the field calling out for Eddie at the top of his lungs, last night’s words at the vigil filling him with eager dreams of being the hero to find the frightened boy.
The first line of searchers set off, walking close to each other at a measured pace, swatting the corn leaves about with sticks. It was an open admission that Eddie was almost certainly dead. They were looking for a body.
Suddenly, last night’s service seemed a carnival of wizardry and spells and hocus-pocus, all designed to distract from the terrifying reality nobody wanted to say aloud.
Don felt like puking and turned away, but the urge vanished when he saw a crew from one of the local Cleveland television stations. The reporter held a microphone and faced a camera, nodding. All of a sudden, he began to speak: “That’s right, Doreen. The residents of North Homestead are hopeful today as they continue the search for little Eddie Tedesco…”
Hopeful. The man actually used the word “hopeful,” while behind him the cornfield filled with people looking for Eddie’s body.
The searches wound down after a few days and ended in a week. Thunderstorms blew through, and Don watched from his window, wondering if the rain was soaking Eddie’s body.
The people of North Homestead refused to talk about the inevitable conclusion, but all the same they braced against the blow. When it didn’t come, their panic stretched until it snapped back in stinging, tangled fits of anger when well-meaning but unwitting outsiders wondered if the case would ever be solved.
Billy and his parents retreated to their house, huddling together against the world. As chief of police, Billy’s dad had to report to work daily, but otherwise stayed home. His distinctive black squad car with the dome atop and the “Chief of Police” medallions on the doors sat in the driveway every night and all weekend.
Don wanted to see Billy, but his parents told him the Tedescos needed time alone as a family. Secretly, Don was relieved. He didn’t know what to say or how to ease Billy’s pain. While Eddie’s fate seemed certain, the circumstances were not, so parents cautioned their children to play only within sight of each other, to avoid all strangers, and to never walk alone, especially in the woods. With his best friend living a million miles away across the street, Don started playing with his brothers again.
Don’s oldest brother, Tim, was sixteen, and Rich was next in line at fourteen. They resented the presence of twelve-year-old Randy and ten-year-old Don. Randy soon earned their acceptance by swearing as much as they did, but they scolded Don for his language when he tried the same method. Don shuffled behind as the youngest brother, unable to fill any role beyond a burdensome embarrassment.
When out of earshot of their parents, Tim said things like, “I can’t believe we have to fucking babysit.”
“Yeah. It fucking sucks,” Randy always echoed.
Don said nothing as he followed along, doing whatever his older brothers wanted, because he obviously had no say. And every day they wanted to walk about twenty minutes to a weedy field where dirt bikes screeched along narrow paths, zoomed up and down hills, and careened along curves. Crowds of teenagers gathered to laugh and cheer, while hard rock music pumped.
The boys wore tank tops and shorts, their longish hair parted in the center. The way they looked and walked and the deepening timbre of their voices fascinated Don. The girls wore bikini tops beneath shirts connected with a single button at their midriff, the flaps tied into a knot above their navels.
Don sat with other younger siblings forced to keep close, but forbidden entry to the magic sphere. They played dispirited games in glum groups. Now and then, someone would screw up the courage to approach the teen festivities, only to be driven back with shouts and threats. The older kids smoked cigarettes and tipped back what looked like beer.
One Saturday morning, Don plodded behind his brothers, growing angrier with each step. The dirt bike field bored Don, and he suggested they see a movie instead.
“Shut the fuck up,” Tim growled.
“Yeah, shut the fuck up,” Randy echoed. “Don’t be a shit.”
“Don, we were all as young as you once,” Rich said. “Just suck it up. You’ll get older.” Rich was usually nice, and Don was disappointed he didn’t take his side.
When they reached the field, his brothers raced ahead, expecting Don to take his place with the other children. Still smarting from Rich’s betrayal, he ran instead for the woods towering in the distance, to explore a new place. The trees went all the way to Cook Street, a rural stretch of road punctuated by isolated homes.
He scowled at the distant screech of a dirt bike that sounded like an animal being tortured. When he entered the woods, the whine faded to nothing, swallowed by deep shadows speckled with leaf-light.
A misplaced butternut tree drooped sickly in the gloom. Normally the deepest of greens, its sharp leaves looked jaundiced, and the tree sagged to the mossy ground like a giant, melting bush. Shagbark hickory, honeysuckles, and elms grew slender and stately, while the oaks commanded the sky. The damp woods smelled of rot and new life. An errant maple seed, cast off far too early from beyond the tree line, twirled high between the trunks.
Don wandered, seeing the evidence of the search for Eddie Tedesco everywhere. Tangles of dead limbs and bushes were busted apart, rotting trunks strewn about, and boot prints tamped down the spongy earth. Normally, the ground felt like you could bounce like an astronaut on the moon.
He kicked along until he saw a wide cushion of soft leaves reflecting the sun with neon green intensity, lacing the border of the woods with a backyard. He got closer and gasped with wonder.
Huge ferns grew in a sweep, like something out of a dinosaur book. The searchers had pushed and pulled, and hacked and trampled fronds lay everywhere, but most survived. The massive leaves danced in the delicate breeze, as if excited to see him. Amazed, Don spread his arms and entered the primeval forest. To make this amazing discovery in a place as ordinary and normal as North Homestead seemed impossibly thrilling.
I have to tell Billy about this! he thought with manic delight, before remembering that Billy and his grieving parents remained indoors.
The ferns grew above his head, and he let the fronds brush his face as if he could absorb their power to transcend time and flourish out of place. His fingers brushed the delicate leaves, and he felt grand and glorious. As he reached the edge, he closed his eyes and imagined emerging into a new world, a new life, a thrilling landscape of dinosaurs and volcanoes and giant insects. He raised his arms in triumph.
Across the plain back lawn of a plain brick house, a handsome man stood beside a telescope, watching him.
He darted back among the ferns, feeling impossibly foolish, and his face heated with a flush. It felt important to crouch, to be silent, and he found a spot to hide.
He trembled for a while and cried a bit. His dramatic exit from the fern jungle now seemed girlish and flouncy, the things people said of faggots and homos. He didn’t know what faggots or homos were, but they were so contemptible, he knew he never wanted to be mistaken for one.
After a while, he reflected on the man in his backyard. Did he really have a telescope set up during the day? Before he dashed away, Don had also glimpsed a woven rattan chair, and a small table set with a big glass of iced tea and a notebook fluffing in the breeze.
He moved to the far edge of the fern jungle. With each step, he felt more confident and sure of himself, less worried about having looked so ridiculous. It surprised him to learn that by moving ahead with purpose, you can leave anxiety and shame behind.
A gathering of three scraggly trees and a stump provided the perfect perch to watch the man in secret. Don squinted. The man was studying a plate affixed to the eyepiece end of the telescope, scribbling in the notebook.
It was so strange.
He leaned to get a better look, and his sneakers slipped across something slick, which could be one of a million rotting or crawling things. He cried out.
Far faster than he could respond, Don flew back. His head banged into a tree trunk. As he went down, he thought, this is how you can die by falling. You just have to slip and not have anything to hold on to, and down you go. He always assumed he would be smart enough to find something to hold if he fell, that only dull-witted people didn’t think quickly enough.
He landed in a pile of twigs softened by the mulch of last year’s leaves. From now on, he’d have to give more credit to people who died in accidental falls.
His head hurt and as he sat up, someone crashed through the ferns and soon telescope man was above, looking worried. His shoulders and arms were rippled and rounded in all the perfect spots, and his hair grew bushy brown. His mustache bristled, shooting out over his lip. Don was rooted.
“Hey, kid,” he said, with a deep voice that rested on a soft rumble, like rocks polished in a silk-padded drum.
“I’m okay,” Don replied. He winced at his voice, so small and fearful when measured against the man’s graveled texture.
“Let me take a look here.” He lifted Don to a sitting position and examined the back of his head. “I saw your skull stop that tree. It was a pretty good whack. I heard it all the way across the lawn.”
He smelled the man’s sweat, saw the tight fit of his jeans, felt a rush at the brown hair, shot through with gray, carpeting his chest above the V-collar of his white T-shirt.
“Doesn’t look too bad,” the man said. “You’ll have a bump, that’s all.” He removed his hands, and Don nearly protested. “Can you stand?”
“Take a few steps.”
Don tried but felt dizzy, and telescope man steadied him. “Let’s get you some iced tea,” he said, taking his hand and leading him to the house.
Halfway across the lawn, Don realized that with Eddie Tedesco still missing, he shouldn’t go into a stranger’s house. Telescope man didn’t seem dangerous. Not at all. Not in the least. He was much too handsome to be dangerous. His fist wrapped Don’s hand, his grip loose but reassuring.
All the same, Don felt a growing apprehension as they approached the wooden deck. Behind the stylish sliding glass doors, blackness loomed.
“Take a seat,” he said, gesturing to the patio step. “I’ll wrap some ice in a towel and get your iced tea. Only be a sec.”
Relieved and delighted, Don watched as he slipped inside, closing the door behind him, which meant that telescope man had air-conditioning.
The telescope was a sleek, white tube with a scope on top. The eyepiece pointed down to a plate attached with a metal arm. Don approached and gasped when he beheld the sun burning with ferocious intensity on the white-coated surface of the plate. It rippled with heat, dotted with sunspots. The fiery corona crackled away in all directions. It looked like a fantastical painting from an astronomy book, but this was real. This was the sun.
“Pretty cool, huh?”
Telescope man placed a bundled white towel to the back of his head, and Don held it in place. The ice invigorated him, and he finished the whole glass of tea in one long series of gulps.
The man introduced himself as Hank. “Why are you out alone? Aren’t your parents worried about you, what with that missing kid?”
“I’m supposed to be with my older brothers at the dirt bike field, but I could be gone all day and they’d never notice.”
“How late do they normally stay?”
“Around five. Everybody goes home to eat after that.”
“Well, I don’t want your brothers and your parents to worry, so at four I’ll take you back through the woods to the field, okay?”
Oh, my God, that’s hours away!
“Are you an astronomer?”
“Yep. Do you want to see what I’m studying?”
The next day, Don ran ahead as he set off with his brothers for the dirt bike field. He jumped anxiously and shouted, “Come on!”
“Calm down, you little asshole,” Tim barked, but he looked confused.
Randy sneered. “Did you find a Playboy magazine and you want to jerk off?” Tim laughed. Fueled by the approval of the eldest, Randy pumped his fist at his crotch, moaning in exaggerated ecstasy. Tim roared and did the same. Rich shook his head, gave Don a smile, and rolled his eyes.
They didn’t notice that he’d sneaked away yesterday, so when they reached the field, Don ran off without a look back. He raced through the woods and across the grass to where Hank sat with the telescope. Hank seemed welcoming, but Don detected a hint of caution. Hank wore jeans and a T-shirt in the blistering Ohio heat.
“How’s your head?”
“It’s fine. Are we going to look at the sun again today?”
Hank nodded and lifted a book from the table. “This is the book I told you about yesterday. I had to look around for a bit, but I finally found it.”
Don clawed the book from his hands, desperate to see what caused Hank to spend at least a part of his evening thinking about him. He was instantly mortified by his frantic eagerness, and he decided to balance it with nonchalance.
“Yeah, this looks good,” he said, lazily flipping the pages.
After a few beats, Hank said, “You can borrow it while you’re here, but I want to hang on to it, so you can’t take it with you. Do you want some iced tea?”
“Yeah,” he replied, disappointed that the book was not a gift.
“Okay. Why don’t you come inside, and I’ll show you where it is. It’s gotten so hot I want to change into swim trunks.”
Don no longer feared the blackness beyond the doors. It promised cool relief from the heat, and as soon as he stepped inside, it was like an oasis from the sweltering day.
“There’s the fridge,” Hank said, pointing to a black—black!—refrigerator. “Grab a glass from that cupboard. The iced tea is in the fridge. Get some ice from the dispenser. Be back in a sec.”
Don ran his fingers along the undulating, off-white tiles of the counters, grouted by a deep contrasting shade, and he examined the abstract designs in stained glass on the cupboard doors before making his way to the refrigerator.
A hollow in the narrower, left-side panel held two dispensers, and Don read with amazement that they delivered water and ice. He pushed a glass against the tab. An engine roared to life, so unexpected and loud that he jumped back. A single cube, elegantly shaped like a quarter moon, fell from the dispenser and clinked to the floor.
Don tossed it into the sink and watched with alarm as the ice slipped into a baffling circle of black rubber flaps. Was it safe to let an ice cube melt in a sink with an arrangement of rubber pieces at the drain?
Frustrated at all the things he didn’t know, he hopped on the counter and reached into the maw at the sink bottom. He felt sharp blades and pulled up with surprise before trying again. Things squished and slithered but he found and removed the ice cube, astonished at the sight of a strawberry stem stuck to one side, much larger than the wild kind that grew around the chicken coop.
Hank entered the kitchen shirtless, in a pair of shorts that hugged him tightly about the crotch. Don pretended not to notice and stared straight at Hank’s face, holding the ice cube with the strawberry stem. Hank laughed and told him about food disposals and Don felt even more foolish.
“I have to check the telescope coordinates. Why don’t you get our iced tea while I work that out?”
“Sure!” Don scooted off the counter, and Hank became a silhouette in the light streaming through the glass. A halo of curly hairs burst around his form, a corona more thrilling and beautiful than the sun’s. The sight mesmerized Don, and he couldn’t move until Hank was outside and had pulled the door closed.
His hands shaking, Don prepared the iced teas and returned to the telescope.
“I was wondering what was taking so long,” Hank said, as Don trod carefully down the patio stairs.
Again that afternoon, Don returned to the dirt bike field before his brothers set off for home, and they hadn’t noticed that he’d been gone.
Hank worked during the week, so Don played among the giant ferns and stared at his house with longing. He didn’t understand the ache in his chest when he thought about Hank’s shoulders, the quivers when he remembered the hairy silhouette, or why he absently rubbed his penis while thinking about these things. He only knew that Hank centered his life, and the feelings Billy caused in him now burned hot on his face and shortened his breath. It exhilarated and frightened him.
The next Saturday, Don raced ahead of his brothers, desperate to see Hank after five days of separation. He didn’t even bother to pretend to head for the spot where the younger kids waited for their older siblings before he charged into the woods.
Hank seemed less welcoming, avoiding his eyes. Fear gripped Don until they set the coordinates and checked the positions of the sunspots against last week’s sketches. Hank seemed to settle into their regular routine, and Don relaxed.
After Don returned with their second refill of iced tea, Hank asked him to sit. He had a strange look on his face.
“You have a crush on me, don’t you?” Hank asked with a gentle smile.
After a beat, Don nodded.
Hank bobbed his head, looking off. “I thought so. I think we understand each other really well, don’t you?”
Don didn’t know what he meant, but nodded again.
“And since we’re friends, I think we should be honest about things, okay? So I’m gonna tell you something that I hope you never forget.”
Don stared with amazement. No one had ever talked to him like this.
“Do you know how long it takes for the light from the sun to reach earth?”
Don shook his head.
“Eight minutes. Now, if a photon of light takes eight minutes to fly from the sun to the earth, it passes Pluto and all the other planets in our solar system after several hours. Guess how long it has to travel through empty space to get to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star?”
“Four years. That should give you a pretty good idea of how big the universe is. In the grand scheme of the universe, the sun and Alpha Centauri are two tiny specks so close together you can’t even tell them apart. And yet it takes a photon of light, which moves faster than anything else in the universe, four years just to go from one to the other.”
Don’s mind jumbled with emotions and facts.
Wide-eyed and feeling stupid, Don nodded.
“I don’t want you to ever forget that about the universe, how huge it is, how vast and brilliant it is, and you are a part of it. So always remember that. When a petty little mind here on earth tries to make you feel shitty about yourself for any reason, you just remember that you are a part of this universe. Any time you like, you can look up to the sky and know that you have a place here nobody can ever take away from you. Do you understand?”
Don nodded, even though he didn’t.
Hank looked sad. “I also want to say you can’t come here anymore.” Don rushed to protest, but Hank stopped him. “One day you’ll understand why I have to do this. It has nothing to do with you. It’s about protecting myself, okay? A little boy is missing, and I have to be very, very careful.”
Don pleaded, but Hank was firm. After Don’s protests faded, Hank gave him a quick hug. “I’m going to meet up with some friends, so I’m going to pack up the telescope, okay? It’s time for you to go.”
Don sulked in the grass, sitting cross-legged while Hank carried the telescope inside. He never knew he could feel so horrible and lonely, and his love for Hank battled with rage at his rejection.
Suddenly, a plan popped into his mind and he sat up. All of the terrible emotions drained away, and he grew excited. He looked around, spotted Hank’s book, and quickly hid it beneath his legs, resuming his crouched, resentful pose.
Hank returned to retrieve the chair and table, saying, “Don, it’s time for you to go.” When he didn’t move, Hank said, “I’m going back inside, and then you can leave. You could make big trouble for me if you don’t get home in time and your parents start to worry. I want you to think about that.”
When Hank left, he leaped to his feet, hugged the book to his chest, and took off. If he took the book Hank wanted to keep, he would have to return it the following day. By then, Hank might have changed his mind, or maybe Don could think up some new things to say to make the outcome different.
Among the ferns, he slowed when he realized Hank wouldn’t change his mind, and nothing Don said would make him. He found a quiet spot beneath a fern, and lay down on the fronds, ripped apart like confetti.
Staring up, he noted the serrated edges of each individual leaf that combined with dozens of others to form the majestic ferns. They branched off from the center, and except for their sizes, they all looked identical, brilliant green in the sun. He closed his eyes.
When he woke, shadows covered the ferns. He sat up. The sun was across the sky.
He grabbed the book and tore through the forest. Terror seized him when he reached the empty dirt bike field. Frantic, he took off for home. Instead of taking the longer sidewalk route, he ran in the fields along the tree line, made treacherous by gopher holes, creeks and ponds and things hidden in the weeds.
He got tangled in branches once, forcing him to tunnel underneath, but he made good time. The chicken coop was ahead, and he soon spotted his parents and brothers in their backyard, their hands cupped over their mouths as they called for him.
Now that he knew what awaited, he felt calmer. He positioned himself directly behind the chicken coop, hunching, before scrambling and tossing the book inside.
His mother spotted him and came running, letting out a shriek filled with both joy and rage. The others followed.
Mom rushed up to him and grabbed him by the shoulders. “Where were you?” she screamed.
“Why did you leave the field?” Tim shouted.
“You stupid idiot!” Randy cried.
Rich just looked relieved to see him.
Dad squatted and pulled him close, holding him tightly across the back. “Thank God, son, thank God.”
Mom pushed Dad aside and enfolded him in her arms.
“We were so worried.” Her voice cracked. “We found out this morning another little boy disappeared last night.” She smoothed back his hair. “They found his body in the woods behind McDonald’s on Lorain Road today.”