Photo by Vera Davidova on Unsplash
It’s 10:13 pm and Dad needs the money by midnight. Nico hasn’t seen or heard from the guy in six years, and every day over those six years, he has imagined what it would be like to hear from his dad again. Funny how it hadn’t seemed real when it finally happened: the phone rang and some dread inside made him pick up. Then, Nico heard Dad’s voice, and it wasn’t 2001 anymore. It was suddenly 1995 again. Funny, too, how a sound can do that.
“Lil’ man! Thank God! Hey, listen, do me a favor,” Dad said. “I need eight hundred to give Old Rusty. You remember, that guy don’t play games. He’s a crazy mother—”
It was gambling debts, Dad said. That’s code for another kind of debt, Nico knows. He’s known since Dad was just some teen mom’s lost birthday wish, and Nico was her crying reminder of it. Lil’ Man hasn’t cared since Mom did what she did to herself, and afterward, Dad told Nico, “I’ve got you now, Lil’ Man.” Nico knows that’s still true—even if it's been six years, even if it's the same song. That’s just how it goes with family.
In the mirror hanging from his closet door, he catches his dad’s reflection looking back at him: those thick brows and lazy cognac eyes—just copies of the original. Copies that Nico has stared into every day for six years: Always there when Dad’s not, making sure Nico can’t forget, even if Dad forgot. The clock on the wall clicks. Shit! It’s 10:14 now, and Old Rusty gets money or breaks Dad’s knees at midnight. Nico pulls out a shoebox from under his bed and counts the reckless pile of crumpled bills. The dark back room where he lives still has posters of superheroes on the walls from when he was a child. He isn’t one of those anymore. Nico is a man now. Sixteen is a man, and men step up when their Dads need them at... 10:15. He shuffles the cash in his hands, but being a busboy never earns anyone a lifestyle to brag about.
Nico is short, painfully short, and painfully aware that if Papa knows Dad is around, Papa’ll have Dad arrested for stealing his car six years ago, the silverware eight years ago, and Gram’s antique brooch whenever that happened. Still, Papa keeps cash in the freezer. It’s all there, and Papa doesn’t want to see his only son maimed or dead or worse—even if it is six years later, even if it is the same old song. Nico stuffs his life savings inside the pocket of his dad’s old motorcycle jacket and makes a beeline for the basement.
The house has a bleak silence about it when his grandparents go to sleep, save for the guttural snores that rip apart this silence. It’s like the inside of a morgue now, with long shadows on floral-patterned walls and glints of moonlight cascading onto the carpet. There were six birthdays, six Christmases, and one middle school graduation where Nico didn’t have a mom or dad there because Mom offed herself and Dad was anywhere. Six years. No hello, no sorry, no how’s life? Nico sneaks across the kitchen anyway, opens the basement door, and slides between the cracks onto the wooden staircase. Before he descends, Nico sees the red 10:24 on the microwave clock, and it’s been 2,191 days.
He doesn’t turn on the electric light. From next door, Mr. Hagan might see it and call Papa like he used to when Mom would bring Nico to Papa’s house looking for Dad. He was never there, so they’d sit outside like refugees, and Hagan always had to call Papa at work to tell him those people were sitting on his porch. Now, Hagan’d say something to Papa like, “What are ya doin’ in the basement at 10:24 at night?” And then Papa would say something like, “What are ya nuts? I wasn’t in the goddamn basement!” And then he’d figure out Nico must’ve been in the basement. So, he’d barge into the room with superhero posters and see someone missing, then fly to the basement and find Nico with pockets of his frozen money.
“Not happening,” Nico says to himself as he crawls down the stairs, then across the cold concrete floor in the darkness, one foot before the next as though walking a tightrope. The freezer gives off a steady hum that he follows to a dank corner where it sits like a coffin of dead cattle and cryogenic cash. He opens it slowly.
A blue glow irradiates in the darkness, showing the white-painted bricks where he and Dad used to draw on the walls—houses, mountains, islands, seascapes... that sort of thing. Papa painted over it when Dad left, but in his mind, Nico can trace the perpendicular lines of a compass Dad drew to make the whole thing look like a map. Nico feels this dull ache that sometimes creeps into his chest, but Dad needs him to collect at least seven hundred dollars from this freezer. He needs him to do it before midnight, or there won’t be any more paintings or meetings years apart or anything more to look forward to with Dad.
Nico peels open a box of frozen waffles and grabs a cold two hundred. The muffins hide one fifty. He cops another three bills from the T.V. dinners and twenty from the vegetables. That’ll do. When he lowers the freezer door, his eyes can’t make out anything but glints of starlight coming in from the cellar windows. He notices the crescent moon through them and thinks about how Dad used to say the moon had a face, but Nico never saw it. Maybe Dad will show him again after this business with Old Rusty, and he’ll make up random names for all the constellations like he’d do when they’d hang out on his boat at night. “Just you and me, Lil’ Man,” Dad would say, looking at the midnight sky. “It’s just you and me, and in one of those universes, there’s a version of us runnin’ things. There’s one of your mother too, one where she’s not miserable all the f—ing time. How’d ya like that?” Dad swore they’d find it. They’d find a new her.
The ceiling shrieks and screeches; the clamor rumbles down the heart of Papa’s basement. Nico’s sweaty palms begin shaking without him wanting them to shake. They’re up! He feels the beads of cold sweat on his neck as he skirts under the staircase. A rush of water jets over his head as he does, clanking and rattling the corroded pipes. Shit! Shit! Shit! The sound of their feet boom and crack, like a biblical apocalypse overtaking the floorboards, heading towards the kitchen and closing in on him. Shit! They know Nico’s down here! Of all times in the entire history of time, they’re coming NOW—when Nico has seven hundred frozen dollars in his pocket and Dad’s old jacket on. NOW—when he’s clearly not planning to stay inside on a school night, and he’s hiding behind these boxes of Dad’s things for no reason whatsoever. They’re coming NOW!
The steps wander away. The wood in the ceiling screeches as they move, and Nico knows he’s not going anywhere. Not until he hears guttural snoring from the bedroom, and please, please, please, let it be before midnight, or else Old Rusty is going to break Dads legs, or take his appendix, or his spleen, or something else because Old Rusty is a crazy mother—and Dad will think Nico left him like he left Nico and that’s not the way it is or the way it’s ever going to be—even after six years, even if it's the same old song. That’s just how it is with family.
“Ade, you wanna watch a movie,” Papa’s voice thunders in the basement, like the word of God echoing from Mount Sinai, telling Nico this is never, ever going to work.
“You wanna start a movie NOW?” Gram says. “I’m goin’ back to bed! My God! Nico’s got school in the morning. You wanna wake him up?”
“All right, all right, take it easy.”
Shit! Shit! Shit! Dad’s waiting, and so is Old Rusty, and Nico doesn’t know what time it is anymore. There is no way he spent more than ten minutes down here, though. Right? That would make it 10:34, so even if it takes them twenty minutes to go back to sleep, that would still give Nico time to walk—no, run. He’s gonna have to run—the three miles to Brewer Kill. Yeah. That's right. Buckets of time until midnight. Buckets of time. He just has to wait for the guttural snoring. Just wait.
The cardboard box against Nico’s leg is slightly open. He picks it up and carries his Dad’s artifacts across the basement to the purple, blue moonglow on the floor. A flannel shirt is on top, the red one Dad always wore, but it doesn’t smell like him or anything because it’s been in a basement for six years. Nico sets it aside, then sees the dingy glass pipe and the lighter and remembers Old Rusty.
Dad once told Nico that Old Rusty cut off his own finger to make a point, and yeah... He was missing a pinkie and some teeth too. His long and disheveled beard looked like the one Santa Claus has, except Old Rusty’s was dirty and grizzled, and his eyes were black like shiny onyx marbles in his skull. Old Rusty used to carry a crowbar up the sleeve of his trench coat and hide a switchblade inside his boots. The guy’s body was one superstructure of flesh, and Dad is like Nico—a pocket-sized man with absolutely no body fat or muscle mass or, at least, Dad was.
The TV in the living room screams upstairs, and Nico hears the show’s springtime, lazy day whistling cut through the floorboards. That means it’s Andy Griffith late; impossible to run to the pier at Brewer Kill by midnight late. What time is it? 11? 11:30? Nico could have buckets of time, or it could be the final countdown, and he has no way of knowing without going upstairs and no way of knowing what Old Rusty will do to Dad if—Just wait. How long? Just. Wait.
Nico lays his dad’s lighter and glass pipe aside like holy relics and finds a class picture of himself from kindergarten. It tremors in his hand as he holds it under the cellar window: the messy black hair covering his forehead, the smile from the side of his mouth like his dad used to make in pictures. Papa always said Nico looked just like his dad, and Lil’ Man wonders if that’s still true—if he and Dad are still twins. When he left, Dad was twenty-six. That’s only ten years older than Nico is now, so if anything, they’re even more alike. Funny how time does that. TIME! Shit! Nico glances up at the starlit window. The corroded latch catches his eye, and Nico knows that latch isn’t any sort of lock; it’s not really doing anything, actually... at all.
Sorry, Gram. Sorry, Papa. Nico just needs to drag the rest of Dad’s old boxes here, and that will give him enough height to reach the cellar window and get through because there’s not going to be any guttural snoring anytime soon.
And so, Nico does.
Afterward, he just needs to get to the gardening shed for Papa’s spare keys because there’s not going to be any walking or running to Brewer Kill anymore. Nico’s gonna have to drive. He can drive, despite any legal technicalities imposed by the state. This man can drive.
And so, Nico sneaks into the shed and grabs the keys.
Under the purple, blue moonglow, he steals across the dead leaves and black blades of grass on the lawn to the driveway. Nico wedges open the heavy steel door, holding it steady so it won’t creak even though it usually creaks. He slides into the driver’s seat of Papa’s Buick, slips the key inside the ignition, and wakes her. The damn artifact roars and rumbles like a lioness in the jungle, grumbling a proclamation to everyone in a three-thousand-mile radius: I AM UP! The digital clock on the radio shines—11:26. Shit! Nico’s not idling because there’s no time for that. Idlers get caught, and there is no way he can get caught. Not now.
He heads for the main drag as a porch light flicks on in the rearview, the soft yellow glint from which slaps across Nico’s face. Mr. HAGAN! He’s probably calling Papa NOW—when Nico’s behind the wheel of a very technically stolen vehicle. NOW—when Nico’s taking a left onto the main drag because the best way to travel is in plain sight. NOW—when Dad needs Nico to save him like he saved Nico after Mom did that thing to herself. Hagan’s getting involved NOW!
The digital clock reads 11:33. Nico’s already by the bank. It’s just another few turns, and anyway, going back means Old Rusty gets Dad, and either way, Hagan already got Nico, so what’s the point of turning around now? Nico’s palms slip on the smooth plastic steering wheel. He feels its perforations cutting into his skin and through to his bones. Whatever. Nico’s just gotta keep the old lioness at a steady 35 miles-per-hour like Dad told him to do when he was nine, and someone needed to drive Papa’s car back home. As long as Nico remembers that 35 miles per hour; and he keeps one eye in the rearview, and the hood ornament in the center of the lane, and checks for a reflection in the grill if he thinks it's an undercover—as long as Nico remembers all that, he’ll make it to Dad all right. Even if Hagan knows, even if he called Papa. Yeah. That’s right—IF. He can still save Dad from Old Rusty, even if—
Two miles later, Nico forgets about the speed limit thing because it’s 11:42 now, and no one hangs around the road to the Kill at night. He can finally go, go, go, and make it in time for Dad. Dad? He’s going to see Dad—the father who brought his son to the mural they painted in the basement, pointed to the seascape with the island, and said, “That’s where I’m headed,” the guy who went to Papa’s freezer 312 weeks ago and said, “Give me a hand with this, Lil’ Man,” the person Nico can never escape when he sees his reflection: Always there when Dad’s not, making sure Nico can’t forget, even if Dad forgot.
The long, burnt-out cattails along the road rush past the tires, kicking up the sand. Up ahead, orange and yellow lights from the pier illuminate the midnight sky, washing away the starlight and turning the canvas black. Nico’s foot slams the accelerator, kicking up more sand as he rushes to the end of the lonely road. On the horizon, a figure lingers under the single street lamp by the pier, smoking a cigarette under its hazy glow. It’s Dad. The water beyond him looks endless and flat like it did when Dad used to take him fishing on his boat in the summer—just him and Dad, tossing water over the side of the f—ing boat, but Nico shouldn’t say that word, remember? He can see the white lights from the refineries in the distance now. They draw shooting stars upon the tired ripples of black water, and DAD’s there—the father who raised his finger to his lips and took Papa’s keys, and now it’s 2,191 days later, and Dad’s there.
It’s 11:53, and Nico drives faster, watching the figure grow larger and clearer. He can make out the hunting cap on Dad’s head. A glint of orange street light casts a shadow over his face as he lights another cigarette. Nico presses even harder on the accelerator now, knowing this will be the one moment in the history of moments that truly matters. This is the one Nico should really live out for all its worth, and he’ll never ask for another because everyone deserves a moment like this, but there isn’t enough to go around the whole world twice.
Nico pulls over across the street from the pier and clicks off the headlights. Under the hazy orange glow, Dad brings a cigarette to his lips. As he sucks the smoke into his lungs, a crowbar slips from the sleeve of his trench coat. A fire ignites inside Nico. It slowly begins to pop and crackle through his veins. He rolls down the window, inhaling the salty, smoked autumn night as he peers outside and squints. The figure holding a crowbar in a long trench coat has a dirty, grizzled beard. His eyes look like shiny onyx marbles in his skull. His body is a heaving superstructure of flesh.
It’s 11:58. From under his hunting cap, the figure glares at Papa’s Buick. With a cigarette in one hand and swinging his steel crowbar in the other, he begins sauntering, one muddy combat boot in front of the next—heel to toe, heel to toe—but where’s Dad?! Maybe he couldn’t come, or he’s on his way, or maybe Old Rusty axed him already? But Dad was supposed to be here! At the pier! By midnight! Nico remembers! He was supposed to meet Dad at the pier at Brewer Kill, where they used to go fishing in the summer—and he’s...
“So, I see your Pops bailed ya out again. Eh, Johnny Boy?” The figure snarls as his muddy boots move slowly—heel to toe—closer to Papa’s Buick. He pauses in the empty, damp, and glimmering street, the crowbar twirling between his four leathery fingers in the darkness. “Someone at Pete’s told me they’d seen ya hop on a Greyhound an hour ago, but I told em’ not my Johnny Boy! He wouldn’t disappoint Old Rusty.”
Nico’s throat tightens; his heart races. He can’t move, can’t find words anymore, can’t think. Old Rusty twirls on his heels, cackling and cheering under the starlight. “Ah, Johnny Boy, ya never disappoint me in the end,” he says, then waves the crowbar toward Papa’s Buick. “I gotta admit, from here, it don’t look like you aged a day. But what’d it take ya, honestly? Six years to show ya face in Jersey again? A record! Well, come on, get outta my new—”
Old Rusty’s hollow mouth stops moving but doesn’t close. His onyx eyes widen, reflecting the crescent moon in their black pupils. He throws his cigarette into the dry cattails along the road; slips the crowbar inside his trench coat. Maybe he sees the real Johnny Boy, but—Old Rusty bounces two frantic paces backward and then hurls his superstructure body across the road, his trench coat drifting like a cape as he dives into the blackness of the parking lot. The door to a pickup truck slams in the silence, then tires screeching, exhaust roaring, tearing off into oblivion as...
Blue and red lights bounce off the windshield of Papa’s Buick and the windows and the side mirrors. HAGAN! Nico’s eyes, cognac eyes, just like Dad’s, dart into the rearview: Always there when Dad’s not, making sure Nico can’t forget, even if Dad forgot. A kaleidoscope of blue and red ricochets from the grill of a Crown Vic as tinnitus and sirens rip through his brain. Nico thinks he hears Dad shouting, “Run, kid!” even though it’s from that other universe where they’re in charge because Johnny Boy’s not in this one. He was never there, never gonna be there. Johnny Boy’s gone again, and Nico’s on the ground with his hands on his head.