He counted in his head to keep himself occupied, and about ten seconds later the bedroom light clicked off and the door shut. His body loosened, though it didn’t have anywhere to go.
He sat in a fetal position facing one wall of the closet, his right shoulder hard against the other wall. Behind him was a shelf full of hideous Christmas sweaters; to his left, a pile of boxes filled with his mother’s old romance novels. Coats and blazers hung overhead from a closet rod, concealing him almost perfectly.
With the closet dark again, he allowed his head to fall gently backward against the shelf, but snapped back upright when he felt nothing behind it. He must have grown since the last time he hid here. He leaned against his knees. As he did, his forehead brushed a fur coat, the existence of which he only knew from hiding in his mother’s closet. He shuddered against it, and allowed his head to linger against the fur for a few moments before climbing out to see if she was gone.
⁂ ⁂ ⁂
The next day, when Andrew got out of school, his father was waiting to pick him up. Usually his mother did this, but Thursday was his father’s day off. Every week, Andrew found him parked across the street while he stood talking to his friends in line for the school bus.
“Why does your dad always look like he’s crying?” one of Andrew’s friends asked. Andrew looked over at his father, who had rolled down the window and was waving to him. He waved back.
“He does?” Andrew asked.
“Like he’s always sad or something.” Andrew kicked a rock underneath a nearby parking block.
“I dunno,” he said, and walked to the car.
After a few blocks in silence, Andrew asked, “Dad? Why does it always look like you’re crying?”
“Does it?” he said without diverting his gaze from the road.
Andrew looked away from him, out of the window where he could see a sign advertising a subdivision, and a fleet of white vinyl-sided houses behind it.
“People say you do.”
“What do you say?”
“I said, 'I don’t know.' I thought you would.”
“Well, I wear gas permeable contact lenses,” he offered.
“Hard contacts. They’re like little pieces of Plexiglas I stick in my eyes so I can see. You know: you’ve seen me do it. I told you that’s why I wear glasses at night.”
“Oh yeah,” Andrew said, returning to the window.
“Where are we going?”
“Biofeedback, remember? What mom talked to you about last week.”
“Oh yeah,” he said. “What’s that again?”
“It’s training your brain to concentrate so you don’t have to take medicine for your A.D.D.”
They pulled up to a brown and yellow duplex at the corner of two country roads. It looked like there had been more of them at some point, but that the others had since been torn down to make room for empty lots.
In the window was a teddy bear holding a sign that said BIOFEEDBACK THERAPY and he gave costs per hour.
“Is this someone’s house?” Andrew said.
“No, they probably just get cheap rent in this building, so it’s not worth it to them to rent a regular office.”
The lobby was a living room, shag-rugged, oak-paneled, with orange furniture and a heavy glass-topped coffee table piled with reading materials. Andrew read the title of a book aloud:
“The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.”
“That’s one of my favorites,” a new voice said. “Whoops! Sorry to startle you. You must be Andrew.”
Andrew looked up and nodded.
There stood before Andrew a positively gigantic man, at least a full foot taller than his father. He had a thick brown beard and large square glasses that made his eyes look tiny.
“I’m Ben,” he said, extending his hand. Andrew shook it, realizing as he did so that the man could have just as easily gripped his head. “Let’s head upstairs then, shall we?”
Andrew looked back at his father.
“Go ahead,” he said. “I’ll be waiting right here when you get done.”
The upper floor, Andrew discovered, had two bedrooms, one that was an office, and another like a lab; a number of computers against two of the walls; a large leather chair in the middle.
“Have a seat,” Ben said, motioning to the chair.
Andrew sat, facing one of the computer screens. “How does it work?” he asked.
Ben rifled in the closet a moment, returning to Andrew with what looked like a silver tube of toothpaste.
“I take this gel here,” he said, “and use it to stick a bunch of sensors on your head. The sensors track your brain waves, and can tell whether or not you’re concentrating on the image on the screen. I run the computer for a half-hour, and it keeps track of how long you concentrate in that time."
“How do I concentrate?” Andrew asked.
Ben carefully applied the gel to the sensors. “Here’s an analogy that might help. Did you hear about that fighter pilot in the news?”
“Okay,” Ben said, sticking the sensors to his patient’s head, “well, this pilot is a captain in the Air Force, who was shot down recently, and spent a week hiding from enemy soldiers. There were some days where they were only three feet away from him, and he had to keep perfectly still.”
“I don’t think I could do that,” Andrew said. “I’d go crazy.”
“Well, so would he. But they taught him something in flight school to help him. They told him instead of focusing on big things, concentrate on little victories. Like finding a plant you can eat, or catching rainwater you can drink. It was little things like that, using whatever he had to survive, bit by bit, that kept him going.”
For dinner Andrew's family had Salisbury steak, peas, and Rice-a-Roni that the box claimed was “chicken-flavored.” As Andrew’s mother had gone grocery shopping that afternoon, it was his father who had cooked.
“How was school?” his mother asked him.
“Fine. In Math we just did times problems some more; then we made volcanoes with baking soda and vinegar for Science. In Reading...”
“Andrew!” she screamed. He spasmed, dropping his fork to the floor.
“How many times have I told you, don’t hold the fork that close to the tines!”
He looked at his father, who in turn stared at his plate continuing to eat as usual. Without speaking, Andrew picked up his fork, placed it in the sink, and took another out of the drawer. He returned to his place and began to eat again, though more carefully.
“In Reading we read A Series of Unfortunate Events, and in Social Studies we learned about Australia. Mrs. Suzuki, who teaches second grade, came up to talk about it, how she used to live there.”
His mother said nothing in response. He considered this a victory.
After dinner, his parents fought so he went down to the basement when it started. Once the yelling got too loud to hear the T.V. over, he snuck out of the back door: he had once found that, as long as he skipped the third, eighth, and tenth steps, his mother wouldn’t hear the creaks.
Once he cleared the house, he went out to their one tree, a massive willow in the middle of the plot. He climbed it and looked out over the surrounding area; the house lay in the middle of a swampy prairie, with occasional clumps of trees where he might build forts in the summer.
In one direction sat the house, the three-bedroom ranch that was just nice enough to look pleasant when it was sunny; dingy enough to look dilapidated when it was rainy. He could hear the muffled fight from his spot in the tree.
Past the house was a busy country road and Andrew watched it for a few minutes, wondering where the cars were going. In another direction was a granary, that was a monolithic set of vertical concrete pipes and blocks, with huge metal arms and cables spanning off at regular intervals. During the day, the granary was entirely made up of a dull gray; night it lit up like some kind of lumbering industrial constellation; floated on the horizon, near enough that Andrew could sense its magnitude; far, that it seemed to melt into the sky, giving him the impression that if he ever tried to run after it, he would pass right underneath.
He liked that. He liked the idea of something far away that he could never touch, that he could pretend was infinitely big and infinitely distant. It gave him something to want.
Andrew turned back to the house to see his father walk out of the door, get in his car, and drive away. After he was out of sight, Andrew climbed down from the tree and snuck back into the basement.
He played video games in the basement until his mother told him to go to bed. He went to his room and managed to be under the covers with the lights off before she came to check on him.
“Andrew,” she said, standing in the doorway. He was silent.
“Andrew,” she repeated, turning on the lights. “I know you’re awake. Pretending to sleep like this isn’t funny.” She walked over, grabbed him by one shoulder and one hip, and shook him.
He kept his eyes closed, and to keep his mouth still, he bit down hard on the insides of his cheeks until he tasted blood.
“When I want to talk to you, you don’t pretend to be asleep. You open your eyes and talk to me.”
She struck him once in the small of his back, firmly, enough to knock the wind out of him. He held his breath until his mother turned off the lights and left the room.
He usually found it very difficult to sleep. He was always too hot or too cold, or he wouldn’t like the way the waistband on his pajamas was sitting, he wouldn’t like how they were too tight around the ankles, or how his hair scratched the back of his neck against the pillow, or how his scalp itched, or how thinking about how his scalp itching made his back itch, and how he couldn’t reach to scratch it and that would keep him awake. Or he would watch patterns on the ceiling; when he couldn’t keep his eyes closed, he would imagine the ceiling to be a giant grainy projector screen, and would draw on it by connecting all its tiny gritty dots. For hours he would act out scenes with characters he'd created; sometimes he would drift off to sleep; sometimes he would stay awake and keep staring; sometimes he would wait for his mother to go to bed, and wait until she was asleep and would sneak down to the basement, skipping the tenth, eighth, and third steps, to watch television or play video games until he got tired.
Andrew was sitting in the basement watching The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour when his father returned home; it was around one a.m. and having heard the television from the back doorway, he came downstairs
“You’re still up,” he said.
“Yeah, I couldn’t sleep.”
“What’s on?” he asked as he sat down.
“The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. It’s like an hour-long I Love Lucy.”
“Is it funny?”
“Yeah. I think so.” Andrew brought his feet up off the concrete floor and stuck them between the couch cushions.
“How are you?” his father asked.
“How’s your mom?”
“Fine,” he said.
On the television was a scene of four people sleeping in bunk beds: a train goes by, right next to the building, and shakes it so strongly that the beds skid around the floor, their occupants clutching to the beds with terrified looks on their faces. Andrew laughed.
⁂ ⁂ ⁂
At school, the following week, one of the children kept poking him in line at the end of the day; and Andrew kept telling him to stop, but the boy kept poking him; and he knew that if he yelled at the boy in the hallway, the teacher would send him to the office; so he waited until they were all outside by the buses and then he yelled at him, but the boy started to laugh; he yelled louder and more children started to laugh, and he thought no matter how hard he yelled he couldn't yell loud enough to make them scared, and make them stop laughing, and he just wanted to be able to get so mad that they’d be too scared to laugh.
⁂ ⁂ ⁂
Ben tamped another sensor onto Andrew’s forehead and Andrew said, “Ben, you ever get picked on?”
He smiled. “Why do you ask?”
“I get picked on. ”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Ben walked over to start the computer.
“How do you get back at the people who pick on you?”
“In sixth grade. There was a boy who would always make fun of me for being the only kid in class that raised his hand. And I used to answer the teacher to correct the other kids when they got things wrong. Because that’s what I was good at. So this boy would follow me around the hallways teasing me and every time I said something back, he’d say ‘actually… actually…’”
“That stinks,” Andrew said.
“It did stink. So one day I turned around and I punched him and gave him a bloody nose. It turned out, I got in a lot of trouble while he got off scot-free. But glad I'm I did it. I felt proud to be sitting in the principal’s office, getting yelled at. Because I knew that what was happening to me was fair, and that what I did was also fair.”
⁂ ⁂ ⁂
Andrew’s father didn’t come home directly after work, so Andrew and his mother ate without him; Andrew ate carefully, chewing with his mouth closed, holding his utensils properly; switching his fork from his left to right hand, setting down the knife after cutting his chicken, remembering to turn the fork right-side up before putting it in his mouth.
He picked his nose without excusing himself from the table, but he barely heard her yell before he leapt up from his chair and punched her as hard as he could in the face.
He couldn’t feel anything as she mother picked him up and pitched him against the wall; nor anything as she grabbed him by the hair and slapped him. He couldn’t feel anything as she flung him over her shoulder as he hit and kicked and screamed until he couldn’t breathe and couldn't hit and kick, and went limp. He couldn’t feel anything as she dropped him in a heap on the floor of her closet, closed the door, and locked it.
Before he passed out, he saw the stars he made by not breathing, and the last thing he thought was that they reminded him of how pretty the granary looked at night.
He considered this a victory.
Dave Labedz is a writer and comedian from Madison, WI. He has previously contributed poetry and an essay to Illumination, a local literary journal, and performs stand-up and sketch comedy at various Madison venues.