“Hey kid…you want to make some money?”
Charlie had been lost in thought, pushing a lawn mower through wet grass. The lawnmower was rusted and ancient. It belched a steady cloud of black smoke from every orifice and thudded with arhythmic shudders that made speech impossible. Charlie stepped around and throttled the engine off. The buzz of cicadas pierced the air.
“Er…what was that?”
It was the new lady who had just moved in across the street. She was sitting on her front stoop smoking a cigarette. The new lady swept her hand across her lawn. It was thick with weeds and clover. The lawn hadn’t been mowed since the Swansons moved out a month ago.
“Gotta do something about this lawn, and I don’t have a mower. What do ya charge for a mow?”
Charlie had never been paid to mow a lawn before. He didn’t even get paid for mowing his own lawn. Charlie figured quickly in his head. With $5 he could go to 7-11 and buy a Slurpee, a bag of Skittles, and a comic book.
Charlie steered the mower across the street and wrestled it over the curb. Even when the motor was hot it could sometimes take dozens of pulls before the mower would start. Charlie pulled once, twice, three times, before the engine roared to life.
As he mowed he peeked sidelong at the the lady-across-the-street. She wore a halter top and cut-off jean shorts with plastic flip flops. Her hair was pulled up into a bun. When she smoked she exhaled through the side of her mouth, and her lips pulled down into a grimace. Her fingernails were painted pink.
Charlie finished the front lawn and then steered the mower through a ramshackle cast iron trellis to the back yard. It was hot. And beastly humid. But in an hour he’d be standing in the arctic blast of the 7-11’s refrigerator case.
As he made his first turn he realized to his surprise that the lady-across-the-street had followed him to the back and was now sitting on the back stoop, flicking ash into the ivy that crept up the railing. She stared into the distance with unfocused eyes, unbothered by the roar of the motor or the clouds of black smoke.
At his fifth turn he saw the new lady ducking through the trellis to meet a Volvo pulling up to the curb. A middle-aged man with a gut and a mustache got out of the Volvo and shifted nervously from side to side. Charlie watched the man following his new neighbor up the front walk. When the man licked his lips Charlie’s skin crawled.
Charlie finished the back yard and throttled the engine off. He felt dizzy with thirst. He pushed the lawnmower through the trellis to the front of the house. It was time to get paid. But standing on the front stoop he noticed that the curtains had been drawn. He could hear faint laughter from inside the house.
Charlie went home without his money.
The next day Charlie walked home from school. The humidity made him feel like he was zipped up in a hot, wet sleeping bag. Cicadas shrieked incessantly.
When he reached his house his new neighbor beckoned him from the front door. She was wearing a tank top and the the same cut off jean shorts. She smoked a cigarette and drank Sunkist from a can.
“I owe you some money,” she said. “Come on in. Lemme find my purse.”
Charlie had never been in the house across the street, even when the Swansons lived there. It was a tiny brick bungalow nearly identical in layout to his own house. But Charlie’s house was full of battered furniture and knick knacks. The new lady’s living room was nearly empty. There was only a wicker sofa and arm chair with floral print cushions. On the ground next to the armchair was a saucer full of ashes and butts.
“I’m sorry about the other day. I wasn’t expecting company so early.”
The new lady fished in her purse and handed Charlie a $20 bill.
“I don’t have change.” Charlie patted his pockets.
“Keep it. We’ll say it’s a ‘convenience fee’.” The new lady laughed out loud.
Charlie wasn’t sure what a convenience fee was, but he laughed too, to be polite.
“What’s your name kid?”
“I’m Charlie.” Charlie stuck out his hand like he’d been taught.
“Charlie. I’m Beth. Pleased to meet you.” Beth shook his hand solemnly.
Beth sat down on the sofa and folded her legs underneath her. She gestured to the arm chair. “Siddown.”
Charlie hesitated. He wished the new lady hadn’t told him her name and shook his hand. Now it would be rude to excuse himself abruptly. He sat on the edge of the chair with his hands clasped between his knees.
“Relax, Charlie, I don’t bite.” Beth laughed. “Hey let me ask you a question. Do your folks ever ask about me?”
Charlie shook his head. By the time his parents got home from the laundromat they were completely drained and disinterested in anything except for bed.
“Just curious. I guess folks don’t gossip here like they do in a small town. Ya’ll probably have new neighbors all the time.”
Charlie shrugged. He had been on a farm in Georgia once, and to New York City twice. Somewhere in between was his street.
“Hey you wanna cigarette? Nah I didn’t think so. You look a little young.”
Beth’s eyes dimmed. She stared out the window. “I have a little brother about your age. I haven’t seen him in two years.”
Charlie cleared his throat. The wicker of the armchair dug into his back. He had to pee.
Beth’s eyes cleared and she stirred herself. “You don’t talk much do ya? That’s okay hon. Come back next week and mow my lawn okay?”
Charlie sat in front of the television eating macaroni and cheese from a box with his older brother Ben and his little sister Daphne. Charlie’s parents were still at work. There was no telling when they would be home. On the tube the Incredible Hulk had just busted out of his shirt and was picking up a Volkswagen.
“Can that ever really happen to you?” Daphne asked.
“Which do ya mean?” Ben replied. “Transforming into a giant green monster?”
“Yeah. I don’t want to be a monster.” Daphne shivered.
“Well the show is about the duality of man. The whole point is that the monster is already inside of you. The gamma rays just expose something that was already there.”
“What’s ‘duality’?” Charlie asked.
“It’s two. Two of something. Like two sides to a coin. Or two sides to human nature.”
The three sat and watched in silence for a while.
Daphne stirred on the couch. “This show doesn’t make sense. If the hulk is a monster why does he always save everyone? And why is the doctor always such a wuss?”
Ben rolled his eyes. “That’s the whole point. It’s morally ambiguous.”
“What’s ‘ambiguous’?” Charlie asked.
“Shut up, butt head. Help me clean up these dishes.”
“Wake up Charlie! There’s someone at the door!” Daphne shook Charlie awake.
Charlie rolled over and shooed Daphne away. “It’s just mom and dad.”
“No the car isn’t in the driveway, and it’s not dad’s voice! Wake up Charlie.”
Across the room, Ben swung his legs off the bed. He rubbed sleep from his eyes. “What’s going on, Daphne?
“Outside! Someone is outside, trying to get in!”
“You guys wait here.” Ben reached under his bed and came out with a scarred and dented aluminum baseball bat. “I’m going to check it out.”
Charlie and Daphne cowered in Charlie’s bed. They could hear Ben’s voice muffled through the door. When Ben came back he was pale.
“There’s someone out there. He’s hurt. Bleeding anyway. He wants to use our phone.”
“No way!” Daphne squealed. “Don’t let him in Ben.”
“Relax doofus. I’m not going to let him in. But we have to help him. Charlie. Get your wrist rocket and come with me. Daphne you stay here.”
“No way!” Daphne hugged Charlie’s neck. “I’m coming with you!”
Charlie peeled Daphne’s arms off his neck. “It’s okay Daph.” He fished his wrist rocket from his underwear drawer as well as the three massive steel ball bearings he’d stashed there just in case he ever needed to kill something big. The wrist rocket was a steel-framed sling shot with a knurled handle and straps made from surgical rubber tubes. A well aimed shot could tear a hole through the side of a soup can. The slingshot trembled in Charlie’s hands. He took deep breaths. Ben ruffled his hair, and the trembling stopped.
“Go up to to the bathroom, open the window and take the screen out of the frame. Be ready,” Ben said, and padded into the hallway.
From the upstairs bathroom window Charlie could see a man with a buzz cut and a bloody ear smacking the door with both hands. He was moaning and blubbering in pain and anger.
He heard Ben give the front door a rap with his bat. “Shut up out there!
Startled, Buzzcut fell silent. When his face wasn’t contorted by blubbering Charlie could see that Buzzcut wasn’t much older than Ben. He swayed unsteadily on his feet, like the winos Charlie avoided at his parent’s laundromat.
“Listen up,” Ben said. “Do you see that window up above you? That’s my brother. If you keep banging on that door he’s going to drill you with that wrist rocket.”
Buzzcut looked up, shielding his eyes, as though it were high noon, instead of late evening. “That kid? What’s he gonna do from up there? He looks like he’s about to shit hisself.”
“That your T-bird parked at the curb?” Ben asked.
“Yeah what of it?”
“Charlie, take off the antenna.”
Charlie aimed and fired and the aerial antenna snapped off the T-bird and clattered to the ground.
“Holy shit, what a shot!” Buzzcut’s mouth hung open. By the time he turned back to the house Charlie had already reloaded and cocked the wrist rocket. The surgical tubes were stretched so far they were translucent.
“Charlie, put the next one in his eye.”
“Alright alright. Jesus H. Christ. Just please, please.” Buzzcut started to blubber again. He held his hand up to his ear which was pouring blood. “My head hurts. I need to use your phone.”
Charlie waited for long moments, as Ben deliberated below him.
“Here’s what I’m gonna do. Back off twenty steps. I’m going to open the door and put the phone on the stoop. You move one inch, just one inch, and my brother is going to put you down. You hear me?”
Buzzcut nodded assent and stumbled back halfway down the sidewalk. When the phone was on the stoop and the door was shut, he retraced his steps, cautiously, keeping an eye on Charlie and shielding his face with his hands.
From the second floor, Charlie could only catch bit and pieces of Buzzcut’s conversation.
“I need a ride…I needa go to the hospital…I came to this house you tole me, and yeah she was here and I screwed her but I don’t have any money to pay…some big fucker shows up and I got my ass beat…took my keys…I’m shipping out in the morning…Virginia Beach by 0400…there’s a 7-11 at Lee Highway and George Mason….alright…alright”
Buzzcut put the phone back in the cradle. He sobbed into his hands for a moment. Then he shook himself like a dog and started off down the road in a half-trot, leaving a trail of blood drops all the way down the sidewalk.
Charlie came down the stairs. Ben was wiping blood off the phone with rags and hydrogen peroxide. Daphne was sucking her thumb on the couch, with a notched kitchen knife between her feet. Charlie returned the knife to the drawer.
“Mom and dad will be home soon,” Charlie said.
“You gonna tell them what happened?”
Charlie peered through the window, across the way, where Beth’s house stood silent and dark. Inside the house a huge figure loomed at the window. The curtains parted for a moment. The skin on Charlie’s neck puckered and he ducked below the window ledge so he couldn’t be seen from outside.
“Do you think that lady is okay?”
“Depends what you mean by ‘okay.'”
Charlie shrugged. He didn’t know what he meant by it.
Ben took Daphne’s hand and led her to her bed. It would take forever to get her back to sleep.
Charlie peered out the front window. Bugs jittered through the cone of light from a sodium street lamp. He picked up his wrist rocket and the last two ball bearings and slipped out the door.
Charlie caught a faint whiff of cigarette smoke from the curb. He cocked his wrist rocket halfway and kept it trained on the front door as he crept around the side of the house. He ducked through the trellis and peeked around the corner of the house.
“That you, Charlie?”
Beth was sitting on the stoop hugging her knees and smoking.
Charlie padded up the flagstone walk carefully. He hadn’t put on shoes when he left the house and he could feel every crack and pebble under his feet. He stopped short of the stoop and stared at the space between Beth’s feet.
“Why aren’t you in bed hon?” Beth asked.
“I’m not sleepy.”
“Too much commotion I guess.”
“I guess.” Charlie realized that his hand was trembling.
Beth nodded at the sling shot clenched in Charlie’s fist. “What’s that thing for?”
“Better not lose it then.”
Beth threaded her arms under her legs and rested her cheek on her knees, so that her face was hidden. “Your folks’ll be worried about you. You go on home Charlie.”
Charlie’s jangly nerves flickered off like a string of Christmas lights kicked from the socket. As his adrenaline dumped he felt a sudden urge to sleep.
He had to get home before his folks pulled into the driveway. Charlie padded back down the flagstones. He paused for a moment under the trellis and peeked back round the corner. In the light from the back porch Beth’s face glistened.
When Charlie came home from school a few days later there was a For Sale sign on the lawn across the street.
Charlie unlatched his door and let himself in. He ate a bowl of cereal in the kitchen. He washed the bowl and spoon and then slipped on his shoes and walked to the house across the street. As he walked through the trellis he ran his fingers through the ivy tangled in its sides. He padded up the flagstone walk and sat on the stoop. He rested his head on his lap and draped his arms over his ears. But nothing could shut out the buzz of the cicadas.