As soon as Stella opened her front door, she wanted to close it. There stood her son’s new friend, Kyle, a gangling 14-year-old with stubbly, purple hair, an angular face, and a hostile expression. Beyond him, fog hid whatever route he planned to take.
She wanted to pretend that her son wasn’t home, but he’d start a row if she sent Kyle away. Undecided about whether to fib, she forced her lips to smile.
“Tell Dave I’m here,” Kyle boomed, too loud as always.
“You could say hello.”
Kyle mumbled, “H’lo” and bellowed, “Dave, I’m here, come on.”
Dave dashed to the door. Both boys were shorter than average but otherwise opposites in looks, Dave’s smiling face sweet and handsome, his jeans, shirt, and smooth hair all clean. Kyle was grimy, badly raised, a convict’s nephew, totally different from Dave’s friends in his previous school.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Away, away to the soccer field,” said Kyle.
Unlikely in fog.
“Really?” she asked.
“Really, really.” Kyle sounded mocking, and she wanted to shove him away and protect her son.
“’Bye, Mom,” Dave said.
Too soon the boys became invisible in moist, heavy air. She trudged upstairs to her computer table, where she needed to concentrate on her work designing theatrical costumes. Worries flooded her mind. Kyle had become a problem soon after her husband’s employer moved the family back to a town they’d left a decade ago. Dave had stopped telling enough about what he did. He’d tried to hide his newest online purchase, a mask that looked like a real man’s face. If Kyle asked for a costume, she’d create a coyote.
I need a way to separate them, she thought. She and her husband couldn’t afford private schools for their children. They could pay for a summer camp, but too much could happen before then.
Being hearing impaired, Dave and Kyle talked loudly to understand each other. When far enough from other ears, Dave said, “I got an idea. Let’s go to the cemetery and get eerie videos to post on YouTube.”
“I got another idea. Today’s our chance to explore the Millers’ mansion and learn how a rich scientist lives.” Kyle pointed to a house where only the whitish stone stoop was visible. “Mr. Miller’s a microbiologist, so you’ll find some science stuff. They’re on a trip, and no one’ll spot us going inside, thank you, Mr. Fog.”
“How are you sure that no one’s home?”
“Their car’s been gone and their lights out since Wednesday, and a little kid told me they’re driving to national parks, real far away. Have you ever been inside?”
“No, the Millers are mean grouches.”
“They treated my favorite cousin awful, abysmal, when she worked there.”
“Cheated her out of pay?” Dave asked.
“Yeah, they’re crafty.”
The Millers had paid his cousin Crystal less than they’d promised. They’d fired her and described her as lazy in references. Often moody and sad, she hadn’t found another job; she didn’t divulge how she got money to live on.
“Are we doing a Robin Hood?” Dave asked.
“Today we’re explorers like Marco Polo, or you can be Darwin and learn about the possessions of a scientist.”
Dave could be a lookout while Kyle searched for whatever his 19-year-old cousin’s fence could sell. The cousin had suggested using Dave as an accomplice, starting small; they’d begun with shoplifting chocolate cookies and handing some to a homeless man who huddled under a blanket on a sidewalk; they’d progressed to socks on a “dare.”
“How will we get in, through a window?” Dave asked.
“Just follow me. It’ll be easy.”
“Are you — ”
“Someone’s coming,” said Kyle, whose left ear was better than either of Dave’s ears.
They silenced until after a tall boy strode past them, his boombox blasting band music.
“How did you get the bruise?” Dave asked, staring at Kyle’s cheek.
“Can you see it? My mother’s ex-boyfriend, a slimy worm, he tried to beat me, but he ain’t going to mess with me again. I hate him, I loathe him, I despise him. He knocked my mom against a wall and tried to punch her, and we all fought, and I pummeled him real hard and got rid of him.”
“An evil monster. Did he injure you anywhere besides your cheek?”
“No, it’s not bad. He ain’t never coming back.”
The worst part of the fight had been a flushed face’s sneer when Kyle swayed and toppled, but the brute’s departure was a victory. Mom wouldn’t open a door to him again.
“Tell me if you ever need me to help you,” Dave said.
“Thanks, you’re my best friend. Let’s go.”
They tiptoed behind the two-story, brick house and stopped at the back door. Although cocooned by fog, Kyle felt surprisingly shaky. A few weeks ago, he’d suffered hours of sitting, sweating, in a courthouse, accused of shoplifting a necklace of fake pearls. A witness identified him because of his flamboyant hair. His punishment was fright and the requirement of enduring a warning.
From that experience, he learned to conceal his hair. His heart beating faster at the prospect of his first burglary, he took supplies from his backpack, squeezed a black cap over his head, provided gloves for himself and Dave, and worked on the lock.
“It’s taking too long,” Dave said.
“Shut up. I almost got it,” Kyle replied, embarrassed.
After a few more minutes, he succeeded, and they tiptoed into a gleaming, yellow kitchen with an odor of an ammonia-based cleaning fluid. Everything, from the fancy, brass drawer pulls to the hanging, blue pots looked expensive.
“Look and see if there’s food to give away,” Kyle said. “I bet they eat gourmet stuff.”
Kyle hurried into the dining room, where a breakfront displayed silver plates and bowls that could help pay for a semi-automatic. He slowly, soundlessly opened the breakfront’s glass door. As he touched a plate with an acorn-patterned rim, a warning wail became audible. A police siren.
“Cops, let’s go,” Dave shouted.
The siren became louder, coming toward them and for them. Kyle bolted through the kitchen and followed Dave out the door.
“My DNA — I forgot — I bit into an apple,” Dave said, turning back. “I got to get it.”
He fumbled the knob, and Kyle had to turn it and shove him inside. While warnings of doom came closer, Kyle waited for that amateur to retrieve evidence. If police caught them, Dave would get off with a warning, maybe probation. And his parents’ scolding, but they’d blame Kyle. For Kyle, confinement, misery, the end of all his plans. People he wanted to impress would avoid him. He’d never again enter a home like Dave’s.
Kyle and Dave had noticed each other during Dave’s first day in their middle school. When he hadn’t answered a question, their English teacher had scoffed, “What are you daydreaming about?” A few kids snickered humiliatingly. Having guessed that Dave needed to read lips, Kyle scribbled, “whom” on a note and passed it over his shoulder.
“The answer is ‘whom,’” Dave said.
The teacher snapped, “Kyle, no more of your tricks. That’s a minus.”
The next day Dave got appropriate revenge by hiding the teacher’s eraser, annoying her and amusing the class. Kyle congratulated him; they agreed on their feelings about their teachers and subjects, wanted to see the same sci-fi movie, and began spending their free time together. He preferred Dave to his previous friends, who’d become more interested in drugs than in him or anyone else.
Blinking and staring at a skirt pattern on the computer screen, Stella wondered how to rescue Dave from Kyle’s influence. Maybe a coach could develop Dave’s skills so he’d get on a team with popular boys. As she touched her fingers to computer keys to begin a search, she heard a siren, which screamed louder, speeding nearer.
Had a neighbor called police? She froze, listening to a wail that stopped near where nasty Mr. Miller lived. He’d shouted rudely at Dave, who might, with Kyle’s influence, try a prank for revenge.
She rushed downstairs, her heart beating faster, and opened a door to fog. No sound except sparrows’ chirps, no way to know what was happening at the Millers’ house. If she ran there, she’d make the police suspicious.
Clutching her phone in case Dave called from a police station, she returned upstairs, her mind groping for solutions — more weekend visits with friends from the old school, another lecture by her husband, a GPS tracker. A misfortune, that her son and Kyle had a disability in common. If Dave would consent to wear a hearing aid, he’d make more friends. If only she hadn’t let him stay, last summer, in the badly managed camp where lightning struck a tree beside him and thunder damaged his ears.
Mom had told her to blame the camp, not herself. The evening before Mom’s heart attack, she’d sounded reassured by Stella’s fib that Dave liked his new school. Twice since then, Mom had appeared in Stella’s sleep, simply looking at her.
“Mom, what should I do about Dave?” Stella whispered.
Dave and Kyle ran together across uneven grass to a low fence, climbed over it, and dropped onto a mushy lawn. They dashed along a cement driveway and, on a sidewalk, slowed to a walk to appear nonchalant.
“That was exciting,” Dave panted. “Maybe a housekeeper was upstairs and heard us.”
“Shut up,” Kyle said. “Give me those back.” He pointed to gloves, took the evidence of intent. and stuffed them into his backpack. “We’ll hide behind that hedge until we’re sure we’re safe.”
They crawled behind bushes and crouched on moist grass only seconds before a car rumbled past.
After waiting many minutes, Kyle stood, shook stiffness out of his legs, and said, “We’ll go to the cemetery now. The cops will be scared to search for us there.”
“Yeah, and we’ll get videos for our alibi,” Dave said. “I hope my grandma’s been enjoying a peaceful snooze and not watching me.”
“You gotta be quiet and go fast.”
After sprinting about a quarter mile, they reached a sign saying Vale of Rest. Tombstones, crosses, and skeletal trees faded in gray air. Oddly, some of the oaks leaned over graves as if trying to shelter them. The scene appeared otherworldly, eerier than Kyle had expected. The moist air muffled sounds until something unseen crackled, maybe a spook behind them.
“Let’s race to the saint’s statue,” Dave said.
They tried to run on moist ground. After several paces, Dave stumbled, fell to his hands and knees, and sprang up. Facing a stone cross, he said, “My grandma’s there. I’ll go say hello to her.”
Kyle accompanied him and waited while Dave mumbled, “Hi, Grandma, we all miss you, but you’ll be glad to know, we’re all okay.”
Nearby, a bouquet of gladioli, roses, and lilies adorned a pale tombstone. An opportunity for Dave to steal successfully and become bolder.
Kyle pointed to it. “Go take those for your mom. You said she was mad yesterday because you forgot her birthday.”
“She’ll ask how I bought them when I don’t have any money.”
“Say I lent you some.”
Dave stayed still. “Promise you won’t get a picture of me filching.”
“Do you think I’m stupid?” Kyle asked.
“No, you’re smart. I bet we’ll find flowers for your mom, too.”
“Her? She don’t do nothing for me. She don’t even fix meals for me.”
When he left home that afternoon, she’d been lying, drunk, in a faded nightgown, smelling of sweat and wine, on a filthy sofa.
“I’ll ask my mom to invite you to dinner,” Dave said.
“She don’t like me. Go, collect the flowers so she won’t keep crabbing. I dare you.”
Nearby, in shifting gray, rustles traveled like whispers from underground. Something chilled Kyle’s arms — what? Had a ghost or mere air touched him? Bravery was tested in this cemetery, where the trees were spectral and tombstones vanished in darkness. Even walking felt strange here, their feet squishing as they approached a marble slab with an inscription: Martha Witherwhile, beloved wife and mother, 1945–2012.
“She died a long time ago,” Dave mumbled. “She won’t mind.”
They leaned over lilies and roses, which gave an unusually powerful fragrance. Kyle wondered if a bouquet would improve his bad-tempered mother’s moods, which became more volatile after his stepfather, several months ago, raged away. Now she was so drunk, she wouldn’t know what he did. She cared about him but not enough to get cleaned up at a clinic. He’d been surprised that she woke enough to accompany him to court, where she made an incompetent effort to help him.
Dave grabbed the bouquet and lifted it triumphantly over his head.
“Congrats, you did it,” Kyle said.
One successful theft that day, anyway, giving Dave more confidence. A gust snatched a few petals from the roses, and raindrops spattered onto grass, an excuse to leave a habitat of the displeased dead.
“Rain,” Kyle said. “Let’s go.”
They ran through light drizzle to Dave’s home, where his mother exclaimed about their wet clothes.
To Kyle, she said coldly, “You can come in and stay until the shower ends.”
He entered a realm of comfort, where an aroma of a baking apple pie made him want to plead, “I’m hungry, can you share some of your dessert with me?” He wished his home had the same healthy air, colorfully upholstered furniture, and shelves filled with books and framed photos of loved ones. A picture of a baby’s face showed how welcome Dave’s birth had been. Several magazines were arrayed on a table of polished wood.
“You’re chilled,” the mother said to Dave. “Go, change your clothes. Would you boys like some hot cider to warm you up?”
“Yes, thank you,” Kyle said.
“Sure,” Dave said. “First, I have a belated birthday gift to present to you.”
She opened her mouth, her expression changing from surprised to pleased. Dave lifted the bouquet from Kyle’s backpack, bowed ceremoniously, and presented it. She accepted it gingerly, avoiding the thorns. Then she looked over Dave’s muddied clothes, her eyebrows rising to a skeptical arch.
“Where did you get these flowers?” she asked.
Kyle wanted to shout, You old hag, why don’t you thank him?
“Uh, I bought them.” Fidgeting, Dave didn’t lie convincingly.
The mother’s smile dropped. “From where, from what shop, where? Tell me.”
“I forget the store’s name.”
“Where was it?”
“Uh, not very far.”
She squinted at Kyle’s cap, which he’d forgotten to remove. Then her bosom heaved a sigh, her narrow shoulders slumped, and she gazed toward a window onto rain that dimmed the light and pounded away all the day’s fun.
Her jaw dropped. “Mom!” She stared as if she saw someone outside. “Mom, I’ve missed you,” she called, her voice strained. “Can you come in? You’re upset. What did Dave do? Why are you pointing at the flowers? Please explain — Mom, come back.”
She turned to Dave. “I saw your grandmother pointing to the flowers and wagging a finger at you for a reproach. I think she followed you from the Vale of Rest.”
You’re pretending, Kyle wanted to shout, but anything he said might make her dislike him even more.
“Dave, did you steal the bouquet?”
Kyle elbowed Dave, trying to communicate, lie.
“I didn’t think anyone would mind,” Dave mumbled.
“That was stealing. The family who bought them wanted them to stay there. You’ll return them as soon as the rain stops.”
“I didn’t see no ghost,” Kyle snapped.
“My mother didn’t come here for you. Dave, your grandmother left her resting place because she doesn’t want you to become a criminal.”
Dave stared at his muddy shoes.
“I’ll tell your father,” she added.
Kyle stepped backward, toward the door. “It was my idea, and I persuaded him because I thought you’d appreciate a gift.”
The mother’s eyes narrowed, and she opened her mouth to blast a condemnation. Obviously, she wanted to order Kyle away forever from his only trusted and respected friend. Away from his only chance to glimpse a clean home and a normal family. Scowling, she craned toward him and squinted at his bruised cheek. Remembering that a floor had banged his face, and he’d physically lost a fight, he smoothed a finger over sore skin where drizzle had rinsed off a pasty concealer.
“What happened to you?” She sounded puzzled.
“A visitor in his house, an evil monster, struck him when he was fighting to defend his mom,” Dave said plaintively.
“That’s a bad bruise,” The mother spoke more gently than before.
“He dyed his hair,” Dave said, “so people won’t notice his bruises.”
The mother’s face saddened. “Has your mother called the police about the abuse?”
“The beast ain’t coming back,” Kyle said.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, we’re sure. I got rid of him.”
“His mom lies around and doesn’t do anything,” Dave said. “She doesn’t fix any meals for him, and he gets hungry.”
“I could find a list for her of resources for abused women. Kyle, would you like to stay and have dinner with us? A roast chicken with stuffing and apple pie.”
Was she inviting him to a homemade dinner and pie, accepting him into this home?
“Say yes,” Dave advised.
“Yes, sure, thank you.”
“It’s time for me to turn off the oven, and then we’ll have a talk about the stealing.”
As soon as the kitchen door closed, Kyle whispered to Dave, “You told me she used to act in an amateur theatre group.”
“I think the ghost was real because I felt a spook touch me in the graveyard, and Mom has seen Grandma other times.”
“I guess the dinner invitation is for real.”
“Yeah, we’ll have to tell her we won’t snitch anything again.”
A roast chicken, homemade apple pie, and an opportunity to learn the ways of respected people.
Wanting to sound nonchalant, Kyle said, “I’ll do anything for your mom’s pie.”
Featured image: Red orange / Shutterstock