It had been a week since they’d fled the family home in the middle of the night. The previous month leading up to it had been bad, but Chris didn’t remember last Saturday night being any worse than past nights. He’d laid in bed listening for this father’s footsteps on the front porch. Usually, he got home around midnight. Sometimes Chris would fall asleep and jolt awake when he heard the key in the door or his old man’s drunken voice.
His mother left dinner out for him, so his first stop was the kitchen. He’d eat all the while muttering to himself, sometimes shouting curses. Then he’d stagger to the couch in the living room. With an ashtray on his lap and a gallon of the fortified sweet wine he drank on the coffee table he’d drink, make and smoke rollies and talk to himself for at least another hour. Sometimes it sounded like he didn’t know where he was or that he was alone. He’d talk to someone, and apparently, they’d answer back because he would shout and curse at them.
Once her husband had passed out, his mom would tip-toe into the living room and make sure all his cigarettes were out, and none had fallen between the cushions of the sofa.
In the morning, his father would still be passed out. Chris and his sister would quickly and quietly get ready for school and leave. His mother and younger brother stayed home.
As soon as Chris stepped outside, he felt like a dark, heavy overcoat had been removed from his shoulders. He and Yvonne would sometimes walk up the hill together, but they seldom talked. At the top of the hill, they’d split up. She’d meet up with her own friends for the walk to the high school while Chris carried on toward Secord. By the time he joined up with Billy and then Wolfgang, the previous night had been blotted out. For the next eight or so hours he could pretend his life was like any other grade five student. Then he’d have to go home, and it would start all over again.
Last Saturday, his Dad had fallen into the end table and knocked over the lamp, but other than that it was just the same; the banging around, the mumbling, the cursing and then finally silence. But the silence wasn’t enough. Chris always waited until he heard him snoring before he relaxed, the sick feeling in him stomach gradually easing, sleep coming like entering the black tunnel of the Chamber of Horrors ride at Playland.
“Chris, wake up.” His mother whispered, shaking him awake.
“Shh! You don’t want to wake him up. Get dressed we’re going.”
“Going where? It’s still dark.”
“Just get dressed,” she’d hissed. “And hurry.”
He’d pulled his clothes on while his mother dressed a sleepy Petey. His sister and mother stayed in one bedroom, he and his little brother in the other. Petey witnessed none of this as he slept through everything
Yvonne was waiting in the small hallway that connected the two bedrooms. There was something wrong with the light, shadows were everywhere and coming from weird angles.
“He’s still asleep,” Yvonne said.
“Go out the back door,” his mother said.
Yvonne stepped into the living room, Chris right behind her. His heart thumped in his chest like the time he and his friends had been caught shoplifting. Store security had let him go with a warning because he didn’t have any chocolate bars on him, but Billy and Wolfgang got a ride home in a police car. Billy got grounded, and Wolfgang got a beating as well getting grounded. Neither had finked that Chris was with them and just couldn’t decide about which chocolate bars to steal.
The lamp was on the floor; the shade knocked off, but the bulb was unbroken and still shining. Their shadows were cast on the wall and ceiling like in a horror movie. His dad was sitting up on the couch, chin on his chest, slobber on his lips, eyes closed. They walked past him and turned into the kitchen. His mother followed carrying Petey.
In the backyard, it was dark and cold. Petey started to whine. Cheeko, the neighbour’s dog, started yapping.
Chris noticed Yvonne had her makeup kit and a shopping bag of clothes. “How come Yvonne got to take stuff?”
“Shh!” His mother shifted Petey to her other shoulder. “I saw your father’s wallet and watch on the coffee table. I want you to go in a get it.”
“But that’s the watch he got from Grandpa?”
“We’ll give it back to him later. He’s just going to break it or lose it.”
“Can I go now, Mom?” Yvonne said. “I’ll call Mavis and Ted will pick me up.”
“I don’t want you walking around in the middle of the night by yourself. Just stay put.”
Cheeko was really raising a ruckus. The light went on in the Jensen’s kitchen. The back door opened.
The family froze. Chris wondered if his mother was more afraid about keeping up appearances, as she called it, with the neighbours or her husband?
“Goddamnit, Cheeko. Get the hell in here,” Mr. Jensen said without sticking his head out the door. The dog went inside. It was silent.
“Go, Chris, and don’t forget the wallet.”
“Can’t you do it, Mom?”
“If he wakes and finds me taking his wallet and watch he’ll kill me,” his mother said. “Now go.”
Chris went up the stairs and in through the open door. Compared to the cold night air the house smelled of stale cigarette smoke and sickly, sweet spilled wine. He stopped and listened. He couldn’t hear his father snoring. Every step toward the living room creaked with his intentions. His father had fallen over sideways, the butts from the ashtray were strewn across the cushions. Chris hoped they were all out.
He saw the wallet and the watch on the coffee table right in front of his father. He held his breath. One, two, three steps and he was there. He picked them up carefully, and one, two, three steps and he was back in the kitchen. He breathed and headed for the back door then stopped. He flipped open the wallet; two fives, two deuces and a single. Fifteen dollars. Chris took the two fives, closed the wallet, went back into the living room and put it on the coffee table. On the back of the couch was an afghan blanket his grandmother had knitted. Chris unfolded it and laid it over the shoulders of his unconscious father.
“What were you doing in there?” his mother said.
Chris handed her the two five-dollar bills.
“Where’s the wallet?”
“I left it–”
“I told you to bring the wallet.”
“I got all the cash, Mom. He might need the stuff in the wallet.”
“Can we go now? I’m freezing.” Yvonne started walking around the side of the house toward the street.
“Yvonne!” His mother’s voice carried in the still night.
They waited. No one had heard.
“We’ll go down the back lane. There’s no need to let the neighbours know our business.”
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