It was never easy to get into the old house. A month or so after the authorities had repossessed it, Jake had swung by on the way home from school to check it out. He’d found it sealed like a tomb. The next day he’d returned with a claw hammer from his uncle’s garage. In back of the house was a small basement window with rusty bars over it. He’d jammed the claw between the frame and the brick and pushed it like a lever with his foot planted on the wall. This was the year he’d filled out. His newfound pecs and biceps did their job. The bars had creaked, then suddenly given way and he’d almost fallen over backward. The window itself wasn’t even locked. He’d crawled into the basement. The vague chemical smell still lingered there, despite the best efforts of the realty company.
He’d come back a couple times that year, just to hang out. And as he grew bigger, it got harder to crawl through the window. But he could never leave through the front door. The last time was the last time. Ever.
Sometimes he lay on the floor of his lifeless old room and read. Once he posted a photo of the ceiling on Facebook. Another time he brought his iPhone dock and listened to music in the kitchen like his mom used to do. When he went upstairs to pee, he could still hear the music drifting up ethereally through the heating duct in the floor. That’s when the idea came to him to bring his little brother.
“I’ll pick Sam up from kindergarten tomorrow,” he said innocently over supper, and his uncle seemed proud at this show of responsibility.
The trees were leafless. The cold had snapped. As the kindergarten disappeared from view behind them, Sam chattered incessantly about the letter to Santa that their aunt had helped him write. Four years old was prime Santa territory.
Sam didn’t remember the house but Jake explained to him that they used to play hide and seek there. This visit was an adventure. In fact, it was a secret.
The claw hammer wasn’t needed anymore and Sam’s eyes widened as Jake pulled off the bars with his bare hands. Jake crawled through first. Sam trusted him completely and wriggled in too. Jake gave him a tour, describing each room from their former life in photographic detail. In the kitchen, Jake pulled out a Bugs Bunny Pez dispenser he’d bought at the gas station.
“Every time you find me, you get a candy.”
“And you can have one for free to start.”
He flipped open the head and Sam pulled out the purple rectangle with his grubby fingernails.
“Now don’t count too fast. It’s a big house.”
Sam nodded and crunched.
“Go stand in the corner and cover your eyes. Okay, now start counting.”
They played for a while. Jake knew that Sam would copy his hiding places. Eventually he hid behind the bathroom door, just as Jake had done. Jake made a big show of looking in the bathroom but missing him.
“I know! You’re in the… bathroom. Aw, man…”
Then he went back downstairs to the kitchen and kneeled down against the wall, lowering his face to the heater vent.
“Sam,” he boomed into the metal grille, using his best Santa voice. “Sam Kelly, this is Santa. I hear that you’ve been a good boy this year so I’m going to bring you the Star Wars Lego that you asked for in your letter. But make sure you keep being good. Ho! Ho! Ho!”
Then he raced to the bottom of the staircase and shouted up, “I give up! Come out, come out, wherever you are!”
When Sam appeared at the top of the stairs Jake knew the trick had worked.
“Where were you?” he asked.
“In the bathroom,” answered Sam.
“But I looked in there.”
“I heard Santa.”
“Really? What did he say?”
“To be a good boy.”
“And? Are you a good boy?”
Jake pretended to look at his phone. “We should get going. You can eat the rest of the Pez on the way to Auntie’s.”
As they left the old house, Sam looked back at the upstairs windows, still in awe. Jake smiled. From now on, he would always smile when he thought about the old house. And he’d made sure that he’d never hidden in the closet where they’d found his father.