We don’t let our boys down by the lake. Everyone knows it, but somehow this particular young boy got loose with his bike for a ride on a long, late summer’s afternoon.
I can only assume he did so without his mother’s permission.
Or at least, for her peace of mind, that’s what I hope.
For most of Lakeside Drive one is technically pedaling up, so it would be more appropriate to say we don’t let our boys ride up the Lakeside Drive alone. Especially on long, languid afternoons when boys are generally up to no good.
This boy, Alestender, was going to meet a statistically significantly older girl. He didn’t understand what that meant. They were both still children, in their own ways. Perhaps very soon, ways different enough to be irreconcilable.
Put another way, Chrysthema had no business messing around with someone that much younger than her, and she knew it.
Chrysthema leaned against the hood of her car. It was hot from the sun above and engine below. The metal threatened to burn her skin through her jeans, and she couldn’t rest her palms on the surface at all, so she leaned her elbows on her knees. Chrysthema waited to see Alestender crest the hill of Lakeside Drive, feet pumping the pedals of his bike. Bicycles are cute, she thought. No constant burden of wondering how you’re going to come up with gas money. She eyed her hard-won, cherry red Chevy with a mix of remorse and resignation. I could bike, too, if the other kids wouldn’t make fun of me. Of course, it was out of the question. One couldn’t regress.
If I get my bike back out of the basement, everybody will know I’m hanging out with a younger kid.
Her Gramma’s words echoed in Chrysthema’s mind.
Relationships you got to keep secret ain’t relationships.
If only Gramma was still alive. Maybe she’d change her mind if she knew Alestender. He could play the old songs for her on her piano. He was getting to be quite a musician, at least so far as hymns went. Gramma’d like that.
Alestender rolled along the lane below an unruly mish-mash of orange and green, autumn not having properly settled yet. Leaves, dry at the top but growing moist in the darkness and settlement, lay piled across the road by their negligent parental poplars. Meanwhile the pavement prepared to crack under the pressure of ice and time.
Alestander pumped against the incline, trying not to lose speed in front of Chrysthema. He wanted her to think he was tough, strong, more like the boys in her class. Sweat beaded across his forehead. He’d sweat more this summer than he ever did in his life.
And he was starting to smell. He grimaced. Like Dad, Mom said.
He pumped harder, feeling the hill of Lakeside Drive pushing him back down, away from the cherry red gleam of Chrysthema’s car.
Suddenly Alestender got a cold feeling, like winter had up pulled right behind him, keeping time with his furious, churning wheels. The skin of Alestender’s neck crawled, his hairs rose, goosebumps tingling over his skin.
He heard Chrysthema scream first. Then he was tumbling from his bike ripped backward, something cold and slick wrapped around his neck. Alestender and the bike toppled in opposite directions across the leaves.
As he fell back, Alestender wondered, Did I wreck? Did I slide?
He hit the pavement and opened his eyes. Alestender gasped.
An Old Woman towered silently over him, grinning for lack of skin to line her teeth. No scream like a banshee, no wail, no moan, no poltergeistic pounding on the pavement. Only silence as she reached for him, her own flesh dripping from nails uncut.
Alestender tried to scramble back but the Old Woman’s hand shot forward and dug into his face. It ripped away skin and Alestender cried, flailing his arms against her. Lifeless eye sockets filled with something dark and dead loomed over him. Bugs crawled from her nostrils. Her jaws were rotted out, her tongue was black, teeth browned. Like a smoker who died last year. If he wasn’t finished being made, she wasn’t finished being unmade.
Chrythema, help me!
The Old Woman latched her teeth onto Alestender’s nose, chewing away his cartilage and muscles.
The sound of a cherry red Chevy revving its engine roared across the evening. The Old Woman looked up, a skeletal smile across her flesh-stained face beaming in the oncoming headlights.
Poly opened the door on the fourth knock. It was ten minutes after six.
The last person in the world Poly wanted to see stood on her stoop, porcelain hands clasped before Lil Miss Crazy’s calico skirt.
“Hello, Chrysthema,” Poly said as coldly as she could. Why the girl who ran her son down was standing here and not locked in jail was beyond Poly. “What do you want?”
“I’d like to see him,” Chrysthema said quietly, her gaze seemingly held down by lead weights.
“I’d rather not let the girl who ran my boy over in my house, Chrysti, you understand.”
“I didn’t hit him,” Chrysthema replied automatically, like she was waiting for the accusation and had prepared her defense.
“No, Chrysthema.” Poly took a breath, affronted by the look of hurt on the young woman’s face.
“Please, Miss Poly, you and I both know there’s no car in the Lord’s world would do what was done to Alex,” Chrysthema broke into tears and rubbed her cheeks. She wasn’t wearing any makeup and Poly noted dark circles under Chrysti’s eyes.
Looked like the little girl better get used to wearing concealer.
Poly sighed. “Come on in, then,” she snapped and moved aside for Chyrysthema to walk by.
The entrance of the house was a small alcove littered by boots, shoes, a shovel, a broom, a bench for sitting, a tray for rainy day shoes. They moved between two mounted racks likewise littered with school jackets, Mom’s jackets, Dad’s work coats. Chrysthema paused at a coat that looked a lot like the khaki one Alestender was wearing when he fell off his bike.
He must have two. The coat he’d been wearing was shredded and blood-soaked. His mother wouldn’t hang that up, even if there was enough left to hang.
Poly shook her head. “He’s real sick, Chrysthema.”
Chrysthema paused, trying to come up with something Gramma’d say. “He was coming to see me that evening, and it’d be pretty shameful for me to not even come by.”
Poly’s eyes narrowed, suspicious, “Why didn’t you just pick him up? You’re old enough to drive, aren’t you?”
You’re suspicious about the wrong things! Chrysthema wanted to say.
“Then all that talk of an Old Woman attacking him. Maybe you’re the old animal!” Poly advanced on Chrysthema and Chrysthema suddenly felt very out of sight and mind in this woman’s house. Poly jabbed Chrysthema’s shoulder, forcing the young woman to back into the hanging coats.
People can overflow with sorrow. Like the wise man’s teacup, they eventually can fit no other emotion in. Nor can they be filled with new information, or reason.
That’s when people can get to pretty wild actions.
Chrysthema shoved Poly away and wheeled around to run down the hall. She’d never been this far in Alestender’s home, and halted. Poly grabbed her elbow. “Stop it!” Poly shook Chrysthema. “No running in my house!”
“Alex!” Chrysthema called out, but there was no answer.
“He’s too sick!” Poly looked down the narrow hall, floored in brown carpet that would inevitably thin down as soon as it finished balling up. Poly regained control and continued in a quieter voice. “I don’t know what part you played in this, but you shouldn’t see it. I don’t know—” Tears streamed down Poly’s face. “I don’t know what’s happened to my son but both you and the devil were involved.”
“Please?” Chrysthema tried to pull herself from Poly’s grip, but Poly tightened her fist on Chrysthema’s arm.
“You tell me what really happened on Lakeside Drive. What did you do?”
“Nothing! She was there, she did this!” Chrysthema’s voice cracked and she sobbed into her free hand. Oh, God, now I’ll be covered in snot.
Poly stared down at her, trying to divine the lie in the truth Chrysthema told.
“I don’t think you know what you saw. C’mon, don’t upset him. If this is his last day, I don’t him upset any more.. than he has to be.” Poly pronounced “than” as “then.”
Chrysthema followed, shock settling over her like a blanket she couldn’t shake off. Poly’s words made so little sense in the vernacular of Chrysthema’s life that she couldn’t comprehend them. Gramma died, but she was old, and it took a long time. Chrystema didn’t know anyone young who had died. Not personally. Not this personally.
Poly walked slow down a hall covered first by faded floral wallpaper, then framed photographs of people Chrysthema did and didn’t recognize. Some photos were old, browning like the carpet in the 60 watt equivalent light.
Poly rested her hand on the doorknob and turned to study Chrysthema, as if trying to decide if Chrysthema could be trusted in Alestender’s bedroom. Chrysthema was overcome by the feeling she’d demanded something she didn’t deserve and Poly had acquiesced to her unreasonable demands. Orange light drifted from under the door as Poly pushed it open, eyes closed, face down.
Sunlight poured from the room like an exonerated criminal, illuminating the hallway, leaving only the dark silhouette of Alestender’s mother. She motioned Chrysthema in.
“The light is good for him. It gets worse at night, when the light is gone,” Poly whispered behind her.
Chrysthema stepped into the room. “It’s me,” she said softly to the figure wrapped in white sheets on the bed. Covered by his Grandma’s blue quilt, probably.
Alestender weakly rolled his head, but his eyes roved over her and Poly as though the two women and the wall behind held equivalent meaning. He blinked and grimaced at her, most of his face covered in bandaging, except for his eyes. His dark eyes reminded Chrysthema of a particularly murky part of the lake. Poly was about to pull Chrysthema from the room when Alestender spoke. “Don’t leave me alone. Don’t leave me with them.” His lips were dry and cracked, his blond hair cut close to his scalp.
He squirmed, a small moan escaping his lips.
“He can’t get comfortable,” Poly said.
Chrysthema turned to Poly, “What about the hospital?”
Poly sneered. “They won’t take him.” She stomped to her son’s bed and tipped the sheet down Alestender’s chest.
Yellow and red soaked bandages covered his flank. Blood soaked onto the fitted sheet, and there was something else.
Something moved below the bandaging, pressing out against the cotton. Could he be bleeding that much? Was it a rib bone, sticking out with his breathing?
TO BE CONTINUED