https://www.freepik.com/photos/people’>People photo created by jcomp — www.freepik.com</a>

Alex is riding his bike through town making deliveries for the post office. His backpack is heavier than usual; it’s a busy day for Sleepy Hollow. Alex thinks about the destination of his package, and his legs carry him there. His body has memorized the circuitous route of the roads; he leans into his handle bars, digs his left foot down and sails around the corner. His thoughts are beyond the bike and his backpack. He’s got wings on his heels and he’s sailing across the finish line. Coach told him he’ll make varsity this year if he can make it to practice at least once a week. That’s the problem. Alex can’t. He can only run in the morning, before school, because after school he’s has his courier job, and then he has to pick up his brother.

About a month ago, on one of Alex’s early morning runs, he felt as though someone was following him. He wasn’t being chased; it was more like someone was lurking in the shadows. He told himself it was Jim looking for rats to shoot before the neighbors got up and grew suspicious. Alex has never seen Jim or any other soul at 6 am on the streets of Sleepy Hollow because everyone is still in bed. Its residents live up to the name of their sleepy town. The morning stalker has never stopped him from getting up, and putting on his running shoes. Alex wants to make varsity, and getting up early is the only way.

Sleepy Hollow was built after the war, but it never was completed. There are dead end roads and half crescent cul-de-sacs. Instead of cookie cutter homes along tree lined roads, there are eccentric cottages painted in an array of colors. Even the trees, with their contemptuous roots, break through the sidewalks. They have rebelled to any sort of uniformity the towns planners had envisioned. It was supposed to be an idyllic suburban town full of young couples who look like a chain of paper dolls. Sleepy Hollow is populated by people made out of an incongruent mold.

It’s the best town that Alex has ever lived in; he has even referred to it as home a few times. He hopes his mom doesn’t uproot them again. Alex was nine when his dad died. His memories of dad have become foggier over the years. He wasn’t around much, so there weren’t a lot of fond memories to build on in the first place. Alex remembers dad being gregarious and outspoken. He made a great first impression. Alex’s friends said that they wished they had a dad like his. Alex never told them about the other side of dad, the one that lurked behind his enigmatic smile. He never mentioned the times he’d explode and break things for no reason, and all the nights he’d never come home. Alex did his best to keep his distance, because he didn’t know which dad would pop out of the jack in the box. After Mark was born dad became even more elusive. He’d be gone for days, sometimes weeks, and never be in touch. It drove mom crazy. She said she felt like she was living with dad’s ghost. After he died, mom said they couldn’t make it in the city anymore, so they moved, and they’ve been on the move ever since.

Alex’s last delivery of the day is at Luke’s. Luke hardly ever gets mail, and this package is heavy. It’s the one that’s been weighing his backpack down All afternoon. Alex rings his bike’s bell. Luke looks up from under the hood of his ‘69 Camaro.

“Hey Alex,” he says. “Where’ve you been. Staying out of trouble I hope.” Luke built the bike for Alex out of spare bike parts he had lying around in his garage.

Alex likes Luke because he talks to him like a protective older brother. He doesn’t say, “Hey kid, you’re two minutes late; you better get a move on.” like Mr. McCrudy from the post office, and he doesn’t change his tone of voice like Dalia, from the health food store that his mom works at. Although, he wishes Dalia wouldn’t talk to him like a little kid, because he imagines himself doing adult things with her.

“There’s something in here for you and it’s damn heavy,” the backpack rolls of Alex’s shoulder and makes a thump when it hits the ground.

Luke opens it. There’s an old fashion wooden box and inside the box is a book, “Beyond Being” by Kaitlyn Foster.

“That’s my twin sister.” He shows Alex a picture of a woman on the back cover, who in no way resembles Luke. “She’s kind of a guru. And this box belonged to our dad. He died last year.”

“I never knew you had a sister,” or a dad for that matter. Alex imagined Luke as a loyal patriot of the lonely hearts club, with no attachments nor responsibilities beyond his garage. Luke tucked the box and book under his work bench.

“Well, you learn something new everyday.” Luke didn’t elaborate, and Alex didn’t ask.

“Listen, I know this sounds weird, but I think someone is following me. I don’t have any proof; I haven’t actually seen anyone, but I sort of feel a shadowy figure following me. I used to get this feeling when I ran in the mornings, but now I feel it after school or when I walk home with Mark.”

“Have you told your mom?”

“No.”

“Good, don’t tell her. It’ll freak her out. Don’t worry, it’s nothing, just your overactive imagination. This town is safe. In the fifteen years that I’ve lived here, nothing has ever happened to any one. Listen Alex, you’ve got too much going on. I worry about you. You better go home and get some rest.”

Alex is late in picking up his brother from Ms. Candy’s house. Ms. Candy is lanky and bent over like a candy cane. She wears shapeless sleeveless dresses, which procured the nickname, Miss Marshmallow Arms. Unfortunately, her demeanor doesn’t live up to her sweet sounding name. She scolds him at the door. Mark comes out with dried tears on his face. As they’re walking home Mark is silent. Alex tells jokes to bring him out of his funk.

“Did you hear the one about the Cheshire Cat?” Alice in Wonderland is Mark’s favorite movie.

“You told it to me a hundred times. Not funny anymore.”

Alex narrates scenes from the movie, and Mark starts to intervene when Alex has forgotten an important detail, “The Mad Hatter’s hair is orange, not red.”

Moving around has been difficult for Alex, but even more so for Mark, who was raised in four different towns, and has seen four different specialists. All this moving around is impeding his development they’ve said. Mark talks as if his mouth is full, and he stutters over words that begin with s. He’s in a special class at school where he learns multiplication and division and still reads picture books even though he’s 11. In Alex’s mind, Mark seems pretty normal, especially in a town like this. That’s one of the reasons he likes the town. It’s easy to fit in because no one here fits in anywhere else.

“Hold on a sec.” Alex thinks he hears something in the bushes along the sidewalk. He stops walking and tugs at Mark’s sleeve. He puts his finger over his lips. He steadies his bike against the curb.

A man appears from the bushes. He’s a little shorter than Alex, and wears a hat that shades his eyes. The man has his back to the hilly sunset, which obscures his face even more. He takes his hat off and holds it humbly in his hands. It suddenly hits Alex, it’s as if he’s been struck upside the head with a violent revelation. All these years he thought he was dead, but there he is, right of front of them on the street, smiling at them. Mark is as solid and still as a tree trunk. Alex motions to him to get on the bike. Mark stares at his dad. Alex isn’t sure if he recognizes him.

“Mark, let’s get out of here,” Alex says in one deep breath.

Alex has to pull Mark onto his bike seat. He won’t turn his gaze from the man on the street, whom they used to call dad.

When they get home, mom isn’t there. Alex wonders if dad intercepted mom too. Alex pours two glasses of milk. The colors in the kitchen contrast, the milk has no flavor, and the walls in the house are vibrating as if a low flying airplane was passing overhead. Mark watches Gravity Falls, laughing throughout the whole episode, as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened. Mark is usually a basket case around strangers. Alex’s world has been misaligned. Alex waits. He doesn’t know what else to do.

Mom announces that she’s home. Her voice is strained. Alex pretends to be watching TV. He has planned on telling her nothing. He wants life to go on as it before. Seeing dad in the street was a blip in time, nothing more.

When mom walks into the living room dad is walking behind her. “Listen kids, I’ve got a surprise for you.” She hasn’t referred them as kids since they left the city six years ago.

Alex has been living an adult life: working, taking care of Mark, cleaning the house and cooking dinner. The only pleasure he’s gotten out of life is running.

Alex swings around, and looks at his mom and the shadowy man behind her, “What the hell is going on?” Alex says in an unfamiliar voice.

“Alex, don’t talk like that.” She turns to dad and explains that Alex is always so well mannered, “it’s a bit of a shock for him you see.”

“Listen kid, let’s talk, me, you and mom. We’ve got some explaining to do.” Dad says.

“What about Mark? I’m sure he’d like to know what’s going on. Are you two criminals or something? Where have you been all this time, dad?” Alex’s world has shattered and these two bimbos just want to talk.

“Oh honey,” mom croons like a pathetic old cat.

“Will you stop talking to me like I’m a little kid. Hey Mark, do you know who this is?” Alex points to dad as if he’s a household appliance.

Mark turns his head away from the TV, “Yeah, he’s our dad.” He turns his head back, just in time for an animated explosion.

“Well son, I’ve been looking for you all these years. Since your mom ran off…”

“Excuse me, you ran of first, and it wasn’t the first time,” mom interjects.

“As I was saying, since your mom ran off, I haven’t been able to get a hold of you all. Every time I get a lead she moves, and then I loose you again.”

“She said you died,” Alex barked at them, “You know what, fuck this, fuck this family.” Alex faces his mom and shouts at her for the first time in his life. This whole time he thought she was the victim. “I’ve been working my ass off, and Mark has suffered from all this moving around for the past six years, so you could live your own life, or whatever, mom.” Then he turns to his dad and continues his tirade, “And you, dad! You were never there in the first place. You were always running away.” Alex takes a deep breath. He’s on the verge of tears. He wants to get out one last thing before he starts to cry. “I don’t care what your crummy backstory is; I don’t know what problems you two have had, but I don’t want to hear it. You’re all a bunch of losers. I hate you.”

Alex flying feet carry him out the door before they have a chance to respond. He feels a little guilty for leaving Mark behind. Alex is running with the wind at his back. The wind is carrying him. It’s the best feeling in the world. Heavy breathing makes him feels as though his insides are turning out, as if he’s getting rid of the bad things stuck deep down. He sprints all the way to Luke’s place.

Luke still has his head under the hood of his beloved car. A single bulb sways in the wind. Alex bends over, hands clutching his knees, catching his breath. He looks at his watch. Less than five minutes have passed since he left the house. “How far is your house from mine?” He pants as the words stumble out of his mouth.

Luke looks up. Something has brought Alex to his house, and he can sense that it’s more than just a run. “Oh, I’d say it’s about a mile.”

This brings a smile to Alex’s face. “It took me four minutes and fifty seconds.”

“That’s sounds like a record to me. You’re the fastest runner in the county.” Luke closes the hood and offers Alex a glass of water, which Alex downs in one gulp.

“My dad came back,” Alex blurts out.

“Your dead dad came back?”

“That’s the thing. He was never really dead. Mom lied to us. How could she do something like that. She took us away from our dad.”

Luke stands still, slowly going over the wrench with an old t-shirt. Then he says, after a few meditative moments, “She might have done it to protect you. Did you even get a chance to ask her why?”

“No, I ran away. I couldn’t look at their filthy faces anymore.”

Luke starts cleaning the rest of his tools and carefully puts them away. “My mom died when I was thirteen. My dad started drinking and staying out late. I had to learn to take care of myself and my sister. I had to keep it together. Later, as I got older, I realized that I was the one who stayed strong when everyone else wasn’t. Alex, you are the strong one. They need you; Mark needs you.”

Luke puts the tool box away and continues. “It’s like this, the brakes on your bike will never fail, because I put on the best pair of brand new brakes.”

“You bought them?” Alex interrupts, “I thought you said the bike was a mongrel, made out of spare parts you had lying around in your garage.”

“It is, except for the brakes. If your chain falls off, or you get a flat tire, no problem, but if your brakes are faulty you’re dead. A good pair of brakes will save your life. You are the brakes Alex.”

“What if I don’t want to be the brakes. What if I want to be a normal kid?”

“Ok, so do you want to ruin your life? Do you want to keep on barreling down that hill at high speeds. If you let go of the brakes you’ve lost your chance at a so called normal life.”

“It’s just so hard sometimes. I’m tired.”

“I’m sorry that you’ve had to grow up quickly. I know how it feels; I’ve been there. It’s hard for a while, but then, it gets easier. I’m really happy with how things turned out for me and my sister. Look, life isn’t easy or fair.”

“I guess you’re right.” Alex looks down at his running shoes.

“One last piece of advice, keep running. You’ve got some pretty talented legs if you made it to my house in five minutes.”

“Under five minutes, four fifty. It’s a record.”

“For this town, it’s unprecedented.” Luke turns over the car keys in the ignition. The Camaro hums.” Luke pats the hood; he’s proud of the work he’s done on the car. “It’s late. Let me take you home.”

Alex sits in the passenger seat and stares out the window. He likes the stillness of Sleepy Hallow, its pine tree scent, and rambling roads. Home. Whatever happens, I’m home. Alex lets that thought settle in his mind, and body, and he likes the way it feels.

Story originally posted on Reedsy: https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/contests/52/submissions/27790/

Posting essays and short stories.

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