By Jennifer Lai
By the time the fire engines arrived, Tommy was already barreling down the cul-de-sac on his neon green BMX.
At the intersection past his elementary school, he turned left onto an empty, dark road, his path lit only by a sliver of moonlight peeking through the clouds. I’ll go to Mike’s. Say that we were playing Halo all night. Mike would cover for me.
The chilly October air formed goosebumps on his arms as he headed towards his friend’s house. Faint sirens echoed in the distance.
When he arrived, the one-story brick home stood silent. Tommy parked his bike out front, then crept along the side of the dwelling to Mike’s room
He tapped the window. “Mike.” His voice was barely above a whisper. “It’s Tommy. Let me in.”
A few moments later, he was about to knock again when a ferret caught his eye and reminded him of his mother.
“Get that out of my sight!” she’d said yesterday after he brought one home after finding it at school.
“Why can’t I keep it?”
She shook her head and pointed to his baby sister in the crib. “It can hurt Emme. She’s only a baby and can’t defend herself. Don’t you understand? A ferret could kill her!”
“I’ll keep it in my room,” he’d countered. “Please? You never let me have pets.”
His mother held her ground with a resounding, “No.”
Now, he nabbed the weasel and shoved it into his backpack. It hissed and squirmed, trying to bite his fingers, which he snatched away, hitting a metal trash bin in the process.
Lights inside the house next door turned on.
Tommy quickly squatted against the siding, waiting to see a hint of movement through the curtains. When the lights turned off, he stood and tapped the window again. “Mike. Wake up.”
After a couple minutes, he remembered that Mike and his family were at Ocean Shores, somewhere he’d wanted to go for his tenth birthday last month.
He hightailed it to the sidewalk and, once on his bike, raced down the street, trying to think of another plan. A gust of wind rustled the leaves of a tree nearby and sent a faint whiff of smoke under his nose. Everything’s probably burned down by now, including Mom in her ugly pink pajamas.
His mom’s voice rang in his head: “Emme’s only two months old. She’s too young to bring to Ocean Shores.”
Emme this. Emme that. Everything was always about stupid Emme.
He wished his dad didn’t work so much, so he could take him to Ocean Shores and build sandcastles like they used to before Emme was born. Just the two of them.
He also wished his dad had left Emme at home instead of taking her for a drive. It wasn’t his dad’s fault that Emme cried after dinner.
She always cried.
Tommy rounded the corner and headed towards the Quik Mart. Maybe he’d steal a pack of Titan cards, something his mom refused to buy whenever Tommy asked.
“Just buy it for him, Margo,” his dad argued a couple times, “it’s only cards.” But his mom always had the final say.
Tommy pumped his legs faster down the hill, clenching his hands around the handlebars with the same intensity as he gripped his mother’s neck earlier that night while she slept. It amazed him how easy it’d been, taking him only a couple seconds, before her head went limp. The sleeping pills he slipped in her chamomile tea must have been stronger than he thought. There’s no way she would’ve escaped the fire.
He weaved his bike across the wide street, pedaling as if struck with electricity as he approached the yellow traffic light a hundred feet away.
I’ll say it was an accident.
Kids play with matches all the time.
The police will believe me. I’m only a kid.
Dad will believe me. For sure.
A horn blared.
Tommy instinctively swerved right, which sent his body tumbling onto the pavement and his bike skidding from under him seconds before the car crunched over it.
Sprawled on his back, he stared at the starless sky, listening to a door creak open and footsteps approach.
“Tommy?” a familiar voice said.
His dad dropped down, eyes frantically scanning Tommy’s body. “Oh my gosh, you’re bleeding! What are you…We need to…Where are…”
Unscathed, except for maybe a few scratches and bruises, Tommy was on the verge of relieving his dad of any worries when Emme’s cries blasted from the car.
Watching his dad exchange worried glances between him and the car, Tommy gritted his teeth. Why is she crying? I’m the one who almost died.
Movement in Tommy’s backpack reminded him of the ferret. Tommy waited until his father turned back to Emme before unzipping the pocket and letting the weasel escape.
When his dad faced him again, Tommy draped an arm around his stomach and curled into a fetal position. “Ow!”
His father grabbed a phone from his pocket. “I’m calling an ambulance.”
“No, Daddy!” Tommy jolted up, swatted the phone away, and hugged his dad as hard as he could while he watched the ferret jump into the car through the driver’s side door. “I’m okay. Really. I just want a hug.”
Emme’s cries grew louder and soon turned into a shrill scream that carried through the air.
Tommy squeezed his dad harder and inhaled his sandalwood cologne. The smell reminded him of the beach and made him smile.
He hoped his mother was right.