Snake Eyes by Cheryl Alu
Vernon Davy Powell is nine years old. He’s tall for his age and often people will ask him what’s troubling him when nothing is. Sometimes he forgets to listen when someone is talking to him and he easily loses the thread and misses the point. He didn’t think it was possible to go a whole year without once mentioning the go-cart he wanted so badly but he did it because his father had promised to get one for him if he could just do that one thing. But when the year was up his father only laughed and called him gullible – a word Vernon didn’t understand but knew it meant no go-cart.
Today he stayed home from school because he told his mother he didn’t feel well and she believed him. It had been more than a week since he was taken to the emergency room for the snakebite and, even though he’s fine, his mother still was being extra careful with him, as if he were now somehow more susceptible to danger. Mr. McFee drove them to the hospital from the baseball field and waited the whole three hours with his mother. Vernon saw how he held her hand and gave her his handkerchief and he could tell from her face that she was glad Mr. McFee was there.
“What do you mean sick?” his mother said, sitting on the edge of his bed.
“I don’t know. Just sick, you know.”
She put her hand on his forehead giving him a weak smile. She seemed about to apologize. Vernon was used to hearing her say “I’m sorry” when there was no reason for it. Apologies and warnings were all that ever came out of her. The world was full of things to be afraid of and sorry for. She sat down on the bed and took his hand. “I could stay home and take care of you if you want.”
“No, I’ll be okay. I just want to sleep,” he said trying to sound feeble but without alarming her.
She stood up and buttoned her shirt that had the name of the restaurant where she worked on one sleeve. She put on her shoes without undoing the laces and then kissed the top of his head. She told him to stay in bed and if he got hungry there were donuts in the breadbox. And if he made toast he should remember to unplug the toaster when he was through.
He watched her leave and was glad she wouldn’t be home until late because she was working a double shift that week which gave him a few more hours to do whatever he felt like. He didn’t like lying to his mother and he didn’t do it often, but today was the day when the class picture was going to be taken and he wanted no part of it. He hated having his picture taken, hated having to wear a tie and his hard shoes that squeezed his feet. Hated feeling fat and soft the way pictures always made him look. Hated seeing his head ballooning over everyone else. His mother would’ve laughed at him if he told her his reasons for wanting to stay home. She would’ve made him put on his white shirt and tie and go to school. He knew she’d be angry once she found out the truth but that didn’t matter right now. He kicked off the covers and counted to a hundred and eighty because that’s how long it would take her to reach the highway. By then, if she had forgotten anything she wouldn’t bother coming back for it. Then he reached under his pillow and took out his new comic book.
It was Snakes Eyes, his favorite character from the G.I. Joe series. Snakes Eyes wore a mask because of a terrible accident and Vernon thought it would be great to always wear a mask even if you didn’t have a horribly disfigured face. Snake Eyes lost both his parents in an automobile accident and was adopted by his best friend’s parents into a family of ninja warriors. Now he was a soldier and his former friend had become his worst enemy. Bad things happened to Snake Eyes but he always prevailed and seemed to survive on endless luck. It made Vernon feel that anything was possible.
He started to read where he’d left off last night but he couldn’t concentrate and he closed his eyes. They felt hot and heavy. Maybe he was sick after all. He put his attention to his throat and swallowed deliberately half expecting to feel a sharp and sour pain, but he didn’t. Instead, he just felt himself sinking back into sleep. He wanted to think more about last night’s dream but it wouldn’t reform itself in his mind. All he could remember was the feeling. A green-light feeling that said the way was clear — move forward. He tried to figure out what it meant, but nothing came except sleep.
He was awakened by the sound of the front door being kicked in. One loud and deliberate kick. He wasn’t even sure he didn’t dream it. But then a second later there it was again—a thud and the sound of cracking wood. He jumped out of bed and ran into the bathroom, smart enough to take the phone with him. His heart was pounding and for a moment he thought he should say sternly, Who’s there? or maybe scream, Get out of my house, as loud as he could. But instead he kept still and quiet with his back flat against the wall.
It was a hot Dallas morning and he could hear birds outside the little bathroom window that was stuck in a half open position and he could smell the lingering dust kicked up by his mother’s car. The tee shirt he slept in felt damp. There were five tiny octagonal tiles missing from the floor and Vernon had no idea why he should be bothered to count them every time, but he did. Now came the footsteps — sure and heavy — moving closer. He was frightened but anger was taking over. This wasn’t how the day was supposed to go. He had had other plans. There were those donuts and the coffee his mother always left in the pot that he liked to drink with lots of milk and sugar. That was going to be breakfast. Then he’d get back in bed and read some more about Snake Eyes. He’d be careful not to finish the comic book too quickly but when he did finish it he’d immediately reread it. Just like he always did. Then he’d watch TV for a while. Later, he’d get dressed and take his bike and head for the park. It wasn’t really a park, just an empty lot but somebody had put up a basket and you could almost always find someone to shoot with. Usually it was Dwayne, the kid who never seemed to go to school and who always had bruises on his arms and legs. Then when he got back he’d go next door to Gigi’s and ask to borrow an egg. Gigi was beautiful and always smelled like flowers. She wore mostly Chinese bathrobes and never combed her hair. She’d guess that his mother was working late and she’d offer to make him a real dinner. She wasn’t as good a cook as his mother and all her real dinners came out of cans, but he liked spending time with her. Sometimes she would read to him from the obituaries. She was on the lookout for any recent rich widower that she might meet and marry. But the odds were against her, Gigi said, because mostly women outlive the men.
Vernon heard shuffling steps in the kitchen and drawers being pulled out and silverware crashing to the floor. Whoever it was in his house must’ve been certain that no one was home because he didn’t make any of those careful noises like Vernon did when he was trying not to wake his father.
Vernon punched in 911 and waited forever until someone answered. It was a woman’s voice and that made him feel better already.
“Someone’s breaking into my house,” he whispered, surprised at how helpless he sounded.
“Are you alone?” the voice asked, urgent and interested.
“Yes. He’s here now… in my house.” Vernon expected to have more to say but that seemed to be all there was to it. A nightmare so easily explained didn’t make sense to him. He started to feel foolish.
“Stay calm…” she said. “Listen to me…”
“He’s in my house,” Vernon whispered involuntarily. He hadn’t meant to interrupt her. He wanted very much to listen and be ready to do whatever she said.
“Are you in a closet?”
Vernon realized that would’ve been an excellent place to hide and wished he’d thought of it. “No, I’m in the bathroom,” he said, barely able to breathe now because he thought he heard the footsteps getting closer.
“Is the door locked?”
His eyes went quickly to that empty space where the bathroom door used to be.
“There ain’t no door,” he said. It embarrassed him to say that but he wasn’t sure why. He tried to breathe but something wasn’t letting the air in or out. He wished that it were tomorrow. Saturday. He was going to get up early and be at the track by nine. Sometimes Harlen McFee’s dad would let him do a few laps in Harlen’s go-cart before the first race. The go-cart was a birthday gift for Harlen but he didn’t seem to enjoy it as much as his dad did. Vernon liked it when Mr. McFee would tighten the strap and buckle him into the driver’s seat and slap his shoulder and say, “Open ‘er up, Vernon.”
The shuffling footsteps came closer still and then diverted into his mother’s room. His heart bounced and there was a pressure in his ears. Again the sound of drawers being pulled out, but not the small kitchen ones. This time he heard that familiar squeak of his mother’s dresser drawer. He imagined her nightgowns and pantyhose flying around the room and landing softly on the floor. Then he heard breaking glass. He looked up at the starburst crack in the mirror above the sink where his dad had thrown the beer bottle two nights ago — the night he kicked in the bathroom door.
Vernon had been asleep then too when the sound of splintering wood woke him. He heard his mother scream and he said her name but he knew she couldn’t hear him. He jumped out of bed and ran toward the sound of her crying. He saw his father standing next to the broken door. It leaned against the wall where it had fallen and left jagged marks on the paint. His mother was near the tub folded up on the floor with her hands covering her face, her body wrapped in a towel. Her hair was wet and pressed against her neck, drops of water on her shoulders and on the floor. She looked up when Vernon put his arms around her. That’s when his dad threw the bottle he was holding at the mirror and the starburst appeared suddenly and complete, as if it had been hidden there all the time.
“Crazy cheating bitch,” his father said, and kicked the helpless door.
He stayed with his mother on the floor and listened to his dad slam around in the bedroom. When he came out he was carrying his Army duffel bag stuffed full and not even all the way closed. He went out to his truck and drove away. Vernon kept close to his mother, silently counting to a hundred and eighty and imagining the growing distance between the house and the truck. Willing it to keep moving farther away. The next morning, he helped his mother put the pieces of the broken door in a dumpster behind the building across the alley from their house. She didn’t want their landlord to see it. The pieces hardly weighed anything but his mother told Vernon to be careful and watch out for splinters. Two days later his father called from California and said he wasn’t coming back.
The female voice at the other end of the phone was saying something about staying calm and not hanging up. Vernon tried hard to concentrate on her words but couldn’t because now a man he’d never seen before filled the entire space where the bathroom door used to be. He wore a filthy denim shirt and needed a shave. He held a pillowcase filled with their stuff, but from the shapes inside Vernon couldn’t recognize anything. What could they have that anyone would possibly want? The man seemed surprised to find a boy there on the floor in the corner. He made a kind of laughing snort as he unzipped his pants and began to pee in the toilet. Vernon felt as if he had to pee himself but he didn’t give in to the urge. The man finished pretty quick and with one hand zipped up his pants. He took a quick survey of the bathroom as if he had wondered what this place looked like on the inside and now he knew. Then he fixed his eyes on Vernon. The boy had to force himself to breathe.
“I was bit by a snake!” The words came tumbling out of Vernon in a rush. Maybe he even shouted it, he couldn’t tell. He had no idea why he said this but it seemed to buy him some time while he thought about what to do next.
“That so?” the man said. “So was I. Once.”
He bent over the small sink and splashed some water on his face and dried his hands on his shirt. Then he picked up the pillowcase.
Vernon heard the 911 woman tell him help was on the way as the man took the phone from him and disconnected the call. Somewhere in his room there was that piece of paper with the phone number his dad had given him when he called. Vernon tried to picture the numbers and put them in the right order but the idea of making a phone in California ring seemed impossible now.