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Authors: David Ciferri

Here by Mistake

Here by Mistake

The Secret of the Niche

David Ciferri

Copyright © 2013 by David Ciferri

Langdon Street Press

322 1
st
Avenue North, Fifth Floor

Minneapolis, MN 55401

612.436.3954

www.langdonstreetpress.com

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the written prior permission of the author.

ISBN:
978-1-62652-517-7

Table of Contents

 

 

 

To the young who believe and who search

 

 

 

The Child is father of the Man;

And I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety.

Wordsworth

ONE

School’s Out

It was the first Saturday after school was done, and Brandon Stratham was happy.

He rolled over in bed, opened one eye, and looked at the clock: 8:05 a.m. Sarah and Stephen were coming at nine; he had time. Brandon lay on his back and could feel himself smiling. It was June 25, 2005, and the whole summer stretched ahead of him. Lazing away afternoons at the town pool with Sarah. Practicing sprints at the track with Stephen. Heating up in the sun before ducking into a theatre at the mall for an action flick. Brandon dozed on these happy thoughts, then turned over and checked the clock again: 8:55 a.m.

Five minutes to nine
flashed through his mind. He leaped out of bed.

Brandon was fourteen. Tall for his age and thin, with sandy-blond hair, he had just finished freshman year at Rollings High School with medals for track and baseball. Brandon was a good student, too, but he liked being known as a good athlete. He also liked to be called “B,” and was by everyone except his parents and teachers.

Brandon pulled on his clothes—he had set out jeans, his Eminem T-shirt, and a tan collared shirt the night before—and ran downstairs to the kitchen. His parents would be gone all day visiting his older sister in Albany, so no one would tell him to slow down and stop tearing up the house—not that he planned on being in the house. Today was the day Brandon had been looking forward to for years. It was going to be the best day of his life. He was going on nothing less than a treasure hunt! And there was no one around to tell him not to. He poured Cheerios into a bowl and splashed milk on them. He’d just finished crunching down his breakfast when the doorbell rang.

“B? Anybody home?” a voice called through the front door screen.

“Hey, Sarah. Be there in a sec,” Brandon called back.

Sarah was Sarah Portman, also fourteen. She was punctual as usual.

Brandon swung the screen door open and joined her on the porch.

Sarah looked in the house behind him. “Stephen’s not here?”

“Not yet.”

Stephen Walker, twelve years old, was Brandon’s newest friend; Brandon and Sarah had met him in April at school. He was one of only half a dozen African-American kids at Rollings High and was the first black friend Brandon had ever had. He lived three streets away and had not yet been to his new friend’s house.

Brandon and Sarah sat on plastic chairs on the broad, wraparound porch, waiting for Stephen. The day was already warm and hazy, although it wasn’t yet nine thirty. The smell of freshly cut grass from the house across the street hung in the air.

Brandon noticed the green forsythia peeking above the porch rail and smiled to himself. Every spring since he could remember he had gone into his yard and collected a bunch of forsythias for his mother. And every spring his mother had fussed over the flowers and hugged him tightly. “Thank you, Brandon. I’ll put them in water right now. How
sweet
of you.” Brandon loved the ritual, but he didn’t let on. That spring he had presented his yellow bouquet and gotten the same hug—at fourteen. “Okay, Mom,” he had replied, a little stiffly. But he knew he would gather the forsythias next spring, too.

Brandon sighed as his father came to mind. Forsythias didn’t impress him. Nothing did. Brandon’s winning year in track and baseball had produced barely a grunt of recognition from his father. His mother had come to every meet and every game; his father had managed one of each, probably because his mother dragged him. But he always had time for golf.
Golf, what a stupid game
. And the Titleist golf balls he had given his dad for Christmas had gotten the same grunt as his track and baseball victories. If one of his dad’s golfing buddies had given him the golf balls he’d have loved them.
But I gave them to him, so he doesn't like them.

Brandon pressed his arms to his stomach. Thinking about his dad always made him feel like his insides were twisted up. He tried to shake off the feeling and return his thoughts to Stephen. “He’ll have the backpack.”

“He won’t,” Sarah said. “Why would he?”

“Because he’s not dressed without it. A Dr. Pepper says he’ll have it.”

“Okay.” Sarah laughed. She and Brandon had been betting each other Dr. Peppers since they were eight years old. Now it was such a tradition that neither of them would drink anything else. They had even gotten Stephen into the habit.

Just then Stephen strode into view three houses up the hill. He was wearing his usual white collared shirt and, since he didn’t like jeans, gray Dockers, and was walking bent to the left. Then he shifted his weight and his red backpack showed itself. Brandon held out his palm and Sarah slapped it. They got up and leaned over the porch rail.

Stephen saw them and waved. He trotted down the hill and started across the grass. As he was passing a rusted black mailbox, a shout came from the house next to Brandon’s. He turned around. The name on the mailbox said Reginald Jones. A NO TRESPASSING sign was nailed to the post beneath it.

“That’s right,” came another shout. “The sign says Reginald Jones, and that’s me.”

“Oh, no,” Brandon moaned. “Jonesy’s going off again.”

“Stay the hell off my place. Can’t you read?” Reginald roared, bursting out his door and starting down his steps. “How many times do I have to say it? I want you damn school rejects to keep off my place!” He reached his driveway and started toward Stephen.

Stephen stood as if frozen. Brandon and Sarah dashed to the edge of the Jones property and waved him forward. He ran to them.

Reginald was not finished. A huge man—“Four hundred pounds if he’s an ounce,” Brandon had overheard his mother say—he waddled up to Stephen, Brandon, and Sarah and waved a fat finger at them. “Stay the hell off! I can’t make it any simpler, can I?” His face and chins were purple, and the great stomach hanging over his belt quivered as he spoke.

“Relax, Jonesy,” Brandon sneered. “Stephen’s never been here before. He wouldn’t have walked on your lousy grass if he knew it was yours.”

“The name’s Mr. Jones,” Reginald roared. He then matched his volume to Brandon’s but still waved his finger. “And you know what I mean, Brandon Stratham. You’re a reject too. You and your pals don’t respect anything. Your folks did a rotten job raising you, and you show it every day.”

Brandon stepped forward, yanking his arm away from Sarah. A new name for his neighbor popped into his head out of nowhere, and he blurted it out. “Tell that to my parents if you have the guts, Blubberchops. See what they tell you back.”

Reginald flinched. He looked distractedly about him and made no reply.

Brandon turned to Sarah with an expression that asked, “What’s with him?”

Then Reginald found his voice. “Just remember to stay the hell off my place,” he said absently. He paused for a moment, then climbed the steps and went in his house.

Brandon, Sarah, and Stephen retreated to Brandon’s porch. They took seats around a plastic table in the plastic chairs.

“Sorry, Stephen,” Brandon said. “I should’ve warned you to come all the way to my driveway and walk up. Jonesy goes off when anyone steps on his lawn.”

“I knew he was nasty,” Sarah said, “but I never heard him yell like that. And over nothing.”

Stephen straightened his black horn-rimmed glasses. “He’s always like that?”

“Always, and always was,” Brandon said. “He hates kids, and pretty much everyone else. He’s always alone, got no wife. My mom says he took care of his mother ’til she died. That’s before I was born. I never saw him do anything for anybody. Always screaming about trespassing, like anybody wants to bother him. My dad says just stay away from him, and call him Mr. Jones if he talks—screams—at me. I don’t. I call him Jonesy because he hates it.”

“What you said sure slowed him down,” Sarah said.

“Good. Blubberchops—I never called him that before— I never even heard the word before—but it sure fits. I bring friends over, and he starts screaming.” He glared at his neighbor’s house. “It’s not over.”

Sarah put her hand on his arm. “B, let it go.”

“No,” Brandon said, craning his neck for a better view. “His door’s not shut; it’s just the screen door. I’ll go up there and yell, ‘Blubberchops’ through the screen and be back before he can do anything.”

“No, B,” Stephen said. “Forget it. Like Sarah says, it’s done, and we shouldn’t keep it going.”

“It’s
been
going. It’s
always
been going. When I was five years old I was playing tag with my cousin over there.” Brandon pointed to the edge of his property. “I didn’t step in his yard, but when I got close he pounded over and yelled at me to get the hell away.” Brandon blushed. “He . . . scared me and I cried, and I ran inside to my mom. Then when I was ten I was practicing passes with my cousin. The football landed two feet on his grass, and I saw him going for it. I ran and got it first, and he tried to kick me. He scared me then, too, and he saw it and gave me a really nasty smile, because he was glad.” Brandon’s face was hot and he wiped it with his palms. “And that’s just two things. There were lots of others. I’m going up those steps, and I’m going
now
.”

Brandon pushed his chair back and hopped off the porch. He walked resolutely over to the Jones house, watching the door and windows to make sure his neighbor wasn’t looking out. He crept up the wooden steps, which creaked and swayed under his weight.
How in the world can these steps hold Jonesy?
He arrived at the landing and peered through the screen door.

It was the first time Brandon had seen inside the Jones house. He saw a living room with a rug so threadbare he couldn’t tell the color and a few beat-up sticks of furniture. In the corner was a brown leather chair with nail-head trim, its upholstery blistered and torn. Through an archway in the back wall he saw into the kitchen—and his jaw dropped. At the kitchen table, facing away from him, sat Jonesy, crying. He’d never seen Jonesy cry, or do much of anything other than yell. And he’d never seen any adult cry like this, even when somebody died. Jonesy’s arms were folded on the table and his head was in them. His huge shoulders were moving up and down and his wails were filling the house. Brandon watched for a couple of minutes, taking in the battered, dingy home and the unhappy man who seemed so much a part of it. Then he turned and walked down the steps.

Brandon rejoined his friends on the porch and told them what he had seen. Sarah pressed her fingers to her cheeks as he spoke. She agreed with Stephen that there was more to Jonesy than any of them knew.

Brandon had calmed down enough to see they were right. “He’s crying because I called him Blubberchops,” he murmured. “I’ve called him worse and he’s called me worse, but he’s crying now.” He ran his hands through his hair, leaving it in a wild shape. He frowned at Sarah. “I felt really bad for him up there, and . . . I still do. I didn’t think I could.”

Sarah rose from her chair and smoothed Brandon’s hair into place. She gave him a soft kiss on the cheek. “Well,” she said, resuming her seat, “what’s this about your aunt’s basement?”

“Yes,” Stephen said, “you said ‘basement’ on the phone, but I still don’t know what you were talking about.”

Brandon brightened at the change of subject. “You say ‘basement’ like it’s a cleaning job I have to do. I’m not just talking about a hole in the ground with bugs and mice. I’m talking about a treasure cave in the coolest house in town. Treasure like you never saw. Like I never saw. Like
nobody
ever saw.”

“The coolest house in town?” Stephen asked.

“My aunt—great-aunt, really—lived in that big house on Cherry Boulevard, the one with the narrow windows that looks like a castle,” Brandon said.

“I know the one you mean,” Stephen said. “She lived in that place alone?”

“With just the people she needed to take care of her. Aunt Faye was in a wheelchair for a long time, and then she was in bed. She had a nurse and others to help her. We went to visit her, but she didn’t know us after a while. When she died last winter she was ninety-two.”

“I’m sorry,” Stephen said.

“Yeah, she was nice. My mom says she gave loads of money to every charity there is. And I always saw that she was good to everybody.” Brandon started to say more but hesitated.

“What?” Sarah asked.

“I . . . always wanted to know my aunt better. She came from so long ago. I always wanted to know what she did as a kid, what her school was like, what she did for fun. She didn’t have TV or computers or videos. I want to know what she did have, her stuff, and what she did with it, when she was young and when she grew up. The way things were for her. The way things used to be.”

“Her world,” Stephen said.

“Yeah.”

“And you think it’s in her basement.” Sarah smiled.

“Yeah,” Brandon said. “And the treasure’s a big part of it. My mom says Aunt Faye lived in New Orleans fifty years ago, and her house there was even bigger than the one here. She says it was full of treasure that was old even then. When her husband died, Aunt Faye moved to Rollings to be near her sister—my mom’s mom. My mom says she traded down: New Orleans for Upstate New York. Anyway, all the treasure from New Orleans wouldn’t fit in the house on Cherry Boulevard. So Aunt Faye just stuck it in her basement. It’s all down there.”

“You keep saying ‘treasure,’” Stephen said. “What are you talking about?”

“Everything! Books, pictures, a stamp collection my great-uncle had, and coins, too. Look at these.” Brandon reached into his pocket and withdrew two vinyl squares. One held a large silver coin and the other a smaller gold one. “Aunt Faye gave me these when I turned ten. She got them from her basement.” Sarah and Stephen examined the coins. The large one was an 1888 Liberty-head silver dollar with
E PLURIBUS UNUM
on the front and a spread-winged eagle on the back. The smaller one was an 1876 twenty-dollar gold piece with Liberty on the front and a shielded eagle on the back. Its condition was close to mint, and Sarah and Stephen gasped at the sight. “We keep the gold one in the safe in my parents’ bedroom, but my mom lets me take it out for a look sometimes,” Brandon continued. “She says it’ll pay for part of my college.” He put the vinyl squares back in his pocket. “The basement’s full of gold and silver and all kinds of stuff. I heard my dad say it’s worth more than the vault at the Rollings Savings Bank. And it’s got big stuff, too. My great-uncle hunted big game, and his trophies are down there. And he had scientific hobbies, so there’re telescopes and stuff like that. I’ve always wanted to see it, but my mom and dad wouldn’t let me. I don’t think Aunt Faye would’ve cared, but I just couldn’t get down there.”

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