Course is an indie pop band from Chicago. Their debut album A Late Hour is out now.
(Photo Credit: Chloe Hamilton)
Robbie had sweat on his hands from playing hours upon hours of Mario 3 on the Nintendo he got for his 13th birthday yesterday. He was in World 7, Tower 1, where the dry bone skeletons kept getting in his way. Appearing and reappearing. The controller made indents on his fingers as he pushed hard on the red circles. He was frustrated, distracted. He couldn’t stop thinking about the white van that had been in his alley all week.
His bedroom was white and sterile like a hospital room in a futuristic movie — with a modern, round chair that looked inviting but in reality was uncomfortable and difficult to get out of. His dad picked it out at Roche Bobois, “We’ll take two of those!” he said aggressively to the furniture assistant while Robbie followed behind, quietly. On the window sill sat a stuffed panda bear wearing a t-shirt with Robbie’s name on it — the last thing his mom gave him. His queen-size bed had an expensive, pale blue bed frame, although it just looked like a large piece of plastic that engulfed his mattress. Robbie slept in one corner, on one side, he felt safe there.
There were a litany of reasons why Robbie only left his room for meals and school. Besides not wanting to sit at the cold, marble, unnecessarily large dining room table with his dad and step-mom, he didn’t have many friends. He never had a chance to make friends. He had moved private schools three or four times, his dad citing each wasn’t the best fit for his only child. But that was his dad. On his third marriage — he could never seem to get it right. He couldn’t get it right with his child either, always leaving Robbie to play by himself, “You’re becoming an independent young man,” his dad mumbled one night as he left for another late night at work. At 13, Robbie didn’t feel like a man.
A slender boy with dark brown hair slightly too long around the ears, Robbie always wore red flannel pants and an oversized shirt — one that he bit the bottom of the sleeve of in class when he was bored. He barely talked in class. When called on by the teacher, sweat immediately released onto his skin, making him feel even more embarrassed and anxious. He walked down the school hallway, so close to the lockers they grazed his arm. From the side looked like a backwards C, always pushing his torso forward and head way back.
The only person who somewhat paid attention to Robbie was his nanny, Joanna. In recent years, Joanna had become lazy, complacent, and Robbie felt her absence. “Joanna, can you bring me water?” he would yell from the third floor down to the kitchen. No answer. “Joanna! Bring me water!” he whined. He still wanted her to do everything for him, like she did when he was a child.
Most of the day Robbie moved like a lone fish in an underwater kelp forest, gliding aimlessly from one area to another. It was late at night when his emotions were absorbed. And they were vivid. His sleep was fitful, dreams into nightmares and nightmares into dreams. In the night, in his bed, in and out of sleep, this was when the real moments of fear transpired. Lately he had a recurring dream. One where he was running and jumping and grabbing for stars, and then ducking, running faster, jumping higher, endlessly running, sweating, trying to reach the star; tunnels and towers in front of him but out of reach. It was rare for Robbie to remember his dreams, but he always woke up exhausted, everyday he woke up more tired than before.
One particular morning, as Joanna pulled out of the garage, Robbie saw the white van in the alley again. He closed his eyes and turned up the radio.
The following week on a Monday afternoon, Joanna was not able to pick Robbie up from school so he was forced to walk home. Even though his school was only four blocks away, he was driven to and from it everyday, something he had grown accustomed to. He wanted to get home quickly so he could play his Mario 3 and lock himself in his room.
He stumbled down the concrete stairs, readjusted his backpack, and started home. Waiting at the light, he thought to himself, If I can beat level four today, I’ll be able to do the secret world with Mario in level five. A glimmer of happiness beamed inside him, and this made the walk home more tolerable. He stepped on his shadow, ambling down the street — a game he played since kindergarten, when he didn’t think anyone was watching.
As he approached his block, he noticed the white van was now parked on the street corner. From afar, it looked like something out of a Scooby Doo cartoon Robbie used to watch when he was little. Back when his dad would spend Saturday mornings with him, making pancakes and watching weekend television. As he got closer the van looked more stern. Dark brown spots splattered around the tires where the paint had torn off. There were no windows except on the driver and passenger side; the rest of the van was completely sealed from top to bottom. One of the mirrors was missing, but the other one reflected a light on Robbie’s face and blinded him for a second. As he approached to cross the street to his house, he saw a dark figure behind the tinted glass. Was someone in there? What/who is that? He looked away. It felt like someone was staring at him — looking at him through the glass. Robbie, nervous and sweating, crossed the street. He was finally at his house. He looked back at the van and quickly opened his door.
That night at dinner Robbie’s dad and step-mom were home, a rare occasion.
“You need another haircut, Robbie,” his step-mom said as she grabbed another piece of quiche. “And can you please start putting your clothes IN the hamper? My God, it’s common sense.”
“OK,” Robbie said in a quiet voice. He wanted to talk to his dad. He wanted to tell him about the van.
“Dad, I—” he tried to talk.
“Ugh I can’t believe how rude the Concierge was at the Drisco last weekend. I think I may write a letter! Should I write a letter, Ken?” his step-mom continued to complain. Robbie zoned out.
He longed for more time with his dad. When he was younger his dad would take him to the lake at night, and they would name and count the constellations in the clear black sky. Both Robbie and his dad loved stars, and it was a way for Robbie to spend time with his father, so he consumed all the information about Ursa Major, Orion, Andromeda, and his favorite, Aquila the Eagle. In Greek Mythology, Robbie read that the eagle would carry Zeus’s weapons, and once carried a little mortal boy whom Zeus wanted as his cupbearer. The eagle, there for him, bringing him what he needed, protecting him. Robbie loved to learn the stories behind the names, and his father would buy him fancy telescopes and large hardcover books on mythology and astronomy. As the years went by, his father stopped taking him to the lake, and the books gained dust, and the telescope was put back in the case.
“Dad, hey Dad?” Robbie tried to get his attention before bed.
“What’s up, Robbie?” his dad said as he flipped through the newspaper.
“Well, um, I think, well there’s this white van that’s been in the alley all week, um, and today it was on our street. I saw it… on the way home from school and—”
“Robbie, it’s probably the workers who have been in and out of the Reynold’s — they have had people in and out for the past two months doing renovations!” His dad said and went back to reading the paper.
Robbie sighed. He wanted to say more but switched the subject.
“Hey Dad, I found my old telescope” Robbie lied as he knew exactly where his telescope had been all these years. “I thought maybe this weekend we could go count the constellations.”
Robbie’s dad didn’t respond.
“Robbie hey, what did you say?” his dad said, still not looking up from the newspaper.
“I thought we could go look at the stars at the lake this weekend maybe” Robbie said again.
“Oh, yeah…oh, no… I have that big annual board meeting all weekend but we will go soon, I promise! Very soon!”
Robbie went back upstairs, sad and tired. He stayed up and played Mario 3 for another two hours.
For the rest of the week Robbie continued to see this van and the man inside on different parts of the street when they would drive by: near the alley, on the corner, or parked close to his house. He saw the van outside his school, on his way to the orthodontist, when he went to visit his grandparents for a weekend lunch at the club. Was he hallucinating? Was it the same van? He started to obsess about the van, thinking it was coming for him, seeing it in his video games and at night in his dreams.
And then the van disappeared. He stopped seeing it on his street, it wasn’t blocking the alley anymore, and it was nowhere to be found. Robbie became skittish. Things that had never bothered him started to put him on edge. Joanna coming in the front door in the morning would startle him right out of bed, the house being empty at night while his dad worked started to make him uneasy and he began to sleep with his bedroom door open. This went on for weeks and didn’t stop. The van would pop in his head for moments but then filter out as his mind would wander to a new place.
On a late afternoon in December, Robbie decided he wanted a doughnut at the cafe down the street. His dad had recently given him his credit card to use whenever. His way of easing the guilt for never seeing his son. “Dad, I’m going to the cafe real quick, I’ll be right back.” No response. He realized his dad wasn’t home. He strapped on his winter boots, the navy puffy coat that barely fit him anymore, and headed out the door. There was a thin layer of snow on the ground, barely visible, mostly just city street dirt and sleet. He had his head down to zipper his coat, and as he raised it back to look ahead there was the white van. Parked right across the street. He froze. His brain told him he should turn back towards home or just look down and keep on walking. But he couldn’t. His feet felt stapled to the ground. It was dusk and the street was quiet. Paralyzed in the moment, Robbie looked over at the van. He saw a shadow inside. Was someone moving? Was it just the evening light over the car and the wind blowing the trees? His eyes wouldn’t focus as his heart was beating out of his chest like the broken clock clicking in overtime.
Robbie bolted. He ran faster than his feet knew how. He ran and ran, down the long city street, jumping over ice puddles and dodging debris. He was sweating under his puffy coat, his breath moving forcefully through his lips, making a cloud of fog. He felt his face get hot and he could barely see in front of him, he didn’t want to turn around, he was too scared, he just knew he needed to keep running. It was getting dark, the street lights were slowly coming on as he zoomed by them, the cold now icing his lungs, gasping for air but not daring to stop. Robbie — so contained in his life, his world so small — ran as if there was no endpoint. He would die if he stopped. I can’t be caught; he repeated this to himself as a mantra, over and over again. Robbie could see the large park and the edge of the lake a half mile ahead. He kept running, harder, broader strides, fixated on the water, jumping over rocks as he moved closer to the lake.
He arrived at the lake, his body on fire, cold and burning at the same time. He felt the exhilaration, the incandescent feeling of standing in front of a body of seemingly never-ending night water. He looked around him. No van. He looked behind him. Nothing. He looked up to the sky and tried to center his eyes and right there in the middle of the clear black night he could see Aquila the Eagle. Tears streamed down his cheek. Still recovering from running and heaving, he stared at the constellation in the sky. Everything was quiet.
He had never told anyone, but he always pictured the eagle as his mom. He remembered her telling him “I love you more than all the stars in the sky.” And in that moment, in front of the lake, with Aquila the Eagle in the sky, and the warm sensation in and around his body, he felt protected.
(Photo Credit: Chloe Hamilton)