Paradise Valley

Everett had never seen a lizard prior to moving to the desert. Frogs, toads, snakes, and the occasional turtle had been common sights in Wyoming, even making their way into the vents under the house from time to time. But never a lizard. Since the move, he had spotted many, but most were too quick to get a good look at and would scamper away at the slightest breath of a human being. He wouldn’t have much time to examine this one either.

“You’re out, pop fly!” shouted a blonde boy on the mound as lizard bits went flying over half the infield.

There were only six of the would-be all-stars scattered around the dirt patch, but Everett doubted very much the point of the afternoon was to play any kind of serious baseball. Instead, they lounged in their positions, waiting their turn to rain down murder on bucketful of green-brown reptiles which sat near the pitcher’s mound. Everett watched the blood sport carefully, searching within himself for either moral outrage or sick pleasure.

“Bullshit! I hit that little bastard square on the sweet spot!” replied the batter, equally blonde but with red streaks. He turned toward the sidewalk, specks of blood dotting his face. “You saw it didn’t you Sweats?”

Everett hated the name. Although a full head shorter than the neighborhood kids, he weighed considerably more. His body temperature – insulated by his girth – hadn’t yet adjusted to the Phoenix climate and he was constantly perspiring through his clothes. He stood in silence, unable to muster any official ruling.

“The fuck did I just ask you, Sweats? Don’t just stand there like a goober,” screamed the batter, “I hit the piss outta that lizard, base hit.”

“I don’t – I don’t know Callen, I was just walking by.”

“Goddammit Everett, you’re a real sackless wonder. Keep walking before I come over there and squeeze your tits.”

The other boys laughed as Everett tucked his head and continued his walk home. A couple of them shouted further jabs, while the pitcher returned to the bucket for the next squirming projectile. Another two blocks past the field, and Everett’s shirt was effectively soiled.

He reached Bell Street and turned right, making his way into a sea of identical homes. His mother had bought their one-story adobe house with the divorce proceeds of the previous December. The split had been sudden and unforgiving, and in his mother’s eyes, only an escape to the southern heat could set things right. The day she took the kids and left, she swore she would never taste another snowflake for as long as she lived.

Lava rock lined the front walk, and the front windows held planter boxes full of cactus; it was the quintessential Arizona home, built for pale skinned families who wanted a taste of the southwest. Near the top step sat a large stone doorstop, engraved with his mother’s most recent motto. What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well. He dragged his feet as he walked up the driveway, and dropped his backpack on the front steps. The door was locked. Sinking down on the steps, he jumped when the sun-baked concrete scorched the backside of his legs. His mother was not home – something which never surprised him, but for which he was never prepared.  She worked in real estate, selling similar adobe homes to similarly white bread families. Her schedule was dependent on others – whether for open houses, showings, or closings – and the door was rarely unlocked when Everett got home. Several years before, she had read an article online detailing the horrors of raising a so-called latchkey kid – the type of child who carried a house key, let themselves in after school, and turned to alcohol and drugs at an early age. She swore up and down to everybody who would listen that she would raise no such child. Thus, Everett was never given a house key.

An hour later, a city bus from downtown pulled up at the bench shelter across the street. The bus was only half full, and Everett could see through the windows that most of them were day trippers, people who had nowhere to be but paid the dollar fare merely to escape the heat for a while. Some were homeless, some junkies, and some a combination of the two. As is it pulled away to loop back downtown, the bus revealed Everett’s sister crossing over to the porch. Amanda was only seventeen but could pass for twenty if the light was right. He had seen her change clothes once without her knowing and now struggled with the betrayal of his pudgy, changing body.

“Hi Ev, how long you been out here?” she said through a smile.

“Not long,” he lied, “Mom isn’t home.”

“Again? Where?”

“I dunno,” he mumbled as he followed her through the door. Amanda had a key she had been given her on her sixteenth birthday. Since the family couldn’t afford a car for her, the key had served as a stand in for the responsibility she thought she deserved at that age. She wore it around her neck like a talisman. Inside, she cranked the air conditioner full tilt and flopped on the couch with a new magazine that she had bought downtown. Everett threw his bag in a closet off the hall and sat himself across from her on an ottoman. Her legs – long and lean from days spent running in the neighborhood – stretched across the couch and grew goosebumps as cold air circled the room. He caught himself staring.

“What’s for dinner?” he asked.

“Dinner? Ev it’s like five o’clock. Get a snack and change your clothes. You smell like a locker room.”

He sulked to the bedroom they shared and pulled on a new shirt and baggy basketball shorts, not bothering to wipe the sweat from under his arms or the small of his back. The new material quickly soaked up the remaining moisture, but it was a drastic improvement. He piled the clothes in the corner of the room and made his way to the kitchen where he rummaged for corn chips and leftovers. In the living room, Amanda’s phone rang and she launched into meaningless chatter. Like the house key, her cell phone was another token of maturity he had not earned and a reminder of how quickly she had ingratiated herself to her new social surroundings. Unsatisfied with his scavenges, he microwaved a bag of popcorn, pouring vegetable oil over top of it to trap the salt.

Everett took his snack through the dining room to the living room and stood across from his sister expectantly, motioning at the television until she shooed him away silently, not breaking stride in her conversation. Abandoning the comfort of the house, he returned to the front steps to eat and wait for his mother. Rare cloud coverage slipped over the city and the temperature fell a dozen degrees. Near his feet, among the rocks bordering the porch, a lizard crawled from its hiding place and blinked dumbly at the gray sky.

It was small and brown with spots like a leopard. A thin head held glassy black eyes that seemed not to stay fixed for more than a moment. Everett dropped a piece of popcorn to the tiny monster, then another. It ate quickly, driven by the panic born into every small animal. He watched its pink tongue snag each kernel, becoming more and more expectant for another morsel until no more came. Then, licking his fingers clean of salt and grease, Everett reached for the doorstop, lifted it over his head and scattered the creature’s brains across the rocks.

 

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