Fred and Jess shared a birthday in late September and usually celebrated it together. This year they were turning fourteen. More boys than teens, Jess had a slight frame and still wore the oxford shirts his mother bought him while Fred hid his bulging belly under oversized t-shirts. Both liked to explore other people’s houses in their sub-division as a kind of extended playground.
This evening they stood under the awning at the back of the Miller’s house. Jess checked his Timex, a birthday present from his mom, 7:30 p.m. He leaned against brick of the house. Heat prickled through his cotton shirt; it had been a scorcher of a day, so hot, he’d dozed through his classes. The blue-tiled pool shimmered in the evening heat. They’d never been invited to swim there but that hadn’t stopped them from skinny dipping when the family left town.
Fred pulled blue gloves out of his pocket. “Got these from the dentist,” he said, his grin revealing round, yellow teeth.
Jess took the gloves and stuffed them in his back pocket. There was an order to their entrance. First lose the shoes so they didn’t leave scuff marks on the floor, and then pull on the gloves with their powdery interior. He flexed his fingers before holding up his hands the way he’d seen surgeons do on TV.
“People always forget to lock these,” Fred said, pulling on the handle of the sliding glass door. It opened. He looked at Jess, crossed his eyes then shot inside.
The family room smelled of cooked meat. Jess pulled at his shirt. He didn’t want his clothes to absorb the smell because his parents, dedicated vegetarians, might notice though lately they hadn’t seemed to notice much.
They slid around the room in their stockinged feet. Jess laughing as he fell onto the large, blocky sofa. Fred threw himself next to him, landing half on top of him. Then a lamp popped on in another room. Both boys froze.
Fred tiptoed to the door to investigate, then took a few steps into the hall, cocked his head, and then waved. Jess glided to his side and leaned forward. In the front room a lit lamp sat on a table between two arm chairs.
“Timer,” Fred whispered, pointing at a box poking out of the electric socket. Then he mimed drinking from a bottle and took off in search of the liquor cabinet.
Jess sometimes joined Fred on these jaunts curious about how other people lived. He circled the cluster of sofas and chairs, and stopped at a framed picture perched on the brick mantle. The photo showed a smiling family, their arms slung around each other, with a smiling golden retriever by their side. The sweetness of the picture made Jess’s teeth ache. He leapt onto the sofa and trod across the cushions beating his chest like King Kong. Energized, he hopped off, leapt over a basket of dried flowers and into the hall that bisected the house.
This house was laid out like his own, yet had a more relaxed feel. The walls were pale with kids’ drawings and family photos hanging on them. His house always seemed just cleaned and therefore off limits. His mother said his dad liked it that way. His dad had a lot of rules that Jess always seemed to break. Then his dad would scream which made Jess feel like he was going to explode. Before his dad could take a swipe at him, he’d take off on his bike and ride to the woods at the end of the subdivision where he’d vent in the forest.
A creek ran about a hundred feet away from the road. There he’d leave his shoes and step into the frigid water which made him gasp until his feet and ankles went numb. As he sloshed through the creek, he’d tip up rocks checking for crayfish. Eventually, the fierceness in his chest would fade.
Jess entered the dining room where a long table ran towards draped-covered windows. The heavy curtains reminded him of the ones hanging in the school theater. He’d done a few bit parts in The Wizard of Oz which his father never came to see. Jess bent his elbows and like a prize fighter, feinted left then right. He kept punching until he accidentally hit a chair which started to topple but he caught it before it hit the floor.
Setting the chair upright, he saw the glass fronted cabinet. Jess patted his way around the table to it, feeling the table’s slippery surface through his gloved fingers. The cabinet, as tall as him, had two glass doors. He pulled the knobs, heard the click, saw the shelves of wine glasses arranged in lines like glittering soldiers. He took three out and began to juggle them. He held one in his left, tossed it upward, grabbed it with his right just after throwing the third to his left. He’d started juggling during the Oz rehearsals.
He’d made a few passes and was starting to feel the rhythm when one flew out of his reach and broke on the floor. Shit, he thought before taking another wineglass from the cabinet and adding it to the rotation; the stems spinning like spokes in a wheel. Then one bumped the outside of his hand and fell. Distracted, he lost track of the second one which also hit the ground. Disgusted, he threw down the third one. The sound of shattering glass made something inside him quiver.
He turned to the cabinet, slid his gloved hand in between the rows and swept them off the shelf. Like paratroopers they flew past his face, suspended for an instant before gravity commanded them. They exploded with an almost human shriek which he had to hear again. He shoved another row out into the air. Glass flew, catching on the hairs of his forearm. Exhilarated, he emptied another shelf.
Then there were only two glasses left. These he tossed into the darkness where their paths overlapped with a whine of crystal scraping crystal before diving bombing the table. Glass shards bounced until they came to rest in a heap of broken parts. Jess squatted to inspect the debris as if they lay in the creek bed. He snapped the stems off the goblets like breaking twigs for a fire. As he did, he fantasized about slitting his father’s neckties.
Fred came in, a bottle in each hand. “What the fuck?”
Jess rose. One hand felt warm and moist inside the glove; he must have nicked himself. “I couldn’t stop,” Jess said, feeling like a giant.
“Well, cut it out. This kind of shit could get us caught.”
“I like this house,” Jess said.
“Here,” Fred said, and tossed him a bottle.
Jess caught it. He could tell by the bottle’s weight it was a quarter full. He twisted off the cap and smelled the contents. Whisky. His favorite. He took a long pull. The liquid slid down his throat, setting it on fire. He opened his mouth and panted, intensifying the heat. Then took another pull.
Fred sat on the table and lifted his bottle. “Happy Birthday Bro,” he said, and leaned his head back, guzzling the booze, his blue-clad pinky sticking out. When he lay back on the table, his arm dangled over the edge, his fingers clutching the bottle’s neck.
The house was still. Somewhere a cat meowed. Jess pushed a button on the Timex, the face lit up blue. They’d been inside for fifteen minutes. They had so little time. He hopped onto the table, and slid across the slick surface like a surfer on a wave, catching himself at the edge with his fingers. He’d just pivoted when Fred grabbed his ankle. Jess spun into Fred, jamming his toes into the side of his chest. He knelt and cocked his arm to slug Fred when he heard something. Was it a yowl, or had the garage door opened? Fred lifted his head.
The boys sprang from the table and sprinted across the glass-encrusted floor, down the kitchen to the family room where they exited through the open door. Jess scooped up his shoes before heading for the lawn. But hearing voices, he veered to his left dashing behind the foundation planting.
The bushes were dense and prickly yet dropping to his knees he found a narrow path between the shrubs and the building. He crawled along hearing Fred breathing behind him. A thorny bramble caught hold of his hair, he shook it free and continued on, his scalp tingling. Just then he thought he heard the door open. He stopped, hardly daring to breathe until Fred tapped his foot. From the corner of his eye Jess saw Fred’s finger pointing forward.
In a small hollow at the corner of the building where the bushes wrapped around the house, he crouched, his chin lowered so his head didn’t brush the shrub’s inner canopy and alert someone he was there. Fred slid in next to him. He held up his gloved hand and they tapped knuckles. Fred mouthed, “Mission accomplished,” and grinned.
The patio lights flashed on and the glass door opened. The alternating smack of flip flops slapping the pavement came closer. Jess stayed still. Someone, a man, cleared his throat. A woman said ‘Czechoslovakian glass’ and started to cry. Unlike his mother, this woman sobbed with harsh, broken sounds. The flip flops moved off and the sliding door whispered shut.
Jess pulled off the gloves and threw them down. He felt sick. He wanted to help the woman, tell her he was sorry; help her sweep up the mess. He leaned forward, rising onto a knee.
Fred grabbed his arm, “Where are you going?”
“Are you nuts? They’ll kill you.”
“They should.” Jess shrugged off Fred. He hated him. If it weren’t for Fred he’d never have done this, never have had his hands on the glass; never felt that hard on. He stood, pushed past Fred and walked out to the patio.
There he knocked on the glass, hitting it so hard, the whole panel shivered in response. An overhead light flipped on catching the dust that glittered along his arm.
Through the family room a woman approached. She wore sweat pants and a hoodie, a tall man with a large belly followed her. Both had silvery hair and wrinkled faces. She slid aside the door, her eyes, red-rimmed and curious, waited for him to speak.
Jess unable to, dropped his eyes to the shaggy tan carpet at his feet.
“For Christ’s sake, what’s he doing here?”
“He came to apologize,” the woman said.
“Forget it. I’m calling the police.”
Jess, his gaze still on the limp threads, thought this was harder than he’d imagined. He’d figured he’d go in, get the broom, he knew where his mother stored hers, and sweep up the glass.
Do you need a glass of water? she said.
With a sideward glance he took in the brown eyes peering through the pleated skin. He guessed those family photos must have been taken a long time ago.
The longer they stood there saying nothing, watching him, the worse he felt. These people were being so nice; his father would have smacked him by now. But as they stood there, he began to hate them, hate their stupid baggy bodies, the man’s balding head, her rumpled shoulders.
“That glassware came from Berlin. My great uncle shipped them to my grandparents after Krystalnacht. Everyone in my family, who survived, used them. My grandmother drank from them and so did my parents, my aunts and uncles. They’re all gone, and now, because of you, the glasses are too.”
She spoke softly, yet her words hurt. He bowed his head lower and lower under his chin hit his chest and could go no further.
“Tonight all I have left is you.”
“I’m going to start cleaning,” the man said. Jess, without looking, sensed him leave the room.
“No wait,” she called, “the boy will do it.”
The woman told Jess to look at her. Her voice was quiet though commanding. He lifted his head, but couldn’t meet her eyes.
“I can’t imagine why you did this. What I want to know is how you’ll repay it?”
He had a crazy image of molten glass, blowing glass through a tube, but said, “Mow your lawn?”
The man returned to the room. “We should call the police. This kid is a juvenile delinquent. Look what I found?” he said, swinging the bottle of whisky. “He emptied it. This kid should be locked up.”
Jess agreed; he was no good. Breaking the glass gave him a hard on.
The woman, like Mary, intervened. “We’re going to handle this ourselves. Lock the door.”
Before Jess could move the large man skirted him and flipped the lock on the sliding door. “I took care of the others.”
Jess looked from one to the other. The woman he could knock over in a second, but the man was tall and had long arms. Then she caught hold of his cheeks with her papery fingers, her fingernails pressing into his skin.
‘Those glasses were like family to me, and like a thug, you ruined them.”
He wanted to shake off her hand, but hadn’t the will, she’d bewitched him.
“Such a skinny boy, so much damage. What’s your name?” she said, giving his face an extra squeeze before finally dropping her hand.
His face burned where she’d gripped it. “Jess, Jess Rivers.”
“Get to work,” she said, and stepped aside.
The man thrust the broom out when Jess approached him. Jess took the thick wooden handle and headed for the dining room, wondering how long they’d keep him captive.
As if reading his mind, the man said, “We’ll give you a ride home when you’re done.”
Jess figured he’d tell them to drop him a few blocks from his house.
Roberta Levine‘s work has appeared in Numero Cinq, Allegheny Magazine, and Diversity, among others. She teaches across the neural spectrum and blogs at myteenytown.
–Art by Magdalena Roeseler