Pieces of Her
Part I: 1989
Alex peeked out from under the porch awning and watched the rain falling from pregnant gray clouds. He pulled his hood over his head when the rain touched his cheek. As he waited for his mother to walk him to the bus stop, a white car whipped around the bend in front of their house. His dad had said that people didn't realize just how sharp the curve was until they got right on it.
One more car flew past and kissed the edge of the ditch. Alex hopped down to the bottom porch step letting the rain soak his blue hoodie; he looked up when the rain stopped. His mother, Eleanor was hovering over him with an umbrella.
Alex peered up at her from beneath his hoodie, and grinned when he saw her. She was already in her work uniform for Marty's Diner, a light blue waitress smock with a white apron. His mom always smelled like lavender and honey.
"Much better, Momma, thank you.”
They started toward the bus stop on the next street over. Eleanor stopped when a truck sped around the corner.
"Jesus, slow the hell down!" she yelled. "These people, I swear they're a bunch of goddamn idiots,” She ushered Alex along until they reached the bus stop.
There were a few kids huddled together under their parents' umbrellas. Eleanor waved at them as they approached, and they waved back.
"Hi, Alex!" a girl, around the same age as Alex, squeaked. She bounced on her pink jelly shoes when she said it. Her friends giggled when he waved back.
"You have yourself quite the little fan club going," Eleanor said.
"Momma!" Alex said embarrassed.
"I'm just teasing," Eleanor mussed his dark hair before fixing it again. "Once you and your brother get home from school, we'll go to the arcade again. How's that sound?"
Alex's face lit up.
"Okay! Will Daddy come with us this time?"
Eleanor crouched down in front of him. She held out the umbrella for him to hold so she could zip up his hoodie; he took it with both hands. There was a hole near one of his pockets and she hooked her finger through it. He waited for her to answer, but she didn't.
"This jacket's seen better days. We'll have to save up and get you a brand new one.”
"I like this one.”
"You like it because it was your brother's, huh?"
Alex smiled with all of his teeth.
"And this shirt and these pants," he added.
"I know it. Still, you deserve your own stuff. New stuff. Not your brother's hand-me-downs. The bottoms of your jeans are shredded in the back," Eleanor kissed his cheek and wiped the lipstick smudge away with her thumb. She looked down the road when all of the kids began to line up. "Look your bus is coming,” She took the umbrella back from him.
Alex buried his head against the apron of her uniform and gave her a hug. The bus came to a halt with a hiss of brakes; the door slid open and children filed in.
"Go on now. I'll see you after a while.”
Eleanor greeted the bus driver as Alex made his way up the steps. Alex took the window seat on the side his mom was standing. He waved to her and she waved back blowing kisses to him as the bus began to leave. Alex couldn't wait to get home and tell his brother Eric that they were going to the arcade for the second time this week. His brother was almost five years older, but they were close. There wasn't anywhere Eric went that Alex wasn't right there with him. In fact, most of the time his big brother insisted. Sometimes, if Alex was ready to go home from a day of playing at the park, Eric would convince him it wasn't time to go home yet, and they'd stay out until it got dark or when their mom came to get them. For some reason their mom always looked so sad when she came for them; her eyes red and glossy, but she'd say she was just tired from work. Then they'd walk home together, and his daddy would be gone.
The bus ride was loud as usual. Kids screamed over each other from one end of the bus to the other. The bus driver, a heavier set woman in a white overstretched shirt and short stringy hair, looked in her rearview mirror and told the kids they'd better park it and quit their hollering, but it did little good. Alex sat by himself until more kids began to fill the seats from the other stops. He waved at his classmate, Adam who took a seat beside him. Adam greeted him with a nod. Their mothers knew each other from working at the diner though they weren't friends, in fact, they rarely spoke and when they did it was usually about homework or what they packed for lunch.
Adam sat with his He-Man lunchbox on his lap, and Alex spent most of his time staring out the window at the woods as they drove by, imagining there were people and creatures living there. Sometimes he could swear they were really there, even after he blinked his eyes. Today he was almost sure there was something tall and dark walking between the trees. He jumped when he felt something brush against his shoulder.
"I'm having a party at Peter Piper's on Saturday.”
Alex looked over to see that Adam was resting a birthday invitation on his arm. The kid watched him from behind Coke-bottle glasses waiting for him to take it. Alex took the invitation. Above an image of colorful balloons, it read: BIRTHDAY PARTY! On the back were the details. He was surprised that Adam had even thought to invite him.
"My mom told me to give one to you," Adam said it as though he were thinking the same thing.
Alex looked the details over, "Your birthday is at Peter Piper's? That's my favorite place! I go there all the time.”
"Mine too," Adam pushed his glasses up with his stubby fingers, "but I don't go there all the time.”
"My mom likes to take me and my brother there a lot. I wish my dad would go, but Mom says he needs his sleep.”
"Maybe she doesn't want him to go," Adam blurted. His face flushed surely regretting he'd said anything.
"Why'd you say that?"
Adam shrugged and shifted in his seat, "I don't know. I heard my mom talking about it. Something about her leaving.”
Alex put the invitation in his backpack and turned back to the window. He knew his parents were fighting, but he didn't think that she'd want to leave. Where would she go? And did that mean she would leave him behind too?
When the bus pulled in front of the school, Alex slipped by Adam and pushed past the other kids to get off the bus. His face was getting warmer and his sweater suddenly seemed too tight. He thought he might fall over until a soft breeze grazed against his cheek when his sneakers hit the wet pavement. Would his mom really leave him behind?
In class, Alex gazed out of the wall of windows from his usual seat, while his teacher wrote out math problems on the chalkboard. Her voice was background noise to the lingering thoughts of his mother. She loved them. There's no way she would leave them, so he shook the thought from his mind. Outside, dark clouds blotted out the sky, the rain was light but steady. He found himself staring past the parking lot to the woods. There was a squirrel on a tree facing the ground with its tail flicking in measured warning pulses. Alex tried to catch a glimpse of what it was looking at, but he couldn't quite make it out through the red truck blocking his view. The squirrel, apart from its tail, was frozen with its beady black eyes steady on whatever was spooking him. Alex searched through the truck's back window and the hairs on the back of his neck stiffened when he saw what had caught the squirrel's attention. At first, he only saw the figure's arm tight against its body, pale and shivering, but it was the figure's hand that drew Alex's eye. It twitched like a fish out of water, like it didn't belong there. Not again, please not again. His mind liked to play tricks on him. Sometimes they were too real. It didn't happen often, but it was enough to scare him. He hated that it was happening now.
Alex turned away from the window. He looked up to find the pale naked man looking down at him. He had mannequin parts, with dark wet hair matted to his forehead, and water dripping down his bloated face. The man's cloudy eyes bore into his. His mouth was contorted in an odd way, and his hands still twitched like he couldn't control himself, like something was retching its way out of him. And then he shrieked.
Alex squeezed his eyes shut and plugged his ears, shrinking into his chair. When a heavy hand landed on his shoulder, Alex cried out, and all of the kids laughed. Alex peeled his eyes open to find his teacher standing in front of him. The man was standing beside her, frozen in time and staring at him. Alex looked around the classroom. Everyone watched from behind their desks, a safe and comfortable distance from the man. They didn't seem affected by him. They couldn't see him. A few nervous giggles lingered after the laughter had died down. It was only then that he realized his teacher, Mrs. Shelby was glaring at the kids. When she looked back down at him her eyes had softened.
"Are you okay?"
He wasn't, because the man was still here. Staring with those wide cloudy eyes, with thin brows turned upward, a string of black saliva slid from the corner of his twisted mouth.
"Yes, Mrs. Shelby," he whispered. Maybe if he said it low enough, the man wouldn't move. Maybe he wouldn't hear him. "I'm sorry, I think I fell asleep.”
"If you're coming down with something you need to stay home and get rest,” Mrs. Shelby looked him over and brought a hand to his forehead before crossing her arms. "I should probably send you to the nurse. You're not warm but your forehead's a little clammy.”
"I'm fine. I'd like to stay please," Alex swiped at his forehead.
Mrs. Shelby looked him up and down again. "Okay. How about you answer one of the problems on the board for us?"
Alex nodded and Mrs. Shelby went back to her desk. He scooted his chair away from his desk, and the chair screeched across the floor. Alex looked up to see if the man had moved. He hadn't, but his eyes had. Alex took a deep breath, before using his feet to scoot himself back until he was pressed against the desk behind him. He turned in his seat and forced himself off of the chair. He was directly beside the man now who still had not moved but he felt his gaze on him. When Alex looked again, the man was giving him side-eye. Please don't move. Alex didn't want to squeeze between the man and another kid's desk, so he went one row over.
"Why are you going this way?" one of the kids snickered.
Alex ignored him. He refused to look back. He kept his feet light, as if doing so would keep the man from moving, but as he stepped, he heard the first slap of a wet foot on cold linoleum. For every hurried step Alex took, the man took one slow, uneven one. When Alex made it to the chalkboard the sounds stopped. He picked up the chalk and brought it to the board. His hand trembled ever so slightly. He wanted to look back just to see where the man was. Just one look. Alex turned to face the class. Mrs. Shelby's desk was off to the side of him. She was watching him. Everyone was. Including the man who stood only a few feet away from him now. Alex turned back to the board and worked out the problem. Chalk tapping and skidding across the board. He focused on those sounds when he heard the man's feet squishing and padding across the floor. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw him lurch out of the classroom. Alex exhaled and finished the problem.
At lunch the Principal, Mr. Rivera, made an announcement about early dismissal. As it turned out, the rain and warm weather had turned into what his teacher, Mrs. Shelby, had called a Nor'easter, and it was only going to get worse over the next few days. Mr. Rivera said their parents had been called and were aware. He said that if their names were called, they needed to wait in the cafeteria for their parents to come pick them up, and if their names weren't then they were to report to their bus line. Alex's name wasn't called so he grabbed his backpack from Mrs. Shelby's classroom and ran down the hall to the back of the school to wait for his bus.
His brother was already waiting on him when he got off the bus, his oversized Metallica shirt billowed against the wind, and he did his best to keep his umbrella from blowing away.
"Eric!" Alex cried when he hopped off the bus.
"Hey, Buddy,” Eric held the umbrella higher to cover them both. He struggled against wind and rain to keep it steady, his mousy hair blew over his eyes.
Before Eric could even ask, Alex blurted "Mom's taking us to the arcade again!"
Eric looked straight ahead doing his best to keep the umbrella steady. He didn't look as excited as Alex thought he'd be.
Eric looked down at his brother.
"That's great, Buddy," was all he could say.
They took the shortcut home, cutting between houses and backyards. They stepped over small puddles collecting in the grass. Alex managed to step in one and his feet sloshed the entire time. He picked up a stick and ran it along fences as they passed.
"You think Daddy will come with us this time?" asked Alex, dropping the stick between tall blades of grass.
"I doubt it.”
Eric stopped at the corner of their neighbor's fence which was directly behind their own backyard.
"Yeah. Adam Warner said Momma wants to leave him. You think that's true?"
"Don't listen to Adam, Alex. His mom likes to talk. Remember when she told Mom that her neighbor was cheating with the grocery boy because she saw him help put groceries in her car, and it turned out that he really was just the grocery boy helping put groceries in her car?"
“But I know they've been fighting, Eric. I'm young, not stupid.”
Eric's eyebrows came to an arch. "You're a little stupid," he teased.
Alex raised a fist at him, and he scrunched his face at Eric. His middle knuckle started to raise, he hesitated before flipping his brother a rigid bird.
"I think I'm going to ask Daddy to come with us to the arcade this time.”
It was a bold statement to make.