Oil in Water
Robbie’s breath snaked out in white tendrils as he raked the earth’s palette of bronzes, golds, reds and browns. Tiny veins shot through the herbaceous musculoskeletal structure, now transparent with the dying of them. Leaves. There were a million of them. He raked giant piles together, stopping on occasion to glance at the ones that glowed. He would shuttle the piles back to the woods later with the tractor. For now, he maintained a steady rhythm, grunting on occasion, but with a single-mindedness that showed him to be lost in deep thought.
The previous night’s fog had lifted, replaced by rows of cumulo-stratus clouds broken intermittently by the brazen morning sun. Where dawn broke through the empty spaces, patches of orange and gold hurtled across the landscape and scattered the ground with a brilliant luminosity. Robbie stopped to watch the effervescent and mutable light show, evolving before his eyes. He inhaled its beauty with a peace that comes only in the small moments before returning to the task before him.
Avery stepped out on the back deck wrapped in a blanket and wearing bedroom slippers.
“What are you doing, fool?” he whispered. “It’s 6:30 in the morning?”
Robbie smiled and nodded, but didn’t answer, so Avery went back inside. Ten minutes later he returned, rake in hand and dressed for the day.
“Is this what basic training has done to you?” He thrust a coffee cup into Robbie’s hand. Robbie gulped it down in four swallows.
“Damn, didn’t that hurt?” Avery asked, stunned.
“I was doing my Gil impersonation,” Robbie responded. He flashed a set of picture perfect teeth. At 5’11”, Robbie would never achieve Avery’s height, but an additional fifty pounds and the build of a linebacker left Avery with no advantage. Where Avery’s lithe, wistful frame reminded one of a willow tree, Robbie’s solid, massive build was more akin to an oak.
“You couldn’t have gotten more than a few hours sleep. Go crawl back in.” Robbie rolled his coffee mug across the freshly raked ground. It halted at the nearest leaf pile.
Avery shook his head. “I’m up now. I’ll hang.” Avery took a sip, set his steaming cup down and threw himself into the task. They worked in silence for several minutes before Avery spoke, his eyebrows furrowed in thought.
“Tell me about Mom and Dad.”
A shadow crossed Robbie’s face, passing like a cloud over the moon.
“What do you want to know?” he didn’t look at his brother.
“Did you talk to them before…” Avery’s voice trailed off and ended in silence. “Well, I know that, I mean, you said…but, did you…?” He coughed to clear his throat. Robbie searched Avery’s face before laying down his rake.
“Go get me another cup of coffee and I’ll tell you,” Robbie said. Avery turned and walked inside, retrieving Robbie’s mug along the way.
Avery returned with two mugs and Robbie joined him on the step. They sipped in silence, allowing the last streaks of oranges, purples and blues to bombard their retinas before Robbie spoke.
“It was pretty bad.”
“I can handle it.”
“I know you can handle it,” Robbie said. “I just don’t know if I want to plant that visual in your overactive imagination.”
“It runs in the family.”
“If I have nightmares, I promise I won’t call you.” Avery said.
“You can always call me.”
“Really?” Avery said.
“Well…” Avery cleared his throat. “what’s it like to sleep with a girl?”
“Oh.” Robbie ran his hands through his hair. The rhythmic who-who, who, who of a Great Horned Owl broke the tension. “You know how all the body parts work?”
“I’m sixteen. Give me some credit,” Avery said, toeing the step with his sneaker. “I was looking for something more…subtle. You know. Maybe something I could use….” He ended his sentence with a little fake cough, covering his mouth.
“Truth be told, if you weren’t a novice, I might have a thing or two to say about it. You’re still pretty young.”
“Well? Can you give me something useful anyway? For later.”
The corner of Robbie’s mouth twisted up in a grin. “At first it’s a lot like hunting, all adrenaline pumping and going in for the kill. And you’ll feel half-dead afterward, like somebody gutted you, but you’re light as a feather because of it. After, you’ve done it a few times and gotten the hang of it – I say that because you never really get used to it enough to take for granted, at least not if you’re doing it right – then it becomes more like fishing. You’ve got plenty of time. You may as well relax and enjoy the boat ride.”
Avery waited, but Robbie said nothing more. “That’s it?” he asked incredulously. “That’s your brotherly advice?”
“What do you want from me? I can only deal with one eye-popping topic at a time. You choose.”
Avery hesitated. “Mom and Dad then,” he said, obviously torn. “But promise you’ll tell me about the other one before you go back.”
“Alright,” Robbie replied. The smile faded from his eyes.
“After I left, I headed to Philadelphia. I knew they’d take the I-95 home. I was looking for accidents. It was a busy night for the cops. Three accidents that night.” Robbie shuddered and wrapped his hands around his coffee cup for warmth. “I stopped at every one. I had to cross I-95 on foot – don’t try that at night – and hop the median to get a look since the emergency vehicles were the only thing you could see from the other side.” Robbie grimaced and shook his head. “I won’t tell you what the first two looked like. You wouldn’t sleep for a week. I held my breath every time, praying it wasn’t Mom and Dad, and every time I said a little prayer of thanks. I was feeling lucky.” At that, Robbie’s eyes watered and he squished his eyelids against them.
“And then, that third time, my luck was done cause there they were. It was so dark. It seemed like the whole world had gone grey. Maybe the street light was out, I don’t know. Everything had this muted quality.” Robbie’s face was a mask of calm, betraying none of the raging vortex of emotions hovering just below the surface.
“Were they conscious? Did they know you were there?” Avery asked.
Robbie shook his head. “I don’t know. The paramedics had already strapped them onto gurneys. I saw them load Mom into the ambulance. Her eyes were closed and her mouth was open. I called her, first Mom, and then by her full name. She mumbled something, but I was too far away to hear. I think I startled the hell out of the paramedics, coming from the middle of the road and all. I told the guy they were my parents, but he just kept at it. Told me to drive to the hospital.” Robbie shrugged. “Bastard..” He took a deep, jagged breath.
“What about Dad? Did you see him?”
Robbie’s throat constricted, but he squeezed the words out. “He was already in the ambulance with a sheet pulled over his head.” Robbie held his coffee cup in a death grip, his knuckles white with the strain. “I talked to the sole cop at the scene.”
The boys sat shoulder to shoulder, so intent on their conversation that neither heard the door open behind them.
“He hadn’t seen the accident,” Robbie continued, “but surmised based on the positioning, that they were forced off the road by a second car.”
“What second car?” Both Robbie and Avery jumped at Gil’s query.
“When the heck did you get here?” Robbie asked, agitated.
“Just when you said ‘forced off the road by the second car,’” Gil said.
“Yeah, well, go back inside. Avery and I are talking.”
“I want to know what happened, too,” Gil pleaded. Robbie and Avery exchanged glances. “I’m not a baby.” Avery shrugged and Robbie relented.
“Alright, come sit down.” Gil sat down next to Robbie with Max at his feet, the three brothers seated shoulder to shoulder.
“There was a man passed out in the front seat. The air bag had exploded and the car reeked of alcohol, like a bottle spilled. I have a different theory now.” Robbie cast a strange look in Avery’s direction, but Avery didn’t follow.
“I stuck my head in the back seat and the freaking,…” Robbie looked at Gil and blushed, “the smell of alcohol permeated the whole interior of the car. Like a frat house at 2 a.m.”
“The cop came over and I asked him why the guy was still lying in the car. He said the paramedics checked him over and there was nothing wrong with him other than being drunk. They were short of ambulances so the guy was still waiting for a ride. Judging from the cop’s reaction, I think he was happy to leave him there to rot.”
“Did he ever wake up? Gil asked. He stared wide-eyed at Robbie as he continued with the story. Max thumped his tail twice on the wooden step when Gil spoke.
“Actually, he did.”
“Did you talk to him?” Avery asked. Robbie stared off into the distance, the scene replaying before his eyes. He shook his head trying to dispel the memory.
“There was just a minute where the cop was in his squad car, talking on the radio, and it was just me and this guy. He reached out his hand for me so I took it. He smelled awful. Like he took a bath in a bottle of Mad Dog. I almost puked.”
“Was he hurt? Did you to get him out?” Gil asked. Robbie drank the rest of his coffee and set the mug down at his feet.
“He didn’t ask for help. He just looked at me and said he didn’t want to do it.”
“Didn’t want to do it or didn’t mean to do it?” Avery asked.
“I’m not sure,” Robbie replied. Several pots with hardy mums adorned the sides of the steps. Robbie plucked the head off one, sniffed it and tossed the scentless flower to the ground. “And the weirdest thing is, I could swear the guy was faking it. I mean, he talked like a drunk, but his eyes were lucid. I had the strangest feeling like….”
“Like what?” Gil asked.
“Like he had drunk the alcohol after the accident. Drunk people stink from inside not outside. It smelled like he poured it on himself instead of down his throat,” Robbie said. Gil’s eyebrows shot up as he pondered this new information. Avery responded more cynically.
“That doesn’t sound right. The guy’s in prison for the next three to five years for involuntary manslaughter,” Avery said. “Why would he do it on purpose?”
Robbie shrugged. “I can only call it like I saw it.”
“But why would anyone want to hurt Mom and Dad?” Avery asked. “They didn’t have any enemies.”
“Well maybe they didn’t, but what if someone they worked for did?”
“The Governor?” Avery asked. “You’re not serious.”
“I don’t know. None of it makes any sense.” Robbie rubbed his temples and said, “Who’d want to hurt Mom and Dad?”
“Well, Dad didn’t have any enemies. He was too nice a guy. All his students loved him,” Avery said. He polished off the rest of his own coffee, a tawny mixture of three quarters milk and one quarter coffee, and set the mug in the crook of his arm. Gil tapped his foot nervously in syncopated rhythm.
“What about all the stuff Mom was doing, trying to get the landfill shut down. Maybe someone didn’t want her meddling,” Robbie said.
Gil tapped his foot more loudly, bopping his head to his own internal rhythm, his whole body following a trajectory back and forth. “Can we eat breakfast now. I’m starving.” Gil jumped up and ran into the kitchen without waiting for a response. Avery shrugged, following.
“I’ll be there in a minute,” Robbie said. He sat, staring at the landfill in the distance.
“Since you’re leaving soon and we don’t know when you’ll be back, I was thinking…”
“I was thinking that we should have a big back yard party. Bonfire, food, fireworks, the whole enchilada.”
“Sounds like a plan, brother,” he said. He rose wearily and followed Gil inside.
The sun was low in the late October sky and Robbie judged by the dwindling light that it was soon dinner time. He turned on his flashlight and circled the perimeter of the barn, checking the foundation, the walls, the roof line, looking for any breaches in the exterior. He completed his circle and banged on the barn door.
“All tight. Not even a mouse could get in here.”
“What’s that?” Jack emerged from the barn, wiping his hands on rag.
“How’d it go?” Robbie asked. Gil followed Jack out of the barn, pounding his fist in his open palm over and over again.
“All finished,” Jack said. “He’s safer out here than in the house.” Gil walked over, still punching, and stood beside Robbie who grabbed both Gil’s hand in his one, silencing them.
“We should have done this before,” Robbie said. “Now I’ll sleep better.” Gil smiled and removed his hands from Robbie’s grasp.
“Let’s show him how it works,” Jack said. He went inside, Robbie and Gil following.
“There’s a couple different ways it can go. But the most important is, when the alarm goes off, it sends a signal directly to the police station. So if you’re in here and you’re armed, be sure you know where the call buttons are. You don’t want to be sending signals to the police all the time and have them show up looking for bad guys who aren’t here.” Jack cocked an eyebrow at Gil who wiggled his shoulders, his excitement growing.
“The call buttons are here, here, and…here,” Jack said indicating the places. Gil sat down on the swivel stool at his drafting table and spun around once.
“As soon as you’re in, you turn the key for the deadbolt,” Jack closed the barn door and turned the key, “and that will automatically activate the alarm. You can override it by pressing this button here,” Jack said, indicating a yellow button on the alarm panel. “That red light up there,” he continued, pointing to a spot above the door, “will let you know if the alarm is working. If the light’s on, you’re armed.”
Gil squirmed in his seat, beaming. “Gilliam William Tirabi!” Robbie said. “I cannot stress enough the significance of this item. It is not, I repeat, not, a toy. And this is not a movie.” He looked at Gil for emphasis. “If you trip the alarm too many times – either by accident or on purpose,” Robbie raised his eyebrows and stared intently at his brother, “the cops won’t come when you do need them. Do you understand?”
A wide smile revealed most of Gil’s teeth. He spun around again and nodded. “Yes.”
“Good.” Robbie looked at Jack for him to continue.
“If you want to bring the whole system down, you hit this button.” Jack indicated another switch, this one in blue. “And finally, if you’re under attack, I mean full on, no holds barred, take no prisoners, all out assault, you hit this button.” Jack pointed to a red triangular button that sat alone on the alarm panel.” This one is hard-wired to call not only the local cops, but the state police. And it wails. An eardrum bleeding screech of an alarm system that will wake Kori, Avery, and every neighbor within a three-block radius. But your ears are super sensitive, so I’m tellin’ you, man, don’t use this one unless you really, really need it.”
“Okay, okay, I get it.” Gil said, unable to suppress a smile.
“Alright,” Robbie said. “Our work here is done.”
“Oh, one more thing,” Jack said, picking up a pack of earplugs off the shelf. “If you do activate the alarm of death….” he smirked and grabbed Gil’s arm. “Make sure you use these. I don’t want you having an episode because of my alarm system.”
Gil opened his hand and Jack placed a pair of earplugs in it. Gil rubbed them between his fingers, scrunched them down to nothing and stuck them in his ears where they expanded.
“Okay, gentlemen,” Robbie said. Jack deactivated the alarm and Robbie locked the barn up for the night, handing Gil the key.
“I’m giving Avery a spare key. He’ll know how the alarm works,” Robbie said to Gil.
Gil smiled. The bright green neon earplugs sticking out of his ears made him look like Dumbo.
to be continued. . .
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