Late in the Day

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Young Adult  |  House: Booksie Classic
A teenaged boy, crippled since the age of nine, doesn’t feel life is worth living. After he gives away the very last thing in the world he loves, a decision must be made: keep fighting or give up. Haunted by the death of his sister while at the same time inspired by a recent video game called No Man’s Sky, the choice proves itself difficult.

Submitted: December 01, 2016

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Submitted: December 01, 2016

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Late in the Day by Tag Cavello

 

“We’ll be back,” Bobby’s dad said cheerlessly, “on Thursday afternoon.”

And why shouldn’t he be cheerless? Bobby thought.  Any parent going to his own daughter’s funeral had every right.

His mother bent down to give him a cold kiss that meant nothing.  Although Bobby was fourteen, she always had to bend.  He’d been sitting in a wheelchair since the age of nine.

“Call if you need anything,” she told him.  “Don’t forget to water the plants.  And take care of Chucky.”

“I will, Mom,” Bobby promised, though in truth the part about Chucky was ridiculous.  Of course he would take care of his own dog.  Chucky was not only his best friend in the whole world; Chucky was his only friend.

And ten minutes later, they were the only two souls in the house.  Bobby sat at the living room curtain, watching his parents ride off.  His dad did not blip the horn.  His mom did not wave.  They were going to Monica’s funeral.  His sister, who was ten years older than him and whom he barely remembered, was dead.  Killed in a drowning accident while swimming.

“Come on, boy,” he told Chucky.

The shaggy briard followed as Bobby rolled into his bedroom.  As always, a mixture of present and past unfolded.  The corners, the walls, the carpet, the bed.  All of them had stories to tell, and all of those stories began with one of two words:  BEFORE or AFTER.

Here hung a poster from BEFORE, showing an action hero with a gun, a grimace, and a girl.  There stood a video game console from AFTER, waiting for its next session.  Bobby went to his software library.  He chose No Man’s Sky and fired up the console.  Then he opened a box of Milk Bones (AFTER) for Chucky.

“What do you say?” Bobby asked.

Three very enthusiastic barks followed, along with the doggiest dog smile there ever was.

Bobby smiled back.  “For that,” he said, “you get three.”

 

No Man’s Sky could quite possibly be called the loneliest video game ever made.  That was why Bobby loved it.  For the next three hours he walked—walked—a barren world, gathering pieces for a broken machine.  Broken, but fixable, for in the land of make-believe the word permanent did not exist.  With a little lightning and thunder, even death could be undone.

At seven o’clock he took Chucky outside to pee.  There was no ramp off the back porch, so Bobby watched from the step as the dog did his business.  In the yard next door a little boy played trucks with his dad.  In the street beyond, another boy rode past on a bicycle.

Dinner consisted of an egg salad sandwich and Coke.  He shared the sandwich with Chucky, because Chucky loved them.  Then they played Nerf basketball for awhile, with a plastic hoop on the door of Bobby’s room serving as goal.  Bobby shot from his chair while Chucky fetched.  Sometimes the dog’s enthusiasm for the game made him laugh the way he used to in the old days, the BEFORE days.

They went outside one more time before calling it a night.  Bobby washed, brushed his teeth, put on his PJs.  And when he slept, he dreamed of Monica.

“Why was the battle of Trafalgar fought?” she asked.

They were reading a history book at the kitchen table.  It was night.  Hot summer smells—foliage and flower smells—wafted through a window.

“Because Napoleon was unsure of himself,” Bobby replied.

His answer didn’t quite cut it.  “How do you mean?” Monica snapped.

“He wanted to prove he was strong enough for Britain’s navy.”

“But he didn’t win.  He drowned.”

“Well, he didn’t actually—“

“He drowned.”

A heavy splash from outside made him turn.  Through the window Bobby could see a swimming pool.  In it floated the body of a woman.  Dead.

“Bobby?  Look at me.”

Monica was still seated at the table.  Her face had gone a spotted, sea-witch green, with locks of matted hair that crawled with worms.

“He drowned!” she croaked in a wet voice.  “Drowned!  Drowned!

 

“Down!  I’m down here!”

Bobby sat bolt upright in bed.  It was still night out.  Shapes that looked like Monica hung everywhere in the dark.

“Chucky?”

A low, threatening growl rose from the door.  Bobby reached for the light.  His dog was hunched down at the foot of the bed, teeth bared, hackles raised.  Seconds later a hard, heavy banging noise exploded from the kitchen.

“Hello!” a muffled voice cried.  “I’m down here!”

Chucky launched into a fury of junkyard barks that all but blew the door off its hinges.  Grabbing his wheelchair, Bobby told him to calm down.

“Let’s find out what’s going on,” he said.

His bedroom opened on a hallway between the living room and kitchen.  Once he was able, Chucky tore off for the linoleum tiles.  Under ordinary circumstances, this simply meant he was ready for a treat.  Tonight—

“Hey! Hey, anybody up there!”

Bobby turned on the kitchen light.  The refrigerator leaped into view.  The stove.  The sink.  But he already knew no one was hiding here.  Instead, Bobby rolled his chair over to the basement door.

“I’m calling the police,” he said at the lock.

“Please don’t do that!” a man’s voice begged from the other side.  “I’m not dangerous!  I just need a place to hide for awhile!”

Bobby put his hand on Chucky’s head.  The dog was still on high alert, baring his teeth.

“I have a dog,” Bobby warned.

“I heard him.  But I swear I’m not hear to hurt you.  I’m not even armed.”  The voice hesitated a moment.  “Unless you call cereal and milk weapons.”

This last remark sounded almost crazy enough to make Bobby forget his fear.  And really, he thought, what do I need to be afraid of anyway?  I’m a kid stuck in a wheelchair.  A kid with a dead sister and two parents who’ve given up faith on the world.  What do I care if this burglar—or whoever he is—decides to shoot me?  Maybe in the afterlife there are no paraplegics.

Holding Chucky by the collar, he reached out and unlocked the door.  It swung open on a thin, plain-looking man with dark hair.  Bobby guessed his age to be somewhere in the mid-twenties.  He wore blue jeans, a t-shirt, and a leather jacket.

“I’m Heath,” the man said, not leaving the top step.  He regarded Bobby with a sad, tired look that in no way reflected harmful intentions.  Bobby decided to cross his fingers and tell the man his name.  “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Bobby.  Is that a wheelchair?”

“Yes it is.  Are those grocery bags?”

The man looked at first one arm and then the other.  Each was curled around a large, brown bag.  “I stole some groceries,” he confessed.  “Came into town hungry and broke.  I didn’t know what else to do.”

“Oh.”

The man—Heath—leaned forward to show Bobby the inside of one of the bags.  “Do you want some cookies?  Chips Ahoy.”

He proclaimed this last as if to tempt a fat dieter.  Chucky, who had so far been keeping still if not entirely relaxed, caught the scent of sugar and chocolate without missing a beat.  Nose pointed towards the cookies, his tail gave a hopeful wag.

“Atta boy,” Heath said.  Then, at Bobby: “Does he eat junk food?”

“All the time.  His name’s Chucky.”

Now the man smiled at the both.  “Bobby and Chucky.  Well.  May I come in, Bobby and Chucky?”

You’re asking me that after you just broke into our basement?

But it would be unwise to say such things out loud.  It might bridle this desperate trespasser.  Make him angry.

Come inside for how long?  No, that wouldn’t do either.  Too suspicious.

I guess.  Too reluctant.

Sure!  Too eager.

Meanwhile Heath was still waiting.  The smile hovered on his face, as if he’d heard every one of Bobby’s rejected answers.

“You don’t know,” he said.  “Right?  You don’t know if you should let me in.”

“I don’t,” Bobby admitted.

“All right.  I don’t blame you.  But I can promise you this:  I won’t come into your kitchen until you tell me it’s okay.”  His head gave a tilt to the left.  “Okay?”

“Just come in,” Bobby said, giving up.  He rolled his wheelchair backward until it bumped into the sink.

“Got one more promise,” said Heath as he crossed the threshold.

“Yeah?  What’s that?”

“I promise not to stay long.”

 

But he wound up staying for an entire day.

Bobby let him unpack his groceries on the kitchen table.  They contained nothing untoward.  Heath laid out corn flakes, powdered milk, soda, candy bars.  To Bobby he looked ready for a camping trip in the woods.

“Toilet paper,” he said, when Heath pulled out a roll of Charmin.

The other laughed.  “That’s right.  Remember that old R.E.M. song Everybody Hurts?  Well, everybody also has to use the bathroom sometimes.

Bobby supposed he couldn’t argue with that.  He watched Heath open the bag of cookies and give one to Chucky, who snatched it with such enthusiasm it was a wonder the man didn’t lose a finger.

“Good dog!” he said.  “Super good dog!”  Then he held the bag out to Bobby.  “Cookie?”

“No thank you.”

“What breed is he?”

“Briard mix.”

Heath nodded.  “A mutt.  Those are the best.  I love mutts.  All Americans are mutts.  Well, except for the Indians.”

“I know.”

“Your mom and dad sleep like a couple of dead people if you don’t mind my saying.  Either that or they’re on the horn with the cops right now.”

“They’re not here.  They’re on a road trip to my sister’s funeral.”

“Yeah?”  Heath gave Chucky a scratch behind the ear.  “Tough break, kid.  How did it happen?”

“She drowned in a swimming pool.”

“Get her hair caught in the drain?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe.”

A little tut-tut noise came from Heath’s lips.  “Sad, kid.  Real sad.  Did that wheelchair come from an accident, too?”

“A car crash when I was nine.  I’m fourteen now.”

“You’ve had a tough run of things.  I’m gonna sit down at the table here if you don’t mind.”  The chair squeaked as he pulled it out.  “Sad stories put my stomach on edge.  I can’t watch or read anything sad without some Pepto-Bismol or a Coke nearby.”

“I think we have Coke,” Bobby said, for want of anything better.  He’d not yet had near enough time to get a proper bead on this interloper.

Yet the words were like magic to Heath’s ears.  “Do ya?” he asked excitedly.  “That’d be great.  I mean yeah, I have some here, but it’s not cold.”

Bobby fetched a Coke from the refrigerator and watched Heath popped the top.  If he makes an AHH! noise after he sips, I’ll probably stab him with a kitchen knife.

“AHH!” Heath gushed, smacking his lips. “Real good, kid.  Thank you.”

“No sweat.”

 

On that first night—the night before he took Chucky away—Heath laid out his story.  Bobby supposed it was a hard one, though he had trouble feeling anything beyond mild sympathy.  Heath had been homeless since dropping out of college last winter.  He’d been banging around from town to town, working odd jobs.  At night he would rent out the cheapest room he could find—if he had the money.  Most of the time he didn’t, which meant room and board came courtesy of the nearest concrete overpass.

“Slumming it, kid,” Heath revealed.  “That’s what I’ve been doin’.  Bangin’ around without a pot to go pee in.  You know?”

“I am acquainted somewhat with hard luck,” Bobby told him.

Heath spared a moment to look at the useless legs jutting out from Bobby’s wheelchair.  “Yeah.  I guess you are.  Anyway, I came into town hungry tonight.  Darned near starving.  So I broke into a grocery store and did some shopping.”

“And the police chased you?”

“Yep.  Right to your street.  And since I’m still starving, what do you say we cook up a feast, eh?”

They ate a late dinner and watched TV until two in the morning.  Heath proved to be a friendly enough thug, keeping up light, blue-collar chatter with Bobby while doing almost all of the kitchen work.  Chucky seemed to like him very much.  He followed Heath from one end of the kitchen to the other, ignoring his master’s commands to sit down and be quiet, until at last Bobby was forced to shout.

“Chucky!  Come here!  Now!

Looking sheepish, the dog came to heel.  Heath insisted it was all right, that he loved dogs and Chucky was just trying to make a stranger feel welcome.

But when he sat down on the couch to watch The Late Show, Chucky jumped straight into his lap.  “Aw,” Heath said, scratching his ear.  “Now you’re acting like a big puppy, aren’t you?  Aren’t you?”

Bobby watched them, unsure of what to think.  The TV had cut to a commercial about electronic dog collars.

“Wareegos Collars!” a smiling man sang.  “Because your dog needs to be safe no matter where he goes!”

Next came a movie:  Dracula: Dead and Loving It.  Heath fell asleep towards the end.  During the final act his snores rose from the couch, where Chucky too had drifted off.  A large ball of fur with four paws lay between Heath’s feet.

Bobby thought of waking him, of calling him into the bedroom where he normally slept, but decided against it.  Chucky would come in on his own before dawn.  Yes.  Of course he would.  Dogs always followed their masters.  And Chucky…Chucky was a really good dog.

After turning off the TV, Bobby brushed his teeth and went to bed.

When the sun came up next morning, Chucky was still in the living room with Heath.  They were eating eggs and watching cartoons.

 

“Hey!” Heath said.  “I love this pooch!  I really do!”

It was mid-afternoon.  Man and dog were both out of breath from playing fetch in the backyard.  With a pretend smile, Bobby had watched their antics from the porch.

“I mean really,” Heath panted on, “he is just so great!”

“I love him too,” Bobby said.

“How old is he?”

“Two and a half.”

“Can I take him with me when I leave tonight?”

The talking stopped.  A breeze swept in, making the wind chimes sing.  Bobby could not think of what to say next.  Mouth agape, he sat in his chair.

“Gee,” Heath said, “tilt your head sideways right now and you’ll look just like Stephen Hawking.”

“You want to take Chucky?” Bobby was at last able to manage.

“Sure!  I think it’d be great!”  He scratched Chucky’s head, which set the dog off into a series of jumps and barks.  “Wanna come traveling with me, boy?  Huh?  Huh?”

More happy barking.  Apparently that’s a yes, Bobby thought.

But Heath, in his infinite capacity for friendliness, would not just swipe a boy’s beloved pet off the shelf like another box of cereal.  Not without giving reasons first, which he was happy to do, and which he carried in abundance.

“You could never take him on walks, kid.  At least not the way I would.”  He raised his hand in a peace gesture.  “No offense.  And look at him!  This is an active dog, kid.  A dog that needs freedom.”

With a heart growing heavier by the moment, Bobby asked:  “So he would just travel with you?  Town to town?  Job to job?”

“Sure!  Chucky can see the whole country with me.  Be my companion.  My watchdog.  No houses, no leashes.  Just nature.  Well?  What do you say, kid?”

Bobby looked at Chucky, who still hadn’t moved from Heath’s side.  The dog was smiling up at the man in denim and leather.  Smiling up at the thug.  The thief.  The interloper.  Smiling like a dog ready to go places no boy in a wheelchair could ever take him.

“You’re leaving tonight?” Bobby said to Heath.

“Yes.”

“Let’s wait until then.  And if Chucky still wants to go with you…he’s yours.”

Heath smiled.  “Thanks, kid.  Thanks a lot.”

 

And of course Chucky did still want to go.  Bobby sat on the front porch until almost midnight, long after he could no longer hear the dog’s delirious bark rising over the trees.  It’s okay, he kept telling himself.  It’s okay.  And in a way, it was.  After two and a half years of confinement, Chucky could finally run free.

He rolled himself back into the house.  A single light glowed in the living room, in a corner from BEFORE.  Once, Bobby had played with his Matchbox cars here.

On the kitchen table was the only thing Heath had left behind:  a box of corn flakes.  Without knowing why, Bobby went to the refrigerator and got out the milk.  He also grabbed a bowl.  Then he opened the corn flakes.

Thanks, kid, he could almost hear Heath say as he chewed, thanks a lot.

Another bark, this one from very far away, floated through the window, a spark of warmth from an otherwise cold world.  Bobby took another bite of cereal.  When the bowl was empty, he closed the window, brushed his teeth, and went to bed.

 

He told his parents that Chucky ran away.  Neither one of them cared in the least.

 

Sunset.

Shimmer on the lake.  Red-gold in the sky.  From the edge of an old dock, Bobby watched another day fade.  Another day, another donut, he sometimes heard his dad moan.  But Bobby had not come out here to make this day different.  He had come out here to make this day his last.

Only the mermaid made him hesitate.  He’d dreamed of her the night before—a fish with a woman’s torso.  She couldn’t really have been a fish, however, for she’d been trapped underwater without breath.  A scream of bubbles had plumed from her lips.  Curious, Bobby had watched, until the girl became absolutely frantic for air.  Then he had set her free.

It happened with a wave of his hand.  The barrier—a sheet of glass perhaps, or clear plastic—slid back as if he were possessed by magic, and the mermaid gasped.

“Thank you!” she said, bare chest heaving.  “Goodness!  I almost drowned!”

Bobby blinked.  It was no wonder she’d needed to hold her breath.  The mermaid was Monica.

“What time is it?” she asked.

“Late in the day,” came Bobby’s instant reply.

“For me, maybe.  What about you?”

“Late in the day.”

By now the mermaid had all of her breath back.  Her face was sober.  Austere, even.  “Stand up for love, Bobby,” she said.

“Now there’s a joke.”

“I mean it.  You don’t need to stop caring just because everyone else has.”

“I’m tired.”

“Go to the surface then,” Monica said.  “Take a breath.”  Then, in defiance of her own logic, she dove back under.  By the time he saw her again the sun had touched the water, and she was but a distant black dot in its fire.  “Stand up!” he heard her call.  “Don’t be afraid to fight for the things you love!”

And then he awoke.

Presently his hands touched the wheels of his chair.  One roll forward was all it would take to join the mermaid.  One roll forward would put him into the drink forever.

Sorry, Monica.

Like his avatar in No Man’s Sky, he was all alone in the world.  Lost in a barren place, collecting treasures to forget the pain.

He looked up.  Evening’s first stars were beginning to show.  The game had disappointed a lot of people; but contrary to it being a pointless grind, Bobby still liked playing.  You could find neat things if you knew where to look.  You could meet some interesting characters.

Yet the question lingered.  Was it worth all the emptiness, or should he forfeit?

Taking a deep breath, Bobby made his decision.  And from somewhere over the treetops came a happy bark as the wheelchair began to move.

cover:  Designtrends.com


© Copyright 2019 Tag Cavello. All rights reserved.

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