So what do you think of this guy? I found him on iStockPhoto. I LURV him. HAWT. He could totally be Matt…
Okay. Deep breath. Fucking feelings time:
“Run, Forrest, Run!” the boys screamed. “Run, Peter Rabbit! You fucking ‘tard!”
Peter ran. The housing complex was good for that – wide barren strips of concrete between flat-faced buildings, little in the way of décor or visual interest. Which meant no benches to leap over (they’d been removed, identified as centers for drug dealing), and no trees to run around (the tender saplings had quickly been smashed down by kids with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome). But the desolate landscape also meant that there was nowhere to hide. All Peter could do was outrace the free-floating rage behind him, the black cloud that had fixed its eye on him as the perfect, defenseless target for its massive charge of lightning.
He ran through the dark tunnels, their lights shattered or burnt out, in one side of a building and out the other. He ran through the parking lot, where cars with open hoods made “working on the car” an excuse for a bunch of guys to hang around out there – all the better to sell you drugs, my dear. “Run, faggot!” one asshole shouted, and the rest laughed, because he was being chased and he wasn’t standing to fight so of course he was a faggot.
The huge security guard sat on his camp stool, his ass practically consuming it, and watched the hunt go by. If Peter stopped and asked him for help, he’d be safe, sort of – the man would be obligated to heave himself to his feet and go through the motions of protecting him. But that would only make the next cycle of violence worse, you fucking pussy, run to the cops you snitch you bitch and so he ran and ran some more.
He dashed up the steps of his own building two at a time. It was a game, but it wasn’t. If he could win, they’d only mock him from the ground floor, screaming up at his window. If he slowed, or turned to face them, it would be a disaster; worst of all if he tripped and fell to the ground, because that would trigger the most primal reactions in the predators, the wild animals behind him, sending them into an instinctive frenzy of kicking and punching.
He’d mastered a fluid entry motion through the apartment door – holding his key out as he approached, stabbing it straight in the lock, turning it hard to flip the deadbolt, flying inside without breaking stride, pulling the key out as quickly and smoothly as a ninja would pull his blade out of a body, slamming the door behind him with a hand on the bolt, snapping it tight a microsecond after the door shut.
Then he could stop, breathe, bend over, hands on his thighs, but not gasping – his teenage body was in too good a condition for that. Just a few more days, he thought. It was the 28th, and the end of the month was the worst – every family was out of money, waiting for the check on the 1st or the 3rd (disability, welfare, Social Security) or the reloaded food stamp card on the 1st that would restock the shelves with food, or booze, or drugs. Fear and anxiety pooled and puddled everywhere the longer the month stretched out, but these weren’t acceptable emotions, could only be expressed as rage, anger. So chasing faggots became a socially respectable outlet for all those feelings – free entertainment, too.
“Peter,” came his mom’s weak, faint voice from the bedroom.
He dropped his school bag and went in to greet her. “Hey mom.”
“You’re flush. You’ve been running.” Mom’s skin was grey, papery, but her eyes were bright, feverish, the eyes Peter saw in the art books in the library – martyr’s eyes, he thought, full of rapture, ready to burn.
“Yeah,” he said lightly. “It’s nice out. We didn’t have practice today so I ran home.” Which was a lie. The track team did have practice, but Peter had quit the team, because he had to be here, had to take care of Mom.
She closed her eyes, and Peter kicked himself. You should have wiped the sweat off your face first, now she’s all guilting again.
“We’ll get out of here, Peter, I swear, when I’m better.”
He sat on the bed next to her. “I know, Mom. Don’t worry.” He broke into a grin. “I’m getting faster every day.”
She laughed weakly. “My little trooper.”
“I’m gonna get you some soup.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“I know,” he said, meeting her eyes. It was there, between them, the knowledge. We’re probably not going to get out of here, you’re probably going to go to foster care when I die, there’s probably nothing we can do about any of this.
He winced as he reached up to get the soup off the shelf. His shoulders were killing him, never mind his aching back. The landscape job he worked on the weekend was probably the one he was least suited for with his small, wiry frame.
God, he missed the bookstore job. He hadn’t exactly lied about his age to get it when he was fifteen, just let his maturity and intelligence lead Connie to assume he was old enough, and since she was an old hippie and paid under the table, the issue of ID and paperwork had never come up. Peter had spent his days in the quiet little used bookstore running the register, making the deposits, and reading, reading, reading. For the most part, like any other used bookstore that was still in business, most of Connie’s income came from Internet sales. Peter’s real job wasn’t “bookstore clerk” so much as it was web business manager; he was responsible for posting books for sale to Connie’s Amazon seller account, after checking to see what the price point was at other retailers for a copy in the same condition (if they could beat it by just a penny they could make the sale first), filling the orders, answering customer service emails, scheduling package pickups.
But the wages hadn’t been enough after Mom got sick, and Connie had bumped him up a bit, but not enough, never enough. The math around their house became ruthlessly simple: sick + poor + uninsured = dead. Mom had been on a half-ass insurance plan when she was working at MaxVal, and when, unlike the last boyfriend, the cancer got serious about sticking around, she couldn’t work anymore. So she couldn’t keep her insurance unless she COBRA’d and paid the premium herself, but that was going to cost them the hundreds of dollars they didn’t have now. So instead she went on Medicaid and they expected you to use all your savings and live (no, die) on a few hundred dollars a month before they paid any bills.
So Peter had become the breadwinner, and his under-the-table income became the difference between life and death. And when they, too, faced the 28th, or the 25th, or the 21st, with nothing to eat, with more mail arriving with bold red text on the envelope, without the pricy Source Naturals vitamins that seemed to give Mom just a little more energy… And when one of his mom’s better-quality ex-boyfriends offered him a job at $12 an hour under the table, working on his crew, instead of the $8 he was getting at the bookstore…
He was sensitive. Tried not to be. On the landscape crew, in the halls at school, God knows in the Coliseum that was the housing project, sensitive equaled weak. He rode with the crew in the back of Chuck’s truck, neon green shirt making him a nonperson to the people whose houses they serviced. He dragged one heavy bag of grass where the others hauled two over either shoulder.
“You better stay in school, Rabbit,” the crew would needle him. “This is no life for you.” And he’d smile, and take it, and take it. The ribbing, literally, the poke in the ribs from someone who resented him more than a little, making the same amount for half the work, but it was all the work his body could do, what more did they want?
Of course someone on the crew knew someone at the projects, and since everyone had to have a nickname, well, he got stuck with “Rabbit” again here, no escape, was there. And when you were small and weak and shy and your full name was Peter Rabe, well, you were screwed there, right?
At least tomorrow was a field trip. Tomorrow the “disadvantaged” students would be put on a bus to New York City to see a free Broadway show, “The Lion King.” What a word, Peter thought, stirring the off-brand, dollar store soup on the stovetop. “Dis” meant reversal, negation, removal…as if he’d ever had an advantage to be dis’d of.
He jumped when his mom spoke from the doorway. “I have something for you,” she smiled, leaning on the door frame, holding an envelope.
“What…” he was afraid to ask. What could possibly be good news, what could possibly be anything but more bad news, that Mom was trying to put a brave face on? “You should go back to bed, Mom.”
“Fuck that,” she said with a bit of her old vigor, and Peter laughed involuntarily. “Here, this is for you to use tomorrow.”
Peter took the envelope warily, opened it. “Mom, shit, this is forty bucks!” It was a fortune.
“Buy yourself a t-shirt or something at the show tomorrow.”
He hugged her, took her weight, knew the effort it had taken her to get up. “Come on, now, let’s get you comfortable.”
He put the money in his pocket, then, back in the kitchen, pulled it out and put it in a drawer. They would need that money. And besides, Peter knew what would happen if he bought anything tomorrow – the other kids would see it, and destroy it, enraged that he thought he was somehow better than they were, enraged that he had money to spend on something besides survival, had been stupid enough to try and get a souvenir of the one, probably the only, day away from all this he’d get for years.
The worst part of poverty for Peter wasn’t the hunger. Wasn’t the fear. It was the noise. The screaming, screaming, screaming of kids who grew up in homes where people screamed at each other all the time, turned up the TV to cover the screaming from next door, then screamed over that. People who watched reality shows full of people screaming because it was their own lives they were seeing, all the human misery on display just a perfectly normal daily scene to them.
The bus was full of kids who’d never had an indoor voice, didn’t know what the hell that was, had never heard the term. It wasn’t the excited chatter of happy kids, it was the never-ending rage of kids who’d demanded attention and been neglected and had only received a shout and a slap when they caused enough of a commotion, but that was the only way they knew to get a parent’s attention.
Peter sat in the front of the bus next to the chaperone, who was engrossed in some trashy novel. But that was fine, because it meant that kids who threw shit at him might hit her, breaking her concentration on “Love’s Rapturous Flammability” and getting them in trouble. He was able to snatch a moment’s peace, look out the window, watch the landscape go by. Living in Jersey, you’d think that Manhattan would be a part of his life, but how could it be, when the cost of a round trip train ticket would in itself exhaust his disposable income, if any. The island, the city, was as far from him, a half hour’s train ride away, as it would be to someone in the Midwest, a thousand miles or more away.
At least the theater intimidated the kids, the inside of it anyway, dark and majestic and nothing like the tattered $1 second run multiplex they were used to. They giggled nervously and smacked each other but there was something at work here they didn’t understand, that…awed them.
And when the lights went down and the actors came down the aisles, no, the animals came down the aisles, the actors disappearing so completely into the fantastic costumes, the elaborate devices, that Peter’s sense of what was real changed, for good, forever. And it wasn’t like a movie, because the whole thing was around him, it was everywhere, he was in Africa! It was real!
Afterward, he was in shock. “Theater” had meant school plays, revivals of vanilla pabulum that no holy rolling school board member could ever object to. “Theater” had meant old broads beltin’ out tunes from “Gypsy” on TV. “Theater” had never had anything to do with Peter.
From then on, other than work and taking care of mom, little else existed. He brought home piles of books from the library, plays, pictorial encyclopedias on musicals, all the DVDs of their movie versions that the library had on offer. The greatest day of his life so far was the day he discovered inter-library loan, the realization that there wasn’t a single book anywhere about Broadway that he couldn’t read. Even being chased home meant nothing; he was racing home anyway to get back to his books.
The librarians were kind, they loved him more than he’d ever know. They saw the bruises, knew too well how to distinguish child abuse marks from those from peer abuse, the look in the face and eyes that told the difference. He brought books back battered and torn sometimes, and apologized, but they knew it wasn’t his mishandling that had caused it. And he read so much! He was so bright!
“You should join the theater group at Flatland High,” one of them said finally one day, when he was checking out an Ethan Mordden title for the third time.
“I can’t,” he said. “My mom’s sick, she needs my help, I have to work, I don’t have time.”
“Hmm.” She looked at one of the other librarians, who looked back meaningfully.
When the doorbell rang two nights later, Peter naturally took his time answering it. It was almost always Jesus Calling; there weren’t any other visitors, no family around here, no former coworkers coming around anymore after a certain number of awkward bedside visits.
“Peter?” The big woman at the door asked. Man, she was big. Round.
She extended her hand. Powerful, too. “I’m Millie. I’m from the service.”
“Respite care. To help take care of your mother.”
“We don’t have any…”
“I know. It’s taken care of.”
He should have said no, thank you, we don’t need charity, blah blah. But he’d already made the connection, the librarians, the theater group, the opportunity that this sudden access to time, the incredible luxury of free time, this was going to give him that, and it was selfish, so selfish and he took it like a lifeline, cried and thanked her and Millie held him and let him cry, and he knew it was okay because the door was shut and nobody would see and Mom was sleeping and woudn’t hear and Millie would never tell anyone that finally, at long last, he’d broken.