Published in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology, Vol. 13, 2020
I lay on the floor in the darkness of the living room, a thin layer of curtain protecting me from the eyes of the man and lady who were looking through the window by the front door. Knocking, they peered in one at a time. Halos of sunlight crowned their heads. If I didn’t move, they wouldn’t see me, and they would think no one was home, and they would leave.
They weren’t leaving though, and the longer they stood there, the greater the chance that Pal would make a noise, and they would know we were home, and they would take him away.
I crawled across the floor toward the hall.
“Kid,” Pal called from our room.
A shadow in the window told me they had heard him.
“Kid,” he yelled louder.
The knocking again.
“Mrs. Franklin,” said the woman.
“Peeeee,” yelled Pal. “Uh oh.”
I got up and ran to quiet Pal. The back door opened; a man called out, “Mrs. Franklin.”
“Evander, this is Pal,” I say.
Pal repeats his name, only it sounds like he is calling for himself on the other side of the house. Because he can’t extend his arm, Pal sticks out his elbow. The eczema is back. I’ll have to get cream when I buy diapers.
“Evander,” says Evander, and reaches down for Pal’s elbow.
Pal shouts Evander’s name—only it sounds more like Ender—jabs his elbow in Evander’s direction.
“You do like this,” I say and touch the tip of my elbow to the tip of Pal’s. “It’s called a noop.”
“Nooooop!” Pal calls out as if he is cheering on his favorite basketball player. He bounces in his chair.
I can see that Evander is scared, so I tell Pal we are going to go hang out in our room.
“Room,” Pal announces.
Walking down the hall, Evander looks at all of the photos. Most are of me as a baby, but there is one of Mom and Pal sitting on the back of her motorcycle.
“Is that your mom?” he asks.
“Mom,” Pal repeats from the next room. He is letting me know that he is still paying attention—that he is a responsible parent.
“No, that’s Pal,” I say. “The other one’s my mom. Come on.” My funny way of avoiding a conversation about her.
Mom is out there in the world somewhere, free from me and Pal.
“Come on,” Pal says.
When Pal had called out, he wasn’t telling me he had to pee. He was telling me he had peed. From the trail and the puddles, I knew he had tried to get out of bed himself and get into wheelchair.
“Oh, Pal,” I said to him, mostly out of disappointment in myself for not waking him up and making him pee.
“Oh, Kid,” he said. Our own call and response.
“Pal, we have to—”
“Man!” yelled Pal, sitting half in his wheelchair.
“What is going on here?” the man asked. “Where is your mother?”
The woman was right behind him, eyes wide, hand gripping the man’s shoulder. “That man has no pants on.”
She pushed past the man and moved to take my arm. I fell back into Pal’s lap, and my weight pushed the wheelchair back, sending both of us to the floor.
“Fuck you,” yelled Pal, holding me as best he could with both of his arms, his legs twisted and kicking.
I usher Evander into our room.
As soon as he crosses the threshold, Evander covers his nose and mouth. “It smells like pee.”
“Pee,” shouts Pal, and I can hear him bouncing in his chair. He thinks this is funny.
“It’s the mattress,” I say. “I wash the sheets when he pees, but really the only thing you can do with the mattress is put it out in the sun. You get used to it. Check this out.” I point to the wall of shelves displaying Pal’s models.
Ever since he was little, Pal had been building models. At first he would just buy the kits and put them together. That got boring, he said, so he built what he called “custom jobs.” I call them Frankencars. My favorite is a purple truck that looked like the car from The Munsters, but it was also a limousine. I named it Grapico after my favorite soda. Pal had told me that it took five different model kits to create it.
I am explaining this to Evander when he reaches for Grapico.
“No,” I yell, batting his hand away. “Don’t touch.”
“Touch,” comes Pal’s voice from the living room.
“Sorry,” I tell Evander as I stand between him and the shelves. “We don’t touch them. They’re just for looking.” And then, “Hey, look at this one. Pal built the engine out of the plastic trees. They’re also called runners or grids. Pal told me—“
“How can he even—” Evander starts to ask, but I know where he’s going.
“He built them before he crashed Mom’s motorcycle. That’s why we don’t touch. He can’t do it anymore.”
“I think I need to go,” says Evander, backing away towards the bed, but then he avoids the bed and backs towards the window.
“Wait,” I plead. I know that if Evander leaves, I will have no friends. “Have you ever shot a gun?” I ask, moving to the closet to retrieve Pal’s air rifle. “It’s not a real gun,” I say. “Well, it’s real, but…” I hold it out for Evander to take. “You can hold it.”
Unlike with the models that he was so eager to put his hands on, Evander is less enthusiastic about the gun.
“Do I need to call the police?” the man asked.
The woman wasn’t listening. “Sir,” she said. “You have to let go.” And then to me: “Selena, where is your mother? We need to—”
“Fuck you,” I said. Normally, I wouldn’t say things like that, but Pal had said it, so I thought it would be okay. It wasn’t.
“Noooo,” said Pal, chastising me for my language.
“Call them,” the lady said. “And tell them they’ll need to bring a van.”
They were going to take him. I knew for sure. I could see it all: the police wheeling him into a van, Pal in an orange jumpsuit, me talking to him on a phone behind a thick window. I couldn’t not cry.
The man was on the phone, the woman was crouching next to us, I was sobbing, and Pal loosened his grip. Maybe he didn’t have the strength to hold me; maybe he got one of his bad cramps; maybe he knew it was inevitable.
The lady took me by the arm and led me into the living room. My pajama pants were soaked through with Pal’s pee.
“We’ll go into the backyard and set up some milk jugs,” I say to Evander.
He softens and maybe even brightens up, but this doesn’t last.
“Uh oh. Uh oh. Uh. Oh,” yells Pal.
He has had an accident.
I leave the gun with Evander and go to check on Pal.
He has diarrhea. It’s not a bunch, but I don’t want him to get a rash because little rashes turn into big rashes and big rashes bust open and bleed and get this sticky white stuff. Then Pal can’t sit in his chair, which means he can’t get around the house, which means I have to stay home from school. I like school, and Pal wants me to go to school.
So I need to change Pal.
I call back to Evander to help me.
He walks into the room, rifle in hand like he needs to protect me.
“Put the gun down,” I say. “You just have to get Pal’s pants at the ankles and pull so I can hold Pal.”
I usually have to do it myself, so having Evander here is a big help. Only Evander doesn’t want to help. “It’s not a big deal,” I tell him. “You won’t get any of it on you.” He looks like he’s going to cry, so I tell him it’s okay.
Pal has a mess all over him. It’s in his hair, which is always hard to get out. I’ll have to give him a bath, but for now I can use wet wipes. “Can you at least get the wet wipes from the bathroom,” I tell Evander, and he does.
“Scared, “says Pal.
“Why are you scared?” I ask.
“Boy,” says Pal.
“You don’t need to be scared of him,” I tell him. “You need to be scared of tomato soup, Pal.”
“Boy scared,” says Pal.
He’s worried about Evander.
“Selena,” the lady asked, “who is that man?”
“Who are you?” I sassed back to her.
“My name is Linda Sears; I’m with the cabinet for families and children. Mr. Byers and I are here to help you. Now, who did you say that man was? He can’t be your father.”
My father had died when I was two or three, and the lady must have known that. I didn’t know whether to say he was my step-dad, or my mom’s boyfriend, or what, so I said, “That’s Pal. We take care of each other.”
I didn’t know to say that Pal had been my dad’s best friend, and when Dad died, Pal and my mom became like my mom and my dad. I didn’t want to tell her that the year before, they rode home from a bar on Mom’s motorcycle, and they crashed. Mom broke her arm, but Pal hit his head. Maybe Mom had hit her head, too, because she got really angry all the time. She would call Pal a retard, and tell him that she was just going to take off. Then she did. She left Pal; and she left me. Pal and I had to take care of each other, because we were all we had.
“Kid,” Pal called from the bedroom. “Kid.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked the lady.
“Oh, Selena,” she said, looking at me like I was some puppy.
That’s when the police showed up.
Evander comes back with Clorox wipes, and I have to go get the wet wipes myself.
“Alright, little baby, it’s time for your bath,” I say to Pal.
It’s a joke we have, and he usually laughs, but today he says, “No.”
It’s because Evander is here, and Pal is embarrassed.
Pal’s pants go by the backdoor. I’ll have to use the hose on them first. I just dump the diaper out there, too. Evander looks more like he’s watching a scary movie than watching someone get changed. He has a little brother, so I know he’s seen this before. I have to hold Pal’s penis and testicles to get underneath, which is actually a lot easier to clean than the harrier parts. The clean up isn’t as bad as I expected. I only use six wipes. It’s not perfect, but he’s clean enough. Only because we have company, I forgot to get the new diaper, so I have to leave Pal and Evander together. “I have to get a diaper,” I tell Evander. “You’ll be okay.” You have to do that with kids sometimes—remind them that they’re fine.
“Everything’s going to be fine,” the lady said as she opened the door for the policemen. “They’re in the back room,” she told them.
“Don’t hurt him,” I told the men.
“Where is your mother?” the lady asked again. “Is she at work?”
“She doesn’t live here,” I said. “It’s just me and Pal.”
“And Pal—” but the yelling from the bedroom stopped her.
I could hear men saying things like, “Sir, we just need to—,” and “If you’ll just calm down.” Pal was yelling at them, but it didn’t sound like Pal.
One of the policemen came in and told the lady, “We are going to move him, so you may want to—” he made a sweeping gesture with his hand to tell her she needed to get rid of me.
“Let’s go for a walk, Selena,” she said, leading me toward the kitchen.
“The diapers are in the bathroom,” I said to the policeman. It was the only thing I had any control over, and I didn’t want Pal to go to jail naked.
I bring back his diaper and some powder. There’s only one left, so we’ll have to go to the store later. I was going to get pants, but I know that as soon as Evander leaves, it’s bath time for Pal. I don’t even ask Evander for help rolling Pal off the towel. Pal’s pretty good at doing that himself anyway. The towel goes out with the pants and old diaper. I am an expert at diapering. Lift, slide, strap, stick, strap, stick, done. Pal drags himself over to the couch. As he gets close to Evander, Evander backs into the coffee table and about breaks his leg. I don’t say anything or help him back up. Pal can get himself up on the couch, but I help him anyway. I wish that Evander hadn’t come over. I like him, still, but he makes me feel bad about Pal. And Pal doesn’t like it when I feel bad about him.
Pal was yelling for me—“Kid, Kid, Kid”—but the lady was pushing me out the back door, telling me it would be okay. She kept calling me “Selena,” which no one ever called me except teachers on the first day of school.
There was a crashing sound in the house, and I imagined the shelves of Pal’s model cars smashed and destroyed on the floor. “Please, sir,” I heard a man say.
I wanted to run to Pal, to grab anything I could from the kitchen and fight the men off. I would hit them and Pal would kick them when they were down. We’d escape and start over somewhere else.
Living with Pal had taught me not to be scared. Before the accident, Pal would tell me, “No, fear, Kid.” He even had a shirt that said that. Afterwards, when Pal was in his chair and he couldn’t do things anymore, Mom had gotten really angry. She’d yell at Pal, and she’d yell at me, and she’d stay out all night.
When she hadn’t come home for a week, and I was crying and confused, Pal had wheeled himself over to the couch where I was sleeping, and tried to tell me, “No Fear.” It had sounded like, “Near.” We hadn’t done all of our talking practice yet.
Hearing Pal calling out and hearing the crash, I was right back to being eight. I closed my eyes and repeated “Near” over and over until the lady said, “Does anyone live here except you and that man?”
“I have to go,” Evander says. “I have to go.”
“Go,” says Pal, nodding his head. “Go home. Home. Go.”
Evander stands there like he’s waiting for me to open the door for him. “Go then,” I say, and I feel terrible because I sound like Mom. I soften and tell him,” I’ll see you at school.”
“Boy,” says Pal.
“I know, Pal,” I tell him. “But he’s the only person at school who even talks to me. Everyone else—“
“I talk,” he says.
I could tell him that he doesn’t know what it’s like to be a twelve-year-old girl, to feel so much older than everyone in your class and want so badly to be just like them. I could tell him I just want to be normal. That Evander is the closest to normal that I could find. But I don’t know what it’s like to have been Pal and then to lose everything. I don’t know what it’s like to be a full-grown man and have to rely on a little girl to wipe his butt. “You’re a good talker, Pal,” I assure him.
“No,” I told her. “It’s just us.”
I must have sounded like that was the worst thing in the world, for it to be just us, because she said, “We’ll we’re going to find you a safe place to stay, Selena.”
There were no sounds from inside the house except that giant clock that always buzzed in the kitchen. A bird landed on the shed behind the lady. A blue jay. “Shoot him,” Pal would say when the jay would land close to the house. He was a pretty bird, but he always scared off the little finches. A car pulled out of our driveway. A jet way up in the sky flying somewhere better than here. Dried grass under the lady’s shoes. My stomach.
“You need a bath,” I say.
“Bubbles,” says Pal.
“No bubbles,” I tell him. “They give you a rash. And no tomato soup.”
“Poop soup,” says Pal.
I fill up the tub just half way with warm water. I’ll wait until I’ve got him into the tub to add the hot water and make it cozy for him. I add just a few drops of shampoo to make a bubble bath.
The lady led me around the house to the driveway where her car was parked. The man was standing by the car talking on his phone.
“Where’s Pal,” I asked.
“Mr. Jeffreys? The police—“ the man began, but the lady interrupted him.
“They’re taking him someone safe so he can get the care he needs.”
“Like a hospital?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“There’s foods he can’t eat, and he gets rashes, and sometimes he chokes, and he—”
The lady kneeled down in front of me and took both my hands. “We’re going to make sure Pal gets the best care,” she said. “The best.”
“You like Orange Julius?” asked the man.
Pal comes with me to the store to get diapers. He has run out, and it’s never good when we run out. We are going down Spring Street. The sidewalks are brand new and really straight, so I sit in Pal’s lap and let him work the chair. He works it at home fine, but if he’s going fast or at the store, it’s better if I do it so he doesn’t run into things. Anyway, Spring Street is almost all flat, so I know we weren’t going to be rocket fast. We are beboppin down the sidewalks—that’s something Pal used to say—and Pal is keeping the chair straight. Only we are getting really close to the curve where the street branches. I tell Pal to slow down, but he just keeps going. He is laughing, so I start laughing. I am laughing but I am also scared because I don’t want to have to get Pal back into his chair in someone’s front yard, and I really don’t want to end up in the street.
Pal puts his arms up in the air like he is flying, only his arms don’t really straighten out. I tell him all the time he looks like an orangutan. He just makes “woo hoo hoo” noises.
Then he yells something that sounds like “flying orangutan,” and he woo hoo hoos. And just before we are about to either crash into the street or have to somehow turn onto Spring Court, Pal grabs the wheels of the chair and stops us.
For a second, we are both quiet. I am holding onto Pal’s pants legs. In case we fly out, I don’t want to be separated from him. I look back at him, and his eyes are ginormous. Then we just both crack up together. There we are on the street corner, just down from the Kroger, hootin and hollerin as all the cars in the world drive past. “That’s the stuff,” Pal would have said. Maybe he tries to, only it sounds like, “Tough.”
“Yeah,” I told him. “We’re tough.”
“No fear,” he calls.
“You said it, Pal,” I say.
Then he pees all over everything.