Dejuan waved the red rubber ball back and forth and Kisses’ head turned left and right, like her beagle nose was attached to the ball with a string, her brown eyes bright and shiny. He was excited, too. They both were holding their breath. He pulled his arm behind his head and leaned back.
“Get it, Kisses!”
Then he threw the ball and Kisses took off, ripping chunks of grass from the ground. He watched her accelerate under the ball as it sailed down the empty soccer field, accelerating, reaching a speed where her feet barely touched, her ears flapping behind her like banners. Her concentration was single-pointed, like Dejuan’s karate instructor said was how black belts break a board in one blow.
He sat in the grass. Grass was soft in May, tender to chew, and the ground smelled wet. When he was younger, he would roll around on the ground in spring, but Mama told him not to, that people would think he was crazy, so now he only did it when no one could see. But Kisses did it whenever she liked. Dogs had it better than people.
The ball hit the ground and Kisses ran beside it, staying as close as she could. The ball bounced and bounced and then slowed to a roll. She made her move even before it stopped rolling, scooping the ball up into her mouth. She reversed direction, heading back to Dejuan, trotting now. She was happy, and he was happy, too.
She dropped the slobber-covered ball at his feet, ready to do it again, but they’d done it a lot and she was panting. He squatted down, petted her, told her what a good girl she was. Kisses licked Dejuan’s hand and when he got down close she licked his face and wouldn’t stop. That’s why they called her Kisses.
He pinched a blade of grass, wondering if it hurt the grass, and put it in his mouth. It tasted green. He stretched out on his back and Kisses laid down, too, scooted up against his side, and he put his arm around her. He looked up at the clouds.
He liked to feel clouds. Fat clouds felt different than puffy clouds and wispy clouds. His teacher said fog was a cloud rubbing against the ground. Sometimes clouds were in a hurry and sometimes they took their time and sometimes they stood still. They could separate into parts, two new clouds out of one old one. They had shapes that said what they were, like people. Shapes were how clouds talked, which made it nice and quiet. Even when they thundered, black clouds were quieter than TV.
“Give me the ball!’
Dejuan heard the shout and propped himself up to look. Some older boys were gathering down at the basketball courts for a pick-up game. He spotted Charlie, who lived next door to Dejuan. Charlie was okay – he didn’t tease Dejuan about having autism. But beside Charlie, bouncing a basketball, was Walter Johnson. Walter lived behind Dejuan on the next street over, and had a daddy who drank and an older brother who’d gone to jail. Walter was mean.
The boys at the basketball court were older, but Dejuan was big for his age. Had he been alone, he would have joined them. But not with Kisses. Walter might do something, might kick her, or throw the basketball at her. If that happened, Dejuan would lose control. He would throw the first punch, and it would be dirty. A leg thrust to the side of the knee could cripple someone. That’s what his karate instructor said.
Thinking about Walter made him feel bad. He didn’t like feeling bad around Kisses. It wasn’t fair. He laid back down and put his arm under his head for a pillow. Kisses put her head on his stomach and sighed, like she was going to go to sleep. That made him feel good, but the noise of the boys jangled everything up and he couldn’t feel the clouds anymore. He scratched Kisses behind the ears and decided it was time for them to go home.
Mama and Amerika, his older sister, argued about nothing during dinner, Mama picking at her and Amerika daring her to. Dejuan kept his head down and ate fast. When his plate was clean, he asked to be excused and escaped to the back stoop with Kisses.
The backyard was a safe place. A robin was building a nest in the holly tree and every day he watched her work on it. She carried pieces of plant stalks to the nest, sometimes string or plastic wrappers, and pushed them around with her beak. He didn’t know how she made it all stick together.
Squirrels chased each other up and down the trees. They were crazy. Bumblebees were back from wherever they went in the winter and they poked around in Mama’s flowers and herbs, trying a little of this, a little of that. Kisses was lying beside Dejuan with the bone she hadn’t finished from last night, holding one end with her paws while she gnawed on the other. Everything was perfect, like being a pancake and having maple syrup poured on you.
But then the kitchen cabinet door slammed behind him and Amerika stomped out.
She sat on the stoop beside Dejuan and pulled out her phone.
“You have a fight with Mama?”
Amerika didn’t say anything, just drilled her eyes into the phone and punched at it with her thumbs. Amerika was changing. She was unhappy all the time. Mama said it was because she was becoming a teenager and had boobs, now.
He stood, leaving Amerika lost in being mad at Mama and Kisses lost in her bone, and walked to the middle of the yard. He made his spine straight, with his arms dangling loose and relaxed, and took a deep breath, exhaled, then did it again. He was going to practice karate.
He assumed a bow stance, right leg forward. Dejuan swung his left leg forward and executed a front snap-kick, striking the imaginary opponent in the solar plexus with the ball of his foot, then pulling his leg back quickly as he returned to the bow stance. The goal was to strike as quickly as possible while staying balanced.
After practicing the left front-snap kick several times, he added a second move. After snapping the left kick, he continued forward, dropping into a bow stance with the left foot in front. Then launched a right kick, stepped forward and launched a left kick, around the yard, kicking the air.
Dejuan stopped to rest, sweating, feeling powerful. He loved karate. His occupational therapist said karate was good for autistic kids because it helped them find their bodies. He’d never hit anyone and didn’t want to, but if Walter started something, he could kick him.
Kisses approached with the bone in her mouth, but she trotted past him to the honeysuckle thicket by the rear fence, a row of bushes that, over time, had seeded more honeysuckles and created a forest. Kisses went to one of her favorite places, a bare spot near the right corner of the thicket where years of shade from the canopy above had killed the grass. But late in the day, light from the setting sun hit that spot at an angle, underneath the canopy. Kisses plopped down where the warmth could wash over her and went to work on the bone.
Dejuan had favorite places, too. The honeysuckle thicket smelled green and sweet with white and yellow flowers. The boughs formed walls and a roof overhead. Over the years, he’d broken off small branches to create tunnels and rooms inside the thicket. It was like a little clubhouse just for him. He went to the entrance, squatted, and duck-walked in. He settled cross-legged on the ground. It was quiet and still and shadowy. The thicket formed a cushion between him and everything else. He liked it. He could stay here forever and not miss anything except Kisses.
His rear got itchy from sitting on the ground, so he crawled down the tunnel to the chain-link fence, where there was more room and the space above opened enough that he could stand. He was still hidden from the waist up by overhanging branches but could see everything in Walter Johnson’s back yard. There was the white plastic lawn chair near Walter’s back door, where Walter’s daddy drank beer, his head tilted back slightly like he was thinking about something. There was the birdbath in the middle of the yard, always empty of water except after it rained.
Walter’s daddy got up and went inside. He started yelling at Walter. He knew it was Walter getting yelled at because Walter’s daddy used a different voice when he yelled at Walter’s mother, and that didn’t usually happen until after dark. He felt sorry for Walter because it was too early to go to bed, so Walter probably didn’t have any place to hide. Walter didn’t have a thicket like Dejuan did, and Dejuan didn’t have a daddy he had to hide from like Walter did.
“Dejuan! Are you back there?”
It was Mama.
He made his way back through the thicket and emerged in the yard. He looked at Kisses and didn’t see a bone, so she must have finished it.
“Get in here, it’s dark,” Mama said.
“Come on, Kisses,” he said, and Kisses followed him inside.
The TV was on in the living room, but no one was watching. Amerika probably was hanging out with her friends. He sat on the couch and Kisses jumped up beside him. Mama had given up trying to keep Kisses off the furniture. Kisses put her head in Dejuan’s lap. Mama came into the living room carrying her purse in one hand and car keys in the other.
“I’m going to get Amerika,” Mama said. That could mean she knew where Amerika was and was picking her up, or that she was going to drive around and look for Amerika.
He muted the sound on the TV and watched images flicker. It was better when no one was talking. Talking jangled everything up. People mostly were angry and talking made them angrier. They said Dejuan needed to be like other people, but they never said why.
Kisses closed her eyes. He watched her fall asleep, liking the way her breath got slow and deep. Her eyelids started twitching and so did her legs. Mama said that meant Kisses was dreaming. He wondered what she dreamed about. Maybe chewing on bones or chasing red balls.
He heard car tires rolling across the driveway and looked out the window. It was dark, and Mama was back, with or without Amerika. Either way, she would be mad. He shook Kisses awake.
“Time for bed, Kisses.”
Kisses followed him to his bedroom. He heard Mama open the kitchen door and come in the house. Amerika was with her, because he heard them arguing. He closed his door.
He put on pajamas and turned back the covers. Kisses jumped in the bed, knowing exactly where to lie down. He climbed in beside her, pulled the covers over them, and switched off the light. She snuggled in close and heaved a big sigh. He did, too, happy to fall asleep with Kisses.
Mike Wilson is a writer in Lexington, Kentucky. His stories and poetry have been published in small magazines and anthologies including Appalachian Heritage. He is also the author of a biography, Warrior Priest: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and The School of the Americas.
Photo credit: Marcus Wallis for Unsplash.com.