Next morning it was pouring, buckets of rain.
Timothy’s mom was getting dressed for work, running late herself.
“I can drive you,” Cathryn said.
“Nah, that’s okay.”
“Really, it’s no prob--”
Timothy was already out the door, cramming a Carnation Instant Breakfast Bar into his face. He’d rather swim to school than have Cathryn drive him in the Calico Chrysler.
He pulled his windbreaker up over his head, exposing his midsection to the pouring rain, but keeping his long hair from getting totally drenched. A block later, a passing car pulled over and honked. He paid no attention at first to whoever was waving at him, then an electric window rolled down.
“Timothy Miller! Get in, we’ll give you a ride!”
It was Brandon’s mother calling to him from a late-model station wagon, the kind with the fake wooden panelling running along the sides. Brandon was in the back seat.
Timothy fell onto the leather seat next to Brandon.
“Hey,” Brandon said.
“Hey,” Timothy echoed.
“You look like a wet dog.”
Timothy laughed, he supposed he did.
“How come your mom isn’t driving you to school, Timothy?” Brandon’s mom asked from the front seat.
“She has to go to work,” Timothy said.
He pulled at his jacket where he could feel the wet shirt underneath starting to cling to his stomach.
“So, how come you still live in this neighborhood?” Brandon asked him.
“Brandon, be polite,” his mom said. She had a contemporary hairstyle with a little flip to it, sort of like the Bionic Woman.
Timothy shrugged. It had not escaped his attention that most of the kids whose dads worked at IPM lived up in Hilltop Meadows, a rolling suburban enclave at the edge of town.
Timothy’s neighborhood, while not the worst in town or anything, was nonetheless perceived as beneath consideration, compared to the winding roads and placid cul-de-sacs of split-level ranches where Brandon’s family lived.
“This is a lovely neighborhood, Timothy,” Brandon’s mom reassured him, catching his eye in the rearview mirror. “Brandon’s father and I have many happy memories of when we lived here before Brandon was born.”
“Then why did you move?” Brandon asked her.
His mom shot Brandon a glance and left the question unanswered.
“We sort of like it,” Timothy said, as if remaining in this neighborhood was a conscious choice made by the whole family.
What else was he supposed to say?
Every once in a while, Timothy wondered what his life would be like if they lived in Hilltop Meadows and had money.
But considering his current family situation, maybe it wouldn’t make much difference.
# # #
It was still raining midday, so they kept them inside for recess after lunch.
By the afternoon, the rain had cleared. Timothy figured there’d be other kids who wanted to blow off steam, but the field behind the Green Apartment Building was muddy, and there was no one else there.
Plan B. He ducked back home to retrieve the single cigarette from his cigar box and swiped the matches from above the stove without Cathryn seeing him.
Back by the Green Apartment Building, the brook was running high because of the rain. Timothy walked along as far as he could before the squishy banks turned to complete muck. There was a single rock on which he’d sat on numerous occasions when he just needed to be by himself and think about stuff. Today, he was on a mission.
He pulled the cigarette from his shirt pocket.
He had practiced holding it like the picture in the Lucky Strike ad. You had to make a sort of backwards peace sign, hold it sideways to your face, a confident gaze looking off in the distance.
But how exactly to light it when you needed both hands to strike the match?
He’d seen enough people do this. With the cigarette clenched more between his teeth than lips, he managed to strike the kitchen match against the box, but when he held it to the cigarette nothing was happening.
Figuring he probably had to breathe in to jumpstart the procedure, he inhaled with the full might of his lungs.
The explosion of coughing caught him so off guard that he almost forgot about the cigarette, but somehow he managed to grab hold of it. It burned slowly as Timothy continued coughing his lungs out.
By the time he caught his breath, the ashen butt of the cigarette was over a half inch long. Looking at the cigarette, he tapped it awkwardly to make the ashes fall off. He wasn’t about to give up now.
Taking the smallest of puffs, Timothy drew on the cigarette just enough to make the tip glow slightly brighter. The incoming smoke punched his young lungs and made him start coughing again, but this time the cough was much easier to bring under his control.
Continuing slowly, Timothy managed to take four or five additional puffs, coughing less each time, until the cigarette was down to the filter, which he tossed into the brook. He watched it drift away, like Paddle-to-the-Sea, the film about a carved wooden boat that Mrs. Brenner had shown them once at school.
Standing up from the rock, Timothy wasn’t expecting to be as lightheaded as he was. He had to sit back down quickly before he fell over.
By and by, letting his lungs rejuvenate and pump fresh oxygen through his body, Timothy got his sea legs and was able to stand up and start walking back along the brook.
He started coughing again and continued along with his eyes half-closed for a stretch. He was startled when he opened his eyes fully and came across someone crouched alongside the brook who he hadn’t noticed.
It was the blonde guy from the Green Apartment Building, the one Carl and Mark had said...what they’d said about him.
“Are you okay?” the guy asked Timothy, seemingly out of genuine concern.
“Yeah,” Timothy croaked, his vocal cords scratchy from the abuse he’d just inflicted upon them. “It’s just allergies.”
“Oh, okay,” the guy said, keeping his eye on Timothy an extra second just to be sure, then turning his attention to what he was holding in his hands.
He seemed to have some kind of scientific-looking beaker, he was taking a sample from the brook and holding it up to the light for inspection.
“What are you doing?” Timothy asked him, actually curious. He had never seen anyone do anything to the brook other than throw rocks into it, or dam it occasionally to cause a flood, just for fun.
“I’m testing for toxins,” the guy said.
“What are toxins?”
“Have you seen that green foam floating in the brook lately?”
“Yeah, I saw some green foam just yesterday!”
“Yeah, well, unfortunately I’ve seen it too. The foam itself is probably phosphorus, but there might be benzene and a few other toxic chemicals in the water too.”
“Is that bad?”
“It’s not good.”
Timothy found all this fascinating. Whatever his conception of the residents of the Green Apartment Building, he certainly wasn’t expecting any of them to be scientists.
“So, what are you going to do with these tests?”
The blonde guy looked at Timothy as if he was sizing him up as a security threat.
“Can you keep a secret?”
“If this is what I think it is, I’m about to send it to the D.E.C.”
“The Department of Environmental Conservation. They need to know about this.”
The guy put a cap on the first bottle, filled up a second, then put a cap on that one too.
“You’re gonna send these bottles to the D.E.C.?”
“No, I’ll run the tests myself, then I’ll send them the results... tell you what, you get your mom’s permission, I can show you how to run a water test sometime.”
Timothy didn’t know if the guy actually knew his mom, or if he was just making a general assumption, either way, he was feeling particularly grown-up, having just smoked his first cigarette, and bristled at the suggestion that he somehow lacked independence.
“I don’t have to ask my mom’s permission,” he said, “I can do what I want.”
The blonde guy figured Timothy was probably fibbing, but he also thought he recognized him as the boy who lived with the two women down the street, so maybe the kid’s mother really was more progressive than most.
“Okay then, you can come in now and take a look, if you like.”
If you’d asked Timothy just days ago if he’d even follow a virtual stranger into the Green Apartment Building, particularly this guy, he’d have said No Way. But seeing as he’d been inside the building just yesterday talking with an actual prostitute, it didn’t seem quite as risky as it would have. This guy was actually a little less scary than the prostitute.
“My name’s Ken,” the guy said.
“Okay,” Timothy said, accepting this new information without offering his own name in response.
Together, the two of them walked from the brook up the slight embankment, then along the sidewalk to the front door of the Green Apartment Building. Timothy looked both ways to make sure no one was watching.
“It’s okay, come on,” Ken said, opening the door.
As with the day before, Timothy walked through cautiously, making sure it didn’t slam shut again behind him. He paused instinctively in the dingy hallway. The musty smell reminded him that this was an alien landscape.
“Which apartment is yours?”
“That one right there, number five.”
If it were upstairs, Timothy might’ve had second thoughts, but it was right next door to the prostitute’s apartment where he’d already stood.
Still, he hesitated when he again recalled what Carl and Mark had said about this guy. Yeah, he seemed friendly, but Timothy also knew that there was such a thing as too friendly. What if this guy really was...queer? What could happen?
Ken unlocked his apartment and looked back at Timothy still standing there in the hallway.
“I have a meat cleaver,” Timothy suddenly blurted out, in all seriousness.
Ken looked surprised at first, then started laughing politely at the ridiculousness of this statement.
“You do, huh?”
“Well then,” Ken said, “I’d better leave this door open...for my own protection.”
With that, Ken disappeared into his apartment and left it for Timothy to enter on his own will, when or if he felt safe to do so.
After thinking on it further for the better part of a minute, Timothy entered the apartment, leaving the door open as Ken had suggested.
Timothy was surprised at what he found inside. Unlike the dirty floors and walls of the hallway, or the tawdry appearance of the prostitute’s living room, what little he had glimpsed of it, Ken’s apartment was remarkably light and clean.
The wooden floors were waxed and shiny. The walls freshly painted white. There was framed artwork on the wall, stuff that looked like it could be in a museum or something.
On a formica counter in the kitchen was the testing kit Ken had mentioned. All manner of different beakers, tubes, litmus strips.
But what really caught Timothy’s attention was the cork board on the wall, on which was pinned an elaborate collection of diagrams, maps, and snapshots. It looked like a Joe Pro crime investigation right out of a TV movie.
“Are you a private eye?” Timothy asked, looking at the collection of materials in amazement.
“No,” Ken laughed, “I’m a chemist...well, a chemistry student, anyway. I’m working on my degree at SUNY New Paltz.”
That was the same college where his mom was studying to be a paralegal. Maybe they knew each other from there?
“This was all just supposed to be part of my thesis but...” he waved his hand over all the charts and diagrams, “it started turning into something else...”
Timothy continued to look at Ken’s work. The maps were perhaps the most interesting of all, giving him a whole new perspective on his town.
It had never occurred to him how many places the brook flowed before its humble appearance as a place to chuck rocks as it trickled through his neighborhood. Reaching up with his pointer finger, he traced the route of the brook several neighborhoods up to a circled area, on which was written in pencil: IPM? with a question mark.
“Isn’t this the old quarry?” Timothy asked.
“So how come you wrote IPM on it?”
“I think they might have bought it.”
It was a lot of new information all at once, but Timothy was putting it together.
“And you think this green foam might...have something to do with IPM?”
Ken hesitated. The kid’s questioning seemed innocent enough, but it was probably best to be more judicious with this information. Who knew who the kid could start talking to?
“Well, I’m just putting this all together myself...like I said, I really need to run these tests, send it in to the D.E.C. and all that...there’s probably a simple explanation,” he said in a reassuring tone so the kid wouldn’t get all freaked out about this.
Timothy looked at the clock on Ken’s stove, it said 4:45.
“Well, I gotta go,” he said.
“It was nice to meet you...do you have a name?”
Timothy hadn’t given his name before, but now that he’d been inside this guy’s apartment and nothing terrible had happened, it didn’t seem as risky.
“Nice to meet you Timothy.”
As Ken walked Timothy back into the dirty hallway, yelling could be heard coming from behind the door of number six, the prostitute’s apartment.
It was a male voice, an angry voice. Timothy imagined it was the man who he’d sometimes seen walking up the street with the prostitute. The man was always quiet as they walked along, but if that was him, he sure had a loud, angry voice when he used it.
The angry voice reminded Timothy of something. Something troubling. He tried to remember what it was, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.
As Ken looked at the door to number six, his face changed from a smile to one of concern. He shook his head, like he’d heard this yelling before but didn’t know what to do about it.
“Well, see’ya,” Timothy said.
“See’ya,” Ken said, mimicking Timothy, smiling again.
As Timothy ran down the street, there were more things spinning around in his head than he could keep track of. Prostitutes, queers, maps, toxins, IPM--how were you supposed to process all these things at once?
The yelling behind the door of apartment six still rang in his ears, but so did various kind and patient things Ken had said.
He was about to run up his front steps when a voice came thundering from across the street.
It was Mr. O’Connor. Being a long-distance trucker, Mr. O’Connor was gone half the time, but when he was home, he had an outsized presence on the street. Even his mom and Cathryn agreed that it was good to have a man like Mr. O’Connor on the street, looking out for everyone.
Timothy ran straight over to see what Mr. O’Connor wanted. He was usually really easy going with Timothy, but now he was dead serious.
“What were you just doing in that apartment building?” he said.
“I was just...looking. I got curious.”
“You got no business going in there. I catch you going in there again I will have words with your mother, you understand me?”
And with that, the spinning thoughts in Timothy’s head suddenly ground to a halt. The mysterious portal that was the Green Apartment Building seemed to slam shut before it could open any further.