Driving home from work, Mandy enjoyed the blue sky and cool air flowing into her car. It was welcome. Her office building was too warm and stuffy being the late fall. Also, the prolonged bouts of clouds and rain the past couple of weeks made her yearn for the sun. Turning the final corner to her house, she found her youngest son playing by the street drain once again. He was laying on his back on the curb, looking up toward the sky, and talking.
At first, anger sparked within her, then it drained into a pit of weariness. She told Wade numerous times that a nine year old boy had no business playing around a filthy storm drain. Yet, here he was doing it again. She sighed as she slowed down to a stop and rolled down her driver side window.
“What are you doing?” Mandy asked.
The boy sat up and placed his feet on the street. His play shoes were dirty with mud and grass stains. His bright, blue eyes, wide with anxiety, looked at his mother. Mandy knew that look, one of being caught red handed.
“Nothing. Just playing,” Wade answered. Wade fidgeted with his shoe laces as he rested forward against his legs. He did his best not to make eye contact with her.
“Wade, look at me,” Mandy said.
Doing what he was told, reluctantly, Wade slowly raised his eyes to meet his mother’s. He glanced away, struggling, but he returned his attention to her obediently.
“Haven’t I told you not to play near the drains?” she asked.
“Yes, Mama. I forgot,” Wade replied.
“Well, to help you remember, you will wash the dishes after dinner, and no video games for an hour after that. Do you understand?” Mandy tried her best not to raise her voice, but she wore her stern mask to get her point across. She could see Wade deflate under the discipline.
“Be inside in twenty minutes to get washed up to eat.”
Wade nodded as she pulled away, turning into her drive way. Adjusting her right, side mirror she could see him. The boy stood up, kicked at some pebbles, and appeared to be talking. Then he slowly walked away from the drain on the side walk. Sighing heavily she used her garage door opener and gathered her lunch box, laptop bag, and sweater as she got out of her vehicle. Lugging her junk inside she dropped everything on her bed. Then she went to find her oldest son.
The kids’ bedrooms were on the other side of the house from her own, and she crossed through the living room on her search. She grumbled under her breath noticing the television was on and no one was watching it.
“Paul?” She called out for her son as she approached his bedroom door. She preferred to give the sixteen year old advanced notice he was about to get a visit. A year prior, she learned her lesson when she opened his door without knocking. Stopping at his door, she gently tapped her knuckles against the light colored wood. “Paul? You in there?”
“Yes, Mom. Come in.”
Opening the door, Mandy found Paul looking at a text book and doing homework. She smiled slightly, pleased to see something productive instead of him on his computer, playing some stupid game and wasting his time. About to say something positive, she shook her head slightly choosing rather to put her hands on her hips.
“Why aren’t you watching your brother? Do you know he was out playing by that filthy drain again?” Mandy asked.
“He was supposed to be inside watching TV,” Paul answered.
“You know you can’t trust a nine year old to do the expected. You should at least keep this door open so you can hear what is going on. And check every once in a while!” Mandy said.
Paul cringed as his mom went from talking normal to her voice filling his room to capacity. Her volume steadily increased as she berated him on how he should be handling his brother. His annoyance broke through his ability to control.
“Don’t look at me like that!” Mandy ordered.
“What do you expect, Mom? You don’t have to yell at me,” Paul protested.
Mandy’s cheeks flushed as her anger rose within her. “I’m not yelling! And you better watch your tone, mister. Just think about what I am saying. If something happens to your brother-”
Mandy let the statement hang in the air as a heavy reminder of potential disaster. Paul stared at her a few moments before glancing down at his textbook. When he looked back up at her, his solemn expression gave him a look of maturity.
“I understand,” Paul said.
“Do you, really?” she asked.
“I do,” Paul replied.
Mandy leaned against the door frame feeling exhausted. She crossed her arms. The thought of cooking dinner repelled her, but no one else could do it. Her daughter was away at college and could not help. Being a single mom was difficult. “Why does Wade insist on playing around the drain? It is like he is drawn to it.”
“It is one of his imaginary friends,” Paul said.
“What does that have to do with it?” Mandy heard the front door open, so she paused her conversation and listened.
Wade called out to her. “Mom, I’m going to get a Twinkie before dinner! I need a snack!”
“Just one!” she shouted back.
“Okay!” Wade yelled.
Mandy heard Wade open the pantry door and rummage around inside. She could hear the plastic wrapper of the Twinkie crinkle as the boy grabbed one. Then she heard a second one taken, the plastic snipping-and-snapping, a give away. She sighed. “I said one!”
“Okay, Mom!” Wade shouted.
Mandy returned her gaze to Paul as she heard the front door open and close again. She was thinking the boy has about ten more minutes outside. Then her mind drifted to making hot dogs with macaroni and cheese for dinner. Remembering what Paul said she refocused. “Imaginary friend?”
“Yes, one of them lives in the drain. They talk a lot. And don’t worry, it isn’t a creepy clown. He said it’s a boy,” Paul explained.
Mandy perked up an eyebrow. “What does a clown have to do with anything?”
Paul appeared a little surprised as if she was supposed to know the reference. “Mom, you know. One of the best known clowns in all of horror?”
Mandy waved him off as she turned and headed to the kitchen. “I don’t care about horror movies.”
“It was a book first! It’s right there on my shelf!” Paul called after her.
She brushed aside the scary fantasies of an adolescent boy and went to the fridge. There was enough, real horrific things in the world to not add more from some wacko’s twisted imagination. For instance, the package of hot dogs in her hand. She looked at it carefully considering the meat and its source. She had recently switched to kosher hot dogs hoping it was a little better for her family.
As she pondered, the front door opened and Wade came back inside. She listened to his progress as he began to wash his hands in the bathroom. That made her feel better when her children obeyed properly.
Walking over to the sink to rinse the hot dogs, she looked out the window. She could just see the street drain off to her right. She paused pulling at the meat package when she noticed an unopened Twinkie sitting on the edge of the concrete over the dark hole.
Thinking it was odd for Wade to leave his Twinkie behind, she began to get annoyed again. Twinkies cost money, and it was her money that bought those delicious, cream filled yellow cakes. Money that she earned with her long hours of labor at the office.
Wade walked in with a pencil and a purple, paper folder. Sitting down at the kitchen nook table, he pulled out a math worksheet assigned for homework.
Mandy tried to keep her voice calm when she spoke to him, but her eyebrows came together slightly resulting in an angry expression.
“Why did you leave a perfectly good Twinkie outside by the drain? The drain I told you to stay away from!” Mandy said.
Wade looked up at her with wide eyes. His pencil poised to begin work on the first problem. Mandy knew he was an exceptionally bright boy, but this imaginary friend business was getting out of hand. Storm drains screamed danger for her. And wasting food she bought was infuriating.
Wade tapped his eraser on his paper and appeared to be carefully considering the question before he answered. “Mama, you know how you always say it is important to help people in need?”
“Yes,” Mandy spoke quietly with clenched teeth.
“My friend is hungry and asked if he could have a Twinkie. He went to do something when I came inside to get them. I thought he would be back by the time I had to leave for dinner. Since he wasn’t, I left it for him.”
Mandy took some deep breaths to avoid an outburst, but she could not help clenching her jaw. “Where does your friend live? In the house there by the drain?”
“No,” Wade answered.
“Then where?” Mandy asked.
Wade swallowed heavily. His eyes glanced around the room, and he appeared to have difficulty answering. He stammered a bit, not forming words.
“Where!?” Mandy slapped her hand on the counter insisting that he tell her.
Wade jumped a little then blurted out his answer. “He lives inside the drain!”
“What the-” Mandy yelled the two words, but managed to stop herself before she rattled off curse words and F-bombs. “What are you talking about, Wade? Children don’t live in storm drains!”
Paul must have overheard the louder than normal conversation. He drifted to the dining nook door and rested against the wall with his arms folded across his chest. He appeared amused as he listened.
“He does!” Wade insisted.
“I swear, Wade, why do you have to keep making up all these imaginary people?” Mandy asked.
Wade looked sad. The words hurt him. “I’m not making it up, Mom. He does live there.”
“Does he, Wade? Like the talking turd that lived in your ass?” Paul asked with a smirk.
“Shut up Paul! I was just pranking you about farts! You’re the knuckle dragger who listened!” Wade yelled.
“You both shut up!” Mandy wanted to yell and laugh at the same time. Maybe cry instead. The prospect of mamma’s special alone time in her bedroom drifted by distantly in her thoughts. Escaping and locking her door would be an option if she was not obligated to care for her children. “Wade, tell me the truth!”
Wade continued. “I am! Mom, I know the difference between what is real and pretend! I’m not like Paul at this age.”
“You’re asking for it, shrimp!” Paul threatened. He shook a fist at his younger brother to emphasize his point.
“Enough! I have had enough!” Mandy said, intervening. “Both of you go to your rooms. I will call you when dinner is ready.”
Mandy’s fury was about to boil, so she sent them away to keep from breaking the seal. Their anger was obvious too, and they all could use a time out. “Keep your hands to yourself! And Wade take your homework and start on it at your desk.”
Paul walked off with a loud huff.
Wade followed a number of seconds later, carrying his disheveled homework folder and pencil. He squeezed out a sentence under his breath as he left. “His name is Joshua.”
Mandy turned toward the window and ripped open the stupid package of hot dogs cursing quietly. The contents almost got away from her, which made her panic momentarily. Heart pounding, she held the hot dogs and packaging precariously over the sink breathing heavily.
Looking outside once more, her eyes went right back to the damn, wasted Twinkie sitting in the last beams of sunlight before they disappeared into twilight. Tears of frustration filled her eyes, brought out by an exhausting work day, a new repetitive squeak from her car that meant money spent, the torn blouse that needed sewing, a sink full of dirty dishes on her left, and ridiculous behavior from her boys.
Then, everything in her mind came to a shuddering, sudden stop. Like hearing the screech of tires on pavement, then the all familiar crash of crushed metal and breaking glass. Trauma and shock all coming together at once.
From the darkness of the drain, a small pale arm darted into view. A child’s hand grasping for the generously offered snack cake above. Finding the yellow treasure, the arm disappeared back inside. The hand held the plastic shrouded delight carefully. It was there one moment and gone the next.