I told the policeman we hid near the basement toilet. The other Manhunt team wouldn’t find us because our house was out-of-bounds, but we had to pee.
“You cannot hide forever,” Kevin said in his best Darth Vader impression. We made light saber noises as we peed into the bowl.
“Don’t cross the streams,” I said. “Total platonic reversal!” Not meaning to, I flushed. Water rushed through the pipes. Kevin punched me and crossed his fingers. I blessed myself.
“Kevin? David?” Mom called. “Don’t make me come down there.”
We played a silent round of rocks, paper, scissors and Kevin threw his rock a little after my scissors. He knocked my fingers with his fist and tiptoed outside. I could hide where Mom wouldn’t find me, but hiding from her wasn’t like Manhunt. Mom didn’t play fair.
She gave me twenty dollars and a handwritten list. It was too much for just me and I regretted letting Kevin escape.
“I expect change,” she said.
I ran to our room, reached behind the socks in Kevin’s dresser drawer, and pulled the lid off an old Maxwell House can. It smelled of coffee and dollar bills. I grabbed the last of his birthday money.
Outside I was nabbed by the other team and dragged to schoolyard prison.
“I have to go to the store,” I said, stepping over the loose chunks of asphalt littering the lot.
“Not until we catch your brother.”
“He’s behind the bushes next to the sacristy or under the convent porch,” I said.
“You were cheating again?” Christie said from behind the imaginary prison gate. Her dirty blond hair was pulled into short pigtails with purple barrettes.
“Where did you get caught?” I said.
“That spot only has one way out,” I said. “Do you want to walk Broadway with me? I have twenty eight dollars.”
“Can I get ice cream?”
“Kevin is hiding on the roof of the gymnasium,” I said to her, loud so the prison guard could hear.
He raced towards the gym, screeching twice to signal his teammates. I grabbed Christie’s hand and ran the other way, careful not to let her slip on the broken pavement.
“I’m not supposed to leave the church block.”
“It’s okay,” I said. Her hand was sweaty, but I didn’t let go.
We cut through the projects, which Dad said was ‘off-limits.’ Grown-ups slept on benches in the shade while kids jumped rope and climbed trees. A teenager yelled, “Give it to her.” Christie squeezed my hand. I kept my eyes on the ground. We heard a shrill shriek in the distance, then more screeches echoed around the church block.
“They caught Kevin,” I said.
Outside the projects, Christie spotted the guy the kids called, “Jeepers,” limping on his crutch, the tail of his Hawaiian shirt blowing in the breeze. They said he was legally blind – that’s why he wore such thick glasses. They also said he did stuff to little kids you’d have a hard time confessing. I hoped his bad eyesight meant he hadn’t seen us yet. I dragged Christie behind two garbage bins. I told her that when you hide, always have two escapes. And before Jeepers got close, I whispered that she shouldn’t look at him, that people had a way of seeing when they were seen. She buried her head in my shirt. I waited until he was out of sight breathing the baby shampoo smell of her hair.
We pressed through the crowds on Broadway — smokers, bikers, old ladies pushing carts.
“Your mom lets you on Broadway alone?” Christie said.
“When she needs something from the store.”
“We’re going to the store?”
In Scoops, she ordered a root beer float. I said I wasn’t hungry, but could I have a sip of hers? The manager asked where someone my age got all that money. I said my mom gave it to me. He said to Christie, “Aren’t you the Rafferty girl?” and handed me the change. I counted it — I was good with numbers. It’s how I knew Mom didn’t give me enough for the groceries. Our feet swung from the bench and we sipped our root beer float from different straws.
“Ma says your dad’s gone,” she said.
“He’s coming back. He promised to fix the basement so I could have my own room down there.”
We slurped the last sips of soda.
“I have to pick something up next door,” I said. “Do you want to come with me?”
“You tricked me.” Her pout looked silly topped with a rootbeer mustache.
I was about to tell her that I needed her help because the order would be three-bags-full and heavy, but more than that, I wanted to be with her. But the door swung open and Christie’s mom said, “Thanks,” to the manager and yanked Christie off the bench by her wrist. She smacked her hard across her butt and Christie burst into tears and said I tricked her. Her mom pulled me off the bench.
“You’re mother will deal with you.”
When she went for her car keys I yanked my arm free and pushed through the crowd until I reached an alley between two stores that smelled like pee. Even though they probably wouldn’t look for me, I hid behind some trash bags.
Trying to make up time in the store I broke a pickle jar and the manager yelled at me. The clerk rang it up on my bill, and even with what was left of Kevin’s money I was a dollar eighty short. I didn’t know what to get rid of. Mom would kill me if I ‘forgot’ anything. I gave up searching the bags and stared at my sneakers. Two singles were placed in front of me by the person next in line. At first I didn’t look — just took the money and passed it to the clerk. But when I returned the change I noticed the crutch. The Hawaiian shirt. The glasses thick as goggles.
I grabbed the three bags and left. They were heavy and I put them down on the sidewalk to switch the items, but it was still tough. I walked half a block before putting them down to take a rest. By the time I left Broadway, one of the bags was ripped halfway down its side.
“Can I help you?” Jeepers limped toward me, holding a bag of his own.
“I’m okay.” I picked up the bags, but one ripped all the way, dropping lunchmeats to the curb.
“Really now.” He leaned his crutch against a telephone pole and picked up the packages, placing them in his own bag. “Let me lighten your load.”
I thought about running but he had some of the groceries now. Plus, he seemed nice enough. He walked ahead of me. I picked up the other bags and caught up.
“Your brother couldn’t help?” he said.
“You know my brother?”
“I know all the neighborhood kids,” he said. “You’re the O’Reilly boys.”
We crossed the street onto the church block and I could see my house. But the kids were still playing manhunt and I was afraid they would see me with Jeepers.
“I can take it from here.”
“It’s just another block,” he said.
We passed the rose bushes that hid the secret entrance to the church basement — the best hiding spot for the few of us who knew about it and weren’t afraid of a few thorns. Behind the bushes was a broken window covered by some loose bricks that led into the CYO meeting room. Someone was watching from inside. I did my best not to look back and sped up to make it look like we weren’t walking together.
“You can run ahead if you’re embarrassed,” Jeepers said. “I’ll bring the stuff to your house.”
“Sorry.” I slowed down. “I’m a fast walker.”
“The leg slows me down.” He held up his crutch like a gun, aimed at a pigeon. “A memento from Vietnam.”
When Dad’s army buddies came over, he would make me salute them before marching me off to bed.
“Thanks for your service,” I said, like Dad had coached. I let him catch up.
We entered the gardens behind the church, and someone shrieked the neighborhood signal. I couldn’t be sure, but it sounded like Kevin. Responses screeched back.
“My name’s Michael,” Jeepers said. He stopped walking beside the tall hedges enclosing the garden, shifted the grocery bag to the arm with the crutch, and held out his free hand. In front of one wall of hedges, honeysuckle bushes surrounded a bench. Bees flew among its flowers, too busy to bother with us. I put down my bag and shook his hand. It was sweatier than Christie’s, so I shook it quick.
“You must be tired,” Michael said, nodding to my bag on the grass. “What do you say we take a quick break?” He sat on the bench and patted the seat beside him. He reached inside his bag and pulled out a beer. He cracked it open and drank, then put the can between his knees.
Before he left, my Dad used to challenge me to get a beer from the basement fridge before he counted to five.
“My dad lets me drink sometimes,” I said.
“I shared beers with your dad, too. After CWV meetings. He never stopped talking about his bright boys.” His green eyes were large as nickles behind his glasses. He smiled, handed me the beer. “Just a sip.”
It was ice-cold and tasted more bitter than Dad’s, but I was thirsty.
“Don’t go telling your mother,” he said, taking another gulp.
The dog alley mutt barked and sparrows settled into a pine tree. Michael guzzled more beer.
“Your dad’s a good man.” He patted my leg. “He’ll be back.”
I wasn’t sure why, but I knew he was right. I was happy he said it.
A rock whizzed by my head and landed in the hedge. Another pancake-sized hunk of asphalt broke apart when it hit the bench next to Michael. The sparrows chirped and flew from the yard. There was a loud, close shriek and kids rushed from behind the hedges and bushes. They were everywhere. Some returned the signal with their own shrieks, some screamed, “Get Creepers!” “Get Peepers!” All of them threw asphalt chunks, rocks, gravel. A stone hit Michael in the neck and he yelled, “You little shits!” and threw his arms in front of his face. His beer fell, squirting foam onto the grass.
I cried for them to stop, said that Michael helped me, that he was bleeding, but Kevin ran past me into the yard and hurled another rock. Michael limped away, but he couldn’t go fast without his crutch, and the kids followed him, launching at close range. A chunk of brick hit him in the head, knocking his glasses off and he stumbled, crushing them. He fell to the grass, pawing the ground for the broken pieces but the kids were on top of him.
I ran away as fast as I could, while they punched and kicked and Michael cursed. I hid in my most secret spot, one I never told anyone about, where Michael couldn’t see me, where Mom couldn’t get me, where not even Kevin could find me.
“What now?” Ma asked the policeman.
“A night in jail is probably the best we can do.”
Dad told me never to snitch, but the policeman had a badge and gun and Mom promised I wouldn’t get in trouble — more trouble, anyway. I hadn’t fingered Kevin for throwing the brick that broke Michael’s glasses but guessed I’d said enough. I worried about him finally getting caught — about how he would handle a night in real prison.
“The sip of beer is something.” The cop shrugged. “A fine, if it stuck.”
“You have to do something,” Mom insisted. “The streets aren’t safe with that Creepers.”
Conrad Moher is the recipient of several short story and essay awards and has been nominated to Best New American Voices and Best American Short Stories. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence and was a Jentel Artist Resident.