The Boy across the Street
All the boy wanted to do was play. He had asked his mother that morning, a very bright morning, if he could play ball in his front yard. He would be very good, he said. He would promise not to kick the ball into the road.
His mother told him no, he could not play in the front yard on that day. It wouldn’t look right, she said, since last night the boy next door, a boy not much older than her boy, was killed in an accident. Think what terrible things the boy’s parents might do, she added, if they saw a living boy play while their boy is dead.
The boy said he would not play hard. He said he would just stand under the tree and toss his ball up in the air and catch it and then toss it up again. His mother said, no, the dead boy’s parents shouldn’t see another boy at all. Her boy must go in doors.
The boy walked into the house and lay on the floor. He tossed his ball toward the ceiling. He imagined that it hung in the air like magic, before falling back into his waiting hands.
Then he just let the ball rest on his chest. It rose and fell with his breathing. He began to breathe hard. The ball rolled off his chest, onto the floor, and then into the corner where he saw the poisonous spider that time.
The boy was breathing rapidly because he was upset. The day was bright, and he really wanted to play. Why should he not? He barely even knew the older boy across the street, just as his parents barely knew the dead boy’s parents.
For a long time, the boy lay on the floor breathing hard. He tried to imagine what was taking place inside the house across the street. Was the older boy in the house? If so, was he in a coffin? Or was the boy lying on a bed? And what were the parents doing? Were they standing over their dead boy crying, or were they sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee and looking sad?
The boy also wondered how the older boy looked. Was he the same, or had the accident turned him into something terrible?
One night a long time ago the younger boy had sneaked out of bed after his parents had gone to sleep. He wanted to look at the thing his father had brought home that day.
The boy had seen his father enter the house just before dinner, as he always did, but this time his father did not pause in the kitchen to kiss his mother, as he always did. His father had hurried into the room where he spent most of his time in the evening, a room filled with books and black-and-white photographs of skies, waterfalls, ice, tornadoes, and wars. The boy had noticed that his father was carrying something black under his arm. It might have been a box. What was in the box?
Later that night the boy could not sleep. He heard his parents go to bed. He waited. Then he crept into the room where his father spent most of his time. He turned on a lamp. Though this lamp lighted only a small part of the room, the boy relied only on that light. He was afraid that more light might awaken his parents.
The boy searched the dim room. He could not find the box anywhere. It was not on his father’s desk or the desk drawers. It was not on the book shelves. It was not under the couch where his father rested some evenings, and some evenings where he slept the whole night through.
The boy grew tired. He lay down on the couch. He looked up at the ceiling. The single lamp cast shadows there. The boy imagined that the shadows were alive and moving, not in a scary way but a strange way. As did this, he noticed something in the ceiling that he had never noticed before. It was a door. It was a door to an attic. The boy did not know that his house had an attic.
The boy put a chair under the door into the attic. Standing on the chair, he could almost reach the small white rope hanging from the attic door. He stacked several thick books on the chair. He stood on the books. He reached the rope, and he pulled on the rope. The door opened. A folded ladder was attached to the inside of the door. The boy unfolded the ladder. It reached to the floor. The boy came down from the stack of books on the chair and climbed into the attic.
Though he could not see very well, the boy immediately knew that he had found the black box. There it was, lying alone on a dusty floor made of rough boards. Something scurried over it and was gone. An insect? The spider? The boy grabbed the box, no, it was a book. He hurried to the lamp.
The book was three inches thick. The cover was solid black. It smelled like the horse the boy had ridden last summer. He imagined that this black book his father had hidden was a book of terrible spells.
The book lay under the only light in the dark room. The boy opened the book. He did not open the book at the beginning but in the middle.
In the book were black-and-white photographs. The photographs showed extremely thin men and woman. They were naked. They looked like skeletons tightly wrapped in dull white plastic. They were all lying down, some side by side in a long row, others in a large pile. Most of them had their eyes closed, but the eyes of some were wide open, like they’d seen a ghost. Standing among these bodies were men in solid black suits and top hats. They were not looking at the bodies. They were looking at the sky or at each other.
The boy closed the book fast. He returned it to the attic, shut the attic door, killed the lamp, hurried back to his bed. He could not sleep. He lay on his back and breathed hard.
Now, a long time later, the boy lay on his back again, breathing hard, his ball in the corner where he once saw the spider. Did the older boy who had died in the accident look like the men and women in his father’s black book?
The boy no longer cared about playing ball outside on this bright day. He wanted to see the older dead boy.
The boy called his mother and she appeared. He asked her if she and his father were going to visit the family across the street. The mother said no. The boy asked why. The mother said that his father did not wish to go. The boy again asked why. She said that his father had seen many dead things in his life, and did not wish to see more. Once again, the boy asked why. The mother said that sometimes things just happen, and we don’t know why.
The boy thought, if his father did not want to go across the street because he did not want to see another dead thing, then a dead thing must be across the street.
The boy lay on the floor breathing hard. His ball rested in the spider’s corner.
After a long time, the boy stopped breathing hard. He fell asleep.
When he woke up, the room was dim. He knew it was the time between day and night. Perhaps now his mother would allow him to play outside. Only he did not really want to play. He wanted to see the dead older boy.
But he could not ask to see the dead older boy. His mother would not let him, and then his father would watch him to make sure he didn’t disobey.
The boy retrieved his ball in the corner. The spider was not there, as it had not been for a long time. The boy walked into the room where his mother was. He asked her if he could now play outside, since it was getting dark and the parents of the older dead boy would not see him.
The boy’s mother said yes, but told him to play quietly.
The boy walked into his front yard. There was little light left. He saw the shape of his mother watching him from the big window. He walked under the tree and tossed the ball into the air and then caught it. He did this several times, and then he looked at the window. His mother was gone.
The boy turned toward the house across the street. He saw a woman’s shape in the big window of that house. He hid behind the tree. He stood there until she disappeared. By then, the day was gone. The boy’s mother would soon call him inside.
The boy walked to the street. He looked both ways, twice, as his mother had taught him. We live on a busy highway, she told him, and cars go very fast, and drivers don’t pay attention, so never cross the road alone.
The boy saw no cars, nor did he hear them. He looked back to the big window in his house. Nothing. Then he stared again at the big window across the street. Nothing again.
He ran across the road, still holding his ball. He then ran across the neighbor’s yard until the he reached the brick just below the big window. He ducked low enough to be out of sight.
Where might the dead older boy be? The boy was afraid to look into the big window. The mother was probably still near. But all of the other windows were dark.
Then a light at the other end of house flicked on. The boy walked low along the brick house. He reached the window, crouched lower, remaining out of sight. He listened. He heard nothing.
The boy slowly raised up. He looked into the window.
He jerked away, ran across the neighbor’s yard, ran without looking across the road.
When he reached the other side, he was breathing hard. He wanted to go inside his house. But he realized that he no longer held his ball. He had dropped it. He looked at the road. His ball was rolling down the middle of the road. He heard his mother call his name. He could not return to his house without his ball.
Just as he touched the ball and heard the motor, he imagined himself hovering in the attic’s air, naked and hungry and alone, high above the crawling things.
The older dead boy’s mother watched from her big window. The younger boy’s mother rushed to the big window in her house. She looked into the blackness.
Eric G. Wilson has published four books of Creative Nonfiction. They are Keep It Fake (FSG), Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck (FSG), The Mercy of Eternity (Northwestern UP), and Against Happiness (FSG). His work has appeared in The Georgia Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Oxford American, The New York Times, The LA Times, Salon, and The Chronicle Review. He teaches at Wake Forest University.