The next time he has the opportunity, Bean escapes his school through a side door and never so much as looks back at the bus that should be taking him home. He can’t help but look over his shoulder, certain that someone will see him and drag him to the big yellow vehicle that’s tooting it’s horn on the street. The afternoon is his, he can go anywhere at all but he’s feeling a little bit nervous about this excursion so he heads over to the Library. There’s something about all of the wood furniture and the smell of books that puts his mind at ease.
By the time he’s slid onto an uncomfortable and rickety chair with a worn cushion he’s not worried any longer. The old computer in front of him could use an update, it’s fans seem to scream every time he tries to load a program and it chugs along when asked to do more than one thing at a time, but it suits his purposes and within an hour and a half Bean’s homework is complete, he’s spent his time on Seddit, and he’s opening up the file for his book that he keeps stored in the cloud. It seems like no time at all before he glances at the little clock in the corner of his screen and realizes that it’s time to get home. It takes every shortcut he knows but Bean is home right on time. A book in hand, he’s just settled into a chair and flipped it open to a random page when he hears Berjes get back from work.
Emboldened by his first venture out, Bean never again squanders the chance to spend time away from home. He’s told his friends that he has permission to spend afternoons at the library or the park but they can tell by the way he’s constantly scanning crowds that that’s not the case. It hardly matters to them. Sure, P&P games are fewer and farther between, but they’re seeing their friend so happy (if not fully relaxed) that no one says a peep about it. It’s their little secret. Only Eric isn’t sure about how he feels about helping Bean break the rules, but with Maebe’s encouragement and Jeremy’s enthusiasm he wouldn’t dream of ratting out his pal. Besides, most afternoons he’s taking Maebe out on dates, leaving Jeremy and Bean to entertain themselves.
It’s been months of sneaking around, feeling more and more confident that nothing can go wrong, when the Summer festival rolls into town. Bean spends all afternoon passing notes in class with Jeremy and arranging their afternoon. They’re so excited but before they even get to check out anything more than the edges of the park Bean freezes. Walking towards him is his uncle Conrad, looking cool and collected as ever but watching Bean and his friend with a curious look on his face. Bean’s heart sinks – the jig is up. Conrad’s going to call Lee and he’ll be a prisoner again with no chance for parole.
“Bean! My man! Checking out the fair, huh?”
“Y-yes. But, uhm… My uhm… Dad said I could, I mean…” He’s so nervous he can’t get words out right, but Conrad’s looking unbelievably patient and amused.
“Sure he did, kiddo, sure he did!” Conrad slaps Bean’s shoulder, chuckling and shaking his head. He’s known Berjes as long as Lee has and he knows there’s no way his nephew has permission to be out and about. He also doesn’t think that Bean should need that permission. He sees the worry in Bean’s eyes, and maybe the beginning of tears so he smacks the kid’s shoulder again. “Don’t worry about a thing, I won’t tell your mom or dad… How’s Lee doing?” True concern enters his voice, he hasn’t spoken to his sister in ages.
“I… She’s… I dunno…” Bean watches his sneakers try to burrow a hole in the pavement at his feet. He has nothing nice to say so he won’t say anything. Conrad just sighs quietly in response. He gets it.
“Well, I guess you can’t let her know you’ve seen me, can you kid? I hope she’s OK. Man, talented girl my sister but a little bit cra- well, she’s been through some rough times. Troy and I still hope she’ll come around and write a score for us, y’know? Nah, you probably don’t. Anyways. Have fun at the fair, don’t stay out too late!” A third smack and Conrad’s on his way, leaving Bean feeling confused and grateful all at the same time.
The boys do enjoy themselves, trying out the skating rink and tasting every snack that they could afford. Aching bellies aside, neither one is doing particularly well in gym class and with soccer set up and available to them they decide that perhaps math and science classes aren’t the only ones that deserve some after-school time devoted to them. They spend hours chasing each other around the field with the ball and taking turns either shooting or playing goalie. Before long, the sun’s light is fading in the sky but for once both boys are too caught up in sport to notice anything else. When they finally do, the first stars have appeared in the sky. There’s no “good byes!” just an “eep! I gotta go, see ya!” as Bean turn and runs towards home. His heart is pounding and it has nothing to do with exertion. If he doesn’t beat dad home, if dad drives past while he’s still outside he’ll be so mad! He’ll get into so much trouble! On and on he runs, his feet beating at the pavement and his breath puffing. His lungs and thighs are burning, his hair is slicked to his forehead with sweat. Oh how his gym teacher would love to see Bean putting this much effort into the physical activity he slacks at during the day! As Bean slips through the gate to the house he sees headlight sweep up the street behind him. He stuck to the shadows on his flight home and is certain he wasn’t spotted, but now it might be too late! Frantic, he changes into his everyday clothes and uses a sweaty shirt to try and dry off his equally sweaty head as he gets to the den. Hair looking ruffled, but drier, he tosses the shirt under the desk and pushes it into a corner with his feet as he switches on the computer. Come on… Come on… It’s like a prayer or a mantra repeated as he silently encourages the machine to turn on. The parts are whirring and the lights are flashing as he hears the truck door slam outside. Come on… Come on… He enters the password and waits on tenterhooks as the OS boots. Come on… Come on… Has the browser window ever taken this long to load? Come on… Come on… Finally, the front page of Seddit is open, Llama Messenger is up on the screen with empty conversation windows minimized and dad’s key is in the lock. Just in time, Bean can heave a sigh of relief. Safe.
It’s not every day that Bean’s free to wander town without supervision. Sometimes dad works the day shift and is home early in the afternoon, sometimes he doesn’t go to work at all and that leaves Bean back to being isolated in his home. Lucky for him, when dad is home he’s not peering over his son’s shoulder the whole time. He trusts Bean (whether he should or not) and he has more important things to do – like make sure bills are getting paid and that the bank account is never too empty. Stressful things like that and work means that when he does have free time he’s either sleeping or learning new recipes, leaving Bean to his own devices.
Since Berjes spoke with Lee about going back to work, and since Lee hasn’t done anything to actually do what was asked of her, the married couple hasn’t said a word to one another. They pass each other in the halls like strangers, though the tension is thick and heavy enough to be cut with a knife. Bean watches this take place, he sees his father’s stress and pain and he lays the blame squarely on his mother’s shoulders. If dad won’t talk to her and if Bean won’t talk to her, at least Bean can punish her in other ways…
It’s been prank after prank in Lee’s bathroom. Each time she uses the sink, shower, tub, or toilet she does so with trepidation. What colour dye is in the shower head this time? Will the sink work properly or spray all over the place? It’s been some weeks since the last incident, since her tub filled with oily suds, and she’s not paying as much attention this morning when she reaches over in a sleepy haze to flush. It flushes fine, and then sends spouts of water across the room, puddles spread across the floor and her bathmat is soaked! It’s way too early for this nonsense, and enough nonsense at that! This is her house and even if no one will talk to her she will be treated with respect. Her wordless howl goes unheard as Berjes and Bean are at work and school respectively but this ends tonight!
Enticing aromas of roasting meat and caramelizing onions fill the kitchen as Berjes bustles about preparing dinner. Bean sits quietly at the table reading Becket’s The Nobel History of Socks for his history class when Lee bursts into the kitchen, her face a mask of fury. Berjes looks up, startled to see his wife standing over his son, but Bean hardly looks up even as her tirade begins.
“Carter Clarke I have had enough!” She bellows, her voice echoing through the house. “First my shower, then the sinks and bathtubs and today the toilet? Just what are you playing at?! It is absolutely not appropriate for you to be in my bathroom tampering with my things and making a mess. It is rude and disrespectful and it stops right. This. Instant. Now you apologize to me!” All her shrieking aside, Bean still doesn’t look up, casually turning the page though he hasn’t read a word. He’ll find his place again. “Apologize!” Comes the demand, followed by more silence. He won’t apologize and Berjes doesn’t know what to say. “APOLOGIZE!” Still nothing. “YOU’RE GROUNDED!”
That gets a reaction, though not the one she’d hoped. Calmly, Bean marks his place in the book, closes it and sets it aside. He stands from his chair and looks his mother firmly in the eyes. “Who cares?” He asks quietly “I’ve been grounded since Jack was kidnapped.” Lee flinches at the sound of her lost son’s name. The fury fading into the deep sadness she’s been wallowing in for years. With dinner still in the oven he steps around his mother and heads up the stairs. “G’night dad.” he murmurs to his still shocked father and disappears into upstairs as his mother calls the terms of his grounding. No friends over, no new books, no computers, no more driving lessons for the next couple of weeks, but what does Bean care? He’s not really grounded, they can’t keep him in the house anymore.
Saturday rolls around and his friends know not to come over for their usual weekend sessions. He’s “grounded.” Berjes is at work and Lee is tucked away in her studio. Bean puts on a big show for her, working on homework assignments outside and in her view, playing at being sad and dejected or frustrated and angry. Berjes has upheld Lee’s edict – no computers allowed, the power cables are now missing – but he didn’t reprimand his son any further. Of course he’s a little disappointed that his boy is acting out, but he has to admit (if only to himself) that he enjoys finding out that Lee’s been the victim of some rather harmless pranks. He has no path for recourse, he can’t act out against his wife, but that doesn’t mean that sometimes he doesn’t want to reach out and shake sense into her again.When Monday rolls around, so far as Bean is concerned he’s no longer grounded. So far as his parents are concerned he still has another two weeks on his sentence. His friends are busy but that doesn’t mean Bean is going home, not until he absolutely has to. He wanders town aimlessly, stopping to smell the flowers and uncover Sunset Valley’s secrets – not that there are many – he collects a pretty stone or two and peers into the shadows of the forest, wondering what sorts of magic can be found beneath the branches. He doesn’t go exploring there, afraid of getting lost, but does fins something else worth exploring. Perhaps he’ll find some treasures at the bottom of the unwatched dumpster?
Taking a deep breath, he hauls himself over the side of the metal bin and dives right in. His hands rummage through the darkness grabbing onto squishy banana peels and rustling newspapers, cans are discarded as are other bits of obvious trash. He comes up for air empty handed but exhilarated. He wasn’t really expecting to find anything, not anything more than the cheap and broken plastic ring with it’s plastic stone that sits on the ground now, but why not take the chance while it’s available to him? Bean stinks of garbage but he’s flushed with excitement. All this time he’s been out and about without permission he’s always stuck to the things he was supposed to do, but while he’s breaking one rule, why not another?
The next day at school he approaches Maebe in the halls – he know she’ll understand. “I want to do something fun.” is all he says, an uncharacteristically mischievous gleam in his eyes and she nods. Within moments their grins are matching, excited and nervous though hers is knowing and his is full of anticipation. That afternoon they meet by their lockers and leave school together.
Maebe knows exactly where they’re going and what they’re getting up to. Something she hasn’t been able to convince Eric or Jeremy to join her in so far. The pair sets a quick pace towards Caliente, they may be underaged but it’s early in the day and Maebe knows the bouncers. Such begins their regular outings to the second floor of the dance club. Before long the bouncers know Bean too, they know his story well and take ‘pity’ on the poor kid. Bubble flavours lower in price and they’ve tried them all. They know the tricks they can play with the bubbles and know the best flavour combinations after having tested them all. His parents would be furious, remembering Lee’s trouble with Bubbles (and other drugs) as a teen, but his parents don’t know. Just Bean, Maebe, and Caliente’s staff.