Expiration Date – Snippet 02


“. . . when she next peeped out, the Fish-Footman was gone, and the other was sitting on the ground near the door, staring stupidly up into the sky.”

–Lewis Carroll,

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Kootie trudged back up the quiet dimness of Loma Vista Drive toward home. He was walking more slowly than he had been a few minutes ago on Sunset Boulevard, and now that he had got his breath back he realized that he was limping, and that his side hurt worse than ever. Probably that punch in the stomach had cracked a rib.

Tomorrow must be trash day–all the wheeled green plastic trash cans were out along the curbs. His neighbors’ houses, which he had always scornfully thought looked like 1950’s-style Japanese restaurants, were hidden behind the trees, but he knew that behind the armed response signs on the lawns they were probably all dark at this hour. He was sure that dawn couldn’t be far off.

He leaned against one of the trash cans and tried to ignore the hard pounding of his heart, and the tight chill in his belly that was making his hands sweat and shake. He could claim that burglars had got in, and kidnapped him because he had seen them, because he was a witness who could identify them in a lineup; they had panicked, say, and grabbed him and fled after doing nothing more than break the Dante. Kootie had managed to escape . . . after a fight, which would be how come his left eye was swelling shut and his rib was perhaps broken.

He tried to believe the burglar story, which he would probably have to tell to some policeman–he tried to imagine the fictitious burglars, what they had said, what their car had looked like, and after a few moments he was horrified to realize that the tone of the whole thing just rang with kid-ingenuity, like the “concerto” he had composed on the piano a year ago, which had sounded every bit as good and dramatic as Tchaikovsky to him at the time, but later was somehow just meandering and emphatic.

A kid just couldn’t see the difference. It was like being color-blind or something, or preferring Frazetta to all those blobby old paintings of haystacks and French people in rowboats.

A grown-up would probably have been able to tell that Lumpy and Daryl weren’t nice guys. Well, shit, Koot my man, you can stay in my garageit’s right down here, nothing fancy but it’s got a bed and a refrigeratorand you can work for me detailing cars.

It had sounded all right.

And then Pow! behind a dumpster, and hard hands turning out his pockets while his knapsack was dragged off his back and all his carefully folded clothes were flung out onto the littered pavement, and a moment later Kootie was alone in the alley, snuffling and choking as quietly as he could and shoving his clothes back into the broken knapsack.

The glass brick had slid under the dumpster, and he had had to practically get down on his face and crawl to retrieve it.

At least he could still return that. And his parents had to take him back. He didn’t care what punishment they would give him, just so that he could soon be in his own room again, in his own bed. Last night he had dreamed of going to college, of getting a “B.S.,” which in the dream had meant something besides bullshit. The dream had given him the (stupid!) determination to finally put his (stupid!) running-away scheme into actual (stupid!) action.

He hoped he never dreamed again.

He pushed away from the trash can and resumed limping up the street, from one silent pool of agitated street light to the next. Go to bed and put it off until morning, he thought miserably. They might think I’ve spent the night at Courtney’s house, and . . . No. There was the busted Dante to raise the alarm. Still, sneak into bed and deal with everything tomorrow morning.

The curb by his own driveway was bare–no trash cans. That wasn’t reassuring. His mom and dad must be too upset to think of taking down the cans. But maybe they were off in the car right now, looking for him, and he’d be able to–

No. As he started limping up the white cement driveway he saw their Mercedes against the lights of the kitchen. And the leaves of the peach tree to the right of the house were yellowly lit, so his bedroom light was on too.

Shit, he thought with despairing defiance. Shit shit shit, and I don’t care who knows it. At least there’s no police cars. At the moment.

He tiptoed across the grass around to the garage on the north side of the house. The laundry-room door was open, spilling light across the lawn, and he crouched up to it and peered inside.

The gleaming white metal cubes of the washer and dryer, with the colorful Wisk and Clorox 2 boxes on the shelf over them, were so achingly familiar a sight that he had to blink back tears. He stepped in and walked quietly, heel-and-toe, into the kitchen.

He could see into the living room–and there were two elegantly dressed people standing by the fireplace, a man and a woman, and only after a moment did he recognize them as his mom and dad.

His dad was wearing . . . a black tuxedo, with a ruffled white shirt, and his mother had on a puffy white dress with clouds of lace at the wrists and the low neckline. The two of them were just standing there, staring at different corners of the room.

In the first moment of frozen bewilderment, Kootie forgot about wanting to cry. Could they have put on these crazily formal clothes just to greet him when he returned? His father’s hair was styled, obviously blow-dryered up, and . . . and the hair was all black now, not gray at all.

Kootie took a deep breath and stepped out onto the deep tan carpet. “Mom?” he said quietly.

His mother looked much slimmer in the dress, and he noticed with disbelief that she was actually wearing eye makeup. Her calm gaze shifted to the ceiling.

“Mom,” Kootie repeated, a little louder. He was oddly reluctant to speak in a normal tone.

His father turned toward the kitchen–and then kept turning, finally fixing his gaze on a chair by the hallway arch.

“I’m sorry,” Kootie whimpered, horrified by this grotesque punishment. “Talk to me, it fell and broke so I ran away, I’ve got the glass thing that was inside it–”

His mother raised her white-sleeved arms, and Kootie stumbled forward, sobbing now–but she was turning around, and her arms were out to the sides now as if she was doing a dance in slow motion. Kootie jerked to a stop on the carpet, abruptly very frightened.

“Stop it!” he screamed shrilly. “Don’t!”

“Fuck is that?” came a hoarse shout from down the hall.

Kootie heard something heavy fall over, and then clumping footsteps in the hall–then a homeless-looking man in a ragged nylon wind breaker was standing there scowling crazily at him. The big man’s whiskery face was round under a grimy baseball cap, and his eyes seemed tiny. He blinked in evident surprise at the slow-moving figures of Kootie’s parents, but quickly focused again on the boy.

“Kid, come here,” the man said, taking a quick step into the living room. He was reaching for Kootie with his right hand–because his left hand, his whole left arm, was gone, with just an empty sleeve folded and pinned-up there.

Kootie bolted to the left into the green-lit atrium, skidding and almost falling on the sudden smooth marble floor, and though he clearly saw the two figures who were sitting in chairs against the lattice wall, he didn’t stop running; he had seen the figures vividly but he hit the backyard door with all his weight–it slammed open and he was running across the dark grass so fast that he seemed to be falling straight down from a height.

His hands and feet found the crossboards in the back fence and he was over it and tearing through ivy in darkness, getting up before he even knew he had fallen–he scrambled over a redwood fence and then was just running away full tilt down some quiet street.

His eyes must have been guiding his feet on automatic pilot, for he didn’t fall; but in his head, all he could see was the two figures sitting in the chairs in the atrium, duct-taped into the chairs at neck and wrist and ankle–his overweight mother and his gray-haired father, mouths gaping and toothless, eyes just empty blood-streaked sockets, hands clawed and clutching the chair arms in obvious death.