Well, Matthew has escaped the witch's den, only to find trouble waiting for him.

Ch2

Now to get the funk out of his clothes, to breathe freely again, and to go and talk to people who weren't crazy.

But, shoot! He never did get the cigarettes. Now his mother was going to be mad, and ground him or worse. All for nothing. He used up practically the whole morning in that mad house. Well, he had to get something to eat, and maybe it wasn't too late to find some friends. But he'd have to get by his mother first.

Maybe he should just plead insanity.

Not his, the old lady's.

It wasn't fair! Why should he have to go begging cigarettes for his mother? Why didn't she go and get them herself? Was he supposed to be her slave, or something?

Kids have to do everything grownups tell them to do.

Again he reviewed the events of the past hour in his mind and again he shivered at memories of certain horrors, things that he hoped never to see again. Even if he lived to be an old man. Well, if he was going to get any older at all, he would have to survive the next encounter with his mother.

Soon, for the second time in this still-early day, he found himself facing a door he did not wish to enter. But this one was his own back door.

Well, the best policy was to put a brave face on it and simply breeze into the kitchen as of nothing was wrong, and nothing had happened. After all there was slim chance that maybe she forgot. Maybe she didn't care. Maybe she wasn't even...

There were two guys sitting in the kitchen. Friends of his father's.

She wasn't even here?

"Hi, guys!" he said, casually ambling past the two burly repair men. He went directly to the front door and took a peek outside, hoping to see his father's truck. It wasn't there.

He returned to the kitchen, where the two men waited, looking at the young man as they expected great things of him.

"Um, is my father here?"

"Hey, Matthew!" said one.

"Little guy!" said the other. "We were hoping you could tell us where your dad is. I don't think your mother's here, either."

"Yeah," continued the first, "Looks like it's just you and us."

He smiled broadly, so that his cheeks expanded and Matthew saw the whiskers sticking out like tiny little white thorns all over his face and neck. The guy's looks alone made him suspicious, and furthermore Matthew didn't like his voice. But they were friends of his father's, he was sure of that.

"So, uh, so what are you doing here, then?"

"Oh, don't be so rude, Mattie!"

They didn't have to speak to him so... diminuitively.

"Just asking. So... are you guys gonna wait around, or something?"

Like, are you guys going to get of my house, or what? He wanted to go and yell for his mother, to run upstairs and search for her. Could she have fallen asleep? Where the heck was she? On the other hand, it was kind of a relief that she wasn't there.

"We were in the neighborhood," said the one, a guy with friendly eyes, black oily hair, and a crooked, leering grin.

"And we thought we'd stop by," said the other, who looked somewhat younger than his partner, partly because his whiskers were darker. His eyes seemed to perpetually squint, as if he had just come out of blinding sunlight, or maybe he was trying to hold back a laugh.

"Yeah, stop in and see old Joe, you know? Like maybe Joe stopped home for lunch."

"We were in the neighborhood," repeated the other, "And figuring that maybe Joe would like some company for lunch. Maybe like to have a couple of beers with his pals."

Matthew wasn't sure how far he should pursue his curiosity, but it was bothering him.

"But you didn't see his truck. I mean, when you came down the street, you must have seen that his truck wasn't here."

"Oh, a smart kid Joe got here. But remember, little man, nobody likes a wise guy."

"That's right!" affirmed the other guy as if he had meant to make the same observation. "'Sides, he could'a come along at any time. I mean, it's lunch time, right?"

"It sure is," answered his compadre. "I sure as heck would like a nice ham sandwich. Anyway, old Joesy's probably over to Potter street, looking after that broad, what's her name?"

The other shot a quick and dirty look to his buddy.

"You mean, fixing her pipes, or something. Anyway, as you were saying, a nice ham sandwich?"

What? Was that a question? Matthew couldn't be sure. Neither guy was really talking to him, anyway.

"And a beer."

"And a beer. If there is one."

"Two!"

"Three, if Joe shows up!"

"Heh, heh, Yeah, but if Joe shows up, it could be a whole lot more!"

Now they were both laughing, but Matthew didn't see what was so funny. If he understood what they were driving at, then these two grownups, men who could darn well do for themselves , were asking him to serve them lunch? No way! Like he was gonna tie on an apron and flip open an order book!

Then again, his father would probably expect him to be polite and to treat these jerks like they were his own friends. Plus he had often told Matthew that if he said jump, Matthew was to respond, "How high?"

Maybe he had better start jumping.

"Ham sandwiches? I can probably scrounge up a couple of ham sandwiches. I was gonna make one for myself, anyhow."

The guy closest to the back door reached out and playfully shoved the other fellow's arm.

"See? What'd I say? Matthew here is a stand up guy! He's all right!"

"Sure is!" smiled his partner as he elaborately cracked his knuckles, hands together, palms outward, in a big stretch. "Mo matter what they say!"

Busily gathering implements and ingredients, Matthew kept half an ear on the conversation between his two guests.

"So, like I was saying, 'spin a while since I seen old Joe, ya know?"

"Yeah, Joey ain't been around much lately. I think he's been burning his candles at either end, if you know what I mean."

"Burning, yeah, I think you're right. Yeah, he's smoking, heh, heh."

"But what a pissa. Joey always was a pissa."

"You sad it. A real son of a..."

"Hey, the kid!"

"Oh! Sorry! Our host!"

"Speaking of which... Hey, kid, you got them beers comin', or what?"

Maybe he should speak up.

"Beer? Are you sure? You're working, aren't you?"

"Working? Oh, yeah, we're working. What's that got to do with anything? We always have a couple of beers at lunch." said one.

"Sometimes more than a couple..." said the other.

"But you have to drive, don't you? I mean, at least one of you has to drive. So you can't both drink. And if one can't drink, then shouldn't the other be nice and skip his too?"

"That doesn't sound very nice to me!" said the fellow closest to the back door.

"Yeah!" agreed his associate. "How can it be fair if nobody gets a beer?"

This was one fight he wasn't going to win, no matter what he said. It was kind of tough to argue with morons, in any case.

"I was just giving you a hard time. Two beers coming right up!"

"Whoa! Like a little comedian, this kid! I almost thought he was serious."

"Yeah, me too! For a second there, I thought we weren't gonna get no beers."

"Hey!" shushed his buddy. "Ixnay, ixnay, okay?"

In reply, the other one ran an invisible zipper across his smile.

By now Matthew had assembled a stack of fairly decent sandwiches, heedless of the fact that he had used all of the white bread in the bread box, and all of the luncheon meat in the fridge. The meager contents of a box of crackers and a jar of pickles would also go toward the cause of feeding the freeloaders. He had been careful to retrieve the beer from the back hallway where his father usually kept a case of warm bottles. The cold ones would stay in the fridge so his father would find them just as he had left them.

A little extra showmanship in the form of a little flourish with the bottle opener, along with a genteel flair as he dispensed the liquid, served to distract the men from the fact that their beer was warm.

"They don't fall far from the tree, do they?"

"You got that right!"

"'Sides, if we didn't have beers, then we couldn't drink a toast to Joe."

Vacuous chatter soon ceased as the men fed themselves. It was as if they entered a chew-a-thon, with wagers riding on the outcome. And although he pecked at his portion, the boy's anxiety grew, souring his stomach and causing his head to ache. Normally he might like to stare at the little bubbles appearing as if from nowhere on the inside of a glass of beer, and watch them as they slide up the foamy surface; but he hated the aroma of beer, and he hated the way grown-ups got all merry and silly and sleepy when they were drinking it.

Rather than join the men at the table, he stood at the counter with back to the room and let worry get the better of him. Where was his mother? Was her disappearance related to the arrival of these louts? His imagination veered out of control. Was she tied up and gagged, struggling to free herself in an upstairs bedroom, desperate to warm him that his guests were dangerous? If that were the case, then what did these guys have in mind? They wouldn't harm an innocent woman in order to cop a sandwich and a beer. Perhaps they planned to ransack the house? Or were they after his father, waiting to surprise him when he came home for lunch?

With this horrid speculation roiling his mind, Matthew experienced somewhat of a revelation. Never before had it occurred to him to consider that ladies, that is, woman like his mother and Mrs Albuquerque might be vulnerable. They spent their days for the most part alone, with their homes wide open. The neighborhood abutted a vast parcel of undeveloped city land that stretched south toward the housing projects and west toward the state hospital complex. There was a police facility nearby, but it was a stables, not a station. Horses for show and crowd-control were kept there, so it was little help in an emergency.

Emergency; ...what emergency? He had no reason to suspect that anything had happened, that these guys had done anything wrong, It was just that they were so ...suspicious. His father wouldn't be loafing about and drinking when he was working, even if he was on lunch break.

If only his father would show up right now, and show these bums how to behave. Like a real father. Like a real appliance repair man. Like a real friend. Then they'd stop carrying on like ...he turned to look at them... the older guy was just finishing a joke ...like a couple of clowns.

"...So he says, 'That's how leprechauns pee!' -Hah,hah..."

This was apparently so funny that his buddy sprayed him with beer as he attempted to stifle a guffaw. Accordingly, the laughter ratcheted up another decibel.

"Whattsamatta, Matthew? You look so serious!" asked the joker.

"Uh, I thought I heard my mother coming," answered the boy, as if the survival of all of them depended upon her arrival.

"Your mother? I don't think so. You hear anything, Chuckie?"

"Me? No, I ain't heard, uh," Chuckie left the thought incomplete, concentrating as he was on preventing beer from staining his jacket.

At first Matthew couldn't understand why Chuckie's face was suddenly flushing a deep and glowing red until he noticed the bulge from his bicep, and the napkin gripped in his hand. He was apparently using all of his strength to squeeze the moisture from his sleeve.

To Matthew he looked ridiculous. In fact both men looked as though their uniforms were intentionally cut small to make them look foolish. The blue jackets rode high in the back, ans the sleeves were too short, likely as an intentional safety measure, and it was doubtful that the zippers could contain their abundant beer belly guts. But Chuckie hadn't removed his jacket, and he was gripping the cuffs of both sleeves tightly in his hands and pulling as though he were trying to bust his jacket across his back. Suddenly he let out a hiss of spent breath.

"There! I think I got it all," he said as he tossed the limp napkin down upon the table. Remarkably, his face drained of color like a thermometer in a cold front.

Despite his anxiety, Matthew laughed out loud as he witnessed Chuckie's antics.

"What? You think that's funny?" asked Chuck, not without a trace of hostility.

Instinctively gripping the edge of the counter, Matthew felt a twinge of adrenalin, as if the cold hand of fear was clamped over his mouth. Otherwise he might have blurted some unwise comment, for he had half-expected Chuckie to suck the traces of beer from the damp napkin.

"Jeesh! You'd think Joe wouldadunabedda job a raisin his brats, eh?"

"You got that right, Frankie! Holy cow, this kid's got no manners."

"I told you," started Frankie, slowly, as he swept up a pile of crumbs on the table in front of him. "Nobody likes a wise kid." Looking into Matthew's face, he swept the crumbs onto the floor and smiled flatly.

That did it. All of a sudden the boy was prepared to lash out. It wasn't just the crumbs that set him off, it was the complete lack of decorum. Didn't these guys know how to act? They were guests, for heaven's sake! Since when do grownups behave like this? This Frank guy was like a punk in the school cafeteria, acting out and bucking for detention.

But there were no monitors at hand, no teachers or principals to witness this petty outrage, or to put an end to it for that matter.

"So whadayagudda say for yourself, huh?"

Matthew looked at Frankie, then at Chuckie, then did what seemed wisest under the circumstances. He ran. It might have made more sense to run out the back door, maybe go to his neighbor's house and call for help. Instead he bolted around the corner to the front hall and scampered up the stairs. He had to know if his mother was up there.

A brief glimpse into the sewing room. The room was empty but warm due to the afternoon sun filtering through lace curtains to create a bright reflective pool on the floor.

The bedroom he shared with his brother was empty, but the dirty laundry he had promised to pick up still littered the floor. The last thing he needed right now was another reminder of unfinished chores.

The house was entirely too quiet. So quiet in fact that he dared hope that the two ingrates downstairs might have left on their own. Before he peeked into this parent's bedroom he called out "Mum?" in a weak voice full of expectation but sure of disappointment. He received an immediate answer in the form of derisive laughter from the men in the kitchen.

The master bedroom was also deserted, but he checked under his mother's bed anyway. He even looked in her closet, stopping for a moment to inhale the sweet mixed-perfume aroma coming from her clothes. The familiar sensation helped to ease some of his bitterness and resentment. But he believed he was trapped, a captive in his own home.

However, as he stepped back into the hallway he noticed that his mother's pocketbook was lying open on the table beside her bed. Excitement bubbled in the pit of his stomach, rising like a burp of optimism to his chest. His mother could not have gone far, for that bag was like an extension of her personality, and she couldn't function without it for very long.

And yet every explanation he could imagine to account for her absence seemed to bifurcate aborning, each simple and ingenuous option challenged and canceled by an equally complex and credulous one.

What were his options? To try to reach his father at work? He knew very well that it was futile to call the shop. His father and the other men collected their assignments first thing in the morning. They weren't radio dispatched, and they rarely called in during the course of a day. Anyway, the phone was downstairs in the living room, and he doubted that his guests would wait while he rounded up enough outside muscle to come and help him kick them out of the house.

If he could somehow slip out, like maybe climb out to the fire escape and drop to the alley next to the house, then where would he go? Who could help? Mr Brannon, the old retired country-club groundskeeper next door, would take a lot of convincing; and if due to some miracle he did believe Matthew's story, he would likely forget it by the time he put his cleats on and followed the boy back to his house.

Who else was there? Mrs Rizzo didn't like him, and he could scarcely imagine asking her for a favor. Old Mr Puzzini was deaf, and anyway, with his breathing problem he'd never make it across the street. No sense in considering Mrs Albuquerque. Of course the mailman would soon be making his rounds; and then there were the less visible but no less frequent visitors to the neighborhood, such as the milkman, the garbage men, and a host of others, from brush salesmen to diaper service guys.

But wait a second- Matthew had again convinced himself that his house guests represented danger of some kind. He was increasingly sure that even if they hadn't perpetrated evil then they were contemplating it. And he was no more secure hiding upstairs and fretting about the men than he had been when he was in the kitchen confronting them head on. Wouldn't it make more sense to keep an eye on them? From their point of view he had done no more than treat them with hospitality. Well. He had run away pretty quickly, but he could explain that by saying that he had to take a pee.

Then again, was it really his job to watch a couple of drunks make asses of themselves? As long as they remained at the kitchen table drinking beer then he knew where they were and what they were up to. So location was an important consideration. Assuming his mother was still safe outside the home somewhere, then wasn't it his duty to position himself someplace where he could intercept and warn her before she entered the house and encountered the two... shitbums?

Now Matthew felt as though he had command of the situation. But it was still one of him against two of his father's work buddies. In addition to outnumbering him they had all sorts of other advantages that he would be foolish to either analyze or reconcile. One small point in his favor was the fact that with time they would become increasingly inebriated. Maybe he should have broken out the cold beers after all.

Before contemplating this round of rationale he realized that he was already walking down the stairs. He almost stumbled as his awareness fell back in sync with reality, his heart thudding so heavily it felt as if someone were clapping him on the back, coaxing him on. Suddenly he knew that he would be better off if he simply ran for the door.

The men's faces tracked his passage like fans at court side following a tennis match.

Let them just try and chase him. Pushing through the screen door he decided to proceed to his tree-fort vantage point. After his daring escape he could keep watch on the house from there, and if necessary plan any additional strategy.

Adrenaline was the name of the driver of the bus called Matthew that ran over his mother as he dashed through the backyard, heedless. She almost shrieked.

"You almost knocked the wind out of me, young man! What were you thinking?"

That question invariably stymied him, because he was never thinking the way she seemed to imply he was. Or wasn't.

"Mum, mum! There's a couple of guys in the house! I was running to tell you!"

He was practically spluttering. Cigarettes, Mrs Albuquerque, all things of the past, long forgotten. Fortunately she had forgotten as well.

"Men? What men? Who? When,now? What are you talking about?"

"Mum! Am I glad to see you! But be careful! A couple of Dad's friends were in the house when I came home from... ahm, when I came home. They wanted sandwiches and beer."

"Matthew Arnold Frompter! What has gotten into you? Did you do what I asked you to..."

"Mum! You gotta listen! These guys are in the kitchen, waiting!"

Having recovered from the impact, his mother was now severely annoyed. Her face looked as though it had been remodeled by the plastic surgery of a peevish snit.

She took his hand, clamped it in her own as if she were measuring him for the stocks, and dragged him toward the house.

"But Mum, the guys!" he whined

"Shush, for heaven's sake! What are you afraid of, Matthew? Now come along!"

He was less reluctant to reenter the house under the protection of his mother, but as he was jerked along at arm's length he still looked like an unrepentant penal recidivist being returned to his cell.

Yet his resentment evaporated as he witnessed a transformation in his mother that made him wonder if the little back hallway through which she passed might possess some magical properties. In an instant her stride slowed, her anger and hostility vanished, her grip loosened and her posture changed. Then, miraculously, she released her son's hand, and pulled a cigarette from a pack in her sweater pocket. When she stepped into the kitchen, she was again domina, the lady of the house, entirely at home and at ease, waiting for a gentleman to offer her a light.

Likewise the two louts were rowdy no more. They both stood when Mrs Frompter entered the room, one starting into a diplomatically obsequious kind of sweet talk and the other gathering the dirty dishes and placing them in the sink. Whatever respect they might have hoped to inculcate in Matthew was irrevocably lost, and his contempt for them only deepened.

"Oh, hi guys; Matthew told me you were here. I see you had lunch."

She said this not as an observation but as a subtle challenge.

"Yeah, Jeannine, we stopped by to say hello. Thought maybe Joe was about, ya know, and yer kiddo here was good enough to get, uh, to offer us some refreshments."

Everyone looked to Matthew for confirmation, but he didn't notice, since he was staring sullenly at the floor.

"Dincha Matthew? Right, buddy?"

Summoning some of the spite that was boiling ing his blood, Matthew finally responded.

"Mum, these guys tole me to get them..."

"I understand, Matthew. It's alright. You can go play now."

"But Mum!"

It was no use complaining. His mother's attention was on the lit match and the hands that one of the lousy jerks had cupped around her cigarette.

Rolling his eyes, Matthew rolled on his heels and started for the door. But Chuckie acted quickly, and before Matthew took a single step he had the temerity to pluck his sleeve. Drawing the boy close he practically spit in his ear: "Yeah, you go play witcha dollies... and don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out, kid"

The tree house wasn't large enough to contain Matthew's anger. Furthermore his imagination was hatching such plots of vengeance and vandalism that he started to wonder if he hadn't liberated one of the demons that Sister Tarsisius was always warning about in catechism class.

Most of his ideas focused upon the filthy work truck parked in front of his house. He could employ additive pranks, such as pouring sugar in the gas tank, inserting a potato in the tailpipe, replacing the windshield washer solvent with anti-freeze, smearing grease on the door handles and foot pedals. And there were removal pranks: He could back out the needle valves in the tires, loosen the lug nuts, remove the wiper arm nuts, drain the differential, siphon the fuel tank.

But each idea floated up like a balloon in the ether of his imagination only to be shredded by the slingshot of reality or shot down by the BB gun of pragmatism. Sugar and potatoes were abundant but they were also out of reach in the house. Automotive work required tools the likes of which he could probably find in the back of the very truck he was aiming to disable. And yet breaking and entering, unlawful rummaging, and pilfering seemed to multiply the potential counts of crime and culpability he was willing to contemplate.

This internal wrestling match between anger and ethics left Matthew restless, and he wandered throughout the neighborhood, the notion of a particular destination lost among more pressing concerns. Still a conscious process may have been guiding his feet, for he soon found himself standing in front of a large gray Victorian, the home of neighborhood punk and prankster extraordinaire, Timmy Templeman.

That lovely gabled slate roof contained the attic bedroom from which Timmy had hatched a series of malicious plots, which he planned and implemented so that he could watch them unfold from his window in the central eave facing the street. Although he had been caught and tried in juvenile court, though he had been sanctioned and even denied the use of the telephone by court order, Timmy had become the model and inspiration for a generation of inveterate sociopaths. Technology that nominally provided access, communication, freedom and information for most people was in his hands a weapon of mass distraction, destruction and division.

If anybody knew how to get back at the dudes who had treated Matthew so poorly, or how to repay some of the discomfort and anxiety they had visited upon him, it was Timmy Templeman.

Deviously dedicated to his craft, Timmy had once provoked a protracted traffic jam on this very street, a one-lane one-way back street in a sparsely settled urban enclave, and he reveled in the noise, exhaust smoke, hostility and violence that ensued. With subtle genius Timmy had selected and arranged for trucks and taxis, delivery vans and ambulances, a hook and ladder rig, a mobile amusement park ride and even a monkey and a mule to crowd the street under his window. In fact the proximity of the stables proved to be a blessing for the police because mounted units were uniquely qualified to infiltrate the mess and extricate the unwitting participants.

Now a recluse rarely seen outside the house, Timmy had once delighted in pulling the strings and animating his puppets, playing out his schemes and relishing his power. He laughed as he watched drivers, deliverymen and repairmen fume and fret and stamp their feet as they searched in vain for non-existent addresses. Honing his talent for bull and blarney, Timmy lured gullible churchmen of every stripe and denomination to visit homes that he had picked at random. Using various voices he spun tales with guiltless guile of wayward children, marital infidelity, alcoholism and spousal abuse. His stories proved to be irresistible not only to clergymen, but also to social workers. Likewise almost all of the homes visible from Timmy's watchtower window were occasionally and unexpectedly visited by municipal inspectors, lawn-care experts and pest-control specialists.

With an ally like Timmy, Matthew could... what could he do? After his last visit to Timmy's lofty lair Matthew had felt that the local legend was losing his luster. It was hard to tell if his freedom of movement was restricted or his solitude was self-imposed, but in any case he was in danger of being lost under a layer of dust-bunnies, candy-wrappers and comic books.

As he stood on the sidewalk gazing at Timmy's house, Matthew imagined telling his story in a bid to enlist the older boy's support. Somehow the complaints echoing in his brain sounded too lame to bear repeating aloud, especially to someone who was already squarely under the thumb of authority.

Miserable, lonely, mad and frustrated, Matthew continued along the street, kicking aimlessly at pebbles and pine cones, and wishing that he could start the day all over again. All of his troubles had started when he arrived at Mrs Albuquerque's house.

So why was he back there again? Sure enough, he had wandered from one end of the street to the other and now he was again in front of the shambling old house where crazy old Mrs Albuquerque lived. Yet now he felt that he had arrived at a new perspective on the morning's events, and a budding idea emerged from the fertile turmoil in his mind. After some thought he heaved a calming sigh of satisfaction, and felt his mood improve.

It was pleasing to have a plan of action, especially one that required another long walk, primarily because it would take him off this crummy street. Plus, he felt oddly liberated to realize that nobody would be looking for him, and for that matter, he would not be missed. His friends would be busy doing whatever he would normally be doing with them, like searching for snails, climbing trees, collecting chestnuts, or spying on the Almont Street kids. His mother, who normally kept tabs on his whereabouts, was now otherwise occupied. As far as Matthew was concerned he could be long gone before she even thought to care about him, anyway.

Funny thing was that he was going to use the money she had folded up and hidden in his sneaker just in case he was ever caught short or faced with an emergency. He also had three dollars stashed in his back pocket. He had received the money in a birthday card from his aunt earlier this summer and he secretly planned to use it to run away if he was ever really desperate.

So why not run away right now? Naturally his first stop was Joe's Mediterranean market, where he could stock up on supplies for his journey. The few spaces on the walls of the store that weren't dominated by shelving and clutter were plastered with bright tourist posters encouraging travel to Greece, the country of Joe's birth. In that respect, Joe's was as exotic a destination as Matthew was likely to find in the vicinity. Furthermore, it was the only place within walking distance that had all of the items he was going to need in order to put his plan into action. And Matthew felt a great sense of reward and satifaction when he saw the look of delight and gratification on Joe's face when he actually paid for order with cash.

Second part up. This was written as one long story, but it looked too intimidating. If the chapter breaks seem un natural, that's why…