Read Streetlights Like Fireworks Online

Authors: David Pandolfe

Streetlights Like Fireworks (4 page)

6

Bringing Medicine
to the Maintenance Engineer

 

On Monday, Lauren meets me after school in front of
Evergreen Elementary. She scans the building and I wonder what she’s thinking.
Her expression doesn’t give anything away but I remember kids making fun of
her. I feel bad now for not sticking up for her. I didn’t know her but that
doesn’t make it okay.

“Wow, never  thought I’d be here again,” she says.

“I know. It’s weird,” I say, to fight off the sinking
feeling. “So, how do we explain our being here?”

Lauren taps her chin. “Kind of a deep question. I guess some
would attribute it to natural selection. Others to creationism.”

Nice. I laugh even though she’s messing with me again. “I
meant here, specifically.”

Lauren raises an eyebrow. “I guess maybe we just walk in
and make something up? After all, we are in high school now. We must be smart
enough to pull that off.”

We walk through the front doors and get about four feet
before being stopped by a cranky middle-aged woman. “Can I help you?” Given her
tone, scowl and penetrating gaze, it comes across more like,
Can I kill you?
I have no doubt that, to her, we’re the rocker guy and the goth girl.
School administrators have dreams about shoving kids like us off cliffs—dreams
from which they wake up smiling.

“Hi, Mrs. Evans. How are you?” Lauren offers a warm smile.

Cranky Mrs. Evans frowns. “Do I know you?”

“You don’t remember me?”

Mrs. Evans’ expression softens a bit. “Oh, no. I’m
sorry—”

“Cassandra Delvechio! I went to school here. Seriously,
you don’t remember?”

“Not exactly,” Mrs. Evans says. “I mean, your name does
seem familiar but—”

“My grandfather.”

Mrs. Evans cocks her head. “I’m sorry?”

“Grandpa Anthony!”

Lauren has managed to make a woman evidently made of ice
start to blush with discomfort. Mrs. Evans glances down the hall as if help
should arrive.

“He’s the maintenance engineer,” Lauren says.

“Maintenance engineer?” Mrs. Evans’ face continues to
grow red.

I clear my throat, catch her eye, and pantomime mopping
the floor behind Lauren’s back.

Mrs. Evans’ eyes shoot back to Lauren. “Oh,you mean Old Anth—Mr.
Delvechio. Are you here to see him?”

Lauren nods happily. Again the friendly smile.

“He’s here, I think, somewhere.” Mrs. Evans swivels her
head as if she can see through walls.

Lauren takes her phone from her pocket. “Gym,” she says.
“He called me. He left his medicine in my mother’s car.”

“Okay, I see. He must be in the gym. Do you know how—I
mean, you must still know how to get there.”

“Of course,” Lauren says. “Thanks!”

We walk down the hall and around the corner.

“I don’t remember her,” I say.

Lauren shrugs. “Never saw her before.”

“How did you know her name?”

“Name tag,” she says. “Must be a volunteer. You need to
be more observant. Did you notice how she didn’t even know my grandfather’s
name?”

“He’s not really your grandfather.”

“Just a technicality. In that scenario, he was my
grandfather and she didn’t know him. Why? Because he’s the janitor. Snob. Like
she’s better than my grandfather. I can’t stand people like that.”

The funny thing is, she really does seem pissed off. At
the same time, I have to agree. What’s with people like Mrs. Evans?

Strangely, we actually do find Anthony in the gym—where,
as it turns out, he’s mopping the floor. Maybe that isn’t so strange. What’s
strange and what isn’t seems to be changing rapidly. Of course, Lauren knew her
grandfather-not-grandfather would be in the gym. After all, he just called her,
right? I half-expect Old Anthony to run over and hug her when he becomes aware
of us but that doesn’t happen. Instead, he squints in our direction.

But at least he smiles. Ten points ahead of Mrs. Evans
already. “You two lost or something? Nothing going on here this afternoon, that
I know of.”

Lauren steps closer to me and whispers, “You’re on,
Pajama Boy.”

It takes me a second but then I say, “Hi, Mr. Delvechio.”

“Hello,” he says.

“Um, my name is Jack Atkinson.”

“Brilliant start,” Lauren whispers.

Anthony studies me for a moment, sets his mop into its
bucket and walks toward us. “Jack Atkinson. Sure, I remember you.”

Not what I expect at all. Why would he remember me?

Anthony smiles again. Surprisingly white teeth gleam
beneath his gray moustache. “You made that poster, right?”

Amazing. Somehow, Anthony remembers that about me. It
seems like so long ago but, before becoming a musician, I’d been an aspiring
artist. My tools of the trade at the time were all produced by Crayola and my
enthusiasm greatly exceeded my skill but I’d still contributed. One year, a
poster I made featuring happy, smiling kids won the annual “School Reflections”
art contest and got taped to a wall in the cafeteria.

“You remember my poster?”

“Sure, I always read the kids’ names. Every year.”
Anthony taps his forefinger against his temple. “But yours, I never forgot. Can
you maybe think why?”

I try to remember and nothing comes at first, but then it
hits me. I included Anthony in the background alongside the teachers. It seems
strange that he’d been “Old Anthony” even then—the stranger part being he looks
basically the same ten years later. But I can see it now, how I drew him with
his gray curly hair, thick black eyebrows and big smile. No wonder he seems to
like me.

“I think I might remember why,” I say.

“So, you remember!” Anthony’s smile broadens even more.
“Yeah, that was my favorite. So, what can I do for you two?”

“Well, we kind of wanted to talk to you about your
Telecaster.”

Anthony’s brow furrows. “Tele-what?”

Right there, I know he can’t be a musician. You never
know, of course, but that felt off to begin with. Still, I push on. “The guitar
you traded in at Edmonds Music. I own it now. Traded for it, really, not that
it matters. Anyway, I was just—”

Anthony shakes his head. “Sorry, what are you talking
about?”

“An electric guitar,” I say. “Listen, maybe I got
something wrong.”

His smile fades. “Oh, that thing. Sure. Look, if there’s
something wrong with it, I don’t want to hear about it. I was just getting rid
of it. I traded it in and got a new flute for my granddaughter.”

“How old is your granddaughter?” I can’t resist shooting
Lauren a look. She narrows her eyes back at me.

“She’s ten, just last week. Little sweetheart. Anyway,
like I said, if there’s some sort of problem with the guitar, I can’t help
you.”

“The guitar’s fine,” I say. “I was just wondering if you
might know where it came from.”

A few seconds pass before he says, “You don’t want to go
there. Not if there’s a problem. Or for anything else. Just take it back to the
music store.”

“No, really,” I say. “It’s nothing like that.” I think
for a moment, then take inspiration from Lauren’s performance with Mrs. Evans.
“It’s just this superstitious musician thing, that you should know the history
of an instrument. It’s supposed to bring you luck. That’s all. No big deal.”

“Never heard of that before,” Anthony says. “You’re being
straight with me, right?”

“Absolutely.”

Still, he waits before speaking. “It belonged to my
youngest. Victor.”

The way he says it, I wonder if something bad happened.
Thankfully, I don’t have to ask.

“He borrowed money from me without paying me back. Like
always. Told me he couldn’t come up with it even when I told him I needed it to
pay my bills. What do you think he does?”

Anthony waits for me to answer. “I don’t know,” I admit.

“He gives me that stupid guitar and tells me I should
sell it. Can you believe that?”

Again, the pause. “No?”

“Right, neither could I! Why doesn’t
he
sell it
and give me the money, right?”

This time I don’t wait. “Right, exactly.”

Anthony points at my face. “That’s what I told him! Then
he tells me he doesn’t have the time. He sure had enough time to bother me for
money when he needed it, didn’t he?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“You better believe he had enough time for that!” Anthony
shakes his head in disgust and, thankfully, stops pointing at my face. “You
raise a boy and you’d think he’d be responsible enough to get his life
together. Not Victor. In and out of trouble for as long as I can remember.
Breaks my heart, but I’m done with him.”

I have no idea what to say but this time Anthony doesn’t
wait for me to react.

“He can just stay on devil hill for the rest of his life
if it suits him. As long as he doesn’t come along bothering me for money
anymore.”

I wait to be sure there isn’t more coming, then say, “I’m
sorry, Mr. Delvechio. I hope things work out.”

“Yeah, me too. Listen, sorry about all that. Like I
should be telling you about my problems. Glad to hear you like the guitar.”

“I do,” I say. “It was nice seeing you again.”

Anthony’s smile returns. “I always liked that poster you
made. My very favorite, no doubt about it.”

~~~

A few minutes later, we’re outside again and walking toward
the street.

“I guess that didn’t exactly work out,” I say.

“I don’t know,” Lauren says. “I mean, we learned a
little.”

“Not sure I’m with you.”

Lauren glances over at me. “Well, there was that thing
about devil hill.”

Actually, that phrase had sort of jumped out at me when
Anthony said it but I assumed it was just an unfamiliar expression. Clearly,
Lauren’s thinking something else.

“Nothing?” Lauren says.

I know her at least enough now to suspect a raised
eyebrow. Sure enough, the eyebrow goes up. “Got nothing,” I admit.

“Maybe Kill Devil Hills?”

Damn, she’s right. How had I not made that connection? “As
in the Outer Banks,” I say.

“Pretty safe bet. Can you think of any way for us to get
to North Carolina?”

I give it a few moment’s thought since I know what it
means otherwise. But there’s just no way. “Not likely,” I admit.

Lauren nods, her hair falling down around her face. She
pushes it back again. “Yep, exactly. Looks like a done deal.”

After that, we walk across the parking lot in silence.
When we reach the street, the silence suddenly feels awkward. “Well, it was
worth a try,” I say.

Lauren nods. “It was, definitely. Keep remaining open to
things, okay? You never know.”

She hoists her backpack farther onto her shoulder. She
starts walking down the road in the opposite direction from where I’m going.
When she reaches the corner, she stops and looks back.

I’m still standing there. Obviously, I’ve been watching
her walk away. My face grows warm but Lauren doesn’t frown or shoot me a
knowing look. She just gives a wave and calls out, “Good luck, Pajama Boy!”
Then she starts walking again without looking back a second time.

 

 
7

Away We Go

 

On day four, I’m doing my best to keep rowing at ten in the
morning. I’m still groggy from staying up last night, playing through a
headphone practice amp long after my fellow Leaders in Training stopped talking
and called it a day. My face is dripping sweat, my T-shirt already soaked
through from both humidity and exertion. I try to ignore my canoe team as they
keep badgering me to get in the game since we’re losing. Not that this is a
race, officially, since the camp claims all activities to be non-competitive.
The five twelve-year-old boys in my boat don’t seem particularly concerned
about being respectful of my status as an “LIT.”  Evidently, they see it pretty
much the same way I do. Just three more days to go.

Last year was my first as a “Leader in Training” and I’d
briefly hoped that I’d at least be treated even somewhat like an adult. Not the
case, I quickly learned. We’re bound by the same rules as the younger campers.
We sleep in cabins without air conditioning alongside a bunch of smelly guys
who love sports. We can’t bring computers or use cell phones except at
specified times on weekends. We use the same bathroom shower facility that
smells like a rotting whale carcass. And, of course, we eat the same horrific
food. The only actual difference between being a camper and an LIT is that LITs
have additional responsibilities (meaning, we do what the counselors tell us
to). I have no idea why this would impress any college. If anything, I wonder
if it might have the opposite effect. Who, after all, would be stupid enough to
volunteer for this?

Still, all I have to do is survive the situation for the
rest of the week. And there won’t be a next time, that’s for sure. This time
next year, I’ll be preparing for college. I’ll be eighteen. I try not to think
about the possibility that my parents might insist I return as a counselor. I
know for a fact, though, that some of the counselors are here as forced labor.
Their parents refuse to keep paying tuition if they don’t work a summer job.
The counselors are not just stuck here for a week—they’re here for the summer.
I have a really bad feeling about this but I keep telling myself it won’t
happen to me.

Suddenly, a megaphone blast squawks across the lake.
“Counselor for cabin sixteen! Tony! Can you hear me?” I recognize the voice as
belonging to Rick, one of the other counselors.

Naturally, our counselor, Tony, is in the canoe out
front. His team has a slight advantage in that Tony is nineteen and built like
the cover of
Men’s Health
. He cups his hands around his mouth and calls
back, “Yo, what’s up?” Which, for Tony, is a fairly complex response.

Rick’s megaphone sounds again. “We need Jack Atkinson!”

“Who?”

“Jack Atkinson! He’s one of your LITs!”

Tony hasn’t bothered to learn my name. We’re not exactly
soul brothers. He looks around. “One of you guys Atkinson?”

I raise my hand and wave from our canoe.

“Found him!” Tony calls back to Rick.

“Someone from his family is here!” Rick says.

“Okay, I’ll tell him!”

“Tony, I’m using a megaphone! He
knows
already!”

“Okay!”

“Send him back!” Even through the distorted megaphone, I
hear Rick’s frustration.

My young charges give me death stares on the way back as
if I’ve caused us to lose a race that technically wasn’t taking place. On top
of that, we were running  dead last. But it isn’t like I care. All I keep
thinking is that if someone from my family is here, it must mean some sort of
emergency. We paddle toward shore and I keep searching for my mother or father
but it’s still just Rick standing there with his megaphone.

We bump against the pier and I jump out of the canoe. I
don’t look back as I drop my oar, hopefully on someone’s head. “What’s going
on?”

Rick won’t look me in the eye. “It doesn’t sound good.”

Suddenly, I’m cold all over. “What happened?”

“I better let your sister tell you.” Rick turns and
starts walking.

“My sister?”

He points toward the camp administration building. “She’s
waiting for you. Okay, well, sorry. Good luck.” With that, he veers off and
leaves me to trek the rest of the way alone, my brain buzzing with confusion.

I open the door, heart pounding, to be met with the
sympathetic gaze of a middle-aged guy I’ve never seen before. He must be one of
the camp administrators.

“Are you Jack?”

I nod.

“I’m Mr. Wilhite.” He points across the room to an office
door. “Your sister’s inside waiting.”

I walk toward the door and Mr. Wilhite follows. If
Caitlin is here, it could only mean that something has happened to our parents.
But who’s with her and how did she get here?

Lauren stands waiting inside the office, dressed in tan
slacks and a green blouse, her hair—no longer streaked with color—tied back
into a ponytail. She wears lipstick and light makeup. She looks like somebody’s
administrative assistant. Before I have a chance to speak, she says, “Jack,
it’s Mom. She had an accident.”

I stand there blinking, trying to process.

“She fell down the stairs and hit her head. She’s in the
hospital.”

“Do you mean—”

“Right. Mom. Who else would I mean? Do you need to sit
down?”

“Maybe you should sit down, Jack,” Mr. Wilhite says. “You
look rather pale.”

I always look “rather pale” but, of course, Mr. Wilhite
can’t know that. All the same, I sit in one of the chairs. Mr. Wilhite takes
his seat behind the desk while Lauren remains standing off to the side.

“Can I get you anything?” Mr. Wilhite says. “Do you need
a glass of water?”

I hear him but don’t respond. I keep staring at Lauren,
trying to figure out what she’s doing here.

Lauren’s eyes actually glisten as she says, “Dad can’t
get a flight until at least tomorrow. You know how it is with Dubai. The whole
Middle East, for that matter. Anyway, he called me so I could come get you. I
left school early this morning. Maybe I can catch up on the summer classes
after we get through this but it doesn’t matter right now. Maybe I’ll just drop
them. What matters is that we get home to be with Mom in case she comes out of
the coma.”

“Coma?”

“I know it sounds bad but we need to say calm,” Lauren
says. “How soon can you get packed?”

Finally, I put it together. Holy shit, she’s amazing. It
takes superhuman effort not to grin. “Just a few minutes. We need to go.”

Mr. Whilhite clears his throat and directs his attention
to me. “I already explained to your sister that we don’t normally let campers
leave with anyone but their parents. But under the circumstances, and since
your sister’s eighteen, it looks like we have little choice but to make an
exception.” He turns to Lauren. “I’ll still need to see your identification.
And you’ll have to sign the release form.”

“Of course.” Lauren opens her purse, produces an ID and
passes it to Mr. Wilhite.

Mr. Wilhite studies the ID. “This says your last name is
Hornsby.”

Here’s where we’re going down. Nice job, Lauren. What was
she thinking?

I feel blood rushing to my face but Lauren doesn’t
flinch. She keeps her eyes on Mr. Wilhite’s. “That’s correct. Our mother was
married before. In fact, our new father can’t actually have children. As you
can imagine, we don’t exactly talk about it. Kind of a sensitive topic. Anyway,
I decided to keep my last name. Jack felt differently.”

Mr. Wilhite thinks for a moment. He blushes and I wonder
if Lauren hit a nerve. “This says you live in Charlottesville. Jack’s file says
your family lives in Edmonds.”

“That’s right. I go to school there. UVA. Did you go
there too?” Lauren points to the desk. “I noticed your mug.”

Sure enough, a black coffee mug with a University of
Virginia logo sits on Mr. Wilhite’s desk. Damn, she’s really good.

“That was a gift from my nephew,” Mr. Wilhite says. “He
goes there.”

“Really?” Lauren says. “Wilhite…that name sounds kind of
familiar. Is he in the engineering program?”

Mr. Wilhite’s expression brightens. “He is. His name’s
Tim. Do you know him?”

Lauren’s face lights up. “He’s a friend of my roommate’s
boyfriend. Did Tim ever mention Paul Parsons?”

Mr. Wilhite shakes his head. “I don’t think so.”

“You should ask him sometime. Those two are almost
inseparable. Which, frankly, annoys the heck out of my roommate.”

Mr. Wilhite chuckles. “Talk about a small world.”

“Next time I see Tim, I’ll be sure to tell him we met.”
Lauren turns to me. “Jack, are you okay? Can you manage to pack your things
now? I just need to sign you out and then we can get going.”

Mr. Wilhite passes Lauren her ID and a clipboard but
addresses both of us. “I hope your mother is going to be okay. I’m sure she
will be.”

We both thank him and Lauren signs the form.

~~~

“Just walk fast,” Lauren says, once we’re outside and
hustling toward the cabins.

“What are you doing?”

“What am
I
doing? I think this is more of a ‘we’
situation. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“But what was with the whole mom-fell-down-the-stairs
thing. The Middle East? Really, a coma?”

“I’d say it worked nicely,” Lauren says. “Although, I
feel bad about lying to Mr. Whilhite. He seems really nice. You can tell he’s
proud of his nephew.”

“And what was up with
that
? How did you know his
nephew was in the engineering program?”

“I didn’t, not for sure. But I kind of got a feeling
about it. See why you should trust your instincts? Besides, it’s a huge
engineering program so my odds were pretty good either way. Anyway, it worked.
And, obviously, you wanted to run with it.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Well, it wasn’t exactly like you called me out for being
a liar. That gave me the distinct impression you were on board.” Lauren stops
walking and stares at me. “Should we turn back?”

I consider this option for about one second. “Okay, I’m
on board.”

“Glad to hear it. We can talk more later.” She starts
walking again.

We enter the cabin and Lauren fans her nose. “God, it
stinks in here. I can’t believe you live like this.”

I start shoving clothes into my duffle bag. It seems
pointless explaining that, at best, I contribute to one-tenth of the cabin’s
rancidness. A few minutes later, I zip my bag closed. “Let’s get moving.”

Lauren raises an eyebrow. “Forget anything?”

I slip my arm through the strap and lift my duffel bag.
At that moment, all I want to do is get the hell out of there. “I think I’m
good.”

“You forgot something. Trust me on this.”

Lauren looks to the floor where my guitar case pokes out
from beneath the bed. “Try to stay focused,” she says.

~~~

Within minutes, we’re walking across the parking lot.
Everything happened so fast that it only occurs to me now to ask the most
obvious questions. “So, what’s the deal? And how did you get here?”

“The deal is it felt like we had unfinished business,”
Lauren says. “And, by helicopter, of course.”

I shoot her a sidelong, starting-to-hate-you glance.

She smiles. “I drove, silly.”

I struggle to keep up with her, huffing from the combined
weight of my duffel bag and guitar. “Do you have your own car?”

“Not exactly. You sound kind of winded. Do you smoke?
It’s really bad for you.”

“No, I don’t smoke. You do have a license, right? Not
just a fake ID?”

“Try not to worry, Pajama Boy. I’ve got us covered. Did
anyone ever tell you that you frown a lot? Don’t get me wrong—that’s not
necessarily a bad sign. It means you’re thinking. We’re almost there.”

Almost where?
I wonder. The parking lot seems
endless.

“There it is,” Lauren finally says. “Sorry I parked so
far away but it seemed like a good idea to be close to the exit. Now that I
think about it, we probably would have gotten to the exit sooner if we’d been
driving. Right, well, next time.”

I look up from the asphalt to see an old Volkswagen
bus—turquoise with a white roof, ancient, from like the 1960s or something.
Still, it appears to be in nearly perfect condition.

“Cool, isn’t it?” Lauren says.

It really is a beautiful thing. “Where did it come from?”

“My father restored it, years ago. He did a nice job,
don’t you think?” She gets out her keys and opens the back. “Put your stuff in
and let’s hit it.”

I’ve never been in one of these old vans before, but it
looks like someone removed the back bench and installed carpeting. They’ve done
a nice job of it, though. Almost seamless. Either way, there’s a ton of room
back there. I drop my duffle bag into the back, then slide the guitar in next
to it. I climb into the passenger seat. Lauren puts on sunglasses and starts
the engine.

“I can’t believe your father let you take this van,” I
say.

“He didn’t,” Lauren says. “Last time I saw him, I was
three feet tall. Don’t forget to fasten your seatbelt.”

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