By Luke Beling
Sydney had one eye. When he’d drive me to school, I used to ask him about the missing one. He’d tell me a different story every day, laughing through a set of crooked, stained teeth. I marveled at how Sydney would reverse our big VW bus down the steep driveway. His left eye was missing, covered by a black patch as permanent as the wrinkled lines on his face. He’d have to rotate his head in a complete circle to ensure he didn’t hit one of mom’s pot plants or Jessy, the family dog.
When Sydney wasn’t behind the wheel, he worked odd jobs for my dad: cleaning furniture, collecting leaves from our pool, or mowing the lawn. The only things he and dad shared were the vices they kept. Occasionally I’d find empty beer cans on the car floor. Sydney’s eye would come up from the road for a moment to see me in the mirror.
“Those are your dad’s.”
I’d smile, unconvinced.
“When did he start drinking beer?”
He’d laugh like a jackal on a carcass, then turn his eye back to the road.
The cigarettes were easier for Sydney to hide because both men were chimneys without a summer, and they took them from the same carton.
As I grew older, Sydney began to ask me about my dreams and if any girls in my class caught my attention. He taught me how to play the guitar. He sang ancient songs about his great ancestors with a voice that cracked.
My family paid him enough to survive life in the squatter camps. Dad used to tell Sydney how lucky he was to have his job. Sydney kept it all in his chest. He could’ve hidden a pistol under his shirt, but his face would’ve never shown it.
Late one day after coming home from school, I saw dad’s red car parked. Dad hardly ever came back before dark. Eventually, the pub would kick him out when they’d had enough of him. I came up the driveway to an open garage door with a table on its head and varnish oozing out of a tipped-over bottle. I placed the dripping piece on its legs, then sealed the container. Angry shouting stole the air, dad swearing at Sydney. My bag fell off my back. I sprinted up the stairs and out into the backyard. Sydney lay face-first in the dirt, soiled in blood, his eye locked on mine:
“Run.” He said.
Dad sat on the edge of the pool. His ankles swirling in the water held his socks on his feet, and a cigarette ruined in his mouth. “What do you want, Boy?”
My eyes went between the two men. “What did you do to Sydney?”
His words struggled under a slur of spirits and anger. “Teaching this bastard a lesson.”
I thought about pushing my father into the pool.
Instead, I ran to the kitchen and fetched a cloth, ice, and water. When I returned, Sydney was still lifeless, as though struck by a lightning bolt.
“Run. Run as fast as you can.” He whispered.
I wiped the blood from his mouth and gently pushed the cup of water over his lips, over his tongue.
“I’m so sorry, Sydney.”
“You leave him alone, Boy.” My father started towards us, ready to inflict a second round of fury. My stomach tightened.
I ran as fast as I could. I shoved my father into the pool, head first. He fell like a weight of stone to the bottom, then up like a lifejacket.
I pulled Sydney to his feet. My heels dug into the ground like roots while my back and arms almost came out of place. Sydney wobbled. Dad frantically doggy-paddled to the shallow end. Sydney put his arms on my shoulders, and I dragged him like a broom, the cleaning of a crime. Dad came out with a flying fist, but the spirits, water, and rage took him, making him tumble on the hard concrete.
“You take this and get out of here, Sydney.”
I handed Sydney cash to catch a taxi.
“I’ll wait with you and help you on.”
We sat under the shade of an old oak. I sat; Sydney lay like a beaten criminal. His black skin camouflaged under the branches, battered and bloodied.
I squeezed his hand and wrapped my soft scarlet flesh on his calloused palm. He turned his head, a small trickle of red saliva sputtered from his mouth, then fell in slow motion, depositing on his neck, ending in the grass.
He rubbed his pants before finding the dirty rag I’d used to wipe his face and guessed it was better than what he had. The flow had mostly stopped. His open wounds stared out into the world. His hand tightened like a vice grip to a loose, gentle, firm strand.
“He stole it.”
I leaned in, my ear resting on his bloodied lip.
The cage of my heart folded in, rusty sides of shame destroyed by a torrent of wild rain. I sprung to my feet. I pulled my hand from Sydney’s as though I had some part in the crime.
Sydney moaned, moving his body, reaching for my hands.
“It’s not your fault,” He said. “It’s not your fault, my boy.”
South African born, Luke Beling, left home at 19. In 2007, he graduated from Campbellsville University with a BA in English.
Luke has had several short stories published in journals and magazines, including: Quiet Shorts (2012), Eyelands Flash Fiction (2019), Academy of the Heart and Mind (2021), New Reader Magazine (2021), The Salt Weekly Magazine (2022), and Impspired Magazine (2022).
Luke is the director of tennis for a private club on the Big Island of Hawaii and an indie-folk singer-songwriter.