‘Have you washed your handies properly?’ Mom’s voice was sweet like ice-cream, but sometimes, like ice-cream on a summer’s day, it made his head hurt. Of course he had washed his handies properly. He was six. He could make his own PBJ sandwiches, he could pack his schoolbag on his own, he could get his own jimmies on at night and go to sleep with only a nightlight on, so he could sure as anything go to the bathroom on his own and remember to wash his own handies. Did they think he was a baby or something?
‘And then you can come sit with me and we’ll watch some TV before it’s your bedtime.’ See? Sweet.
‘And don’t Chris’dam leave that light on. Those Christin’ bulbs cost money and you don’t wanna know about the state the planet’s in and we’re not even talkin’ my wallet.’ If Mom’s voice was ice-cream, Pete’ s was chilli pepper. Tommy’s eyes filled with tears every time he heard it, a bit because it reminded him that his Pops wasn’t around anymore and a bit because when Pete’s voice got funny from drinking like it was now, Tommy knew that a beating was never far behind.
‘I wanna hear that switch go click. I wanna see them stairs go dark.’ Pete’s voice grew a little louder and a little more eager with every sentence. It was like when Pete was waiting for the ballgame to come on TV and it was going to be his team, the Baltimore Orioles, against some “chumpwad losers” like the Tampa Bay Rays or someone, and his voice would get more and more excited as he talked about what the O’s would do to the “chumpwads” and the” shrimpdicks” and all those other names that Mom didn’t like to hear. And then, when things went wrong, Pete had more beer and his voice got hotter and thicker and Tommy knew that someone was going to suffer – either Tommy himself, or Mom. He’d heard the noises that went on when the O’s got beat and he knew that Pete was beating Mom around in some way that didn’t leave marks. Pete was good at not leaving marks. Even drunk, he was careful.
(and there’s no-one more spiteful than a careful drunk)
‘Shut up, Molimo,’ Tommy whispered.
‘Shut up, Molimo.’
(turn off the light)
‘Molimo,’ Tommy pleaded. Why did the light switch have to be at the far end of the landing, furthest away from the top of the stairs? And why did the switch have to be so high off the ground that he could only reach it on tippy-toes, so it took so much longer to get
from the switch to the top of the stairs
(past me, past Molimo)
in the dark?
(switch off the light and get past me)
‘Just be quiet, Molimo, please, please, please-tied-up-with-ribbons?’
Tommy scampered to the far end of the landing, past the closed mouths of the bedrooms, bathroom and closet to the light switch that was almost, but not quite, out-of-reach. He put his finger on the button, could almost hear Molimo panting furrily, like a fat boy waiting for the pizza box to open. He measured his voyage in steps and heartbeats; twenty steps, twenty heartbeats, from the switch to the top of the stairs, six steps down to the two pace half-landing, where the light from the hall fought on equal terms with the darkness from the landing (and where Molimo’s breath always felt hottest on his neck) and then ten more tumble-prone steps to the hall itself. Thirty-eight heartbeats that threatened to burst his chest to safety, and then two minutes to get himself back to normal so Pete wouldn’t start riding him again about his fear of the dark.
Tommy stretched and stretched until his finger hovered over the switch. He had to press quickly; once he had tried pressing slowly in the hope that the light would gradually dim, giving him a chance to make his escape in safety but no, the bulb had made a popping noise. ‘Damn retread’s gone and blown a brand-new bulb,’ Pete had complained, before wrapping a couple of oranges in a dishrag and lashing Tommy around the legs with it. Tommy could still feel the stinging blows, even now. Worst thing was, Pete made him eat the smooshy oranges afterwards. After that, Tommy always pushed the button fast as he could, you betcha.
One jab and the lights went out, soaking the landing in blackness.
(Comin’ to getcha!)
Tommy ran down towards the stairs, running the fingers of his right hand along the wall for safety, trusting that Molimo hadn’t cheated and painted himself into the darkness of the right. A clatter of feet on the stairs, a daring jump from the second step to the hall, a slide across the floorboards to safety of light spilling from the TV room door and the umpire was making the T-shape with his arms, calling “Safe” and Tommy glanced back up towards the top of the stairs, grinning. And the darkness slithered and slid like catsup on fried tomatoes and smiled back at him. One day, Tommy thought, one day I’m going to flick the switch down here and light you up like the Oriole Park, Molimo, I’ll catch you where you stand.
(That’ll be the day) came John-Wayning back at him from the top of the stairs, and although Tommy was too young to recognise the joke, he knew Molimo was funnin’ him.
Tommy didn’t know what Pete did for a living. When Miss Erenzen asked him in class one day he said ‘He keeps.’ Miss Erezen looked baffled, asked him to explain. ‘Dunno,’ Tommy shrugged his bony shoulders (aching beneath his T-shirt with four plum-flesh finger marks on the front and a thumbprint on the back for balance), ‘but Mom says “This one’s a keeper” so...’ and another shrug. Tommy knew Miss Erenzen was worried about him now Mom didn’t pick him up from school, but he told her it was OK, he was fine when the mornings and evenings were light, it was only a short way to school and only one road to cross, and when it was dark, well, Molimo looked after him, that’s Molimo, he lives upstairs, and he walks Tommy to school when it’s dark. Miss Erenzen said nothing, but got that look on her face made Tommy think of someone having to choose between eating their broccoli or their carrots first. Then a little girl ran up complaining that she had fallen and cut her knee, so Miss Erenzen turned away to deal with her and Tommy wandered away before she could think of any more questions to ask him. The reason why Mom didn’t pick Tommy up from school was that she was on vacation. Tommy had chatted to Molimo about it while he was in the bathroom. Molimo, Tommy reckoned, lived in the crawl spaces when the lights were on, so he could talk to Tommy though the walls while Tommy did his business, but not too long, else Pete would be calling upstairs ‘Do it or get off the pot, you Christ- smitten retreaded mongoloid, stop burning my lights up. And three wipes, I can hear that paper rollin’, so don’t go jammin’ up the plumbin’ with half a roll of that stuff.’
Tommy kept his voice real low as he spoke to Molimo. ‘She’s on vacation, she’s gone to Vegas to win us a whole heap of money. Pete says.’
(Sure kid, like she tripped and fell and bust her nose, Steerike One, and tipped over onto the cupboard handle and lost two teeth, Steerike Two, and had to wear them Raybans for a week cause the sun made her eyes hurt, Steerike Three and you are outa here!)
‘She will be back, Molimo, she’ll be back and everything will be fine.’ Tommy wiped three times, flushed, washed his handies, and didn’t even pause to play the darkness game on the landing with Molimo.
Tommy’s hours could seem awful long without Mom around the house, but the days all seemed the same and weeks passed without hardly even being noticed except for no Mom to tuck him in. All Tommy knew was that Mom was in Vegas, and Pete spent all day on the Barcalounger watching the Chris’damn mongoloid box, drinking brewskis and phoning for home delivery pizza. And looking and looking and looking at Tommy with eyes that grew more sweat-sunk, more red-wormed, and more hungry with every glance.
That final night Tommy went to bed early. He went to bed early most nights, making sure he used the bathroom before Pete’s temper floated away on a small river of malt liquor, and tonight was a night for being specially sure. He climbed into bed, turned off the little lamp on the bedside table and, in the feeble glow of the nightlight, tried, and eventually succeeded, in leaving the day behind.
The bang of the bathroom door woke him, and the noise of Pete groaning wetly as his stream hit the bowl, ‘like a big old hoss’ Pete used to boast, and Tommy had seen a stallion tinkying once, and didn’t want to think about a man who was, well, ‘like a big old hoss’ and then his door swung open and Pete was framed in the door, the landing light casting a long shadow across the room. Tommy heard the crack as Pete stamped one work-booted foot on the nightlight, kicking it clear of the outlet, then watched the band of light from the landing grow thinner and thinner as Pete pushed the door closed behind his back, and then there was the snick of the lock, and darkness, and Tommy could see nothing, just hear the open mouth breathing getting closer.
The first day Tommy didn’t arrive for school, Miss Erenzen just marked a cross against his name in the register. Parents (especially parents and whatevers like Tommy’s) could be a little lax, and she didn’t have the seniority to take them to task. On the second day she wondered if she should perhaps stop by on her way home and see if everything was OK, but then again, perhaps not quite yet. The third day, she resolved to speak to the principal about it tomorrow, but on the fourth day...
On the fourth day, the news went round the school (or at least among the teachers and parents) like cold sores at a kissing booth. A body had been found in a shallow grave up in the woods behind town. A woman’s body. Tommy’s Mom, the word said, Tommy’s Mom lying alongside a baseball bat that had left the words Louisville Slugger tattooed across her forehead.
The police had been round to Tommy’s house, but of Pete and Tommy there was no sign. A small amount of blood on the landing carpet could have belonged to anyone; the boy, his mother or her lover, but they had no sample to check against. A BOLO went out, be on the lookout for a man, this height, that appearance, with or without a six year old boy in tow. Nothing. No verified sightings, no trace, and a case so small it only made the local paper for a couple of weeks. And the only clue, the one the sheriff’s office kept out of the papers for fear of panicking the inhabitants of the town, was the presence on the woodwork surrounding the doors on the landing of deep grooves, looking for all the world like the claw marks of a great bear.
No-one would buy the house. Everyone knew that one, two, or maybe even three horrible murders had taken place there, so the house stayed empty and dark, shunned even by the most double-dare-ya taunted schoolboys.
And in the gloom of the house, from bathroom to landing, to stairs, to hall and back again, Tommy and Molimo play catch, and hide, and baseball run-outs, safe in the shadows, secure in the darkness. And Tommy says ‘One day, Molimo, one day I’ll catch you where you stand.’ (That’ll be the day,) growls Molimo. And grins his big bear grin.
© Mike Deller