Derek traced his fingers over the lumps and pits in the dingy striped wallpaper in the hallway of the apartment complex, smiling to himself whenever he reached a seam. Halfway to his door, he stopped to inspect an ornate rose drawn in blue ballpoint pen just above his eyelevel. When he squinted, the petals seemed to be arranged in the shape of a snarling, angry face. He shuddered once, and ran towards his apartment, sliding his hand across the cool, oily surface of the wallpaper. The books in his backpack whacked noisily against his hip.
Out of breath, he arrived at his door trying to remember if he had touched every seam of wallpaper along the away. Across the hall, Mrs. Arcenaux was outside her apartment, a faded green broom clutched in one of her nut-brown, bony hands. She was doing battle with a battalion of invisible dust bunnies that threatened the unrelenting tidiness beyond her threshold.
Derek waved and said, “Evening Mrs. Arcenaux!”
“Your mama work so late. No wonder you’re skinny!” Mrs. Arcenaux chided by way of greeting.
Derek smiled hesitantly. Mrs. Arcenaux waved him over with her free hand. He hopped across the hall, careful not to step on any of the patterns in the carpet that looked like flowers.
Mrs. Arcenaux leaned close to Derek’s ear. The bristly white hairs on her upper lip brushed against his skin. Her breath was hot and sour on his cheek. “You stay away from that no-good Mr. Cavendish. Hear? He’s a red eyes.” She fumbled in an apron pocket and pulled out a slightly squashed peach half-wrapped in a paper napkin. “Here boy, take this peach. It’s still good and sweet. You eat it all up, and maybe get something on them bones besides skin.” She said loudly, as if someone else just beyond them were listening.
He took the peach and held it up to the fluorescent light. Sticky, sweet-smelling juices ran down his arm to puddle in the crook of his elbow. The smell reminded him of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches his mother made with peach preserves the summer before. He thought of how he loved to watch the peanut butter spread across crustless white bread. I am the same color as peanut butter. He smiled nervously at the old woman, who waved at him to go. “Thank you, Mrs. Arcenaux.”
“Get on home, boy.”
Derek fumbled in his shirt for the house key he wore on a chain around his neck. He unlocked his door and pulled it tight behind him, locking the deadbolt, and standing up on tiptoe to lock the chain. When he looked through the peephole, Mrs. Arcenaux was no longer standing outside her apartment.
Derek set the peach on the kitchen counter and then promptly forgot it. He poured himself a bowl of cereal and bathed in the blue light of the television, watching cartoons until his mother got home from work.
Mr. Cavendish lived next door to Derek and his mother. Derek passed his doorway the next morning on his way to school. Six greasy buckets from a fast food fried chicken place sat in the hallway. The bones were jagged fragments, cracked open with all the marrow sucked out. Derek wrinkled his nose and ran his fingers along the wallpaper. The smell of stale grease trailed him down the hallway and out into the streets. It was raining; Derek pulled up the collar of his reversible raincoat (worn blue side out), opened his umbrella, and stepped onto the sidewalk, pausing to splosh in any puddles he found.
All that day and afternoon the rain continued to fall. On the way back from school, Derek tried to count fast moving leaves and candy wrappers that bobbed along carried by currents in the swollen gutters before disappearing into storm drains. The wind blew his umbrella inside out, and one of the metal ribs snapped through when he tried to right it. He hurried home without stopping to splosh in any more puddles. The tight curl of his hair clumped against his scalp like a cap. He ran up the front stoop of the apartment building, jumping over every second step, and opened the front door wide enough that he could slide in. With sopping wet hair, and a broken umbrella, Derek ran his hand over the wallpaper in the hall, but took no joy in it. When he got to his door, he looked for a trace of the fried chicken buckets, but except for a faint grease spot on the carpet, they were gone.
Derek huddled in front of the television with a bowl of cereal. Lightning flashed. Derek only counted three before thunder growled through the apartment like a wounded beast. A cartoon coyote was just about to drop an anvil on a large chicken’s head when the lights flickered once and died. The rain beat against the windows and weird shadows crawled across the living room as daylight waned. In the gloom the pink tiles in the kitchen looked darker. Raw meat, Derek thought, and cringed at the idea of going in the room for the flashlight. Lightning flashed again, and Derek did not wait to count. He ran into the kitchen and pulled out the red flashlight from the junk drawer. He swung the light around wildly, reassuring himself that the pink was its normal color, that the dark figure in the window was only his reflection distorted by the rainfall. Mrs. Arcenaux’s peach still lay on the counter, half-wrapped in paper napkin, its skin shriveled and beaded with moisture. Derek backed out of the kitchen, beam of light focused on the window.
He made his way back to the half-eaten bowl of cereal and sat down in front of it, stirred the surface of the milk with a spoon, then lay on his back, flashlight beam making a wide circle on the ceiling. He reached for his backpack and pulled a dogeared book of detective stories, and turned to one where he knew how everything turned out. The lights will be back on soon, he thought.
An hour passed, or maybe two. Night had crept in, and Derek had stayed in the circle of light except for a hurried trip to the bathroom. He had finished four detective stories. The phone rang. He listened. It rang twice, then fell silent. He counted until seven. The phone rang again. He bounded across the room.
“Derek, honey. It’s mom.” Her voice crackled.
“No one else knows the ringing code.” He said.
“Listen honey, did you get something to eat?”
“It’s bad at the hospital. I’m going to be late.”
A sigh. “I don’t know. I’ll be home as soon as I can.”
Derek ran his fingers over the hard plastic of the phone handset. Away from his circle of light it looked the same color as band-aids. “There’s a blackout.”
Another sigh. “I know,honey. It’s one of the reasons I need to stay. If you get scared, you can go across the hall to Mrs. Arcenaux’s.”
“I love you .”
Count to three. “I love you too.”
He set the handset back into its cradle and walked over to his detective book. There was only one more story where he knew how everything turned out. If the lights weren’t on soon, he worried that he’d have to read the first one again, or start a new one. The floor creaked, and he heard a low sound under the rain, as if the building itself were sighing. Settling for the night, he echoed his mother’s explanations, settling for the night. He began to read the next story aloud: “Doctor Swan and Billy both stood on the deck of the SS Ladyfair. After winning an award for World’s Greatest Boy Detective, Doctor Swan said Billy deserved a Va—“
There was a knock at the door.
“Hello?” Derek said in timid voice.
There was another knock. Derek picked up the flashlight and crept closer to the door. There was a third knock, more insistent than the first two.
A muffled voice came from the other side of the door. “Oh thank God, someone’s home. The lady across the hall, she’s hurt and—listen my phone is only cordless and won’t work can I use your phone to get help?”
“I’m not supposed to open the door for strangers.”
The voice rose in tone. “There isn’t any time! She’s bleeding, I need to call nine-one-one.”
Derek gulped, and turned the deadbolt, but left the chain in place. He cracked the door and peeked out. Mr. Cavendish stood just outside, shirt sleeve dark with something, his black curly hair matted against his forehead. He had a look of panic on his face. “Thank you so much, we have to hurry. She could be—“
Derek swung the flashlight up. Mr. Cavendish’s sleeve was stained red. Blood. Derek’s hand shook and he accidentally shone the light in Mr. Cavendish’s face. His eyes gleamed in that sudden light, like a raccoon’s, or a cat’s. Not like anything human. Derek dropped the flashlight and ran towards the dark pink cave of the kitchen. A heavy thud followed by another echoed across the apartment, then the front door careened open and slammed into the wall. Mr. Cavendish’s boot crashed down onto the abandoned flashlight and plunged Derek into darkness. Derek groped along the counter and pressed himself as close to the wall as he could, trying not breathe.
A low, angry growl reverberated from the living room. Derek squeaked as his hand touched something pulpy and wet. The peach. He clutched it his right fist and pushed his back against the wall. He heard a snarl and then padding over the hardwood floor. In the darkness he could make out a bulky shape that paused to sniff the air. The thing bayed and then charged towards the kitchen. Derek held his arms out in front of him as the shape lunged out of the darkness at him. Jaws closed around his arm, he felt teeth prick the skin. He screamed and squeezed the peach as he tried to yank his arm away. The fuzz on the skin peeled away and juices poured through Derek’s fingers into the thing’s mouth. Derek squeezed his eyes tight and waited for the crunch of bone.
The crunch never came.
The jaws slid away and the thing in the darkness sputtered and coughed. The Cavendish-thing moaned gutturally. It spat out words. “What. Did. You. Do. To. Me. Boy?”
It made retching sounds on the floor. “What did you do?”
Lightning flashed. Mrs. Arcenaux stood behind the dog-thing. “He ain’t do nothin’. I did it.” She had her green broom in her hand, and she brought it down hard on the thing’s head. WHAM. WHAM.WHAM.
A bony hand clutched his in the darkness. “It’s me boy. You okay. Come with me till your mama get home.” Derek fell into her arms and felt safe.