Jake hated it when Mom and Dad went into the study. They always kept the door closed and he was never allowed inside. On most nights Mom came out after a few minutes, but Dad usually stayed in there all night. Jake’s mind ran wild imagining what Dad might be doing in there for such a long time. Maybe he was a mad scientist or wizard like in the movies.
They told him Dad sold insurance, but Jake didn’t really know what that meant. And whenever he asked questions Dad always found a way to avoid answering them. He’d say his job was just a bunch of boring stuff dealing with numbers and it was too complicated for Jake to understand. Math was Jake’s least favorite subject, so he knew how boring numbers could be. But that made it all the more difficult to understand why Dad would spend hours locked in a room doing math problems. There had to be another explanation.
Danny, who lived next door, was always bragging that his dad was a secret agent for the government. He went on secret missions all over the country and hunted bad guys like spies and criminals. Jake had only seen Danny’s dad a few times in the years since they moved in next door, probably because he was always out hunting bad guys. Whenever Danny started talking about his dad, Jake got quiet and pretended not to care, but secretly he was burning with envy. If only he could find out what Dad was really doing for all those hours in the study he was sure he could make Danny jealous for once.
One night at the dinner table Mom asked what Jake had learned in school that day. His favorite class was social studies and he proudly recited what his teacher had taught him about the president. Dad had been really quiet all night, just pushing the food around on his plate and barely eating anything. But now his eyes were locked onto Jake and he looked very serious. The vein in his forehead started to bulge, just like it did whenever he was about to start yelling. He slammed his hand down on the table so hard it made the dishes rattle.
“That damn school is filling the kids’ heads with propaganda,” he said, turning to face Mom. “The president,” he spoke the word as if it left a bitter taste in his mouth, “is an enemy of the people and kids like Jake are being taught that he’s some kind of hero.”
Mom put a hand on Dad’s shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze. “Calm down, honey, you’ll wake the baby.”
“How can I calm down when our civil liberties are being systematically stripped away by that fascist son of a bitch?” He spoke with such force that spittle flew from his mouth. “I won’t have my son brought up thinking this is how things should be.”
Mom’s voice was soothing. “That’s why our work is so important.”
Jake had already begun tuning them out. He didn’t understand what they were talking about and it was scary when Dad got in those kinds of moods.
He stared down at his plate and imagined the white porcelain was a frozen pond and his knife and fork were tall, graceful skaters. He dragged the silverware along the smooth surface and they turned and danced, tracing circles and figure eight's. He squinted and big snowflakes drifted through the air all around them.
That night Jake had trouble getting to sleep. He lay in bed with his eyes closed, but couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened at dinner. Sometimes Dad acted so strange and he wondered if it had to do with what he was working on in his study.
He got out of bed and opened his door a crack. The hallway light was off and he could see a strip of light coming from under the door of his parents’ room at the end of the hall. He heard Mom’s voice talking loud and fast, and then Dad yelling something back at her. He couldn’t understand what they were saying, but they both sounded really angry. Jake got a heavy feeling in his stomach. He hated hearing his parents fight. He wanted to go back into his room and curl up in his secret hiding place like he usually did when he was scared. It was a dark little room he could get to through a secret door in his closet. It was so small that he couldn’t stand up inside, but it was cozy and just big enough to be the perfect hiding place. Dad had said the people who lived in the house before them probably hid a safe in there.
Jake was about to go back to his room when he noticed a dull light coming from the study. The door was standing almost halfway open. His parents thought he was asleep, so they hadn’t closed it. He felt his heart beat faster.
He tiptoed over to the study and his shoulders tensed with nervous excitement as he nudged the door open. He was immediately disappointed to find that there were no big computers or racks of test tubes. Along the walls stood a few bookshelves and paintings of old men in suits. He didn’t know who they were, but thought he recognized some of them from his social studies textbook. The room smelled like old books and cigar smoke. A desk sat in the middle of the room and next to it a metal file cabinet. Jake walked over and climbed up onto the chair to see what Dad was working on.
There were lots of things on the desk and he wanted to touch them all: a cigar box, a stack of papers, a shiny gold pen, a notebook full of messy handwriting, and a calendar with little notes stuck to it. But what caught his attention was a tiny red book about the size of a deck of playing cards. He liked it right away because it was so small and the words in it were tiny and neat. He imagined it was specially made for a little person to read, an elf or gnome even smaller than his baby sister. He tried reading some of the words, but most were long and confusing and he couldn’t understand them. Maybe Dad wouldn’t notice if he borrowed that one book for a little while. He just wanted to show it to Danny so he could see that his dad had a neat job, too. He slipped it in the pocket of his pajamas and tiptoed back to bed.
The next day Jake went over to Danny’s house after school. The boys went to his bedroom and dropped their coats and backpacks in a heap on the floor. Jake could hardly wait to show him the little red book. He took it out of his pocket and brandished it, beaming with pride.
Danny furrowed his brow. “What’s that?”
“I found it in my dad’s office. It’s something he’s been working on.”
Danny took the book from him and leafed through it. Jake looked on, wringing his hands and waiting for some form of approval from the boy.
After a minute Danny gave a dismissive shrug and closed the book. “It doesn’t have any pictures.”
“Of course not, dummy,” Jake said defensively. “It’s not that kind of book.”
“Well, what kind of book is it?”
Jake felt cornered. He didn’t have time to think up a clever lie. “I don’t know,” he admitted.
“This doesn’t prove anything about what your dad does for a living,” Danny said with a hint of disgust, and tossed the book onto the pile on the floor.
Jake was embarrassed and frustrated, but tried his best not to show it. He would have to find some other way to prove Dad had an important job.
Danny’s mom poked her head in the room. “How can you boys bear to be indoors on such a beautiful day? Why don’t you go outside and play for awhile?” Then, noticing her son’s reluctance, she added, “Unless you’d rather stay and help me clean the house.” She shot Jake a devious wink.
The boys went outside to play, and Danny showed him a bird’s nest he had found in the bushes. Then they met up with some of the other neighborhood kids and played a game of tag. Before long it was time to go home for dinner, so Jake went back to Danny’s house to get his things. He walked through the front door and found Danny’s mom sitting in the living room with his backpack and coat on the couch next to her. She looked very serious, unlike he had ever seen her before. A shiver ran through him and the room suddenly felt unbearably hot.
“Jake, I need to ask you a question,” she said in a tone of forced calm. She held out her hand, the little red book lying on her open palm.
He felt the blood rushing to his face and beads of sweat growing on his forehead. He had forgotten to put the book away before they went outside to play.
“Where did you get this?” she asked in a low, even tone.
He was so scared all he could do was shrug his shoulders. His knees felt weak and he had to put his hand on the arm of the couch to steady himself.
“Do you know what this is?” she asked. Her eyes were fixed on his face and he wished she would stop looking at him.
He shook his head.
“Does this belong to your dad?”
He nodded. His neck was tense and he was shaking all over. He had been careless and knew he was in trouble. She was going to tell Dad that he had gone into the study. He couldn’t bear to think about how angry Dad would get when he found out.
“I’m not going to tell on you,” she said evenly, “but you should go home now.”
She handed him his backpack and coat, but did not give him the little red book. He ran home and went straight to his room.
That night at dinner Mom and Dad were very quiet and so was Jake. He worried that any minute they would say that Danny’s mom had called and told them what he’d done. All he could do was sit and pick at his food, too nervous to have an appetite. When the phone rang he almost jumped out of his seat. He watched frozen in terror as Mom went to the counter and picked up the receiver.
After a brief pause she said, “Hi, Sissy.” Sissy was what she called Aunt Kimmy. Jake was so relieved he almost laughed out loud.
When she got off the phone, Mom said Aunt Kimmy was coming over tomorrow morning to take Jake and his baby sister to the park. That meant that Mom and Dad were probably going to spend the whole day in the study. Aunt Kimmy came over a few times a week to watch Jake and his baby sister when his parents were busy. He liked it when she came over because she always took him to fun places like the zoo and the park. And when it rained she played indoor games with him, like Monopoly and hide-and-seek. They didn’t play hide-and-seek too much anymore because she knew all his favorite hiding places. She even knew about his secret hideout in the closet.
He liked Aunt Kimmy because she was always nice to him and didn’t talk down to him like most grownups he knew. She never tried to make him believe silly lies like the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny, like Mom and Dad did. One time he asked her what Mom and Dad were always doing in the study, hoping she was the one person who would tell him the truth.
The corners of her mouth drooped and he could see right away that the question made her sad. “I’m sorry, buddy, I can’t tell you that. I promised your mom and dad I wouldn’t,” she said quietly. He could tell from the way she said it that she didn’t like keeping it a secret from him. He knew she would have told him the truth if she could.
Jake finished his dinner and went to bed, eager to see Aunt Kimmy in the morning. He was tired from having been so nervous and had no trouble falling asleep.
He awoke in the middle of the night to a crash from downstairs. His heart jumped in his chest and he had to struggle to catch his breath. He snuck over to the window and peered out at the street below. Two black vans were parked in the driveway, their engines still running. Then he heard the pounding of heavy footsteps on the stairs. He ran to bed and pulled the covers up over his head. His heart was pounding really hard.
There was another crash, but this time it came from down the hall where Mom and Dad’s room was. Then he heard a lot of noises all at once. Mom screaming, Dad shouting, and things being broken. His head was swimming and all the noises ran together. From the next room came the high-pitched wail of his baby sister, startled awake from the commotion.
Then he heard a man’s voice that he didn’t recognize, shouting something, and Mom was crying and screaming like he’d never heard before. There was a dull thump and then Mom was quiet. There were more heavy footsteps in his baby sister’s room right next to his. Suddenly the baby’s cries were muffled, but only for a minute. Then she stopped crying completely.
He heard more footsteps, closer this time, and he knew they were just outside his door. He rolled out of bed onto the carpeted floor and crawled into the closet. The door to his room burst open with such force he could hear the doorknob hit the wall. There were lots of footsteps close now, so he pulled open the little door that led to his secret hiding place and crawled in.
He heard Mom crying, and it sounded like she was just outside his room. Between sobs she said that her son was staying over at a friend’s house for the night. Nobody else said anything, but the heavy footfalls of a man came closer and he heard the closet door being thrown open. Jake held his breath and stayed perfectly still in his secret hiding place while things in his closet were being kicked and thrown around.
“He’s not here,” a man’s voice said.
He heard more footsteps, but they were getting quieter now. Then there was the sound of something being dragged as they went down the hall, down the stairs, and out of the house. He was still too scared to move. He heard the vans drive away, but still didn’t move. How could he be sure someone wasn’t still waiting there for him just outside his closet?
He waited a long time, but the house was completely silent. Finally he drew enough courage to open the tiny door to his hiding place. It was still dark in his room. He peered out the window and was relieved to see that the vans were really gone. The ringing of the telephone shattered the silence and his heart skipped a beat. He felt a chill run down his back. The phone rang again. He grabbed his blanket and curled up in his hiding place wrapped tight, pressing a pillow over his ears.
He waited for what felt like hours, unable to muster the courage to leave the secret room again. Eventually there was the sound of the front door closing downstairs and then footsteps, lighter than the ones he heard earlier, racing up the stairs and into his sister’s room. There was a pause, a few seconds later the footsteps were in his room, coming closer, stopping at the closet door.
The cool sweet scent of perfume came to him and he knew right away it was Aunt Kimmy. When she opened the little door he saw the light of morning shining in through the window. Aunt Kimmy knelt down and whispered something to him, but he was too numb to hear it. Her eyes were red-rimmed and her face smeared with tears. She took him by the hand and led him out of his room. Her hands were cold and shaking, but he didn’t mind.
The hallway was dark, but he could see the rug had been kicked to the side and some of the pictures had fallen from the wall. There was broken glass on the floor, and puddles of dark red. His aunt told him to look at her, and not take his eyes away, but it was too late; he had already seen the blood. When they got to the doorway of his baby sister’s room he stopped, but his aunt looked down at him and shook her head. He thought she was going to cry, but she gave his arm a gentle tug and they walked toward the stairs. The door to the study stood open now, and the room looked nothing like it had before. The bookshelves were knocked over and there were papers everywhere.
As they walked down the stairs and toward the front door it didn’t even look like his house anymore. The morning sun cast jagged shadows on the floor as it passed through the bare branches of the trees outside.
Aunt Kimmy led him outside to her car. She told him he had to be brave and not ask questions. He was still clutching his blanket, and one corner of it was red from being dragged across the floor of the hallway. She opened the car door and he laid down on the cold vinyl back seat. The air was so chilly he could see his breath. He closed his eyes and imagined the two skaters tracing gentle curves along the ice, snowflakes drifting through the air around them.
Jim Sullivan was born and raised in Racine, Wisconsin and now lives in Los Angeles. He has always had a passion for writing, especially scifi and fantasy. None of his works had ever been published until the good people at 69fop saw fit to publish "The Little Red Book". He is currently working on his first novel, a fantasy story centering around the birth of an evil demigod.
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