12 May Propane
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Estimated reading time — 7 minutes
The girl jerked awake. She glanced at the window, afraid of what she would see, yet it revealed nothing but the dark night. They’re back, she thought anxiously. A week ago, the girl awoke to find that somebody had spray painted loops and scribbles of blue and red on their garage door. Mom thought it was a rival gang at first, maybe trying to intimidate the girl’s brother’s clan, but the girl wasn’t so sure. She’d never seen gang graffiti like this; usually it was only one color, and they’d write out just a letter and a number, like the “X4” she’d seen in a bathroom stall at school. If they used a lot of colors, it was to paint a nickname in cool, bubbly letters, like the ones under the bridge on her walk home. This looked nothing like that graffiti.
She had thought it was silly at the time, but the next morning as Mom was leaving for work, she noticed something lying across the top of the driveway. It was a long, wooden board with nails poking through it, sharp side up. It was a good thing Mom noticed, because it would have popped all of her tires for sure.
The girl was anxious about it, though nothing bad had happened. The events were strange, more than anything, but Mom said she’d ask her boyfriend to stay over the next night to keep them safe. That made the girl feel a little better, but something happened that night, too. The girl thought all those globs of white on his shiny BMW were just bird poop. It looked like a whole flock of giant birds had unloaded their intestinal burdens right on his car on purpose, and since the girl didn’t like him much, it made her laugh. Mom’s boyfriend got mad and cursed a lot, though, because the globs turned out to be paint remover. He’d have to get the whole car repainted.
Somehow, targeting a full-grown man like that made the girl more frightened than anything else. It didn’t feel like teenage pranksters anymore, nor gang rivalry.
At the present, she was worried she wouldn’t be able to hear anything even if someone was right outside the door, because her heart was pounding so hard in her ears. She strained to listen for another sound anyway and –
Her eyes darted to the source of the noise and realized it was coming from her brother’s bedroom, which shared a wall with the living room. They’re probably doing it, she cringed in discomfort. Her brother and his girlfriend were supposed to be watching her. She didn’t really need a babysitter, but Mom’s boyfriend didn’t want to come over anymore. Mom had night classes and wouldn’t let the girl stay here alone, since someone kept messing with the house.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
The girl turned up the volume on the TV to drown them out. She’d fallen asleep watching Nickelodeon, but now an old show in black and white was on. She considered just going to bed, but her room was upstairs and the staircase was dark. The laughing and talking from the sitcom was comforting. She would just fall asleep on the couch, and Mom would put her in bed when she got home.
By the time the episode ended, the thumping from her brother’s room was long gone. Now, he was playing his rap tapes, and even though she liked the music – and she’d even steal his Walkman when he was out of the house and listen to them – the deep, shuddering bass penetrated her heart at night and set her on edge. It would be less overwhelming if she went upstairs, so she resigned herself to brave the darkness and try to fall asleep in her bed.
As she rose from the couch to turn off the television, she thought she glimpsed a flash of light from outside. She froze. A car? Their house was set against a hill, so the living room windows looked out on mostly sky and treetops, not roads or sidewalks. It couldn’t be a car. Lightning? But there hadn’t been a cloud in the sky all day… Just as she had convinced herself she had imagined it, the girl saw the light again. It was a flashlight. Someone was walking through the yard below their back deck, and the beam from their lamp flicked up through the trees as the figure stepped over larger logs and stumps.
She could see the man by the dim light coming from the window at which she stood – and it was definitely a man, with a big, broad back and long legs stomping through the brush – edging closer and closer to the shed by their propane tank. When he stopped and set down the pack he was carrying, the girl jumped back and turned, running to her brother’s room. She glanced at the splintered hole that he had kicked in the door and for a moment reconsidered, but someone was outside their house and she didn’t know what else to do.
The girl knocked. Waited. Knocked again. Knocked louder, and finally she heard footsteps coming toward the closed door. Her brother threw it open, and a smelly wall of smoke hit her face. It wasn’t like his room usually smelled – that weirdly sweet smell, like a skunk but not bad. This was more like when Mom cleaned the oven. Or like a litter box. Or both at the same time.
“What do you want?”
“There’s someone outside.”
“Shit! Mom’s home?”
“No, it’s not Mom. I think it’s like last time…” The girl started to cry. Her brother was being stupid. His eyes were red, and his girlfriend was just lying there in his bed, doing nothing, when there was someone outside their house! She wished Mom were home.
“Yes! That’s what I’m trying to tell you!” The girl sobbed.
Her brother pulled on his red-and-black plaid jacket and clumsily pushed her aside. He strode to the living room window, the one looking out down the hill, and the girl followed. She could see the man down there, crouched over his pack, like he was trying to hide, as he pulled something out of his pack. Something long and shiny. It was a handsaw.
The girl pressed her face to the glass to see better.
“Hey! I see you, motherfucker! I’m gonna call the fucking cops!” Her brother shouted, his barely post-pubescent voice cracking on the last word.
The man leapt up and dropped the saw. Before the girl’s brother could shout anything else, the man was sprinting up the hill to Begonia Road, running at an angle to get away from their house. The girl’s brother turned on his heel and burst out the front door. Just as the girl was starting to worry that her brother had found the man and the man might hurt him, her brother came back in the door, sweaty, pale and out of breath.
“Are you sure?”
“Do you think he’ll come back?”
“I don’t fucking know, alright? Just go to bed.”
The girl went upstairs to her room, but she couldn’t sleep. She sat on her bed until she saw the headlights in her window that announced Mom’s return, then crept to the landing outside her room and listened to her brother tell Mom what had happened.
“Jesus,” Mom sighed when she’d heard the story. “Thank God you guys are ok.”
“Who do you think…?”
“Don’t look at me like that, Mom, it wasn’t because of me.”
“I didn’t say it was, Joseph. I just don’t know who else could be doing this, or why. What if it’s some punks trying to scare you?”
“He wasn’t trying to scare us, he was trying to blow up the house!”
“The house wouldn’t have blown up. It would have caused a leak, that’s all. Cost us a fortune to have it fixed and the tank refilled. Maybe the spark from the blade would have started a fire, but it wouldn’t have blown us up. I’ll check it out tomorrow.”
“Maybe he didn’t know that. He was trying to blow us up.”
They went quiet. The girl tiptoed to her bed and crawled under the covers so that when Mom came in and checked on her, she would have thought the girl was deeply asleep. But she didn’t sleep at all that night.
Mom said the tank was probably fine the next morning, but she could smell the propane and had called a professional to come and make sure there wasn’t a leak. It was Saturday, so Mom made French toast for the girl and Joseph. Joseph’s girlfriend was still sleeping.
The phone rang. Mom lifted it from its mount on the wall and said, “Hello?” Her face went cold. The girl’s dad must be on the other line.
He asked how she was, the girl guessed, because Mom said “fine”, but she said it in the high-pitched voice that betrayed her words. Mom never lied except when she said “fine,” and always in that tone.
The girl’s dad wanted to come over and borrow some tools from the shed. Mom didn’t say anything about last night, or the other nights. The girl knew Mom was afraid that he would use the information in court to make her seem like an unfit mother. He did that when the girl got lice from school, and said that Mom’s home wasn’t clean enough. Mom’s house was always clean.
The girl’s dad arrived in his big, white Chevy truck soon after they finished breakfast, and he walked into the house like he lived there. He swooped the girl up onto his big, broad shoulders, and the girl wrinkled her nose at the odd smell on his thick jean jacket that had mingled with its usual scent of sawdust and cigarettes. Mom gave him a cup of coffee, black. He talked about the garage door, said it was gang-related for sure, and he shot Joseph a nasty look.
“I don’t think so, Mike. I haven’t seen any graffiti like that before.”
“Well, I have. And I think you know what to do about it,” Mike said, looking accusingly at Joseph again. Joseph got up and went to his room.
“Yeah, I do,” said Mom. “We repaint.”
Mike offered to help and said he’d be back tomorrow with a roller and a bucket of paint, but now he had to leave, so he went out the door and hiked down the trail to the shed.
The girl went outside when he was back up at his truck to say goodbye. He was lifting a pack into the passenger seat, and she saw something shiny sticking through the open zipper.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“A saw. I’m helping someone with a project today.”
“You don’t have one of those?”
“I did. I must have left it here the last time I visited.”
They locked eyes for a moment, and the girl tried not to let her thoughts show on her face. She wasn’t sure what she thought, anyway… She felt like she did when she was taking a test at school and she knew the answer to a question, but just couldn’t pull it up in her memory. Her dad broke his gaze first, smirked and climbed up into the truck. He didn’t look at her again, as he turned his truck around in the driveway and chugged up to Begonia Road, but that smell from his jacket lingered on the girl’s pajamas. The distinct smell of propane.
Credit: Holly Radmacher