Even on a Friday, Nina felt guilty calling off. She wouldn’t have to improvise a cough on Monday; her fellow technicians recapping their weekends in expenses and well-planned excursions, an occasional raw moment surfacing from the dust. Usually this meant somebody out of place wandered in, caused a ruckus, and migrated back to their designated end. Flagstaff had many corners to facilitate bad habits.
“Don’t pick your nose, honey,” Nina instructed her son, both mildly catatonic on the sofa. She’d wanted to have an adventure with Levi that day, take him somewhere new and gauge his expression. Instead, her four-year-old spent a good portion of the morning sleeping before they discussed Shirley over breakfast. The young boy had grown quite fond of his babysitter, championing their endless summer in between bites.
Beyond disappointment, Nina felt stranded in her surroundings. There were patches to tidy up, although most could wait; the boys pleased by her efforts as a wife and mother. Mack would be home a little after five with no expectations for dinner or their evening. He’d ask about her day off, and she’d draw a blank. Cartoons and reality television paired with the charred blackened grilled cheese-ends and tomato soup. “So what’s for dessert?” Levi wiped his mouth.
“What, you’re still hungry?” she joked.
“Just a little bit.”
“I’ll go take a look.” Nina’s bones ached without reason. She recalled past sick days where exercise eventually led to a calming center often discussed in self-help books. Spirituality followed, then mental stability and perhaps a spare moment to climax with her vibrator — a wedding shower gag turned unfortunate dependence. Mack planned ahead too often, assuming weekend nights or holiday excursions inevitably meant romance. Levi was tight-lipped, but occasionally mentioned his pre-school friends with siblings, how they were a beneficial nuisance.
“Where’s the cherry?” her son asked not two seconds after Nina set the bowls down.
“You don’t wanna ruin the ice cream with fruit,” she quipped.
“Shirley always gives me her cherry when we go to Sugar Cones.”
“Sorry hon, we don’t have any in the fridge. I thought the ice cream would be enough. It’s got chunks of peanut butter cup. Just eat it.”
“Fine,” Levi took a bite, then subsequent ones falling closer together.
Nina grinned at her next thought: Now maybe you’ll crash so mommy can get some real work done. She waited for him to finish, rinsing the bowls before the boy tugged at her jeans. “I’ll hide first, okay?”
“Are we playing a game?”
“Yeah. I’ll hide first.”
“Okay. How high should I count?”
“A hundred. Then come find me, if you can,” Levi giggled.
“Alright, but you can only hide in the house, okay? No going outside.”
“I won’t. Now start counting.” He gave her a little shove and ran off.
Nina played along, enunciating each syllable as they echoed with her son’s footsteps. He was upstairs, probably in one of the closets. She loitered in the dining room, feigning confusion before heading up. The master bedroom first, then Mack’s office, Levi’s room, and at last success in the linen closet. Her son sat curled into a ball on the floor, his left hand in a fist, cradling an unfamiliar vice.
“I found you,” Nina said.
“Look what I found,” Levi opened his hand to reveal a small glass pipe, black in the center.
“Where’d you get that?”
“I found it in here on the floor, behind the light bulb box.”
“Give that to me,” she snatched it out of his hand and observed the make. It was cheap, used.
“What is it, mommy?”
“Just something I’ve been meaning to throw away for a while. It’s broken.”
“What does it do?”
“It’s for the heater in the basement. This is the old one. We got a newer one about a year ago.”
“Okay. It’s your turn to hide now.”
“All right. You close your eyes and start counting. No peeking now.”
He did as she said, Nina darting straight to Mack’s office. Opening the top drawer, she tucked the pipe next to some stationery and hid under the desk. Levi found her quickly, the mother suggesting her son play Wii for a while. He hit all the right buttons; Nina browsing helpless updates before calling her husband. Nerves rose as she peered into the living room at their offspring, each subsequent ring tone making the wait far worse.
“Mack Seers, how may I help you?”
“Hey, it’s me, we need to talk.”
“Oh hey babe, not sure if now’s the best time.”
“Our son just found a peace pipe in the linen closet.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Like a glass pipe for smoking pot. We were playing hide and seek, and Levi found it in the closet.”
“Well whose do you think it is?” Mack asked.
“I was hoping you could tell me.”
“It isn’t mine. I haven’t smoked since college. You know that.”
“And you didn’t hold onto anything just in case?”
“No, I don’t think so. Anyway, how would it end up in our linen closet? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Do you think maybe its Shirley’s?” Nina suggested.
“That’d be weird. Why would she leave it in there?”
“So she could get high when she comes over.”
“Shirley’s a smart girl. She has a purse, and besides, I don’t think it’s hers. I can usually tell when people are high.”
“Right, I forgot. My loving husband has the best stoner radar of anyone I know.”
“You’re not taking this very well, are you?”
“No, I’m not. I don’t want our kid around that garbage. What if he was a little older and found it? Levi would think it was us.”
“Would that be such a terrible thing?”
“Yes!” she spat over the receiver. “It most definitely would be.”
“No, you’re right. I’m sorry. Well, if it isn’t ours and it isn’t Shirley’s, then there’s only one other person I can think of.”
“That’s ridiculous. Duane hasn’t been here for almost a year.”
“Yes, that’s true, but last time he was a bit of a space cadet.”
“That’s just how he’s always been.”
“I’m just saying that he has to take a plane to get here, which means he wouldn’t take it with him, and maybe he figured it’d be easier to hide it somewhere for the next time.”
“All of that sounds a little too elaborate for my brother.”
“It’s what I would I do.”
“Still. I think it’s a bit of a stretch.”
“Well give him a call. Otherwise we’re gonna have to start interrogating the neighbor kids.”
“You still think this is funny, don’t you?”
“No, it’s very serious, but I’m not getting paid to debate the issue with you, so I’ll give it some thought and get back to you, okay?”
“Fine. Maybe I should’ve just waited until you got home anyway.”
“It’s not a problem. I like hearing your voice, but right now I gotta go, okay?”
“Yeah, okay. See ya soon.”
“Okay, love you, bye.” He hung up without waiting for her reply.
It was the first time Nina felt unnecessary, as if a single day off had turned her into a conservative homemaker; Nancy Reagan’s second cousin, twice removed. Levi was no help, asking her to race then almost lapping her twice in his go-cart. He giggled at the pure joy of knowing more, each sharp curve and piranha plants. A small window remained for the two of them to be on equal ground; honest enough while still aware of what it meant to keep a secret.
Levi suggested the playground, Nina jumping at the chance to get out. She should have planned a zoo trip or checked show times for computer-animated garbage. There wasn’t an excuse for her lack of effort. Mack wouldn’t mind if he missed the occasional moment with their son. Both were slated for a lot more time away from him the older he got. A part of Nina wanted it all back: her independent niche in the world, far from boredom and parental distress.
She tried to read her tablet at the picnic table, but Levi kept hanging off the slide or walking on top of the monkey bars. Even the older kids thought him a rebel, the boy testing his boundaries with each reluctant spin of the merry-go-round. A suggested playdate would’ve served them both better. Nina could have called Kendra or Lane, ignoring the bad habits picked up from their children. Space was still good even if it took longer to get comfortable. Those first few times Mack stayed over, neither one could sleep, the constant shifting of springs, limbs and linens making morning a distant dream.
Now there weren’t any problems, a king-sized mattress far more affordable. Nina played the first song of an old mix CD on the drive home before her son stuck his tongue out. She still wasn’t sure what he was into. Levi had a knack for latching onto Mack’s individual tastes before disregarding them completely. He was still very unsure of himself, but in a way that fooled nearly everybody. This trait would either propel the kid forward or help him bring out the worst in others.
The boy fell asleep twenty minutes after their return home. His mother considered joining him, but knew her lingering hostilities would prevent any real rest. Back up the stairs, she paced in her husband’s office and finally made the call to her brother. Straight to voicemail. He was working, like most of the world. Nina left a message, something she rarely did. It was brief, but sincere with a certain level of disapproval one could expect from an older sibling.
Duane called back not long after, wind kicking up through the receiver. “Hey what’s up?” he asked.
“I need to talk to you about something. Is now a good time?”
“I found your bowl.”
“Your bowl. It’s orange with little blue swirls. Actually, your nephew found it today.”
“Oh. Well, I guess I forgot I even left it there.”
“Why did you think it was a good idea to have it here in the first place?”
“I was on vacation. There’s no real joy handling everything sober.”
“Jesus Christ, Duane . . . I don’t want that around my kid.”
“It was a while ago. Levi was pissing the bed, which means he had bigger worries. He isn’t still doing that, is he?”
“On a rare occasion, but I think we’re past the worst of it,” Nina snapped back into place. “But I was yelling at you, wasn’t I?”
“Were you? Listen, I’m sorry that I didn’t hide it better, but I was probably ripped at the time.”
“How can you go through your life like this?”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t give a shit that I’m really upset, do you?
“No, because it only further proves how much of a tight ass you are.”
“It’s my son. I don’t want him around it.”
“It’s not like I was shotgunning bong rips into his mouth or something. I got that bowl from Helena.”
“Oh, that’s right. You never met her. In any case, she gave it to me, but I couldn’t take it on the plane, so I hid it in your towel closet, in the tiniest of cracks. Actually, I’m a bit surprised Levi even found it. You might wanna get that kid checked out. He’s gifted.”
“We already have. He tested average.”
“Yeah. Not above or below the line.”
“Well don’t sweat it. Standardized testing is pretty arbitrary anyway, plus sometimes book smarts skips a generation.”
Nina rolled her eyes. “I’m really worried about you, you know?”
“Why? I’m great.”
“I don’t want my son to know you as stoned Uncle Duane.”
“Every family member has their shtick. Crazy Cousin Andy, slutty Denise, paranoid Aunt Janine, do I need to keep going?”
“I hate how you’re rationalizing this. It’s just like mom. Of course, she wouldn’t approve if I told her what’s going on with you.”
“She already knows. I’m twenty-seven for God’s sake, and it’s not like I’m shooting up or something. Why are you acting like this is some big surprise?”
“I just didn’t see it turning my day into this.”
“Sounds like there’s a lot going on that I don’t know about, but in any case, I’m sorry I wasn’t more careful. Just throw it away or whatever, and we’ll leave it at that. Cool?”
“Okay, well I’m driving, so I’ll talk to you later, all right?”
“Yeah, sure . . . .” Just as the air left her lungs, Nina noticed Levi standing in the threshold.
An abrupt click of the receiver followed as he rubbed his eyes and stepped forward. “Who were you talking to?” the boy asked.
“Your Uncle Duane.”
“My brother. Your Uncle. We saw him at Christmas when we visited grandma and pap.”
“Oh yeah. Now I remember. He always beats me in the races.”
“That’s him,” Nina opened the top desk drawer and briefly peeked at the memento, Levi’s eyes circling the room. “Well it looks like you’re up now,” his mother said. “What do you wanna do?”
“I don’t know. When’s daddy get home?”
“Soon,” she replied, leading the boy back into the hall before shutting the door. The thought crossed her mind but didn’t stick. Maybe they could get away without talking about anything that night, and then for the rest of the weekend.
Christopher S. Bell has been writing and releasing literary and musical works through My Idea of Fun since 2008. His sound projects include Emmett and Mary, Technological Epidemic, C. Scott and the Beltones and Fine Wives. My Idea of Fun is an art and music archive focused on digital preservation with roots in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Christopher’s work has recently been published in Avalon Literary Review, BlazeVOX17, Heavy Athletics, Queen’s Mob Teahouse, Anti-Heroin Chic, Lime Hawk and Talking Book, among others. He has also contributed to Entropy and Fogged Clarity. This is his first appearance at the Fictional Café.