Chapter Two – Watching Like a Hawk
“Peter, can you hear me, Peter?” Cassie said, kneeling next to her husband.
Lt. Drake jumped out of the chair and away from her, regarding her as if she were a wraith.
“Peter, what’s going on?! Is everything all right?”
He re-tucked in his shirt and cleared his throat, his composure restored. “It will be all right, once we get of out of this damn God-forsaken town!”
Pete rolled his eyes.
That’s what you said about the last town, and the town before!
The lieutenant strode across the hall into the bathroom, mumbling and wadding the letter and envelope into a tight ball before flushing them down the toilet.
“What was it, hon?” Cassie called, pressing the heels of her palms against her eyes.
“Nothing important, that’s for damn sure,” he said, returning to Pete’s room and assuming a casual military posture. “Just a sales pitch … misaddressed … wrong house … Happens all the time.”
“Then shouldn’t we deliver it to the correct addressee, hon?”
The lieutenant scowled. “It was meant for me, actually.”
Pete debated pointing out that his father’s answer made no sense, but decided instead to envision the lieutenant doing the hula in a grass skirt and coconut bra.
Cassie rubbed her temples. “Pity. I was hoping it meant some sort of good news for P.J. And the seal really did look familiar.”
“Nothing for you to trouble yourself over, cupcake. Now, go on and take your medication.”
“That time already? Where did the morning go?” She pulled a small pillbox from her pocket, popped a tablet into her mouth, tipped her head back, and swallowed hard, her years of practice obviating the need for water.
Pete looked away. He hated watching his mother dose. It always made her slightly groggy, slightly simple, and entirely docile. Nevertheless, it was better than the seizures his mother had suffered after a turbulent quarrel with the lieutenant half a decade ago. The friction that had erupted that night still simmered just below the surface of an opiated truce.
Pete’s gaze bypassed his parents to the pool of water collecting on the bathroom floor.
“The answer is no!”
“Huh? I was just gonna tell you the toilet’s overflowing.”
“It’s that damn letter,” the lieutenant snarled, stomping back into the bathroom.
With the bluster of an undefeated medieval knight, he cast a bath towel on the floor and unsheathed a plunger from its decorative encasement, prepared to do battle with the sewer system.
Pete hung back to observe the proceedings from the safety of his room.
“Good thing P.J. didn’t pack up the bathroom yet, eh, hon?” Cassie remarked.
The lieutenant grimaced and braced a boot against the commode, sputtering every expletive he’d learned since joining the Marines.
With his father engrossed in the plumbing debacle, Pete inched over to the trashcan to retrieve the design his father had chucked.
“Don’t even think about it,” the lieutenant grunted.
Is he talking to me or the toilet?
The can-do patriarch gave two last vigorous plunges, smirking in triumph as the conquered water gurgled and retreated down the commode. He then snapped his fingers and pointed to the floor. “That’s for trying to sneak that paper out of the trash.”
Pete moaned inwardly and dropped to the ground to complete the obligatory ten push-ups.
You’d think my muscles would be bigger by now.
The lieutenant stepped over Pete’s prone form, carting off the waste bin and Pete’s drawing with it. “And five more for that look on your face.”
Pete’s negligible biceps quivered as he pictured his father decked out like Carmen Miranda wielding a pair of maracas and a bongo drum in lieu of a plunger and a dustbin.
While Pete did corporal penance, Cassie picked up the wet towel off the bathroom floor, wrung it out over the tub, and hung it to dry. She then fetched an empty tote bag from under the sink and stuffed her sons’ toiletries into it. “I’ll carry these for you and Billy. Don’t want your toothbrush buried in some box.”
Her expression stoic, she surveyed Pete’s barren bedroom, again massaging her temples. “Anything else I can do to help you finish?”
“Nah, that’s okay. I’m pretty much done.”
“Come sit by me, P.J.,” she said, setting the bag down and perching on the edge of the stripped bed.
Pete parked himself on the thin mattress, pouting in skepticism. “So what’s Dad’s excuse for moving us this time? If it’s because of Stacey Larkspur, I swear, it’s just a harmless crush. She doesn’t even know I exist! And it’s not my fault I got an A on my science test. I didn’t even study!”
“Calm down, PJ. This move has nothing to do with you. Your father got a promotion is all. That said, you know everything he does is for the good of this family.” She cocked her head and glanced down at the spiral pattern her finger was lazily drawing on her thigh—something she tended to do when lost in thought.
One of these days I should ask her to draw that symbol on paper.
“You know, PJ, you may very well be in for a grand adventure at the new place. Who knows what wonders await just around the corner.”
“Pfpfpft. You say that every time. And it’s not just around the corner. It’s in another time zone!”
She gently brushed the hair off his forehead. “Being the son of a serviceman can’t be easy, I imagine. All the relocating, the new schools, starting over again just when you’ve settled in.”
“No wonder they call us Army brats. This lifestyle turns you into a brat!”
“Your father’s in the Marines, not the army.”
“You know what I mean. I hate all the moving.”
Cassie gazed out the window, a melancholy smile resting on her face, aging her for an instant. “I know how you feel. It’s so hard to leave your school friends.”
“Friends? What friends?! I don’t have any friends here. I haven’t had any real friends in years. Dad never lets me.”
“What about Billy?”
“Little brothers don’t count. Besides, I wouldn’t call us friends at this point. He’s pretty much turned into a bully. He gets more obnoxious with every birthday.”
“Well, I’m sure he’ll straighten up soon enough. Your father will see to it.”
But Dad’s a bully too.
The sunlight streaming through his window turned to shadow as the moving truck made its way up the drive, rolling to a stop as though it were a death cart come to deliver him to the gallows.
“They’re here,” Pete said flatly, picking at the raw skin around his thumbnail until dots of blood seeped through.
“Finally!” the lieutenant blared from his lookout in the living room, double-timing it out to the front walkway to disseminate orders to the moving crew.
Cassie got up and kissed Pete’s forehead. “Don’t lose hope, P.J. As one of my closest school friends used to say, ‘Where there’s hope, there’s magic.’ I’ll see you outside.” She slid the tote bag handle over her wrist, rescued the towel from the bathroom, and exited the house, bringing to a close yet another short chapter in her life as a military wife.
Pete stood to regard his soldiers one last time before taping their box shut and trapping them inside. Giving his room the traditional farewell scan, he worked to conjure memories of the place he could one day look back on with a nostalgic smile. None came.
The familiar shrill of his father’s whistle bade the family to line up, close ranks, and stand at attention.
Pete picked up his backpack and slogged toward the front door. His chunky younger brother slammed past him down the narrow hallway, knocking Pete’s backpack from his shoulder.
Watch it, Billy … Bully!
His mother and brother were already in position before Pete made it out to the front yard. Cassie stood posed like a political candidate’s wife. Billy puffed out his chest, his chin up and attitude smug.
“On the double, Junior! You’ll make us late,” his father barked.
But the movers got here early!
“Yes, sir,” he murmured, quickening his pace and taking his place in line.
The movers took their time climbing out of the truck. Pete couldn’t help but stare at one of the men whose skin was tri-colored. The skin on the bulk of his frame was obsidian, while one of his arms was the color of pale sand. That arm was freckled, hairier, and shorter than its dark counterpart, with a hand covered in smooth pliant skin the color of red clay.
“What’s wrong with his arm?” Billy blurted out.
“Billy. It’s not nice to say things like that!” Cassie whispered curtly.
“Skin pigment anomaly,” the man mumbled, putting his incongruous arm behind his back.
Disregarding the conversation, the lieutenant paced before his family like a general commanding his troops. “By my calculations, we will arrive at the new barracks in just over seventy-six hours. If the men take turns at the wheel, they should arrive a good five hours ahead of us, giving them ample time to unload everything into the proper sectors before we reach the base.” Clapping cupped hands to the outsides of his thighs, he performed a tidy about-face to address the movers, causing them to jump. “You men clear on your instructions? You all have your charts?”
The three day-laborers, each looking more dazed than the next, nodded and held up the diagrams. One of the men groaned and shifted from foot to foot. Another responded by sucking on his teeth. The tri-colored man cursed under his breath in an unintelligible tongue.
“Good, then that does it. Time for the Drakes to shove off. Oorah!” the lieutenant cheered, the only person smiling other than Billy who let out an oorah of his own.
The movers plodded into the bungalow and grappled with the boxes in the living room, accidentally losing the diagrams.
“Last call for the head!” The lieutenant hollered, giving the car keys a clamorous jangle.
Billy ran into the house, bumping into Pete again despite the wide-open space.
Pete’s backpack slid off his shoulder and onto the grass as he kneaded his rammed arm.
My next invention’s gonna be something that electrocutes him every time he does that.
The insistent kaah of the circling hawk pulled Pete’s mind off creative modes of retaliation. Shielding his eyes from the unusually bright sun, he looked up to view the broad-winged bird that carried something dripping in its beak.
It’s that bird again! And now it’s hovering overhead like a vulture waiting for me to die or something. Jeez, I hate that bird. … Hey, that looks like the envelope Mom tried to give me. I wonder if—
“You want this packed?” the man with the tri-color skin asked, holding up Pete’s backpack.
“How many times have I told you not to leave your things lying around, Junior?” the lieutenant scolded.
“Sorry, sir.” Pete took the bag from the man, willing his feet to move toward the car. He’d been dreading the long drive, especially the idea of being stuck in the back seat with his increasingly insufferable brother who had a penchant for putting Pete in headlocks, inserting spit-laden fingers in Pete’s ears, and wiping off his own dirty hands on Pete’s otherwise clean clothing.
Within seconds, all were buckled in and motoring toward the highway, the vehicle’s trunk fastidiously pre-packed and gas tank filled.
“Damn bird’s following us again,” the lieutenant muttered, eying the hawk overhead through the windshield. “Probably looking for a handout. You boys didn’t feed it, did you?”
“No way! I wouldn’t get near that thing if you paid me!” Pete said.
Billy extracted the slingshot from his back pocket while feeling around the floor for something to use as ammunition. “Bet I can knock it out of the sky in one shot.”
“You’ll do no such thing, young man!” Cassie admonished. “Oh look, it has something in its beak.”
“Trash, no doubt. Damn nuisance,” the lieutenant grumbled.
The hawk dropped Pete’s waterlogged letter onto the windshield, changed course, and flapped away.
With the dexterity of a fly fisherman, the lieutenant worked the wipers until he was able to maneuver the dripping mass to the driver’s side of the glass. He then rolled down the window, grabbed the letter, squeezed the water out of it, and flung the onionskin onto the highway, all the while maintaining the speed limit.
Pete peered out the back window and watched as the family car pulled away from the soggy missive that looked like nothing more than a splat of oatmeal marked by a single tire track.
I sure would’ve liked to see what was in that letter.
He slumped in his seat and opened his backpack seeking solace. Therein, he espied a pad of half-used graph paper, a 0.9 mechanical pencil, a T-square, a portable cassette player with earphones, Fritos, chocolate covered raisins, and Butter Rum Lifesavers—all the things he deemed vital for surviving a road trip with his family sans homicide.
Working to extract a Lifesaver without ripping the wrapping, he failed to notice the black widow spider crawling out of his backpack and onto his arm.
“Isn’t that one of those poisonous spiders,” Billy remarked, tossing jellybeans at the arachnid.
“Black widows are venomous, not poisonous, Billy,” the lieutenant corrected.
“Aagh!” Pete screeched, leaning away from the spider. “Get it off me! Get it off me!”
“Don’t act so dramatic, Junior. It’s only a tiny bug. Just roll down your window and flick it off.”
Pete furiously cranked down his window and using his T-square, swatted the spider out onto the highway, manically rolling the window back up thereafter, lest the creature somehow return, seeking vengeance.
“I didn’t know this region had black widows,” Cassie said.
“It doesn’t,” the lieutenant said.
“Why does this stuff always happen to me?” Pete lamented, zipping his backpack closed.
“It’s like that weird lady outside the store told you the day of the eclipse,” Billy said. “She said the sun would shatter and that it would be your fault, and that you’re cursed to see things beyond your worst nightmares heh heh heh.”
“Now, Billy, you know better than to say such things,” Cassie said.
The lieutenant glanced at Pete in the rearview mirror and cleared his throat. “That woman was mentally deranged. There’s no such thing as being cursed.”
Pete pouted as he stowed his backpack under the backseat.
Easy for you to say, you’re not the one who’s cursed!