Authors: Brad Cook
Genre: Young Adult Adventure
Author: Brad Cook
©2014 by Brad Cook
Published 2014 by The Fiction Works
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission, except for brief quotations to books and critical reviews. This story is a work of fiction. Characters and events are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Table of Contents
This story takes place
in the innocent insecurity
of pre-9/11 America.
Leroy Smiley stood beside his mother’s casket, trying to feel something.
Leroy stared more through her than at her. This was the woman who had birthed him, bathed him, clothed him. The woman who had provided for him, or at least tried to play it off that way. The woman who’d made him who he was.
Maybe that was the problem. She had been a particularly unfeeling person.
But he wasn’t. This emptiness was new.
The placard listed her as Adalynne Jeanette Smiley. He knew it would’ve said Adalynne Jeanette Bradley if she’d have had her way. But to have her way would’ve required time, effort, probably a little cash, so she’d remained a Smiley until the end.
The chemical fumes adrift in the funeral home invaded his mouth after conquering his nose. The place looked as sanitized as it smelled. Shades of white and grey smothered the walls and ceiling, broken only by the cheap cherry-stained wood of the casket. It felt unnaturally smooth as Leroy grazed his fingers along it. The mortician had provided her a dress suit with a wavy blue blouse; Ada had always said brown was her color, but they couldn’t know that. A layer of makeup, unable to match her hazelnut skin, gave her face a muddy complexion. Still, she looked better groomed than at any point in her forty-eight years of life. At least the years he’d been around.
He knew he should feel something toward, about, for her. For himself. But all he felt was nausea from the pungent embalming fluids. It seemed like some sort of sick science project, as if the bell would ring and he would go to his next class, his mother waiting for him at home, but only long enough to ensure he made it okay and give him some semblance of dinner before she headed out. To do what, he wasn’t sure, but he knew one thing — it must’ve been more enjoyable than spending time with her son.
It had given Leroy a chance to watch whatever he liked on television. And he liked it all. In fact, he realized, he’d learned more about life from those old cop shows, sitcoms, and science specials than either parent had ever bothered to teach him.
Don’t think about Baron. Just don’t do it.
He trusted that the funeral home had done their best, but the ligature mark around her throat showed faintly. The proportions of her face were just off, too, a bit bloated and too round. Even those gruesome details couldn’t provoke emotion in him.
Leroy looked around at the empty rows of seats. His mother was social, but not exactly sociable. She had acquaintances, but apparently none close enough to pay their respects. This was fine with him. He had no interest in dealing with the parade of barflies, junkies, and random men he imagined she spent her time with.
There was only one person Leroy expected to show up, and he was nowhere to be found. That, too, was fine with him. There was another, though, he’d subconsciously hoped would show. Her absence buzzed in his ears like a relentless mosquito.
It was then Leroy found direction, a reason to go on.
She was out there, and he would find her.
Maybe his mother had lost that. Maybe she had nothing more to keep her waking up in the morning. Wasn’t
a comforting notion. He didn’t understand how a person, especially one with a child, could simply decide to end her life. But then, there was more than a little about his mother he didn’t understand.
A sense of excitement, of purpose smoldered inside him, the beginnings of a wildfire. He had just begun to fan the flames when someone spoke behind him. “No rush, buddy, but I’ll be in the car when you’re ready.”
Leroy turned, but he already recognized the voice of Tim Harlow, his caseworker. Tim, a middle-aged white man in a suit, stood in the doorway, mustering as sympathetic an expression as he could, which said a lot about his sympathetic capabilities.
Leroy nodded, but inside he sneered. The man was supposed to guide him through this tough time, yet only served as another reminder that Leroy was alone. He’d always been alone in some sense, but knowing that his mother was around, somewhere, was a comfort. That phantom notion of being tethered to someone inextricably, whatever might lie ahead, was enough to keep him going. Even that was gone, now.
After a moment, Tim turned away and raised a phone to his ear, his voice and footsteps fading as he strolled off. “Listen, I’m not sure when I’ll be back, so you guys may have to start without me. Could be a while. You know how emotional they get.”
Leroy wasn’t sure if by ‘they’ Tim meant black people, children, or both. He knew he should be offended, but it rolled right off him.
He felt like he should stay, but he was starting to realize that the longer he stood there, the more he disdained this woman. He wouldn’t let her affect one more moment of his life. Now, more than ever, it was his to mold. Besides, he had planning to do.
Leroy turned around to look at what was his mother one last time, then waded out of the room, shutting the door behind him.
* * *
Leroy didn’t know car seats came in leather. He’d never had trouble staying still on a drive, mostly because his mom would smack him if he did. But he had to stop himself from sliding off the seat a few times in an already unpleasant ride. With nothing to talk about and no reason to try, an hour felt like a lifetime.
Leroy also wasn’t a fan of Tim’s driving style, having never been in a Formula One race. They breezed down the highway, weaving around and between cars and trucks, honking and swerving. Leroy was more than happy to have a handle to grasp in the few times he actually feared for his life.
He was searching for emotion. He supposed he’d found one.
The few times Tim did speak, his words reeked of disingenuousness. “Again, real sorry about your mom, kid. She seemed like a great woman.”
Leroy nodded absentmindedly.
“It’ll get better. Time heals all things.”
He nodded again, watching the raindrops flow across the windshield and over his window like a tiny river.
“Foster care isn’t that bad, though. You’ll make plenty of friends!”
Leroy didn’t answer.
“So uh, what do you think of the new car, buddy?”
Leroy studied the finer details of the car: the electronic speedometer, the paddle shifters on the steering wheel, the heads-up display reflected on the bottom-left of the windshield. The radio had so many buttons, he wouldn’t know where to start.
“It’s nice. Must’a been expensive.”
“Nah, it’s just a Three series. Wasn’t too bad.”
Leroy unbuckled his seatbelt the moment he saw the rock quarry, a familiar landmark. Soon after, the BMW pulled up in front of a squalid house he thought few would believe met the standards of a foster home.
Tom turned to him without putting the car in park. “Well, I’ll see you next month, buddy. You need anything before that, I’m just a phone call away, k?”
Leroy couldn’t meet his gaze. “Thanks, Mr. Tim.”
Tom reached out and rubbed Leroy’s head awkwardly, then pulled away his hand. From the corner of his eye, he glanced at it. “Tell Ms. Stacey I said hello. Take care!”
As Leroy exited the vehicle, he saw Tim wipe his hand on his pants. The car began to pull away before the door even closed.
Leroy started down the gravel trail, then up the six tall stairs, always two at a time, despite how short he was for fifteen. The wood porch groaned under his shifting weight. Leroy knew how it felt.
After three series of knocks, a boy smaller than Leroy answered, then darted back to a torn-up couch beside an older boy. “It’s my turn!” he cried, and reached for the bulky handheld gaming device, but the older boy was too quick, shielding it with his body.
Ms. Stacey, a hearty woman clutching a landline phone with a long cord tangled at her feet, trudged out of the kitchen. “Just walk in next time.”
Leroy’s socks slipped as he crossed the faded, fake hardwood floor, past the scuffle on the couch, past Ms. Stacey, all the way into his room.
“Spaghetti’s ready,” he heard her call out as he shut the door.
He took his place on the middle of the three beds in the cramped room, a spot he hated. No matter which way he turned — and, of course, he could only sleep on his side — he was staring at or being stared at by someone. All he wanted was some privacy, but that was too much to ask from an orphan mill.
The room didn’t even have windows, which was both a blessing and a curse. There was no view, but Leroy had always found it easiest to sleep in darkness. As a child, he’d covered up every insignificant source of light in his room. The worst was the light from the hallway filtering in under his door. It was a requirement for his mother’s nightly drunken stumble to the bathroom.
He wondered when the random memories of his mom would cease, then grew worried at the thought that they may never stop. He laid back, folding in half his single pillow for more neck support. The wall above it was bare, unlike the wall above the beds to either side of him, which bore posters of Transformers, and race cars. Leroy had the chance to get a poster, but he couldn’t think of anything he’d want up there.
He knew he should be packing, determining what was essential to bring, what he would need to acquire, legally or otherwise. But he was so tired. When his eyes closed the last time, he was stuck on the thought of Twinkies. He’d heard once that they never go bad.
* * *
Leroy’s eyes opened, and he could see nothing. It was a darkness that threatened to slip him into slumber once more, but after a few moments, memories of the day rushed him. He glanced around, eyes adjusting, and saw the beds on either side of him occupied by sleeping children. A clock on a desk in the room, uncovered as of yet, told him it was past three in the morning.
His pillow unfolded with a flop as he stood, thoughts cloudy, searching for the next step in his plan. He needed a bag. He slid the closet open tenderly, but it still creaked. He stopped, looking back to see if he’d awoken anyone. Neither child moved. If it was going to creak anyway, he figured he might as well get it over with. In one swift motion, the closet screeched open.
His backpack hung on a clothes hanger to the left. He pulled it off the rack. It was the lightest he’d ever felt it, as school was out for summer.
Without closing the closet, Leroy set the bag on his bed and unzipped the main compartment. A few stray papers from the most recent semester lingered inside. One was a sheet of math problems. Scrawled on it was, ‘Let me know if you’d like help with this,’ with the number twenty-six atop the number fifty. At his mother’s request, he’d submitted to the tutoring, staying after class for the next two weeks, although she apparently hadn’t thought it through, as she grew upset the first time he came home late, and not because she was worried.