Old Enough

by Doug Brown
Before I tell you what happened, I want you to know that I know stealing is not the right thing to do. If I told my Pop I was caught stealing he would probably knock me square in the jaw. He would say something like “you know better than that now, your Pop taught you better than taking something from someone” and then he would knock me right in the jaw. See, my Pop says that after you're 12 you're old enough to get hit like a man. I got caught mocking my Ma one night when she told me to clean my plate and he dang near knocked me out of my chair. My Ma got real upset because she doesn't like to see him hit me, but Pop says it's the best thing that can happen to a boy my age. I don't see how he could call it the best, but it keeps me from upsetting him. Anytime I think about doing something I ought not do, I just think about telling him and suddenly I don't want to do it anymore.  I guess it's a good thing after all.

I am just a regular guy, like my buddy Dave from next door and half the other kids from homeroom. I like baseball just as much the next Joe Blow. My pop would probably have a stroke if I didn't tell you I was a Red Sox fan. He's had tickets since you had to buy 'em off a stegosaurus. We listen to the games when the season rolls around - especially when they play the Yanks. My pop will dang near bust a blood vessel when they play the Yanks.

My pop was in that war in Korea, but he’s at home a lot now. Most of the time he's sitting around listening to the radio in his underwear and rubbing his leg.  He got shot while he was over there, but don't ask him to tell you the story. He says he can’t work a regular job because of his leg, but sometimes I think he’s just too sore about it. They still pay him even though he can’t be in the army any more, so I guess it’s alright.

I go to Charlton Heights, over by the old hospital. I have to walk there because the bus doesn't run to our house, and we don't have a car. My homeroom teacher is this old battle axe, Mrs. Morris, and she sounds like a siren going off when you come in late. Old Dave and I come in late sometimes if we stop off for comics first. Depends on what time we leave, but sometimes we can make it to Mr. Newman’s shop for a quick read before school. I like Superman. Dave is a Batman fan.

So anyway, here's how it happened. One day on the way to school, Dave and I stopped by Mr. Newman’s, and old Dave decided he really wanted this Batman comic he was reading. Problem is, Dave's dad got laid off like two weeks ago and his mom isn't around - so Dave is a little light on dough.  I told him I could probably hit my pop up for some after school, but Dave wouldn't budge. He just kept staring at this comic with this weird look in his eye like he was going to cry or something. Batman doesn't even have any powers for crying out loud!

So Dave starts looking around over his shoulder and stuff, like he thinks someone is watching him, and he unzips his jacket. I said, “Dave what the heck are you doing?” and I checked behind me for Mr. Newman. See, the comics rack is in the back of the store, and we go there so much that Mr. Newman doesn't even check on us while he's putting out all the new stuff up front. Dave told me to shut up and stuffed the comic down in the side of his coat, right where his gun would be if he was one of those cops from TV. I don't like those shows much but Dave seems to think they're alright.

My face gets real hot all of a sudden, and I tell Dave to put the thing back and forget it. I tell him that we'll be back after school with some dough from my pop. Thing is, Dave doesn't even listen. He just zips his coat right up with the comic still inside. “C’mon," he says. “Let's get outta here.” My chest gets real tight all of a sudden, and it feels like I can't even get any air. All I can think is I would have to tell my Pop why they were locking us up if we got caught and he probably wouldn't even come get me.

So Dave scoots off down the aisle with all the candy in it and heads for the door. For a minute I thought about just letting him go and pretending I didn't even know him or something. Problem is, Dave is like my best friend, and he would probably follow me if I was the one stealing stupid comic books. My feet felt like they weighed about a hundred pounds, but I took off after him.

By the time I got to the end of the candy isle, I caught up with Dave the renegade. His face looked calm, and he still had his elbow pinched down over the comic at his side. I was about to try and talk him out of it again when Mr. Newman knocked the swinging door to the supply room open. The supply room was full of boxes and smelled like the gym at school right after they clean the floors. Mr. Newman was wearing this white shirt and apron that he always wore. He looked like some kind of snowman carrying all these boxes out of the supply room. I probably would’ve laughed about it if I wasn’t so scared we were about to get busted.

Mr. Newman had these big bushy eyebrows that looked like he had been alive about a hundred years and never cut them. He looked over his shoulder at us with his eyes pinched in the center of his nose. It seemed like he knew something was up already. My face felt like it was about to burn right off.

”What’s the big idea?” Mr. Newman asked both of us. Dave answered. Good thing he did too, because I was froze solid.

“Whadda you mean? What idea?”

“Your friend looks like he just swallowed a tamale.” Mr. Newman nodded toward me, and old Dave didn’t even skip a beat.

“Oh, he’s just a little nervous about this arithmetic test we got this morning. Ain’t that right Jake?” Dave turned to me, cool as ice. I felt like I was standing on the sun. Sweat was running down my back. They were both looking at me, and I couldn’t even think of a single word to say. I just nodded.

Dave just looked right back at Mr. Newman. “See? Everything’s just dandy.”

Mr. Newman grumbled about something and went back in the supply room, like he forgot we were even there.  Dave looked at me real funny, then he walked out the door with that comic under his arm.

I followed him out into the street, but I could hardly say anything because my chest was so tight. All I could think was Mr. Newman would call the cops or something when he saw that one of his comics was missing. I finally got some wind and told Dave that we should take it back, that I could get the money from my pop and he didn’t have to steal it. Dave wouldn’t budge. He marched to school with that comic under his arm like he was proud of it.

#

So we took the test and I pretty much failed it.  The whole time, all I could think about was how Mr. Newman was going to call my pop as soon as he realized that comic was missing. My pop walks down to Mr. Newman’s sometimes for a grape soda, and when he comes back he always tells Ma they were chewing the fat. I just knew the next time he went for a grape soda and some fat, Mr. Newman would tell him all about how his boy lifted a comic on his way to school.

Dave didn’t seem to have trouble with the test; he flew right through it. I couldn’t believe what he did didn’t bother him. I finally just wrote some numbers in the blanks on my paper, hoping it would be after winter break before we got our grades back. I just wanted to make sure I could get out to the basketball court early enough to catch Dave. He was over by the short goals, and when a few of the other guys cleared out I asked him about it under my breath. I tried to be cool and said something like ‘Hey Dave, I kind of feel bad about taking that comic.’

Dave just sucked in some air and told me I shouldn’t feel bad about it, since I didn’t do it. I didn’t know what to say, so I just watched him play around on the jungle gym. After a few minutes, he hopped down and looked back up at me.

“You know you can go get whatever you want. I can’t do that anymore.”

After that he walked off. That really burned me up, because I knew the whole time I should’ve told Dave that it was wrong to take it and he knew it didn’t matter to me if I got something like a stupid old comic. I couldn’t say anything though, I was froze solid.

#

I knew I still had to talk to Dave on the way home, since we always walk home together, so I acted like I was thinking about something and didn’t say much. Once we were on the home stretch the silence was killing me. I said something stupid like “Man, that Marigold Wilson is a real looker.” I guess I thought that would soften Dave up, but he just kept walking.  If Marigold Wilson, a daisy in a garden of weeds, can’t soften you up, I don’t know what will.

I got nervous all of a sudden, and my mouth just sort of dried up on me. My throat felt like something was stuck inside. Finally I just blurted out that I thought we should take the comic back because my pop might go down there and chew the fat, and Mr. Newman might tell him we took it. Dave just got all choked up and made a bunch of noises like he tried to swallow a jaw breaker. He dropped his backpack and started trying to unzip his jacket so hard he got the zipper caught. His face was red and his eyes were all teared up.

He finally pulled out the comic and threw it at me. He was staring at me with those teary eyes, and I just stared right back. The comic landed behind me with a flap. Dave is a terrible shot.

“Just take it Jake! Take it and run all the way back to the store, and turn me in since you’re so dang perfect! Since you never do anything wrong! Maybe your pop can walk you down there to turn it in! Maybe he’ll even buy it for you!”

He was yelling so loud I was kind of worried my ma would hear, but after that he kicked some gravel at me and ran off.

I stood there, my breath coming out in big clouds, trying to figure out what to do. Number one, my ma would see Dave walk by our house, because she was always at the kitchen window, and number two, the comic was laying right there in Mrs. Tanner’s yard. For a second I just stood there staring at it, then I finally grabbed it and stuck it inside my coat. That’s when I realized Dave left his backpack right there on the sidewalk. He was so mad he didn’t even notice.

So I grabbed the backpack and started walking. I wanted to run back to Mr. Newman’s and put the comic on the shelf, but I knew I would never make it there and back in time. Ma would be out looking for me, then I would be dead meat. So I just clamped my arm down over it like Dave and marched past my porch to his. I dropped the backpack in front of his door and walked home.

When I got home, Pop wasn’t there. Ma was in the kitchen washing something in the sink. It smelled like dish soap in there. I noticed there was a broken dish on the counter.

I asked her where Pop was, and she didn’t answer at first. She just kept washing the dishes. Finally she said he went into town and for me to go get started on my homework before he got home. She sounded a little worried, so I thought maybe she knew about the comic. I didn’t know how she would, but Ma has a way of figuring things out when you don’t want her to.

So I waited a minute or two and asked her when he would be back. She said she didn’t know, but she sniffed when she said it. She does that when she’s been crying. I’m not supposed to know that, but if I try to sneak in to the kitchen for a snack after lights out I can hear them arguing and she is usually making that sniffing noise.

#

I rushed through my homework and started thinking of a place to hide the comic until the next morning. Ma sometimes comes into my room to straighten up and I didn’t want her seeing that stolen comic laying around plain as day. I lifted my mattress and stuffed it underneath. The only way she would look there is if she was changing the sheets and she only did that on Saturdays.

Right before lights out that night my Pop got home and started fussing about something. I had my door shut, but I could hear them going at it. I just knew he was in there asking her where I was and if she knew I took the comic.

I waited a few minutes, then I walked out into the hall real quiet. I was going to tell them I wanted some milk if I was spotted. Before I could get to the kitchen my Pop stepped right out in front of me so close I nearly ran in to him.

His hair was all messed up and his face was sort of red. He said ‘hey slugger’ but it came out weird. I thought about Dave and how red his face was when he threw the comic at me.

I said ‘hey Pop’, kind of quiet, then he stared at me for a minute like I knew something he didn’t. So I figured that Ma told him about the comic and he wanted me to admit it. I could hear Dave calling me a tattle tale in my head, saying I never did anything wrong.

“What? You got something to say too?”

I just stared at him, thinking about Dave and the comic under my bed. I wanted to pretend like nothing happened, but I wasn’t cool like that. I couldn’t hide it like Dave could. I started shivering a little and kind of felt like I had to go to the bathroom. My Pop just sort of lowered his head at me and his eyes got a little wider. I noticed that almost all the white was gone in them.

I didn’t notice her at first, but right then I could see my Ma behind him in the living room. She had her face in her hands, but there was some blood on her chin. She was crying. I knew it was him. He did something to her. I looked back up at him and tried to be like Dave.

“I took the comic from Mr. Newman’s today.” My voice kind of creaked when I said it, because I was so scared.

My Pop backed up a little bit and his face looked like I just told him there was a monkey in my room or something. I saw him ball up his fist right before he spoke.

“What you mean boy? You took somethin’ that ain’t yours?”

Before I could even say anything, I saw his fist come at me and it felt like he knocked my whole head off. Everything went dark, like someone turned the lights out. I felt something cracking in my face, then I was on the floor and there was blood in my mouth.

Ma woke me up later. I felt like I had been chewing on a softball. My whole face was numb. She was crying and patting my jaw with a rag full of ice, but I just told her I was fine. I told her I was old enough to take the punishment for what I did. I asked to go over to Dave’s, but she wouldn’t let me. I wanted to give him his comic book back and tell him I didn’t care if he kept it. I wanted to tell him that he didn’t know me like he thought he did. I wanted to tell him I wasn’t scared anymore.
Doug Brown is an IT Professional by day and a writer by free time. He loves reading, watching movies, procrastinating and drinking coffee. He claims to have once found Waldo and is a gigantic space nerd.

© 2017, Doug Brown