Robert sat idling in the parking lot, waiting for his wife and nephews to finish their costume shopping at Riley’s Trick shop. It had been years since he had been back in Bremen Towne. Not much had changed. The storefronts were the same, except for the few that were now vacant. Wondering how long the shops had been closed, he began rolling up his window. Hovering clouds were competing with the very late fall sun, taking its warmth possibly for the last time of the year. Just before the window shut out the cool breeze, he heard faint music that brought his attention to the sidewalk. Standing in front of Big Bear Sports and Archery with My Shorona blaring through a Walkman, Robert saw what couldn’t be. Getting off of his golden ten speed with his headband and matching Adidas sweatshirt was a nearly forgotten teenage face. The song, the bike, and his friend flooded his senses with memories of drinking from hoses, swimming in over-chlorinated pools and biking all day until the streetlights came on.
The music faded as the rider entered the sporting goods store. Turning off the engine, Robert walked to the bike that throughout his childhood had grown into legend as being an unbeatable machine, regardless of the opponent. More than any girlfriend, it was the most equally envied and hated possession in the neighborhood. Staring through the heavily decaled window, he watched the rider walk past the counter. He moved with an odd fluidity that made the tall wiry kid seem graceful, just as Robert had remembered him. Glancing back at Riley’s, Robert walked up the cracked concrete steps to the entrance of the outdated sporting goods store. Mr. Luger, the store’s owner, stood behind the counter, surrounded by the many stuffed trophies he had accumulated over the years. They were a mixture of beauty and the bizarre. The most notable was a quail posed in mid-flight inside an alligator’s jaw. Not only did the proprietor look identical from Robert’s last visit some thirty years ago, but the merchandise displays also hadn’t changed as well, everything was painted in the earth tone colors that were popular in the early eighties. Even through the glass, he could smell decay and rotten water from the fish tanks lining the back wall that were filled with a mixture of exotic baits and aquatic oddities.
Ignoring all else, Robert looked down the back aisle to the glass door refrigerators. Standing in front of them was Joey Nowak, with his black sponge earphones dangling around his neck. The gangly looking teen was fishing through a styrofoam cup, most likely looking for the one with the most nightcrawlers. Robert wanted to laugh and cry, staring at what life had taught him to be his only true friend, whose life was extinguished before the age of nineteen. Since grammar school, Joey looked past Robert’s many flaws and seemingly endless neurosis and introduced him to a world that all the other boys in the neighborhood took for granted. A world where every day was an adventure and a closeness to friends that Robert would have never of known otherwise.
In the reflection of the glass, Robert saw his former teenage self with his long curly hair and sporadic acne. His clothes had also changed. He was now wearing a wrinkled Return of The Jedi t-shirt and camouflage pants. Feeling like he was in a dream, he was no longer filled with wonder or dread. He simply let the nostalgia overtake him. Robert shoved his hand into his front pocket. He could feel his iPhone. The cold metal brought an equal sense of security and warning. He somehow felt if he revealed the modern technology into the antiquated environment, neither could exist. Although he was completely alone, as if the sound came from a loudspeaker, the words echoed in his head, “Are you coming with or what?”
The words felt heavy and weighed Robert down, making his knees feel weak. It was the last thing Joey ever said to him; it was at the end of a severe argument resulting in his friend riding alone that night and never making it back. Nobody knows how Joey ended up in the lake. All they did know was that when they found him floating on the shore a week later that there was no sign of trauma other than the bruises his lifeless body sustained from banging against the rocks. That extinguished the plan to ride off to endless summers, drifting down south to the warmth and avoiding adulthood and all its constraints for as long as they could. The problem was when the time came to leave, Robert didn’t have the strength to follow his friend, who did most of the thinking for them.
Pulling him from his tragic memories, Robert saw through the reflection Kate with his nephews standing in front of the car looking up and down the street. Glancing back at Mr. Luger, who was throwing some eagle claw hooks into a paper bag for his customer, Robert walked back to the car. To his wife he said, “Sorry, I had to use the facilities.”
“Where is your phone?”
“In my pocket, must of had it on silent.”
“Are you ok?”
He almost told the truth but instead muttered, “Yeah.” Bending down to one knee, he was checking out the costumes that were being thrust at him by the eager boys. After voicing his approval, he peered over the heads of his sister’s children at the sporting goods store. The bike was gone.
Friday night, after getting his temporary wards to sleep, Robert sat on the swinging bench on the front porch. Swaying there, he thought of all the meals he ate sitting there between his parents. Wishing he could just once feel that safe again, he grabbed his phone and called his sister.
“So have the monsters devoured you yet?”
“Close but not quite.”
“Really? How are they?”
“All is good. I got them down without too much effort. Mom has been a little off, but right now they are all asleep and I am on the front porch getting ready to open a beer.”
“How’s the training going?”
“Boring, but necessary, or at least someone thinks it is. How’s Kate holding up? I know she isn’t exactly the domestic type?”
“That’s mean, right…. but mean. She is fine, she just ran out to BMart to stock up on candy for tomorrow.” At the end of the street, Robbie could see a bike approaching.
“I told her there is plenty of candy in the pantry.”
He barely heard her. The bike was picking up speed, heading toward the house. It was moving much too fast, the rider looked much too stiff, almost as if he was glued into place. Distractedly, he responded, “Yup, but you know her.” As the bike passed, it came to a near stop. He couldn’t make out much more than a vague shape on a golden ten speed. Feeling like he did when he was a child in the dark, he wanted to run and hide, instead he just watched as the rider disappeared into the darkness.
“You sound down.”
“Lots of memories coming at me, I don’t know how you still live here.”
“Well, one of us had to stay behind.”
He wanted to shoot back. One of us had to go get a real job and pay for all of our parents’ care. He let it go. “Yeah, suppose so.”
“You know, it’s not so bad being around people you know. After a while, you kinda always know what to expect. It takes time but you find comfort in routine.”
Changing the subject before the conversation turned into a lecture, “Any rules for the boy’s tomorrow?”
“Nope, it’s the one day I don’t limit their sugar.”
“Sounds good, hey, hate to cut you short, but I think I heard ma.”
“Alright, thanks again for all your help.”
“You know I am always here for you.” He sat and drank, thinking of the hardware store.
The sidewalk was filled with ghosts, witches, and goblins kicking up fallen leaves as they raced up lawns in the hopes of adding to their already overflowing bags of candy. Robert was fighting to keep up with the enthusiastic boys. As they approached Currant Street, he wanted to turn away but reluctantly followed as they made their way up to Mrs. Nowak’s door. Like everything else in town, Joey’s mother was recognizable, but weathered. Smiling, she said, “Robbie! It is so nice to see you.” She took a step down and hugged him. As she pulled away, he noticed she smelled of the same perfume and a hint of garlic as she always did. She gripped his arm and said in her squeaky voice, “It has been much too long. Please come in.”
“Love to but, I have the boys.”
“Oh, they can stop for a minute.” Looking down at the four and eight-year-old, she added, “Come along boys and I will give you Rice Krispy treats.”
They dashed through the door, knocking into one another with their plastic bags dangling behind.
Robert followed behind. Mrs. Nowak held his arm tightly as if she could sense his reluctance to enter the house he spent so much time in growing up. When they got to the kitchen she screamed upstairs, “Joe come on down Robbie is here!” Instantly the shrill cry turned into sweetness, “Here boys take your treats.” She handed them each cellophane wrapped snacks the size of a bar of soap. As they fought to tear them open, she said to Robert. “Susie told me you were filling in this week. I am so glad you stopped by.”
It was senseless and childish, but Robert wanted her to stop using their childhood names. Hiding the misplaced annoyance he said, “I am too.”
“I don’t remember the last time I saw you. It has to have been several years.”
He wanted to remind her that he made it a point to stop by on every one of his annual visits, but politely replied, “It certainly has been awhile.”
“How’s your mom?”
“Honestly, not well.”
“So sorry to hear that. I saw Susie last week at the grocery. She was beside herself with happiness that you were coming in to help out. The poor girl has so much on her plate with your mom and the boys.”
“Yeah, I know, I try to make it out here as much as possible, but my work doesn’t afford me a lot of free time.”
She gave him the sideways look that she used to give when she caught them swearing. It was a mixture of understanding and forced shame. Feeling like a child again, he looked away. The boys were inhaling the treats so quickly the plastic wrap was dangerously close to being devoured. “So how have you been?”
“Keeping busy, Mr. Nowak retired so we are now living out our golden years.”
“Good for him.”
Abruptly changing the subject, she said in a very quiet voice, “You know it will be thirty years this Sunday.”
He was amazed she held out this long without bringing up the death that she still blamed Robert for. “Yes, I remember.”
“Not a day goes by that I don’t. What was he doing out on that road that night, Robbie?”
They had this conversation so many times he wanted to scream. “Mrs. Nowak, I would prefer not to talk about this in front of the boys.”
“It’s just a question, there is no harm in that!” Her face became flushed, her forehead now matching the overdone rouge on her cheeks. In a disgusted voice, she screamed upstairs. “Joe, where are ya!”
“He doesn’t have to come down.” Knowing she was already upset, he asked, “Do you still have Joey’s old bike?”
“It’s in the garage in the same place we put it the night the police brought it back.”
“Do you mind if I take a look at it?”
She gave a knowing smile that felt almost sexual. Feeling disgusted, he walked to the front hallway and opened the door leading to the garage. In the darkened room, Robert saw someone sitting on the bike. Feeling disorientated, he realized he was looking at an oversized cut out of a photo of Joey grinning a much too large, almost cartoonish smile mounted to a stuffed Adidas sweatshirt. There were mismatched shoes duct taped to the pant legs, and the hands looked like someone had twisted together oversized pipe cleaners around a gardening claw to resemble fingers on one side and the handle of a shovel on the other. Realizing that this was a demented shrine to their dead son, Robert grabbed the door handle and pulled the door shut. Just before it closed, the mannequin looked like it hoped forward, getting closer to the door.
Slipping the top bolt in place, he stepped backward into the kitchen. The room felt warmer. “We really have to get going.” He grabbed Ray and Toby by the shoulders and yanked them forward. “OK guys, let’s go get some more candy.”
“Ah, please can’t you stay? Just a few minutes more, I have to talk to you Robbie, just a few minutes.”
She took a step toward him. He spun, freeing his sleeve from her grip. As her fingertips swiped the flannel, he felt if she grabbed him, that he would never be able to free himself from her again, that he would be stuck in limbo at her mercy, forced to continually answer her questions about her lost son. Wanting to lash back at her, Robert almost blurted out that Joey was on the road that night because he needed to be away from her and the abusive asshole upstairs. Fighting the urge, he ushered the boys down the hallway. Without looking back, he shoved his nephews out the front door.
He followed the boys zombielike as they ran door to door. He desperately wanted to go back to his mother’s house but couldn’t take the enjoyment from the boys. His thoughts were a mixture of repulsion and pity as he wondered what kind of person would make such a grotesque monument to their dead son. Grief alone would not explain how anyone could create such a display. It was getting dark as they approached the woods surrounding the lake. Robert wanted to avoid the area as it was laced with too many memories, but it would add a mile to their walk to not take the bike path. With darkness coming, it was the only choice. The children ran ahead, following the snaking path, already talking about the goodies they would trade when they got home. Filled with sugar, they charged forward, gaining more distance from their uncle despite his protests. As he watched them approach the bend, he saw the bike approaching in the distance. With the moonlight flashing across the golden frame, Joey sped along, whistling a tune that sounded like a waltz.
Robert stood frozen in place. The boys were no longer in his line of sight. There was only the bike with a shadow on its seat. As it neared, it moved painfully slowly, the rider effortlessly staying balanced despite looking like he was at a standstill. The familiar voice called out before the face was close enough to clearly see, “Are you coming with or what?” Robert wanted to run but stood frozen, barely able to catch his breath. Now feet away, the rider completely stopped and walked the last few steps. In the near blackness, the face appeared to be only a photograph. Robert felt tears forming. They were not from fear but for his lost friend and the abomination he had become.
“You in or what?”
“No.” It was all he could utter.
“You know the lake wanted us both that night Robbie.”
The words felt like thoughts plucked from his mind. He always knew he would pay for dodging fate so long ago. All the guilt and doubt rose up again as he saw the flash of the shovel handle reach forward. The welcoming gesture from the hideous makeshift hand made his stomach turn. “Where have you been all this time?” The words were a whisper gobbled up by the chirping of insects.
“You are about to find out.”
In a flash, the claw like hand swung down and cracked Robert’s skull.
Kate sat on the porch, staring at her unanswered texts. Just as she was about to call, she saw her nephews appear through the trees from the bike path. She stood waving; they ran toward the house, pushing each other and giggling as they got closer to fully investigating their loot. Curious, she kept looking at the path. As they climbed the stairs, she asked, “Where’s your uncle?”
“Dunno. He was right behind us.”
They dashed through the screened door, letting it slam. Kate stayed on the porch, staring at the path and the glimmering lake beyond. She called twice, both attempts went straight to voicemail. She started to walk down the stairs when she saw a teenager on a ten speed fly out of the path; he was dressed in an overstuffed sweat suit with muffled music accompanying him. Seconds later, following behind was a much shorter rider fighting to keep up. As the awkward teenager passed, she thought he heard him scream out, “Please make it stop!” She quickly glanced his way and saw a clever mask that appeared to be as thin as a sheet of paper. His eyes and nose vaguely reminded her of Robert. Ignoring whatever childish prank they were pulling, she walked to the front of the expansive path and waited for her husband. A week later, his body was found washed up on the shore.