THE SUMMER I DIED

by Ryan C. Thomas

Chapter 4

The movie we watched that night was The Thing, John Carpenter’s classic horror film about a mutating alien that attacks an Arctic research station. With the exception of Big Trouble In Little China, I consider it the last good film Kurt Russell ever made. The original version, The Thing From Another World, directed by Christian Nyby and starring James Arness as the alien, still holds up by many standards, but does not compare to Carpenter’s generous use of effects—but I’m kind of a movie elitist so take that as you will. We’d both seen it a bunch of times, but it was still as good as the first time we saw it.

Tooth asked me the same question he always asked, at the part when one of the research team is sitting in the snow looking nice and normal, with the exception of having an alien arm, and is clearly not human. Circled around him, his friends struggle with whether or not he’s still their friend. “Would you kill me if it was me and you weren’t sure?”

“Yup.”

“Good thing, because you’d be the first one I capture. Make you toss salad in an alien prison.”

We laughed.

Jamie came down once to get something out of the refrigerator and looked at us as if she were trying to shoot liquid shit from her eyes onto our heads. She was dressed in boxer shorts and a wife-beater. Tooth must have popped a rod as she passed by because he shifted around and covered his groin with his shirt like he was embarrassed. It kind of made me uncomfortable, him looking at my sister that way. I couldn’t fault him for being human, I just hoped it wouldn’t come to something unpleasant.

When the movie ended, it was nearly midnight. Tooth got up and said, “I gotta piss. Why don’t you order some pizza or something?” And drifted into the small bathroom that ran off the kitchen. He’d finished all his liquor and let out a grunt as he released the floodgates. He pissed so long I expected to be swimming in it soon.

“Hey, Roger?” he yelled through the closed door. “Got a question for ya. If you’re an American outside the bathroom—fuck, hold on, I just pissed on myself—if you’re an American outside the bathroom, what are you inside the bathroom?”

“European,” I answered, having heard the joke months ago.

“Shit, how’d you know that? You suck.”

Never let it be said that universities are not hubs of information . . . or at least disinformation.

“Are you gonna go home or do you want to crash here?” I asked.

Tooth returned and fell on the couch, lethargic from the chips and nips.

“Where’s the pizza?”

“Pizza? I thought you said anal cavity search. Hang on, I gotta call and cancel your appointment at Jim’s House of Lube.”

“Hey, have you declared a major yet?” he said, blazing a dialogue trail of his own. “You taking those art classes where you draw naked chicks?”

“Not yet. I’m mostly taking business courses.”

“Why are those models always so fat, anyway?”

“Fills up the paper.”

“Hey, don’t knock big girls. They know how to get wild in bed. Ain’t nothing like a monster booty to make your nuts do the mambo.”

“It’s called standards, look it up.”

“Why are you taking business classes? You ain’t gonna be no business man, you know it and I know it.”

“I don’t know. I told my dad I wanted to be an artist and he said I need to take business classes because art isn’t a profitable profession.”

“Obviously he hasn’t seen a life-size rendition of a large naked woman. I’d buy one. Hell, I’d buy two, call ’em Lulu and Buffy, show ’em what it means to be abstract art.”

“You get any more worked up you’re gonna spunk in your shorts.” I laughed.

“Don’t worry, I’ll use the chip bowl. Anyway, it’s not like you want to become one those snooty art dudes that hang out at Java Lava dissecting paintings that are nothing but big blue splotches, going, ‘The existential ramifications of this piece are subordinate at best. The artist refuses to acknowledge spatial dimensions and opts for subconscious palettes instead. Amazing, I love it, I’m going to go screw myself with a wine bottle.’”

That got me rolling. Sometimes Tooth was a funny guy, and the truth was the people at Java Lava sounded a lot like that, which was why we avoided it like it was a chick movie.

“No, probably comics. You know, Spawn, Gen 13, that stuff.”

“Yeah, I remember you used to draw those comics of me in school. They were pretty good, especially the ones where I’d bang the female villain after I fought her.”

“I never drew that.”

“I know. Faggot.”

“Why don’t you apply to city college or something? Get out of that hell you call a job. Then you can transfer to the university with me.

“City college my ass.”

“You did graduate, and they do take pretty much anyone.”

“Fuck, they’ll take a retarded hamster with a flatulence problem, so what’s that got to say about me. No way, school can blow me. Barely made it through high school as it was. Probably wouldn’t have even done that without you. Besides, what do you get when you graduate from college? A thirty-thousand-dollar I-O-U note that promises to get you into the most elite social clubs in the world but in fact gets you Jack, Shit, and their cousin Fuckall.”

“I guess.”

“You guess nothing; you know I’m right. Why don’t you drop out and move to California with me?”

“You still talking about that California crap?”

“Hell, yeah, California is where it’s at. Sunny all year round, beaches littered with models in bikinis, weed growing out of the cracks in the pavement. And I’m talking about the good kind of weed, not dandelions. C’mon, it’ll be great. We can rent a place on the beach, get drunk, fuck girls. You still like girls, right?”

“Hey, Tooth?”

“Yeah.”

I gave him what I hoped was a serious look, one that conveyed friendship but wasn’t to be taken as a joke either. “Not my sister, okay.”

“Whoa there, buddy. You didn’t think I meant anything by what I said about Jamie, did you? Christ, she’s still that annoying pipsqueak I used to want to kick outta your room all the time. Coming in and hiding our shit and taking my keys. I screw her I might as well be screwing my own sister.”

“Which you would do if you had one.”

“No, I wouldn’t.”

“Yes, you would.”

“Would there be beer involved?”

“More than likely,” I said.

“Then you’re probably right.”

“Listen, Tooth—”

“No, seriously, about Jamie, I’m kidding. Relax, I didn’t know it was gonna ruffle your panties.”

Tooth had definitely meant what he said about Jamie, I’d known him long enough to know his thought process. But we were square now, he knew the deal, and him acting like this was his way of shrugging the whole thing off. As for me, after hearing myself worry about Jamie, I contemplated an exorcism.

Tooth spread out on the couch and kicked me with his feet, answering my earlier question about him staying. I moved to the recliner as he put his Red Sox hat over his eyes. He never took that damn thing off, even when he slept. He’d had it since he was twelve, when his mom gave it to him as a birthday gift. Came in the mail with a card that said “Happy Birthday” and nothing else.

He said, “You know what, Roger?”

“You’re gay?”

“No, I’m being serious. Maybe I’m just drunk, maybe I’m lonely, or maybe I’m in a nostalgic mood, but I miss you. When you’re not here, I don’t do shit but get drunk with Tony and Derek from the warehouse, but they’re married so it ain’t much fun. And video games get real old when you play by yourself. So, yeah, I’m glad you’re back for a bit. It’s gonna be a good summer.”

I’ve got to tell you, that kind of moved me. He was drunk, sure, but it sounded genuine and it made me feel, I don’t know, wanted. As I watched him fall asleep on the couch, I kind of felt bad for him. His life had been screwed up for so long, and yet he’d pulled through okay. A drunk, religious zealot of a father, a mother who barely kept in touch, and enough alcohol to sterilize a Scottish commode. It was amazing he wasn’t lying in the same heap of discarded garbage where they’d found Mark Trieger, bloated and blue from a leap off the edge of life.

“A good summer,” he repeated.

Before I could respond, he was snoring.

I went upstairs and plopped down in my parents’ bed. What is it about lying in your parents’ bed that always makes you feel like you’re intruding? Perhaps because at some age it’s made clear to us that we have our own room, and there are no monsters in the closet, and crying isn’t going to change anything so just go back to bed. When I was little I’d jumped in bed with them after having nightmares. It became an epidemic for a while, and my father didn’t really know how to handle it. In typical male fashion he picked fights with my mom over it. Of course, I had no one to blame but myself since I would continually sneak downstairs and watch whatever monster movie was on the late show. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in retrospect, kind of like an acrophobe choosing to live in the penthouse apartment.

I remember one time I overheard my dad arguing with my mom about it in the kitchen. I was sitting on the nearby stairs unbeknownst to them.

“I don’t want him watching that shit anymore. He sleeps with his light on all night,” my dad said.

“He thinks there are monsters in his room.”

“I don’t care. It’s got to stop.”

“It’s normal for boys to start having bad dreams at his age. Their imagination is running wild.”

“Bullshit! It’s those movies, and if it doesn’t stop soon I’m taking him to a shrink.”

A moment later, my father rounded the corner and found me sitting there, and he knew I’d been listening. It was awkward. That was the first time I realized what shame felt like. It felt like having your insides cut up and your heart squeezed till it didn’t want to beat anymore. My father just gave me this funny look, a look I would later recognize whenever I had a birthday or on Christmas. It was a mixture of love and pity.

Crying, I said, “I’m sorry, Dad. I try not to be afraid, but I get scared.”

He didn’t say anything, just looked at his feet for a minute and then went upstairs without a word.

The following night, as I went up to bed, Jamie crying in her room, my dad passed me on the stairs. He put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Hey, sport, you going to bed?

“Yes.”

“Sit down here for a second, I want to talk to you. You know, you’re getting kind of old now. What are you, eight?”

“And a half.”

“Geez, you’re gonna be eye-level with me in no time. But listen, this, um, this whole deal with sleeping with the lights on and coming into our room—”

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean—”

“No, listen” —he put his arm around me— “I’m not mad. I mean, I think it’s time we formulate a plan. We’ve got to get rid of these monsters once and for all. Don’t you agree?”

“How?”

“Well, did you know that werewolves, and mummies, and even snakemen, they all have weaknesses that can kill them quick as you can say, ‘Back to the grave with ye!’”

“Yeah, but you need silver bullets and garlic and stuff.”

“Not if you know all the other ways to kill them, the secret ways. Did you know if you keep a rose petal under your pillow it’ll keep vampires away?”

“Really?” I asked, stunned that my father had this knowledge. “How do you know?”

“Oh, I read it somewhere.”

“Where?”

“You’ll find out soon enough. But just you remember, us humans are stronger than the monsters, and once a person knows how to defeat them, knows these tricks, they can’t ever hurt us again, even if we’re sleeping. Do you want to learn these secrets?”

I nodded.

“Think you can handle it? I mean, eight-and-a-half is old and all, but maybe we should wait until—”

“No, no, I want to know.”

“Okay, I can tell you’ve got the fight in you. Runs in our family that fight, that will to survive. Comes from my Grandma. I wish she were still around to see you. She’d recognize that fight in you, too.”

“I’ve got it, Dad, I know it. Teach me the secrets.”

“Okay, okay, you go on up and get some shut-eye. Everything you need to know is up there waiting for you. I love you.”

Somewhat puzzled, I told my dad I loved him and went on up. When I got to my room I found a comic book lying on my bed. Monster Slayer, number one.