I’m kind of in shock the rest of the way home. Somehow my body animates itself, righting my bike, piling everyone back on, and channeling the heck out of my inner Lance Armstrong. Jan asks once or twice if I’m going to backtrack and pick up Mini (assuming he’s survived the explosion), but I’m not listening. All I can think about is getting to my laptop ASAP and doing a Google search for the keywords, “cops arrest throw puppet police car.” You know, just to get an idea of what happens to people when they toss their puppets at moving police cars. That way I’ll know what to expect at the hearing.
At long last, I turn onto Poinsettia—and stop a short ways into the cul-de-sac, quickly swerving behind a neighbor’s parked car.
Behind me, Ernie makes a noise like a water cooler burping.
“Is this your house?” Jan asks.
I shake my head. There’s sweat burning my eyes; my clothes are drenched. I want to shower and go straight to bed, but first I have to get back inside my parents’ house—and that’s going to be harder than it had been getting out, because Mom and Dad are standing in our driveway and taking their dear sweet time showing a noticeably tipsy, post-dinner Mr. Nakayoshi to his car.
“My parents are outside,” I whisper.
“That’s good,” Jan says. “We got back just in time.”
“How’s it good that the only two people on this Earth I wouldn’t want catching me sneaking in after hours are basically blocking the entrance to my home?”
Jan shrugs. “It’s when they go back inside to check on you, that’s when you’re in trouble. Out here, they’re not paying attention to anything but their little talk.”
“Smalltalk,” I say, correcting him.
“Never mind. What are we supposed to do now?”
“Sneak in the back way.”
“There is no back way,” I say. “We have a side way.” I point to the side gate that leads into my parents’ backyard. It’s adjacent to the neighbor’s property, and the only way to get to it is to stroll right up our driveway (out of the question at the moment) or cross the neighbor’s yard, hop their side gate, and then hop our fence.
Jan gives me a supportive pat on the back. “Piece of cake.”
“Yeah, a three-hundred-pound piece of cake.” I gesture at Ernie, who looks up blearily, gives me the finger—and then proceeds to sneeze frosting. Or maybe it’s just snot. It’s hard to tell in the low light. Either way, I’m grossed out, and more than a little disappointed that after showing signs of improvement earlier, he’s now looking like someone in the final throes of a bout of Captain Trips.
Jan and I get off my bike. We lower Ernie onto the ground, and, wiping my hands on my pants, I say to Jan, “Okay, you carry him and I’ll carry the bike.” (CPR tactics—never yell, “Someone call 911!” in the middle of a crowd, because everyone will be looking around at each other to see who “someone” is before that someone makes the call. Call out to a specific person, point to them, and give them a direct order: “You, call 911!” I saw it in a YouTube video, and I’m hoping the same rules will apply here…even if it’s merely to appease the closet germ freak inside me.)
“Why do I have to carry the leviathan?” Jan asks.
Because if he sneezes on me one more time, I’m seriously going to go into hysterics! “You’re the bodybuilder. You’re used to lifting heavy things.”
Jan frowns down at Ernie’s mass. “But today’s a rest day.”
“Just pretend he’s a giant barbell.” I glance at Ernie as well. “Or several sacks of potatoes.”
Jan looks less than enthusiastic, but doesn’t protest any further as he squats, hefts Ernie over his shoulder, and stands again. “He’s more like a sack of mashed potatoes.”
We start across the neighbor’s yard. There’s a hedge between our properties—high enough for cover, but low enough that if I straighten fully and lift up my chin I can see Nakayoshi and my parents. I watch them carefully, making sure they aren’t watching me. Mom’s standing between Nakayoshi and his car; in order to get around her, he does this sneaky sort of brush-slash-caress maneuver, running his hand down her back and butt, obviously borrowing a page from Ben Schwartz’s book during the cop-copping-a-feel scene at the beginning of Coffee Town.
And Dad’s just standing there messing with his phone and pretending he doesn’t know what’s going on. I know he’s pretending because if I can see Nakayoshi’s Gino move from the next house over, Dad sure as heck can see it standing right there.
“What are they talking to your grandpa about?” Jan whispers, his eight-bit physique trembling under Ernie’s weight.
“He’s not my grandpa,” I reply, wondering if Jan didn’t just see Nakayoshi’s groping, or if Czech grandpas pat their daughters on the butt during social occasions as handily as French people kiss each other on the mouth when saying hello or goodbye. More importantly: why does Dad put up with this? I mean, the obvious answer is that he puts up with it to keep his job, to keep the peace—to suck up to the man who can make him or break him. Or maybe he’s cool with it. Oh, God—maybe Mom’s cool with it. Maybe she’s not as innocent and naive as I’d once thought, but actually likes the way Nakayoshi flirts with her.
I can’t watch anymore. I lower my head and close the rest of the distance to the neighbor’s gate. I climb over first, alighting on the other side with reasonable dexterity and, resisting the temptation to inspect for meddlesome pets or zombie remnants of an Indian burial ground, signaling for Jan to pass my bike over. The over-the-fence part goes without a hitch, but for whatever reason, as I’m bending over to lay the bike down, my already-damaged cell phone decides to slip out of my pocket and tumble onto the ground.
The dark, unfamiliar, probably dirty, probably antibiotic-resistant ground.
I get down onto all fours and start feeling around.
Jan’s voice, from above: “Are you ready?”
“No, hold on—” I look up over my shoulder—and the night sky is momentarily blocked out as a massive blob descends upon me, clobbers me, lays me out. I can’t breathe; a musty-smelling soft bulk has enveloped me, is pressing into my every orifice like warm dough through the holes of a spaghetti strainer—
I push Ernie off of me and lie on my back, gasping for air.
Jan’s head appears over the top of the gate. “Theo?”
“Dude, I told you to hold on.”
“I thought you said, ‘Yo, throw on.’”
“Why would I say, ‘Yo, throw on?’”
“Why do you Americans say a lot of the things you do?”
“I don’t know—but one thing we definitely don’t say is, ‘Yo, throw on!’”
“Sorry. I’m bad.”
I think he means, “my bad,” but I don’t have the breath to correct him.