“They’re outside” she said. My eyes adjusted to my mother’s face in the darkness of my room. The cottage only had one bedroom and during the week it was mine. Where she slept Friday and Saturday nights was a matter of debate with my father, with whom I spent the weekends for as long as I could remember. She pulled me across the bed by my pajamas and screamed the whisper, “you have to get up.” When I had grown too tall for my Spider-Man one-piece pajamas, Mom had cut the feet off so I could still fit in them. Now, with my bare feet meeting the chill of the wooden floor, I wished I hadn’t grown up so fast.
She crouched to reduce her height and hustled me through the unlit living room, through a maze of chairs, couches and a portable mini bar, with her head half-turned to windows that faced the forest. I strained to see what she was looking for. We were living on someone else’s estate and we weren’t supposed to have a dog. I had never seen the owners but I had looked in all the windows of their house; they had covered their furniture like a magician might before whisking it off to the delight of his audience. I wanted to be there when they came back from their trip so I could yell “SURPRISE” every time they pulled a cover off. But all I saw outside now were trees. And darkness.
Stella, our German shepherd, was already in the bathroom and raised herself onto her front legs when we entered. Stella watched dutifully as my mother gently put me into the empty claw bathtub. Mom told me to keep my head down and went back out into the living room, closing the door behind her. When Stella’s wet nose found me in the dark, I pressed my head against hers and scratched the sides of her neck. She broke away and focused on the door; from the other side we heard the strain of old windows being locked. I wished it were Friday so my father could save us.
The door opened and a flashlight shone in my face.
“I told you to keep down.”
In my mothers other hand was a gun. I though she might kill me, Stella and then herself. I had seen something like that in a movie on television that had to do with Russia bombing us and making everybody miserable. I had always thought my mom would die in a car wreck because she’d had so many accidents. When she got mad and went for a drive I always wondered if it would be the last time I’d ever see her. I’d memorize her last words, what she wore and then I’d think about whether I’d be sad or not.
But she didn’t kill me. She left me with the flashlight and went back into the dark cottage. She returned with my blankets and made a bed for me in the tub.
“We just have to hope they don’t get in” she told me and sat Indian style on the floor between the sink and door. She placed the pistol on the small white tiled floor and Stella stretched out against her legs. “I won’t let them hurt you, Hector.” She made a face that was supposed to make me feel better but just made me scared of her. She let out a deep breath, put her hand back on the gun and looked at the bathroom door.
Everything was quiet. I looked at the door for a while, too. Then I reached over to scratch Stella’s neck again. My mother pushed my hand away and warned me to stay completely inside the tub. “Otherwise they’ll see you with their radar.”
I looked at my mother with her dark hair pulled into a ponytail, her bony wrists jutting out from a white sweatshirt that read “Puerto Rico,” and realized we were in trouble. If I were bigger I could go outside and fight somebody; if I was smaller I could hide in a cabinet. At 7 I was just the wrong size. But I knew I could help, I was smart, people told me so all the time. They looked surprised when they said it so I knew it must be true.
“Mom? Who’s outside?”
Her eyes locked with mine and her lips pulled back and forward again and she looked she was going to cry.
“It’s the KKK,” she admitted softly, “they’re working with Martians to start a race war.”
And so it was revealed to me in hushed, fearful tones: the KKK had a secret bunker beneath the forest floor and from this clandestine location they communicated, and formed an alliance with, Martian Invaders. Soon a well-orchestrated race war would divide and weaken the populace. My best friend was black and the idea of fighting him left me depressed. After that, my mother explained, the Martians were going to “kidnap the survivors and make them have babies.”
“Can the Martians change their shape?” I interrupted, proud to have remembered the fact from reading comic books. She brought her palms to the air as she considered the possibilities.
“I don’t know,” She let the concepts connect in her mind for a minute before her body snapped to attention, “but if they could change shape they definitely wouldn’t turn black.”
I slept in the bathtub that night. Water must have dripped from the faucet because in the morning dampness had climbed the length of the blanket. My mother made me a hot cocoa from powder with a bit of rum and explained that she was going for help. She made me promise not to leave the bathroom and gave the dog a similar speech about looking out for me.
Not long after she left Stella began to whine and pace. She pressed her face against mine looking for help but I couldn’t leave the bathroom much less go outside. With torment in her eyes she assumed a familiar stance and pooped on the floor. I used the last of our toilet paper to clean it up. I took my wet blanket and made a bed for her on the floor so she wouldn’t think I was mad at her.
I filled the tub with water and took a bath. If I put my finger in my belly button when it was wet and pulled it out quickly it made a PLOOP sound. Submerging myself under the water I could over hear transmissions from the Martian bunker. I tried to listen under water for as long as I could letting only my nose break the surface of the water. I heard the echoing clang of ships readying for war when light came over took the tub. I saw a shape enter the room. I brought my head up and stared at my Aunt Shannon. She smiled and sat on the edge of the tub “Are you having fun” she asked. My eyes followed hers and I realized my hands were covering my penis. “Let’s get you out of there. Your water logged” she said handing me a towel.
For a few months out of the year Aunt Shannon was six years older than me, other times she was only five years older. She kept track of the differences for me. Right now she was six years older than me. My mom had called her and asked her to check on me. Shannon let the dog outside for a walk and opened the windows. “We should be okay during the day” she said untroubled by our predicament. And I believed her because she was older and she was pretty. In the kitchen she found half a loaf of bread “it’s moldy” she explained. For dinner she tore off the edges of the bread and we dipped them in ketchup to add flavor.
Shannon and I read Spider-Man before bedtime. I explained to her how his web shooters worked but she mostly wanted to know why he didn’t have a girlfriend. When she declared it bed time she closed my door without leaving the room first. I couldn’t see her as she climbed into the bed and gave me a hug. “Goodnight kiddo” she purred in a breath that wasn’t tainted by cigarettes or white wine. She rolled over, taking most of my blanket with her and was soon asleep. I had never slept in a bed with someone before. I spent a long time listening to her breath. I didn’t sleep well.
My mother came back a few days later wearing different clothes then when she left. She came walking down the stone steps to our house holding hands with a blonde haired man. When she saw Shannon and me on the porch she stopped suddenly and seemed surprised to see us. Angry, she moved her sunglasses to the top of her head and snapped “Did you go to school at all this week?”