My sister's voice woke me from a dream, one in which I hung from the underbellies of dark storm clouds like monkey bars, swinging from one to the next in quick succession. My clothes were soaked in this dream, and the drips that formed and fell off them were one with the clouds' rainfall. Using these clouds as a method of transportation, I traveled and rained upon the world wide, spying on entire countries and continents as the earth turned in space. I had just been swooping above India when Kat's voice snapped me out of my trance.
I shifted position slightly in the dirt and leaves beneath the window, a little bit of soil stuck to my chin, my glasses all foggy and my hands tucked between my knees for additional warmth. "What do you want? What time is it?"
"It's past nine. Mother knows you're out here. Come inside." She was speaking in a sort-of whisper, as if our conversation were covert.
"Well who closed the window? I wouldn't be out here on the ground if it were still open," I grumbled, eyes still tightly clenched shut. I'd never been much of a morning person - I guess I figured as long as my eyes were still closed, I was technically still asleep.
"I don't know, Fas probably did it. You know how he always gets cold at night. Now come in! Mother's made eggs."
As she said this my eyelids thought for a second, considering the consequences, then opened fully wide and took in the new sun and its life-giving light. That split second of awakening each morning always gave me the chills. I sat upright and ran my dry tongue across my drier lips, thinking of the food and drink that was waiting for me inside. That was all that it took to rouse me.
Reluctantly climbing to my feet, I stretched tall with gaping arms and felt warming blood rush to those extremities that had been cramped together, asleep in fetal position half the night. I nodded a good-morning hello to the oak tree whose leaves had gently cradled my head, then made my way along the side of the house and up to the front porch. The garbage bins had already been pulled off the street.
Kat stood there at the front door waiting for me, holding it open wide with a huge ridiculous grin on her face. She bid me enter with a bow and a wave of her hand. I gave her a nod just as I had the tree, but more solemnly, and then came inside, trying not to smile.
"Thank you my dear," I said in a satisfied baritone. As I brushed by her, I tickled her ribs right where she hates it most, and she laughed that mixture of pain and happiness as I broke into a quick sprint down the front hall and into the bathroom, slamming the door behind me. My sister Katarina and I got along pretty well. She was thirteen and practically my best friend. It didn't feel so silly, even though she was my sister and five years apart from me.
We lived in a humble home with hot dogs in the refrigerator and wilted flowers on the front steps. The five in our family shared three bedrooms: I slept on the floor with my brothers Fastidian and Abel, while Kat and my mother each had their own room; Mother said it wasn't right that a girl share a room with three boys, family or not. Each of us boys got our own mattress, so we weren't completely forsaken, except that none of us could agree on the little things: should the window be left open a crack at night, is the ticking of an alarm clock soothing or disconcerting, who gets the top dresser drawer, that sort of thing.
At eighteen, I was the eldest child and the man of the house. Since school ended I had worked as an assistant handyman to help Mother with the bills, though she didn't really need it. She had a job of her own, at Dr. Hime's office. Dr. Hime was the veterinarian, known throughout Parsons for the grey cat he had rigged up on some rolling walker because its hind legs had been crushed by a car. Mother scheduled his appointments and took emergency phone calls at night – she was able to do much of her work from home. I think she just wanted to instill a sense of responsibility in me by forcing me to hold down a proper job. At least that's what she said Father would've wanted. I was able to keep most of the money I made anyway, but oh how I hated that job.
In the bathroom, I studied the mirror's version of my face and smoothed down the cowlick at the back of my head that flared up each morning, extracting some chunks of highway dirt and windowsill gravel along the way. After hastily splashing down my face and wiping it clean, I emerged into the hallway a hygienic wonder.
Everyone else had already eaten apparently. The half-burnt, half-delicious smell of scrambled eggs and toast filled the whole house. A small pile had been scraped onto a plate for me. I made short work of it.
"Why did you sleep outside, Clayton?" my mother asked as she came into the dining room from the back of the house. She had this way of asking abrupt questions with no filler or extraneous conversation involved.
"I didn't mean to – Fas closed the window."
"Next time you should use the front door and just come inside. What were you doing out there anyway?" The front door. Genius.
"I didn't want to wake anybody up. I wasn't tired, so I went for a walk. Absolutely nothing to worry about."
I said that last part like I was the mastermind of some street gang, carefree and protected from the evils of the world because I controlled those evils, and had thugs to cover me as personal bodyguards at all hours of the day.
"You work at one today, did you know that?"
"Yeah. Don't worry." I hadn't remembered the time. My mother always kept track of my schedule – she was good at that sort of thing. I couldn't keep a calendar to save my life.
"Good boy." She had on her gardening gloves and one of those 1920s flowered ladies' hats with a full wide brim. "I'll just be outside for a bit. Abe, when Clay's done could you tidy up the kitchen?"
Abe looked up from the book he was reading and nodded. Half the time Mother didn't even ask me or Fas because she knew the reception she would get. Abe was a good kid, always doing what Mother asked of him without even considering denying her. I think it was because he was her baby. He was eleven, her youngest, and even though she meant well and tried to treat us all the same, the truth was unavoidable - he was the favored son. But it was hard to hold that over his head since he was always such a good nice kid. His name was really Abel, but we always called him Abe even though that was supposed to be short for Abraham. It was just easier than always saying Abel.
Kat was seated on our comfortable old brown-striped couch with her sketchbook. She always had that thing with her, and she was really starting to become a great artist. I just knew that one day she would be known throughout the world, with oil canvas paintings hung in the Louvre or in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or something, I just knew it.
"Hey Kat, what're you doing today?" I asked, "I've got until 12:30. Let's get the bikes and go digging in the old farm fields or ride through the forest or something."
"Sure!" She beamed with the suggestion and clutched her sketchbook to her chest. I shouted to Abe in the kitchen, "Abe! Do you want to go out on the bikes?"
He shouted back above the roar of the faucet, "I'm going with the Thurston twins to the park. Mrs. Thurston's coming to pick me up in an hour. But I'll go next time, okay – don't forget to invite me!" He was always worried about being included.
"Sure," I casually responded while Kat and I made our way to the garage, where we stored our bikes. We hadn't even bothered to ask Fas if he wanted to come along. Most likely he was going out with Mikey or Anthony or Nate, the miniature gang of tough guy sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds that he always bummed around with. That Fas, he was quite the hooligan. He caused my mother more headaches than her intermittent bouts of insomnia.
There were six bikes in the garage: one for each member of our family. We always used to frequent the Saturday and Sunday morning yard sales, scanning inventories of tattered clothing, splintered furniture and worthless toys, looking for something of value to us. At one point we went on a bike-hunting tangent that lasted nearly three summers - as long as it took to acquire a bike for everyone. And now they just stood there, the whole sorry lot of them, cobwebbed and covered in dust, the occasional rust spot peeking through where it ate metal. They hadn't seen much use lately.
"I'm going to use Father's bike today."
"But, Clay, you can't!"
"Why not? It's not like he's using it. Besides, I don't even like mine anyway. His is much better." That wasn't quite the truth. His was old and hoary, an ancient street bike with thinning tires and a weak frame.
"You just can't, that's all."
"Well, I'm sorry, but I'm sick of my bike, and it's about time someone else sat on this thing before it completely falls to pieces."
"Fine, then. Have it your way." She was defeated.
We separated our two bikes from the sea of handlebars and spokes and pulled them into the sunlight. I brushed them both down, pulling off cobwebs barehanded.
"Ready?" I asked.
Kat smiled, and we mounted our faithful steeds of metal and rubber and rode off in the midmorning sun.