Daniel sat cross-legged with Lincoln’s head in his lap, back against the fridge, looking out through the kitchen window at the grey skies of the morning. The dog dozed in and out of consciousness, occasionally stirring from sleep to fix him with its thoughtful eyes. He took his time petting the animal’s head, enjoying the softness of the fine fur under his fingers.
“No walk today?” Kate asked, coming down the stairs.
“Not today.” Daniel never stopped looking out the window.
Kate went to the fridge and dug out two brown paper bags: their lunches, prepared by their mother the night before. “You don’t want to forget this.” She extended the bag to Daniel. “You keep forgetting it and taking mine when you’re hungry. I can’t afford the calories.” she patted her stomach, “I’m wasting away, look at me.” Daniel continued to stare out the window and her slight smile died. She placed the bag next to him. “Just please put it in your bag.”
Sighing, Daniel stood up. “Thanks, Kate.” Unzipping his bag, he stowed away the lunch for later.
“You won’t forget what you promised today?” Kate’s smile returned, hopeful, imploring.
“No way, Kate,” said Daniel ruefully, putting his arm around her and squeezing as they left the house. “Never.”
Daniel caught himself looking at the empty desks of Thommy and Dean. He shouldn’t care. Why do I care? He scratched absentmindedly at a scab on his temple. The beating from weeks earlier still left its mark. Feeling a tap on his left shoulder Daniel turned. It was Milton.
“We still on today?” Milton asked.
“Yeah, for sure, man.”
“Nice.” Milton leaned back, balancing on the back two legs of his chair.
“What’s the plan, the usual?”
“What’s the plan everyday, Pinky? I try and take over the world.” Milton winked.
Daniel laughed. “Sounds good, Brain.”
The two boys exited the school together. Classes were boring as usual, but now that Daniel talked and joked with Milton through most of them, time passed quickly. As they approached the maple tree at the exit to the school, Milton started to lag behind. “You forget something?” said Daniel.
“Nope, just figure it’s your choice.” Milton took a pack of cigarettes out from the front pouch of his bag. After tapping it on the back of his hand he pulled one of its long cylinders from the packaging and placed it in his mouth.
“What?” Daniel stopped, confused. “What’s my choice?”
A lighter materialized in Milton’s hands. He lit his smoke and shrugged. “Everything,” he said between puffs of smoke, “just take your time.”
Daniel almost lost his footing as Kate collided with his lower half, hugging him around the waist.
“You ready?” Kate held tightly while looking up at him.
“Ready? Goddammit.” Daniel hated being confused. “Ready for what?”
Kate released him and stepped back. “You promised that today we’d walk together.” Kate’s expression was suspicious. “Daniel… I’ve been asking you for weeks. I asked you this morning. You promised. You forgot?”
“I didn’t forget!” Daniel answered angrily, loathing himself for forgetting. “I just forgot I had to do something today after school, Kate, otherwise I would, for sure.”
Kate looked for a moment like she wanted to hit him, but the frustration passed from her face leaving only a demoralized girl. “I see… well, tomorrow right. We’ll walk together tomorrow then?” She wouldn’t look at him, only the ground.
“Yeah, for sure. You know I will. Today is just a weird day. I totally forgot what I had to do.” He hugged her and kissed her head. He felt nothing: no connection.
“Okay, I’ll find Sandy. I don’t think she’s left yet.” Kate shuffled away leaving Daniel standing by himself. Why couldn’t she just hate me? It’d be so much easier.
“So you’ve got it right?” Urgency crept into Daniel’s voice.
“My good man, when have I ever not? I just wanted to go to a new place today.”
“A new place, why? What’s wrong with the park?”
Milton feigned a hurt expression. “Well pardon me for liking a little ambiance.” In an exaggerated girlish voice he continued, “I swear it’s like you just don’t care about us doing anything special together anymore.”
“Oh fuck off.” Daniel shoved Milton, feeling stupid for appearing needy. “So where’s this new place?”
“All in good time, my man, we aren’t far now.”
Much as he didn’t want to show it, Daniel was disappointed. He loved the park. Milton had introduced him to afternoons spent doing nothing more than wandering within its green borders. Walking on its paths where no one could see him, he felt a rare kind of peace. All he needed to do was step off the set trails and walk for a few feet then suddenly the city and all its constructs were gone: no businesses, schools or any other institution of memory reminding you of your place within, insisting on it.
“You want one?” Milton was lighting another cigarette.
“No, I’m alright. I don’t smoke.”
Milton made a sound. “Picky picky, bit of a double standard you got there.”
“That’s different,” Daniel defended.
“Suit yourself.” Milton took a long drag making overly contented sounds, like a restaurant patron who wanted everyone to know how expensive their dinner was.
“We gonna arrive soon?” Daniel tried to steer the conversation.
“You don’t recognize where we are… I thought you might?” Milton flicked the half smoked cigarette to the street and ground its smoldering ember with the heel of his shoe.
“Oh shit,” said Daniel, seeing the large structure rearing up in front of him. Lost in visions of the park he’d mentally pruned his awareness to a few feet in front of him.
“Yeah, pretty cool eh? I figured for what I got rolled up for us today we ought to head somewhere special. What do you think?”
“Of the church?” Daniel sputtered, “it’s cool, but there’s no way in. I’ve been by here dozens of times. The place is locked down.”
“Oh is it?” Milton gave a crooked smile. “Wait till you see, man. I know a way in and at the top is a view you wouldn’t believe. Come on. Let’s go.” Milton led them down the 7-Eleven’s alley adjacent to the church. Reaching a cross in the alleys they took a right which would led them behind the church.
“I’m telling you, it’s just a fence. I’ve been back here. You don’t think I wanted to climb up that construction work before?” Milton did not seem like he was listening. As they continued on their path his features tightened with intense concentration. “Even if you want to climb it, there’s razor wire at the top. I don’t care how good the view is, I’m not getting my wrists slit over it.”
“Would you shut-up,” Milton hissed. “I’m trying to focus.”
“Yeah sure… sorry.” Daniel quieted, not so much out of respect for his friend’s wishes, but surprise. Since they’d started to hang out Milton may have joked around with him, but never had he been rude.
“I’m looking for something. It was here the other day.” The boys walked next to the fence behind the church and Milton walked with his hand brushing the links. After a few more feet his eyes which had become slits popped open. “Ah yes, found it.” He smiled in satisfaction and gripped the fence.
“Found what?” asked Daniel.
“The door to Narnia. You’re lucky though—I’m not a satyr with pedophilic tendencies.” Daniel’s face told just how far the reference had sailed over his head. “Oh come on.” Milton waited a while longer for Daniel’s revelation. “Nothing—oh forget it, check this out.” Milton pulled a square section of the fence up and outwards. Someone had cut the fence with wire cutters and made an effort to conceal the opening.
Daniel’s eyes widened. “Would you look at that. This has been here for long?”
“Nope, I’ve come by often and it’s never been here. It was just the other day by chance I spotted it. Whoever made it had left it slightly ajar so I could tell it was there. Can’t be much older than a couple days, lucky us eh?” Milton hunched down and started to crawl through the open space, but Daniel grabbed at the back of his shirt.
“Hold on a second, aren’t you a little worried by that? I’ve met one of the weirdos who runs this place. What if they did this on purpose to catch people sneaking onto the grounds?”
Milton flopped over onto his back-side and sat on the other side of the fence. “Am I worried—if a church cut a hole in its fence—to catch teenagers who want to sneak into their non active construction site. No, Daniel, I’m not. That’s ridiculous.”
Daniel was already down on his knees crawling through the hole before Milton could finish. “Just seems suspicious,” he grumbled. Milton had a way of making Daniel feel many times younger than the two years that separated them.
Up and up they climbed, higher and higher, at first easily. The beginning levels of construction which Daniel had observed all those weeks ago with his sister were well established. Two-by-fours of wood laid across interlocked shells of rectangular girders all positioned against the side of the church provided comfortable walkways. Blue tarps shielded them from the wind. Steel ladders fastened at different intervals along each section allowed them to continue ascending. It was after the seventh or eighth that climbing became more difficult. Whatever they were doing to the side of the church, the work crews had only progressed up so far. The sections above the established areas were incomplete. Sometimes only half a level’s floor boards were put in place, and as they progressed further, sometimes one. It did not prevent them from reaching their destination: as high as they could go.
From above Daniel’s head on the ladder came Milton’s whistle. “Oh man, wait until you see this.”
“I’m sure it looks a hell of a lot better than your ass,” said Daniel, shielding his eyes from the falling flakes of particulate that Milton knocked loose from above.
“You love it.” Milton shook his buttocks.
The ladder rocked unsteadily, knocking even more rust flakes and wood dust into Daniel’s eyes. Suddenly it let out a groan and shifted positions, screeching as it scraped along the top bar that connected it to the next section. The boys’ banter abruptly ended in dead silence. After enough time passed to assure them they would not die, the two laughed nervously.
“Maybe I should just climb?” Milton joked.
“Maybe,” Daniel responded through clenched teeth, still hugging the ladder. Much good that it would have done him: if it fell, he’d have fallen with it. Shaken and elated by an energy that comes after a close call, the boys clambered up the last rungs of the ladder. They took a seat with their backs against the church on a single two-by-four that comprised the uppermost level.
“We did it!” Sitting next to Daniel, Milton raised a hand for a high-five. Daniel just looked at it. “You’re right, not that kind of moment.” He let the arm fall to his side. They sat silent and took in the city that stretched out before them.
It had rained earlier and now an unseasonal late day sun heated the air around them, evaporating the moisture. Sitting as high as they were the steam rose up to just below their dangling feet. Skyscrapers and radio towers poked out at various heights from the blanket. Their metal trim still beaded with condensation reflected back the light, glittering like gold-veined mountaintops. Looking out from their vantage point, Daniel mused, almost worth dying for—almost.
Daniel relaxed. He pulled the smoke deep into his lungs, then with another short inhalation deeper still. Holding it there he relished the feeling slowly diffusing throughout his physical extremities and mind. Bringing them to a singular center of focus and sensation. Or maybe feel was the wrong word. He enjoyed more what it stopped him from feeling: guilt, anger, frustration, in all their infinite forms. He blew out the long plume of smoke, thick and heavy. It drifted downwards, joining the swirling vapor below.
“You gonna pass that, you greedy bastard?” Milton made a gesture.
Daniel paused with the joint halfway between himself and Milton’s outstretched hand. “What’s your family like?” he asked. Since becoming friends they’d reached an unspoken consensus on discussing personal matters: they didn’t. It was enough that they liked each other, had common interests. But some compulsion in Daniel asked the question. He did not know why.
Milton sat thinking for a moment before he answered. “What, like brothers and sisters? I don’t have any.”
“Sure, but what about your mom and dad, what’s that like?”
Milton pushed out air, bulging his cheeks. “Typical I guess. They’re separated. I never met my mom. The way I remember my dad talking about her… I think he just didn’t like women. I hate him. He booted me out of the house early enough that I don’t remember much, just how angry he always was. I live in a foster home now.”
“That’s typical?” Daniel rubbed his eyes then patted his arms. The sun was beginning to set.
Finishing another rip on the joint, Milton passed it back. “In this world … I think so.”
“If you were so young, what ended up happening to you?”
“Oh stupid shit, typical again. I got into trouble and sent to a sort of detention center for rebellious children. Pretty brutal place, if I’m being honest.”
“Sounds like Hell.” Daniel was sympathetic.
Milton shook his head vehemently. “Not really, you learn pretty fast what it takes to survive in a place like that.”
Milton pointed at his head. “That’s all, man. That’s all.”
Daniel laughed. “Oh yeah? Well I think you might be the exception, not the rule. Most kids aren’t like that.” He shook his head. “Man, I thought living with my dad was bad. Don’t know how I would handle something like that.”
“And you never will.” Milton’s voice hardened. “Can we talk about something else?” Milton looked at Daniel with an ironic smile. “You trying to depress me? Cuz you’re succeeding. That shit’s fucking depressing.”
“No, course not.” Daniel put up his hands in surrender. “Don’t even know why I asked.”
“Thank you…” Milton gazed out over the city. Minutes passed. “I scored us something special, if you want to see?”
Glad to be clear of the darker subject of family, annoyed he’d even brought it up, Daniel endorsed the distraction. “Yeah sure, what is it?” When Milton pulled from his backpack the increasingly worn pack of cigarettes, Daniel’s enthusiasm disappeared. “Dude, you know I don’t sm-”
Milton put up a hand. “Wait … please.” Popping open the pack he tapped it on his palm until four nondescript round pills bounced out. “Good things to those who wait, my friend.” Pinching one between his thumb and middle finger he raised it up in front of his eye, like a jeweler enjoying the beauty of a diamond.
“What’s it called?” Daniel asked curiously.
“My man, it does not matter so much what it’s called, but what it does. You’re asking the wrong question.”
“So what’s it do then?”
“Any of that depressing shit we just talked about, have one of these babies and it all goes bye-bye.”
Milton stretched out his hand. Daniel put out his own to catch the pill as Milton dropped it. Examining it revealed nothing exceptional. It could have been an aspirin.
“So?” said Milton.
“So what?” returned Daniel.
“You gonna try it or what? They’re free.”
“What’s it called? I want to know what it’s called.”
“Well it’s pretty new so it has a couple names, but the guys at school were saying it treats you like a fine lady. So, everybody just started calling it Lucy.”
“That’s weird.” Daniel’s stomach did a back-flip. He handed it back to a surprised Milton. “I don’t want it.”
Milton looked at Daniel with a flat smile and raised inquiring brows. “Your choice, man, your choice.” Milton threw back his head and popped two.