The first lightless house has a caged trampoline and sits too close to the highway. Its smooth dirt yard is interrupted by chickweed clumps that remind Gerald of the computer cable tangles his mother used to tuck under the furniture.
In February, twilight washes over this part of California at 5 p.m. Gerald stayed at school as long as possible, so he wouldn’t have to do this in broad daylight. But even as the shadows lengthen, forcing him to watch his step on the root-broken sidewalk, he doesn’t trust those passing cars.
Tonight, he just needs a place where his father won’t look—an unoccupied home, an open garage. (Tomorrow is inconceivable, a foreign country.) Annie’s house is out: Big Jerry knows her parents. He’s heard Gerald’s favorite teacher’s name and could track down her address.
But this street lies miles from theirs, in the oldest part of town. It’s the last place where Gerald would expect to see his father’s white Ford bearing down on him.
The second lightless house has a broad porch with long floorboards. A rough-furred orange cat sits on a wooden chair, blinking. Gerald slows down, hoping for an empty driveway and piled-up newspapers. Instead, behind the slatted fence, he sees barrel planters crowded with geraniums and a guy his dad’s age, oiling a table saw.
Big Jerry will be home in twenty minutes. Looking under the sink, finding it cleared out. Then what? Showing up at his school? Driving around their neighborhood? Sitting in the living room, a looped belt dangling from his left hand?
The next three houses have bright windows, behind which high-bunned mothers fumble with child-safe can openers and strollers that won’t fold up. Their husbands take over, get their fingers caught in tiny gears. Unlike Gerald’s mother, these women haven’t had to make the best of postage-stamp yards. Screened by militant rows of cypress trees, their gardens cover quarter-acre lots.
Gerald can see the realms behind the cypresses—wicker furniture, mowed lawns, dormant hydrangeas. He imagines opening their gates, sitting down. Asking for lemonade and getting milk.
Big Jerry drinks Old Crow. Every month, after he gets paid, he buys it by the case from Total Liquor, keeping it under the sink with the cleaning supplies.
This morning, after Big Jerry left for work, Gerald pulled out 18 bottles of Old Crow and tipped them down the drain. Washed his Comet-grained hands, walked to school, wondered what he’d done. It was February 5th, three weeks before his father’s next paycheck.
All day, Gerald was surprised to find out that his life kept happening. That he could jog through PE class, turn in homework, eat gummy cafeteria rice. He’d sent himself crashing into a wall, but he hadn’t hit it yet.
The third lightless house is one that Gerald has always wondered about, a Victorian with a widow’s walk. The yard is so large it has its own lamppost, wreathed in bear’s breeches as high as Gerald’s head.
Gerald turns left to avoid the lamppost and accidentally steps in a squash patch. Rubbing his sneakers clean on the grass, he slips further into the yard, ducking behind a rhododendron.
Everything is more overgrown than it appeared from the street. He worries about putting a foot wrong and spraining his ankle.
But the dark windows have deep sills. One is open a crack.
It’s a small window, five feet off the ground. Gerald could put one foot on the outdoor faucet and brace the other on a witch hazel bush. Ease the window up, slide through on his stomach.
And who knows what he’ll find inside? Apples, nuts, a twenty left behind in an empty jacket. An elderly blind woman who’d mistake him for someone else, somebody welcome.
Last night, Gerald awoke to his father at the foot of his bed, breathing like a freight train. The room was dark, but he’d left the porch light on, so his dad could see well enough to unlock the front door when he got home. By that light, which bled from the porch to his bedroom window, Gerald could pick out the gleam in his dad’s eye, the slump in his shoulders.
“What’s going on, Dad?” he said. “What’s wrong?”
His dad tried to sit on the bed, but his right leg betrayed him, making him fall. As he lurched forward, Gerald smelled his familiar sweat, alongside an acrid billow of Old Crow.
“You have to promise not to cry,” Big Jerry said.
“Just promise,” Big Jerry said. “Or I won’t tell you.”
“Okay,” said Gerald. His dad burst into tears.
“It was an accident,” he said. “Fucking cat came out of nowhere.”
Gerald caught his breath. “Which cat?”
“It darted out at me,” his dad said. “I’m a great driver, but I’m not Dale Earnhardt.” He took a gulping breath, then sighed, spraying Gerald with saliva.
Gerald forced himself not to flinch—Jerry didn’t like that. “Which cat?” he said again. “Was it Cocoa?”
On this street, across California, few things are blooming, but in the Victorian’s yard, the witch hazel is. Its scent pierces through the reek of the dead leaves, reminding Gerald of a doctor’s office.
He gathers a few spiky sprays, picturing the blind woman smiling as she runs her hands over their petals. He knows the likelihood of this woman actually existing is low. But what if she’s home, hoping for a guest?
Stowing the witch hazel in his back pocket, Gerald boosts himself through the window, as smoothly as if he’s done it a thousand times. Dropping lightly to his feet, he finds himself in a tiny bathroom, floored with grimy green hexagonal tiles.
Gerald pauses to regard himself in the mirror. Weak chin, good eyes. The face of a boy who looks after his dead mother’s cat. Even calls her Cinnamon Cocoa, when there’s no one around to hear him.
He tucks his hair behind his ears, opens the bathroom door. Finds a middle-aged woman, holding her breath and a baseball bat.