It’s a weird thing being twelve. You’re old enough to know that the boogeyman isn’t real, but young enough that he still scares the crap out of you. My parents are my boogeyman and boogeywoman. I know they’re the hands-off types, I know that whatever trouble I’m in, it’s not going to result in anything more serious than an expression of concern regarding my recent activities. But I’m still scared of them. Let me put it this way: you know when you and your friends are out skateboarding, and one of you breaks their leg trying to grind a shopping cart or something, and the bone’s all sticking through the skin, and you know better, but you run away with everyone else instead of keeping your friend company until their parents and/or an ambulance arrives? You’re not being insensitive or a dick or anything. You’re afraid of the figurative boogeyman that the situation has become. You’re not the one who’s actually hurt, you’re not in trouble—you’re afraid of getting in trouble. You’re afraid that if your parents find out you were with your friend when he broke his leg, they’ll somehow blame you for it, or forbid you from skateboarding altogether. Logic therefore dictates that if you’re not present when the authorities show up, you can’t be held responsible for anything to do with the accident, right?
Eva’s become another one of my boogeymen. Boogeygirl. Whatever. The point is, my first instinct should’ve been to jump head-first after her the moment Ernie tapped the “visit” button. Instead, I argued with Ernie about money and honey buns, and am now on my way to have a chat with my parents—because while I’m certainly worried about Eva’s well being, I’m more worried my parents will break from a decade and change of parental minimalism by grounding me. I’m more afraid of getting in trouble.
I take a deep breath and walk into the kitchen.
Mom and Dad are seated at the far end of the dinner table.
One of the few useful things to come out of my sessions with Dr. Freud (erstwhile known as Dr. Chandelier) is fake-facing—avoiding eye contact in stressful social interactions by staring at a point slightly between, above, or below a person’s eyes during conversation. Over time, my brain has gradually upgraded the technique, which is why everything now switches to black and white. Suddenly I’m Tommy Carlton doing that film noir flick he never did. In this case, I’m a kid version of Dick Powell’s character from Johnny O’Clock. Because Johnny was always cool, calm, and collected, right down to his fedora and bow-tie, and if there’s anything I need to be right now, it’s cool, calm, and collected.
My parents don’t seem to notice the change (Dad’s Lee J. Cobb, Mom Ellen Drew).
“Fancy meeting you here,” Dad says.
I stroll up to the table, head tilted forward so that the brim of my hat casts a bad-ass shadow across my face. “You snap your finger and I come running, is that it?”
Mom gestures at one of the chairs. “Sit down, Johnny.”
Wait—did she just call me Johnny?
“Don’t make this harder than it has to be,” Dad adds.
I sit. “Am I in trouble?”
“You tell me.”
“How about you talk while I listen.”
Dad seems amused by my boldness. “You know, your record’s clean as a preacher’s sheets. There’s nothing on it. A little thing with the eyes when you were a kid. Otherwise spotless.”
“I’m a good boy. I make my bed.”
“So says your record.” Dad waits.
I wait back.
“You know,” he continues, undoing his belt and setting it on the tabletop, “I read somewhere that any information obtained via the third degree is legally inadmissible in a court of law.”
“It’s nice to know you can read.”
Dad considers his belt.
“Here’s the deal, toots,” Mom says, and puts a restraining hand on Dad’s arm. “You keep your nose clean, mind your p’s and q’s, maintain those high test scores, and in exchange we provide a certain leniency with regard to your personal life. We’ve held up our end of the bargain, haven’t we, Johnny?”
I shrug. “I can’t complain.”
“Tell me, then, what’s with the bad business lately?”
“Business is good. Business is great—”
“I’m not talking about the Web racket.”
“Spell it out, then.”
“Johnny, we heard what happened to you at school today.”
All right, then.
“Is there anything you want to say on the matter?”
“Only that I had nothing to do with it,” I reply.
“They say you were prowling around the boys’ bathroom.”
Uh… “Come now. Prowl is such a specific word.”
“But that is what you were doing—”
Dad cuts Mom off with an annoyed wave of his hand. “Enough with the side-stepping. How did you meet the Asian barbarian?”
“How does anyone meet an Asian barbarian?” I look away as nonchalantly as possible.
“Listen real good, Johnny. It’s getting hot up in that pad of yours. Too many unfamiliar faces, too much rattling around.”
I clasp my hands. “I do my chores, take my showers, turn in my homework on time, don’t I?”
“You’re getting a little too cozy for my taste.”
“I play by the book and you know it.”
“Yeah? What’s with the dame in the undies?”
“She’s all right. Just a little out of her element. I’m taking care of it.”
“And the others?”
“Academic collaborators. I’ll get them all ironed out, just like I always have.”
Dad looks at Mom.
“With everything that’s been going on,” Mom says after a moment, “maybe you should lay off the fair-weather friends and fancy apps for a while.”
“First, these—” I take off my hat and ruffle my hair. “—aren’t my wares. That shrink at school slapped them on me unprovoked. Second, do you really want to put the squeeze on me now? Because if you’re worried about me getting into trouble when I didn’t have a reason to rebel, can you imagine the kind of parenting you’re going to have to muster if I do have a reason to rebel?”
Mom and Dad exchange uncomfortable glances. There’s some kind of look in my eye that’s given them reason for pause—or they’re trying to figure out my punishment. Or maybe none of the above. Maybe this is all about pretense, so that ten years from now I can’t blame them for not having tried.
Dad puts his belt back on. “Go on. Get out of here.”
I continue to stare him down for a moment longer before getting to my feet, putting my hat back on. Nodding at Mom, I turn and walk away. As soon as I’m out of the kitchen and out of sight, I bolt up the staircase and back into my bedroom.
Beta and Jan raise their eyebrows.
“Huh,” Ernie says. “You look good in clothes.”
Johnny is not amused.