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The rickety Pinto turned the corner and sputtered toward Jerry’s house, backfiring loudly like a fireworks finale. From the front porch, Clivo and Jerry watched the car motor toward them, and Clivo swallowed. He wasn’t sure he was ready for this.
“You ready for this?” Jerry asked.
“Would you be?” Clivo sighed.
Jerry gave him a sympathetic pat on the back. “Better you than me.”
Clivo guffawed. “Thanks.”
It was finally time for Clivo Wren to go home, though he wasn’t looking forward to it. After his father died earlier in the summer, he’d moved in with Jerry, his best friend, and Jerry’s parents in their spacious home in Old Colorado City. The place was comfortable and everyone did their best to help him feel at home. Jerry had kept playing his usual pranks, which made Clivo laugh, to help keep Clivo’s mind off the fact that he had just become an orphan.
“You can keep staying with us, you know,” Jerry said, glancing at Clivo. “And it’s not just a pity party ’cause you’ve reached orphan status, either. I think having you around to mess with has been super fun.”
Clivo winced as the car backfired again. “I think you want to keep me around ’cause it gives your mom someone else to smother.”
Jerry flashed his wide smile. “That’s part of it.”
Clivo laughed. “I want to stay, trust me. But I don’t want to hurt Aunt Pearl’s feelings, since she’s willing to be my guardian and all. Plus, school starts tomorrow.”
“Your loss.” Jerry shrugged.
Jerry Cooper had inherited most of his father’s dark African American skin tone, even though Mrs. Cooper was as pale as a cave dweller. When Jerry was younger, the other moms at the playground had thought Mrs. Cooper was Jerry’s nanny, which she used to her advantage with her son. Whenever Jerry started raising a ruckus, she’d say that if he didn’t behave she could easily disown him because nobody believed he belonged to her anyway. Unfortunately, not even the threat of maternal abandonment caused Jerry to behave.
“Here she comes!” Mrs. Cooper exclaimed, waddling out the front door. She was short and shaped like a turnip, but had enough spunk in her to launch a rocket ship. “You ready for this, honey?”
“I’m ready,” Clivo said, forcing a smile. He adjusted the bag on his shoulder and watched the Pinto get even closer, the glittery ANIMALS ON BOARD! sticker flashing on the front bumper like an evil smile.
Mr. Cooper followed Mrs. Cooper onto the porch. “Oops, oops, I almost missed the goodbyes! Wait for me, son, don’t hightail it out of here just yet!”
Mr. Cooper looked just like Jerry, save for a potbelly, a receding hairline, and a pair of glasses that made his eyeballs look three times as big. So actually he looked nothing like Jerry, who spent half an hour in front of the mirror every morning making sure his hairdo could withstand the wind from a tornado.
“You ready for this, son?” Mr. Cooper asked, giving Clivo’s shoulder a squeeze.
Clivo groaned inwardly. The last thing in the world he wanted was to get in that Pinto. “I’m ready, Mr. Cooper.”
The Pinto came to a stop in front of them, the brakes squealing. Clivo winced.
His aunt tooted the horn and waved and smiled, but made no effort to get out of the vehicle.
“Good luck,” Jerry said, saluting as if Clivo were going off to war.
“If you don’t hear from me in three days, send help,” Clivo replied, half-heartedly returning the gesture.
“You sure you don’t want to borrow my football helmet?” Jerry asked, his face wrinkling with concern. “A little protection wouldn’t hurt, you know.”
“Actually, could I? It’d probably help.”
“I was kidding! I don’t need your head lice in my equipment.”
Clivo sighed again and grabbed his bags slowly, as if they weighed a hundred pounds. He did kind of feel like he was going off to battle.
“Take care, son,” Mr. Cooper said, giving Clivo a big hug.
“Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Cooper, for everything you’ve done for me over the past month. Living with you has been really great.”
Mrs. Cooper wiped a tear from her eye and grabbed Clivo’s dimpled cheeks. “The house will be empty without you here.”
Jerry cleared his throat. “You know that I’ll still be around, right, Ma?”
“Oh, you know I love you more than life itself. But your bro from another schmo tickles my heart, too.”
“It’s ‘brother from another mother,’ Ma! How hard is that to remember?” Jerry lectured.
Clivo reluctantly turned away from the place he had been calling home and walked as slowly as possible toward the Pinto, his feet dragging in protest. The car was a cheery yellow, but he knew what horrors were inside. He paused in front of the rear window and looked at his reflection. Nothing had changed in his appearance during the four weeks he had been with the Coopers. His brown hair was still a shaggy mess and his clothes were still woefully out of style. Aunt Pearl had been the one who always took him shopping when she came to visit, and she thought anything on the dollar rack at Palace of Pants was fashionable.
He looked at the worn beaded bracelet on his wrist, having almost forgotten he still wore it. It was a Tibetan Buddhist bracelet his dad had given him after one of his overseas archaeological digs. Clivo had begun wearing it shortly after the funeral, just to feel close to his dad again. He knew that didn’t make sense, since they had never been that close to begin with. Still, he hadn’t been able to bring himself to take it off. It reminded him that, at one point at least, he had had a family of his own.
Mr. Cooper coughed behind him. “I don’t think the trunk opens itself, son.”
Mrs. Cooper shushed her husband. “Give him a minute! He needs to process!”
Clivo shook himself out of his thoughts, opened the Pinto’s hatchback, and tossed in his bags.
“Hello, Clivo!” his aunt said from the front seat, her bright eyes looking at him in the mirror. “Watch out for my creatures. They insisted on coming to get you.”
“Hi, Aunt Pearl!” Clivo said, shutting the hatch carefully.
He went to the passenger side of the car and braced himself before climbing in as quickly as possible, closing his eyes and holding his breath in preparation. Within moments of his taking a seat, a purring pair of long-haired cats slithered from his aunt’s lap like a slo-mo Navy SEAL team on a mission and wrapped themselves tightly around Clivo’s neck and shoulders.
“Argh!” Clivo exclaimed, desperately trying to get to his seat belt without inhaling a pound of fur.
From the front porch, Jerry shook his head in sympathy.
“Why didn’t you offer him your football helmet?” Mrs. Cooper chided her son as they headed back inside the house. “He needed some protection!”
“I tried, Ma!”
* * *
Clivo and Aunt Pearl headed west into the Rockies from Old Colorado City and soon were winding their way up the familiar paved and then dirt roads, the hot August air getting cooler as they climbed in altitude. Aunt Pearl’s tanned hands tapped rhythmically on the steering wheel, as if she were discreetly playing the bongos.
After his father’s funeral, Clivo’s aunt had agreed to give up her apartment in town and move to Clivo’s isolated mountainside home with her two horrible cats after she returned from a “holy church pilgrimage,” which was really just a monthlong vacation with her salsa-dancing group at a tropical resort in Acapulco.
Pearl had once been a purehearted churchgoing lady who accidentally wandered into the wrong meeting room in her church basement one day and found herself in a salsa-dancing class instead of a prayer group; now she snuck off as frequently as possible to indulge in her secret passion.
“Did you have a nice visit with your friend Jeff, sweetheart?” Aunt Pearl asked with a smile. She had tightly curled mouse-colored hair and was tall and thin, like a stork, with a nose like a long beak. Her plain dress made her look like a quiet, bookish type—so much so that Clivo had a hard time picturing her tearing up the dance floor.
“Um, with Jerry?” Clivo gently corrected.
To say that Aunt Pearl was absentminded was an understatement. She had done her best at raising him whenever his dad was away on one of his frequent work trips, but more often than not she had forgotten that Clivo was even around. He had spent more afternoons than he could count sitting in the principal’s office because Aunt Pearl had forgotten to pick him up from school, even though she had dropped him off that morning.
“Yeah, Aunt Pearl, it was a good break. How was your pilgrimage?”
“Oh, it was absolutely heaven,” Aunt Pearl said with a contented sigh, her fingers picking up their rhythmic tapping on the steering wheel. “Oh, before I forget, there’s a present for you in the back seat. I know I missed your birthday in June, but I still wanted to get you a little something.”
“Thanks, Aunt Pearl,” Clivo said, tearing the wrapped gift away from a cat who was chewing on the ribbon. “My birthday was actually this month, August, but…”
“Has it always been in August?” Aunt Pearl asked with a confused expression.
“Ever since I was born in August,” Clivo replied with a shrug.
Aunt Pearl giggled and pinched his cheek. “You are such a little rascal!”
Clivo shook his head and unwrapped the gift, revealing a white stuffed Pegasus with golden wings. The cats immediately began hissing at it.
“Wow, a Pegasus. That’s great, Aunt Pearl. Thank you,” Clivo said, trying to keep the disappointment out of his voice.
“Aw, you’re welcome, sweetie. I know how much you love cuddling with your stuftees,” she replied, giving his leg a loving pat.
Clivo winced. No matter how old he got, Aunt Pearl insisted on talking to him as if he were a baby. “I did, definitely, but I’m a teenager now, so I probably won’t be needing more stuffed animals. I mean, this one is great, thank you, but I’ll probably be growing out of them soon.” Clivo didn’t want to hurt his aunt’s feelings, but he also didn’t want to spend the rest of his life collecting stuffed animals.
“A teenager?” Aunt Pearl asked, her face taking on its confused, glazed expression, one that Clivo saw a lot. “When did you turn thirteen?”
“Um, on my birthday?”
“The one in April?” Aunt Pearl asked.
“That would be the one,” Clivo replied, giving up on trying to correct her.
Aunt Pearl’s face melted into a joyous smile and she once again pinched his cheek. “My little rascal is a little man now!”
Half an hour later, they pulled up the long gravel driveway to the isolated two-story craftsman-style bungalow that was his real home, although the Coopers’ house had felt more comfortable than this place had in years.
“Welcome home, sweetheart,” Aunt Pearl said, her fingers pausing their drumming. “The kitties and I moved our things in yesterday so we’d be all set for your arrival.”
Clivo sat in the car with two cats curled on his shoulders and stared at his empty childhood home. The place looked foreign and deserted. Dead leaves gathered on the ground and faded green paint peeled from the trim. A sagging teepee his father had made from animal skins stood in the yard and a wooden statue that looked like a carved head from Easter Island sat on the porch, chipped paint gathering at its base. Chinese wind-bells dangled from the eaves, letting out a tinkling that was supposed to ward off evil spirits, though Clivo thought they must not work very well if the cats had been allowed in the house. Strewn throughout the yard were other tattered mementos from his dad’s trips—Japanese water fountains, Tibetan prayer flags, and embarrassing Polynesian sculptures of naked people that Aunt Pearl seemed to have clothed in sweatshirts and skirts.
“You excited to be back home, sweetie?” Aunt Pearl asked nervously. “I cleaned the place up nicely for you. And the cats already love sleeping in your room; I hope you don’t mind.”
Clivo winced at that. The wind-bells definitely didn’t work.
“Yeah, it’s nice to be home,” Clivo agreed, though that wasn’t at all how he felt as he stared at the dark windows.
* * *
After helping his aunt bring the cats inside, Clivo emptied the car and took his bags up to his room, which smelled like felines. When he went downstairs he found his aunt and the cats waiting for him in the living room.
“So, um, I made some mac and cheese for you. It’s on the stove,” Pearl continued. “I’d eat with you tonight, but there’s a special Bible-study class going on at church. Would you mind if I went?”
Clivo knew by now that “going to church” meant “going out dancing.” He’d even noticed that peeking out from under Aunt Pearl’s conservative black skirt was the brightly colored hem of her dancing outfit.
“That’s fine, Aunt Pearl,” Clivo said. He didn’t really want to spend the evening alone in the empty house, but Pearl would probably just make him sit quietly next to her and play with his new stuffed animal all night, anyway. “You go have fun at church.”
Pearl’s face burst into a grin. “Okay, thanks, sweetheart. Please remember to feed the kitties their dinner. Not too much or they’ll use your bed as a litter box! And give them some good scratchies underneath their chinny chin chins!”
Wasting no time, she hustled out the door. A few moments later, she fired up the Pinto and took off, the car’s spinning tires spattering gravel against the front door.
“Come on, guys!” Clivo moaned as the cats crowded around him. “Ricky Martin, out of my way. You, too, Julio Iglesias. If you nip me one more time I’m throwing you to the coyotes.”
Clivo turned on a few of the antique lamps with stained-glass shades to brighten up the place. The house was so sheltered by the surrounding pine trees that even in the middle of the day it could be as dark as a cave. And with all the artifacts from his dad’s trips, the house looked like an old museum. A zebra head hung on one wall, a didgeridoo leaned against a corner, and a brass incense burner dangled from a chain. The house smelled like flowery dust—Pearl must have spritzed some of her drugstore perfume around to cover up the antique smell of the place.
This weird house high up in the mountains, away from everything and everyone, was the only home Clivo had ever known. It was a part of who he was, yet he sometimes wished he’d grown up in a nice suburban house surrounded by neighbors, with grass and not forest for a yard.
“Hey, Bernie,” Clivo said, knocking on the suit of armor that stood in the corner. Bernie was now wearing a checkered apron; apparently Aunt Pearl thought that even a naked suit of armor was indecent.
Clivo warmed up the pasta, spooned himself a bowlful, locked the protesting cats in the kitchen with their food, and made himself comfortable on the couch. He turned the TV on and immediately grunted in frustration when he realized the cable service had been turned off. No doubt the latest bill hadn’t been paid. So Clivo sat in silence in the dark house, his mind drifting to how much he missed his parents. He didn’t remember much about his mom because she’d gotten sick and died when he was only five, but if he really concentrated he could just hear her soothing voice reading him bedtime stories every night, followed by the tinkling of an old Egyptian rattle that she’d jangled over his head to protect him from the God of Storms. Clivo wished she had used a rattle to protect him from the god that stole parents, if there was such a thing.
Copyright © 2018 by Lija Fisher