by Brandon McNulty

Tim’s dad steered him to the safest part of the living room. He stood surrounded by bulletproof windows, flameproof furniture, rubber lamps, an imitation fireplace, and a flat screen TV bolted onto a plastic stand with cushioned edges. As soon as Tim’s butt hit the hardwood floor, his dad plopped down on their non-allergenic couch and grabbed the remote. Dad pointed it at Tim first, then the TV.

A nonviolent cartoon lit the screen. Pink birds chirped broken English and sang about brushing their teeth. Tim was too old for this. He leaned back and stretched until Dad warned him about lying beneath the ceiling fan—you never knew when all forty steel bolts could pop loose. Better safe than sawed up.

Dad smiled at Tim before burying his crooked nose and bloodshot eyes in a newspaper. Pages flipped, birds sang, the afternoon disappeared.

The credits rolled on the hygienic musical and Sherriff the family dog thrashed into the living room, his snout stuck inside a steel muzzle. He twisted his head like a locked doorknob, desperate to shake it loose.

Tim patted him on the head, his hand tapping metal. Sherriff backed off and trotted to the corner where his unchewed chew toys lay. Sherriff swung his head like a hockey stick, slapping a rubber hamburger toward the fireplace. He batted it across the carpet, slipping now and then on his declawed paws.

A TV-14 rating blipped across the screen, and Tim’s head snapped toward it. Dad mashed the power button.

Tim stood up, his jaw hanging open. “Why’d you turn it off?”

“Nothing but garbage on. That show—you saw the warning. It’s trash.”

“We didn’t even see what it was.”

“Son, they have those ratings for a reason.” Dad forced a grin. “How about taking a careful walk out to the mailbox for me? I’ll take care of the bills so we can play catch after lunch.”

Tim trudged into the kitchen, one heavy step after another. This was stupid. He was going to be eleven next month. One o’clock Saturday programming wasn’t life-wrecking. Mom knew it, but she was too busy peeling pears at the sink, her hair fluffed, her bony frame wrapped in a conservative white sundress. One hand gripped the safety peeler while the other, fitted with a mesh glove, held the scraped fruit.

Heavy step, heavy step. Tim fastened his sneakers and crossed a hardwood floor polished enough to shine in a summer catalog. The whole kitchen sparkled with streak-free steel and glistening tile, with no specks in sight. Tim unlocked the front door’s three deadbolts and went to get the mail.

Beyond the barbed wire and shrubs next door, the Thompsons were preparing their backyard for a barbecue. Geno, a high schooler Tim was forbidden to speak with, wheeled a grill away from the pool. He parked it on the patio and rubbed his sweat-soaked brow. When he dabbed it with the neckline of his Guns N’ Roses t-shirt, a warning label materialized: PG-13. The rating hovered across the front of Geno’s shirt, where there had been—for a split instant—the silhouette of a nude woman. The teen turned to grab a propane tank and the rating vanished.

Tim yanked a small mountain of envelopes from the mailbox. He headed back, flipping through them in search of a camping handbook. No dice. It was just a bunch of G-rated bills, All-Audience greeting cards, and his sister’s R-rated glamour magazine. The magazine startled Tim. Once the shock wore off, he peeked inside.

Nothing but warning labels and pixelated chests.

Back in the kitchen, his mother scrutinized a skinned pear. She held it up, examining it in the light shining through the bulletproof glass. She twisted the juicy white cone until—a sliver of green. She readied the peeler.

“Ma, what’s for lunch?” Tim asked as he took a seat.

She stopped mid-peel, as if she had nicked a knuckle. “Fruit.”

“Just fruit?”

“Go wash your hands. And tell your sister it’ll be ready soon.”

No use in arguing. Tim headed down the hall, past the living room where Dad was watching a TV-MA program, and into his parents’ room. Two twin-sized beds stood proud at the heart of the room, each flanked by a nightstand adorned with padlocks.

Tim’s shoes crunched against the carpet as he neared the bathroom. A quick twist of the knob and the door fell open, followed by a teenage shriek.

“Timmy! What the—” The rest got bleeped. Tim’s sister flinched just outside the shower, her chest and crotch obscured by long black rectangles. She grabbed madly for a towel while screaming, “Get out, get out, get out, you—bleep bleep bleep.”

Tim slammed the door and hurried to the living room. Dad coolly swapped channels.

“Dad, are you having lunch with us?”

His father swung his head toward the kitchen. He spotted Tim’s mother then returned to the local weather report. “I’ll pass on lunch today.”

The boy shrugged and patted Sherriff’s metallic head on his way to the kitchen.

“I saw that, Mister,” Mom said, running a plum under the faucet. “Seems like every day I have to remind you that that hound is hopping with germs. Go wash up again.”

Tim trudged into the bedroom and waited a few seconds, then returned to see Dad rummaging through the fridge. Hungry after all, it seemed. The door hung wide for some time, its family photos and shopping lists flapping in the filtered breeze of the A/C vent.

“Hey, Howard,” Mom said from the sink, “try to double our electric bill with that fridge open.”

“Give it a rest, Ang.” Dad pulled a glass bottle from the fridge. The bottle’s label was blurred beyond recognition. Dad shut the door and nearly collapsed at the sight of his son. “T-Tim—” He slid the bottle behind his back, “Where’d you come from?”

“The bathroom,” Tim said. “Dad, I know you’re drinking a beer. I’m not stupid.”

“Son, I don’t know who planted this here. Your Uncle Marty, maybe …”

“Let him grow up, Howard.” Mom set a plate of sliced plums and pears on the table.

“But Angie,” Dad said, grabbing at the remote in his shirt pocket, “he’s ten years old.”

“Tim, did you wash your hands?”

“Oh for—bleep bleep—Angie, we just gave Sherriff a bath last night.”

“And then that filth-ball bounced across the carpet all morning.”

“Angela, he’s clean.” Dad looked down at his son. “Tim, why don’t you get the ball and glove out of the garage? I’ll meet you out back and we’ll work up an appetite.”

Tim eyed his mother, her face a flare of furrowed skin and pumping blood. Across the kitchen, his father white-knuckled the bottle—still blurred—at his side. Neither paid any attention to the boy as he plodded outside.

Tim grabbed his glove from the garage and sat in the grass. The sun began inching along the sky, with no sight of Dad. Tim punched the inside of his mitt and winced.

Over in the next yard, Gino belly-flopped into the pool’s deep end. Giggles fluttered through the air as the foamy water settled. Tim turned and spotted two girls, one Gino’s age and the other older. A pair of brunettes, trying to stay dry but failing. Gino cupped his hands and splashed them. Dark drips bled down their tank tops, and before Tim knew it, the girls stripped down to swimsuits. Two-piecers. Yowza. As soon as Tim saw the bikinis, the girls’ chests cluttered with pixilation.

He headed back toward the house.

At the front door, he crashed into Kelly and knocked two bottles of tanning lotion from her grasp. She picked them up and mumbled some bleeps. When she rose, he noticed she was dressed like Gino’s girls—bright blue tank top, khaki shorts, and bikini straps slung over both shoulders. Kelly muttered more explicit content as she shoved Tim aside and blew across the lawn to her car.

The kitchen was silent, yet Mom and Dad were at each other’s throats. Each red, wrinkled face glared back at the other, with no trace of words exchanged. All dialogue had dropped out. Blurred circles frosted over their mouths.

Both sides settled. The blurs cleared and the sound of breathing puffed throughout the kitchen.

“Howard, don’t even—”

Tim couldn’t hear another word over the bleeping. She went on and on, and the bleeping cut to silence again. Her mouth moved, her vocal cords tensed, but all sound dropped out. The blur returned.

The silence slipped as Kelly stormed inside to jingle her keys off the wall rack. Dad stood at the door, blocking it before she could leave.

“Whoa, Kelly, where are you driving off to?”

“Jamie’s house.”

“Where does she live?”

“Jamie’s a boy from school, Howard,” Mom said. “A nice guy. He lives five minutes away.”

Dad’s eyes popped open like mousetraps. “A boy? Uh-uh. No.”

Civil conversation crumbled. Dad slammed the door and snatched the keys from Kelly. Mom reached for them, and the metal rattled back and forth. Bleeps blasted Tim’s ears like gunfire. Silence swept over. Three creatures with red faces and frosty mouths rioted between the table and fridge, hands swatting at the keys while fists shook out threats.

The cyclone of wrestling bodies whipped against the fridge, knocking family photos out from under magnets. Frozen moments of old times and younger days hit the polished floor, memories of safe carnival rides, tasteful school functions, and seaside vacations that reeked of SPF 100—all G-rated, thank heavens.

Dad’s heel slipped on a Christmas photo and dropped all three jostling bodies to the hardwood. The remote squirted free of Dad’s shirt pocket and slid across the floor like a hockey puck.

Tim dove on it. His family argued on the floor in silence as he checked the buttons. The upper corner of the remote was labeled Parental Control. Tim ran his thumb over the rubber ON and OFF buttons beneath. He pointed the remote between his eyes and pressed OFF.

The room exploded with three shrill voices.

“For Chrissakes, Dad,” Kelly said, rolling on top of the pile. “I’m eighteen! I’m a legal adult now!”

Dad pulled her by the straps of her tank top. “Eighteen won’t stop that boy from scumming you up.”

“Goddammit, Howard, that’s our daughter!” Mom yelled from the bottom of the pile. Her bony fist hammered his back. “Say something like that again and I’m filing.”

“No one’s filing for divorce until Tim is eighteen. End of discussion, lady.”

Kelly tore free of Dad’s grasp. “Just because you two can’t make it work doesn’t mean Jamie and I—”

“Don’t go there, Kelly,” Dad said, poking his finger between her eyes. “Your mother and I have eight years to figure this out.”

“Seven,” Mom said.

“Eight. He’s not eleven yet.”

“Seven, you asshole. His birthday’s next month.”

“Call me an asshole again and I’ll—”

Tim thumbed the ON button three times.

Kelly was the first to stop talking. She pointed to Mom’s mouth, which flapped, matching Dad’s. Mom paused a moment later.

“Howard, your mouth is blurred,” she said.

One by one, Kelly, Mom, and Dad untangled from the feral pile they’d created. Their red faces cooled and a natural silence draped them. Dad wheeled around and gasped at the sight of the remote in Tim’s hand.

“Tim—you didn’t point that at yourself, did you?”

Tim’s eyes fell on the pristine floor. “Seven years and a month, Dad.”

He handed his father the remote on his way out the door.

Copyright © 2015 Brandon McNulty