“So, do you think you’ll tell him?” asks Andrea. She had been afraid to bring up the topic at all, but the look of concern in Carter’s eyes as he holds his son for the first time tells her that this is the very thing on his mind. His pale, lanky body slinks back and forth across the delivery room and Carter only paces when he is in deep thought.
“I don’t know Andrea.” Carter answers slowly. “For now let’s just focus on giving him the most normal childhood possible.”
Carter looks down at his son. A beautiful baby boy with hazel green eyes looks gazes back at him. He knows in that moment, that regardless of whether he tells Ashford or not, the newborn’s life would be inherently different. But this is no place to make a life altering decision like this anyway. The hospital is cold and impersonal. Whatever the stereotypical hospital looks like on television, Carter imagined that this was it. White ceilings, white walls, with white and gray tiled floors all filled with the faint aroma of filthy bedpans.
A hooded figure appears at the door. A towering muscular man dressed in all black makes his way into the room. Carter was so involved with his new son that he didn’t even see his older brother come in.
“Maxwell?” asks Andrea. The man pulls the black hood off of his dreadlocks. His hair and beard are as dark as the sweater he wears.
“Hey Andy.” he croaks.
A nickname that she hates with a passion, but nothing can spoil her mood today.
“Is this the baby boy?” Maxwell asks.
Carter grins rom ear to ear. “You bet!” he says, “Ashford Coulier Pendington.”
“After his granddad.” replies Maxwell. “Can I hold him?”
Carter puts the boy in his uncle’s arms.
“You have big shoes to fill.” Maxwell says to the boy. “Your grandfather was an extraordinary man.”
Maxwell pauses when he says this. He knew that he had pressed a button, but as far as he is concerned, it is a button that needs to be pressed.
“Not now,” says Carter, “This isn’t the time.”
Maxell looked at his brother in slight disdain.
“It will work Carter! Why do you want to take this away from him? It made you who you are today!”
“You know what?” Carter says, “You are right. But it also made you what you are.”
“And what exactly is that?” Maxwell snaps.
“Boys! Not in front of my son.” Andrea says.
At the mention of his son, Carter immediately calms down.
“It’s about time for a trim, aye brother?” he says trying to lighten the mood.
Maxwell flashes a half smile that is mostly hidden behind his beard and chuckles. He tugs on his whiskers and flips a lone dreadlock back out of his face.
“You know it won’t do any good Carter. I have to clip my fingernails twice a day now.”
Carter simply shakes his head as he takes his son back into his arms. He often wonders if his brother’s decision was worth it. It seems like the constant grooming would be a hassle. He hands Ashford to his wife. She nods knowingly. Maxwell had come to see his new nephew, but he was mainly there to talk to his brother and Andrea knew it. Carter and Maxwell step into the hallway.
Andrea grabs a bottle of formula to nurse Ashford. “Whatever your father decides, Ashford, you will be an incredible man some day.”
I take my seat, alone, on the second to the last row on the right side of bus 274. I pull off my backpack and set it in the seat beside me. I’m not participating in the spitball war going on two seats in front of me, and I have no interest in the paper airplane factory that has sprung up behind me. I’m just sitting silently, picking at the stuffing that sticks out from the leather between my legs.
The warm August sun is beaming in through the window and warming my bare thighs. It’s unusual; not the weather, the summers are always hot in this part of Texas, but the bus ride wasn’t like this last year. My best friend James transferred to a private school, leaving me to face the wiles of the long ride home, alone. James never let me sit by the window. He was an only child so he didn’t know much about sharing or taking turns. The only thing that James knew was dibs. Everyday, like clockwork, as his foot hit the first step onto the bus, he called dibs on the window seat. There were plenty of days that I could have called dibs before him, but I never bothered.
Now he goes to some fancy new private school out of the state, because he’s gifted. Gifted can’t possibly mean what I think it means, because James had always gotten much worse grades than I did, and I am an average student, at best.
I haven’t even heard from James since he left. It is already the third day of school. I thought that our friendship would at least be worth a few phone calls before he found new friends, but maybe he has already forgotten about me completely. I saw his mom last weekend and she claimed that I had just missed seeing James. He’d come into town and not even thought to call. Every time I think about it, and I try not to, it hurts. My mom always said that we were “thick as thieves”, whatever that means, but I guess those days are over now.
I try to cheer myself up by remembering that he wasn’t my only friend, but the truth is that he was my best friend, and the only one that mattered. He was also the only one on my bus route. Without him I don’t really know where I fit on bus 274. I haven’t been particularly lucky with making friends since he left.
The bus rides through a part of town that I have only heard referred to as The Bottoms. I can’t imagine how bad things have to be in a neighborhood for it to be deemed The Bottoms, but one look out of the window gives me an idea. Even the sun doesn’t seem to shine as brightly as it does everywhere else in the city of Planko.
The bus stops at The Magnolias, a public housing unit. My mom told me once that magnolias symbolize sweetness and beauty. But that isn’t what’s represented in this neighborhood. Looking out of my window, I see a liquor store, a pawnshop, and something called Starky’s Gentleman’s Club. I’m not sure what goes on in there, but my dad once joked that maybe that’s where the sweetness and beauty was, which earned him a firm slap across the head from my mom.
As odd as it seems, this bleak stretch of the ride home has been my favorite part of the day since I started riding this bus in the sixth grade. On my first day at Planko Middle School we made this same stop and a man approached the window. He was wearing an old trench coat with no shirt, a pair of denim shorts and an old pair of dirty white tennis shoes. His hair and beard were matted and unkempt, and his foul odor met our noses even with the distance between us. He asked James if he could spare a dollar so that he could buy food. James let up the window and turned away from the man, but I saw despair in the man’s face. I opened the window again and handed him a five-dollar bill, the only thing that I had in my wallet. I knew that there was a chance that he was going to turn around and spend those five dollars at the liquor store, but I decided to take him at his word. He tucked the bill into a bag that he had sitting in a shopping cart filled with aluminum cans, thanked me and walked away.
My parents had been less than thrilled when I told them the story. It wasn’t about the money, we have always been upper middle class, whatever that means. My parents just didn’t want me to encourage the man’s alcoholism or drug addiction or whatever other bad habits rich people assume plague all the people who live on the streets.
But when the man came back the next day and I had nothing to give him, I felt terrible. He simply responded,
“You were good to me yesterday sir, and my father will repay you when the spaceships come.”
I had no idea what that meant, but I took it to mean that he was at least grateful. I was relieved that he wasn’t disappointed, but I still couldn’t bear to face him day after day and not give him anything. I could ignore him, like James elected to do, but what kind of person would that make me? I decided to start asking my mom to pack more food in my lunchbox. I told her that I wasn’t getting full at lunch, and she the next day she stuffed my sack with an extra sandwich and an extra bag of chips. It wasn’t much, but I’m sure that it was more than what the man had been eating.
That day when the man approached the window I handed him the sandwich and the chips. He looked at me with tears in his eyes and simply said,
“When the spaceships come.”
Since that isn’t the most common form of gratitude, I just winked at him and replied,
“When the spaceships come.”
And from that day on, for the past three years, I have been giving the man part of my lunch. Some days I sneak into the teacher’s lounge on the way to the bus and warm up my sandwich or the leftovers from the night before. It is closest that I can come to giving him a hot meal.
He told me that his name is Fat Diggy; undoubtedly a childhood nickname, because he is far from fat. I often amuse myself with the thought that somewhere the child who had been dubbed Skinny Diggy is probably overweight now, like the majority of Americans.
Fat Diggy approaches the window and I hand him his daily meal.
“Any word?” he asks.
It is a new question that Fat Diggy has taken to asking me, since he thinks that I really believe that the spaceships are coming. Apparently, whenever they come he is going to be able to pay me back for everything that I have done for him. Of course I don’t believe that the spaceships are ever coming, and I know that Fat Diggy will never be able to pay me back, but that doesn’t matter to me as long as he has food to eat.
“Soon.” I say.
He smiles and walks away.
The rest of the bus ride is pretty uneventful. We go over the railroad tracks and make a couple of turns, and up into the mountain neighborhoods of Planko. I live in The Highlands, which is actually more of a community of well-to-do individuals like lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, and in my father’s case, chemical and molecular engineers. The homes are split into four subdivisions: Inverness, Shadowburn, High Oak, and Wandsworth. I live in High Oak. All the houses are pretty similar. Oversized two-story houses made from brownstone.
As we twist and turn through the streets of my neighborhood, I can’t help but think about the difference between The Bottoms and the Highlands. Such fitting descriptions. Most of the people who live in The Highlands only socialize with other people who live in The Highlands. They never stray from the mountain for long enough to see the poverty and condition of those who live at the literal bottom of the city.
We are here.
I get off the school bus at the stop sign down the street from my house. I’d always loved this short walk home from the stop. This wasn’t James’ stop; he lived in Wandsworth, so I had this time alone to think, which I always enjoyed. It is kind of lonely now since I also spend the entire bus ride by myself, but I still take pleasure in it just the same. It allows me to clear my mind. I probably enjoy my alone time a little more than most thirteen year olds, but people always tell me that I am very mature for my age.
I walk down the perfectly paved black streets toward my house. They are a far cry from the pothole-riddled streets of The Bottoms. I see Mr. Bray, a lawyer who lives at the end of the street getting his mail; his blue suit jacket is draped over his arm, as it is everyday. I think that getting the mail is the most rugged thing that Mr. Bray does, because everyday after closes the mailbox, he immediately checks his manicured nails. He has two children that are my age, but just like every other kid in the neighborhood, they go to private schools. I am the only kid here who attends Planko Middle School, so even though my parents make just as much money as their parents, I am generally not their first choice for a friend. But I don’t care. It isn’t that I can’t go to private school, but there is nothing wrong with the public school system here, and I never wanted to leave James, or any of my other friends for a private school. James left me, but I got the feeling that he didn’t have much of a choice. Plus, Fat Diggy won’t have food to eat if I don’t feed him everyday; the private schools are located up here in the same mountains as The Highlands, so their shuttle system never descends to the scum of The Bottoms.
I can hear barking coming from the direction of my house at the end of the cul-de-sac. My cousins must be over for a visit. Plenty of people in my neighborhood have dogs, but none of them bark; because a barking dog is annoying, so barking usually means that my Uncle Maxwell has come over with my three cousins and their dogs. Strange dogs. I personally believe that they look more like wolves, but apparently I am the only one in my family who sees it. Everyone insists that they are just dogs. Three pitch black dogs, bigger than any breed that I have ever seen. They are muscular, and apparently their entire litter has a mutation that grants them opposable thumbs. I hate their opposable thumbs because as mischievous as dogs can be, this makes my cousin’s pets even more devious. One day, a few years back, I saw one walk over to the shed, on two legs, turn the doorknob and go in. When I brought it up, my cousins laughed at me and told me the dog was just doing tricks. I tried to tell my parents, but they chocked it up to me having an overactive imagination.
I walk into the house and see my mother’s slim brown figure in the kitchen. She’s making supper. I can smell her seasonings as soon as I step through the door. My mother loves her seasonings. She always says that God made food so that we can live, but God made seasonings so that we can love living. She would know. She is the head chef at a local bistro called Rustic. She makes all sort of fancy dishes that my even my dad, with his extensive scientific knowledge, cannot pronounce. But she doesn’t really think of herself as a chef. She says that she is an artist. And Rustic is just another canvas to which she can put her brushstrokes.
Her long curly hair is pulled up into a bun. Our eyes meet and I roll mine playfully at her. Neither my dad or me particularly like her hair this way, but she does it all the time. We see the bun when she is cooking, painting, writing, or getting ready for bed; so basically any time that we aren’t in church.
“I know, I know! I look hideous.”
She places the knife she is using to cut vegetables on the counter and gives me a hug and a kiss.
“Snacks are on the table, and your Uncle Max is upstairs talking to your dad. He brought his litter and they are out in the back yard.”
My mom always refers to my Uncle Max’s kids and their dogs as “his litter” when they aren’t in earshot. The joke is old, but I still find it funny.
“How is Fat Diggy doing?” she asks.
“I have no idea who that is.” I say.
I grab three oatmeal raisin cookies from the tray on the table and eat them slowly as I walk. I’m taking my time on purpose. I’m in no hurry to see my cousins. It’s not that I don’t like them, they are just...rough around the edges. My mother always says that I’m smart, but that I don’t apply myself in school. I have a feeling that my cousins are just plain dumb. I open the patio door and I can see the three mutant dogs sitting in a circle at the back end of the yard. They remind of a painting I saw once in a thrift store. It was a painting of dogs playing poker. The mutts look like they are talking to each other.
Dogs can’t talk.
My three cousins are on the patio in a circle similar to the their dogs. They are triplets and two years older than me. The slight age difference looks like much more though, because they are tall for their age and very brawny. They each have a head full of black dreadlocks running down their backs just like my uncle and they are unusually hairy like him too. My mother once mentioned something about puberty, but that was not exactly a conversation that I wanted to have with her.
Geoffrey, Remington, and Hilton. Such princely names for such rough looking boys, but all Pendington’s have names like this. Even the dogs are named Princeton, Kingston, and Oxford. And my name is Ashford Coulier Pendington.
“Ash! “How have you been man?”
Before I can answer Geoffrey, he picks me up and hugs me as tightly as he can. He manages to squeeze me very tightly. I can feel the pressure in my head, and I’m sure that I might pop soon, but there is no use in asking him to stop. That usually just results in more torture. He throws me to Hilton who catches me and spins me around, causing my stomach to recall the oatmeal raisin cookies that I just ate. Then I find myself in the air again. Thankfully, Remington catches me and sits me down on the ground.
“I was fine.” I say dizzily.
Any other answer might start another assault.
“Are you going to play football with us this year?” Hilton asks.
“I doubt his mom will let him.” Remington says before I can respond.
The truth is that I have no desire to play any sport that involves physical contact, especially since I would risk playing on the opposite side of the ball from my cousins. I am much too small for that. I run track for my school, but that earns me no respect with my football-playing cousins. My only hope on the field would be that I was fast enough to never be tackled. But I run cross-country, so the likelihood of being faster than everyone else is not good.
“What are you guys doing over here in the middle of the week anyways?” I ask, trying to change the subject before I become the object of their trash talk for the next hour.
“Something to do with a Council’s Inquisition.” Hilton says.
Judging by the look on his face, he has said too much. I see Geoffrey nudge and they share awkward glances with each other and me.
I am literally just parting my lips to ask what exactly a Council’s Inquisition is, when Remington calls out for Princeton, Kingston, and Oxford, who are still planted at the back of the yard. They come running at the sound of their names.
I hate this part.
As soon as they see me their stride quickens, and they tackle me to ground.
I really hate this part.
This is my greeting every time my uncle comes to visit, which is far too often if you ask me. Come to think of it I have never in my whole life been to visit them. They always come here.
The dogs lap their sandpaper tongues over my face. Oddly enough, Princeton, Kingston, and Oxford never have typical dog breath. It usually smells exactly like Geoffrey, Remington, and Hilton’s breath. I still haven’t decided if that is a compliment to the dogs or an insult to my cousins. Either way, it is good for me, I guess. I try to get up though, but the dogs overpower me and I remain pinned to the concrete. Princeton digs his paw into my side and starts tickling me.
I can’t do anything but laugh even though this is far from funny. I have to be careful not to squirm too much, because I don’t want to scrape myself on the warm concrete.
My cousin’s and I play with the dogs until it is time for them to go home. They never bring up the Council’s Inquisition again, and it is clear that they weren’t supposed to tell me, so I don’t mention it either. But what is a Council’s Inquisition? And why had they acted so strangely once Hilton said it?
I convince myself that it probably has something to do with the school that my dad and my uncle went to growing up. Apparently they attended a school for gifted children when they were young. My father was gifted, and now so was my best friend, but somehow that status doesn’t apply to me. Every once in a while my dad tells me stories about their days at the school, but the stories never ended up being more than fanciful fairytales. They involved flying, invisible people and some strange individuals who were half human and half animal. Whenever I ask real questions about the school I get dry answers that really serve more to divert my attention than to tell me any useful information. My mom says that I have an exasperating persistence, and even though I have no clue what it means, I have learned not to ask as many questions. But tonight I will. The only time I have ever heard the word “inquisition” was in history class. At the time, I wasn’t paying attention, but I am pretty sure it wasn’t anything good.
“Can I ask you a question dad?” I say as slice another piece of my mother’s chorizo stuffed pork tenderloin into my mouth.
“Anything.” my father replies.
He already has two pieces of tenderloin in his mouth and is now trying to stuff half of a new potato in as well. There is nothing that my dad loves more than my mother’s cooking.
I am pretty sure that his answer applies to everything except what I am about to ask. But I decide to try anyway.
“What is a Council’s Inquisition?”
The words immediately leech the color from my father’s skin. He lays his fork down and stares at his lap. He is slow about chewing the food in his mouth and once he’s done he carefully wipes his lips with a napkin.
“Where’d you hear about that?” He asks.
“That isn’t any of your concern Ash.”
“Yeah, but I thought that an inquisition was-”
“Ash, an inquisition is what you are doing right now, asking too many questions about things that are not any of your business!”
I don’t like it when my dad yells at me. He is a small man, but his voice is powerful, condescending and stern. I sink down in my seat and nudge my plate away from me.
“I’m sorry baby boy,” he sighs, “Everything is fine though. I have it all under control.”
He knows that my feelings are hurt. He gets up from the table, comes around to me and kisses me on the cheek. Then he leaves the room and goes upstairs.
I don’t like this at all. Half of my dad’s food is uneaten. When my mother cooks, he never leaves anything on his plate. Something is wrong. I know that my father says he has everything under control, but it is unsettling to know that there is something so wrong that it requires getting under control.
Usually, as soon as my mom turns off the light and leaves the room I start to fall asleep, but tonight I’m wide awake. I can’t get the Council’s Inquisition off of my mind. Whatever it is, it cannot be good. My dad sounded so angry with me, and he looked afraid. I wish that I had been paying more attention in school, so that maybe I could tell my dad to just do whatever the French people did during their inquisition. Or is it the British?
Yes, the British.
My eyelids are beginning to be more of a burden than I can bear. As soon as I close my eyes, I hear a noise outside of my window and they are forced back open. It is a constant flapping sound, like that of a bird. I look to the window and I see an odd light shining through the window. It is too bright to be moon, but too weak to be a flashlight. The light is dim and it barely pierces through the curtains. I pull off the covers back and walk toward the window slowly. I feel like an actor in a horror movie, sneaking across my own house, trying in vain not to startle whatever it is that has already startled me. I pull back the curtain and my eyes widen as I realize what I am looking at. It is a humanlike figure. It appears to be wearing a black cloak and a warm orange light surrounds it. I jump back to put some distance between the me and the window.
I stand there for a moment trying to figure out what is happening. I blink my eyes a few times to clear my vision and walk back to the window. The cloaked man and the light remain, and the flapping sound is constant.
I study the shape and I notice that it has enormous red and orange wings on its back.
Maybe I’ve fallen asleep.
I am trying to convince myself that this is all a dream when the figure raises a hand and reaches through the glass. The window doesn’t break; the hand seems to just be able to reach through the glass into my room. His voice enters with it.
“Come with me boy.” says the voice as the pale hand reaches for my shoulder.
It’s one thing to see something outside of my window, but it is another thing entirely for that thing to come inside. I scream, and my legs, which are on autopilot, carry me frantically away from the window. I leap over my bed and run directly into my parent’s room.
I run into my mother at the door, almost knocking her down. She must have heard me screaming.
“Flying man. Outside. My window.” I pant, dragging her to my room to show her what I saw.
“It was just a dream honey.” My mother says.
She pries her hand from mine and places it on my back. My arguing does no good and she continues pushing me gently into her and my father’s room.
My mouth opens to form an argument, but I decide that the thing I saw is probably gone by now anyway, so I give up. I crawl into bed and nestle in between my mother and father. The comforting smell of Brut, the only cologne that my dad owns, and one of my mother’s countless vanilla scents fill my nose. I feel my mother’s hand running through my curls. Surprisingly, my dad isn’t snoring. The combination of these three things would normally put me out like a light, but I’m positive I won’t be sleeping tonight.