Chapter Eight – the apple
Just over seven years had passed since the evening of the rainbow sherbet. The father’s promise held. There were incidents − products of the father’s peculiarities − too many to keep track of, though nothing as significant as that particular flood of rage. The boys learned to identify the signs − anticipate the quakes − slip by them, through them, hide from them, trick them, and survive them. Judas was more adept at this than his brother. He’d refined the art of ritual − the facial expressions, the right words, the perfect tone. He was clearly a better performer than Jack, but suffered from a lack of vision and a stifling fear. He took no chances.
Jack had tasted things which Judas had not. This, in turn, stoked a dangerous curiosity in him. The father had convinced himself that Jack’s propensity to stray was the result of a lack of faith in him.
But where does it come from?
He couldn’t help but wonder if it was genetic, something he’d acquired from his incorrigible mother. Regardless of its origin, it troubled him deeply. The father would often turn his disappointment and feelings of powerlessness into an internalized form of self-flagellation. At other times he’d treat his son’s irreverent behavior as a personal affront to his authority and, in that, suffer the pain of false tolerance − this, in turn, would push him to the very edge of striking out.
Jack, however, couldn’t seem to help himself; he was plagued with doubts, which he’d attempt to manipulate, and maybe succeed to a small degree, but something inside him told him he was right to doubt − to question, to cross the line when possible and explore it all − even the dark and forbidden.
Nearing the end of the school year, Jack had come down with a fever and had missed two days of school. On the morning of the third day, the fever was all but gone, but their family doctor had warned against returning to school until a full, feverless day had passed. So, Jack was stuck at home, feeling antsy in bed, eager to return to school and put some distance between him and his father. He yet had some homework − boring stuff, which he could not bring himself to do. Instead, he read from the book he’d smuggled into the house at the bottom of his backpack − a novel, called Harry Potter, which he’d borrowed from a boy at school. He’d find himself, at times, absorbed by the story, but his concentration would snap at the slightest noise. Should he hear his father’s footsteps in the hall, he’d slip the book beneath the blankets. And that is what prompted him to slam the book shut, quickly hide it, and then roll to his side, his back to the door.
“Jack…” His father’s voice seemed respectfully low.
A smile tried pushing its way onto Jack’s lips, but he forced it back down.
He rolled to his back and squinted toward his father.
“I have to leave for a short while. How are you feeling?”
“Better... I think.”
“Do you need anything?”
“No, Father. If I do, I can get it.”
“All right then. I’ll be back in maybe an hour… could be a little longer.”
“I’ll be fine,” Jack said.
His father turned and disappeared down the hall. A short while later, Jack heard the front door open and close, and then, a few moments after that, the thump of a car door, the murmur of the engine, and finally the sound of the car moving off down the street. He lay there for a minute − listening − making certain. A nervous excitement came over him − something new and unfamiliar, swimming with yet undiscovered possibilities.
“I’m alone,” he said. “Hey! I’m alone!”
He imagined the rooms in the house − empty, unoccupied − and drew pictures in his mind of each one individually, until he came to his father’s office. It was explicitly forbidden to enter that room while the father was not present. This rule had been tested on a couple occasions, once by each of the brothers. The consequences they suffered could be counted among the most severe. There was clearly something in that room; he was absolutely certain of it. Something − perhaps answers to the greatest mysteries.
Jack climbed from his bed, hesitated before his bedroom door − thinking, weighing, calculating − then slipped up the hall to the front room. He climbed over the couch and peered through the blinds hanging before the large window that overlooked the front porch and the street which paralleled it. The driveway before their garage was more than large enough for a car, but the father rarely used it. Curiously, he preferred the street. He liked parking in line with their front walkway, matching the driver’s door with the front door of the house… or so it seemed. Jack looked up the street as far as his vantage allowed. The car was definitely gone. He slipped back down the hall, past his bedroom door, to the open French doors at the far end. Here, just inches before him, was the invisible but dreadful barrier that separated him from whatever forbidden truth lay beyond. He listened to the empty house for a moment.
A sound… thum thump…
He held his breath and listened − a low, steady, thum thump, thum thump, thum thump… He turned and stared toward the other end of the hall. He could feel it now − thum thump. Suddenly realizing what it was, he pressed his palm to his chest.
A long sigh emptied his lungs. He stood for a several moments just beyond the threshold, attempting to calm himself through a series of short breaths − monitoring his progress with a hand to his sternum. He stepped in, and then out again, as though teasing the fear lurking within the cells of his heart.
“Father is gone,” he whispered. “There’s no way he can know.”
He stepped in again, paused, scanned the little room from corner to corner, then stepped up to his father’s desk like he had so many times before − but not like this. He looked over the familiar items arranged over its glossy mahogany surface like they’d been so carefully positioned, perhaps mapped out and measured. Move the wooden pencil cup an eighth inch… he’ll know. He’ll get out a ruler and check it against his map… and he’ll know. It’s one big booby trap which won’t spring until well after the fact. But there, on the surface, he knew, is not where he’d find the answers he was after.
Jack crept around to the backside of the desk. There were four drawers. The one in the middle, the long thin drawer, was blocked by his father’s wheeled swivel chair. That one, he figured, was the least likely to contain anything of interest. The largest drawer, the one on the right, is where he decided to start. He slipped his fingertips up under the drawer pull and gave it a light tug. It resisted. He pulled a little harder. Is it stuck, he wondered? He tried again. It would not give but for the slightest jiggle. He moved to the left side of the chair and gave the other two drawers a tug. The desk − all its drawers with all their secrets appeared to be locked up tight.
But there was one more. Jack studied the chair. Would his father somehow know it was moved? He noted the position of the chair’s four casters on the floor, noting where each one sat in relation to the cracks, dents, and scuffs in the floorboards. He pulled the chair away, and tugged the handle of the middle drawer − locked. “Shit.”
He gazed at the desk before him, wondering at the possibility of picking the lock − something he’d never tried before. He’d seen it done on TV − they do it all the time, and it always looked so easy.
But what if I got it unlocked and then couldn’t lock it afterwards? I’d be screwed. “Shit.”
He was just about to return to his room, to Harry Potter, when it suddenly came to him − a distant memory − his father removing a set of keys from behind a certain book. He turned around and studied the wall of books behind his father’s desk. Right there, second shelf down… to the left, the far left. A rather thick volume was squeezed in between its neighboring books and the side of the shelf. The title, printed along its spine, in shiny gold letters: The Apple. Yes, that’s it − he remembered puzzling over the title − it didn’t seem to fit a reference book, or a history book. It couldn’t possibly be a book about war, as a lot of the others were. He remembered wanting to ask, but then not asking… and now it didn’t matter. He pulled the book down, reached up and pushed his hand to the back of the shelf.
“Ah ha..,” he breathed.
In his hand was a metal ring with two keys dangling from it. One of the keys was clearly too big to be a desk key. He took the smaller one and carefully worked it into the keyhole at the center of the middle drawer and turned it until he felt a click. The drawer slid open. The very first thing to catch his eye was a flat, sixteen-inch ruler. There were some pens, a red pencil, a small magnifying glass, paper clips, a button, a letter opener, a curious, little, clear plastic thing, which appeared to have a tiny woman trapped inside. A knob, the size of a pea, was at the bottom of her transparent cage. He leaned forward and studied the thing − a strange little toy of some sort. It seemed the woman was made of rubber − a gray fleshy color. She was naked. He lifted it from the drawer and examined it from a variety of angles. The woman had disproportionately large breasts, which jutted straight-out like the ends of two torpedoes. Jack carefully twisted the little knob. The tiny figure inside gyrated − like a hula dancer. “Huh…” His brow furrowed, and his head shook ever so slightly. He gave the toy another moment of scrutiny before returning it to the exact place and position he found it.
He again tried the large drawer to his right. It slid open.
The drawer was full of hanging files, some with tabs identifying the contents − Insurance, Property Taxes, Utilities, Auto, and a few with no identification. Jack pulled out the insurance folder and spread it open on the floor. Guardian Insurance Company… Home Owner’s Policy.
His current address was typed into the space provided. And there was the policy holder’s name typed out across a thin black line; Pucer Dwain Holflapper.
He couldn’t resist trying it. “Pucer…” A picture of his father’s stern face entered his mind. “Pucer?” The name did not match the face in the least.
Why was this kept from him and his brother? Pucer… It felt wrong, entirely wrong. He could not imagine anyone ever calling his father Pucer. But why the secret? Could it be he simply doesn’t like it? he wondered. Is that reason enough to keep it from us? Couldn’t he have simply added it to his list of commandments? Thou shalt not call me Pucer. “Hmm...”
He squared up the edges of the stapled document, dropped it into its folder, then got up from the floor, and slipped it back into its original location. He thumbed through a few of the other folders. Pucer D. Holflapper was everywhere. How could he and his brother not know this? He came to the first of the unmarked folders and spread it open. Down at the bottom was a group of old envelopes. Jack reached in and pulled one out. It was addressed to Mr. Holflapper... just Holflapper... no Pucer… no D. The return address was W. Packard Street in Appleton, Wisconsin. Mary J. Johnston was neatly written above it.
Jack was just about to pull the letter from the envelope when he heard a thump… and, as quick as that, his heart sped to a gallop. He shoved the letter into the folder and pushed the drawer shut with a thud. A pencil lying loose on the desktop began to roll. He grabbed at it. His hand bumped the pencil cup near the edge of the desktop and sent it flying to the floor. A crash and a rattle of pens and pencils.
“Shit! Shit! Shit!”
He fumbled the key into the middle drawer, turned it, felt the click, turned it back, jerked it out, then hastily shoved it into its place on the bookshelf.
He pushed the chair in, not bothering with positioning its casters, then rushed to the side of the desk, scooped up the pens and pencils, and threw them haphazardly into the wooden cup. He stared at the desktop, trying to recall precisely where the cup was sitting. He examined the cup in his hand. Were all sides the same? Any markings?
He set the cup down, squared it up… The pencil! Which one was it? He searched through the cup, selected one, and…Where was it?
It rolled that way, so it must have been here, he reasoned.
A noise… a click, a pop came from somewhere within the house. Jack scampered toward the hall, slid to a stop and turned. The book! He hustled back into the forbidden zone, grabbed the book, squeezed it into its corner of the shelf, and then burnt a path from there to his bed.
His chest heaved as he fought for control of his breath. He listened for his father’s footsteps… Any second now… any second… Moments passed. He glanced toward the door of his room and listened… listened… Nothing but time passing by. He sat up and stared even more intently toward the hall. The house was quiet. He allowed another moment to pass, then climbed from his bed, stuck his head through the doorway and peered down the hall, toward the front room. Quiet.
He shuffled into the front room, climbed up on the sofa, and peeked through the blinds. No car. He rushed to the other window, the one overlooking the driveway − no car there either. A long, windy, exhausted sigh left his lungs.
The noise, though… What was that?
There was no time to consider the question, for, at that very moment, he heard his father’s car coming down the street.