The Birthday Party
by Alex Reynard
...For a kid who's supposed to be so damn smart, you sure act stupid...
...No, you can't. You'll just mess everything up...
...You don't really want that. You just think you do...
...You're doing it wrong!...
...I'll treat you with respect once you start earning it...
...If you don't like something, don't just sit there like a dummy. Be honest about it...
...I worked hard on this! If you don't like it, I don't need your complaints!!...
...You're not old enough to be trusted making decisions for yourself...
...No, do it again. The right way this time. Like I told you...
...Of COURSE you like that show! I know you do! Don't lie to me...
...Just shut up...
...I don't want to hear any of your excuses...
...I told you already; you don't get a say in this because you're too young...
...We're your parents. We know you better than you know yourself...
...I don't care if you're right, you are NOT allowed to talk to me in that tone of voice!...
...Why can't you just do what I tell you?...
...Stop being so difficult...
...Why do you always insist on doing everything the hard way?...
...No, I don't have time for you. Stop asking...
...Why don't you just drop it, for the sake of everyone else in the family?...
...What's wrong with you?...
...Why do you always have to be so dumb?...
...Stop crying, I said!!...
...Do it MY way...
...I'm just teasing you! Stop taking it so seriously!...
...What you want is not important right now...
...Why do you always have to have these mood swings? Isn't it already hard enough raising you?...
...We're your family. You have to love us whether you want to or not...
Elliot woke up.
He slapped the alarm without looking. The young fox was surprised to reach up with his other paw and feel wetness around his eyes. He really had been crying in his sleep. He wiped his face on the blanket. He didn't remember what he'd been dreaming.
Like a lot of mornings, there was a part of him that didn't want to get up. His pajamas were soft and his bed was warm. If he never got up, he could just stay asleep forever.
But it was a school day, so he had to. He lifted off the covers and looked around. Good; Sis was already up. Probably in the bathroom or at breakfast. Meant he didn't have to worry about not being noisy while he got his clothes on.
Elliot was average for a ten-year-old fox. Reddish orange fur. A long tail that he thought looked pretty cool. Not too tall or short. He got good grades (because he had to). He tended to shy away from having friends at school though. It was easier to be alone.
As he slipped into his underpants, he remembered that today was different. Today was his birthday. He smiled, and some of the tension that always surrounded him like a fog blew away. He put on blue shorts and his favorite red shirt. In the mirror, his reflection looked okay.
He glanced around before leaving the room, making sure he hadn't forgotten anything. Homework was in his backpack; he remembered putting it there. Drawers were slid back in. Nothing on sis' side of the room was out of place that he could be blamed for. It was a nice enough room overall. Spacious. Even though Sis' clothes were all over the place like Christmas decorations, he still had some area to himself. His own clothes and toys. Not ones he'd picked out though. When Mom and Dad went shopping, they bought things for him. Still, some of the toys he liked.
Elliot was lucky again in that the bathroom was free. He peed. Brushed his fur. Swirled some mouthwash around. Looked in the mirror and had that feeling again like he had to remind himself the face he saw looking back was really his.
But it was his birthday. The 28th. Today was gonna be okay. He wondered what he might get for presents.
Elliot scurried down the hallway to where Dad was already pouring a glass of juice and Sis was already chatting on her phone while her cereal got soggy. Since she'd become a teenager, Elliot was no longer a brother, he was an annoyance.
Mom looked around from where she was stuffing orange peels down the garbage disposal. "Oh, you're finally up. Good morning!"
"Good morning," Elliot said back. He scooted out a chair to sit down at the table with the rest of the family, then saw stars as he fell to the floor. He landed on his butt and whacked his chin on the table on the way down. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Sis' foot had nudged the chair a few inches away from where he'd expected to sit.
She grinned at him and giggled to her friend on the phone.
Dad snarled as he wiped up his spilled juice with a napkin. "Elliot, will you be more careful? You shook the whole table!"
The end of Elliot's chin throbbed. He rubbed it. "But Sis moved my chair out of the way."
"I'm sure she did," Mom said. Her back was turned but her eyeroll could be felt anyway. "Always the excuses for your clumsiness. You've got to learn to take some responsibility in your actions."
Elliot climbed up off the floor and took his seat. "Yes, Mom."
Sis snorted a laugh.
Mom brought Elliot a bowl and chose his cereal for him. She poured his milk. She gave him his spoon. "There. Now eat up and don't be late for the bus."
Elliot looked down at a small sea of plain Cheerios. He liked Cheerios, sure, but... He bit his lip, not sure if he should say anything. "Um... I was kind of hoping for something a little... different, maybe?" He'd wanted to say 'fancy', but that'd sound too much like complaining.
Mom pricked up an ear. "Oh? Why?"
He shrugged. "'Cuz it's my birthday."
Mom let out a dainty giggle. "No, honey, that's tomorrow."
Elliot blinked hard. No, he was sure... He stared down into the bowl of Cheerios. Like dozens of little open mouths. 'Maybe I misremembered?' It could've been that today was, like, his 'birthday eve'? And he'd just gotten ahead of himself?
He absently stuffed a spoonful into his mouth as he craned his neck towards the wall calendar. 'Sunday was the 26th. Monday was yesterday. Today's Tuesday, so it's gotta be the 28th. I didn't just lose a day, I know that.' "Mom, the calendar says today's the 28th."
She nodded. "Of course. And your birthday's tomorrow. The twenty-ninth."
Elliot's face froze in a gape-mouthed expression of surreality. He stared at her like she was speaking gibberish. "No, but... No. It's today."
Dad reached over to rustle between the boy's ears. "Pretty sure it's the same date it's always been since you were born, sport."
Elliot recoiled reflexively at being touched. "But it's the 28th."
"Your birthday's the twenty-ninth, stupid," Sis said out of the side of her mouth.
The young fox felt like someone had wrapped a large wet washcloth around his head and was pulling it tight. But he knew better than to push it. He hunched over his breakfast and shoveled in cereal. He had to think about this. He was sure his birthday was the 28th. That just felt right. It wasn't like he had it written down somewhere: 'My birthday is the TWENTY EIGHTH'. Because you didn't need to. You just remembered stuff like that, right?
He went over it in his mind while chewing, drowning out Sis' ongoing phone conversation in his right ear. He tried to remember back to past birthdays. Last year they'd booked a party at that place with all the ball pits. There was a video game he really wanted to try, but his family kept dragging him away to play with the other kids. He didn't remember any specific date attached to that memory. The year before that they'd all flown out to Grandma and Grandpa's, and...
His eyes popped open. "Wait! Two years ago, when we went to Gramps and Granma's place, the date was written down on the calendar! I remember seeing it! 28!"
"That was the day we left. Not your birthday," Dad said between sips of juice.
Elliot actually shivered. He felt like was losing his mind. "Okay. But then, the year before that was..." He lit up. Proof at last! "That was when we went to that movie! And it was opening weekend, and it was on a Friday. And it had to have been the 28th because the posters said '28', and if we'd gone the next day that'd've been Saturday, but I went to school in the morning 'cause it was a Friday, and-"
Mom reached over and pinched his muzzle shut. "Enough. It's just a silly mistake. It's not worth all this uproar."
He looked up at her, eyes pleading. When she took her paw away, he said, "But I don't know how I could have possibly-"
She pointed at him. Right between the eyes. And her voice took on that dangerous edge she got when she was not in the mood to argue. "You're making yourself upset. I'm not going to listen to you unless you calm down."
Elliot squinched his eyes shut. "I'm calm."
"No you're not. You're tense all over and I can hear it in your voice. Just eat your breakfast and go to school."
Sis chimed in, "You didn't forget how to eat cereal too, didja?"
Elliot kept his eyes closed. He could feel his chest muscles clench. He curled his fingers in a fist around his spoon and finished the rest of breakfast with steady precision, just to spite his sister. After she tossed her phone in her purse and headed to the garage, Elliot just kept sitting there. Staring daggers at the little puddle of milk left in his bowl.
'I didn't misremember. I know it. Or did I? Could I be wrong? No.. But, the date on the poster... It was in gold, the number twenty-eight. I know it was three years ago, but I'm sure I remember looking right at it!'
Dad gave Elliot's ear a swat. "Better get going. If you miss the bus, you're walking."
Elliot grunted and turned away from his chair. "Fine."
"HEY." Dad stood up. "Don't take that disrespectful tone with me. I'm your father. It's not my fault you're all grumpy today for some reason."
"Yes, Dad," Elliot said wearily.
The older fox nodded. "That's better. Now get going. Have a good day at school."
Elliot didn't think he was going to.
He picked up his backpack. He walked to the bus stop a few blocks down. He didn't talk to Johnathan and Gemma who were already standing there. He didn't say anything on the bus either. The driver had to shout at him once they reached the school. He couldn't stop thinking about the date.
School did not go well. As Elliot swam silently past the bustle and chatter of other students in the hall, an idea suddenly hit him and he broke into a run. A few other kids yelled at him.
The classroom calendar.
Every year, Mrs. Williams wrote all the students' birthdays on the calendar. Pink marker for the girls, blue for boys. It would show the truth. It totally would. Elliot tore around a corner and pushed open the classroom door a little harder than he'd meant to. It made a BANG that startled Jessilyn. Mrs. Williams glared. But Elliot didn't notice either of them. He scrambled to the front of the class, looked up at the wall, and...
He froze there for so long, it took Mrs. Williams four times calling his name for him to hear her.
He came back to awareness in a cloud of hushed laughter. All his classmates giggled at what a retard he was acting like.
"You can take your seat now, Elliot."
Tail between his legs, the young fox did. Cheeks burning.
For the next four hours until lunchtime, his eyes were repeatedly drawn back to the calendar. Again and again, like metal to a magnet. He'd never really noticed that it was right there on the front wall of the classroom. Right in front of him. Right in the center of his vision.
There at the bullseye was the number 29.
Circled in blue.
With his name underneath.
But that wasn't was drove him into a nearly-paralyzed state of transfixed obsession. It was the little white box beside it.
He swore he could see faint smudges from where she'd wiped off blue marks from a dry-erase marker.
Elliot ate lunch and then promptly threw it up. He'd bolted from the cafeteria when the rolling in his guts had suddenly become an angry, drilling whirlpool. He didn't make it to the bathroom. He'd ralphed in one of the recycled paper bins outside the main office and had tearfully apologized to Mrs. Grenadine, the secretary, for making a mess. At least she was really nice about it. She hugged him, spoke softly, and took him to the staff sink to wash his mouth out, then gave him a lollipop for later. He thanked her as sincerely as he could.
At recess he sat in the grass beside the soccer field, listening to the kids kick a ball around. His back was to the steps leading up to the auditorium. The concrete was cool and gave him some shade from the hot sun.
'It doesn't matter. Not really. It doesn't matter. I got the date wrong. So what? It just means my birthday's tomorrow. I can wait another day. Right? Right. It's not like I'm THAT greedy for presents,' he joked to himself, and laughed.
A wave of that sick-to-his-stomach feeling hit him again. He doubled over and closed his eyes until it went away.
After the recess monitor blew her whistle and a herd of kids flooded back inside, Elliot decided he wasn't going to ask Mrs. Williams about the circle on the calendar. He'd just look crazy. Or stupid. Instead he went straight to his desk.
Beside him, Pat tried to strike up a conversation about the new deck he was putting together for his trading card game.
Elliot said he didn't know anything about it, sorry. He stared down at the reading assignment.
Pat just sighed. He kinda liked Elliot. But half the time the fox wasn't really there when he was there.
Elliot tried to concentrate on schoolwork for the rest of the day but he was lousy at it. He tried to force himself not to look at the calendar. It felt like it was growing, floating towards him, hovering over his head with that blue-circled 29. No matter how many times Elliot tried to convince himself he was wrong, his heart contradicted him. It wouldn't let this go. It refused to just look at the number twenty-nine and admit it was the right number and always had been.
There was a vocabulary quiz on the reading assignment. Elliot squeaked by, largely because he knew most of the words anyway. (Books were quiet and could be enjoyed alone.) During math, the numbers just jumped around in front of his blurring vision. He couldn't remember what the endocrine system did either.
Finally he just gave up trying and doodled on some notebook paper. Swirly lines, like fingerprints. The repeating patterns were soothing.
No time seemed to pass, but then suddenly Mrs. Williams was calling his name again.
He looked up. She was standing, half-turned, nearly at the door, purse on one arm and lesson books in the crook of the other. "I said are you sick or something? Mrs. Grenadine sent me a message about what happened at lunchtime."
Elliot shook his head. "No. I'm sorry. I'm just..." The drawing had hypnotized him, was the real answer. He noticed the clock. "Oh CRAP! I'm gonna miss the bus!"
"Don't swear!" his teacher shouted out as he ran past her.
He did miss the bus.
But that was actually allright. School was only ten blocks away, and it was a nice day to be outside. Hot, but with a nice cool breeze. Elliot kept to the main roads like his parents had taught him. He walked with his head down mostly. Noticing the sidewalk cracks. Sometimes people had drawn their initials in when the cement was being poured.
When he turned the corner at his block, his front door opened up and Mom leaned way out. "Where the hell were you!?"
He hustled down the sidewalk and across the lawn. "I missed the bus," he panted.
"Get yourself inside this instant!" she stormed. "I was WORRIED! Don't you ever THINK about anyone besides yourself!?"
Elliot's ears flattened against his scalp. Tail low, he slid past her into the livingroom. Dad wasn't home yet. Sis wasn't either, but Mom never gave her the siren alarm for staying out all night. Probably because she was older and had a car.
Mom banged the door shut. "You need to be more considerate of others," she said. "I was sitting here looking up at the clock, wondering if I'd have to walk up there and get you. I have things to do around the house, Elliot. I can't be chasing after you every day to make sure where you are."
"I know, Mom," Elliot said, muzzle buried low in his chestfur.
"I said I know."
"Don't give me that sharp tongue! I'm not the one on trial here!"
"I just..." His throat clenched. "I was just distracted. I'm sorry. I was thinking about my birthday again. I'm still sure I didn't get the date wrong, but-"
"Oh THIS again." She threw her hands up. "You're so impatient. Can't you wait one more day? You have to have everything now, now, now!" She swatted at him with the dusting towel she was holding.
Elliot flinched away and sneezed. "No! I just-"
"You just. You're just in the mood to argue, that's what."
"No! Please, can I just say something!?"
She crossed her arms under her breasts. Her tone was icy. "I'm not stopping you."
"I just-" He cringed at his inability to stop saying that. "I don't know how I misremembered, okay!? It was making me feel crazy all day long. I threw up at lunch, even."
Instead of sympathy, her features drew pinched in disgust. "Such theatrics. What you're telling me is, you were daydreaming all day, ignoring your schoolwork, letting yourself get obsessed with this latest thing you've decided to fixate on." She pointed to the stairs. "Up to your room. And you're not coming back down for at least two hours."
"What!?" he burst out. "WHY!?"
"Because you're not acting like an adult, young man," she said, taking hold of the end of his nose and directing it towards the staircase. "And you're not taking responsibility again. And because I say so. Now march your tail; I have housework to finish."
Thunderclouds were shoving against his temples. Elliot dragged himself across the carpet.
"And I don't want to hear a peep out of you while you're up there!!"
He ascended the staircase in silence.
Once he was in his bedroom, Elliot let his backpack slide off. He didn't bother taking off his shoes. He crawled right into bed and pulled the covers tight around him.
Elliot woke up.
This time it wasn't to his alarm but a knock on the door. "Are you still in there? Mom says you need to come down to the livingroom." Sis knocked a few more times for emphasis, then her footsteps receded out of range.
Elliot sat up, feeling blurry. The sky was redder outside. Still far from dark though. Sleeping in his clothes had gotten his fur all whorled the wrong way. The morning's memories slowly came back to him.
He felt a tightness in his chest again, wondering what Mom wanted from him now.
He got up and almost tripped over where he'd carelessly dropped his backpack. He scolded himself for that. And for probably not having enough time to get his homework done tonight. 'I'm so stupid.'
He checked his headfur in the mirror. Mom always fixed it if it wasn't neat, and he hated feeling her claws run through his fur.
Elliot shut his bedroom door behind him and went to the bathroom. A quick pee, then he headed for the stairs.
As soon as he was within sight of the ground floor, he almost jumped out of his skin.
Petrified like a deer in headlights, eyes wide, Elliot walked slowly down the steps.
The livingroom was a kaleidoscope. Reflective metallic streamers and letters screaming HAPPY BIRTHDAY ELLIOT hung across the ceiling. Dozens of balloons. Two folding tables from the basement were dressed in paper tablecloths, one topped with presents, the other with a cake and paper plates. Mom, Dad and Sis were at the foot of the stairs. The whole family was here. Even Grandpa and Grandma.
Elliot's expression was blank as static.
Mom was effervescent with laughter. "Come on down, honey! I'm sorry you got so upset earlier, but it was all for the surprise! We know you like surprises!"
"You look like you're in shock, sport," Dad said. He beckoned with his arm. "It's your party! Come on!"
If anything, Elliot's steps got slower. As if the hands on the clock were gummed up with tar. As if he was walking through wet cement. He felt reality bending, turning, twisting into knots.
He wasn't asked about any of this. He didn't want any of this. He hated surprises, especially loud ones. Especially ones with colors so bright they swirled and made him nauseous. There were kids downstairs. Kids who looked like they hated the stupid paper party hats they were wearing. Sons and daughters of Mom and Dad's friends. He didn't go to school with any of them. He hardly knew their names. Were they all glaring at him?
Mom laughed. "Shake it off, sleepyhead! This is all for you!"
Elliot stopped on the fourth step up from the bottom, frozen.
"He doesn't know what to do with himself, honey," Dad said to Mom.
"He's still freaked out 'cuz we told him it was tomorrow," Sis said.
Mom bent over, guffawing. "You poor kid! We really did a number on ya. But it was so worth it! The look on your face is soooo precious right now!" She looked over to Grandma, who had the video camera pointed.
"I even called the school and got your teacher in on it!" Dad said, proudly.
Elliot's eyes were still glued open. There was still no emotion on his face. He looked around at everything.
Reality stopped bending, and snapped.
He turned around and began to walk quietly back up the stairs.
The buzz in the room died out in an instant. For several moments, everyone was silent in confusion.
"Honey, come back down," Mom said.
Elliot ignored her. He kept heading up.
"Don't be like this!" she called out, slightly louder. "This is all for you! It's your party!"
Elliot reached the top of the stairs and aimed for his bedroom.
Mom smacked Dad's shoulder. "Go get him! What's wrong with him!?"
Elliot heard adult footsteps following him up, so he hurried.
He got to his bedroom, closed the door behind him, and went straight back to bed.
Soon enough, knock knock knock. "Elliot, are you in there? Or in the bathroom? Where are you?"
"I'm in here, Dad," he said, almost as a reflex.
"Well come out! Everybody's waiting downstairs! You don't want to miss your party, do you?"
"No," Elliot said.
"That's right. So come out. We've got presents and games and there's a big cake for everyone."
"No," Elliot repeated.
Dad paused. "...Excuse me?"
"No," Elliot repeated. His tone of voice did not change.
His father suddenly bared his teeth in frustration and gave the door a POUND. "Elliot, goddammit, what is this!? Everyone's waiting on you! Get out here!"
"I don't want to."
"Are you crazy!? What kid doesn't want a birthday party? A surprise party! I loved those as a kid! We went out and got you everything you like! All your friends! We flew in your Grandma and Grandpa! How long has it been since they've seen you? Are you gonna be like this and throw a tantrum and disappoint them!?"
Elliot pulled the covers up past his nose.
"Elliot, you get out here RIGHT NOW!!! Stop being childish! I'm giving you till three, young man! If I have to come in there and drag you out by your tail, I will. But you are not going to ruin this for everyone else like you always do! One!"
Elliot shut his eyes tighter.
The young fox kept still.
"Three!! I'm coming in there!!!"
The sound of a doorknob rattling. "Elliot, did you lock this!?" Dad shouted incredulously. Of course the lock was on the outside, so it wouldn't work to keep him out, but he was still flabbergasted the kid had done such a thing. He stormed into the room, over to the son-shaped lump on the bed. He rolled it roughly back and forth. "Get out of that bed!! What do you think you're doing!? You're making a scene!"
Elliot curled himself up tighter, defensively. "No..."
Dad stepped back, furious. "You're in one of your moods again. Okay, selfish. You're going to be a baby and just throw away the party we gave you? How about everyone else eats your cake and you don't get any?"
"That's fine," Elliot said truthfully.
"Oh really? Smartass? How about we let all the other kids open your presents too?"
Elliot was muffled but spoke very clearly. "It's okay. I don't mind. They can have them. I don't mind, really."
Dad banged his fist on the bureau drawers. "I'm bringing your mother up here, young man! You are in big trouble for this. So SELFISH!" He banged his fist against the wood again, then stormed out of the room.
As soon as it was quiet again (though he could hear a confused, tense murmur from everyone else downstairs), Elliot pulled the blankets tighter and wished he could clench himself into a ball so tiny he'd just pop out of existence. Like a black hole or something.
But then another thought struck him. As suddenly and shockingly as a lightning bolt.
With no conscious thought, he leapt out of bed, nimbly avoiding getting tangled in the covers, and shut the bedroom door. He blazed to the opposite side of the bedroom. He knocked a bunch of Sis' shirts off the metal folding chair, lifted it up, and let all her cosmetics slide off onto the floor. He had only seconds to do this. He'd seen it on TV. Crossing back to the door, he wedged the chair beneath the knob and shoved it against the floor as hard as he could. The little rubber tips had fallen off its feet years ago. It wouldn't slip on the hardwood.
Elliot jumped back, panting.
'Why am I doing this?'
No answer came. His mind was an empty box. Something deep in his core was driving him now. Not letting him know what the deal was, but sending a feeling like this was right. No matter what anyone else said.
Within seconds, angry feet were pounding down the hall. "ELLIOT!!!" his mother screamed.
"He shut the door again," Dad pointed out.
"You have to come out of there! You can't do this to us!" Mom turned the knob and pushed. When the door barely budged, Elliot heard her gasp in shock. "WHAT IS THIS NOW!? ELLIOT, YOU STOP THIS!!!"
Dad elbowed her out of the way. "He probably just put the endtable in front of the door. Let me try." But he gave a shove and Elliot saw the chair's metal legs cut little half-circles in the wood, resisting. "How the...? Allright, this is ENOUGH! You are coming downstairs even if all you do is stand in the corner with your nose to the wall all night! Do you have any idea how much this party shit cost me!? The plane tickets!?"
"Elliot, you have to stop!" Mom wailed again. "You're acting crazy! You're out of control again! You're giving me a heart attack with all this stress! I don't need this!"
"It was just a joke!" Sis screeched. "You're such an idiot!"
Slowly, breathing hard, Elliot backed away from the shouting.
"If I have to break this door down, you're paying for it!!" Dad bellowed.
Mom was slapping at the wall, bare-palmed. "Honey, you need to STOP! We did this all for you! It's so awful that this is the way you're treating us in return! We gave you so much! Why are you acting like this!? How can you treat me so terribly!?"
Elliot kept retreating, until he felt the late afternoon sun on his back.
He turned. The shouting at the door became an indistinct drone. The sunlight through the glass panes of his window was warm.
He knew what he was going to do. There wasn't any decision within himself. He was on autopilot. He was in a room that was filling up with black poison smoke and he had to get out of it. He'd climbed down the side of the house before. Plenty of times. It wasn't difficult.
Then the window was open. The mosquito screen too. It wasn't a sheer drop down to the driveway. There was an arch above the side door. Elliot slid himself out, hanging by his fingertips for a second, then panicked for a second until the tip of his shoe found the arch. 'Whew!' There was always that moment of pure terror until he touched it. But then it was just a quick sliding jump and plopping down beside Dad's car.
For a moment he was petrified. His heartbeat was like two boxing gloves punching his ears from the inside. What the heck was he doing? He could still hear the screams and knocking from upstairs. Dad was probably gouging two huge white streaks across the bedroom floor. He might kick the door in. And the house was still full of people. Anyone downstairs could look right out the window and see him. He didn't have any money or anything in his pockets. Just his shoes.
Elliot broke his paralysis and took off through the backyard. He squeezed through the prickly hedges, curled around the peeled-back fence, and then he was in the Masons' yard. That was fine. They knew he popped through and used their place for a shortcut to get to school sometimes. Elliot dashed past their house onto Turling street. Then picked a direction at random and ran.
'No,' he told himself.
He forced his legs to slow down to a walk.
'You're running away,' he finally realized. The timpani drumming of his heart was finally easing enough to let him think. He forced himself to take a few deep breaths, though his chest still felt like he was trapped in a straitjacket. 'You're running away,' he said again, coming to terms with that. 'I can't just go back. I don't know where I'm going, but I know I don't want to be back there. So if I run, I look like I'm running away. Some grownup might stop me" He kept his pace even and casual. That was smart. He felt proud of that.
Elliot looked around and realized he was on Grove, heading to Elkhorn. That was fine. He didn't usually go down this street. Neighbors might not recognize him.
He kept it slow. Gradually, the tightness in his muscles drained away. Grove was a pretty little street. He could see into people's backyards. Some of them had nice gardens. There was one with a bunch of rocks that made a little river, with gnomes around it, and it had those little green plants that looked like eyes. They'd used to frighten him when he was little.
Another yard had a great big sleeping dog in it, who looked up at him and 'wuff'ed in acknowledgment. 'He's as big as a couch!' Elliot thought. 'It'd feel so soft to sit on him.'
The little fox kept walking. He'd napped enough to feel rested. Now he felt like he could just keep on going. Wherever. He didn't know how long. That wasn't important. The sun was a round plump orange behind the pinkish clouds. He passed a lilac bush that smelled good.
He realized he was heading downtown. He also suddenly realized, with a jolting feeling of freedom that almost knocked him over, that he was unsupervised.
Holy shit, how often did that happen?
His young mind lit up with electricity. Fear of getting lost. Excitement at knowing he could go anywhere he wanted. A strange pride at having just walked away from his birthday. He asked himself if he felt guilty about that. The honest answer came back no. 'I mean, yeah, Dad probably did spend a lot on it. And... allright, I do kinda feel bad for disappointing Grandma and Grandpa. But...'
He didn't really have words to say why, but he knew he'd made the right decision. Maybe the only decision. Even though it was arguably the dumbest, wrongest decision he'd ever made.
It was his.
Elliot kept walking, being careful at the crosswalks, until he came to the edge of downtown. The cars were an everpresent loudness here. He could smell exhaust. Two big drugstores were on opposite corners at Maine and Elkhorn, and he wondered how they both stayed in business. The sandwich place nearby smelled good. Instead of crossing the street, Elliot turned and headed back to the alley behind the sandwich shop.
It was quieter back here. No one else was here between the buildings, and there was a big white cinder block wall that separated him from the traffic noise. Elliot sat down on a plastic milk crate. Just right to make a good seat for a kid. He looked down between his shoes and saw a penny. No: two pennies. He smiled and picked them up.
He sat for a while, just feeling the breeze and the sun. Listening to cars ebb and flow through the traffic light. He watched some nonev squirrels skittering around over by the dumpster. He noticed a torn-off chunk of bun lying in the dirt nearby. He picked it up and held it toward the squirrels. One of them saw the movement and streaked straight up the wall toward the trees. The other froze.
Elliot was good at being quiet. He kept still.
It took a while. He got a little fidgety, but he made his legs stop jittering as he watched the little bushy-tailed critter come closer. Bright, shining eyes. Wanting to trust this big animal who had food. 'Maybe other people toss bread out here,' Elliot thought. He knew squirrels were usually the biggest scaredy-cats, but this one seemed bold enough. Maybe it'd been though this routine before.
Elliot tried not to yip in joy when tiny little paws snatched the piece of bun and ran away to eat it.
The young fox's tail wagged as he watched the squirrel turning the morsel around in its paws, nibbling from all angles. He felt really good about giving the little guy a treat. Especially since, well, he was a Pred species. And yeah, while there was a little part of him that wanted to chase that flicking brown tail, it felt nicer to be kind instead.
He watched the squirrel finish his snack and drag the rest home to his tree house. Elliot nodded. "Goodbye. Have a good night." He hoisted himself up. His butt felt totally numb. He stretched for a moment, then went back to his walk.
The buildings grew taller around him as his journey continued. The cars and citizens got louder, yet it was all weirdly quiet too. Because no one was speaking directly to him. Or about him. He was just another kid on the sidewalk. Observing. Not really taking part in anything or going anywhere. Just walking. Seeing.
He noticed vanity license plates with strange spelling he couldn't decipher. He looked at the posters outside the theater; the one that just showed arty grownup movies. Stuff in French. He smelled coffee outside of little restaurants where everyone inside pecked at their laptops. He read the notices people had tacked up on the telephone poles. Lost dogs and job offers. He listened for a while to some saxophone music playing from a speaker above the barbecue place. The one with the fox in sunglasses for a logo that he thought looked cool.
Sometimes he sat, on low walls or benches, and just let the city waft past him like clouds. Interesting, colorful trash blew by. He cut down another alley, stinkier, and alarmed some pigeons. Past the train tracks, he came upon the backside of the big trapezoidal parking structure. He jumped and hefted himself over the wall. His sneakers echoed. He ran around in there for a while. Seeing how deep down it went. Shouting, "HELLO!!!" in the sub basement to hear it reverberate like a cathedral. Climbing back up all the serpentine ramps, he emerged on the fourth upper deck where the wind whipped his hair and he could see the whole of downtown spread out around him like a huge toy playset. He stood there and watched the bug-people below going about their shopping for nearly an hour. Seeing moms pushing strollers, women with big shopping bags, guys glued to their phones, teenagers blaring rap music out of their car windows, employees dumping out garbage in the alleys, pigeons strutting, cats roaming, and all manner of life transpiring.
His stomach grumbled. He hadn't actually eaten anything since lunch.
For a moment he regretted not going to the party. Everyone would be having cake and ice cream without him.
But he shook his head. It was okay if they did. He'd find something else.
Heading back to the street, he knew he wasn't quite desperate enough to go dumpster-diving for half-eaten hotdogs. But he'd found two cents already. That was a start. He knew adults were always dropping money, and they were too far away from the ground to notice.
Elliot wove his way in and around the little shops and restaurants downtown. He looked under things. He looked in payphone coin slots. He found an action figure's arm that someone had run over. There was actually a lot of loose change lying around over by the community college. He circled the big green building, eyes scanning the grass and bushes. In a puddle he salvaged a whole eighty-three cents that had fallen out of someone's pocket and nearly gone down the storm drain.
Once he felt he was rich enough, he headed for the little greasy donut place by the big intersection, and realized he'd actually made it all the way across the whole of downtown, edge to edge.
'Wow. And I didn't get hit by cars or taken away by cub-molesters or anything.' He felt proud.
In the donut shop, the smells were excellent. All the stools had rips in the leather, but they were the swivel-ly kind he liked sitting on and rotating. The only other customer was a man in a suit crammed far in the corner sipping coffee. The counter guy watched with an 'ain't that cute' smirk as Elliot studiously counted out change with a dead-serious expression. "A dollar sixty-two," the young fox said to himself. He scanned the menu, putting his math skills to work. Figuring out the best deal he could get for that amount.
"You in here by yourself, pup?" the counter guy asked.
Elliot noticed he was old. Kinda felt like maybe he owned the place and had been here for years and years. "Uh huh." He didn't want to admit running away. "I live over there." He pointed behind his back. Not exactly a lie to inflect his voice as if he only meant a block or two.
"What looks good to ya?"
"Everything," Elliot said immediately.
The old tomcat's wide paw passed above the coins, then slid them into his other hand. "This to me looks like enough for a soda pop and three donuts, at least."
"Really!?" Elliot yipped in delight. But then he cut his excitement. 'Couldn't be.' It'd cost way more than that. He was thinking maybe he could get a small drink and two donut holes at most. Suddenly his ears flattened. "Are you tricking me?"
The cat cocked his head. "No... W-" He was about to ask why, then examined the kid's expression. "No," he said again, reassuringly. "You have no idea how much stale stuff I have to throw out at the end of the night. Or donate to that runaways shelter over on Kenworth. I'd rather it go to someone who'll enjoy it."
Elliot's chest unclenched. It was reassuring to an immense degree to not only be told this wasn't another mean joke, but to be given an understandable reason for the generosity as well. "Thank you," he said sincerely.
The old guy leaned down and crossed his arms on the counter, smiling at the kid's politeness. "You're welcome."
Elliot chose a marmalade-filled, a Boston creme, and two miniature cinnamon rolls that the tomcat said counted as one donut. Plus a cola. Everything was delicious. Better than birthday cake.
The fox and cat ended up talking for hours, about school and sports and how to make donuts, until the sun went down outside the window and the world turned from orange to dark.
Elliot gave himself one last spin on the stool. Mr. Nikolai cautioned him not to make himself sick and lose all his donuts. "I won't!" Elliot assured him.
He thanked the old tomcat and gave him a very grownup handshake. He said he didn't know when he'd be back again- and that his parents might ground him until he was eighteen- but that he'd had a nice time and the donuts were tasty. Mr. Nikolai gave him a donut hole for the road and said he was a good boy.
Elliot left, feeling so radiant with good energy it was like the night was still daytime.
It wasn't though, which meant he had to stick close to streetlamps to see his way. He still didn't know where he was going. But his belly was satisfied, and the chill P.M. air actually felt nice after a full day of sunburning his ears.
Night was different. He felt like an explorer in an all-adult world. Some of the grownups he passed gave him looks of concern, like they were just about to ask whether he should be out so late. But his demeanor was so calm, he didn't convey he was in any trouble, or lost. So they left him alone to go back to their conversations or cigarettes.
Everything was light and shadow now. More blackness, less color, but the colors stood out. He could see the rainbow glow of downtown in the distance when he looked back. Some buildings still had neon signs or awnings, or lit up windows with people doing who-knows-what inside. The cars were loud and busy as ever. Elliot actually made back a little bit of money, as headlights illuminated glimmers of hidden metal.
He was beginning to wonder where he'd sleep tonight. It was pretty warm, so he knew he wouldn't freeze. He'd never camped out before. He didn't know if it'd totally suck trying to fall asleep on plain grass. He remembered Dad complaining about all the hobos congregating around the public library after dark. That wasn't too far away. Maybe he'd go over and be a hobo for the night.
A cop car rolled up beside him.
Red light, then blue light, then red light scanned across his face. A single siren BOOP made him jump. And also made it clear the cop wasn't just gonna pass by. Elliot stopped and turned around. Feeling tense at getting caught, but not entirely surprised.
The policeman, a dalmatian (which was oddly fitting but not exactly right), squeezed himself over the passenger seat to lean out the window. "Hey kid. You Elliot Coleman?"
"Yes sir," the young fox said.
"You know we've been out here lookin' for you." The cop sounded both stern and concerned. "You allright? No one took you away, right?"
He shook his head. "No. I'm OK. I just walked off."
The dalmatian cocked his head. "That's kinda weird, kid. You sure nothing's wrong?"
"No. I just didn't want to be there anymore."
The dalmatian opened the side door of his cruiser. "You wanna hop in and I'll take you home?"
Elliot answered honestly. "I'd rather keep walking, actually."
A half-chuckle. "I'm not really asking. You know that, I'm sure." He opened the door a little wider and made a 'c'mon' gesture.
Elliot shrugged and got in. "Allright. I figured I'd have to. Couldn't hurt to try, right?"
A genuine chuckle. The cop seemed bewildered that it'd been so easy, and appreciative that the kid was being cooperative. "You can never tell with runaways. Sometimes they bolt. Sometimes there's a damn good reason they bolt." He looked for a long time at Elliot's face and body language. "Anyone ever hit you at home?"
"No," he said. Mom and Dad hit other things, and each other, but never actually took a swing at him or Sis. He didn't figure spankings counted.
"Anyone ever... y'know..." He made a circle with his fingers then jammed his index finger in and out of it.
Elliot laughed. "No! Ew!"
"Allright. Just checkin'. A lotta bad stuff happens to kids. This neighborhood here? Not a lot. Pretty safe. But you hear stories around the country. Most of it, it happens at home."
Elliot looked down at the ridged leather seat, and all the doodads made of black plastic on the cruiser's dashboard. "Yeah."
The cop asked a second time, "Are you sure you're okay? If there's anything, you can tell me."
Elliot thought it over. He'd seen cop shows. And while he wasn't a lawyer, he at least knew this guy wasn't gonna arrest Mom and Dad just for making him feel trapped and crazy and sick all the time. Elliot didn't want to go back to that house. But he'd known all along he'd eventually have to. This was never going to be a storybook ending where he strode into the sunset and found a new magic land to live in. This was the real world. Where tomorrow was often today and yesterday, and things only changed slow, like the seasons.
And he'd already had his birthday. A pretty good one. They couldn't take that away from him. They might confiscate all his toys and lock him in a closet. But he'd still remember feeding the squirrel, listening to the downtown music, looking for pennies, and Mr. Nikolai's excellent donuts.
"I guess I'm okay for now."
The dalmatian nodded. "Allright, Elliot. I'll drive you home."
When the front door opened, Elliot only caught a short glimpse of the house, but it told him a lot. All the party guests were gone. The decorations and balloons were torn down except for some shiny tatters that had fallen on the floor under furniture. Grandpa and Grandma were sitting on the couch together. Sis was watching a TV show on her phone. And then Mom swarmed at him and nearly broke his ribs.
"YOU'RE HOME, YOU'RE HOME, YOU'RE HOME!!! WHERE THE HELL WERE YOU!? WHY DID YOU RUN OFF LIKE THAT!? HOW COULD YOU DO THAT TO US!? DON'T YOU EVER!!!"
Elliot saw sparkles in his vision. Mom wasn't hugging him, she was crushing him. This was not an embrace of love, it was one of possession.
When she pulled him back to look in his eyes, he saw a burning forge of fury.
"Where did you find him?" Dad asked the cop. Officer Rivers answered and Dad immediately shook his head at the ridiculousness. "He's just a boy. He couldn't possibly have walked that far."
"He did, Mr. Coleman. And I'd like to ask you a few questions about why he might've done that."
Mom reacted with instant indignation. Elliot thought she was gonna punch Officer Rivers in the snout. What a helluva show that'd be. Instead, the grownups all started talking loudly at once and he was ushered out of the conversation.
He walked over to where Sis was propped against the staircase, eyes fixed on her screen, slow burning. He picked up right away that she'd probably gotten all the screaming he hadn't been here to receive.
"You little fucking turdfaggot," she hiss-whispered at him. "Mom and Dad are SO pissed at you. You don't even know. You are gonna get punished so bad you'll wanna slit your stupid wrists in the bathtub, retard."
Elliot sat down on the steps. "Yeah, probably."
She took her eyes off her phone long enough to glare at him like a snake. "God, you really are a dumbass. 'Yeah, probably'," she repeated, making fun of his voice. "Just like that? You ran off and the fucking COPS had to bring you back? Did someone hit you in the head with a brick while you were out having playtime? You can't even comprehend what they're gonna do to you over this."
Elliot shrugged. He was okay with whatever happened next. He saw it coming, like a nomad faces a sandstorm. But sandstorms come and go. They're inevitable. You weather them and wake up the next day.
Sis kept needling. "Selfish baby. Tantrum baby. You made Gramma and Grampa cry, you little shit."
"I'll apologize to them," Elliot said, and meant it. They didn't deserve that.
"You better," Sis snapped. "And you're gonna hafta write your apology to Mom and Dad in blood, maggotdick. They lost their fucking minds. They screamed at everyone and threw 'em all out of the house after they busted your door down and you were gone. Dad threw the cake down the basement steps. You're gonna have to clean that up. Get on your hands and knees, piglet. Mom was crying and screaming nonstop like a fucking tornado siren. She fucking almost tore my braids out." A paw lashed towards Elliot and smacked behind his ear. "AND you're gonna pay for knocking over MY stuff and scratching up MY bedroom floor!!"
Elliot didn't react to being hit. "Allright," he simply agreed.
Sis actually shut her phone off so she could turn around and stare at him. In total disbelief at how little the fucking freak was reacting. Her muzzle drew back in a sneer of total hatred at how fucking placid the little tapeworm was. Like a fucking Buddhist monk! Like everything was FINE!!
"You don't have any right to sit there like that. You little parasite," she snarled. "You fucked everything up tonight. Everything."
Elliot thought about that. About the probable reality of that statement.
He looked over at the front doorway, where Mom and Dad were still arguing with the cop. Mom had her finger right up in his face. Maybe they were gonna get arrested. Maybe he was going to be sent to a foster home. Maybe he really would spend tomorrow on his hands and knees in the basement, scraping up cake.
"Okay," he said.
He left his sister boiling in venom and went upstairs to his room.
This time he took off his shoes before getting into bed.
He pulled the covers over him. Man, that felt nice. So comfy. He didn't have any illusions that he'd get to stay like this for long. Mom and Dad would be up here in an hour or so, maybe less. They'd scream at him till midnight. He thought he could just listen and nod and agree with them and let them be angry. They couldn't keep it up forever. Dad had work tomorrow after all. Mom would probably keep him home from school tomorrow to lecture him from dawn till dusk.
They could say whatever they wanted. It didn't mean he had to listen.
Footsteps on the stairs. From the weight of the thuds, he could tell it was Sis, coming to get the last word in.
He was right. She nearly tore the bedroom door off its hinges yanking it open. Elliot's back was turned, but he could hear the tears in her voice.
"I hope you're happy!!" she screeched. "You made everyone in this family hate you!!!"
She screamed the words like firing a gun, then turned and stomped back out, down the hallway and down the steps, like she was trying to punish every floorboard.
Elliot pulled the covers closer.
The silence in the bedroom became as heavy as the ocean. He felt very small in his bed, but that was okay. As if he could just sink down into the mattress and out of sight. Into peace.
...You made everyone in this family hate you...
"Okay," he said, and smiled.
He rolled over and got comfortable.
He was pleasantly tired after such a long walk.