by Lisa Katzenberger
Ethan grew up in a small and quiet Wisconsin town. It suited him perfectly, as Ethan himself was small and quiet. He lived in a blue Victorian house with squeaky hardwood floors, glass doorknobs, a long, lazy front porch, and an ancient oak tree that shrouded his entire front lawn in shade. His parents, two schoolteachers—Mom taught English and Dad History—never ventured across the state line and down into the big city of Chicago, even though it was only an hour and a half drive from Racine.
Every day after school was the same routine: Ethan would ride his bike around town, then go home to his big house, where his Mom would be cooking dinner and Dad would be grading papers at the kitchen table. They’d eat together, and talk about school, and sometimes his parents would slip up and mention the bad behavior of one of Ethan’s friends, and he’d pretend not to hear, pretend that they didn’t violate what he believed was an unspoken teacher-student confidentiality that should not cross into his home. After dinner, he’d do his homework without being reminded, watch an hour of television with his parents as his Mom graded papers on the living room floor and his father leafed through the newspaper. Then he’d go upstairs, passing the first, then second, then third unused bedroom until he reached his quiet room at the end of the hall. Many nights, he’d have trouble falling asleep in the silence.
Ethan was seven, maybe eight, the first and only time his family drove into Chicago, to see a special dinosaur exhibit at the Field Museum. They got lost when they were rerouted due to construction, and ended up on Lower Wacker Drive, weaving past block after block of makeshift cardboard homes and dirty men with long, tangled beards standing on the corner with their hands out. When they were stopped at a red light, one man came up to the car, knocking on the window, his face red and gray and swollen, his eyes low and sad, his scent wafting through the tightly rolled up windows and locked doors. Ethan’s mother cried and his father blew through the red light, their rusty blue Ford chugging across the intersection, inciting honks from oncoming traffic and prompting his mother to yell, “Shit, Martin! Shit!”
They found their way back above ground, to the dark, narrow streets of downtown that surrounded their car with tall, angry steel buildings, casting shadows over Ethan’s adventure. They toured the museum quickly that day, not talking much, Ethan not able to see anything but the inside of his mind and those sad, dirty men who lived in an underground city. His chest was too tight to enjoy himself and he was unable to breathe easy and free in the wide open spaces of the marble museum halls. He could feel nothing beyond fear and pity. His frail, innocent system could handle no other emotions.
On the drive back home, Ethan was exhausted, but he couldn’t sleep. He kept staring out the window, waiting for a hint of home in the scenery. They first passed the striking steel buildings, then the narrow brick homes squished one next to the other. The malls on the side of the expressway gave way to new construction of white-sided houses each the same shape as the next. Ethan could breathe better as the cement and steel disappeared and gave way to green. First empty fields, then familiar farms and truck stops advertising brats and cheese. Finally, his hometown revealed itself through the slight roll of the roads, then the sprawling square yards, the tall trees and fresh air. It was then that Ethan could lay his head back and rest.
The next day, Ethan took his usual bike ride toward Lake Michigan. He lived where the water was so calm, he’d have to inch right up to the edge to hear it make any fuss. He’d leave his bike in the grass of Pershing Park, and tiptoe past the big red rocks, walking out on a sliver of cement pier, waiting to hear the sound of lapping water. He’d run to the edge, the music of the waves calming his heart, and look out into the vast nothingness, his knees wobbling. Then he’d step backwards once, twice, then four steps, then six, until he couldn’t hear the sound of the large lake before him. He’d play this game over and over, like a hide and seek with the water’s symphony, until he’d lose track of time, and feel the sun dropping down behind him. He’d hurry home, worrying he was late for dinner, but never was.
The summer when Ethan was ten, Billy Henderson’s father was painting their house, and they had a tall aluminum ladder leaning against their home. It reached all the way to the roof, Billy said. There was a rumor that you could see the lake from the roofline of houses on their block and Billy wanted to find out if it was true. There was much talk among the neighborhood boys of how to accomplish this task, something their parents would surely never give outright permission for. Ethan listened in fear as the boys described how they could scale the ladder one night while Billy’s parents were inside watching a Brewers game. He desperately wanted to see the lake, to know what it looked like from high above, to see if he could recognize the waves he visited down by the park, and perhaps, to see if he could hear it from that high up.
He knew going up the ladder would be dangerous, and if his parents found out he’d be scolded. None of the boys expected Ethan to climb up the ladder after Billy scampered up quickly, refusing to answer whispered questions about what he could see. But Ethan moved from the back of the group of boys circled around the ladder and ran his left hand along the cool edge. He didn’t take into consideration how dark the night would be, and as he looked up, his eyes couldn’t quite focus on the top. It reminded him of how he felt looking up the tall buildings of Chicago: dizzy, small, and scared.
But Ethan placed his right hand on the other edge of the ladder, slowly stepping up one, two, three steps before the boys even noticed him, and dropped their gazes from Billy and focused all their energy on Ethan. He could feel their eyes on the back of his neck, and his hands started to sweat as he gripped each rung. He climbed slowly, taking twice as long as Billy, but concentrating, regulating his breath, not looking down or any higher than the step above him. When he reached his hand for the next rung, and found nothing, he raised his head and realized he was at the top. Billy reached out a hand and helped Ethan up.
Ethan took only a few steps, the pitch of the roof frightening, making him feel like he was walking a tightrope with no net. He sat down, his heart racing faster instead of settling down as he expected.
“Which way?” Ethan asked, disoriented.
“Over there,” Billy said and pointed east, but Ethan couldn’t see Billy’s arm, only his eyes popped through in the dark. Ethan couldn’t see the end of Billy’s arm, or the edge of the roof or the lake. He couldn’t see anything at all.
Down on the ground, he heard the boys scatter, but couldn’t make out their conversation. An adult must have showed up and scared them away. Ethan waited for someone to climb up the ladder to retrieve them, but their friends must not have revealed their quest. Ethan and Billy sat on the roof, quiet, looking at nothing, watching the stars dot the sky like a slow sprinkle of powdered sugar.
Finally, Ethan stood up to go back down, and Billy whispered, “Be careful,” but Ethan had forgotten to be scared. Billy and Ethan walked down the block together in silence and found their friends three doors down in Randy’s front yard, swatting at lightning bugs with a dull yellow wiffle bat. When they saw Billy and Ethan, they dropped their game and peppered the boys with questions, as if they were famous. “Could you see the lake?” “Could you see Chicago?”
“Yeah,” Billy said, “You could see the lake, the city, everything. It was awesome.”
“Yeah,” Ethan joined the lie. “It was really cool. You could even hear the lake. You can hear the waves from way up there.”
Billy turned to look at Ethan, and stepped closer, his face falling into the light of a streetlamp. Billy nodded and said, “yeah,” looking at Ethan in a way he never had before.
“I’m going tomorrow night,” Randy said and the other boys agreed that they would go too.
But the next day, the painting job was complete, the ladder was gone, and Ethan’s adventure—the nauseating mixture of truth and lies—survived as his own secret.
Lisa Katzenberger is a picture book writer, a mom of twins, an Editorial Assistant for Literary Mama, and a member of SCBWI. Her work has been published in PoemMemoirStory, Foliate Oak, Multiplicity, and Prairie Wind, among others. She lives in Chicago.