“Hello?” said Skyler. “My parents aren’t home right now.” He paused and then said, “I’m not at school because I’m sick.”
The woman glared at him in silence for a moment, looking him up and down. Then she said, “I know your parents aren’t home. They’re living in my basement and they won’t pay their rent.”
Skyler said, “No, my parents are on an extended vacation. To Europe and
The woman snorted. “No, that’s what they told you. They’ve been in my basement for three weeks and I’m fed up with them.”
“I hate to be rude,” said Skyler, suddenly wishing he had a shirt on, “but you’ve either got the wrong house or you’re, I dunno, stupid.”
“Lewis and Sylvia Dunlop!” shouted the woman. “Previous address:
Skyler’s hand tightened on the doorknob. Sweat beaded on his forehead. His tattoo itched on his scrawny pectoral muscle. “What’s going on?” he said. “Hey, I don’t like this, come on.” He stuck his head out the door and saw the woman’s tiny green hatchback idling in the driveway. “Where do you live?” he asked.
“On Terrence,” said the woman. “Four streets down from here. I’m not leaving until you agree to come get your parents back. They made a horrible mess of my back staircase. One of them plugged the downstairs toilet with a big lemon.”
“They were never on vacation?” asked Skyler. He was near tears. “They moved into your basement and left me here alone? What if something had happened to me? I’ve been skipping school almost every day. Do they drive by at night to check on me?”
“No,” said the woman. “They tried to threaten me when I told them I was going to talk to you but I didn’t care. I’m at my wit’s end with those two.”
Minutes later, after pulling on a wrinkled t-shirt and stepping into a mismatched pair of flip-flops, Skyler was in the woman’s car watching his neighborhood creep past the passenger’s side window. The woman was a very slow driver. “Try to make them feel very guilty,” said the woman. “Try to seem really helpless and hurt. OK? Are you listening to me?”
“Yes,” said Skyler. He felt like he might puke, and if he was going to, he really wanted it to happen in the woman’s car, but he just couldn’t quite get there.
The woman pulled to a stop in the driveway of a small, ranch-style home and said, “The back stairs are the only way down to the basement apartment so your parents shouldn’t be able to sneak past us.” She got out of the car and led the way around the side of the house to a windowless door that opened on a dim, descending stairway. Skyler, teetering on wobbly legs, surveyed the mess his parents had made of the stairs. There were empty Snapple bottles and muddy tabloid newspapers strewn everywhere. A pair of broken beige high heels that Skyler recognized as his mother’s were half-submerged in discolored water pooling in the landing at the bottom of the stairs. “Go on,” said the woman.
Skyler leaned on the flimsy handrail for support as he went down, his flip- flops sliding on the wet cement steps. When he reached the landing he was confronted with another door to his right. He stood and contemplated the door, his arms hanging at his sides, the lukewarm water lapping around his ankles.
“Knock,” said the woman from the top of the stairs.
Skyler knocked once, timidly.
“Yes? Who is it?” Skyler’s parents had very similar voices, but he knew instantly that the voice coming from the other side of the door belonged to one of them.
“It’s me,” said Skyler. “It’s Skyler.”
There was a pause. Then Skyler heard frantic scuffling sounds followed by a series of small crashes followed by a brief conversation held in a loud, angry whisper. And then the door burst open, catching him right in the chest and knocking him down into the filthy water with a splash, one of the broken high heels jabbing him in the kidney as his parents clambered over and past him, bulging, hastily-packed suitcases in each hand, their eyes filled with feverish panic as they stampeded up the steps.
“Mom!” shouted Skyler, trying without success to get to his feet. “Dad!”
They didn’t look back or slow down. The woman who owned the house was shouting too. “Fine! Leave! That’s all I wanted anyway!”
When Skyler’s parents had nearly reached the top of the stairs, one of the dangling straps on the suitcase in Skyler’s father’s right hand snagged on the handrail and was yanked out of his grasp, tumbling back down the steps and coming to a stop only two steps up from where Skyler was kneeling in the soupy water, his hands outstretched in a pleading gesture.
“Leave it!” shrieked Skyler’s mother, and she disappeared through the doorway at a dead sprint, shouldering her former landlady out of the way without a second thought. But Skyler’s father paused for a moment, looking down at the fallen suitcase and then up to meet the eyes of his only son. “Dad,” said Skyler, choking on his emotion. “I got a tattoo without permission. I used a fake ID. I lost the garage door opener. I never checked on grandma. I forgot what you said to do if the fish don’t eat.”
Skyler’s father looked like he was about to say something, but then he bit his lip, cast one last reluctant look at the dropped suitcase, and ran out into the yard after his wife. Skyler leapt to his feet and ran up the stairs three at a time, gaining the top just as his father was hurling his suitcase over the fence at the back of the woman’s property, grabbing the top of the fence with both hands, and scrambling over it in a clumsy rush.
Skyler removed his shirt again as he walked home, his wet flip flops feeling slimy against the bottoms of his feet, cut grass sprayed from Mr. Tinsley’s lawnmower sticking to his calves. When he got back to his house, Skyler did his homework for a while and then fell asleep on the couch in front of the 11:00 news.