It was my tenth summer, July 22, and outside my window the rain was taking sides as the lightning had a turf battle with the willows. But the fight was one-sided and the trees wept as their name suggested, even as I tried my best not to join them. Dad’s shoes were still in my hand then–I didn’t know what to do with them. I knew he had other shoes and all, but something told me he wouldn’t leave again if I just held onto those ones.
They had one of their “we’re just being silly” fights. Mom threw bottles at his head and accusations of infidelity along with them. I’d seen it all from the doorway, watched as the bottles shattered one by one and left little beer explosions on the wall that trailed down and soaked the carpet, added brown residue lines to the wheels of my old Fisher Price walker, as if the world’s tiniest man was marking his height against them.
But they saw me standing there and just stopped. Mom still held a bottle in her hand. She was shaking.
“We’re just playing. Just being silly. See?”
She gave a smile that was all teeth and crinkled eyes. That mask salesman from Ocarina of Time came to mind. It was all a routine we had to carry out. Dad acted bewildered, mom gave the too-wide smile, and I snuck back to my room with the pair of shoes.
But dad was stomping up the stairs as I looked into the soles of those faded old white New Balance, as a mildewy sort of sweat wafted up and attacked my nose. And before the stomps drew any closer, I bolted. I bounded over the top step and touched down on the third, knocked straight into my dad’s paunch and rebounded against the wall, half tumbled down the rest of the stairs and ran right out the front door. I didn’t even close it behind me.
My mother sent out her banshee screams but they were quickly lost in the driving rain, and so was I. Jagged blacktop bit at my bare feet, more holes than street in this unincorporated part of town. I ran straight down the middle of Good Avenue and passed by McMansions on my left as I went, the lake behind them usually placid but now being rent and torn by the storm. My feet were streaking bloody little tracks behind them but I refused to put on the shoes. I stopped and examined my feet, cried as I picked out the tiny pebbles and let the rain wash away the blood. I threw my dad’s shoes into the lake before my body had the chance to betray my brain.
Meadow Lane had a little storm drain that some teenager had pried the bolts off of long ago, a storm drain that fed into a forking, snaking, town-wide tunnel system. He used it to covertly get high and I used it as a sanctuary. I didn’t tell his mom and he didn’t tell mine, so we coexisted well enough.
I hauled up the drain cover and didn’t even bother to replace it as I scurried down into the darkness, as the sweetly stubborn scent of pot that clung to everything down there returned to me. I knew that tunnel better than I knew myself. I didn’t need a flashlight.
I found my “room”: a little three-by-three hollowed-out cube of concrete, lit dimly by the jars of lightning bugs I kept down there. My pens and notebooks were right where I left them, and I started writing by buglight before the real searing pain in my feet could set in.
It was a story about molemen and aliens and underground worlds filled with monsters. The usual. I was so into it I didn’t even notice the flash flood at first. I figured the icy chill at my feet was just part of the pain. I was about halfway through the story when I saw one of the lightning bug jars float and bob away from me out of the corner of my eye.
I could hear the water as it slapped against the ladder’s rungs and fell away, as it spread out into a rushing pool and clapped itself against each of the concrete walls in staggered steps. And as I listened to it come for me and felt it rise to the height of my ankles, I almost wanted it to take me away. To flush me down some abyssal cavern, to the center of the earth and away from everything and everyone. I sat there, perfectly still, as the water tickled my calves and threatened to claim my knees.
And then I heard him. He was calling out my name in pain, as if each syllable was covered in barbed wire. He called for me and I heard myself, older but no less vulnerable.
I needed to go.
I tried to save the notebooks and jars, but it was too late. I watched each of the bugs’ pinpricks of light rush away into the distance and darkness both, like little subterranean stars being born. The water challenged my grip on the rungs as I climbed up, but my dad’s face at the drain’s top kept me going. He hauled me up when I got close enough and tried not to cry when he knew I was alright, but couldn’t. He was barefoot and crying just like me, with the rain all around to shelter us from ourselves.
We didn’t say one word to each other as we headed back home, and we’ve never spoken about it since. We just walked back quietly against the driving rain, with my little bloody footprints and his bigger ones to guide us home.