It turns out to be a sucky day for the Scott siblings.
For once, it isn’t Lewis’s fault. Not all of it, anyway.
Maybe it was being last to wake. Or not having clean clothes, or the cracks in the pavement. The food, the game. Lewis can never tell when it’s going to be a bad day.
As he walks out of the room and down the stairs, the cacophony from the kitchen slices through the air. The engine inside his chest picks up speed.
In the kitchen, the counselors shout orders and grumble about things.
“Johnny! Do not put the knife in your mouth! Knives are for buttering!”
“Amelia, please get down off that chair and sit properly! You don’t want to sit properly? You want to sit like a cowboy?”
Lewis laughs quietly. Cowboys are awesome. Riding a horse all day, going where the urge takes you, wearing a handkerchief around your neck and getting rich by robbing banks. He bets cowboys don’t have Autism Spectrum Disorder. It sounds more like a moldy green vegetable. Artichoke. Asparagus. Why would anyone want to eat a vegetable that makes your pee smell weird? And are there only two vegetables beginning with ‘a?’
“Lord have mercy on us all!” The counselor exclaims, a wisp of graying hair coming loose from a tight ponytail.
Lewis winces. His engine kicks up another notch. It moves along at a steady pace.
“Millie, your shirt is dirty! Please go and change!”
Lewis shies away from the general chaos of the morning. It gives him a headache and sets a wriggly feeling creeping over his skin. He retreats to the end table in the kitchen, closest to the soothing hum of the refrigerator, away from the other bickering kids.
A row of cereal boxes makes a centerpiece on the table. They’re in the wrong order. Lewis rearranges them according to size, the giant box of Cornflakes at one end and the small, round tube of granola at the other. He frowns, wishing someone would hurry and eat all the granola because the cylinder shape doesn’t fit with all the other rectangles.
With a smug smile on his face, he removes an object from his left pocket and places it in the Cheerios box.
Jason turns from the fridge and catches him in the act. “That a good idea?” His brother ruffles the top of his head. “You know she’s gonna freak.”
“Uh-huh,” Lewis replies, smiling.
Jason sighs. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Lewis removes a Matchbox car from the other pocket of his shorts. It’s a red Cadillac. His favorite and most prized possession. He puts it on the scarred, wooden table and drives it around and around the stack of bowls, the jug of milk, the sugar bowl, avoiding the knot of wood that is now a tar pit.
“Have a good day at school today, Lew,” Jason says, a basketball tucked under his arm.
Lewis nods. “Good luck with your game.”
“Stay out of trouble.” Jason winks at him and flicks his gaze to the box of Cheerios.
“Always,” Lewis replies, sincerely.
Lewis does his best to stay out of trouble every day. But every day, trouble with a capital T finds him and Lewis isn’t sure why. Well, he knows why the counselors say it does. They tell him it’s part of his condition. The moldy green vegetable condition. He prefers what Jason calls it: The Angry Monster. Jason named it for him one night when he got so angry he couldn’t calm down for hours and his nose stuffed up and he could barely see out of his puffy eyes. Jason said people like him don’t always have control over their emotions. That something else inside him was taking the reins. Now Lewis blames The Angry Monster when things go wrong. It lives inside him, with him, and sometimes it says things Lewis doesn’t approve of. But he can’t help it. Can he?
Last week he decided to pick a nice bunch of flowers for Mrs. Madeleine McKenzie, the manager of the group home, thinking it might soften the tight, wiry look she wears on her face all the time. In the group home gardens, he spotted the pink rose bush. He scraped himself a couple of times on the menacing thorns as he cut a few stalks with his children’s scissors. And then Mrs. Madeleine McKenzie had come running across the yard – her name badge bobbing on her shirt – faster than a three-legged cat and shouted at him to stop what he was doing RIGHT NOW.
“I was gonna bring you some flowers. To make you happy,” Lewis explained, with the monster awakening in his chest.
Mrs. Madeleine McKenzie shook a finger at him. “It’s a special rose bush. It was planted in memory of the director when this building was still an orphanage. The flowers are old and fragile and aren’t to be messed with by the grubby hands of little eight-year-old boys! Only I am allowed to touch the roses. And Jason, under close supervision, because it’s his job to mow and garden and prune.”
“I’m not little!” That earned him a scornful look and an earful of ugly words, all thrown at him like darts.
She went on and on, her voice rising until the entire population of the group home was peering out their windows at him. Humiliated, the Angry Monster escaped. He stuck his tongue out at her, covered his ears with his hands and walked off before she was done.
“You come back here right this minute!”
He didn’t. He yelled at her and ran away. He might have used the word ‘idiot.’ He was sent to his room for the duration of the evening. And by the time she managed to manhandle him into his room, the dinner hour had passed and his stomach grumbled all night. Luckily, he knew where the key to the kitchen was.
Now, in the kitchen for breakfast, his brother touches his shoulder and gives it a gentle squeeze before he leaves.
“Glasses, Jase,” Lewis reminds him.
Jason pats himself down, performing a thorough search of the multitude of pockets in his jeans, plaid shirt and backpack. Finally, he retrieves them from the back pocket of his jeans and slips them on his face, pushing them to nose with a finger. The frames are dark blue with a thin white stripe. They make him look friendly.
“Thanks, bro,” Jason says, as he opens the door.
“Bye, Jase,” Lewis whispers after him, still driving his bright, red Cadillac around the milk jug.
He puts too much force into the next propulsion of rocket-fueled jumping display and the milk jug teeters, in slow motion, but not slow enough for Lewis to do anything about. It overbalances and splashes milk the length of the table and over the edge.
Lewis freezes. Glances briefly at the bustling counselors to see if any of them noticed. But they’re all preoccupied with the other kids. Hayley materializes from nowhere and catches the offending – and now empty – jug before it rolls off the table and shatters on the slate floor. She grabs a roll of paper towels and mops up the mess.
“Careful,” she says, as she throws the sodden paper towels in the trash.
Mess cleaned up with the counselors none the wiser, Hayley sits at the table and grabs a bowl from the stack. First, she pours a bowl of Bran Flakes for Lewis and plonks it in front of him. Then she grabs the box of Cheerios. Lewis pauses in the action of rolling his red Cadillac back and forth along the length of a knife to smile.
Hayley pauses with her hand on the box of cereal, her eyebrows twitching quizzically, but he doesn’t reveal anything. She frowns and pours the little tiny ‘o’s of goodness into her bowl. It doesn’t take long for the fist-sized plastic spider he won from the lucky dip at the school fair to fall out and land in the middle of her mountain of ‘o’s. The scream is priceless and entirely worth the scowl and the scolding from the closest counselor.
“Quiet over there,” Theresa exclaims as she pushes a bottle of milk into the mouth of a wriggling baby. She’s one of the nice ones. Something crashes on the other side of the kitchen, followed by a long wail. The counselor hurries away.
Hayley shoves the bowl over to Lewis’s side of the table. “Don’t do that again!”
“It was a joke.”
“You know I don’t like spiders.”
“It’s not real.”
“Lew. Don’t. Do. It. Again.”
She pours milk into her bowl and spoons the food into her mouth.
“Aren’t you going to pour mine?” Lewis asks.
“I haven’t decided yet.”
“Hayley!” His voice rises and one of the counselors frowns at him.
“No more spiders.”
He rolls his eyes. “Oooookayyy…” But his engine hurtles down the track.
Hayley pours his milk, exactly the right amount so it doesn’t go mushy. If it goes mushy, it congeals uncomfortably in his mouth and makes him think of slippery, jellied eels. Not that he knows what a slippery, jellied eel is. Is it something people eat? Or run away from? So he always has to wait for Hayley. And it’s not about being lazy either – thank you very much, Jason – because when he tries to pour it himself, more often than not he misses the bowl entirely, even when he concentrates.
“Jase left already?”
Lewis nods. “Basketball practice.”
“Well, get a move on or we’ll be late.”
Lewis gulps down half a glass of water from one of the acceptable glasses, shovels the remaining cereal in his mouth, all except the flakes up the sides of the bowl – yuck – and slips off his chair, backpack on shoulders and red Cadillac safe in his pocket.
They leave through the kitchen door and begin the fifteen-minute walk to St. Christopher’s Elementary and Middle School. It’s run by the church and all of the kids at St. Jerome’s Group Home for displaced children go there, all twenty of them, of varying ages. Jason, at thirteen is one of the oldest, and according to the conversation Lewis eavesdropped on the other night outside Mrs. Madeleine McKenzie’s office, is unlikely to get adopted. Which means they’re all stuck here. Forever. They mentioned something about sending Lewis to an RTC (whatever that is), on his own, and his guts churned until one of the other counselors mentioned it was expressly stated in the will that they weren’t to be split up.
He walks to St. Christopher’s, the school he will go to until he reaches ninth grade. Then he’ll go to the high school across the street. And when he’s grown up, he’ll be an engineer. He’ll design a new Cadillac.
Sneezing, Lewis wipes his nose on his sleeve and tries to spot pollen atoms floating in the air. He can’t smell them; it’s all car fumes and the reek of the dumpster on trash day. For the first block of the walk, Lewis dodges the cracks in the sidewalk, dancing on his tiptoes over the hot concrete as if it’s on fire. He doesn’t like cracks. It makes him think about decay. About something once shiny and new and perfect, now crumbling and aging and dying. Like the city buildings surrounding him marred by eons of weather and graffiti, puddles of urine from the homeless and the cast-off trash of the irresponsible.
Decay. Just like people. Just like a family. Decay, decay, decay. Dead, dead, dead. Until there is nothing. What will the world be like when there’s nothing left?
The circle of life. It ensures there will always be something. He’ll go to Heaven when he dies. Or Hell, if he doesn’t stop getting in trouble. But either way, he might come back again. But why would anyone leave Heaven when you can eat all the cake you want without getting fat or unhealthy? But if he did come back, he’d make sure he didn’t have an Angry Monster anymore. And he’d still want to keep his Matchbox car collection.
Lewis’s backpack digs into his shoulders. “Here.” He hands it to Hayley to carry.
“No, Lew. I’ve got my own.” She walks on.
“Hayley!” He yells. “It’s too heavy for me!”
“Then you shouldn’t pack it so full,” she snaps, but at least she picks it up.
His parents are eating cake in Heaven. Lucky them. Chocolate and vanilla and red velvet. But none with jam in the middle. No thanks. They’ve been eating cake for five years now. Since he was three. He doesn’t really remember them. His most vivid memory is from a July 4th celebration. He remembers the total darkness of the night, suddenly lit up by lights and smoke and noise – oh the noise. Lewis cried at first. Then something placed over his ears muffled the loudest bangs and explosions. He watched and wasn’t afraid. He remembers a pair of arms circled around his waist, sitting on someone’s lap.
Lewis dodges another crack and frowns at their increasing frequency. The pathway to Hell itself could be under the cracks. Lewis is pretty sure Hell doesn’t exist, despite what the minister says every Sunday, but he does know the earth has a center and surrounding the iron core are unfathomable depths of lava. The cracks he skips over are evidence of shifting plate tectonics. They are openings into the terrifying world below. If they get any wider…well, he doesn’t want to be burned alive. That would be a terrible way to go. So, he skips over the cracks, until he has a better idea.
“Did you know the Duryea brothers created the first automobile manufacturing company, back in 1893?” he says to Hayley as he makes his way to the edge of the sidewalk.
“Hmm,” Hayley replies, as she shields her eyes against the morning sun.
Lewis walks along the narrow path of the curb. Hardly any cracks, but it’s still hard to keep his balance. He puts his arms out for help. It’s tricky when he has to maneuver around a parked car. It’s bright red. But it isn’t a Cadillac.
“Come away from the edge of the road, Lew.”
“Henry M. Leland created the Cadillac.” Lewis continues walking along the curb. “It was taken over by General Motors in…umm…sometime in the early nineteen hundreds.” The exact date has suddenly left the bank vault of information he stores in his head. No matter, it will come back to him.
Lewis teeters along, arms out, foot over foot, no cracks.
“Lewis, could ya please stop walking so close to the road?”
Lewis glances at her. There are so many cracks on her part of the sidewalk. It would be much safer to stay where he is.
“The ’69 Cadillac Sedan DeVille was the best of all. The coolest looking. And they made one in cherry red,” Lewis informs his sister with importance. “Although the convertibles are pretty cool too.” But it’s the ’69 Sedan DeVille he holds in his pocket. The perfect mix of chrome and red symbolizing everything right about a car. Lewis hopes he’ll own one when he’s old enough. He’d even buy it before he has a roof over his head. It is possible to live in a car.
Lewis looks at his sister. She is a few paces ahead, near the crosswalk, her face buried in the newspaper stand.
“What are you looking at?” Her face is all pale looking and pinchy.
“I think…I don’t know…Maybe it’s…”
He hurries to catch up with her, one eye on her and the other on his quickening feet. Something slams into his side and he goes down hard, spinning in a half-circle on the way. He lands on his hip and the red ’69 Cadillac Sedan DeVille in his pocket.
“Ow,” he moans, looking around for an out of control bicycle, an absentminded runner, even a streetlight is possible. It was the Blazer with a protruding wingmirror he didn’t see because he was too busy looking at his feet.
He risks another glance at his sister. Her eyes are glued to the newspaper.
“Owwwwww,” he yells a bit louder, still splayed on the ground, probably laying over a thousand cracks, glad they don’t appear intent on opening up and taking him to the world below. How long will it take Hayley to respond?
Hayley chucks a look over her shoulder. Frowns. “Dude! Seriously! You gonna quit walking along the curb now?” Her head swivels back to the newspaper. What is it with the stupid newspaper?
Lewis sighs, contemplates tears, contemplates moaning a bit louder. But he knows he’ll never get her attention unless he’s bleeding. He double-checks his body. He isn’t bleeding. Scowling at the parked Blazer, he gets slowly to his feet and pats the offending Matchbox car in his pocket lovingly. He reaches Hayley as she shoves the newspaper in her backpack.
They walk the rest of the way to school, Hayley in front and Lewis trailing ten paces behind, jogging to keep up with her athletic strides. He’s given up on avoiding the cracks. The war with the center of the earth is over for today. The lava is far below and he’s relatively sure he’ll reach the safety of school without being swallowed whole.
When they arrive, Hayley jogs off toward the sixth-grade classrooms without a backward glance. Lewis trudges to his second-grade classroom, hangs his sweatshirt on his peg, takes his homework from his backpack and puts it in the boxes by the teacher’s desk. He asks if he can help hand anything out, but the teacher merely says, ‘No thanks.’
Mrs. Arnold hands him a crossword puzzle. He gets to work straight away, until his friend Adam slides in beside him and says; ‘’S’up?’ Lewis nods but doesn’t engage in conversation. He’s almost completed the puzzle in his fastest time.
Fridays are his favorite days. While Jason has his big basketball game and Hayley her gymnastics competition, Lewis gets to enjoy double math. He likes numbers. He likes big numbers. One hundred and fifty thousand is his favorite number. Nothing as boring as 7 or 8. He likes picturing how many zeros are in a million, a billion, a trillion…and then what? What comes after a trillion? And infinity. Is infinity a number? Or a concept? It hurts his head considering these things, but in a good way.
Mrs. Arnold clears her throat and the math lesson begins. Halfway through the lesson, Lewis is aware of a stinging sensation on his chin. His tongue has been hanging out again, probably for a while. It always happens when he’s concentrating and he is powerless to stop it. He pauses in the contemplation of a long division problem which he can do in his head, but his teacher insists he ‘show his work,’ and applies some Vaseline to his chapped lips and chin.
The rest of the morning goes by seamlessly, and his engine almost feels back to normal after Hayley yelling at him this morning. But then lunch-time arrives. And the trouble begins. It finds him like he’s the locked-on target of a fighter plane.
It starts in the lunch line. He’s with Adam, receiving food from the stern dinner ladies who never give large enough portions to support a growing boy.
One of them slaps a spoonful of mac and cheese onto his tray. Under ordinary circumstances, Lewis likes mac and cheese, it’s one of his favorite dinners at the group home, along with hot dogs and pizza and spaghetti with marinara sauce. And it’s not all about the junk food, he likes his fruit and vegetables as well, sometimes will even take a bunch of crisp, seedless black grapes or a yellow bell pepper over a bowl of chocolate ice cream. But this particular mac and cheese has carrots in it. It’s not the carrots themselves that pose the problem, Lewis likes carrots too, prefers them raw and dipped in peanut butter, but he’ll take them cooked. The problem is the carrots are in the mac and cheese. There’s something about the orange color leaching into the bleached white of the macaroni that strikes Lewis as off. He frowns at the still-steaming, quivering pasta and hesitates.
“We haven’t got all day!” The dinner lady snaps.
He moves along, his engine gurgling again. It gets worse when dessert is dished out by a plastic gloved hand. It’s a cookie. Oatmeal. He doesn’t like oatmeal; he likes the double chocolate chip ones. He bets the dinner lady who told him to move along organized this on purpose.
Lewis’s chest bubbles more aggressively. Bigger than this morning. The Angry Monster is in there, waiting to come out. Those fighter planes are circling overhead, locking their targets on him.
At least the milk is chocolate.
Over a lunch where Lewis painstakingly picks out the carrots from the pasta and sets them aside, he and Adam discuss their strategy for the upcoming game of Monster-in-the-Maze. It’s a game Jason taught him, one they used to play with their dad. Although there’s no maze in the school playground, the concept remains solid. They’ve been playing it all week, a big group of them. Lewis and Adam have the idea to set their base far away and in plain view of the main field so they can see the enemy monsters. If they get tagged, then they have to sit at the opposing side’s base until they’re freed. It’s playground warfare 101.
Halfway through the lunch recess, the game is going well. Lewis can feel the metaphorical wind in his blond hair from a storm brewing over the imagined tangled maze. How he longs to be in a real maze, full of dark corners and secret hiding holes, instead of the dull grey concrete and assaulting bright graffiti of New York City.
As the game continues, he hooks an imaginary pair of handcuffs onto his belt, making sure they’re secure. He and Adam have captured three enemy monsters and the rest of their troop are attempting a rescue.
“You go left, I’ll go right,” Lewis instructs his friend. “That way they won’t outflank us. We’re gonna cream ‘em!” They totally have it in the bag.
Lewis marches onto the battlefield, scoping out the opponent with imaginary binoculars. He glances at Adam and they share a solemn look. And then the fight is upon them. But something happens between instruction and delivery and they end up going in the same direction – to the right – leaving their left flank wide open and subsequently losing all their prisoners.
“What are you doing?” Lewis yells at his friend as they walk back, defeated, to their starting position. Now they don’t stand a chance of winning the battle. “I told you to go left!”
Adam shrugs. “I thought you said right.”
“No! I said you go left!” How hard is it to follow instructions? The bubble in his chest grows bigger, painful, threatening to explode. And there’s nothing he can do about it. Counting to ten and deep breathing never work. The Angry Monster is stronger than him.
“I told you to go left! And now we’ve lost!” Lewis yells at his friend, right in his face.
Adam holds out a hand. “Dude, keep your cool, it’s just a game—”
“It’s not just a game!” Lewis insists, crossing his arms over his chest and stamping a foot on the ground.
Adam’s mouth drops open. “Sssorry.”
But it’s too late. Lewis shoves his friend in the chest. Game or no game, they didn’t have to lose. Adam should have followed the instructions. Adam goes down hard, scraping a knee on a manhole cover. Lewis has enough time to hope his friend doesn’t have a Matchbox car in his pocket too before he realizes what he’s done is bad. Which makes the Angry Monster angrier. If people would listen, then everything would be okay.
Adam is bleeding. He hadn’t meant for Adam to bleed. Adam must have stupid knees that bleed too easily.
Adam glares at him.
“That wasn’t s’posed to happen!” Lewis shouts.
The teacher on monitor duty marches over, grabs him by the arm and takes him to the principal’s office. He sits outside the principal’s office, wondering what his punishment will be this time. Will it be detention? Or something worse?
Before the principal calls Lewis into his office, Hayley arrives and is instructed to sit on a chair next to Lewis and then Jason arrives ten minutes later.
It’s a sucky day for the Scott siblings.