IT WAS 2:00 P.M. ON July fifth, a Saturday during Fourth of July Weekend when most families in northwest Pennsylvania gathered at backyard cookouts and picnics, or took to the road for camping getaways and other fun events to celebrate the holiday. My family and I had spent the morning packing our meager belongings for the Mayflower movers to haul away from the Pittsburgh area, heading north to our new home in Ridgewood, one hundred miles away.
I had been discharged from the hospital two days ago, and had stayed with Mom and my siblings at Aunt Alexis’s house in Monroeville, an eastern suburb of Pittsburgh. Mom and my siblings had stayed there while I was in my coma. During that time, Mom had promised her parents she would move back to her hometown once I was awake.
The highway we were on teemed with vehicles carrying bicycles and pulling campers or boats; I watched from the backseat of Mom’s silver Sorento as the traffic passed us. The sunny sky did little to brighten my anxious spirit, and the heat inside Mom’s SUV made me tug the front of my sweaty yellow Pittsburgh Pirates T-shirt from my chest while I wiped sweat from my forehead with the back of my other hand. The vehicle’s AC had stopped working an hour ago, right around the time the transmission had begun making rattling noises. And now my lemon-lime Gatorade from our last stop was gone. I grumbled under my breath, wishing that Mom hadn’t sold Daddy’s newer, fancier, and roomier Escalade two days ago.
“Are we there yet?” I asked Mom after we reached our third hour on the road.
“Almost,” she said from the driver’s seat. She pointed past the windshield to a large, weather-beaten billboard sign ahead of us that read WELCOME TO RIDGEWOOD in large, black letters. Below, in smaller letters, the sign advertised cottage rentals at Alice Lake, next right.
“New home, new school,” Mom said as she slowed down for three white-tailed deer dashing across the road past the billboard. “Well, new school for you guys,” she clarified.
My thoughts soured as reality punched me in the gut. “We’ll be the new kids at school. The ones everybody’ll pick on.”
“You’ll be the one who’ll get picked on,” my brother Dave said from the front seat pushed all the way back, giving me little room to stretch my legs. He was tall and lean like Daddy had been, and he had blonde hair kept short in an Ivy League crew cut—a style worn by Daddy most of his life, except that one time when he was a law student at the University of Pittsburgh—an incident Mom called The Lost Haircut Bet when he didn’t cut his hair for one year.
Dave brushed a long hand across the top of his head and added, “Trust me; you’re destined to wear Kick Me signs on your back all year and eat alone at lunchtime.”
I bristled. “Mom! Tell him to knock it off.”
“It’s tenth grade and almost two months away,” Mom said to me. “You’ll have plenty of time to make friends. You won’t get picked on.”
“I agree with Dave,” our sister Amy said. She sat left of me, earbuds jammed in her ears and leaking tinny music from an iPod in her lap. Like me, she had straight, shoulder length hair, but auburn like Mom’s.
“You’re too withdrawn,” she said to me. “You should try harder at making friends instead of reading and watching those courtroom dramas on TV so much.”
“Well, you’re always playing guitar and writing love songs.”
“But I play sports and do other things … with people. So does Dave. But you—”
“I studied dance. That was with other people.”
“Not a group sport. And neither is painting, loser.”
“I’m not a loser. And stop calling me names!”
Mom spoke up and told us to hush.
Why did I let Amy and Dave get me riled up?
I turned away and pretended to curse at the sunlight baking the right side of my face. Daddy had always been my defender in these situations.
I choked back an onslaught of anger and extreme sadness. I had missed Daddy’s funeral and the time of closure and final goodbyes during my time in the hospital. Even Perry Mason had perished while I was unconscious. An important part of my life had been stolen from me—a part I could never get back.
I rolled down my window, which only caused chaos with my hair. So I closed my window and cursed my misfortune.
“Lousy, stupid, unfair life.”
The path of your new life will be difficult.
Someone important had told me that. But who? And why?
Another saying came to me.
Hope only brings us disappointment if we set our expectations too high.
Mom had told me that moments after I had told Aunt Alexis, Daddy’s kid sister, that I would be a lawyer someday, just like Daddy had been. Charles Maxwell Erickson, Esquire, had been a successful private practice lawyer earning as much as six figures last year. I was going to be just like him, helping the downtrodden and supporting all the good charities.
Why did Mom say that about my expectations? Did she think they were set too high? Lots of kids my age did great things. And they probably did them with parents behind them, encouraging them all the way.
Did she think little of me too, like Dave and Amy did?
Mom banged an open palm against the dashboard and startled me from my funk. The engine had overheated again.
“I wish your grandpa still had his dairy farm,” she said after striking the dashboard once more. “It would have given you kids a chance to see what life is like growing up on a farm. Milking cows and baling hay and harvesting crops.”
“Not me,” I muttered, turning up my nose. Not where there was cow manure. No way.
Outside, acres of second-growth farm fields and pastures with old fences rolled past. I shut my eyes and wished I could wish it all away. When I opened them, we had entered Ridgewood. Chipped and faded brick and cement storefronts pressed tight against each other on both sides of the street. Their big windows with names like Suzie’s Styles & Cuts, Jerry’s Discount Shop, and Coleman’s Sporting Goods in large fonts revealed no one inside. Even the street itself was barren of traffic.
“Where is everyone?” I asked. Our old neighborhood would have teemed with shoppers on a Saturday at 2:15 pm. Ridgewood looked like a ghost town.
Mom stopped at a red light and announced that she was taking us past the high school before going to our grandparents’ place. While she, Dave and Amy blathered about school, a red steel door outside my window belched two ragged looking men onto the uneven sidewalk. The men staggered past the gray building’s two grimy windows that had neon signs advertising ice-cold beer inside. The last window sported a black and white sign in it that announced fifty-cent wings on Saturday nights only.
The men disappeared around a corner and a moment later, three girls on bicycles turned the corner. They raced by and shrilled and shrieked obscenities at each other. The red door belched again and a dark-complexioned, white-haired woman exited. She leaned against the brick and cement wall of the two-story building and smoked a cigarette. She paid no attention to me or the Sorento, or anything around her for that matter while she inhaled deeply from her cigarette. Her lined face looked ancient and her plump body had on a tattered green Army jacket, a red T-shirt, and blue jeans that looked brand-new. From the darkness exposed by the red door that the woman had propped open with a broken cement block, two red beady eyes inside the beer joint peered out at me.
DOES IT SEE ME?
The words came to me in a shout.
CAN IT SEE BLOOD?
I held my hands to my ears, turned away from the spooky eyes, and shuddered from the voice’s ferocity.
Buzzing sounds followed, as though thousands of bees had flown through the SUV and were inside my head.
The air rippled around me like disturbed pond water and made me nauseas. I fell back against my seat, worried that I was going to lose my Gatorade all over my lap, and closed my eyes.
“Wait,” I cried out when Mom started through the intersection. Something terrible was going to happen. A chill ran between my shoulder blades. “Stop the car. Please stop the car.”
Mom braked the SUV and turned in her seat. “What’s wrong?” Worry mixed with the exhaustion and sweat on her face.
The rippling air and buzzing noise stopped.
Beyond the hammering of blood rushing past my eardrums, the ticking and rattle of the Sorento’s engine and Amy’s tinny music coming from her earbuds came to me and relieved my anxiety with their familiarity.
“Are you okay?” Mom asked.
Outside my window, the white-haired woman still leaned against the wall and smoked her cigarette. The red beady eyes inside were gone.
“An upset stomach,” I said.
“Do you feel like you need to vomit?”
“I’m fine.” I closed my eyes and tried to make sense of what had happened.
The Sorento’s engine stalled for a moment before it roared to life and the SUV leaped through the intersection.
My mind replayed the red eyes I saw and the words I heard. Does it see me? Can it see blood? What did that mean? What blood? Whose blood? Who had said those words?
Had something tragic happened back at the beer joint?
“Here it is,” Mom said, taking me away from my thoughts. “My old alma mater.”
The SUV was parked beneath a giant maple tree along a residential street. Outside my window, past a wide sidewalk and a manicured sprawling green lawn, a single-story yellow brick and tinted glass building sat a hundred feet away and sprawled in sharp angles across the lawn.
Dave happily announced he saw a baseball field beyond some far trees.
“Looks a lot different from how I remember it,” Mom said. She turned and beamed at me, then gushed forth memories of a simple, happy childhood. “But it was complicated too. All the hormonal and societal life of high school. Making friends, losing most of them after graduation, college, marriage, career, raising a family. And now I’m back to teach here.”
She sounded nervous and excited.
“You’ll be a great teacher, Mom,” Dave said, echoing my thoughts that she would become someone important at Ridgewood High. Dave and Amy too.
But where was I?
My future seemed nonexistent.
Mom took one more wistful look at the school, then drove away from the place and headed us once more toward our new home.