From the crack between the two warped boards of our fence, I can’t really see Randy’s yard — just the small tree house where we’d hung his piñata this morning, and the shady spot where I’d sat eating Randy’s birthday cake while he chased his friends and the other neighborhood kids around in circles. I’m slow, so I never liked tag much. I like to watch, I told Mom when she asked me why I wasn’t playing with the other kids.
It’s evening now, the party’s over and mostly cleaned up, and Randy’s dad is alone in the yard, staring up at the tree house and yelling for Randy to come down even though I saw him go into the garage a little while ago. Randy’s dad drops his beer on the grass and grabs the rope ladder with both hands, shoulder height, like the men do to impulsive or hysterical women in Mom’s old detective movies. Hey, he says, Hey-ey-ey-ey-ey, his voice jiggling as he shakes the impulsive ladder up and down, back and forth. The ripples run up to Randy’s tree house, but there’s no sound except for his dad, and since there’s no door to pound on, he just keeps swinging the ladder and yelling.
I know Randy’s mom only invited me to the party because we’re neighbors and I’m always hanging around. She doesn’t like me though, doesn’t like that I know the names Randy’s dad calls her at night, and in the morning, sometimes, when he doesn’t have to work. But she’s scared not to invite me. At least, that’s what I heard Mom telling Aunt Carol when she thought I was sleeping.
I haven’t heard Randy’s dad yelling in a while, though. He wasn’t at the party, so I thought maybe it was just going to be Randy and his mom, like it’s me and mine. I thought maybe then we could all be friends, even though he’s a year older and I’m the weird kid who collects rocks in the gulch across from the school when everyone else is playing kickball. But now Randy’s dad is back and I can see nothing’s going to change.
Randy’s dad stops yelling and puts a boot on the ladder, pulls himself up. The ladder swings him towards the tree but he doesn’t stop, just keeps on going up, even though I know that’s the hardest part, at the bottom. I only tried to climb the ladder once when Randy and his friends were reading his dad’s magazines and laughing at me because I couldn’t climb up fast enough before they got bored of reading them and climbed back down, me still swinging at the bottom.
As I watch Randy’s dad going up the ladder I remember all the times I’ve heard him yelling in their house, and I remember the time I heard Randy crying up in the tree house and how he punched me in the stomach once, when I told him I heard. I hold my favorite rock — one that’s lumpy like an asteroid but without craters, darker than most of the ones I find at the gulch — and I watch from behind the fence as Randy’s dad gets to the top, pulls himself up, his boots dangling for a little while, then the whole house creaking as he crawls into the room. Then nothing.
I figured as soon as he sees Randy’s not up there, Randy’s dad would come right back down, but he doesn’t. He stays up there, real quiet, so I try to hold my breath, gasping as quick and quiet as I can every time I have to breathe. I fold the rock into my hands and start to breathe against it, at first because maybe that will muffle my breaths so he won’t hear me. But then I start to whisper the things I know to the rock, really quiet so nobody but me and it can hear.
I’m still telling the rock what I know about Randy when I hear the tree house creak again. His dad is hanging his legs over the edge, feeling with his boots for the ladder. Finally he gets a toe on the ladder, starts to slide himself down a little. He’s just about to let go of the wood and grab onto the ladder when he falls.
He makes a really soft thump when he lands – way softer than I thought such big guy would make. He sounded more like me punching my pillow than the booms and splats that cartoon characters always make when they fall, even in the realistic shows. Randy’s dad is just lying in the yard, facing away from me. For the second time I can remember he’s quiet. I watch to see if he’s breathing, but can’t tell. I stay behind the fence, kneeling like Aunt Carol does at church, except my eyes are open and my hands are holding the rock instead of each other.
Gavin McCall grew up on a farm on the Big Island of Hawaii, but he now writes and teaches out of Fresno, California, where he’s pursuing an MFA in creative writing. The list of generous and deserving literary magazines that have published his work includes: Hawaii Review, Boston Literary Magazine, Nimble, Lesser Flamingo, Paradigm, Six Sentences, Long Story Short, Hawaii Pacific Review, Flashquake, Off Course and Nanoism, in order of (Gavin’s) appearance. He enjoys books, movies, exercise, beer and the outdoors, though only rarely in that order.