In the lead was Brook, panting and sniggering as her feet whirled over the asphalt and bounded across brown lawns. Behind her was Leslie, followed by Orrick, and at the back was a sour Philip glaring daggers at the backs of his friends.
“You guys are so-so slow!” Brook howled.
“My backpacks the heaviest! I can bench-press five hundred pounds!” Philip snarled. Leslie laughed.
“You don’t even weigh ninety! Uh-oh. Brooky, you’re gunna looOOOooose….”
Orrick wheezed and laughed, choked and gasped. He passed up Leslie and was gaining on Brook; now on his second wind, and Brook was losing steam fast. Philip howled in mock agitation.
The group of children cut across the corner lawn of the end home and charged down Philip’s street, backpacks jiggled on their backs. Winter was in full spring and the sky was amid a warm orange glow, patches of old ice hid beneath the blue shadows and eaves of the homes. Old Man Gus hollered from the small shelter of his porch:
“You kids stay off my lawn!”
Only Leslie and Brook diverted their path, and got off the ugly scraggily lawnscape. This left Orrick and Philip neck and neck as they made the last stretch to Philip’s house. Orrick tumbled in the last meter, and Philip took a running leap and landed on the warped wood of his homes porch.
“The champion has arrived!” Philip hooted, arms held high. “How’s them apples?”
“Shut up,” Orrick huffed. “If Brook wasn’t such a wussy, you would’ve lost fair and square to a girl.” He winced when Brook walked up and punched his shoulder; not a rough swing, but Orrick hadn’t seen her walk up. Brook hefted Orrick upright, and Leslie handed over the fallen bag.
“Gus juz always creeps me out. Doesn’t he have a home to go too?”
Leslie chuckled. “Don’t worry maad’ame, we’ll protect you.” Brook rolled her eyes and followed Orrick up the porch steps. “What?”
“And who’ll protect you?” Brook shot back.
Philip shoved his front door in and charged forth, followed by the other three. A loud bark echoed out of the kitchen across the living room, followed by a bang. “Ow….”
Backpacks went into the side of the room, under the coat rack on the wall down from the front door. The living room was spacious, with a bookcase filkled with DVDs and VHS tapes, pictures hung from the wall of Philip and his father. Across the living area was a hall leading off into the bedrooms, and the kitchen area.
Philip was already at the kitchen, with the refrigerator door open. “Where’s my pops?”
By the sink stood Milton, short hair disheveled and sticking out of a bandanna tied over his head. “Hello. How are you? Mr. Brenton ran a quick errand to pick up some sealant.”
Orrick joined Philip in the kitchen – the cupboards beneath the sink were open, and the faint scent of old water hung in the air. A toolbox and shiny chrome pipes sat on the linoleum floor, with a dirty rag, and other tools. Milton held up a faucet end.
“The stuff he had was all ehh. How was school by the way?”
“Boring,” Orrick spat. “I’m ready for summer and warmth.”
“I hear ya. Not fond of the cold.” Milton was using a washrag to wipe down the cabinets. “But I can’t deny lovin’ the crispness.”
“Are you cleaning?” Philip shut the refrigerator and moved his attention to Milton.
“Yeh. Bit of an exchange, if I could stay indoors.” Milton grinned thinly at Philip. “Got the impression your dad was doubtful you’d heed a written note.”
Milton raised his hands, defensively. “I’m teasin’ you. Don’t—” He stopped and frowned. The rag was tossed into the sink, and Milton glanced over the kids. “Did one of you get hurt?”
Leslie shrugged. He looked to Philip, then Brook. “No?” As he spoke, Brook pointed to Orrick’s leg.
“Your pants is ripped.”
Orrick fingered the cut. It hurt, and he thought it began to throb more now that he noticed it. Red glistened under the ripped fabric.
“Let’s get that cleaned up.” Milton shooed the kids to the hallway. “Phil. Does your dad have a medical kit?”
“He has a box of bandaids.” Philip looked up as Milton put a hand on his shoulder, and leaned down to his eye-level.
“If your dad gets back first, tell him he’s worthless.” Milton pushed Orrick into the guest bathroom and flipped the light on. “Get your leg washed off. I’ll make a quick run to my place.”
“K mom.” Orrick planted himself on the toilet lid and began rolling up his pant leg, and untying his shoelace – the sock was stained red under the thin trail rolling down his leg. “O shit.”
“You’re gonna need stitches man.” Philip climbed onto the sink and sat himself down. Leslie looked from Philip, to Orrick, and ran out of the bathroom. Philip sniggered, and shouted, “Wussy!”
“Let’s get it washed off first,” Brook spoke. “Then we’ll judge. What did you fall on?”
“I dunno,” Orrick sniffled. “A rock? A sharp twig?” He heard the television go on in the living room; the voice of an announcer mumbled through the thin wall. Brook turned the water on and with some toilet paper, Orrick washed off some of the moist red.
A few minutes later, the front door slammed. Some brief conversation exchanged on the other side of the wall, and then Milton appeared in the bathroom doorway. “Hey, tell Leslie to go turn on the cartoons. What’s wrong with him?”
“Me?” Philip snapped.
“No, the mirror. Yeah you. Oh, it doesn’t look that bad. Get off the sink, please.” Milton set a small metal box onto the sink counter. He moved Philip off the sink and scooted him out the door.
“Does he need stitches?” Philip called back.
“Go tell him to change the program, and watch some head rotting cartoons. Please.” Milton maneuvered back to the bathtub, and beside Orrick. “This might sting a bit.” He opened the metal box, and pulled out a brown bottle. A pair of colorful latex gloves went on Milton’s hands; he pulled out additional supplies, gauze, tape, a packet of ointment, before setting onto work.
Brook gawked as the foam bubbled up Orrick’s leg. “Why do you have all that medical stuff?”
“He works with machinery,” Orrick supplied. He held his breath and screwed his face up. It stung a lot. Milton gave him a vacant look, and blinked.
“Oh… yes. That’s right. But, it is a good idea to have the basic supplies, for emergencies.” He wiped off the foam and poured more of the liquid on. “If you’re lucky, it sits in the cabinet all day collecting dust. Aw, look at that. Lovely.”
“Do I need stitches?” Milton made a weird little sound.
“It’s a tiny little cut.”
“It’s huge,” Orrick griped. Brook touched his hand. Orrick met her eyes, and she smiled gently his way.
“On the surface, it small. This’ll heal fine if you keep it clean, and bandaged.” Milton wiped of the foam and dried the skin. He tore open the packet of ointment and squeezed it over the jagged line at trailed up Orrick’s shin, and ended just below his knee. “I give it three days to scab over. And… if you’re mom asks, say Brook’s mom did the bandage. I know your parents don’t like me.” He finished pressing gauze and bandages down over the line, until the cut was completely covered.
“That feels a lot better.”
“You’re not looking at it anymore,” Milton mentioned. He tossed the soggy gauze and pried off his gloves. “That helps too.” He packed up the medical kit and exited the bathroom.
Orrick slipped his shoe back on, and unrolled his pant leg. When he and Brook exited the hall into the living area, Philip’s father – Denis – was mid conversation with Milton. Denis turned his attention to the kids, and questioned Orrick about his leg. After a brief exchange, Denis went on out with the kids, while Milton stayed inside and used the phone.
“Here it is.” Denis kicked away the flattened snow, and prodded a broken sprinkler head with his shoe. “Milt’s getting’ in touch with your parents, Ory. You might need a shot.”
“What?” Orrick groaned. “But why?”
“Cause it’s rusted, and you can get a bad infection even after Milt did that work for you.” Denis ushered Orrick and Brook back inside. “You can stay, Brooky, but Ory is going home now.”
“This bites!” Orrick stomped over to the coat rack, and grabbed his backpack. Leslie and Philip were still watching the news, and Milton was in the kitchen again on the phone. “Why is it every time you’re around, you call my parents?”
Milton capped his hand over the phone and leaned out of the kitchen. “I didn’t tell you to break into my house. Yeh. He’s on his way. I assure you, it wasn’t that bad – he didn’t even whimper.”
That’s how it was. Since the night Orrick broke into Milton’s home searching for cats, it sort of broke the ice between the neighborhood and the weird guy that lived in the old house. It probably wasn’t far to call it the old house – Milton was making the effort to fix it up; which was how he began popping up in people’s homes. It started with him replacing shingles on the roof, then redoing the broken slates on the homes sides; a neighbor got around to conversing with Milton as he worked in and out of the home redoing the carpet.
“You’re a handy man?”
“I can’t afford a contractor.” Milton had a large roll of carpet and worked to cut it on the small driveway.
“Can I take a look when you get done in there? I live just up the street, in the beige house.”
“Yeah. You have some work that needs done?”
The neighbor laughed. “Oh boy, do I ever?”
After some time, Orrick began to warm up to seeing Milton appearing randomly around the neighborhood doing odd jobs. No mistake about it, Orrick remained suspicious to Milton’s private activities; he wanted to ask why Milton wandered around late into the night. Where did he go?
Some nights he could catch Milton, not often, but Orrick took to spending his weekends up late and observing the street his window faced.
“Hey. Earth to Orry. Hel-LO.”
Orrick shook his head and turned to Leslie. “You don’t have to scream.” Leslie sniggered; he had a habit of giggling when something wasn’t that funny.
“I wasn’t screaming. So what I was thinking, I have the construction paper – you do the designs and I’ll cut them? My art sucks.”
Leslie referred to their small School Spring Fair project. The classes were voting on crafts to make, some classes let students do individual projects while others collaborated; the whole point was to raise money for fieldtrips and get the kids involved more with school programs. It was kind of cool, if you were the kind of person that came up with something people actually wanted to buy rather than purchase out of pity. Some kids sold out of their wares.
The two walked through the wild-lot that cut through to the business district side of town. It was a Saturday and they had plenty of light to walk through; the gray woods around them held silence, no bird sang, but it wasn’t an eerie passage. It was a cold day, even a pack of dogs at the edge of the lot were laying out in the sunlight and keeping warm.
“I can ask my mom to buy some cloth, and maybe we can stitch the badges?” Orrick reasoned. “That’d be cooler than paper cut outs.”
“Stitching?” Leslie sneered. He plodded forward on the dirt path and kicked and partly buried rock. “That’s girl stuff. You should’ve teamed up with Abby if you wanted to make bibs or something.”
Orrick shrugged. “Maybe the parents would be impressed boys were stitching? We’d have the advantage, and we’d beat the pants off Bridget and her clique groupy.” Leslie giggled, and Orrick could tell it was genuine glee his friend expressed.
“I’ll give you that.” Leslie rolled his eyes. “Maybe, unless Philip comes up with something that outclasses us.”
“He doesn’t get a say,” Orrick grumbled. “No show takes whatever the present decide. New rule. I think he wants to work with Brook’s group anyway.”
“What about ceramics?” Leslie piped.
Orrick scoffed. “Like half the class isn’t doing figurines? I wanna try and be original. Why can’t you dream big.”
They exited the edged of the wooded thicket and crossed to the sidewalk. Leslie did a mock leap-karate-kick to the crosswalk button, and the two waited until the traffic ceased and the white figurine blipped on the crosswalk post.
In the business district was a small candy store and a liquor store right beside it; along with an antique shop, a candle store, and a vacuum shop. The liquor store wasn’t a bar or anything like that; usually people from the neighborhood stopped in to pick up specialty wines or things. Orrick and Leslie leered in the barred windows of the liquor store, before going on to the candy store. Their missions was straight forward, pick up some candy bags and wander around the shopping area, avoiding homework and parents. They made the return trip through the crosswalk and took a roundabout route for Leslie’s house. While walking through the tall salt grass that bordered the trees, Leslie veered off from the direction Orrick as headed and moved towards a crooked tree.
“Hey. You see this?” Leslie called. Orrick dug around in his candy bag and selected a warhead. He unwrapped the candy and popped it into his mouth; his face twisted.
“Hmm?” Orrick spied what caught Leslie’s interest. The bark on the tree was sheared clean away, leaving only the threaded fibers bent and dried. Orrick sniffled at the cold air. The grass around the area was trampled and torn, the stems brittle and frayed. But that tree was impressive. “Looks like someone didn’t get their firewood.”
Leslie’s chuckled. “No, dude. Look at this crazy cuts – the bark's been splint. Wow.” Orrick pulled at the stiff fissures; bits of bark sheared free lay on the trampled grass. The toxic fumes still hung on the air, and sticky swells of sap hung lay suspended like icicles. There wasn’t much else to see. And it wasn’t much to think about.
Orrick forgot about the tree, and the scene itself at the wild-lot. Until he returned home later that evening at his typical time. The evening was boring once he went indoors. He did stay downstairs and watched cartoon superheroes. A few hours after dark, his mom got in from shopping. She said nothing as she crossed through the spacious living area, and entered the kitchen. He missed the little glances she sent his way. His mom returned a few times; she sounded busy in the kitchen, running water and rattling dishes.
“Where were you today?” Orrick’s mother inquired briskly. “You weren’t home earlier.”
“I went out with Leslie, and we talked about what we’re gonna make for the fair.” Orrick moved his eyes off the flashy colors of the screen, and looked to his mother as she stood beside the television.
“Did you cut through the neighbors yards?”
“No," Orrick lied. “We sort of hung out.”
“I want you to stay out of the thicket and tree grooves, and stay in close to the neighborhood. Until… you get out of school.”
“What for?” Orrick challenged. He sat up straight. “I didn’t bother anyone’s lawn.”
“Honey, please,” she insisted. Her hands fidgeted against the loose end of her shirttail. “In the summer you’ll have plenty of time to run and play, but for now, I want you to focus more on your studies.”
“That’s not fair!” Orrick jumped to his feet – his mother tried to calm him. “I don’t wanna spend my free time on boring school.”
“Don’t take that tone with me young man. You’ll do as you’re told, or I’ll limit your allowance.” His mother tore through Orrick’s next words, with a, “You can head on up to your room right now, and get a start on your next homework assignment.”
Orrick went upstairs, fuming. He didn’t have a homework assignment. He had a spelling test and some science quiz, but he wasn’t in the mood to look at his notes. Not when the sky was so perfect, and the air crisp and fresh. He shoved his window open and sat by the sill, reading his comic books and tracing some of the best action scenes.
“I bet it has something to do with me falling down,” Orrick spat, during lunch the next day. He sat with Brook and Philip; Leslie’s and Marky sat at the table over and were talking about their own projects. “She thinks I’m gonna climb a try and fall out, or something lame.” He stabbed the hard little beef patty the cafeteria called a ‘Swiss Steak.’
“That was a while back,” Brook mentioned. “My dad was the same way – he said, ‘Stay in close. Stay out of peoples yards.’”
“What’s next? Don’t cross the road? Most houses don’t even have full fences – I’ve never see a full fence ‘circling anyone’s yard.” Orrick chewed on his ‘steak,’ and peered at Philip. Philip kept his head diverted off like he was daydreaming, or ignoring them. “Has Old Man Gus been makin’ a stink? Hey. Phillo? Are you listenin’?”
Philip shook his head and gawked at Orrick. “W-what! Who?”
“It’s not like we’re bein’ secluded indoors. We can still meet up and go to the candy shop,” Brook reasoned.
Brook frowned slightly. “Well… my dad sounded sort of concerned. He hugged me, and said somethin’ like – be safe. He’s lightened up a bit, but he’s been real nosy about where I’m off to, and getting back home before the street lights come on.”
Orrick lowered his eyes from Brook. He swirled his spork in the mashed potatoes and cheese, until the mixture was creamy and hugging the spook thick. His mind supplied that look his own mom gave him; something like uncertainty and fear. He didn’t like his mom with that look, it gave the impression that she was vulnerable to something.
When school let out a few hours later, Orrick tried to ditch his friends and head off on his own. Brook tagged along, and so did Marky. Marky was nicknamed ‘Smerty,’ for being a wannabe know it all and overachiever, but he usually was willing to help his friends with tricky assignments. Marky didn’t usually spend time outside exploring like the others, but he wasn’t beyond taking a walk if the weather suited him or he was promised an interesting detour.
Brook and Orrick helped Marky up into the apricot tree of the backyard, and he tumbled into the next yard. They tossed their book bags over and grabbed their third wheel under arm and helped him up.
“Can’t we just pull out one of the planks and slip through?” Marky asked. It was either that question, or the ‘How do you manage that?’ Marky was inconvenienced and flustered.
“Because that would be vandalism,” Brook replied.
As they crossed into the road and went down the street of the cul-de-sac, Orrick glanced over at Philip’s house. Philip took off right as the bell rang and was adamant about hanging at the school playground with Leslie, and Leslie’s kid brother. That seemed weird, Philip couldn’t stand Leslie’s kid brother Qubert, but whatever.
Orrick went up to Milton’s door and knocked. “This house is the pits,” Marky smarted off. Brook gave him a fierce glare and pushed him. Orrick hammered at the rough wood once more.
“Hey,” Brook murmured. “Did you hear something?” Orrick paused and glanced around. Marky shook his head quickly.
Orrick left the two and wandered to the side of the house, where the fence was missing. “What’d it sound like?”
“I dunno,” Brook admitted. “Maybe it was the door squeaking, or a bird.” She pulled Marky by his satchel strap, and the two followed Orrick around the side of the house. At the open doorway in the ground, Orrick stood gazing down. “Hey.” She released Marky and took the steps down. Orrick grabbed at her shoulders, but Brook was already at the bottom. “It’s like a whole other room down here!”
“Should we be walking in like this?” Marky whined. “What if he’s not home?” He followed Orrick down into the basement. “Guys. We’re gonna get in trouble.”
The basement was still as bare and boring as Orrick recalled. He glanced up at the frail sunlight streaming in through the gaping window; the glass on the cobble-brick floor was cleaned up. No pets or cages, or anything like that.
Light fell across the staircase that led to the upper floor of the house. Marky bolted blindly and ran straight into Orrick, the two dropped and groaned. Brook sprinted to the two and struggled to heave them upright.
“What’s going on down here? What? Oh god, again?” Milton made his smooth trek down the steps, and suddenly, he was in the basement glaring around at them. He adjusted the high collar of his turtleneck sweater, and brushed the back of his gloved wrist over his face. “Orry! What the heck?”
“The doors were open,” Orrick moaned. He struggled to get up, but his side was tingling. Marky was barely holding back tears and whining; in Orrick humble opinion, he was being a primadonnaa.
“So that gives you permission to just bust into my house?”
“We’re sorry, Mr. Milton,” Brook gushed. “But… it was really tempting, and dark, and mysterious. We had no idea you were home.”
Milton sighed and pressed a hand over his face. “Somehow that makes it okay? Of course. Perfect logic. C’mon, the both of you.” He stepped over and hoisted Marky up, and then Orrick. “Walk it off. You’ll be fine. Upstairs-upstairs. Don’t you have school today?”
“We just got out,” Brook supplied. She was first up the steps and pushed open the stairway door; the group filed into the main corridor of the house. Brook took Orrick and helped him limp, while Milton eased Marky over to the recliner. Milton tossed the sheets aside and put Marky on the cushion.
“You don’t have any place you’d rather be, so you come by? I’m not a babysitter, y’know. Who’s this?”
“Mark,” Marky mumbled. “I’m called Marky.”
“Marky and Orry,” Milton mused. “We’ll start callin’ you Brewy, but that doesn’t seem too classy.”
“Our parents are bein’ kind of jerks,” Orrick muttered. He looked around, remembered Milton had no furniture, and just sat on the new plush carpet. It smelt nice and fresh, and wasn’t all that bad. “They don’t want us cuttin’ through the wooded lots anymore.”
Milton moved over to a small table by the window, where newspaper sat, weighted by a wooden frame. Orrick watched as Milton touched the wood, and lifted it; it was a piece of glass set into a window frame, about the same size as the window from the basement.
“Oh?” Milton pondered. “Did one of you try running away from home? Or, planned to build a clubhouse. I know that’s what I’d do – if I had that sort of time.”
Brook shrugged. “No. They just seem worried about something, I think.” She sidestepped as Milton wandered by.
“Speaking of worry, we’re making a phone call.” Milton picked up the phone and handed it to Brook. “Don’t give me that bemoaning. No one has to say you were charging unannounced, just let your parents know where you’re at. Orry. Can you wash out the kettle and put some water on the burner?”
Orrick tensed, and arched his head to peer up. “Put water on the burner?”
“Yeah.” Milton held up his gloved hands – they were gardener gloves. “I’m working with glass. What? You’ve never boiled water before?”
“No….” Orrick hurried into the kitchen, and found the teakettle off to the side. His mother never let him do anything that involved burners or knives. He gave the pot a good scrubbing and began filling it with water. “How much?”
“Halfway will do fine.” Milton took the phone and spoke into the receiver. “Hello Mrs. Orry’s momma? Yeah. No, he came straight here. I don’t think so. Yeah, Mark’s here too. Cute kid. You’re okay with it? No-no. I’ll give them a ride later – No trouble. No trouble at all, I assure.” He nodded, and winked at Marky. “Next Saturday, while you’re off. Can I get a down payment, for the supplies? No, that’s fine – I wasn’t sure what color you wanted.”
Orrick leaned over to Brook when she tugged on his elbow. “The house eave needs a new coat of paint.” Brook nodded.
“You can stick around until five.” Milton hung up the phone, and then moved over to the table beside the curtained window. Yellow light filled the living area when Milton drew back the curtains; Marky winced. “Let me know when the kettle goes off. I’ll be in the basement, checking that window.”
Marky got off the recliner and ventured into the kitchen. He began pulling open cabinets, but frowned. “Does he ever give you snacks?”
“Naw,” Orrick hummed. “The teas good though.”
A few minutes later the kettle began to whistle. Orrick climbed off the countertop and hurried to basement steps. Milton was already on his way back up. The set about the business of dividing boiling water; Milton located mugs and added the small packets.
“In a bit whenever you finish the tea, maybe you’ll wanna help me bolt the new window in place.” Milton checked the burner, and set the empty kettle aside. “It’s the least you could do.”
“We’re kinda too small,” Marky mentioned. He sniffed the fragrant scent of the brewing liquid.
“Outside,” Milton clarified. There were only three mugs. In the whole kitchen. Milton shoved the front door open, and took the window off the table.
When Milton was gone, Brook turned to Orrick. “He seems grubby today.”
“You mean he’s not normally like that?” Marky accepted the honey jar from Orrick and added a few spoonful’s to his tea.
“Could be he’s working too hard.” Orrick drank his tea, sip by timid sip.
The rest of the time he spent outside, with his friends while helping Milton install the new basement window. It was all done, window firmly set and tea drunk, long before five o’clock rolled around. Orrick almost regretted leaving, but he and his friends had homework to procrastinate from, and television shows that needed watching.
As they rolled by Philip’s house, Orrick caught sight of a window curtain sliding back into place and swaying gently at the window sill. For as long as he could manage, Orrick stared, but he saw no reemergence of the spectator.
He wasn’t sure who was watching; Philip or Philip’s father, waiting for the group to depart with Milton.
Followed by Like a Good Friend
- Characters and content © 2017 Tempus Willow.