Life of Riley

He's under the tree again, brooding. He waits there, in the mornings, after his mother drops him off. Sometimes, he goes in when the bell rings. Sometimes, he stays there, staring hollowly at the humanity surging around him, the backpack lying untouched at his feet. It's very romantic. She skips out of Second Period when she spots him through the window, and escapes the building undetected. He's just sitting there. She plops herself down on the grass and makes herself comfortable.

"Morning, John Baum."

He gives her a business-like nod, but she can see the almost-smile in the corners of his mouth when he looks at her.

"So, how are things?" she asks.

He gives her the tiniest shrug, resumes his staring. Her eyes are drawn again to the side of his profile, sharp and manly and tinged with a scar that is only just healing. He was in a car accident, he tells her. With his sister, who although she appeared reasonably fit (and totally creepy) when they saw her at the house, has yet to reappear at school. She wonders if this is the cause of his brooding, if his sister's injuries are that severe that she remains debilitated. She wonders if this is why his mother's such a freak show about him.

She does not ask him. Instead, she tugs on his bag, brings it between her feet and starts snooping. He lets her get as far as pulling out a paper lunch bag before he tugs the backpack away from her. He frowns, but lets her keep the lunch bag. She peeks inside, then shoves it away again. Boring. He brings the same lunch every day, two peanut butter sandwiches, an apple and two chocolate chip cookies, all carefully wrapped in plastic. A sign of love from his mother. She can't believe he still lets her do this.

"You know, we have a cafeteria," she says.

Finally, he speaks. "Uh huh."

"You could buy a lunch."

"We have other things to spend our money on."

She knows at once who the other people involved in the 'we' are, and it stings a little. How is it that in his private moments, he'll slag on his family just as much as she does on hers, but when she digs a little, he's so protective?

"So, how's your sister doing?"

The frown is unmistakable this time. "She's fine."

"How come she doesn't come to school anymore?"

"She has...problems."

"From the car accident?"

She can't read the look in his eyes. "Yeah," he says. "From that."

"You want to talk about it?"

"No."

Then she sees a shadow, and John looks up.

"23 November," his uncle says.

John nods.

"Need you at home."

He picks up his backpack and follows without argument. He leaves the lunch bag. She sighs and roots through it again, finally pocketing the cookies before heading out to Algebra.

She calls him as soon as she gets out of Seventh Period.

"Hey," she says.

There is silence on the other end. And she remembers. "23 November."

"Hi, Riley."

"Yeah. Just called to see how things were. You dashed out of here pretty quick, and..."

"Yeah. We had a sudden...visitor. From out of town."

"Oh, hey, that's cool. Anyone interesting?"

"That's one way of putting it."

"Can I come over?"

"No. I'll meet you."

"Oh, come on. I want to see your sister. Say hi to your mom."

"That would not be a good idea."

He makes everything sound so mysterious. It's fascinating.

"Oh, come on. I asked, you know. I could have just shown up."

He sounds almost frightened when he answers. "That," he says. "Would REALLY not be a good idea."

"Why not? What's the big?" And then it hits her: why he's so mysterious, why his sister is such a freak, why his mom is so weird about people coming over. They are in some sort of witness protection program or something. Fugitives. Spies, maybe. Or witnesses to some horrible crime...

"Okay, okay, let's chill. So, meet me?"

"Yes. Okay."

They arrange a meeting spot. She waits for him. And he comes.

"23 November," she says. She's found them a park bench, spread out some snacks she's stolen from the vending machine at the trailer park. She had stopped there just long enough to drop her stuff and change her outfit. It isn't until he's sat down beside her that she's noticed the sister has come too.

"Oh," she says. "Um, hi."

The sister doesn't answer. John pokes her, hard. She does not flinch, but stares ahead even more vacantly than her brother when he's brooding. He pokes her again, whispers something, and she answers.

"Hi."

She looks at John. "What's she doing here?"

"She came with me."

"Yeah, I see that. Um, why?"

She waits for the explanation. But instead of answering, he turns to her with the soberest of faces. "Look, Riley. I need to talk to you about something."

"Wow. This sounds serious."

"Yeah, it is. I need you to promise me something, Riley."

"Uh, okay..."

"You said something to me on the phone before. About how you could have just come over? I need you to promise me you'll never do that, okay? Never."

"Why?"

"I can't tell you. Just that it would be bad, bad for you, bad for me...I can invite you, if it's...I can invite you. But you have to promise me you'll never just show up, okay?"

She wonders if she was wrong about the spy-witness-victim thing, if maybe something else is going on. She remembers Mr. McClintock giving them some sort of talk in health class, about domestic violence, about how to help your friends, about how to recognize the signs and symptoms...

Frequent absences from school, check. Double-check if you count the creepy sister who isn't even coming anymore. Physical injuries with only the vaguest explanations as to their cause, check. Lack of interest in normal relationships and activities, check. And that mother of his--she can't figure out if he's scared of her or just completely awed by her power. But it clicks for her. Something is going on.

"John," she says. She takes his hand, and the sister takes a step closer, eyeing John protectively. She ignores her and focuses all her attention on her friend. "John, listen. If something is going on at home..."

He flinches away from her. "What? What are you talking about?"

"John, does she hurt you?"

"Who?"

"Your mom. Is that how you got hurt?"

"No! I was in a car accident, I told you. I was..."

"Yeah, you told me. But...look, John, if something's going on, there are places you can go, you know? Like, shelters. Or..."

He gets her drift, and practically hops to his feet. "You're crazy."

"No, I think you are. Or certainly, your mom is."

"No, she's not!"

She's clearly hit a sore spot. She briefly ponders backtracking, then decides to push. "I'm just saying, nobody has to live like that. You're scared."

"Not of her!"

"Then of what? Why can't I just come over? What's going on over there?"

He looks helplessly to his sister, who shakes her head. "We told you. We told you this was a mistake."

"What, me?" she asks. "You told him I'm a mistake?"

"He let you in," the sister says. "He shouldn't have. He has compromised his safety. He has compromised yours."

"Says who?" she demands. "Just what sort of freak show are you guys running over there that you get to decide that for him? You know what? This IS abuse! I should report you."

In a flash, the creepy sister has strong, hard hands wrapped around her neck, and she's struggling. She hears John shouting.

"Hey! Cameron! Down, dog. Down!"

She falls to the ground, breathing heavily. "What...the...hell...is...going...on?"

And another voice answers. "That's what we'd like to know."

It's the mom, and the uncle, and they are standing over her still-crumpled form, staring calmly at John.

"Mom!" he says.

"Is she giving us problems again?" his mom asks, flicking a nod at the sister.

"I don't think so. She was kind of...provoked this time."

"Oh?"

"Riley seems to think you're crazy. Or that you abuse me. Or something. Or both."

"I see."

"She was going to report us. Like, to social workers."

"Ah. Well, that can't happen."

"So that's when Cameron..."

"Got it. Hey, Riley?"

She's still trying to catch her breath, and it takes her a moment to notice that they're talking to her again.

"Um hi. Mom?"

John's mom kneels down, so they are at eye level.

"Don't call me that. Look, I'm going to explain this to you very carefully, so that there can be no misunderstandings, you get me?"

"Yes ma'am."

"I'm not crazy."

She doesn't believe her. But she nods. "Okay."

"And I don't hurt my son."

"Sure. Fine."

The mom rises off her knees. "She doesn't believe me," she tells John.

"Yeah, I get that. What do we do?"

"Oh, now you want my help? After you've put us in jeopardy like this?"

"I wanted a friend!" he says.

"Yeah, you got that. And now? We have TWO landmines in our life. Did you think we didn't have enough to worry about?"

"I wanted a friend," he says again. "And you won't judge me for it."

"John..."

"No. You won't judge me. You'd have done the same. Do I need to remind you, about Charley?"

There's silence for a moment. They seem to have forgotten that she's listening. Then:

"That was a low blow."

"Yeah, so is this one. So, what do we tell her?"

John's mom kneels down again, brushes her cheek in a primal, maternal gesture. "If I told you I was crazy, would that be enough to keep you away?"

She senses she's at a moment here, a critical moment where she can stay as she is, a dopey teen, or where she can finally, gloriously grow a pair. She chooses.

"No," she says.

"Okay, then. Listen. People grow up in all kinds of lives. You get that?"

"Right..."

"And his life, it's bigger than ours. It's outside of anything that you could experience or comprehend no matter how I might explain it. He's had to grow up fast. I had to grow up too. And sometimes, we're still learning it, together."

Her head still feels fuzzy from whatever mojo that other one put on her.

"But..."

"Listen. People grow up in all kinds of lives. People have to choose all kids of things. And sometimes, the choice is between living a normal life or living a life at all."

"So, what you're saying is..."

"What I'm saying, Riley, is that it's not just him I'm talking about. You get me?"

And the adrenaline surges, and she's on her feet again. "You want to kill me!"

"No," she says, almost gently. "Not me. You really want to be her friend, John? Do it now. Explain it to her, in a way that she will understand."

He takes her hand. "Riley. I like you."

"I like you too."

"You should have just promised," he says. "When I asked you to promise, you should have just..."

"Look, John, just tell me. Is she crazy? Really?"

"No. She isn't crazy."

"Does she hurt you?"

"No."

"But...someone else does?"

"They would. If they caught us."

So she was right. It's some kind of witness protection thing after all. "So, you're like, on the run or something?"

"Or something. But it isn't us who are the bad guys."

She nods. "Okay. I believe you."

"So, here are the rules, I guess. Number one, you say the date. Day first, then month."

"Got it."

"Number two, you never come over. I might invite you. But outside of that, you never come over."

"Okay."

"Number three, if anyone ever asks you anything about me..."

"I don't tell them," she says. "I don't know you. I haven't seen you. I don't know where you live."

"Good girl."

"And if they threaten to kill you unless you tell them," the sister says. "Then you should totally die."

"Cameron!"

"No, it's cool," she reassures him. "I get it. It's some kind of witness protection thing. You have to stay alive so you can testify against the drug lords."

"Yes," he says. "That's it. Exactly."

Then he turns to his mother. "I'm sorry."

"Oh, John, I'm sorry too. I know this is hard for you."

"It's hard for you too. Mom, I just...just want to have a normal life sometimes, you know? I mean, even you got to have that, for awhile. Before you...before this all..."

"Shhhh. Come here, baby. Come here."

She watches them cry together, and she wonders how she ever could have thought that either of them would hurt the other. She slips away quietly, leaving them to their catharsis. Nobody notices her leaving. And for a change? This doesn't even offend her.

The end