At first, Fitz can’t figure out where the pulse is coming from. It yanks him from his sleep, and forces him back into the waking world, where all he can make out in front of him is the outline of his dresser against the wall, and the abating light of a distant streetlight, or maybe moon. He’s too tired to decipher which.
Perfectly paced staccato noises that he’s heard before but aren’t registering now. He rolls beneath his comforter, and his half-open eyes scan the room, landing on his nightstand. That’s it. His phone scoots across the top, a halo of light encircling it from the downward facing screen.
“Who the hell calls right now?” he says to himself, pushing his hair out of his eyes and reaching over to the nightstand. He lifts his phone, its light nearly blinding him, but through the squint, he makes out a name: Everett.
“What?” he murmurs, but no longer in tiredness. This is pure confusion. Of the people to make a late-night phone call, one of the last would expect is Everett. He’s as tame as a 12 year-old dog, and known in their group of friends for early nights and yawning when they’re hanging out after midnight.
Fitz stares at the phone in his palm, feeling it vibrate against his hand. Maybe Everett has had a complete change in personality and is out partying, deciding at 1:58 A.M. that there is something Fitz needs to know right this minute. Or, he’s awake for another reason, and 2:00 in the morning reasons are never good.
He pushes Answer, and before he can tell Everett he better not be drunk, he’s met by a cacophony of voices he can hear without turning the phone on speaker.
“You need to stop being a selfish child and tell me where you put my money,” one of the voices says, one that after a few seconds he recognizes as Everett’s mom, Mrs. Smithson, and immediately, the red flags fly up.
Fitz has known Everett since their elementary school days, and while he’s seen different sides of Mrs. Smithson—the jovial woman, waiting with bags of trail mix for them as kids; the hardworking mom, trying to get her work done as he’s surrounded by screaming boys; the woman who disappears behind closed door as the rest of her family stays in the living room, watching TV—this is one that has not appeared. Bellowing in anger at her son in the early hours of the day. Over money. That Everett would never take.
What. The. Hell.
“Mom, again, why would I take it?” Everett says, and Fitz can hear his words wavering. Fear. “What do I need it for? To buy hot dogs at 2:00 in the morning? Come on!”
He has clues to help him, yes, but he can’t figure out what they mean or how they work together to help him solve the larger puzzle. Yelling. Money stolen. Hot dogs? It’s the last that strikes him has the oddest. It’s a weird example to make, and yet, it sets off another alarm in Fitz’s head. If only he could know what the alarm signaled.
“Ev, what’s going on?” Fitz hollers into the receiver, hoping to be heard over the verbal melee on the other end, but it seems like it falls on deaf ears, because Everett doesn’t acknowledge him. Is this a butt dial? One that was supposed to go to Mr. Smithson, who works the third shift at the hospital?
“You did! You stole it! Give it to me!” Mrs. Smithson says. There’s a rustle against the receiver, as if it’s caught in a scuffle.
The answer hits him like a lightning bolt, the words appearing in the crossword with a snap of a finger, or in the case one reference. Holy shit. Back when Fitz and Everett were in fifth grade, they came up with their own code system so they could talk without anyone knowing exactly what they were saying.
Bat signal: Meet me on the playground.
Transformer: I’m hungry.
Lunchable: Give that to me.
And—named after the time Fitz nearly choked on the food, and was saved by the slap of Everett’s hand:
Hot dog: Help me.
Rather than risk Mrs. Smithson hearing him, Fitz types out a text message. I’m on my way. He pulls on a sweatshirt, and his shoes without tying the laces, and runs down the hall, past his parents’, who don’t move, the rhythm of their snoring unchanged.
It’s nine blocks from Fitz’s house to Everett’s, a drive which usually takes him 5 minutes, but with open roads and a lead foot takes him less than three. Luckily, he hears no sirens and sees no strobe of red and blue lights. All he sees is the white dashes in the middle of the road flying by. All he hears is fighting.
Under his breath, he begs Everett to leave the house, and for Everett’s dad to get home.
When he pulls up to the Smithson’s Cape Cod, it seems as though neither have happened. The curtains in Everett’s room are aglow, and no cars sit in the driveway.
The seconds draw out into minutes, and Fitz’s chest burns with anxiety, his breath staying lodged in his lungs. Does he break in? Throw rocks at Everett’s window? Go to the neighbor and hope someone knows where the spare key is?
The solution presents itself when Mrs. Smithson’s yelling changes from questions about money to questions of where Everett is going. The front door whips open, and Everett sprints down the walk, his backpack thrown over his shoulder, his fiery red hair mussed. The car door swings open with so much force it shakes the SUV, and Everett climbs in, limb over limb, backpack between knees.
“Go,” Everett breathes between huffs, and Fitz returns to the road before Mrs. Smithson reaches the curb.
It’s three blocks before either of them speak—their attention split between the storm they just left, and the clouds rolling in, sparking with light and thunder, in front of them.
His friend is gripping his backpack in a tight fist. Tears slide from the cracks of his eyes.
“Ev, what happened?” he whispers over the low hum of whatever talk radio the dial is set at.
Everett’s fist unfurls, and his palm drags across his mouth, under his eyes. “My mom—my mom.” He breaks off, squeezing his lips together.
“She’s not okay?” Fitz offers, only able to say the obvious.
“No,” he says, shaking his head. “She hasn’t been for a while.” He stares off out the window, his eyes seeming to watch each mailbox that goes by. “Remember when she had back surgery?”
“Yeah.” It was last year, in the spring of their sophomore year. From what Fitz can remember, she had blown a disc in her back or something, and was laid up for a few weeks.
Fitz blinks at him, and blinks again. Of the many scenarios he tossed around in his head that had led to the late night phone call, this was one that had never crossed his mind. “Shit, Ev. Why didn’t you say anything? You could’ve been staying over at my house.”
“I don’t know. She’s not always like this. It’s gotten worse lately, but Dad’s been home. I think he took her money tonight, so she couldn’t go find more, and it wouldn’t turn out like this, but that didn’t work.” Slowly, he pulls the strap adjuster up and down the black fabric, and turns towards. “Sorry to wake you up. I couldn’t get a hold of my dad, and I didn’t know what to do.”
“Seriously? You’ve saved my ass how many times? It’s about time I do it for you, too.” In comparison to Everett, Fitz’s nature is a bit more rowdy, leading him into trouble, and, on a couple occasions, to end up drunk and needing someone to get him home—well, more like to some home other than his own because he couldn’t have his own parents finding out. And dutifully, Everett has always hauled him out—of a party, or a snake pit—and made sure he was okay.
“Thanks,” he says and Fitz nods, and they fall quiet. Rain hits the windshield, first as a sprinkle, then pelting drops. The pulse returns, this time in a new way, one that feels appropriate.