The friendship between Seth and Gabe is a formative relationship for both young men in each of their respective stories. The following excerpt is taken from THE UGLY TRUTH and is Seth’s recollection of the origin of his friendship with Gabe.
The Thing About Trust . . .
Miss Warner, my fifth-grade teacher, smiles at me, but it doesn’t ease my anxiety at being asked to remain indoors to speak with her during recess. Her smile might be a trick even if Miss Warner has never been tricky. I feel like I’m in trouble because that’s how I feel every day at home. It would be the first time at school, though. I shudder thinking about what my dad would do if the school called home.
“Did you hear me?” she asks.
Standing in front of her desk in the classroom, I try to concentrate on her words, but they sort of sound like gibberish in my head. I stare at her pretty face. The pleasant pink of her cheeks over pretty golden skin and the way her hazel eyes look all different sorts of colors, mixed up with browns, greens, yellows and blues like when I use all of my crayons. She continues smiling with nice white teeth. I like her.
“Seth?” She tilts her head and her smile slips.
“Yes, Miss Warner?”
“Are you okay?”
“Am I in trouble?” I ask and glance from her face to the strange boy at the end of her desk. He’s a boy my age, but I haven’t seen him before today. He’s got dark hair and tanned skin, but not like summer tan, like every day, all-the-time tan. He’d been brought in by Principal McPherson right before recess, the whole of the class dropping into silence. I’d been thinking about the basketball tournament my group of friends had planned, watching the exchange at the front of the room. Mrs. McPherson’s hand on the new boy’s shoulder. She smiles at Miss Warner, but we can’t hear the words. Then the principal leaves, Miss Warner excuses us to recess but asks me to stay.
I look back at Miss Warner and wonder if she knows. Is that what Mrs. McPherson talked about? Do they know about my father? A constant fear is if someone knows. Does the new kid? Did he see something? I tug at my shirt making sure the bruises on my back aren’t showing.
Her laugh is a pretty sound that I wonder if my mom ever made.
“Of course not. I just wanted to introduce you to our new student. I thought about you: How well you know your way around and how you are so nice to everyone in our class. Maybe you can help our new student feel comfortable today?”
I glance at the boy again. He’s looking down at his feet. I can tell he’s uncomfortable too, like me. He’s buried in clothing too large for him. His curly dark hair is cut short. When he glances up at me, I’m struck by the lightness of his eyes, a contrast to his darker hue of his skin. They are a light blue, like a barely blue sky on a hot summer day.
“This is Gabe,” Miss Warner says. “He’s new to Cantos.”
“Hey,” I say.
“Gabe, I’d like to introduce you to Seth.”
“Hi,” he replies.
“Seth, why don’t you take Gabe out to recess with everyone else. Maybe introduce him to some of your friends and play?”
Gabe follows me from the classroom, out the hallway and the heavy metal door of the school building into the filtered light of a gray day. There isn’t any rain, but I shrug into my rain jacket anyway to cut the wind that whips through the yard in bursts of cold. Gabe doesn’t have one and pulls his sleeves over his hands.
“Where are you from?” I ask him.
“Wow. Why did your parents pick Cantos?”
“They didn’t.” The way he says it is like we’ve reached the edge of a cliff and there’s nowhere to go but over.
“Want to play basketball?” I look toward the blacktop where most of my friends are playing, but friends is a bit generous of a description. They are my friends at school. I’ve been invited to birthday parties, and a sleepover now and again, but no one has come to my house. They don’t know my secret. There’s only one friend I ever told, and she’s gone now.
Turns out, the new kid is really good at basketball, and now we have enough players to play three-on-three instead of two-on-two with a sub. It works out that Gabe is a perfect addition to the crew. He’s good at everything we play, and is pretty funny, but there’s something a bit different about him. It isn’t just that he lives at the hardware store with the Daniels who aren’t his parents, or that he refuses to talk about his real ones. It’s more than that. It’s the way he drifts when he thinks no one will notice, but I do because I understand the call of a daydream, though mine are day-mares. It’s a similar look when my mind returns to the fear of my dad, when I think about what he said or did the night before, when I feel the twinge of a new bruise, or the ache of a muscle that caught his anger. I recognize myself in Gabe.
A few months later, as the summer stretches into longer days and I’ve spent nearly every day with Gabe at the hardware store, I take a risk and invite Gabe to my house. It’s a day when it is safe - no father since he’s picked up an extra shift every weekend all month. Gabe rides his bike into the driveway and I meet him outside. “So, where’s this famous fort?” he asks as he leans the bike against the side of the house.
“This way.” I take him next door to Nana Bev’s.
“Is this your yard?” Gabe asks.
“No. It’s an empty house. Nana Bev used to live here, but she’s gone now. Moved to Arizona. I guess new people are moving in next month.”
“You won’t be able to cut through the yard anymore.”
“Yeah. Probably not. Maybe we can make a passage from my yard.”
“Loosen a board on the back fence?”
“How did you know about the fence?”
“It’s this way” I say.
I lead him down a narrow path situated between a thicket of bushes with thick broad leaves. The plant flowers once a year and then the rain makes the fort impossible. It gets too muddy and the leaves drop leaving the structure exposed. Our feet crunch over the earth, dried branches and the soft padding of decomposing vegetation. Eventually the path gives way to a meadow, “almost there,” I say and trot through the tall grass. “Imagine if we were being followed by a rogue agent.” I say.
“A what?” Gabe asks.
“Never mind.” That is one thing that makes Gabe difficult to play with. We often have to stop to explain things to him.
“What does rogue mean?” he asks.
A good thing though: he catches on quick. I never had to explain much to Abby, but she is gone now, probably forever. She is in Hawaii, and I will never see her again now that Nana Bev has moved away. She doesn’t have a reason to visit now. “Rogue is like a rebel.”
“Like from Star Wars?”
“Duck!” Gabe yells. “Incoming!”
I flop to the grass, and Gabe makes an explosion sound with his mouth as he lands near me. “Agent S are you okay?”
“All good. 10-4,” I reply.
“What about the weapons?” Gabe asks in a lowered voice.
“They are in the safe house about 10 klicks over the ridge.”
“We have to get there first, secure them.”
On our bellies, immersed in the characters, we find our way across the meadow and shimmy into the cover of the trees. Several more yards of darting from tree to tree, peppering our imaginary foe with finger bullets and barely making it to safety, we summersault into the fort.
“This is cool,” Gabe says and draws up to a crouch. It is impossible to stand all the way up. It’s dark in the space but for the light that comes through the walls and the ceiling made of leaves and branches. I had stumbled upon the hideout one day while hiding from my dad in one of his moods. It was perfect and turned into the ideal place to escape. The magic of it was how the summer built it, but as the winter descended, the fort disappeared, even if the branches remained. I’d found myself hiding out here many occasions, waiting until I knew my father was passed out and it was safe to return home. Abby and I had dragged a bunch of junk into the space to make seats, a table among other amenities.
“It doesn’t work very well in the winter though. The rain.”
“But we could fix that,” Gabe says. “Dale would give us some stuff,” he adds referring to Mr. Daniels, his foster dad.
I look at it through his excited gaze and smile.
We spend the next four weeks weather proofing our hideout. Boards, nails, tarps, wire among other things Mr. Daniels provides us from the store.
“I think we did it,” Gabe says.
“Abby would have loved this.”
“A friend. She and I found this place.”
“Does she go to school with us?”
“No.” I shake my head. “Her grandma was Nana Bev.”
“The one who moved away.”
I nod. “She won’t ever come back.”
“Well,” Gabe says and sweeps away some stray branches from the path we’d cleared. “You never know.”
Suddenly the sound of my father yelling my name pierces the peace of the day.
“Oh no.” I say. I feel the blood drain from my face and shiver.
“What is it?”
“You stay,” I say. “Hide.” And I run from the fort. The last thing I want is my dad finding the fort and lose the life raft. I also don’t want Gabe to see my dad, hear him. I’m able to make it across the meadow, closer to the path near Grandma Bev’s place before he finds me.
“What are you doing?”
“Playing, Sir,” I say and keep my eye on the ground.
His eyes narrow and he looks around. “By yourself?”
“My friend Gabe was with me earlier. He went home,” I lie.
“What were you doing?”
He makes a huffing noise through his nose. “Help me with the yard.”
I follow him back through the path and learn that there is a hidden gate in our back fence I didn’t know about. Then I spend time working on the yard. His idea of me helping is me doing it while he gets deeper into his drinking. I rake the last bit of grass and rush to put it into a bag thinking about Gabe and wondering if he’s still at the fort or if he’s gone home. I lay the rake down on the ground and tie up the bag. It’s so heavy with cut grass since the last time we did the yard was at the beginning of the summer. I drag the bag, too heavy for me to carry toward the truck.
“Dammit, Seth,” my father yells. I freeze. “You’re tearing the bag.” He stalks toward me and I shrink where I stand. When he gets to me, he slaps my face, his ring opens a cut under my eye. “Jesus,” he slurs snatching the plastic trash bag from my hands. He carries it and tosses it into the back of his truck. I haven’t moved even with blood dripping down my cheek, afraid to, and as he walks back across the lawn, he doesn’t see the rake, trips on it and sprawls face first into the freshly cut grass. “Fuck!” He screams and slams a fist against the earth with a thud. My muscles tense as I consider bolting, a scared rabbit, but then I think of my mom. Where is she?
He gets up and looks at me. “Can’t you get anything fucking right?” It isn’t loud. It’s the even sound of hatred: slow, deliberate, and seething like a pot on the verge of boiling. He moves toward me, rake in hand. I know what’s coming, and it is likely something gets broken besides the rake.
“Jack,” my mom calls from the back porch. Her eyes dart from him to me. She holds a fresh beer bottle. “Ready for another beer?”
He says something about discipline.
Mom is coming down the steps and across the grass.
“Jack,” her sing-song voice belies the fear of her wide eyes. She’s looking at me. “Fred called.”
He pauses and looks at her, a bit unsteady.
“Said something about going down to that place on Smith Street.” She holds out a beer to him.
He takes it.
She takes the rake and looks at me. Go, she says with her eyes and nods her head.
I don’t wait.
“Let’s go call him back,” I hear her say. “I bet he’d love to hear from you.”
I move through the new gate and run through the meadow as though the hounds of hell were chasing me. Tears of anger fall and when I finally get to the fort, Gabe is still there.
“Oh shit,” he says. “What happened?”
I’d usually say something like I fell, but that isn’t what comes out. Unfiltered I say through angry tears, “My dad.” I don’t know why I tell him the truth, but it comes tumbling out. “My asshole dad. He’s a drunk and he hits my mom and me.” The tears stream down my cheeks and I wipe them with my hands. My left hand is smeared with blood. “I got this for tearing the trash bag.”
He looks around and finds a stick. “Here,” he says holding it out to me.
I take it in my hand.
He doesn’t say anything and just waits for me to do something.
“What am I supposed to do with this?”
“Well, you could use it as a weapon on your dad. Or you could go beat the shit out of that bush over there.” He nods his head at something behind me.
I turn around and attack the bush, yelling and swinging. Eventually Gabe joins me and before long we’ve destroyed the shrub. Its limbs litter the ground around us. I’m breathing heavily and look at Gabe who’s equally spent. He smiles and suddenly we’re laughing.
The sun is on the verge of going down. “I have to go home,” Gabe says. “Want to come to my house?”
I do. I’d like to run away and never return home, but there’s my mom. “I better not,” I say instead.
We walk back through the woods toward Nana Bev’s hoping to avoid my father in case he’s still around, and then I sneak into my yard to get Gabe’s bike. “Tomorrow then,” he says and holds out his hand.
“Tomorrow,” I hold my hand out and we complete the handshake ritual he’s taught me. I watch him ride his bike toward the center of town, away from my house, and I hope beyond all hopes that I’ll be able to see him tomorrow. When I turn to look at my house, the light inside peeking out between the slats of closed blinds, holding in its secrets, and I’m afraid. I don’t know what I will find inside.