A Visit Home
The neighbor kid was evil.
A simple factóhe was evil. Like that kid in the recent movie Chip had talked him into going to last year. Even this kidís dog was evil. That was the only conclusion that made sense and Captain Lee Crane, USN Reserve, on leave for a few peaceful days before shipping back to Santa Barbara came to that conclusion without much deliberation.
He lay in his bed in the waning darkness of the early morning of July 3rd, hearing the ear piercing cadence of the mutt in the next yard, smelling the tang of recently exploded firecrackers and wondered just what he should do next. Call the cops? Kill the dog? Find a sympathetic priest to do an exorcism? Contact ONI? Simply pack and go back home? Or show up on Chipís doorstep for the remainder of his leave?
"I seem to remember someone putting a crab into a cousinís bed early one morning," his mother had said dryly late last night while they had talked over a cup of coffee. "I remember that cousin called you evil."
Lee had grinned, remembering with his mom those early days of their lives along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Well, maybe it was the age. Still, this kid next door seemed particularly malevolent. Lee figured he couldnít have been that bad. Surely he hadnít been.
"And I think it was also your cousin Michele who got the ice water dumped on her in the shower one morning."
Lee blushed in remembrance. He was eight, thinking it was Micheleís brother in the shower. To his horror, it was his older cousin and she exploded out of the stall like a rocket in all her pubescent splendor. To her credit, she had snatched a towel from the rack as she leaped out of the stall, but to this day, Lee felt it wasnít for modestyís sake, but simple homicidal fury. It didnít help his situation that she had, for some strange reason, been reading a book while showering, either. Moby Dick. Even now it didnít provide ammunition. They both avoided mentioning the incident.
He had made a half-hearted defense, but his mother was ready for him. "And I remember your friend, Chip telling me about the time you short-sheeted him at the academy and then there was the shaving cream balloonÖ."
"All right, Mom. You made your point," he finally had conceded. This morning, however, he was ready to defend his previous assessment of the kid next door. The boy was a devil child, pure and simple.
With a sigh, Lee sat up and stretched. The house itself was very quiet. That told him his mother had gone into the office very early to polish off her last bit of work so she could spend the rest of the day with him. For someone who was semi-retired, she was a very busy person. However, Allison Crane was happiest when she was busy and so that made Lee happy, too. There was not a lazy bone in his motherís body. Working as personal assistant to a semi-retired trial attorney was to her advantage. It allowed them more time during his all too infrequent leaves and allowed her time to herself, too.
The gunpowder smell dissipated a little more, but the dog continued his yapping serenade. The sharp cadence of the boyís older sister yelling at him to come back inside told Lee there was no sense trying to go back to sleep. Maybe heíd surprise Mom with a nice breakfast/brunch for when she came back home. She had planned on them going to the zoo later and to dinner at an Irish restaurant downtown, so something quiet at home this morning would please her.
There was some noise right outside the window. The dog continued, the sister yelling didnít. Devil child was up to something else, it seemed. What did Mom say his name was? Timothy? Terry? Terror? There was a creak on the back deck as the kid tried to sneak up to the back door. Two could play this one, Lee thought. He slid out of bed and padded down the hall. Nature was calling, but not desperately, so he continued down the hallway and toward the door to the garage. Lee knew the layout of the house by heart, knew what was outside, so he didnít even bother to put on any shoes when he got to the side door.
Going through the empty garage, Lee gently unlocked and opened the door that led to the backyard. The light was increasing rapidly, but it was still shadowy enough in the back yard to slip under the deck without being seen. The dog was even shriller now that he was outside, but it served the purpose to mask his own advance. Crane could hear the creak of wood that told him the kid was tiptoeing above him. Then Lee heard the sound of a slight movement nearby, next to the house and he froze. Alarm at his folly raced through him. There were still raccoons around these parts. And there were a few other wild animals that adapted somewhat to suburban encroachment, too.
The shadow/noise detached itself from the darkness and wrapped itself around his ankles. Murphy, his motherís cat. The old Persian shivered and then padded off, presumably toward the place where Lee had come out of the house. Crane continued to the edge of the porch, where he very carefully and stealthily peered above the bottom edge of the in-need-of-repair deck.
The kid was close enough to reach out and touch. Grinning, Crane did just that. His hand grabbed the kidís ankle with lightning speed. With a surprised screech, the boy dropped what was in his hands and tried to jerk away, but only succeeded in falling flat on his face. Sizzling firecrackers bounced on the deck and lay stillófor the moment.
In an instant, Crane realized the danger posed to the kid. The string of Ďcrackersí was just too close to him. Lee grabbed the deck railing and vaulted up next to the boy. Within the same movement, he grabbed the end of the string of Black Cats and tossed them away. They exploded just as Lee was releasing them. The heat on his hand was horrific, like he had thrust his fingers directly into a fire. The acrid smoke, harsh glare brought tears to his smarting eyes. His ears rang and Lee could almost taste the gunpowder in his mouth. He stumbled back, cursed and then, as his eyes cleared, he examined his burnt hand. It hurt like hell and he could see why. Blisters were already forming and several fingertips were slightly charred.
Lee blew on them, but knew that it would take more than that to calm the pain. The ringing in his ears was slow to dissipate; still, he could clearly hear the kidís comment.
"Wow, Mom said if I ever used that word, sheíd wash my mouth out with soap." He made a face at the prospect of chewing on a bar of Ivory.
Crane glared at the little monster, a retort ready on his lips, but the boyís big brown eyes looked up at him in absolute sincerity and, yes, innocence. The pain of his burned hand reminded him of just what had precipitated all of this, and yet, it was his own interference that had caused the resultant injury. He had to get some cold water on this, then put on first aide cream and bandage up the worst fingers. With his good hand, Lee tried to open the sliding glass door. It didnít budge and he remembered he had come out of the side garage door. Another curse sounded in his mind, but didnít travel beyond that.
The boy was still standing there, still looking innocently concerned, and the dog was still yapping in the next yard; if anything, at a higher decibel after the explosion. Lee reviewed the boyís last remark in his mind. Suddenly, even with his hand throbbing, and his ears ringing, Lee began grinning. Then he started to chuckle, couldnít contain that and was soon laughing. The boy looked at him as though he was nuts, but he couldnít help it. This kid reminded him of someone. And despite his best intentions, Lee felt himself warming to the little imp. "Yeah, if she had heard me say that, my mom most likely would, too," he finally said after getting control of himself.
"Is Mrs. Crane your mom?" he asked, trying to see the injured hand.
Lee nodded. "Iíve got to get something on this or itís going to hurt even worse then it already does."
The kid stared at his burns and nodded solemnly. "Iím sorry, mister. I was only trying to scare the cat."
"And wake me up?"
He shook his head and responded matter-of-factly. "Naw, just scare the cat."
Ironically, Lee thought, Murphy was probably sitting on the dinette table watching the proceedings from safety by now. "Oh, you succeeded in that, as well as waking me up earlier than I wanted to."
"Oh." A very short silence and then, "Does it hurt much?"
"Hurts like crazy, but itíll be okay with some first aide," Lee assured the kid.
"Iím in Cub Scouts. The den motherís a nurse and we learned about first aide just the other day. I can help," the boy said in a rush.
"Thanks, butÖ." Lee was about to dismiss him and then thought about it. The kid looked very sincere and it was extremely difficult to do anything one-handed. "Sure, you can help. If you promise to leave all firecrackers and pranks outside."
"That was the last string until Dad buys some more on his way home from work today."
"And your parents knew you had these?"
The boy ducked his head, telling Crane all he needed to know. "Mmm, Iíll take that as a Ďnoí then. But at least the cat and I donít have to worry about any more surprises for a while." The boy, head still down, mumbled something that sounded a bit like an apology. "Well, letís get inside and take care of this. Itís not feeling any better standing out here." He led the way around the house, through the garage, through the kitchen and into the master bathroom, where he rummaged around for his motherís first aide supplies.
For all that he was still a bit irritated with him, Lee had to admit that the boy did follow directions very well, doing everything he was asked the first time. Some of the rates he had worked with in his early Navy days could have taken lessons from this kid, he thought grudgingly. When they were finished, he nodded his approval. "I think even Doc would approve of our job."
"Doc?" the kid said, smiling shyly at the obvious compliment.
"The CMO, uh, Chief Medical Officer on my submarine," explained Lee.
The boyís eyes almost bugged out. "Submarine? Your mom said you were in the Navy, but you work on a submarine? A real submarine? A big one? Whatís its name? Do you go under the North Pole? What do you do on the sub?" The questions came like bullets.
"Whoa!" Lee said, holding up his now bandaged hand. It still throbbed and he managed to open the aspirin bottle and shake out a couple of pills, which he simply chewed up and swallowed. "Letís go get something to drink and then I can answer your questions. You like chocolate milk?" All kids loved chocolate milk, he figured, and he had seen a can of chocolate powder in the cupboard last night. Now he realized that it had most likely been for this neighbor child, since he had foresworn the stuff before he had gone to the academy. Coffee had been a necessity after that.
"I love chocolate milk!"
"And whatís your name?"
"Terrance Michael Anderson, the third," he said, almost making the long name one word. "They call me Terry at school."
"Terry it is, then," Lee said as he pulled down a couple of glasses from the cupboard, then the powder and lastly, he opened the fridge and pulled out the half gallon of milk. "Iím Lee." So far, he was doing pretty good one-handed.
"Itís okay to call you that? Mom said itís not polite to call older people by their first name."
Lee winced. Older. Well, with all thatís happened on SeaviewÖ. "Sure, if you promise not to set off anymore firecrackers to scare Murphy."
Terry breathed a sigh of relief.
"I take that as a yes?" Lee asked as he poured the milk into the glasses. "Hate to think what Iíd have to do if you did."
"Oh, yes, sir. I promise. And you wonít tell my mom what happened this morning? Sheíll be really mad when she comes home if you did."
That explained Terry running around in the pre-dawn playing pranks on the neighbors. Or rather the neighborís cat. Lee shook his head. "It was as much my fault as it was yours what happened."
"But if I hadnít brought them over and tried to scare the catÖ."
"Itís over," Lee told him as he handed the glass of milk to Terry. He fixed his own and sat down at the dinette table with the boy. As he had figured, Murphy was parked in a chair by the sliding door, cleaning himself with proper feline decorum. As soon as he was comfortable, Terry began peppering him with questions again. Each answer seemed to bring ten more questions. Occasionally, Lee got in a query of his own.
When Allison Crane pulled into the garage about mid-morning, she sighed in relief. There was the rest of the day, tomorrow and then Friday, Saturday and Sunday to spend with Lee. It had been so long since he had been able to spend more than a couple of days home with her and she had every intention of enjoying each moment. She had worried that Lee might not be able to sleep in, but she knew that he dealt with the same thing on Seaview for different reasons.
So it was with some surprise that she walked into the kitchen and saw Lee and the next-door neighbor boy, Terry, sitting at the dinette table drinking chocolate milk. Chocolate milk? Lee? And with the kid he was equating with Rosemaryís baby last night. "Oh, Lee, I see you have met my next-door neighbor, Terry Anderson. I didnít quite expect this."
"Weíve been swapping stories and jokes," responded Lee with a chuckle.
"Presumably your stories and his jokes and not the other way around," she replied with a slight warning note in her voice. Is that a chocolate milk mustache on his upper lip? It was like seeing into the past. She had a vision of an eight-year-old boy drinking chocolate milk and regaling her with his exploits out on the beach or on the playground.
Lee laughed out loud. "Of course. I wouldnít think of telling Terry one of the Chiefís jokes."
"Chief Sharkeyís jokes are rather inane. I was referring to the admiral or your buddy, Chip."
Then she saw the bandaged hand. She glanced out onto the deck, saw the tiny pieces of paper scattered all around and put two and two together. "What happened to your hand, Lee? Were you two playing with firecrackers?"
Terry gazed at his feet, then he looked up at Lee. They held each otherís gaze for a moment before glancing at her with guilty expressions on their faces. The resemblance of the man to the boy was even more striking. No wonder she had taken to the little scamp so quickly.
Finally Lee admitted, "Afraid so, Mom." He paused a beat and then asked innocently, "Would you like some chocolate milk?"