The Night Before

The boy crept carefully around the corner of the new house and stepped onto the plywood floor. He paused before entering, looking cautiously behind him. There wasn't any need to. It was still early morning and his parents weren't up yet. But Nikki had a feeling that he wasn't supposed to be here. The knowledge that his parents were asleep was hardly enough to convince him that they didn't know what he was doing. He looked around the big empty room. It seemed unbelievably large to him. It always did. Bigger he was sure then the entire trailer his family now lived in. His father had told him that this one room would be the living room, kitchen and dining room when the house was finished. Nikki still could not imagine it.

He was trying to imagine what the room had looked like the night before. The benches that had been set up along the perimeter were still in place, and the sawhorses and plywood that had served for tables still stood at one end. But he couldn't make the people and the noise reappear that had filled the room the last time he saw it.

The table had been covered with the biggest cake he had ever seen and bottles and bottles of pop and booze. His parents had told him that he could drink as much pop as he wanted, and eat as much cake as he wanted too. He wasn't supposed to drink any of the booze, but he had asked one of the men pouring it if he could have some. The man had filled his cup half way up with the clear liquid. Nikki had been very excited about drinking it. (It seemed so grown up.) But it had tasted awful and burned his mouth and he had spit it out all over the floor, much to the amusement of the man who had given it to him. Nikki had just drank pop after that.

Though he didn't drink very much of that either. It had been exciting at first to be able to have as much as he wanted. But there weren't any other kids there his age and somehow eating cake didn't make him not bored.

The cake had been for one of the men at the party. A friend of Nikki's parents, who he didn't like very much. Well, maybe not a friend of his parents, but more a friend of his mom's. Nikki didn't think his dad liked the man much either. In fact, his parents had fought a lot about the birthday party. He had lain in bed at night listening to them scream about it.

He had never seen so many cars in the driveway. People were parking on the road and walking up to the house. For awhile, he and his sister had played a form of "hide and seek" in the cars. But they kept running into other people who were hiding among the cars. These people seemed startled and got mad at them. They were told to stay out of "grown up" stuff. So they stopped playing.

He didn't know his parents knew so many people. (Though it seemed to him that his parents didn't really know most of them.) His father didn't talk to many people. Mostly he stood in the corner and drank, staring at his mother. His mom seemed to be having a good time, drinking and dancing and talking to everyone. It seemed to Nikki that the happier his mother was, the meaner his father got. Nikki and his sister knew that look and stayed clear of him from early in the evening.

As he stood in the room, he kept trying to remember what all had happened the night before. He knew that something big had, but he wasn't at all sure just what. He looked at the brick and wood benches around the room, remembering the two men running through it. One had been chasing the other, and people had been jumping up and screaming as they tried to get out of the way. The men had gone over the top of the benches, and over the table, bottles and cake flying. He didn't know what had happened after that. One of his parents friends, (Nikki liked this one) had grabbed him and his younger sister and taken them back to the trailer.

There he had spent a lot of time standing on the toilet where he could see out of the bathroom window into the yard. The sheriff had arrived with blue and red flashing lights on his car. (They had to move cars out so he could get in.) Soon after an ambulance had come up with more flashing lights. These ones only red.

But he couldn't stand on the toilet until it ended. It was taking a long time and he was tired. So, eventually, he went to bed. His sister asked him what had happened. He could tell she was afraid and he wanted to tell her something that would make her not afraid. But he didn't know anything to say. He didn't know what had happend. He could only tell her that he didn't know and he sensed that only made her more frightened.

Now he walked up on tip toes out to the center of the room. It seemed extra special frightening, being so empty and big and still. It just didn't seem, looking at it now, that so many people had been in it the night before. He stood for a long time in the center before he quietly walked around the room. He looked at the stains that were on what had been new plywood a day earlier. The floor around the table was now a mass of different colored blotches. He looked for a long time at the large purple stain in the corner. He remembered how the big bottle of wine had fallen and broken when the one man had scrambled across the table trying to get away from the man behind him.

But the stain wouldn't tell him what had happened. He went to the one opening in the solid wall that separated this one room from the rest of the house. He liked the rest of the house. The only separation between the rooms right now was loosely spaced 2 X 4's. Nikki and his sister loved to run "though" the "walls".

He approached it with caution now. He returned to tip toes as he peeked around the corner, creeping forward with exaggerated carefulness.

He paused to smell the familiar sent of fresh wood. But something else was there also. He realized that it smelled like the soap his mother used to clean the kitchen. It occurred to him suddenly that someone must have cleaned the big room after everyone had left. He had heard his father come in late in the night, and knew that his mother hadn't been with him.

He stepped into the small room just around the corner that was going to be one of the bathrooms. He paused for a long time before he went in. Somehow he knew that he was going to find something here. He noticed first the large dark stain by the hole in the floor that would be the toilet. It occurred to him how much it looked like the wine stain in the other room. But something told him it wasn't wine. He saw how the dark red-brown was splattered up the wall and onto the 2 X 4's and even onto the plywood in the adjacent room.

He knew what it was. He had seen the color on the board his father killed the chickens on. But this was lighter and smelled of the kitchen cleaner. He sat down, leaning against the wall stud. He thought about his mother staying up at night trying to clean it so he and his sister wouldn't find it. And he thought about his father coming to bed. And he thought about the man who had taken him and his sister back to the trailer.

And he went quietly back to bed before his parents woke up.

His father put the floor down in the bathroom the next morning, and the drywall over the 2X 4's too. It was the first room that was done in the house.

The kids at school all asked him what had happened. Their parents were all talking about it. There had been a picture in the paper, on the first page, and a head line, that a man had been stabbed. Somehow that copy of the paper never got into his house, and Nikki didn't tell his parents that the kids at school had asked. He just told the kids he didn't know.

His parents never talked about the party.

And, 20 years later, as Nicholas sat waiting at a stop light, he wondered who the man had been. And if he had died.


By Suli Marr