Things had been quiet until Christmas passed, but the year's approaching end promised more trouble. New Year's Eve is not a children's holiday. So far Sid was passing it in the kitchen of his friend Josh's house, watching Punky Brewster on the little portable tv and trying to ignore the wailing two rooms over. Sid was eating Lucky Charms even though he hated all those milk soaked marshmallows that looked more like weird colored snots than diamonds or horseshoes. He would've prefered Honey Nut Cheerios, but those were littered on the floor, hence the crying from the living room. It was okay, Josh had said, later he'd take Sid to his spot where he summoned the devil.
“Why do you still watch this?” said Sid.
“I don't know.” Josh said. “I think she's kind of cute.”
They'd grown up with the show, watching its titular orphan mature from a little girl to a preteen. The boys really weren't supposed to be old enough yet to start thinking about girls in that way, but last year Sid woke up soaked in sweat and semen, which presented a particular embarrassment since he'd been camping.
Josh had made him feel better, though, in the way he did. He said sometimes he got distracted in class because he was watching the curve of Miss Yellen's chest and thinking about how her bare breasts were only two layers of clothing beneath that. Sid wasn't even sure he'd seen a bare breast before and Josh said he knew he hadn't because his mom always claimed he was bottle fed.
That conversation should've ended in awkward silence, but they were boys of a certain age with no one else around. It felt okay to the both of them.
They heard a tiny voice yell, “Fuck you.”
Josh's mom came storming in. She grabbed a bottle of dish detergent from the sink and left. Josh never took his eyes off the screen, but Sid leaned over to look, causing the torn foam cushion under his butt to exhale an exhausted gasp. There was Jake, the littlest child in the family. And there was his mom, squeezing soap down his throat.
Jake was only six and hadn't learn to speak until he was five. When he did speak, it was often in some form of expletive he'd learned from listening to adults. It's not as though he even understood what it meant. Jake also had trouble controlling his body. The whole show had started when he'd spilled the Cheerios.
“Come on, let's go before she gets to us.” said Josh.
Sid hopped down and found his fists balled. His shoulders were tight and his head was throbbing. He wanted to do something. His own dad could sometimes be a bit hard on him, but they were always just words.
And Dad had always said he wanted Sid to be tough, to fight back. If anyone was going to be upset with Sid for getting into a fight in defense of himself or anyone else, that person wasn't going to be his father. Not coming to the aid of a little kid not only seemed wrong, but cowardly, and that's what his dad would be most ashamed of.
Josh pulled on Sid, saying, “What are you doing?”
“Should we do something?”
“You're only gonna get your butt kicked.” Josh leaned in and whispered. “Do you know who should do something? My dad. He's the grown up.”
“Your dad's not here.”
Sid just looked at Josh in stunned silence. Maybe his friend was right. It didn't make Sid feel any better. They went out into the street and hiked up hill through a couple inches of snow. There was a place where a bridge crossed a viaduct with train tracks. On the other side they could see down the hill where a gray stone church stood guard over a cluster of homes.
There was a car parked down there. Inside the passenger seat sat a giant black dog. On the hood sat a man in plain white tee and pressed blue jeans. He was reading the newspaper and didn't seem bothered at all by the cold.
Josh tried to go down that street and Sid pulled back.
“No, I can't.” he said. “That's Grady Booth.”
“Don't worry, go this way.”
They ducked under a fence and went around the back of the church. There were wooden planks nailed to the basement window, but one of them was loose. Josh pulled it back and climbed in before Sid could protest. Well, it was either stay out here and wait for Grady to find him or follow. Follow he did.
He found himself in a little room filled with old books. Sid pulled one out of a box and paged through it. It was a prayer book, but it was written in Latin.
“They don't do it in Latin anymore.” said Josh. “But they kept all these books. Isn't that awesome?”
In another corner of the room, someone had overturned a wooden box and covered it with a white cloth. On top of the altar stood a collection of candles in candle holders made of chunky glass colored an ugly yellow. Sid recognized them from his own basement. They were wedding gifts his parents never used. On the shelves behind all this a crucifix hung upside down.
Sid had to laugh.
“So you summon the devil from a church basement?”
“Can you think of any place better place?” said Josh. “My parents have been bringing me here since I was a born and you can see all the good it's done. I hate this place.” He grabbed a book from the altar and handed it to Sid. “Look at this.”
“The Red Dragon?”
“It's for summoning the devil. It's the real thing, Sid. I was down here once and they were doing a bible study or something in the other room. I overheard them all talking about this stuff so I stole a copy from the library.”
Sid flipped through it and handed it back.
“So what do you say to the devil anyway?” he said.
“I ask for things.” Josh took out a sealed letter from his book bag and put it among the candles. “If you're trying to do something to someone else, you need an object that belongs to them. This is a letter my dad wrote.” Josh scrunched his face and turned around as his skin started to turn a little red, as if he were trying to hide an anger so terrible it was about to make him cry. “I want him to either grow a backbone or go to hell.”
“I get it.” Sid said. “I mean I don't believe this stuff but I get it.”
“Do you want me to do something for you?”
“Well, maybe you should just leave me a alone then, if you're so against it.”
“I'm not against it…”
Sid thought. His friend really wanted this. If Sid didn't believe, did it matter? He considered what to do and then he reached in his pocket and pulled out a photo, or at least a corner cut off a larger photo. It was a picture of a girl just a little older than he was.
“Why do you have a picture of my sister?” said Josh.
“I don't know.” Sid shrugged. “I think she's kind of cute. Is that okay?”
“Um…” Josh shook his head and flailed a hand. “Of course. Sure. Why do I care? So you like want me to make her fall in love with you? Is that it?”
“Not exactly fall in love.” Now that he was actually talking about it, he wasn't sure what he wanted. “At least not yet. I don't want her to be following me around all the time.”
“Let's do mine first.”
Josh sat down and lit the candles and opened The Red Dragon. He started reading some stuff in a language Sid didn't recognize. He probably wasn't even saying the words right. A few moments later, the wind blew in the window by which they'd entered the room and snuffed the candle, just as one might expect to happen. Josh yelped and jumped up. Sid laughed again. He couldn't help himself.
“Did you see that?” said Josh.
“I sure did.” He was still laughing. Then he glanced up at the window and saw that it was snowing hard and said, “We better get out of here before the snow fills up the escape route.”
“Right.” Josh said, still shaken.
Josh put the letter back in his bag and they climbed out through the opening. Sid went first and pulled on Josh, but his bag got stuck. It fell off his shoulder and back into the basement just as he was crawling free.
“You made me drop my bag!” he said.
“If you hadn't yanked on me… go back and get it!”
Josh had been pretty angry about a lot of things lately. Sid was a laid back kid, at least he liked to think so. He was the kind of friend Josh needed. Sid decided to go get it. But as he was about to climb in, a big black dog came trotting around the corner. From the other side came Grady Booth.
“Hi boys.” said Grady. “What were you doing? Smoking down there?”
“We weren't doing anything.” said Sid.
Grady knelt down. He fetched an envelope that was soaking in the snow. It was the letter. The man opened it and read the ink as it began to run on the page.
“What's this?” he said. “Don't answer, I'll tell you.” He eyed Josh as if the boy were somehow to blame for whatever horrors were written on the page. “It's a letter your father wrote to the woman he's fucking. Did you know he's leaving your mom and all you kids?”
This time the rage welling inside Josh really was too much and the tears ran down his folded up face. Sid made a secret pact with himself. He was going to do something. If he saw Josh's mom abusing her little Jake again, he'd step on her foot. If he saw Josh's dad, he'd tell him just what he thought. As for Grady?
“Leave him alone.”
“Excuse me?” said Grady.
“I know my dad works for you. You think it means you can do what you want. But not to me it doesn't.”
“No.” He handed the letter back to Josh. “Maybe not to you, Sid Blake. But not everyone sees things the way you do.”
Grady whistled and his black dog came trotting over. The two left. The boys turned in the other direction and went their way. Josh shuffled through the snow and Sid tried to lighten the mood by daring him to toss a snowball further than him into the train culvert, but that was no use. He almost felt like he was physically dragging his friend.
They played video games for awhile at Sid's house and Josh went home after supper. New Year's Eve wasn't a kid's holiday, after all. In the morning Josh showed up again, banging on the window. He coaxed Sid to come down to his house.
What they found was his dad's car. The driver's side was bashed in.
“Is your dad okay?” said Sid.
“He's in the hospital. They said it was a drunk driver.”
“Jesus.” was all he could say, and he felt guilty for not saying more.
Maybe Josh really had summoned the devil. Saying it was a drunk driver was an easy excuse. Sid still didn't believe that stuff. But he did believe the look on Grady's face, as though the man had let Sid go because Josh needed him more, wanted someone like Grady in his life. In all this Sid felt helpless. He was just another kid. What was he going to do against bad mothers and strangers with big dogs?
He decided it didn't matter.