My mom picks up the phone on the second ring and says, “Hello.” I can’t hear the voice on the other end, but I feel it. My father’s voice is slow and gentle, with a menacing gravel threading each syllable to the next.
“What do you want? I told you—”
“I’m telling you,” he says. “I’m gonna show up one of these days, and I’m gonna take my kid.”
“I’m calling the police.” She slams the phone down.
Knock, knock. “Mom? Mom, is that you?” Mommy calls.
Knock knock. “Coming, coming.”
I’m in the living room of our little rented house on Twenty-Fifth Street in Del Mar. We moved in here after Nanny had to sell the house on Nineteenth Street, because she couldn’t afford the taxes. We’re a few blocks inland, but we can still walk to the beach.
I’m on the floor, wearing just some denim shorts, and building a mountain out of Tinker Toys. My hair is a blond and long, almost to my shoulders. My eyes are dark for my hair, big for my face, and worried for my age. My nostrils flare a little, my nipples are tiny and off-center, oblique in their relationship with my chest. My fingers are still toddler fingers, almost translucent.
My mom walks from the kitchen to the front door. I have a direct view of her back as she opens it. She’s wearing jeans and a loose cotton shirt with purple, navy, and red embroidery around the collar. She bought it when we went to Tijuana last week. Her hair, pulled flat on the top, sprays its frizz from her signature leather barrette, embossed with green ivy.
At first the door sliver is pure light, like it might blind you. I love door slivers. They let you glimpse without getting a full look, see without figuring out what you’re seeing.
My mom raises a hand to shield her eyes, and as the sliver widens, two black obstacles block the light. “Ma’am,” one of them says, “are you Cathy Neves?”
“I’m Detective Layton,” he says.
“And I’m Detective Stritch,” the other says. Both men hold out hands to shake.
“Yeah?” she says, ignoring the outstretched hands.
“That your Metropolitan?” Stritch asks. Both men return their arms to their sides.
“Yeah.” The Metropolitan is our tiny, two-toned black and white car, parked in the driveway. We call it the Metro. “Why?”
“Good size for you,” he says.
“We like it,” she says. “Even though it breaks down all the time.”
“We’d like to talk to you,” they say in near unison. They are like no one I’ve ever seen, seemingly identical in their mammoth height and sturdy builds, both wearing black pants, shoes, and belts, light short-sleeved shirts, and dark ties, both with leather notebooks in their hands.
“You look just like your dad,” Stritch says. “I’m a big fan. I always bet on him when he was riding. Things were never dull when the Portuguese Pepper Pot was around.”
“Tell me about it,” she says.
“No, I guess I don’t have to tell you.”
“The reason we’re here,” Layton interrupts.
“It’s nothing serious,” Stritch chimes in. “We’d like to speak to you about the Norman murders.”
“That’s not serious?” she says.
“Well, it was a long time ago and we frankly don’t expect—”
“We understand you might know something about the case, ma’am,” Layton interrupts.
“Who told you?”
“We received a call from a James Seibert.”
“Jim?” she says. “Ugghhh,” she says, “Suzanne,” turning two Ns into four or five.
“Excuse me, Miss—uh, Mrs.—Neves?” Layton says, aiming his glance past her, at me and my Tinker Toys. He gives me a wave. I pretend I’m too busy squeezing a 1/4” round stick of blond wood into a blue cube with 1/16” round holes.
“Nothing,” she says. “It’s Miss.”
“May we come in, Miss Neves?”
“Pretty daughter you have there. What’s she, about three? Where’d she get all that blonde hair?” Stritch asks.
“His name is Jason. He’s almost three,” Mommy replies.
“Oh, I beg your pardon,” Stritch stumbles.
“Where can we talk?” Layton interrupts, also trying to wave at me. I’m peeling layers of wood from the blond stick with my eyes, watching them coil off and slither to the floor, wondering how long I’ll have to do this before it will fit into one of the blue holes.
“In the kitchen.” Four clunking black shoes and two tender bare feet sweep across my line of vision and then disappear behind a wall. Now there are only voices.
“I know who did it. We all did. All the locals.”
“The guys who surfed Del Mar, the kids who lived around here.”
“They changed out of their bloody clothes on the beach right in front of my house.” I’m cross-legged, blond wood twirling its coils around my circumference. They’re everywhere, but the stick still won’t budge through the blue hole.
“That would be the Neves house on Nineteenth Street?”
“It was those two college guys who lived across from the train station.” She says college in italics, to mean “the not-locals who thought they were such hot shit.” There’s a pause. She caves first. “My friend Wendy had a thing for Randy. They were from back East. I thought he was crazy. He had a weird look in his eyes, and he thought he was all tough.”
I jab jab jab the stick. The coils are whirring now, moving too fast to see. Jab jab jab. But still the knocking of wood on wood frustrates my very simple wish: to feel the stick slide gently into the block and rest there with the firm confidence of belonging.
“Are you referring to Randall Williams and Todd Shields?”
“Todd and Randy,” she says. “I never knew their last names.”
“Did you see them on the beach that night?”
“No, but Spiff helped them change. He got them clean clothes. He told me.”
“He was a friend of my brother’s.”
“Do you know his full name?”
“He’s just Spiff.”
“Thanks, Miss Neves. That’s all we need to know.”
“What are you gonna do? Are you gonna arrest them?”
“We’ve already investigated Mr. Williams and Mr. Shields. They didn’t murder the Normans.”
“I know they did it. I’m telling you. I know it.” The stick is almost narrow enough now.
“Thank you, Miss—”
“Three days after the murder I went with Wendy to their house and there was blood on the walls. It said ‘F-U-C-K’ in huge letters: F-U-C-K, in blood. I saw it with my own eyes. Randy said Todd was on something and cut his hand and got pissed off and wrote that. Wendy believed him, but I made her get out of there.”
“Sorry to trouble you, Miss—” The blinding sliver returns, widens, until the black obstacles step back into it.
“I know they did it.”
“Good day.” The obstacles recede, but the light has eased its glare. Mommy stands in it, purple embroidery just peeking out from behind the frizz spraying across the back of her Mexican shirt. You never know how long a door sliver will last. I watch Mommy closely when I see she’s about to make one or end one. This one lasts two solid minutes, until she raises an arm and squeezes the sliver narrower and narrower until it’s nothing but an invisible crack of light between the door and the wall.
“Boog,” she says. “Boog.” I look up from my stick and block. “Boog, that’s not going to fit in there,” she observes, walking toward me and my Tinker Toys. “It’s this one,” she says, picking up a slender stick the color of a canary. “Like this,” she says, reaching for my blue block.
“No,” I say. “No,” pulling the block away. “No.” The coils are buzzing into oblivion all over the room.
“Boog, this one goes with that.”
“No it doesn’t. No.” Coils vanish everywhere.
“Let me show you.”
I see, for a second, that she might be right. “No,” I glare. “I don’t care.”
“Boog, stop it.”
“Don’t do that,” she says, her face flushing and her voice somewhere between a whimper and a shriek. She gathers false composure to deliver the next line: “You’re reminding me of your dad.”
We remain in this pose for the rest of the day, until she makes dinner, I refuse to eat it, and she sends me to bed hungry.
We sit down to dinner the following night, at the round table in the kitchen, a white lacy tablecloth dangling off it almost onto the floor. We eat off heavy, almost-white dishes with tiny brown specks and a brown stripe around the edges. I like the thick noodles and the creamy sauce, but I don’t like the onions, and I’m afraid of my fork. The metal is too thin. It seems absorbent. The brown specks on the plate are disguised dirt, mixing into the sauce, clinging to the onions, and seeping into the tines. I try to lift meat and noodles into my mouth without letting the fork touch my tongue or lips. I slide the food off with my teeth.
“Mommy is just upset, Boog. Don’t worry.”
“I’m not,” I say, glad to have an excuse to stop eating but frustrated that the excuse is just as unpleasant. I can’t say anything else. I’m noticing the air around my skin. It’s warm and seems purplish.
“If you’re not gonna finish, at least brush your teeth,” she says.
“Okay,” I say, heading straight to my room.
I don’t know why she’s acting so weird. I don’t know that last night, when I was at Nanny’s, asleep, Randy Williams knocked on our door at eight o’clock. My mom was getting ready to go out, so it took her a few minutes to get to the door. “You’re early,” she said as she opened it. “I’m not ready yet.” Randy’s hair was longer than it used to be, and he had a mustache, but it was the same dark red. His skin had the same pink freckles. He was wearing a T-shirt with the sleeves cut off and a pair of trunks, with flip-flops.
“Hello, little rich girl,” he said.
“What?” she said.
“Invite me in.”
“What do you want? My girlfriends are on their way over.”
“What do you want?” he replied, herding her with his body out of the living room and into the hall, toward the bedroom. “Tiny hands,” he said, grabbing one. “Like a baby. Let’s go in here, baby,” veering her through the bedroom door. “Huh? Huh?” He pushed onto the bed, a tower peering at her.
“Ignore it,” he said.
“Kim! Wendy! Kim! Wendy!” She was screeching, the names hard to decipher, but it did the trick. Kim and Wendy burst through the door and toward the bedroom. Randy Williams winked, turned around, and passed them in the hall, at a calm pace. Wendy and Kim consoled her, and they went out.
Whatever happened while I was at Nanny’s last night is making my mom act weird. I can see her door sliver through mine, and there’s something off about both of them, an angle out of sync or a shadow misplaced, like someone has stormed through and rearranged our lives to make them look the same as they’ve always been. The off-kilter door slivers are a clue that this is someone else’s life masquerading as ours.
I don’t realize what’s happening until I turn my head and see that I’m at eye level with the tops of the door slivers. Satan’s back. He’s been visiting lately. I’m floating four feet above my twin bed. My Pooh Bear is below me, caught in a tangle of sky-blue sheets. Satan is invisible, but he’s in the room, arms flying like a sorcerer’s, casting and recasting the floating spell.
I’m getting used to Satan. A slow terror swarms through me when he makes me float, pulsing under the skin, through the veins, fiercely concentrated in my stomach. When I try to move an arm or leg, thick bouncy air tugs it in place, magnifying the terror in my veins, like it’s under a microscope. There’s nothing I can do to stop the floating spell or the slow, close-up terror.
My goal is to fall to the bed. I can see my body floating. I examine my thinness, my tanness, my blondness. I examine Pooh on the bed and think about the smush if I fall on him. How to bring my body and the mattress together, with minimum impact for Pooh? I imagine the satisfying crash of the fall, hardened by the crink of Pooh against my spinal cord.
I’ve heard of Jesus Christ in passing. Sometimes, when she’s mad, Nanny says, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” Sometimes Mommy mentions them too. Sometimes she holds a rosary and says their names. She’s shown it to me and explained that they come from the Bible. Satan comes from the Bible too. I’ve heard about them, but I’ve met Satan.
To get back down I have to conquer Satan. I never plop to the bed, never smush Pooh, but I do wake up in the morning, on the bed, with Pooh under me.
Satan is my secret. My mom can’t know. Nanny can’t know. If I tell, he will seep out of the dream world and become real. I worry about this even though it’s already happened in a way. Satan is with me when I’m awake, an enemy that gives me a reason for being.
I am a young fey warrior boy with no elder to train me. Satan is mine alone to conquer. There is no experienced hero to teach me the rigor and discipline I will require to triumph. I am too scrawny for conventional fighting, so I have to be extra clever. My strategy mainly involves coils of silence, imagining that with enough concentration I can evaporate my body and disappear into corners of rooms. If I can just sit in the corner and let the coils swirl, they will begin to sparkle and glow like tiny dots of impenetrable gold sunlight. I’m almost sure that these dots are like poison bullets to Satan. I don’t know if I’ll win, but I’m chosen, the only person on the planet whose quiet force conjures these particular dots, the only person who might defeat Satan.