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Authors: Rob Mills

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BOOK: Charlie's Key
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“It wouldn’t have made any difference, Charlie,” says Mr. Delaney. “You’re a minor—under sixteen. The province made the decision for you.”

“But that’s not right. Somebody I don’t even know—some guy who never even met my dad—decides he’s going to get cremated like that.”

“But that’s how it is.”

“But it’s not right.”

“Well,” Mr. Delaney says, “somebody has to make those kinds of decisions. I mean, we can’t have thirteen-year-old boys off wandering around the streets, making their own decisions about things, about where they’ll live or how they’ll get food. We’d end up with beggar children, like Calcutta or something.”

“At least in Calcutta, if they’re going to burn somebody up, they figure it’s going to send the person to heaven or some-wheres,” I say.

I know a little bit about India, because I saw a show once about how they make these pyres and wrap up bodies and burn them, then put the ashes in the river and float them off to God. Which, when you think about it, is no more of a crazy way to send somebody to heaven than sticking them in a big box in the ground. Try getting outta that—a big box under six feet of mud. I’d rather end up floating down a river any day.

“Look,” says Mr. Delaney with that voice grown-ups get when they decide they’re not going to talk about something anymore, “I understand you’re upset, but I’m not going to discuss government policy with you.”

He looks up at Billy and says to him, like I’m not even there, “God, this isn’t even my job.”

He turns back to me. “Dez Fitzpatrick will tell you all about this—why it happened and so forth.”

“Can I at least get my backpack before I go?” I say. “It’s got my Bible in it, and a good shirt.”

Mr. Delaney shrugs. “Sure, get your backpack. Then meet Billy at the van.”

I head to Brookside to grab my pack and have a last look round. I check all the closets for the fiftieth time since last night to make sure I’m not leaving anything behind, but they’re empty, like I know they will be. Then I’m in the doorway, with one look back. And it’s funny, but I don’t feel anything except happy that I won’t ever see this room again. Usually I feel a little sad leaving a place, even a place where I only lived for a while—like the apartment on Quarry Road that smelled like cat pee. Even though it did stink, I liked the way the sun came through the bedroom window after school, and how it made a bright patch on the brick building in the backyard. Except it did stink, and my dad was happy to get outta there. But I was a bit sad, closing that door for the last time.

Not now. I’m just happy. Which is a funny thing to be when you just heard your dad has been cremated. I think about that when I get into the van. I decide maybe cremation’s not such a bad thing. I mean, my dad is dead—it isn’t like he was gonna come back. Maybe it is better to be burned up into ash than to get put in a coffin and stuffed underground, where worms and beetles and sow bugs can get at you. Let’s face it, no matter how much money you spend on a fancy coffin, they’re gonna get in eventually. So maybe getting cremated isn’t so bad after all. That’s what I’m thinking when Frankie hops into the van and smacks me on the back.

“Cowboy,” he says, “didn’t know you was getting sprung too.”

“I’m not. I’m going to a service for my dad. They cremated him.”

“I thought he was dead,” says Frankie.

“He is dead. But they cremated him—burned up his body.”

Frankie gives his head a slow tilt back, like he’s just hearing what I said.

“Oh, yeah,” he says. “Cremated, right.”

I nod.

“And they burned up his body?” he says.

I nod again.

“That’s where they, like, toss your ashes around after, right? Throw ’em in the field where you first got laid, or fling ’em in the ocean.”

“I guess.”

“So what are you gonna do with your old man’s?”

“I don’t know. They never told me about doing anything like that.”

“Me, I’d give the old man a burial at sea. Dump them ashes straight into the toilet, then flush ’em out to the harbor, along with all the other shit that ends up down there.”

Billy sticks his head in through the front screen.

“Sykes, Charlie,” he calls.

“Here,” I say.

“Walsh, Frankie.”

“Present,” he says. “For another half hour.”

“Oh, you’ll be back, Walsh,” Billy says.

“Nope,” says Frankie. “I turns eighteen next month.”

“Lucky us,” says Billy. “It’ll be Her Majesty’s Penitentiary for you next time.”

“No next time,” says Frankie. “I’m a readin’, writin’, reformed character. Goin’ straight.”

“Straight to the Pen,” says Billy, before he puts the van in gear and heads down the driveway. We swing round a bend, and I get a look at the Catwalk along the back of the school. It’s just the fence and the gate at the top, with no one standing there. I look hard, but there’s still no one, and just for a second I get that old feeling like when I close a door for the last time.

THIRTEEN

Frankie doesn’t say anything for a while, just stares out the window. Blobs of rain drag across the glass, leaving little trails behind them. They look like snails, a whole herd of them, headed for the back of the van. Though you probably don’t call a bunch of snails a herd. And they probably don’t move anywhere in a bunch. But who knows with snails? Some scientist, probably. I bet there’s a scientist out there who’s spent his life studying snails—how they move around, how they have sex. Because scientists are always thinking about how stuff has sex. Which makes me feel better, because lately I am too. For a while I was worried I might be a bit crazy, with all this sex stuff popping into my head—like even when I’m thinking of snails. But it happens to scientists too. And they’re pretty normal.

What’s Frankie thinking about, I wonder? He’s just staring out the window, looking at trees—I guess they’re trees, all blown over and tiny. When Dad told me we were coming to Newfoundland, I got a picture in my mind of waves and oceans and seagulls, but so far it’s been brick buildings and highways and florescent lights. And all these scrubby little trees, blown around by the wind. Not much ocean, except for what we crossed on the boat, and I was asleep for most of that.

“I loves this,” Frankie says. He turns toward me.

“What?”

“This feeling I’m feeling—the feeling I gets when I leaves The Hollow.”

“Going home, you mean?”

“Home?” says Frankie. He gives a snort. “Forget home. No, I mean…I don’t know, just this…being out, you know? Like in the spring, and the snow melts, and you can walk on the sidewalk instead of halfways out in the road, and you can just stick your hands in your pockets and walk, and you got twenty bucks in your hand and a buddy who’s gonna buy some beers and it’s warm enough to sit out. It’s like that, the feeling.”

I’m not exactly sure what he means. I think I know. I think it’s like the feeling you get the first day you can walk to school in your sneakers instead of your snow boots. But maybe that’s not what he means. So I don’t say anything.

“You don’t know what it’s like to get sprung, do you, Cowboy? ’Cause you never been inside—not really inside.”

“Guess not.”

“So what do you think about it—being inside?”

“Not much.”

“Food’s the best bit,” says Frankie. “Having it regular.”

I nod.

“And the worst,” Frankie says, with the grown-up grin, “is being off the beer—and the pussy.”

I look at the seat back in front of me when he says that.

“Course you’re too young for the beer,” he say, giving me a poke. “C’mon, Cowboy. Give us a laugh.”

“The worst part for me,” I say, “was my dad getting killed. And Flarehead.”

“Yeah,” Frankie says. “I knows you liked your old man. That’s tough. Flarehead though—don’t worry ’bout him. I gave him a talking to before I left.”

“I’m not worried.”

Frankie’s face scrinches up for a sec, like he’s surprised. “That’s good,” he says.

“I’m not going to see him again.”

“’Cause ya got a foster home?”

“’Cause I’m not going back.”

“Whaddaya mean you’re not going back?”

“I’m not going back,” I say.

“But ya don’t got a foster home?”

I shake my head.

“So a Sykes is taking ya in?”

“No.”

“So what are you sayin’, Cowboy?”

“I’m saying I’m not going back to The Hollow.”

Frankie sits up straight to have a good look at Billy, who’s got his eyes on the road and the wiper blades.

He leans close to whisper, “So you’re gonna make a run for it?”

“Maybe.”

“How much money you got?”

“Don’t know.”

“Then you’re either a retard or you’re lying,” says Frankie. “So, are you a retard?”

I stay quiet.

“’Cause I ain’t going to waste my time helping no retard who’s just going to wind up back inside before the sun goes down.”

“I’m not a retard.”

“So…how much money ya got?”

“Twenty-six dollars and eighty-eight cents.”

“And how far are ya gonna get on twenty-six dollars and eighty-eight cents?”

“I don’t know.”

“I do,” says Frankie. “And that’s nowheres. Not without a plan.”

He takes another look at Billy.

“This funeral,” he whispers. “Where’s it to?”

“It’s a memorial service.”

“Memorial service, funeral, what odds? Where’s it to? A church?”

“A funeral home.”

“What one? Carnell’s? Osgoode’s?”

“I don’t know.”

“Billy,” Frankie shouts, “who you dropping first—me or the kid?”

“Sykes,” Billy calls back.

“Osgoode’s then,” says Frankie. “In the east end, just off the highway. So listen. There’s a bathroom in the lobby—not the Men’s, but the family one—the one with the baby on the picture. You know what I mean?”

I nod.

“Go in there—there’s a window what’s easy to open. Okay?”

“How do you know?”

“Never mind how I knows,” he says. “I just knows. So listen. The window, it’s right by the toilet, so you can stand on the seat and reach it. Pop it open—it’s on a hinge, so it’s not gonna fall out—and crawl on out. Once you’re out, just hang down—there’s an oil pipe sitting right there, right under the window. Just step on that, then jump. Got it?”

“An oil pipe,” I say.

“Right,” says Frankie. “Once you’re down, there’s a fence right in front of you. Head to that and follow it downhill, for—I don’t know—ten meters. You come to a hole in the fence, cut right through it. Squeeze on through that…”

“What if I get stuck?”

“Jesus, Cowboy—if I can get through it, you can. So you’re through the fence, then you’ll see the highway in front of you. Head for that. There’s a little path there—a rabbit run, pretty much, but enough to see—and it’ll take you to a little brook and a culvert that goes under the highway. Go through that and just there, on the right, there’s a concrete pipe—a storm sewer or something. Get yourself into that and wait.”

“Wait?”

“For me,” says Frankie.

“What about the police?”

“Don’t worry about the police—they don’t get their arses outta their cars for a murder. For a missing Hollow kid, they might bother to roll down a window, but there’s no way they’re going to be slogging through no muddy ditch.”

“But Mr. Fitzpatrick—Dez—he’ll be there.”

“Old Dezzy?” says Frankie. “Yeah—he’ll be there in his shined-up loafers and his suit and tie. He’ll stay farther from the mud than the cops.”

Frankie looks out the window.

“We’re just coming up to Osgoode’s now,” he says. “You got all this?”

I nod. “The toilet—”

“The family one.”

“The family one. Out the window, through the fence to the culvert, to the pipe, and wait for you.”

“Right on,” he says. “Now remember—you stay put till I gets there. I’ll call out the signal to lets ya know it’s me.”

“The signal?”

“Three barks, right together,” says Frankie, then leans in close to make the noise in my ear. “Ruf, ruf, ruf.”

I smile, which is the wrong thing to do.

“Don’t be no smart ass,” Frankie says. “It’s a good signal— been using it for years and the cops still don’t know it. Stunned arseholes.”

“Okay. Three barks.”

Frankie gives me a wink.

“Jesus, Cowboy,” he says. “Doing a runner, knowing the signal.”

He looks out at the rain, still doing that snail dance to the back of the bus.

“You’re one of us, b’y.”

Soon as I step into the funeral home I see the family bathroom. Should I go in now or wait till after the service? Before I can decide, Dezzy spots me and calls me over.

“Charlie,” he says. “How are you?”

“Okay.”

“I guess Mr. Delaney told you what’s happening today.”

“He told me my dad got cremated.”

“That’s right. Yesterday.”

“So I guess there’ll be ashes and stuff.”

“There will be, in an urn. You’ll see it when we go inside. Child Services will store it for you in a safe place—and you can have it when you turn eighteen. They’ll hold his remains for you. They’re yours.”

Which is a funny thing to say about ashes—’cause how can ashes be anybody’s? They’re nothing, or as close to nothing as you can make something. They all look the same. I mean, if you really burn something up—all the way, so there’s no hair or bone or bark or anything left—every kind of ash looks the same. Which makes me feel sorta good, because what’s left of my dad in that urn isn’t my dad, is it? The only thing left of my dad is what’s in my head. That hockey game we watched, or the time he yelled at me for stealing a sip of his beer. And that stuff will be in me forever, or until I die. “Charlie—any thoughts on that?” says Dezzy.

BOOK: Charlie's Key
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