by Gary Sprague

Tommy sat on the living room floor, going through my box of game cartridges. Our moms talked quietly by the door in a haze of cigarette smoke and perfume. After a couple minutes Tommy’s mother called out goodbye from the doorway. Tom lifted his hand and waved, never looking up from the game box.

He finally decided on Cosmic Avenger. It was my favorite, too. I stuck the cartridge in the ColecoVision and handed Tommy the Player 1 controller. Soon the living room was alive with the whistle of falling bombs and the static-like burst of explosions. Eyes bugged out and locked on the TV screen, Tommy wished aloud that his mother would get him a ColecoVision.

While he played I glanced into the kitchen. My mother was in her usual position at the kitchen table, talking on the phone and smoking a cigarette. She hunched forward, head resting on her hand, cigarette straight up like an ash-tipped finger. But no beer. I relaxed. Tommy died after being hit by a missile and it was my turn to play.

We stayed like that, sitting side by side on the thick carpet, staring at the television, until my mom cupped her hand over the phone and told us to go play outside. After grabbing my bat and glove, Tommy sat on the handlebars of my bike and we made our slow and wobbly way to the empty lot around the corner. There we played ball with a couple of other kids until the shadows grew long and a shrill whistle blew, which was my mother’s way of telling me to get my ass home.

She’d had two pizzas delivered from Dominos. This was what I’d wanted for my first sleepover. While me and Tommy stuffed ourselves on pizza and Coke at the kitchen table, my mom set up an air mattress with blankets and pillows on the floor of my bedroom. Because Tommy was my guest, he’d take the bed and I would sleep on the air mattress. Sounded good to me. We’d probably eat Doritos and talk all night anyway.

She came back to the kitchen and smiled at us. Then she opened the refrigerator and grabbed a beer. My gut wrenched and I didn’t finish my piece of pizza. I looked at Tommy but he didn’t seem to notice – he ate three more pieces and swilled down a big glass of Coke. Then he burped, loudly, and for a minute I laughed and forgot about the beer.

My mother had us go into the bathroom and wash up – she said we looked like we’d brought most of the empty lot home on our faces. After finally passing inspection, we changed our clothes and went into the living room to watch The Incredible Hulk. About halfway through I heard the familiar hiss and pop of a beer can being opened from the kitchen.  My mom’s phone voice grew higher and louder, so I turned the TV up. During The Dukes of Hazzard came the sharp crack of another can.

At ten o’clock, after Dukes, it was time for bed. I went into the kitchen to say goodnight. My mother’s face had gone slack, void of expression, the way it always did when she’d had at least two beers. She pulled me into a hug, the phone tucked into the crook of her neck and shoulder, and gave me a kiss. It was wet and sloppy, the type of kiss you’d get from an infant. I pulled away quickly, embarrassed, only to watch in horror as she pulled Tommy in and kissed him, too. I stared at the floor, my face burning red with embarrassment all the way to the bedroom.

Once the door was closed, though, I was alright. My room was small but comfortable, a sanctuary before I knew what the word meant. We put on my new KISS album and listened to it as we ate Doritos and talked about baseball and school and Sue Cassidy, who was in fifth grade and already had to wear a bra. Her sister, Christine, was in our third grade class, and Tommy said he thought she was getting boobs, too. I hadn’t noticed, but I agreed with him.

I was turning the record over to listen to side two when I heard the front door open and close. The thick rumble of a man’s voice penetrated the walls. I’d hoped she wouldn’t do this during my sleepover. Tommy didn’t seem to notice and I tried to ignore it. We turned off the light and listened to albums in the dark until almost midnight, when Tommy fell asleep. I turned down the volume and listened to the rest of my Styx album.

Shortly afterward I got up to pee. There was no sound coming from the kitchen. They’d either moved the party to the bedroom or my mom had fallen asleep at the kitchen table. I closed the bathroom door softly and tried to be quiet by not hitting the water with my pee, but I was squinting and couldn’t see what I was doing. As soon as I pulled up my underwear I heard my mom slur, “Sweetie? Is that you?” I turned off the light and went back to bed without answering.

It felt like I’d just fallen asleep when I was woken up by my mother’s voice. “Honey? Come on, Sweetie. We need to get out of the house.” I tried to roll over but she shook me. I sat up, confused. It was dark and I was on the floor. Why did I need to get up? My mom sat on the edge of my bed and gently shook Tommy, telling him we had to get up. Now I was confused and embarrassed.

All the lights in the house were on. There was a lot of smoke, but it smelled different, stronger and heavier than the usual cigarette smoke. Tommy and I squinted and held my mother’s hand as she led us through the living room and out the front door. We sat on the front lawn and watched as flashing red lights approached up the hill leading to our house. Two large firetrucks and an ambulance parked at the end of our driveway. Firefighters climbed from the truck and went into action, two rushing the house with fire extinguishers while the rest began unwinding hoses.

A tall man in uniform approached and asked if we were okay. I looked for my mother but couldn’t find her. A police car arrived, adding blue to the flashing light show. Confusion and fear overwhelmed me and I began crying. Tommy took his cue from me and started crying too. The man crouched beside us, speaking gently, but I was crying too loudly to hear him.

The tall man took our hands and led us to the ambulance. My mother and her friend – Gabe, I think his name was – stood beside it, speaking to a police officer. My mother was in a thin short nightgown that showed half her butt. Gabe wore only a pair of baggy white underwear. My mother rushed over to hug us. She smelled like beer, cigarettes and Gabe. Then she staggered back to the police officer.

Tommy and I sat on the back bumper of the ambulance, silently sucking on lollipops that someone had handed to us. We’d stopped crying, though I could feel tears on my eyelashes every time I blinked. I wondered if the ColecoVision or my albums had been destroyed in the fire. From the conversation between my mother and the police officer I caught the words “trash can” and “cigarette.” I watched the firefighters roll the hoses back up, moving far less urgently than before.

My mother approached unsteadily. “How’re you guys doing?” She was doing her best not to slur. “We just had a small fire in the kitchen. It burned a small patch of kitchen floor and one of the cabinet doors, but that’s it. We can go back inside soon and get back to sleep.”

Gabe came over and put his arm around my mother. He had a thin, pale body, with long hair and a beard that swept down to the top of his chest. Behind him I saw Tommy’s mother hurrying toward us. With everything going on around us, it didn’t surprise me. Tommy, however, jumped from the bumper and into his mother’s arms.

After hugging Tommy and looking him over, Tommy’s mom glared at my mom. Without a word she gripped Tommy’s hand and abruptly walked away. Tommy looked backward at me, the lollipop stick protruding from his mouth. He waved. I waved back.

The trucks turned off their lights and drove away a few minutes later. We headed back inside. It smelled strongly of smoke, like a campfire, and my mother opened the windows. I went back to my room and closed the door. A few minutes later I heard Gabe leave. I didn’t go back to sleep for a long time.

A few days later, Tommy said he wasn’t allowed to sleep over my house ever again. That was okay. I’d decided that was my last sleepover.