EYES OF THE BEHOLDER
"Why do I have to repeat the sixth grade?" I asked bitterly. "It's not fair."
I scowled, arms crossed, slouching in the back right seat of our Honda.
"How about because you need an education?" asked dad.
My shoulder bumped the door as he steered around a curve.
"Honestly, David," mom spoke sharply, "this isn't funny." Then to me, "Josh, honey, we've already discussed this. Everyone agrees it would be a bad idea for you to move up to the seventh grade. You lost too much time in the hospital."
"I never agreed," I said. "And it wasn't my fault."
"No, it wasn't your fault," she said in her patient patented mom voice, "but this way will be easier."
"Easier?" I asked. "How will it be easier? All my friends will be a year ahead of me. They'll be in a different building. They might as well be on the moon."
"You're exaggerating," said mom. "The seventh and eighth grades are right next door. You'll have plenty of chances to see your friends."
I slumped further down in the seat. Mom just didn't get it.
I leaned my head back and squeezed my eyes shut. Not that it made any difference. Open or shut, my eyes saw the same thing. Nothing. Not since that day, nine months ago, when I woke up in the hospital, completely blind.
Everyone thought I had the flu. Everyone was wrong. It was meningitis, the Big M, and I was totally screwed.
For a few minutes the only sounds were the purr of the engine, and the occasional rush of a car passing us in the opposite direction.
My stomach growled, and I was thirsty. We had spent all day in Philadelphia, visiting doctors and services for the blind.
"Can we stop somewhere for a hamburger?" I asked.
"No," said mom. "We can't. If you hadn't made such a fuss about school, we would be home by now."
I bounced my head against the back rest and decided not to say another word for the rest of the ride.
Then I felt the car brake and swerve off the road. We slowed to a crawl. I was torn between wanting to know what was happening, and not wanting to speak to my parents. Curiosity won.
"Why are we stopping?" I asked.
"I need to get gas," said dad.
"If you'd filled up before we left Philly, we wouldn't have to stop only five miles from home," said mom.
"Gas is always cheaper here anyway," said dad.
"Since you're going to stop I'll have to visit the ladies room," said mom.
"That should be a plus for stopping," said dad.
"Not really," said mom, "if you'd kept going I could have waited until we reached the house."
Mom and dad never used to argue, but ever since the Big M, they went after each other like two stray dogs over a dropped steak. I tuned out their bickering, and lowered my window. I heard the low growl of our idling engine, and the swish of wind. I smelled gasoline and car fumes, along with the faint odors of grass and woods. In the distance I heard men's voices shouting, and strained to make out the words.
"Keep looking for those dogs," one raspy voice rose above the rest. "We don't stop until we find them."
I shivered at the tone of that voice, and felt a brief sympathy for the dogs. We stopped, and our engine shut off.
"Josh, do you need the boys' room?" asked mom.
"No thanks." I turned my face towards the window, feeling the warm breeze.
Mom and dad both got out, and I heard mom walk off. In the distance the men were still calling to each other.
"Can you see what's happening?" I asked.
"It's getting dark," said dad. "There's some guys searching in the woods with flashlights. I'm not sure what for."
"Where are we?" I asked, not bothering to repeat what I'd just heard.
"We're across the street from the Cube," said dad.
I conjured up a memory of the big white concrete building, surrounded by a tall chain link fence topped with razor wire.
I listened to dad taking out the pump nozzle, putting it in our tank, swiping his credit card, and then cursing.
"I'll have to go inside to pay."
"Ok," I said. "Can you bring me back a coke?"
I heard dad's shoes scuffle on the asphalt as he headed away. For a minute there was quiet. Then I heard footsteps. These were on gravel.
"We're never going to find a bunch of black dogs in the woods at night," a low voice grumbled.
"You want to say that to the boss?" asked another voice.
There was no reply. The footsteps changed from the crunch of gravel to the rustle of leaves and snapping twigs, as the owners of the voices walked into the woods.
I untangled my ear buds and was about to start up my audio book, when I heard the panting.
Someone, or something, was outside my window.
I felt goosebumps on my arm. I pressed the button to raise my window. Nothing happened. Of course not. The keys were with dad.
I wanted to shout for dad, but my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth. My throat was too dry to speak.
All I could do was listen. The panting was close. It did not sound like a person. Was it a dog? Whatever it was stood right outside our car.
Then the panting changed, growing more muffled. I heard a thump, and felt the car rock slightly. Warm breath brushed against my face.
Panicked, I jerked away from the window, but my seatbelt held me in place.
Then I smelled it. This was definitely a dog. It must be a big one, standing on its hind legs, looking in my window. What did it want?
My own breaths were fast and shallow. A sudden itchy tickle started in my nose. A tingling feeling like before you sneeze. Then the tingle spread across my face, into my ears, my eyes and my mouth and tongue. I had never felt anything like this. What was happening?
My fingers fumbled for the seat belt release. Then a muffled whimper from the dog made me pause. My fear slowly lessened. Whatever this dog wanted, I sensed it was not going to hurt me. Why were the men searching for it? For one mad instant I thought of opening my door and letting it hide in the car with me. But I knew what mom's reaction would be. No way.
"Sorry, dog, I can't help you," I said. "You better get out of here."
Where were mom and dad? They would be back any minute.
The dog stood still, leaning on our car, snuffling heavily. My hand trembled as I slowly reached out, hoping my fingers would not get bitten. The tingling in my head grew stronger. It did not hurt. It became a pressure, like the feeling of holding your thumb over a garden hose as the tap is opened.
My hand touched the dog's ear. It was warm, smooth, and silky soft, like the velvet of my mom's going out jacket.
Then the tingling pressure inside my head gave way. A sudden burst of brilliant lights zapped into my head. And I could see.
Formless patterns of light and dark swirled in my head. Nothing made sense. Then slowly the patterns became shapes, the shapes became objects.
An image formed, but it was all wrong. I knew I was facing a dog through the window, but I saw a kid, sitting in the back of a car. It was night, but I could tell the kid was skinny, with dark hair, and thick eyebrows. Like me, but a little older.
This was impossible. I had not seen anything in nine months. Was I dreaming? But no, I knew I was wide awake. I was still touching the dog's ear through the open window. The kid's arm reached past my head, like he was trying to touch me.
The dog's head turned under my hand. The scene shifted. Now I was seeing three puppies huddled together on the ground.
Suddenly I could clearly hear the voices of distant men, the crunch of their feet, and the skitter of small animals running through the grass ahead of the men's heavy footfalls.
I smelled a thousand new odors. The peanut butter crackers I snacked on yesterday, the soda we had shared this afternoon, my dad's soap, my mom's shampoo, the dog's musty fur, and hundreds of other scents mingling in and out of the car.
It was all too loud, too bright, too overpowering. I jerked my arm back. The vision disappeared. The sounds grew muffled and faint. The odors were gone. The tingling in my head faded, but did not completely disappear.
Something dropped into my lap, and I reached for it with both hands. It was warm, wiggling, and furry. It was a puppy.
The dog was still at my window, panting louder now that the puppy was no longer in its mouth. Her mouth. The dog must be the puppy's mother.
I heard a scrabbling sound, felt the car shudder again, and the dog was gone. From the sounds outside, I could tell that someone was coming closer. Their voices grew excited, then urgent.
"I see her," one of them called out.
Then came the raspy voice again. "Bring the gun over here. Don't let her get away."
"There she is," said a third voice.
"Shoot!" said the raspy voice. "Now, you idiot, now."
I jumped at the sharp crack, heard a yelp. Clutched the puppy closer to my stomach. The tingling in my head vanished. The voices moved away.
My hands shook. I felt like being sick out the window, but did not dare attract any attention.
"I found the pups," one man's voice called out.
I sat completely still. Not moving. Not making a sound.
Then I heard mom's rapid footsteps coming closer.
"What's going on here?" she called out.
"Nothing to worry about, lady," a man called back.
Frantically I emptied my backpack. The puppy was small. I placed it gently inside my pack, praying all the while that mom would not see us.
I heard mom's door open. She got in, and shut the door.
"Josh, did you hear anything out there?" asked mom.
"Like what?" I stalled.
Mom hesitated. "Nothing," she said. "Where is your father?"
"He went inside to pay."
The puppy squirmed silently in my backpack. I reached in and stroked it. Please, please don't make any noise, I thought. Inside my chest, my heart pounded at twice its normal speed.
At last dad returned. He took out the gas nozzle, and climbed in behind the wheel.
"I can't believe you left Josh out here alone," said mom.
"For heaven's sake, Mia," said dad, "he's not helpless."
I said nothing, just continued stroking the puppy's fur. Finally the puppy stopped squirming. It was asleep.
"It looks like those men found something," said mom. "The flashlights are all bouncing by one spot now."
I shivered, trying not to think about what they were gathering around.
I heard dad twist in his seat.
"Here's your coke, buddy," he said.
"Thanks, dad." I reached forward, and he put the cold soda can in my sweating hand. I kept the other hand inside my backpack.
"It looks like they've stopped searching," said mom. "The flashlights are heading to the Cube. I wonder what they were looking for."
"We'll probably never know," said Dad.
He started the engine. The puppy continued to sleep. But for how long?
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EYES OF THE BEHOLDER
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EYES OF THE BEHOLDER was a Finalist in the 2015 Tassy Walden Awards for New Voices in Children's Literature, sponsored by Connecticut's Shoreline Arts Alliance.
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