Old, character-ridden houses are hard to traverse quietly, but Jimmy did his best to skulk up the stairs and tiptoe down the hallway. He closed his bedroom door with the same stealth—retracting the bolt until the door shut, then slowly untwisting the brass knob. He crept across the wood floor to the side of his bed, where he lifted his mattress and removed the magazine. The bed had squeaky springs, so he mounted it gingerly.
The remaining shine on the magazine's once glossy cover terminated at its straight creases and rounded corners. The pages that were not falling apart stuck together. Even so, the very feel of the paper, like the firing of a blank, jerked his pulse into a sprint. After a few minutes, sweat surfaced above his forehead, under his arms, and even on his palms.
The stairs creaked. Jimmy threw the comforter over the magazine and himself. The discontented, thudding steps had to be those of his father, Harold.1 Terrified, Jimmy listened to the crescendo as Harold lumbered down the hallway. He heard a knock, and before he could respond, the door opened.
"James, dinner will be in twenty minutes."
"Where is your homework?"
"Why are you in bed?"
"Just taking a nap. Kind of tired."
Harold gave him a suspicious look and closed the door. Jimmy waited until the stairs bent with his father's descent. He retrieved the magazine and flipped to the page where he had left off. His pulse accelerated again. Guilt and paranoia haunted him as he neared a climax.
What was that noise? Jimmy set the magazine face down. By the short, light strides, his mother had arrived home. He pulled the comforter up to his chest again, burying the magazine below. The sound of the steps in the hallway ceased. He held his breath and, had he not been indoctrinated with Atheism from an early age, might have prayed.
The door swung wide without the pretense of a knock. "What's this? Taking a nap?" asked Jimmy's mother.
"Yeah, I'm tired."
"Did you get your essay back today?"
"Yeah. A minus."2
"I told you it was too equivocal."
Jimmy gave a repentant nod.
"Well, dinner is in a few minutes. Come on. You can go to bed afterward if you want."
Jimmy fumbled underneath the sheets for a moment and then slid his feet out of bed, both of which planted without a problem. He attempted to extract his upper body next, putting one hand on the nightstand and the other on the comforter to keep it in place. The maneuver failed, and the magazine flopped to the floor.3
His pupils dilated to his eyelids. Only the magazine's facedown-and-closed landing had delayed Armageddon.
"What is that you were reading?" she asked, taking a step forward.
"Nothing, just some obscure lit mag." Jimmy knew he had chosen a risky tactic. His mother would certainly approve of such material, but she might also ask to read it.
"May I take a look?"
By the time Jimmy's shudder had traveled all the way down his body and back up again, he had decided to surrender the magazine. Jimmy believed he could increase his chances for clemency if he cooperated swiftly. He picked up the periodical and handed it, still facedown, to his mother.
She turned it over and screamed, dropping it from her hands, which had stiffened in shock. "Harold, get up here!"
Jimmy and his mother stared at the well-worn magazine lying on the hardwood between them. An issue of genre stories—thrillers, no less.
Title graphic: "Undercover" Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2011.
1 No one mistook Harold for a gallant knight, or his wife Gwen for a princess, but the stories behind their union were the stuffa of legends. That is, they met after Gwen gave Harold's debut, a sloppy and indulgent collection of postmodern fairy tales, what no other critic had: an ambivalent review. A year later, Harold returned the favor by giving Gwen, a woman with a scabrous complexion and a spiky personality, what no other man had: a proposal. She accepted the offer but recused herself from assessing Harold's next collection and the two novels that followed, all three of which suffered universal excoriation without her. The marriage would have likewise reached an unhappy ending had it not been for their joint commitment to raise a literary genius.
2 The highest mark in his class; Jimmy's teacher always graded harshly in the beginning of the semester as a way to motivate her students and ensure that she could demonstrate improvement by the time parent-teacher conferences came around.
3 Jimmy's parents, worried that he might lose interest in literature or hit his head, discouraged him from cultivating what pittance of physical coordination he had inherited. The result was a thin and clumsy kid with a massive yet nimble vocabulary.