BY CASEY DEANE
Copyright is held by the author.
ELEVEN YEAR old Axel Malidore was all by himself when he hopped off the school bus one spring afternoon and almost immediately a van rolled to a creep alongside where he walked and a stranger propositioned him.
The sun was hanging heavy in the sky at that hour and beneath it the warm breeze of the year’s first equinox weaved it’s way through newly budding trees. An abundant flock of starlings cascaded against the deep blue above like a single black cloud and then lifted abruptly up and over unseen thermal pressures, shifting and suddenly falling before rising again and turning in a seemingly random directional pattern of path through the air.
Earlier the driver of the van was hungry and tired from being locked in a long fight against temptation. It gnawed at him, this demon, pestering and fingering him in the gut from morning through night, day after day, year after year. He had been driving and momentarily distracted, eyes off the road, snared by the sight of the birds and their chaotic flight, when those very birds by chance led his line of vision to drift across the boy walking alone on the sidewalk.
An opportunity, the man thought, fallen right into my lap.
Birds forgotten, the man sank his foot onto the brake pedal and, as the van slowed down, he dropped the passenger window and let slip out an urgent pssst.
“Pssst. Kid. Hey kid.”
Axel glanced over but kept walking.
“Kid. Do you like candy?”
Hell yeah I like candy, Axel thought, it was one of two things he’d contemplated all day. So he began toward the van. Suddenly a lone starling swooped in front of his face and he watched as it settled fleetingly on a nearby branch. It sang a single note before it took off and disappeared.
“C’mon kid. I’ve got a lot of candy here.”
When Axel reached the van the man gestured with a nod to the door handle. “Open it.”
Axel swung the passenger door open and the man leaned over and pointed down to a cardboard box on the passenger seat. “It’s all right here. You can take as much as you want.” Take it, the diabetic thought, the sugar; my vice, my lethal addiction.
Axel peered in as the man began to describe the contents of the box to him, “Sour worms. Licorice. Suckers. Chocolate coins. Jelly Beans. Bubble gum . . .”
Axel let out a tiny gasp and whispered, “Look at all the Lifesavers.”
The man, beads of sweat and stray strands of wispy hair falling over his pink face, smiled a slightly crooked and somewhat brassy smile. “Yup. Lifesavers. Oh, and . . .” He reached into the box and pushed some of the candy around until he found a package. The crooked smile spread wider across his face and he swept his hair back and winked. “Gobstoppers.”
“Gobstoppers.” Axel repeated, eyes never leaving the box. “I can have this? You’re serious?”
I know who will love this, Axel thought as he opened his knapsack and began to fill it with candy until the cardboard box was empty and his knapsack was full. “Thanks mister.”
Axel opened the door to his home and his mom called from the living room, “Ax, is that you?”
Axel paused in the foyer and studied himself in a mirror. “Yeah mom.”
“How was school?”
“That’s nice honey. I’m heading out soon okay? Microwave some of that chicken cass . . .”
“I’m having candy for dinner.”
“. . . for dinner. And go upstairs and you make sure you get changed out of your school clothes before you go back outside.”
Axel bounded up the staircase and cornered into the washroom where he stood in front of the toilet bowl and dropped his pants to his ankles. He rummaged through the newly acquired bounty in his knapsack while his pee splashed in the water and then off the toilet seat and then back in the water again. He found a chocolate egg filled with candy cream and dropped the knapsack onto the floor beside him then pulled the coloured foil off the egg with his teeth and spat it out, watching it float like a feather until it landed silently on the surface of the toilet water. He popped the entire egg into his mouth and with his hands aimed the pee stream and pummelled the piece of foil. When he finished peeing he pulled his pants up to his waist, flushed the toilet and watched the defeated and submerged candy wrapper foil spin around in a vortex until it disappeared. Then he rushed from the washroom, knapsack slung over his shoulder. He bounded back down the staircase and glanced at himself briefly as he passed the mirror in the foyer. He could hear his mom in another room begin to call out, “Axel, did you . . .”
But before another word could reach him he was out of the house and the front door had closed behind him.
Several stray and quickly moving clouds streamed and tumbled and tossed various patches of dark roaming shade onto the gentle slopes of the park and over the benches next to the playground where a boy no older than Axel sat swinging his feet. Simon was busy scrolling his phone and inspecting his fingertip after having retrieved it from his left nostril. Brow furrowed in concentration he was about to switch apps and return for another dig when he heard the shuffling footfalls of Axel approaching along the paved bicycle path. He wiped his finger discretely on the front of his pant leg and gave his classmate a quick nod. “What’s up man?”
Axel approached Simon, popped a last nerd into his mouth and chucked the empty box onto the grass, then he swung his knapsack from his shoulder and opened the zipper. “Yo . . . check this out.”
Simon took a peek into the knapsack. “Holy motherfucking shit. Where did you get all that?!”
“An old man rolled up on me when I was walking from the bus drop and . . .”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“You’re kidding me.”
Simon tilted his head back and let his jaw hang open. “Why doesn’t shit like this ever happen to me?”
“I don’t know,” Axel answered. “Maybe because you suck.”
Simon scratched a scab on his elbow and shrugged, “Shit, I guess so. Can I have some?”
Axel stuffed his cheek with a long red twisted piece of licorice, re-zipped the zipper and swung the knapsack back over his shoulder. “Nope.” Then he wiped some artificial cherry spittle from the corner of his lip with his sleeve, spun around, and slowly strutted away from where Simon sat on the bench next to the playground.
Simon sighed and sat with his shoulders slumped, watching Axel walk away, picking at his scab and kicking at the dirt.
The sidewalk was washed in a long blue shadow that extended from the rusty red brick storefronts packed tight and tall each next to the other, blocking the last hours of the late and low afternoon sun.
Axel emerged from the adjacent bicycle path and meandered his way up the walk where he spotted a classmate leaning against the door entrance to one of the shops.
Brendan had all of his attention zeroed on the electronic device cradled within his sweaty palms.
Axel stopped in front of him, “Brendan.”
Brendan peered up then looked back to the shop window and back to Axel again. “Hi. My mom says I’m not allowed to play with you.”
“I know,” Axel responded, munching on a candy dip-stick, his upper lip encrusted with neon green lime flavoured sugar powder. He held out his open knapsack, “Check this out.”
Brendan gasped and both of his long blonde eyebrows popped up toward his hairline. “Where did you get that?”
“Some old man rolled up along side me when I was walking home from the bus stop and gave it all to me.”
Brendan let his electronic device drop with his hands to his waistline and did a double-take from the knapsack to Axel and to the knapsack again. “Do . . . I mean . . . what about . . . I mean do you think that was a good idea?”
“Axel!” Brendan indicated to the shop door and hissed, “My mom’s right there.”
“Sorry. No. I do not. What kind of idiot gives away a whole box of candy for free?”
“No, I meant you. I mean . . . do you think it was smart to take the candy?”
Axel retrieved a sucker from the knapsack and began to unwrap it. “Um . . . yeah, sure.” He tossed the sucker onto his tongue then turned and began to walk away.
“Ax?” Brendan called out.
Axel stopped and spun back around.
Brendan took a step toward him, “Can I have some?”
Axel approached his friend with an inquisitive look. “Are you allowed?”
Axel with sucker stick sticking out let spread a slow sardonic smirk. Brendan scowled, pursed his lips and kicked his foot against the ground.
Axel sauntered down the street, occasionally he stopped to peek at his phone or to delve into his knapsack. After a short while he approached where the row of shops successively diminished and in the near distance a railway crossing cut the road and it was precisely at the moment when he looked up from his search for a gummy hot lips that he spotted Sariya Iolana. She stood across the street on the opposite sidewalk in front of a narrow break that separated two of the last buildings on the strip. He recognized her instantly, though she was silhouetted by shafts of golden soon-to-be-setting sunlight that slipped through from behind the two-storey structures.
With eyes locked on the girl, Axel stepped out onto the street and almost immediately the loud scream of car tires sliding across asphalt erupted and was just as suddenly eclipsed by the incredibly vociferous howl of a horn.
A man behind the wheel of the affronting vehicle shouted at Axel as the glass in his door window slid down. “Look before you cross! You could’ve been killed!” The man face-palmed, shook his head and muttered to himself. “Look both ways before you cross the goddamned . . .” And interrupted himself by shouting out the window again. “Where the hell are your parents?!”
Axel spun and raised his arm in a fist to the sky and the driver, his face warped with outrage and expecting an answer, received the bird instead. His mouth dropped. He was about to further berate Axel, who had already spun back around and was in mid stride away, when a car behind him began to honk. The driver in the rear, his travel so rudely jammed, was in the midst of vividly pantomiming an act of unmistakable rage, and although this rage may have been misdirected it did not stop the driver from honking a second and then a third time in quick succession. So the first driver begrudgingly slid his window back up and as he did so revved the car engine and pulled away.
Sariya was holding her phone in an outstretched hand and casually preening herself.
“Hi Sariya.” Axel said when he had arrived at the other side of the street.
“That was dumb.” She lowered her arm and nodded to his knapsack, “Why do you still have your bag?”
A quick gust of wind pushed through the alley behind her and Axel noticed how it caught her black hair and feathered it across her cheek and her lips.
“It’s full of candy.”
“Ew. No way. I heard you got it from a creepy old man.”
“Who told you that?”
She blew a bang off her forehead. “Don’t worry about it.”
“What’s in your bag?” He asked her.
She folded her lips tightly together then released them and cracked a grin, then with a hint of facetiousness answered, “Yes Axel, a book.”
“Never mind. There’s a bird too.”
“A bird?” Axel glanced up into the sky but it was empty.
He leaned in, his face clouded and eyes fixed on her bag. “Is it alive?”
A dog barked in a yard somewhere behind them. Sariya stared out along the street past the railway crossing far off into the distance.
Suddenly she rolled her eyes and broke into a laugh. “I’m just messing with you. It’s dead.”
“A dead bird?”
“Yes, a dead bird.”
“Did you kill it?”
“Maybe,” she answered slyly.
A car horn honked a block away.
Axel looked at Sariya and then tried to follow her gaze to whatever she may have been looking at. In the sky early evening cirrus curled and swirled in a mix of gold, grey and white. A breeze picked up some momentum and then just as quickly faded away.
Axel, his face contorted in contemplation, looked down to the ground, then all around, and finally to Sariya. “Sari . . .”
She raised an eyebrow.
“. . . do you ever wonder what it’s all about?”
Sariya let out a sigh and folded her arms in a hug around herself. “No.”
Axel looked at his bag of candy. “Are you ever going to try to kiss me again?”
“Ew no.” She turned to look at him. “Axel Malidore that was a mistake.” She pierced him with a glare and he was transfixed; trapped in her stare. She patted him patronizingly on his shoulder, “A big mistake.” She held his gaze for an eternity. He blinked and she broke from him.
Axel frowned and let his shoulders slump as Sariya turned and began to walk away down the sidewalk.
“I guess I’ll see you at school tomorrow,” he called out.
She turned her head to the side. “Only if you’re not dead!”
He looked at his knapsack. “Sariya Iolana,” he said quietly. “Damn.” And he kicked at the pavement.
Axel walked a ridge outside of the city limits along the set of train tracks until they began their long gentle curve up and further away from town and he could see the city street lights below him begin to twinkle in the twilight and somewhere unseen he could hear the sound of a siren wailing.
After the sun had set he sat on one of the track rails overlooking the streets of the city and watched the streetlights continue to ignite in the distance. He munched on the contents of his knapsack while a faint echo of his mother’s voice sounded far away and buried near the back of his skull, saying something that was often repeated about being home before it got dark. He sat there eating while the crickets began to chirp, the shadows around him grew deeper and darker, and the clouds in their constant shifting motion against the blackening empyreal backdrop veiled and then revealed in turn the first of the early night’s stars.