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Tag, You're it
I held a picture of my father, I took when I was seven years old, in my fingertips as the house I grew up in went up in flames. The light of the warm orange fire reflected off the face of my little brother, Ashton, as he cried and wailed in rhythm with each pop of the blaze. My mother held Ashton and I close to her. I could feel her heart beating out of her chest as the three of us bundled together in the dirt road in front of our house. However, the weeping faces of my mother and Ashton were far different than mine. I grinned from ear to ear.
As a kid, a shack with chipped siding, busted windows, and a squeaky door was my brother and I’s kingdom. Ashton and I tried to be alone most of the warm summer days, playing hide and seek in the heavy foliage adjacent to our little brown house. I’d be told to count to fifteen as I sat on the only grass patch in our lawn. “Ready or not here I come!” I exclaimed after I only counted to ten. Ashton hid in the same spot every time we played. To find him I just tiptoed past the first row of butterfly bushes, turned right at the red oak and there he’d be-- right under the thirty some foot birch tree. He would be sitting with his skinny arms wound tightly around his legs with one eye tightly shut and the other barely open. As I neared toward his ball of a body his partially open eye forcefully shut creating deep wrinkles on his forehead. I stood over him for a minute or two as he remains in a ball. I yell “Found you!” Hide and seek went the same way every round, but if we were tired of playing hide and seek we played tag or scavenger hunt or bottle bowling.
On Wednesday, the Wilson twins who live a couple miles down the road, joined Ashton and I in a game of tag, as they did every Wednesday. Compared to the rest of the clear skied hundred-degree days in July, the twenty third was cool and cloudy. I started off the game as voluntarily being the first to be it, knowing the three others would fight about being it. As soon as I spit out the last word of “I’ll be it first,” the three boys fled from my sight, stomping their size three shoe prints into the dirt. Looking more closely at the prints, I noticed two pairs of shoe imprints going left of the narrow opening of the brush and one set going to the right. I decided to go right in hopes of tagging Ashton.
I lightly picked up and put down my feet as crept under low-hanging branches and over girthy tree stumps. My worn down sneakers uncomfortably grazed over pebbles and acorns. As I grew farther away from the opening of the forest, the five year-old’s tracks started to fade away. I knelt down and looked under the small willow tree that’s directly next to the last footprint but only found a few sticks and stones. Coming from behind me, I heard quiet sniffles and crunching leaves. I jerked upright and quickly turned to face the source of the noise and find the twins running from tree to tree about sixty feet away from me. I sprint in their direction, but when I inch closer to them they approach me with flushed cheeks and wet eyes.
“Regan! Regan...someone...Ashton...took him…” Huston, the blonder of the twins, puffed out while he wheezed and hunched over as he tried to catch his breath.
I furrowed my eyebrows and narrowed my eyes trying to make sense of his unintelligible sentence as I told them to calm down and explain what they were going on about.
“We was running from you then we gotta feeling that someone was looking us down-”
“We seen Ashton from right across from us before we got that feeling-”
“But right when it came onto us he was gone.-”
“And all we seen was a shadow. We think he took him,” each boy picked up the sentence the other spoke. My head swung right and left looking at Huston then Fynn then Huston again.
“No one comes out here. No one but me, you two, and Ash. What did he look like?”
The two boys look at each other, “He got on a full suit, hat and all” Hus and Fynn said in accord.
My father’s rule of being home by dark was close to being broken as we searched for footprints, dropped items, or any other clues. When the sun was in its last stage of setting and long after the twins were forced to go home, I had to leave without him. I thought of what I was going to say to mom. And what I was going to say to dad. And how I was going to find the mystery man. And how I was going to find my brother. My thoughts ceased when I reached the door. I stretched my arm and set my hand heavily on the frigid door knob. I gently twisted the knob until the door creeks open. Inside I found broken glass bottles scattered across the room and almost empty bottles of whiskey and vodka. Like many other nights, my mother is draped over the couch drunk and limp and my father is passed out on the floor by a card table closest to the dinner table. I snuck past my parents bodies to Ash and I’s room and shut the door softly. I let out a long sigh behind my closed door before I threw myself on the bottom bunk of our bed; uncontrollably weeping and drowning my face into my pillow until I fell asleep.
The next morning I awoke before my inebriate parents do, to find Ashton. The morning dew clung to each blade of grass that I trampled as I neared the forest. I brought a backpack filled with a rusted gas lamp, a box of matches, and knife from a twelve dollar set that my mom and dad were excited they could finally buy. I traced the twins path until I was in the shoe prints they made yesterday. The spot I was standing in was in perfect sight of the big red oak where the boys claimed to have had direct sight of Ash. I jogged over to the oak and small tracks like my brothers were there but they weren’t the only ones-big dress shoe like imprints followed along his. The tracks wound around tree trunks and bushes until a break in the forest where sunlight pierced the flatland full of dry, brown grass. My father’s rule of not going too deep in the forest was being broken as I pensively walked toward what seems to be a small house. A few steps in I froze. The feeling Fynn was explaining yesterday, how he explained that he felt someone was looking at them; I felt it.
With a slight rustling of a tree branch, Ashton appeared from the forest beside the shed. I started to run to him with my grin from ear to ear. While doing so, I noticed he stretches his arm out from his side and wiggles his fingers like he was waiting for someone’s hand to join his. After his hand was in the air for a few seconds and I was almost in reaching distance of him, a man in a full suit with faint facial features emerged from the darkness. I stopped dead in my tracks.
Ashton opened his chapped lips, “It’s okay Rae. This is Mr. Brown, but I call him Mr. B.,” he looked up at Mr. B and they exchanged a toothy smile, “He’s like the daddy we always wanted.”
It was so good to hear his voice. Ashton looked different, but in a good way. His usually matted blonde curls were brushed and each curl laid in unison. His t-shirt that once had holes and stains up the entire front and back was now bleach white and holeless. Even his eyes were different, lighter than they were when he used to see how long he could stare at the sun until his eyes burnt and watered.
“Why Ash, is this the wonderful big sister you’ve been talking my ear off about?” Mr. B looked at Ashton, placed his pale hands on his shoulder then directed his eyes to mine. He had a polished black and white suit that perfectly laid upon his body, with icy blue eyes and a crooked smile. “Oh, how rude of me. Would you like something to drink? Come on in I have some orange juice left from breakfast,” he said, as he lifted his hand off Ash’s shoulder and pointed at the door on the dark gray shelter.
Ashton’s eyes grew larger as he exclaimed, “Yeah! It’ll be fun, I promise!”
And with that he sprinted from Mr. B’s grasp taking my hand, dragging me into the shed door. Slowly behind us followed Mr. B. Ashton runs to the chair nearest to a television set and puts on a cartoon. I’ve only ever dreamt about seeing a television set.
“Now, Regan, I’ve heard much about your mommy and daddy. I’m much different than them,” Mr. B begins as he gently placed the glass of OJ on a coaster. We were never able to fit orange juice in our grocery budget. He lets out a short sigh, “Well, how do you feel about a little freshening up?”
Unsure of what to say, I didn’t say anything. Instead, I took a sip of my sweet, sugary juice then raised the corners of my mouth into a small smile. He directed me down a small hallway then to the right I saw a small room with an assortment of newer clothing items for me and for Ashton. Mr. B explained where the shower was and where the bed was that I may sleep in are located as he picked through the heap of clothing items until he handed me a shirt, a pair of leggings, and a new pair of sneakers. He then left me to change and straighten my short brown ponytail out.
The rest of the morning was mainly Ashton, Mr. B, and I sitting in a half circle around the T.V. flipping through all the channels and talking about our poor home life. The other portion was spent admiring the man who gave me my first drink other than water and who gave me clothes that weren’t hand-me-downs; and who could also speak big words without slurring them and who didn’t smell like hard liquor. I’ve spent all thirteen years of my life with my real father and a mother who hated their lives, yet it seems as though I should have been spending them with Mr. Brown.
He lets Ash continue to watch T.V. but pulled me aside and offered me a seat on the sofa chair. I sunk into the soft cushions and kicked my feet up onto the blueish-green ottoman.
“Seems to me you’re starting to enjoy yourself,” Mr. B’s eyes brightened and a smile popped on his face. “Ah, now what if I told you this could be your new home?”
Unsure of the response I may get I tentatively ask, “Would Ash stay too?”
“Why of course. What kind of monster would take you from your best friend?”
At first I smiled ear to ear when I imagined drinking orange juice while I watched cartoons then my smile faded and I told him that someone will come looking for us.
“Not if you do what I tell you to,” His smile straightened out and his eyes went dark blue and I couldn’t look away from them. He inched close to my ear and whispered his orders. When he’s finished speaking, he slowly pulled away with no expression on his face. My sight of Mr. B tunneled and the wall behind him blurred to bone white. I look to my right and I couldn’t make out Ashton’s face. I ask him frantically what was going on. I didn’t get an answer but I knew he’s looking at me. In a hurry, I sprinted down the hall and ran into the bathroom. My eyes were the lightest shade of brown.
When my vision returned to normal, I felt a change in myself. As I entered the living room, Mr. B is putting Ashton’s old ratty shoes on.
“You must be returning home, my children. Wouldn’t want your parents to be worried, now would we?” He hugged Ash’s shoulders together and gave him a smile. He turned to me and tipped his hat, signaling this was the time to complete his orders.
At sunset, Ash and I marched through the forest to what once was our kingdom that is now our dungeon. We greeted our oblivious parents with little eye contact. I gave them fake smiles and even faker hugs before we all headed to our rooms to sleep. Ash plopped on his flattened mattress on the top bunk, shut out his light, and told me goodnight.
A few sleepless hours later, I peeked out my bedroom door and see that my father was on the couch instead of in his room with my mother. Insisting to follow through with what is now my plan, I woke Ashton and convinced him to sneak out to Mr. B’s for the night. We packed lightly then crept out the front door, Ashton leading. I swung my backpack off my back and into my hands. For one last time, I looked at my mess of a father and I struck a bundle of matches against the rough box then finally chucked the sticks around the bottles of spilled whiskey.
As the wooden shack went up in flames, Ash and I unwillingly dragged my mother through the woods to the long bare land where Mr. B would be to house us for the rest of our lives. As we reached the clear, we find no little gray house with orange juice and a television set. My vision blurs white once more and when it’s back, I saw my mother weeping into my brother’s stained, ripped t-shirt because I just ruined the last bit of all she had left.