On Friday we announced that Stan Thomas’s The RoCK CLuB is our Thriller of the Week and the sponsor of thousands of great bargains in the thriller, mystery, and suspense categories: over 200 free titles, over 600 quality 99-centers, and thousands more that you can read for free through the Kindle Lending Library if you have Amazon Prime!
Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Thriller excerpt:
by Stan Thomas
In 1982, Clark Ralston was eleven years old, his beloved little brother was nine, and his gorgeous and precocious twin sisters were seven…
Fiends and monsters in most adolescents’ lives are conjured up fantasies or characters from a Grimm Brothers fairy tale or the like, which produce an occasional nightmare. The ogre that bedeviled the Ralston children was not a fleeting fantasy or a dark creature in a bad dream after a scary movie. Their antagonist was an ever-present alcoholic and abusive father.
In an effort to visit some retribution on the source of their fear and angst–something no child should ever feel in their own home–Clark initiates an innocuous little distraction called The Rock Club, an exclusive band of juvenile mercenaries determined to torment and befuddle their father…
Nineteen years later, commitment-challenged Clark is trying to distance himself from his stunning, hero-worshiping sisters. When his girlfriend accepts an internship at San Francisco General Hospital, he jumps at the opportunity to create space between himself and his suffocating siblings and moves from L.A. to the Bay Area.
Clark loves everything about San Francisco: the Victorian architecture of its urban neighborhoods, the cable cars, the eccentricity and diversity of its citizenry, and the plethora of different smells and unique ambiance of the city. He’s even beginning to feel like he’s getting over his fear of commitment until The Rock Club pulls an encore. And this time it’s not so innocent… this time it’s deadly.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
“PSST… CLARK, YOU AWAKE? Ritchie says girls have babies from the same place they pee. That’s stupid stuff, huh. I told him it was stupid. Ritchie’s wrong, right?”
Clark Ralston tried to suppress his breathing, to refrain from making the slightest of sounds. He lay still, body rigid, eyes closed, willing his brother to lose the ability to speak.
The refrigerator motor clicked on in the kitchen. The dog next door whined, signaling it was time for their neighbor, Wong Li, to get home from work.
“Clark, you awake?” Mark repeated.
So much for mind over matter. Clark rolled to his side to face his brother in the twin bed against the opposite wall. “I am now, doofus. What’re you still doing awake? You’re supposed to be sick. Go to sleep.”
“I heard you.”
“You weren’t asleep,” Mark charged.
Due to a moonless night, the room was pitch black. Good thing, because if Clark could have seen his brother he might have just popped him in the nose.
“What about it?” Mark persisted.
“What Ritchie said.”
“Why do you do this, man?”
“Wait till I’m almost asleep and then ask a stupid question.”
“Don’t know. It’s like the light clicks off and my brain clicks on, just like that.” He snapped his fingers.
“I’m asking Mother for a night light tomorrow.”
Like a puppy with a chew toy, Mark wouldn’t give up. “Is Ritchie right?”
Clark gushed air through his mouth as he rolled onto his back. “He’s close.”
“Oh, I know where now.”
“Not there, that’s gross.”
“How do you know where they get out?”
“Learned it in school.”
“How come I didn’t learn it?” Mark asked.
“Cuz you’re only nine.”
“You’re just seventeen months older than me, man. How come you know?”
“You’ll learn it next year. Now shut up and go to sleep, or I’ll get Dad.”
“Too late, I already know.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Yes, I do.”
“You’re dumber than dumb, Mark, if you think girls crap babies.”
“I’m not dumber! Take it back.”
“Take it back, or I’ll tell Mom in the morning.”
“Okay,” Clark said. “I take it back. You’re not dumber than dumb. Now leave me alone.”
“One more question, then you can go to sleep. I promise.”
Clark sighed. “One more, dude, and that’s it.”
“Think Dad will really buy a new car like he said? A Corvette would be cool, man.”
“I don’t give a fart if he buys a new car or not. Now go to sleep, and don’t pee the bed.”
“Don’t call me dude.”
The following Saturday Clark came to with a throbbing headache and Merle Haggard proclaiming he turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole. He hated country. The music, blasting full-volume, stung his ears. He couldn’t think. Cracking his eyelids, he found himself face to label with the wine bottle that had flown from under the driver’s seat and smacked him square in the face when their new Chevy hit the curb doing sixty. His head lay wedged against the passenger door panel, the window lever practically shoved up his nose. A thin rivulet of blood trickled down his forehead from a small gash at his hairline. The shrill vocals and raging banjos of a bluegrass group replaced Merle on the radio, ratcheting up the pain in his head. Pure agony. He tried to reach for the on/off button to kill the music but couldn’t; his arms were pinned under his body. Still a bit disoriented, he thought he heard a different sound but couldn’t be sure. Sounded like high-pitched screams. Singing, or screams? Were his sisters in the car? He remembered now, they were in the back seat. At least they were when they left the bar.
Clark tried again, without success, to move his body. Paralyzed? Panicked, he began gasping for breath as if all the oxygen in the car had suddenly been sucked out. Willing himself to calm down, he filled his lungs with cool coastal air, held it for as long as he could, and then slowly exhaled. Dealing with his dad over the years had made him a pro at pricking the anxiety balloon. Regaining a measure of composure, he understood why he couldn’t move; something pinned him down. Something heavy. Where’s Dad? Must be close, he could smell him. MD 20/20 and Camels created a stink hard to mistake. With considerable effort, he turned his head a bit. No wonder the odor. His dad lay on top of him.
His ears pricked to a noise outside the car. A siren? Siren, or guitar chord? Hard to tell whether there was another sound in the whole world, save for the strident yowling of the bluegrass singers and his sisters’ screaming.
He felt movement against his back.
“Clark? Son?” Lawrence Ralston said. “Can you reach my bottle?”
“No, sir, I can’t move. Why’s the music so loud?”
The pressure lightened.
“Can you get it now?”
“I think so, but I’m bleeding and it’s in my eyes and why’s the music so loud?”
“Just get the damn bottle and give it to me.”
Following orders, he managed to free an arm, grab the half-empty bottle, and pass it over his shoulder. Due to Clark’s position and the blood, his dad appeared as a blurry blob in the peripheral vision of his left eye. The radio experienced momentary dead air, and in the relative quiet he heard the aluminum cap unscrew, the sound of a bobbing Adam’s apple, then the crash of the bottle as it landed in the roadside thicket.
He also heard the unmistakable wail of a siren. Close, maybe a block or two. A couple dogs somewhere tried to match its piercing pitch. He made an effort to shift his position again, but couldn’t.
“Dad, can you please get off me? I’m squished.”
“Need a cigarette.”
“Could you wait? The police will be here soon.” Stupid. He had never known his dad to smoke a cigarette that would make his booze breath disappear; not even Kools.
“And a light,” Lawrence said, stretching for the knob with a burning cigarette etched on it.
“Can you see Elizabeth and Elise? Are they all right?” Clark asked.
“It’s not their hurt scream, they’re scared. They’ll be fine.”
A slight breeze blowing through the hole the windshield had occupied fifteen minutes earlier pushed Camel smoke into Clark’s nose. The resulting sneeze shot dagger-like pain through both sides of his chest, indicating broken or bruised ribs.
“Something’s wrong with me, Dad. I think I’m dying,” he yelled over an obnoxious car salesman extolling the virtues of a used Mustang.
“Calm down, you’re not dying, idiot.” Lawrence clicked the radio off and the girls’ screams subsided to weak whimpers, as if the same knob controlled them.
A flashlight beam began snooping around the wagon’s interior, exposing its occupants, and a commanding baritone asked, “Is everybody okay in there?”
Clark twisted his head just enough to recognize the emblem on the sleeve of a California Highway Patrol uniform.
“Yeah, we’re okay, Osifer,” Lawrence answered. “Check on my girls in the backseat.”
Clark groaned at his father’s failed attempt to speak without slurring his words.
“I can do that!” Elise exclaimed. “I wanna play that game!”
The children sat on the curb watching their father stand on one foot, count backwards, and walk a white line that, judging by his exaggerated balancing act, could have been two hundred feet off the ground. Intermittently his lurching, stumbling body became an eerie silhouette in the headlights of oncoming vehicles.
“He’s not playing a game,” Clark said, his chin perched on arms folded across his knees, tears rolling down his plump cheeks. The pain in his upper body was almost unbearable.
Elizabeth studied her father intently. The identical twin girls, though scared out of their wits, emerged from the demolished metallic-blue station wagon unscathed. “Well, what’s he doing?”
“It’s some kind of test and I don’t think he’s doing so well,” Clark said, his breathing labored.
After administering the sobriety test the officer began lecturing Lawrence nose to nose, his voice rising until he was flat out yelling. Words and phrases like “irresponsible”, “negligent”, “worthless excuse for a father”, and “I oughta kick your ass” were flung at the wobbling parent with stunning velocity. Clark sat staring in wide-eyed awe at their clean-cut, square-jawed, uniformed savior and decided this man would be a great father.
His tirade over, the officer instructed Lawrence to sit on the ground beside the patrol car and stay put, and then approached the children, squatting on his haunches before them. “Scary ride, huh.”
“Yes, sir,” Clark replied.
“My name is Officer Raddich. You guys okay?”
“I think my sisters are,” Clark said, wiping his shirt sleeve across his eyes. “But my chest hurts real bad.”
“Just sit still. That siren you hear is your ride. Your father said you live in the Airport Circle Apartments. That right?”
The children nodded.
“My daddy wrecked our new car, peaceman Radish!” Elizabeth blurted.
“That he did.”
“Mama will be mad,” Elise said.
“Is your mother home?”
“Yes, sir. You gonna call her? ” Clark asked.
“I will real soon, son, but first let’s make sure you guys are all right.”
The ambulance arrived, Officer Raddich huddled with the attendants for a few moments, and then all three of them returned to where the children sat.
“This is Mr. Steve and Ms. Laura,” the officer said. “They’re paramedics, here to take you to the hospital.”
“Is Daddy going to the hospital too?” Elise asked.
“No sweetheart, he’s going with me.”
“Darn it!” Clark whispered, failing yet again to reach the spot.
His left shoulder itched like mad, and the mummy-like bandages encircling his torso made it difficult to satisfy. He rocked from side to side. No good. Struggling to a sitting position, he rubbed against the headboard. There. That helped a little.
The hospital sucked. He hated it; too much pain, sorrow, and sad faces. He spent one night there for bruised ribs, the same amount of time his father had spent in jail for DUI. Something called bail. The policeman should have given him a year. The thought of three-hundred-sixty-five consecutive days without the man who brought so much stress and turmoil to their lives brought a fleeting smile to his lips.
He turned his head, looked across the moonlit bedroom at his nine-year-old brother. Like a brick. How could he sleep through their parents’ screaming and yelling? His mother’s high-pitched, weepy voice bounced off every wall in the house. Elizabeth and Elise would be in their beds curled up in balls, whimpering and shaking like newborn kittens. His father said he had drunk only two drinks yesterday and bitched about the inaccuracy of the Breathalyzer, whatever that was.
Two drinks, my butt. More like way over ten.
His dad was telling a lie. A lie Clark and his sisters would have to swallow or suffer the consequences. He buried his face deeper into his pillow, brought it up around his ears in an attempt to smother his mother’s anguish.
Yesterday pictured fresh in his mind. His parents had purchased the new car and his dad was anxious to give the children a ride. Since Mark was still on the downside of a virus, Irene, their mother, decided he would stay home. Undeterred, Lawrence loaded up Clark, Elizabeth, and Elise and assured Irene they would be gone an hour at the most.
Lawrence pulled into the Bamboo Room’s gravel parking lot at two in the afternoon. Rocks crackled and popped under the wagon’s tires as it cruised to the end of a line of vehicles along the south side of the building. They parked next to an oil-soaked red Ford F150, bumping to a stop against a creosoted railroad tie. Lawrence said he would only be a few minutes, that he needed to take care of some business, and ordered them to lock the doors. After he entered the bar, the girls climbed over the front seat and joined their brother.
“Why can’t we go in?” Elise asked.
“Cuz we’re too young. This place is for adults. I think you gotta be eighteen to go inside,” Clark answered.
“Why did Dad bring us here if we can’t go in?” Elizabeth asked.
“How should I know? Now stop asking me.”
“What’s this?” Elise held the cigarette lighter, its end glowing red hot.
“Gimme that!” He grabbed the lighter, burning his thumb. “Ouch! Darn it, Elise! See what you did?” He inserted the lighter in its hole in the dashboard then stuck his thumb in his mouth.
The twins chanted in unison: “Clark’s sucking his tha-umb, Clark’s sucking his tha-umb, baby, baby, ba-by.”
“Shut up! I’m not sucking my thumb. Both of you get in the back seat.”
“I’m going in,” Clark announced after three-and-a-half hours of naps, agonizing boredom, fights with the twins and overwhelming pressure on his bladder.
“You can’t go in there, you’re not eighteen,” Elizabeth said.
“It’s okay when it’s an emergency.”
“Then we’ll go with you. It’s our mergency too,” Elise said.
“No you’re not. You’re staying here. Don’t touch anything on the dash, don’t play with the steering wheel, and keep the windows and doors locked.” Before exiting the car, he extracted the lighter and stuck it in his pocket.
Neon Miller, Coors, and Michelob signs appeared to float in mid-air while cigarette cherries flitted about like fireflies in the darkened confines of the Bamboo Room. After his vision adjusted to the limited light he picked his father out of the about-faced line-up sitting at the bar, his familiar blue flannel shirt, brightened by the glow of the jukebox, catching his eye. He sat between a big-haired wrinkled lady and a man Clark recognized as Mr. Red, one of his father’s oilfield buddies. Nicknamed for the blazing thatch of wildness atop his head, the man possessed the biggest belly Clark had ever seen and smoked the longest, nastiest smelling cigars in the whole world; looked and smelled like large burning turds.
He zigzagged between varnished pine picnic tables littering the large smoke-filled room, the soles of his shoes making ripping sounds as he traversed the sticky floor.
“Dad, can we go home now?” he said, nudging his father in the back. “The girls have to go to the bathroom real bad, and I’m afraid they’ll pee on the brand new seats. I gotta go too.”
Big hair and Lawrence turned together, both displaying glazed eyes. “This your boy, Larry?” the lady asked, cigarette smoke exploding from her nostrils like a cow’s breath on a frozen morning.
“Yeah, that’s him,” Lawrence said, slurring words.
She extended a bony hand, roughed up his longish blonde hair. “Handsome little booger. Got them big goddamn eyes just like your daddy; blue as my favorite nail polish.” She thrust her right hand to within inches of his nose. “Look!” Her voice was dense and raspy. She sucked from the cigarette with Cruela DeVille-like puckered lips and exhaled another plume of white smoke. Clark coughed. His eyes stung.
“What you want, son?” Lawrence asked.
“I need to pee, and we wanna go home.”
“Why didn’t you say something? The john’s over there beside the cigarette machine.” He picked some coins from the bar. “Get me some Camels on the way back.”
“You need to check on the girls, Dad. They need to pee, too.”
“Yeah, ah… right. You just get to the pisser.”
Their new car ride culminated an hour later in the accident on US 101 after a harrowing trip that challenged any amusement park ride Clark had ever been on in his short life. The wreck was almost a relief.
He eyed his slumbering brother. “Please God,” he prayed, “make Mark stop peeing the bed. He’s getting whipped too much, and I can’t stand to hear him scream. It makes me hurt inside. And please make my dad stop drinking and cussing and being an all-around bad father. Amen.”
He glanced at his brother again, wondering if Jesus was listening this time.
IRENE BURIED HER NOSE in the Bible for three days following the accident, searching it like a repair manual for divine guidance on how to mend her defective husband. Clark wondered why his mother even bothered to scold his father anymore. There had been a time when her strong and forceful rants ignited hope in him, but after hearing the same monotonous arguments and threats again and again and never seeing any change, he determined she was like the boy in the fairy tale who cried wolf way too often. Consequently his spirits no longer inflated when he heard her threaten to leave and take the kids.
At dinner he noticed his brother evil-eyeing the dreaded green beans and okra. Mark sat across from him, Elizabeth to his left, Elise across from her. A parent sat at each end of a scarred, rectangular picnic table that looked like it could’ve come from the Bamboo Room. The boys exchanged resigned expressions, knowing there was no way out. They would have to sit at the table and eat the nasty-tasting vegetables even if it took all night. Clark knew because he had to do it once before he wised up. He sat hunched over a plate of fried okra until three o’clock in the morning. That’s when he awoke face down in the crap. With most of the serving plastered to his forehead, nose, and cheeks, he had no problem swallowing whole the tiny portion left on his plate. The other part he just washed off. Now, knowing the futility of resistance, he swallowed (not chewing was key) everything he didn’t like without a peep.
“Mother, pass the corn, please,” Mark said.
She reached for the plate, but Lawrence intercepted it. “No corn or anything else, period, until he eats some green beans and okra,” he said.
Irene dished out a portion of each onto Mark’s plate. “Try your best, son.”
“Suck your thumb today, Elise?” Lawrence asked.
The kids, knowing she had, looked to their mother with wide, pleading eyes.
“She only did it a couple times,” Irene said. “She’s getting better every day.”
Lawrence reached for the Tabasco. “Gimme your hand, Elise.”
She hesitated, tears streaming down her flushed cheeks.
Clark’s eyes swelled with moisture. “Dad, don’t. Please?”
“Shut the hell up, boy! You’re getting a little too big for your britches. Elise, gimme your hand, damn it!”
She extended a quivering arm, and Lawrence shook a dozen or so drops of the hot sauce onto the digit.
“Put it in your mouth. Now!”
“Lawrence, there’s no need for this.”
“Shut up! In your mouth, Elise.”
With chest heaving and tears raining on her roast beef, she inserted the spicy thumb. At that moment Clark knew time had come to do something, anything, to strike back at their tormentor.
Two hours later the theme music to The Love Boat signaled bedtime. Clark wished he could stay up and watch it. Heck, it was only eight. Most of his friends got to stay up till nine. While Mark, Elise, and Elizabeth stood, he lingered on the sofa.
“Thought I told you to get to bed,” Lawrence said. “Think you’re somebody special, or what?”
“No, sir. I’d just like to see this show. All my friends get to watch it,” Clark replied.
“Well that’s too bad. Just go on and float your boat down the hall to your bedroom.”
After loving kisses for Irene and perfunctory pecks for Lawrence, the kids scuttled to their bedrooms. A question replaced the resentment Clark felt over not being allowed to watch The Love Boat: Would Mark wet the bed or not? Before last night, it was just a given. He always peed the bed. But yesterday was different; Mark’s bed had remained dry.
Clark’s aching ribs caused him to curtail his usual habit of waking at two o’clock in the morning, checking his brother’s underwear and bedding, and changing them if necessary. Expecting the worst the next morning, he was pleasantly surprised. Maybe this was the beginning of the end of the peeing thing. He sure hoped so. He was tired of deceiving his father, who labored under the impression Mark hadn’t wet the bed for over a week.
Clark came out of the bathroom after brushing his teeth and asked, “So you think you can make it two nights in a row?”
“I won’t do it tonight, guaranteed.”
“How can you guarantee it?”
“Never mind. Just wait and see.”
“Hope so. We can’t keep tricking Dad. Sooner or later he’s gonna find out, and we’ll both get the belt.” Clark killed the lights and they climbed into their beds.
Fifteen minutes passed, then: “Clark?”
Clark made a sound that fit somewhere between a sigh and a whine. “Does it sound like I’m asleep?”
“No, guess not.”
After a few moments Clark asked, “Whataya want, Mark? I’m sleepy.”
“Ever get tired of being the dad?”
“What you talking about?”
“You act more like our dad than Dad does.”
“You’re crazy. Now go to sleep.”
“See what I mean?” Mark said.
“Just cuz I told you to go to sleep means I’m like a dad? I don’t think so. That’s stupid.”
“It’s the way you say it and other things too.”
“What other things?”
“Like the way you help Mom do things without her even telling you to.”
“Any kid would help his mother.”
“Not just for nothing, without being told.”
“How do you know?”
“I don’t, and the girls don’t, and none of our friends help without being told. But you volunteer.”
“So? Big deal.”
“And you try to take care of us,” Mark said. “Even Mom.”
“Mother takes care of herself.”
“Huh-uh. Remember that time she thought we had a plumbing leak and you went under the building to look when the maintenance guy didn’t show up?”
“That was no big deal.”
“I wouldn’t do it, spiders and snakes and remember that time Mom said she heard something outside the living room window and you went and got Dad’s rifle and clicked the bolt next to the window and we heard somebody run away? The girls and me were really scared, and Mom was too, but you weren’t.”
“I was scared,” Clark said.
“Really, really, scared.”
Clark turned his back to his brother. “Now go to sleep.”
“There you go again.”
Clark had just entered the ether zone when he heard, “What about Annie?”
“Remember Annie? How you saved her? Were you scared then?”
“Darn it, Mark.”
Yawning, he said, “Not at first, but after it was all over I got real scared. Now go to sleep or I’ll get Dad.”
“O-kay. Seeya tomorrow.”
Just past two Clark awoke to a noise that sounded like a whimpering puppy. He sat up in bed, rubbing his eyes, careful not to make any sudden moves that would cause pain to shoot through his sides. He looked at the other bed. Couldn’t really see anything at first, but then slowly his eyes adjusted to the muted light. Mark lay like a comma, facing the wall. Clark struggled to his feet, crossed the room, and sat on the edge of the bed.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked, poking Mark’s back.
“Hey, what’s wrong with you?”
Mark rolled over. In the darkness, Clark could barely make out a look of pure agony on his brother’s face.
“It’s my dick,” he said. Sounded like he was trying to hold back tears.
“Whataya mean? What’s wrong with it?”
Mark shoved down his underwear. “Look.”
“Can’t see; too dark,” Clark said. “Watch your eyes; I’ll turn on the light.” He stumbled over a pair of shoes to the light switch, flipped it on, stood for a moment blinking against the attack of sudden brilliance, then moved back to the bed.
“Now what the heck’s wrong with your thing, man?” He gazed down at Mark’s penis and gasped. Its head appeared enlarged and dark purple. “Whoa…! Damn! Did something bite you? A spider? A wasp?” He’d slipped. He admonished himself for cursing.
“Put a rubber band on it.”
“You did what?”
“Can’t you hear? I said I put a rubber band on it.”
“Geez. I need a closer look. Hope the heck the rubber band doesn’t break.” Careful lest he touch it, Clark bent over till his nose hovered three inches above the wounded member.
“Don’t move, darn it!”
Sure enough, he had quadruple-wrapped a thick rubber band around his penis, now buried deep in the foreskin just beneath the head.
“Why’d you do that? That was stupid!”
“I’m tired of Dad going off on me.”
“You didn’t pee the bed last night, why’d you think you needed a rubber band tonight?”
“I didn’t sleep at all cuz I was afraid. I knew you couldn’t get up, and I wanted some z’s.”
For an instant Clark felt like crying. No way could he let his brother see that. “We’ve gotta get it off before your weenie dies, man. I’ll get some scissors.” He slipped out into the hallway, sneaked to the kitchen and found a pair in a drawer next to the refrigerator. When he returned his brother’s hands were cupped around his penis as if handling a wounded sparrow.
Mark’s eyes enlarged, the whites becoming dominant, as Clark approached his ailing member with scissors that appeared to him as big as pruning shears.
“You sure you can do this?” Mark asked.
Clark covered his eyes with one hand for a moment. “No. I gotta get Mother.”
“No way. Dad’ll find out, and I don’t want Mom to see it. She’s a girl.”
“If I try it, dude, you might end up peeing like a girl. You want that?”
“Go get Mom, darn it, and don’t call me dude.”
Irene twitched and repositioned herself when he nudged her arm. Lawrence’s raucous snoring had drowned out his murmured, “Mother.” He knelt beside the bed, having crawled on his hands and knees from the doorway. He nudged her again, harder this time, and she stirred, fighting to embrace consciousness.
“What? Who is it?”
“It’s me, Clark. Mark’s in trouble, he needs you. And don’t wake Dad,” he whispered.
“You’ll just have to see for yourself… shhh!”
Irene slipped out of bed and followed her son down the hall to his bedroom. One look at her youngest boy’s face told her something was terribly wrong. “Are you sick again, baby?”
Mark shook his head as his mother sat beside him on the bed.
“Well, what’s wrong?’
He reluctantly uncovered his crotch, exposing his strangled penis.
Irene’s hands flew to her mouth. “My Jesus, Lord!”
“I told him it was dumb,” Clark sing-songed.
“For God’s sake, Mark! Why in the world…?”
“You know how nine-year-olds are, Mom,” Clark blurted. “He was playing with the rubber band, fell asleep, and his weenie is paying the price big time.”
“Just shut up, Clark. Get me some scissors,” Irene said.
“Got ‘em.” Clark handed the instrument to her.
“Baby, it’s important that you stay perfectly still. Do you understand?”
The scissors neared his crotch and Mark’s eyes transformed into small kaleidoscopes of panic and fear. Clark rolled his eyes to the ceiling half-expecting to see a small purple penis lying on the floor, if he ever gathered the nerve to look. He held no doubt in his mind that blood would spurt freely from the place Mark always had trouble containing liquid. After a couple yearlong minutes simultaneous sighs from Irene and Mark signaled it was okay to look, and Clark watched relief displace pain on his brother’s face.
Irene rose to her feet, a wry smile on her face. “Let this be a lesson to both of you. This is not the kind of rubber to use down there.”
“What’d she mean by that?” Mark asked after his mother had left the room.
“Tell ya later.”
IN A PREVIOUS INCARNATION the Airport Circle Apartment community was a bustling army/air force base. After the Korean War, the government closed it down and dropped it in the county’s lap free of charge. Santa Barbara County, in turn, converted the federal freebie into low-cost public housing. Rents were assessed according to each family’s means, and a population consisting of Caucasian, Latino, African American, and a dash of Asian contributed to a vibrant and congenial cultural stew; mostly because nobody had anything valuable enough to lord over anyone else.
Two miles west of the complex the main dirt road transecting the community became a paved thoroughfare that circled the regional airport, hence the name. A maze of smaller dirt roads meandered between the fifty-three lime green, multi-family buildings, and every evening around five the complex became engulfed in great brown clouds of dust spawned by hordes of homebound pickup trucks. Consequently, around four-thirty, women all over the neighborhood could be seen racing to communal clotheslines in a mad dash to rescue their laundry from the billowing grime.
Weller Memorial Park, named after a dead mayor, bordered the property on the north side. To the south, up the road fronting the Ralstons’ apartment, sat Olgrin’s family grocery and it seemed as if the store owner’s life mission was to make sure everybody knew everybody else’s business. Mrs. Olgrin had once been Irene’s best friend and Clark felt sure, as did his mother, that everyone in the neighborhood heard about Mark’s bed-wetting problem at her store from her big, fat mouth.
Fifth-grader Clark and fourth-grader Mark walked to Lakeside Elementary, located about half a mile east of their home. Walking to school posed no problems for them, they enjoyed it. Midway between their apartment and the school the highway department had cleared a forest in preparation for a new state road, and the boys loved to frolic in the giant Eucalyptus carcasses littering the landscape. They had liked the trees even better when they were living. Standing tall, straight, and majestic, they offered a wonderful environment for fantasy. On any given day the boys might’ve faced the Sheriff of Nottingham in Sherwood Forest, or the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Lion in the Emerald Forest of Oz. But the bulldozers had destroyed their portal into other worlds, and now the imagination would have to run amok to think the place was anything more than an aromatic graveyard.
After school on a bright blue Tuesday afternoon, Mark and Clark rested on a fallen tree after jumping from trunk to trunk like bullfrogs to lily pads while firing dirt clods at each other. A cool breeze off the sea whistled through the dead limbs, rustled desiccated leaves, and mussed the boys’ hair. In the distance, earthmoving machines could be heard going about their destructive business.
“Why’s Dad so mean?” Mark asked between rejuvenating gulps of air.
“Don’t know. Maybe he doesn’t like kids.”
“Then why’d they have us?”
“Good question,” Clark said.
“Think he loves us?”
“Huh-uh. He doesn’t act like other fathers.”
“Whataya mean?” Mark asked.
“Like he’s only come to one of my ballgames and he was drunk. Stumbling all over the place. I felt terrible and told Mother I didn’t want him to come to any more games. Other fathers don’t do that.”
“What’d Mom say?”
“Told me to hush.”
They fell silent for a few moments before Mark began tossing dirt clods at a large knothole on a tree fifteen feet away.
“Dad ever told you he loves you just for no reason?”
“Not for any reason. You?”
“Mother told me most men think it’s sissy to say it,” Clark said.
“Think it’s sissy. It makes me feel good when Mom says it to me, and it makes me feel good when I say it back to her.”
“You love me?” Clark asked.
“No, silly. Boys don’t do that.”
“I told you, cuz we’re boys. Boys don’t love other boys.”
“Dad’s a boy.”
“That’s different. Dads are supposed to tell their children they love them, boy or girl. I will when I have kids.”
They watched as a large flock of scavenging blackbirds landed thirty feet away and began wreaking havoc on the felled forest’s insect population.
“Think you’ll ever stop pissing the bed?” Clark asked as he threw a clod at the feathered foragers. The birds hopped in unison as if skipping rope, parachuted back to earth on ebony wings, and returned to their arthropod feast.
“Hope so. I can’t take too much more of that belt.”
“Why can’t you stop?”
“Cuz I dream about it.”
“That I’m at the pot taking a pee, smiling, all proud of myself, and by the time I wake up me and the bed are soaked,” Mark said, exasperated.
“Try to dream about the desert or something.”
“Yeah, there’s no water there.”
Both broke into spontaneous laughter, a good while since they had done that.
“I’m tired of the way Dad treats us. I’ve come up with a way to get back at him,” Clark said.
“By stealing things from him. Things he likes.”
“Don’t know; anything he likes.”
“He’ll beat your butt if he catches you.”
“Us,” Clark said.
Mark raised an eyebrow as his tummy turned. “Us?”
“Yeah. You, the girls, and me. He won’t know who did it.”
“I vote no. I get the belt enough as it is.”
“Listen! You never listen to me, Mark. Might as well be talking to that big fat ugly tree trunk over there, or Dad.” He sighed and continued. “You know those polished rocks Mr. Wilkes gives us every time we go see him?”
An old friend of their father’s, Roy Wilkes polished rocks of various colors into shiny beauties as a hobby. His son, Jimmy, was Clark’s best friend.
“We’ll steal his stuff and leave one of those rocks. It’ll drive him crazy.”
Mark frowned, then his flushed face broke into a big grin. “We’ll call ourselves The Rock Club!”
“Not bad. I like it. The Rock Club. Yeah, that’s cool. Now this is our secret. You can’t tell any of your friends or even Mother. Especially not Mother.”
“You got it. Clark?”
“Does Mr. Wilkes still drink? I mean like beer and wine and stuff.”
“No, he stopped.”
“I thought so, cuz him and Dad don’t go places together anymore.”
“Yep, he quit.”
“Just like that?” Mark asked.
“Jimmy said he joined a special club called AA, and they helped him.”
“AA? What’s that?”
“Jimmy said it’s kind of like Boy Scouts for men.”
“They go camping and hiking, things like that?”
“No, but Jimmy said it was because of AA his dad started polishing rocks.”
Mark’s face scrunched toward his nose. “Really? Why?”
“Jimmy said Mr. Wilkes is like a dirty old rock being polished till it shines. Said it was a meta something. Metaphor. That’s it.”
“Met-a-phor? That’s weird,” Mark said.
“Maybe, but it must work. Mr. Wilkes stopped drinking.”
“You think we could get Dad to polish rocks?”
“Probably gotta be a member of the club.”
“I wish Mr. Wilkes would invite Dad to join.”
“Me too,” Clark said. He pushed himself to his feet, stuck his hands in his pockets and extracted a dollar bill and some change. “I got enough for Cokes. Want one?”
“Yeah, sure. Where’d you get the cash?”
“Dad’s dresser. Want a Coke or not?”
The boys dropped from their perch and picked their way through the debris field to the dirt road leading to Olgrin’s. Clark kicked a discarded Hire’s Root Beer can lying in the road toward his brother.
Mark kicked it back. “Wonder why some kids get good parents and some don’t.”
“Beats me,” Clark said.
They walked in silence for a while, ping-ponging the can with their feet before Mark said, “Brother Eddie says God can do anything, right?”
“So why can’t he help me stop peeing the bed? I ask for help every night.”
Clark didn’t answer his brother. “Last one to Olgrin’s is a nerd!” he said, then took off running as fast as he could.