Slivers of glass and yellow metal showered over the street like when the foam of a wave strikes a boulder. A.J. watched a metal shard crash through Drake’s windshield. It made a pattern like a silver spider web that was very intricate. There was a spider web on the front porch at Elm Grove that was cone-shaped, so it had probably been made by a ray spider.
Drake said, “Holy shit!” He sprang out of the car; the gold and silver beads that hung from the mirror swung back and forth. He did not close the door but ran toward the school bus, which had fallen on its side like a hermit crab that someone had pushed over with his or her finger.
A.J. stayed in the car and looked at the pattern on the windshield. He counted the lines in it. There were 1,037. Outside the car there was screaming. A.J. didn’t like loud sounds such as screaming. Whenever there were loud sounds such as screaming at Elm Grove, A.J. went into his room and closed the door and leaned his head against the wall, where the plaster felt cool against his skin. Then he would take out North American Birds and look at the red-tailed goshawk and the Eastern chickadee, and all the other birds, until he wanted to come out again.
Many cars stopped around the bus. People stood looking at the bus. A.J. didn’t know where Drake had gone. He heard sirens. He smelled smoke and other bad smells that he did not recognize. Ambulances came with more sirens. A.J. put his head between his legs, which is what he did when he felt afraid and he did not have North American Birds with him.
A voice said, “Are you all right, Sir?” A man had his head poked in the door that Drake had left open. He had a big, red face and a blue uniform. His big face was in the car, coming toward A.J., and his breath smelled like peanut butter. A.J. yelled.
“Sir? Do you need medical attention? Sir?”
“Hey, hey, he’s all right.” It was Drake.
The man took his big face away. “You sure?” he said. “Is this your car?”
“It’s my car,” Drake said. “That’s my brother, he’s fine.”
“That’s some hole in your windshield,” the man said.
Drake said, “It’s okay, we got it. Thank you, officer.”
Drake got in the car. He said, “A.J.! Come on, sit up. Put your belt on. We have to get to the hospital.”
A.J. sat up. “Why?”
“Steph got hurt,” said Drake. He was breathing loudly in and out. He started the car and put it in reverse. He threw his arm around the back of A.J.’s seat and twisted to look behind them. He had a red scratch across the left side of his head that went through part of his eyebrow and A.J. wondered if the hair would grow back. Drake’s ponytail had mostly come out of its holder, and the sleeve on his jacket was ripped in two oblique stripes. The skin on his hands was divided into red and beige triangles like stained glass, because there was blood on them. The blood on his white shirt was in the shape of an upside-down sea horse.
Drake looped the car around, away from the bus and the people, and sped up behind an ambulance. A.J. had to look through the spiderweb cracks to see. Drake said, “She’ll be okay. Steph’s a tough kid. She’ll pull through all right.” He tapped his pointer finger rapidly on the steering wheel. His pointer finger had blood on it, and the blood got on the steering wheel. “She’ll be okay,” he said. “It’ll be okay.”
“It’ll be okay,” said Drake. “It’s just a splinter. Quiet! Do you want to get us in trouble?” He and A.J. were under the willow tree by the creek. Drake yanked out the splinter with his fingernails and A.J. yelled.
Mama opened the screen door from the porch. Mama was baking pumpkin bread and a nice smell came from the house. “Drake!” she called. “Are you watching your brother?”
“Yeah, Mom!” Drake yelled. “Now hold still. One, two, three!” Blood came out of A.J.’s finger like a thin, red worm, except not like an earthworm because earthworms had segmented bodies and they did good things for the soil. A.J. looked at his finger and it stung, and he cried.
“Quiet, A.J.!” said Drake. “Here, let’s roll up your pants.” Drake bent down and his hair smelled like creek silt. They were A.J.’s corduroy pants, wood frog brown. A.J. liked the wood frogs, how they darted up from the creekside like small explosions when his boots came down.
Drake said, “Watch! I bet I can catch one. There’s one, there.” It was hiding in the bulrushes. Drake crouched down behind it, then pounced like a fisher cat. “Gotcha!” he said. A wood frog wriggled in his hand. “Now we can have frog leg soup for dinner tonight.”
“No, Drake! No!”
“I’m only kidding. You know, in France they really do eat frog leg soup. And buttered snails—No, A.J., you’ll never catch one splashing around like that! You have to sneak up on him. Grab the little sucker before he knows you’re there.”
They all knew that A.J. was there. A.J.’s feet felt wet. His arms itched where the mosquitoes had sucked.
Drake still held his wood frog in his hands. “Mmm, frog leg soup.”
“Quiet! I’m just messing with you, see?” Drake opened his hand and the wood frog sprang out with its legs stretched taut behind in a V. When it hit the water, there was hardly any sound.
At Elm Grove, there were many sounds. White sneakers squeaking on the linoleum floor tiles. The hum of the generator. Edna sang loudly, “The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Music,” up and down the hallway. She said she used to be on television, but Frank said she was lying. Peter said the alphabet backwards and said things in Latin. Horatio dragged his bad leg.
A.J. had come to Elm Grove after Mama died from colon cancer. He was twenty-four years old. He had not wanted to come to Elm Grove. He wanted to stay in his room with the green carpet that was like moss between his toes and where the light shone on the wall in a perfectly symmetrical trapezoid at 4:17 p.m. But they said he couldn’t stay. Mama was dead and Drake had gone away to “Hell-Knows-Where, California,” Mama had said once, and he had stopped calling on the phone a long time ago. They said A.J. had to go to Elm Grove, and when he hit one of them in the eye, they gave him a shot so that he felt heavy, like moving in water. He woke up in a room that was white and that smelled like mouthwash. The light came in the window only as a rhombus. His clothes were in the dresser of the new room, and he didn’t know who had moved them and touched them, and so he cried.
A.J. did not participate in Art Hour or Life Skills. He did not speak in Group Circle. He did not watch Bounty Hunter or Design on a Dime on television. There was a birdfeeder outside the window, so he drew pictures in his notebook of the birds that fed there, but they were mostly pigeons and common house sparrows. At home, he’d had a thirty-power microscope and binoculars and a field guide to liverworts and fungi, but he did not have these things at Elm Grove. He wondered if a new person was living in his house now and walking with his or her toes on the carpet and making everything have a different smell, the way some people’s houses smelled like tomato soup or like moth balls.
On the forty-third day that A.J. was at Elm Grove, Evelyn knocked on his door. Evelyn was a staff member with long, purple fingernails and who talked as if she were holding her nostrils closed. A.J. said not to come in, because he was drawing a sparrow through the window and he wanted to finish before it flew away. But Evelyn said, “A.J., come on out of there, somebody’s waiting to see you.” A.J. didn’t know who it would be, but the sparrow had flown away when Evelyn talked, so he opened the door.
When he saw Drake he did not recognize him right away, because he often had trouble with recognizing, and because Drake now had a mustache and long, dark hair and a chip in his front tooth, none of which had been there the last time A.J. had seen him, and also because Drake’s face looked twelve years older, because it was.
Drake smiled. He said, “Shit. I always thought I would be the taller one.” Then he reached toward A.J., but A.J. stepped away.
Evelyn said, “A.J., it’s your brother.” To Drake she said, “Don’t take it personally. He’s like that with all of us, too.”
Drake walked into A.J.’s room. He stood with his hands in his pockets and looked around. “Jeez, man, what do you do in here all day? I’ve seen prisons homier than this.”
“I like to draw,” A.J. said. He took his notebook with the leather, scarab beetle red cover out of its drawer and showed Drake his drawings. Each page had twelve drawings, and he was on page eighty-two of the notebook.
Drake wanted to take A.J. out to Taco Bell. A.J. was afraid to go with him, but that afternoon was Group Circle and A.J. hated Group Circle, so he said he would go. Evelyn did not want to sign him out and let him miss Group Circle, but Drake was angry because A.J.’s room was small and because A.J. was not allowed on the Outdoor Grounds unattended and because A.J. needed a haircut and a shave. He yelled about these things to Evelyn and then to Dr. Horowitz, and finally they let A.J. go out with him.
Drake’s car was small and blue. One of its windshield wipers was broken, but he said he was getting it fixed. A pack of cigarettes was on the floor. The door handle was sticky, and there was a stain on A.J.’s seat that smelled like old coffee. Drake said he just came back to the East Coast last week, after he heard that Mama had died, and that A.J. was at Elm Grove. In the car, Drake told A.J. that he deserved better than to be locked in that shit hole, but that there was nothing Drake could do about it at the moment since he could barely get his own life straightened out. He said he was sorry that he had not always been the best brother, but he was going to try and make up for that now, if A.J. would let him. Drake had brought A.J. a present. It was a book of North American Birds. “I know you always liked that stuff,” he said.
Wednesday was the day that Drake would come. Wednesday was A.J.’s favorite day. They went to the park when the leaves turned red and yellow because the chlorophyll in them had died and the light waves reflected from accessory carotenoid pigments. On those days, it was not cold outside, but it smelled cold.
Sometimes they went to Lisa’s house for dinner instead of to the Taco Bell. When Lisa opened the door, Drake would kiss her on the cheek where she had a brown mole. Lisa was nicer than Meredith, who had been the first lady whose house they had gone to for dinner. For instance, Lisa did not talk to Drake about A.J. as if he were not there or get food stuck in her teeth. Lisa wore glasses. When A.J. had said to Meredith that the veins in her legs looked like dragonfly wings, she had yelled at Drake. One time, A.J. asked Lisa why her hands smelled like basil. Drake said not to ask questions like that, but Lisa laughed and she showed A.J the basil plant that she grew in a pot next to the sink in the kitchen.
Lisa cooked deviled eggs the first time that A.J. went to eat at her house, and he ate fourteen of them. After that she made deviled eggs every time A.J. came, even when she and Drake were eating chicken parmesan or takeout sesame noodles. Her hair had the same shape as a sea sponge, but A.J. did not tell her that, because Drake told him not to. Lisa’s daughter was named Stephanie, and she also had hair in the same shape as a sea sponge, but hers was gold instead of brown. Stephanie taught A.J. how to play Mancala. She had a Siamese Fighting Fish named Finley. Male Siamese Fighting Fish are so aggressive that they would rip one another apart if they were put into the same tank, so Finley had his own tank.
Stephanie said to A.J., “This is his food. He eats three sprinkles in the morning and three sprinkles at night. Give him a sprinkle now, please.”
Finley’s food was in a cylinder. It smelled like fish and then A.J.’s fingers smelled like fish. When he fed Finley, a fish was eating fish, which was like cannibalism, and which happens sometimes in nature. The yellow and orange and red fish flakes floated on the surface of the water. Finley swam up and took them in his mouth to digest them.
Stephanie put her face against the tank. She took air in her cheeks and made a throat sound like, “Glub, glub.” Then she looked at A.J. and said, “What am I?” She filled her cheeks with air.
A.J. said, “A Belding’s ground squirrel,” because Belding’s ground squirrels used their oral cavities as pouches for storing food.
“No!” Stephanie laughed, and it sounded like very small rocks falling into the pond. “I’m Finley, see? Now you be something.”
“I’m a human,” A.J. said.
“No!” Stephanie said. “You have to be something else. That’s why it’s called pretend.”
A.J. filled his mouth with air. Stephanie said, “Are you Finley, too?”
A.J. said, “No, I’m a Belding’s ground squirrel.”
Stephanie said, “Let’s color now.” A.J. drew with a purple marker on yellow paper. He drew a poison dart frog, which was not purple but sometimes blue, because he could not think of any animals that were purple.
Stephanie said, “A.J., you can play here all the time. You can live in my room and sleep under my bed and when I come home from school we can feed Finley and play Mancala together.”
A.J. said that he would like that, because he liked feeding Finley and playing Mancala and living in the same house as Drake, and because under the bed was quiet, and he could make the bed springs vibrate by pulling on them, and if he lived in Stephanie’s room, he would not have to listen to Eddie screaming at night or go to Group Circle.
Drake and A.J. used to pick Stephanie up from ballet class, and they could watch through the glass window at the end. Stephanie was the one in the white tutu. Before ballet, they would go to the park. One time, A.J. showed Stephanie a cicada molting on a tree in the park.
A.J. said, “It’s a female. She has short antennae. Watch her, she’s almost out.”
“I’m watching her!”
She was a green cicada emerging from her stiff, brown exoskeleton. Stephanie jumped up and down and shook her arms, which is what Stephanie did when she felt excited. Stephanie swung from hand to hand across all the monkey bars, then she waved to Drake who was sitting on the bench, then she ran back to A.J. and the cicada. She leaned down and put her face close to the cicada.
Stephanie said, “She has pretty eyes.”
A.J. said, “I know. They are simple eyes, not compound eyes.”
“Her name is Nala. Like from The Lion King.”
Nala stretched her wings, which were still wet from molting. The sun hit them, and they shone.
“Fly, Nala!” said Stephanie.
“Her wings are drying,” A.J. said. “We have to wait.”
Drake came over from the bench. Drake said, “Sorry to break up the party, but ballet class is at four, so we better head out.”
“What about Nala?” said Steph.
“Nala will be here another day.”
“No she won’t, Drake,” A.J. said. “She has to find food and mates.”
“I don’t want to hear it, A.J.,” Drake said.
“She could be dead, Drake,” A.J. said. “Insects have shorter life spans than people. They have natural predators.”
Steph said, “I don’t want Nala to die!”
Drake said, “A.J., get in the car.”
At the hospital, there were lots of people coming in and out and sitting in orange plastic chairs. It smelled like mouthwash and like Elm Grove. There was a brown man with a large beard and rings on all of his fingers. There was a loud woman talking to a boy with a popcorn kernel stuck in one of his ears. There was an old woman sleeping with her head on her purse. The television was playing the news, and A.J. saw the bus stop where he and Drake had been. The woman said, “Just a few hours ago, disaster struck when a drunk driver collided with a school bus delivering young students from Norwood Elementary. Nine students were injured, three of whom remain in critical condition. The offending motorist was driving at incredibly high speeds—upwards of ninety miles per hour through neighborhood roads, witnesses report.”
Drake had gone to pick up Lisa. A.J. counted all the times the receptionist’s phone rang, and it rang thirty-three times. Drake had left at 3:53pm. He came back at 4:46pm. Lisa walked in first and pushed through to the front desk. One of her shoes was black while the other was brown, and she was not wearing a jacket. She said to the receptionist at the desk, “I need to see my daughter. Stephanie Applebaum. Please tell me where my daughter is.”
The receptionist said he would call the doctor down to talk to her and show her where Stephanie was and to have a seat. Lisa and Drake sat down in two of the orange plastic chairs next to A.J.’s. Drake put his hand on Lisa’s back and moved it up and down. Lisa cried. The phone rang another two times, and that made thirty-five.
A.J.’s legs hurt from sitting at the hospital. There was a man sitting next to him who smelled like dead centipedes. The boy with the kernel in his ear started to moan, and his mother screamed at him, and A.J. covered his ears with his hands.
A.J. said, “Drake, if Stephanie dies, who will take care of Finley?”
Lisa cried harder when A.J. said this.
“What’s the matter with you?” said Drake.
“He can’t feed himself,” A.J. said. “If Stephanie dies, then Finley will die.”
“Would you shut the fuck up about the fish?” Drake shouted. Drake had not shouted at A.J. in a long time.
Lisa said, “Don’t yell. Please.”
“Mrs. Applebaum?” said a lady doctor. Lisa and Drake both stood up and walked to where the doctor was. She said, “Stephanie is out of surgery, and I can take you in to see her. She lost a lot of blood, but we gave her a transfusion and she’s stable now. We did everything we could to save the arm, but the tissue damage was severe. We had to amputate.” Lisa made a small squeaking sound and Drake hugged her. The doctor said, “I can let you in to see Stephanie now. The general anesthesia will wear off in an hour or so, and you should be able to talk to her then. Follow me, please.”
Drake turned around and said, “Wait here, A.J.” The swinging door closed behind them.
Drake and Arielle were in the backseat and A.J. was in the front seat. There were rustling sounds, like the sounds that a vole made when it was digging a burrow, and also wet sounds, like a cow chewing her cud. The car felt hot and it smelled like underarms and cigarette smoke. There was a red plastic lighter on the floor, and A.J. liked the way it was shaped like a rectangular prism, and he put it in his pocket, and he liked the way there was a rectangular prism in his pocket. A.J. did not turn around because Drake had said not to turn around. In the mirror, there was white skin, and then he didn’t look at the mirror. A.J. rubbed his hands up and down against his pants, which was something that made A.J. feel calmer. A.J.’s pants were the same color as a cave cricket, and A.J. thought about all the kinds of cricket that he knew: house crickets and Mormon crickets and Jerusalem crickets and camel crickets.
Arielle giggled in the back seat. Then Arielle said, “Drake, we can’t! Your brother…”
Drake said, “Oh, he doesn’t know anything.”
Arielle said, “What if he tells your mom?”
Drake said, “He’s not gonna tell. He doesn’t even know what we’re doing.”
Arielle said, “I just don’t feel comfortable.”
Drake sighed. A zipper zipped. A.J. heard more rustling. Then Drake opened A.J.’s door. Drake said, “A.J., let’s go somewhere fun.”
A.J. said, “Where?”
Drake said, “You’ll see when we get there.” Arielle stayed in the car. Drake and A.J. walked through the dry grass. The grass swished against A.J.’s pants, making whispery sounds. A.J. liked being outside of the car with Drake. It was hot outside, and there were arrow-shaped trees at the end of the grass, and they walked to them.
“Almost there,” said Drake. They walked through the trees. The branches were coated with woolly aphids, which were an invasive species that secreted a fuzzy white substance which was why they were called woolly. It was shady in the trees, but there was still sun shining through the leaves that made patterns like eel scales on the forest floor. Cicadas that were hidden in the leaves chirped in waves and it smelled like tree sap.
Then they came to a house that was old and made of wood. The door was open and there was wood in the windows.
Drake said, “Isn’t this great? It’s a secret clubhouse. Let’s go in and check it out.”
The inside smelled like black trumpet mushrooms. There was a table and a chair with a soft layer of dust on it like field mouse fur. The air felt thick.
Drake said, “A.J., I need you to stay here and guard our club house. Can you do that for me, A.J.? Can you wait here and guard our club house until I come back?”
A.J. said, “It is not a club house.”
“Yes, it is, A.J.,” said Drake. “You can do lots of fun things in here.”
A.J. rubbed his hand on the wall, and it felt rough like snake skin when it’s stroked the wrong way. A.J.’s hands had small wood fragments on them without being splinters, and he wiped them on his pants.
Drake said, “Wait here, A.J. I’m going to go out and close this door so no one else can get into our clubhouse until I come back, okay?” Drake went outside and swung the door closed, and it banged. A.J. heard a clicking on the door that sounded like the sound of Drake’s bicycle lock when he attached it to the sign that said “No Parking” outside of the Stop and Shop. “Thanks, man,” Drake said through the door. “I owe you one.” And then Drake’s footsteps in the brush got quieter and quieter.
A.J. stood in the house. Outside it was bright and inside it was dark but in a minute he could see things. Some creatures like owls have special night vision so they can always see things, even in pitch black. A.J. went to where the windows would be if they were not filled with wood, and there were thin cracks, one on top of the other, where the light was coming through. A.J. looked at one of the cracks and an ant walked there. It was a carpenter ant, and it was rust-colored, and it had wings. Walking behind it was another carpenter ant, and another one behind it, and one behind that one. They were following a chemical trail to the nest, and A.J. followed after them. He could not see the ants when they were not on the window slats because it was dark. And then he remembered the red lighter that was a rectangular prism in his pocket, and he flicked it the way he had seen Drake do, to make light. Carpenter ants nest in wood and they have workers with wings that fly and find food to support the queen who stays in the nest and propagates the entire colony by laying eggs. The carpenter ants were going up the stairs to a hole in the corner of the house on the second floor. Some were walking into the hole and some were walking out of it, and A.J. thought that the nest must be in there. The ants had to step around particles of dust on the floor. Now A.J. could see them with his eyes in the dark. He followed them back down the stairs to see where they were collecting nesting material. They went into a hole where the wood was damp and soft. They communicated with one another by touching antennae. Ant colonies have chemical signatures so they can recognize one another by scent. Sometimes A.J. could recognize people by scent. For instance, Mama smelled like garlic and detergent from the restaurant. Drake smelled like mint aftershave and like cigarette smoke and like sweat. Before Father went away, he smelled like cinnamon air freshener and like Coors. A.J. thought about what it would be like if people were ants. They could walk around touching antennae instead of talking, and then they would know exactly what others thought without having to say anything. A.J. began to feel sleepy, and he closed his eyes.
A.J. woke up with smoke in his nose. The house had smoke all over it, and it smelled bad, and A.J. coughed. The carpenter ants had gone away. A.J. heard a creaking and a sizzling sound above him, and snapping, like wood breaking apart, and he remembered that the red lighter was upstairs. He thought the wood might break on top of him and then he would be crushed.
A.J. tried to walk out of the house, but the smoke was very thick and he could not see the doorway. He moved along the wall going sideways, like a crab. He felt the same way as when he stood too close to the furnace and it stung him before he had even touched it. There was smoke in his nose. The room began to rotate around him in circles, and he fell. He found the door and pushed hard against it but it rattled and did not open, because it was locked shut with Drake’s metal bicycle lock. It was not as smoky on the floor as it was standing up. A.J. crawled back to where the carpenter ants had found nesting material and where the wood was damp and soft. He leaned his head against it and it pushed outward some. He leaned harder on the wood with his hand, and the wood broke so that A.J.’s arm went through. Then he pushed his whole shoulders through the wood, and he squirmed out like a larvae through a hole in an old log. A.J.’s shirt ripped on the sides where the rough wood poked it, and it stung there. He crawled outside and away through the grass. He thought about Drake and about guarding the club house, and he hoped that Drake would not yell.
A.J. walked through the trees where he and Drake had come earlier, but the air smelled like fermented things and like things that were dying underground. The sun was disappearing, and it made shadows on the ground that looked like sharp fangs with venom in them. He walked toward where the grass had been, but the grass was not there. There were only more trees and brambles that hooked into A.J.’s shirt and that stuck him and made small pink markings on his skin. The ground sucked A.J.’s feet into it, and it was hard to move them when he walked. He sat down on the leaves. The leaves were wet and they made his pants feel cold. He put his head on his knees and said, “Field cricket, house cricket, sand treader cricket.”
After A.J. had named all of the cricket species he knew of, and all of the ant species, and two thirds of the spider species, he heard panting and whining and sticks cracking. He kept his head on his knees. He said, “Wolf spider. Garden spider. Brown recluse spider.”
“Ardsley!” said a woman’s voice. “Ardsley, Come! Come here!”
Something on A.J.’s ear was wet. A dog’s nose was on his ear. It was a big dog with burrs in its white fur and it had saliva on its mouth. When a dog has saliva on its mouth, it is called “foaming at the mouth,” and sometimes that means that the dog has rabies and that one should not touch it. So A.J. put his hands on his ears and he did not touch it.
“Ardsley!” said the woman. “Ardsley—Oh God!” A.J. could hear her breath huffing. “Hey! Hey kid! Are you okay?” Leaves crunched next to A.J. under the woman’s feet. “Hello?” She put her fat hand on his shoulder, and he yelled.
“Oh sorry! I didn’t mean to scare you. How’d you get so torn up like that?”
“Lynx spider. Flower spider. Black-and-yellow argiope spider,” A.J. said.
“Jesus,” the woman said. “Travis, there’s a kid out here! Would you come out and give me a hand?”
The man took A.J. home in his truck. A.J. said that he lived at 126 Northview Drive, because Mama had made him memorize their address when he was small. Mama cried when A.J. came into the house. She did not hug him, because she knew that he didn’t like hugging, but she squeezed his shoulders hard. The black paint that she put on her eyelashes was in vertical lines on her face like trails of snail mucus. She wiped A.J.’s face with a soft cloth and she took off his wet pants and his scratched shirt and put him in his green pajamas that had frogs on them. Drake sat on the sofa watching television. He did not say anything or look at A.J. A.J. could not tell if Drake was angry about the clubhouse. A.J. went to his room upstairs. Downstairs, Mama and Drake were yelling. A.J. curled his toes in his green carpet, and he looked at his book of fungi and liverworts. The carpet felt soft and good. A.J. heard: What the hell were you thinking leaving him alone? He could’ve died today, Drake! Do you understand that? —Shut up! —Do you know how hard I work for this family? —Shut up! —All I ask you to do is look after him. That’s all I ask you to do. —Shut up! Shut up!
A.J. took a pen and drew lines between the scratches that the brambles had made on his arms, like constellations. Before the ink dried, he was asleep. In the morning, there were pen marks on A.J.’s green pajamas that had frogs on them and Drake was gone, and his bass guitar and his Polaroid camera and his shirt with Kate Richards’ lipstick on it were not in his room anymore. The next time A.J. saw Drake was twelve years later, at Elm Grove.
It was Wednesday, so A.J. was waiting for Drake to come and get him at Elm Grove. He was waiting for Drake to come in his blue car so they could go to the creek or the park or the Taco Bell. He usually came at 2:15 p.m., but now it was 3:57 p.m. A.J. was watching television with Reilly and Frank in the sitting room. The woman on television was making a roast. She said that a dash of paprika could go a long way.
Denise walked down the hallway. Denise was a staff member and a wide woman and walked the way a penguin did. She wore white tennis shoes and smelled like spaghetti sauce. Denise was holding the cordless phone. “For you, A.J.,” she said. “It’s Drake.”
A.J. took the phone and put it next to his ear. Drake said to A.J. that he couldn’t pick A.J. up that day. He said that he had to take Stephanie to physical therapy. He said that he was sorry he had forgotten to call earlier and that that was his mistake, but things were crazy right now. He said that he would catch A.J. up about it later. Then he said goodbye and hung up.
The next Wednesday, A.J. went out with Drake. Drake had a white bandage taped on his head where the red scratch had been. Drake had lines on his face that were shaped like lizard feet. The bottom of Drake’s car was filled with empty cups that said Dunkin Donuts on them in orange and pink letters. The car smelled like cigarettes. Sometimes Drake played Bob Marley in the car but that day it was quiet.
When they got to the park, it was cold. A.J. exhaled, and the air came out in a cloud of condensation, as if he were smoking, even though he was not smoking. Drake was smoking.
A.J. said, “Drake, you said to Lisa that you stopped smoking.”
Drake said, “Lisa isn’t here right now.”
A.J. said, “You said that to her, Drake.”
Drake yelled, “Can you get off my case about it?”
A.J. went to where the pond was. He picked up a stick, and he swirled it in the brown water. A.J. said, “Drake, do you remember when we used to catch wood frogs in the creek?”
Drake said, “Yes.”
A.J. said, “I liked it when we used to catch wood frogs in the creek.”
Drake said, “Me too, A.J.”
A.J. poked for frogs with the stick but it was already too cold for frogs. They were hibernating underground. When frogs are hibernating, as much as half of the fluid in their bodies can be frozen. The leaves had fallen off of the tree branches and they were brown.
A.J. said, “Drake, when can I see Stephanie?”
Drake said, “I don’t know.”
A.J. said, “May I see Stephanie next Wednesday?”
Drake said, “I don’t know.”
A.J. said, “May I see Stephanie today?”
Drake said, “I don’t think it’s a good idea, A.J.”
The pond water smelled like chemicals. Sometimes people threw their garbage in the pond and contaminated it. It had yellow foam on it with weeds and wet paper and dead insects, and it looked like vomit.
Drake’s phone rang, and he answered it. Drake put his finger in his ear and turned around and talked into the phone. Drake said, “A.J., it’s the doctor. I have to take this. I’m going over by that bench.” And he walked away.
A.J. picked the stick up over his head and threw it as far as he could in the water. The Canada geese that were there flew away honking. A.J. walked around to the other side of the pond where the trees were. He walked to an open space in the trees, where there was a small hill. He sat on top of the hill, and he watched the birds flying south. He saw a goldfinch and a blue jay and a barn swallow. Later, he saw a bat flying, and he knew it was a bat, and not a bird, because its wings flapped continuously instead of flapping and gliding. The air smelled like a plum pit, and the sky looked dark orange. A.J. felt cold. He shivered, but he liked being on the wet grass. He closed his eyes.
In the morning, Drake found A.J. in the grass.
“A.J.!” said Drake. “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” A.J. said.
Drake yelled, “What the hell are you doing?”
A.J. said, “I’m sleeping in the grass.”
“Christ,” said Drake. His skin looked white. He took out a cigarette and his fingers were shaking. “You can’t pull this shit on me anymore,” Drake said. “You know what things are like with Steph right now. Would it kill you to cut me some slack?”
A.J. said that it would not kill him. A.J. said that if you wanted to kill someone, you needed a gun or a knife or a crossbow or a bicycle lock or a meteor shower.
“Fuck you, A.J.,” said Drake.
They walked back to the car. Drake was smoking in the car and the smoke went into A.J.’s nose, and his throat felt hot. A.J. said, “Are we going to Lisa’s house?”
Drake said, “They’re waiting over at Elm Grove.”
At Elm Grove, there are many sounds. The big clock in the hallway ticks twice when the minute hand moves. The staff members laugh like cape crows. Myra mumbles about how Evelyn and Denise are going to poison her. Lester coughs on people. Eddie screams at night.
A.J. reads North American Birds and he draws from his window. At dusk, the ray spider comes out of her web to prepare her prey items. She wraps them in silk from her spinnerets. A.J. watches Finley swim in his bowl on the windowsill, and he feeds Finley three sprinkles from his food cylinder in the morning and three sprinkles at night. Finley could not go in the car to Ohio with Drake and Lisa and Stephanie, because he could not live with his tank unplugged for eight and a half hours. Drake said that they had to move to Ohio because that was where Lisa’s parents lived, and they could help to take care of Stephanie. A.J. asked why they needed help taking care of Stephanie, and Drake said that it was difficult sometimes to take care of someone with special needs. Drake looked at his hands when he said that. Drake said that Stephanie wanted Finley to live with A.J., because A.J. could keep Finley company.
A.J. keeps Finley company. He tells Finley about how today is chicken patty day, and about how Rita threw a chair in Group Circle. Fish cannot understand human speech, and their inner ear structures are not well developed, but sometimes Finley looks at A.J. as if he were listening.
A.J. is not allowed on the Outdoor Grounds unattended, but he is allowed to open his window whenever he wants. Sometimes, A.J. opens his window at night, and it is raining outside, and the air smells like creek silt, and the window ledge feels like the slippery back of a wood frog. And he wonders if there are wood frogs in Ohio.