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Mysterious Skin Blue
1981, 1983, 1987
The summer I was eight years old, five hours disappeared from my life. I can't explain. I remember this: first, sitting on the bench during my Little League team's 7 p.m. game, and second, waking in the crawl space of my house near midnight. Whatever happened during that empty expanse of time remains a blur.
When I came to, I opened my eyes to darkness. I sat with my legs pushed to my chest, my arms wrapped around them, my head sandwiched between my knees. My hands were clasped so tightly they hurt. I unfolded slowly, like a butterfly from its cocoon.
I brushed a sleeve over my glasses, and my eyes adjusted. To my right, I saw diagonal slits of light from a small door. Zillions of dust motes fluttered through the rays. The light stretched ribbons across a cement floor to illuminate my sneaker's rubber toe. The room around me seemed to shrink, cramped with shadows, its ceiling less than three feet tall. A network of rusty pipes lined a paint-spattered wall. Cobwebs clogged their upper corners.
My thoughts clarified. I was sitting in the crawl space of our house, that murky crevice beneath the porch. I wore my Little League uniform and cap, my Rawlings glove on my left hand. My stomach ached. The skin on both wrists was rubbed raw. When I breathed, I felt flakes of dried blood inside my nose.
Noises drifted through the house above me. I recognized the lull of my sister's voice as she sang along to the radio. "Deborah," I yelled. The music's volume lowered. I heard a doorknob twisting; feet clomping down stairs. The crawl space door slid open.
I squinted at the sudden light thatspilled from the adjoining basement. Warm air blew against my skin; with it, the familiar, sobering smell of home. Deborah leaned her head into the square, her hair haloed and silvery. "Nice place to hide, Brian," she joked. Then she grimaced and cupped her hand over her nose. "You're bleeding."
I told her to get our mother. She was still at work, Deborah said. Our father, however, lay sleeping in the upstairs bedroom. "I don't want him," I said. My throat throbbed when I spoke, as if I'd been screaming instead of breathing. Deborah reached farther into the crawl space and gripped my shoulders, shimmying me through the door, pulling me back into the world.
Upstairs, I walked from room to room, switching on lights with my baseball glove's damp leather thumb. The storm outside hammered against the house. I sat on the living room floor with Deborah and watched her lose at solitaire again and again. After she had finished close to twenty games, I heard our mother's car in the driveway as she arrived home from her graveyard shift. Deborah swept the cards under the sofa. She held the door open. A blast of rain rushed in, and my mother followed.
The badges on my mother's uniform glittered under the lights. Her hair dripped rain onto the carpet. I could smell her combination of leather and sweat and smoke, the smell of the prison in Hutchinson where she worked. "Why are you two still awake?" she asked. Her mouth's oval widened. She stared at me as if I wasn't her child, as if some boy with vaguely aberrant features had been deposited on her living room floor. "Brian?"
My mother took great care to clean me. She sprinkled expensive, jasmine-scented bath oil into a tub of hot water and directedmyfeet and legs into it. She scrubbed a soapy sponge over my face, delicately fingering the dried blood from each nostril. At eight, I normally would never have allowed my mother to bathe me, but that night I didn't say no. I didn't say much at all, only giving feeble answers to her questions. Did I get hurt on the baseball field? Maybe, I said. Did one of the other moms whose sons played Little League in Hutchinson drive me home? I think so, I answered.
"I told your father baseball was a stupid idea," she said. She kissed my eyelids shut. I pinched my nose; took a deep breath. She guided my head under the level of sudsy water.
The following evening I told my parents I wanted to quit Little League. My mother directed a told-you-so smile at my father. "It's for the better," she said. "It's obvious he got hit in the head with a baseball or something. Those coaches in Hutchinson don't care if the kids on their teams get hurt. They just need to cash their weekly checks."
But my father marshaled the conversation, demanding a reason. In addition to his accounting job, he volunteered as part-time assistant coach for Little River's high school football and basketball teams. I knew he wanted me to star on the sports fields, but I couldn't fulfill his wish. "I'm the youngest kid on the team," I said, "and I'm the worst. And no one likes me." I expected him to yell, but instead he stared into my eyes until I looked away.
My father strode from the room. He returned dressed in one of his favorite outfits: black coaching shorts and a little river redskins T-shirt, the mascot Indian preparing to toss a bloodstained tomahawk at a victim. "I'm leaving," he said. Hutchinson had recently constructeda new softball complex on the city's west end, and my father planned to drive there alone, "Since no one else in this family seems to care about the ball games anymore."
After he left, my mother stood at the window until his pickup became a black speck. She turned to Deborah and me. "Well, good for him. Now we can make potato soup for dinner." My father hated potato soup. "Why don't you two head up to the roof," my mother said, "and let me get started."
Our house sat on a small hill, designating our roof as the highest vantage point in town. It offered a view of Little River and its surrounding fields, cemetery, and ponds. The roof served as my father's sanctuary. He would escape there after fights with my mother, leaning a ladder against the house and lazing in a chair he had nailed to the space beside the chimney where the roof leveled off. The chair's pink cushions leaked fleecy stuffing, and decorative gold tacks trailed up its wooden arms. The chair was scarred with what appeared to be a century's worth of cat scratches, water stains, and scorched cavities from cigarette burns. I would hear my father above me during his countless insomniac nights, his shoe soles scraping against the shingles. My father's presence on the roof should have been a comfort, a balm against my fear of the dark. But it wasn't. When his rage became too much to handle, my father would swear and stomp his boot, the booming filling my room and paralyzing me. I felt as though he were watching me through wood and nails and plaster, an obstinate god cataloging my every move.
Deborah and I frequented the roof for other reasons. On that night, like most nights that summer, we carried two things there: a pair ofbinoculars and a board game. Our favorite was Clue. We unfolded it on the chair seat and sat cross-legged on the shingles. On the box cover, the six "suspects" relaxed before a ritzy fireplace. Deborah always picked the elegant Miss Scarlet. I alternated between Professor Plum and crotchety Miss Peacock. The candlestick was absent from the group of weapons, so I'd replaced it with a toothpick I'd plucked from the garbage, its surface pocked with my father's teeth marks.
As usual, Deborah clobbered me. She announced her verdict in a voice that echoed over Little River's homes: "Colonel Mustard, in the study, with the wrench."
On the other side of town, the lofty spotlights that circled the ball park flickered on. Little River's adult softball teams--"rinky-dinks" my father called them, and he refused to watch such amateurs--competed there three nights a week. It seemed as though half the population of Kansas belonged to some sort of ball team that summer. Between our turns at Clue, Deborah and I grabbed the binoculars and focused on the field. We watched the players' bodies as they jogged through the green quarter-circle of the outfield. We kept track of the score by zooming in on the electronic scoreboard at the left-field fence.
A cottonwood tree towered beside our house. The wind blew seeds loose from its inferno of branches as we solved our murders. By summer's core, the green pods were splitting, and white cotton tufts butterflied through the air to fall on the roof, the game board, our heads. We knelt beside the chair and waited for our mother to call us to dinner. Dusk swept its inks across the sky, and she finally stuck her head from the kitchen window and hollered, "Potatoes!"
"We get to eat without him," Deborah said. We left the roof, ran into the kitchen, and began to eat, the potato soup our conspiracy. My mother had thickened the soup with crumbled chunks of homemade zwieback, and as I spooned them into my mouth I stared at my father's empty chair. It loomed larger than the other three. I imagined he had swallowed an invisibility pill; we couldn't see him, but we could feel his presence. Mysterious Skin. Copyright ? by Scott Heim. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.