On my morning run, I met a boy with a flute case. I was jogging up Highland when he flagged me down and asked directions to the library. He told me his school was closed because of a bomb threat. Then he started swinging his flute case forward and back.
“I’m the only boy in school who plays. I get teased all the time,” he said.
The boy was tall and thin with wet hair that fell over his face. He looked to be around twelve. I noticed he wasn’t wearing a backpack. I paused the timer on my watch.
“I think it’s cool that you play the flute,” I said. “It’s different.”
I kneeled down to retie my laces.
“Why are you running?” he asked.
“To get better.”
He swung his case a little too close to my head. “Better how?”
I was training for a race. But I was trying to get better in other ways. I didn’t feel like telling the boy about this.
Suddenly we heard police sirens in the distance. The boy’s eyes widened. He hugged his flute to his chest and took a step back.
“I’m not giving it to you!” he yelled.
I rose and held out my hand to calm him. “I don’t want your flute,” I said.
“Stop!” he yelled. “Leave me alone!”
Down the street a woman wheeling a baby stroller started walking quickly toward us. With one hand she unzipped her pink waist pack. Just as she took out her phone, the front wheel of her stroller caught an uneven section of concrete slab and the carriage stopped abruptly. The handlebars rammed into the woman’s gut. She dropped the phone and it smashed on the sidewalk.
The boy headed for her. I followed, telling him he needed to calm down. He stopped and faced me.
“Keep back,” he said, raising the flute case above his head with both hands.
“Is everything alright?” someone asked behind me.
I turned to see an old man walking a pit bull on a leash. The man wore a pair of wrap- around sunglasses and a wrinkled black suit. The dog smelled swampy.
“This man is bothering me. And he did this to her,” said the boy.
He lowered his flute case and pointed to the woman, who was still doubled over.
“That’s not true,” I said.
The dog growled.
“Hush, Trevor,” said the old man. Trevor started barking at me.
The man asked the woman if she was okay. She was still catching her breath.
“Trevor’s not a dog’s name,” said the boy.
“What’s your name, son?” asked the old man.
The boy’s name was Hugh.
The woman retrieved her broken phone and straightened up. She pointed at my face.
“You tried to take his flute.”
The dog lurched forward. The man pulled him back.
“Why would I steal a boy’s flute?”
I wouldn’t. But my sister might, I thought.
A month ago, the gold watch I got from Uncle Ted went missing and I asked my sister why she was doing that shit again. Things always disappeared when she was using. She was living with me for the third time. I looked at her phone when she was in the shower and saw a missed call from the guy she used to buy from. She denied it, but I still threw her phone at the refrigerator, where it shattered the plastic photo magnet of us at Joshua Tree giving peace signs on top of the big rock that made us look much higher off the ground than we actually were. It’d been a month since she’d packed up and left in the middle of the night.
I explained to the man and woman what happened with Hugh.
“Liar!” yelled Hugh, his voice cracking.
He crouched in front of the baby.
“This man asked me if I played the skin flute,” he said, staring into the baby’s eyes.
Trevor growled again. The man and the woman glared at me.
“That’s not true,” I said.
Hugh was still looking at the baby. “What’s her name?”
“That’s an ugly name.” “Don’t be rude,” I said.
“Don’t talk to him,” said the woman.
I wanted to run away, but I was worried about what Trevor might do.
For the second time that morning, I heard sirens in the distance. A police car came down the street. It accelerated and passed us.
The woman waved her arms.
“They’re going to the school,” said Hugh. “Because of the bomb.” He brushed his hair out of his face and smiled.
“What bomb?” asked the man.
“There’s a goose that’s gonna lay a golden egg.” The boy made the sound of an explosion and pressed his finger into Melanie’s belly. The woman pulled the stroller away from him.
I sat down on the sidewalk. I didn’t feel well. I was thinking of the last text message I got from my sister two days after she took off: “You invent all my secrets and lies. You need me to be fucked up. That’s the only way you can love me.” “That’s not true,” I wrote back. “I want you to be better.” Then I asked why she had used the plural. What other secrets and lies? “Are you okay?” But she never replied. I didn’t hear from her again. Now those words reverberated in my head whenever I went jogging: Secrets and lies. Secrets and lies. Every morning, with each step, left foot, right foot, for miles and miles: secrets and lies.
“What’s wrong with you?” asked Hugh.
The sun was higher in the sky. My lips were parched.
“How about I walk you home, Hugh?” asked the old man. “Where do you live?”
“I’ll go with you if you take me to watch the school blow up,” said Hugh. “Don’t,” I said.
Hugh aimed his flute case at me like it was a machine gun. “Stay down, sick man.”
A week ago, the young kid with stretched out earlobes who worked at the convenience store where my sister used to buy cigarettes told me he heard she was living in Visalia now, that she needed to get away from her family because they were the biggest threat to her recovery. “But the family is just me,” I said. “I’m all she’s got.” Don’t shoot the messenger, he said, waving his hands in the air before ringing up my cashews and milk.
There’s a goose that’s gonna lay a golden egg.
Why was Hugh carrying a flute to the library? Where was his backpack?
Little Melanie started crying.
“Open the case,” I said, standing up.
“Leave him alone,” said the woman.
“It’s just a flute,” said Hugh.
“Open the case,” I repeated.
Hugh came closer. “Why? You want to play my skin flute?”
The woman gasped. Trevor started barking again.
I lurched at Hugh and seized the case. I undid the latches and raised the lid. He tried to grab it away from me, and as we tugged back and forth, the case turned upside down. Three silver flute pieces, one long and two short, clanked onto the pavement. They were shiny. The mouthpiece rolled into the gutter.
But then something else fell out.
A goose feather.
It drifted to the ground. We all stopped in time and watched the white and gray plume descend in slow motion. Trevor nipped at it. Just before the feather landed, a slight breeze carried it up into the stroller. It touched down on Melanie’s belly. She gurgled.
I turned and ran.
I sprinted all the way to the school—secrets and lies, secrets and lies—where teachers had gathered behind yellow caution tape. A half dozen police cars were parked out front with lights flashing. I told an officer about Hugh. She asked me for a description. I said he was the only boy in school who played flute. The officer said they would look into it.
An hour later, the police came out of the building with a yellow backpack. False alarm, they said. People started to leave. I kept thinking about the photo of my sister and me giving the peace sign on top of the big rock. Then I pictured Hugh standing behind us, raising the flute case above his head. Keep back. I stayed long after the cops gave the all clear, waiting for something to explode.