Tommy had a secret. He liked to watch people. Most wouldn’t consider people watching a secret so much as a casual hobby, but Tommy treated it like it was a true calling. He watched strangers on the bus, stared at lone movie-goers, and soaked in as much as he could from every diner waiter or waitress he ever had.
He liked to watch people he knew most of all. He once followed his friend Brian home from school, just for fun. Tommy walked two blocks behind Brian the whole way, and Brian never noticed. He crouched behind a hedge and watched Brian greet his family through a window in the kitchen. Then he went home. The next day at school, Brian asked him what he did yesterday, and Tommy said, “Not much.”
A few weeks later, their class received a new student, whose family had moved to town from Michigan. Mrs. Korzybski brought her to the front of the class and introduced her. Tommy could immediately tell that the girl was either poor, or didn’t know how to take care of herself. Her dirty blonde hair was a matted and greasy shag that ended just above her shoulders. Her clothes were faded and stretched, and her jeans had a yellow bandana patch on one knee.
When Mrs. Korzybski asked her to tell the class her name, she said, “Trish,” and sat back down. She didn’t speak to anyone, and no one knew anything about her. She was the most mysterious figure at school, and Tommy could not resist.
At the end of the day, he kept Trish in his sights as he and the other students were carted off to the buses. If he could find out what bus she rode, he could find out where she lived. As fate had it, Tommy watched as Trish walked over to Bus 314. His bus. Congratulating himself for this stroke of luck, Tommy followed. He picked a seat two back from the dirty shag of hair, and waited.
Trish was dropped off several stops from Tommy’s home. He watched her get out and walk across a yard of dead grass and up the porch of a small house. There were beer bottles on the porch, some empty, others half-full and attracting flies in the heat. The bus pulled away as the front door opened. Tommy could just make out a vague, shadowy figure inside before the house passed from view. His brain itched, and his curiosity welled.
Tommy tried to get off at the next stop, but the bus driver held him back. “This isn’t your stop.”
“I can walk the rest of the way, it’s fine.”
The bus driver shook her head. “Sorry. Parents like to know where their kids are being dropped off. If you wanna walk, walk. But when you ride my bus, you get off at your stop.”
Tommy sat back down and brooded for the next five minutes until the bus stopped at his street. He pretended to tie his shoe until he saw it turn onto the next street. Then he stood up, turned around, and started walking.
He found the house quickly enough, though it was surrounded by others just like it. As Tommy walked toward it, he realized this was maybe what his mother had meant when she told him not to wander. He shook off the thought, and slipped behind the fence and into Trish’s backyard.
A line of trees and withered shrubbery along the fence provided good cover for Tommy as he staked out his new classmates’ home. He positioned himself directly across from the sliding glass door that looked into the kitchen. A man and a woman sat at the table. Both of them had a bottle in one hand, and were gesturing wildly with the other. Tommy imagined raised voices, and loud music to drown them out. He kept watching. Occasionally, the man would stand and open the sliding door to toss out another bottle. The first time he did this, Tommy nearly jumped for fear he’d been discovered. After the third time, he relaxed, but kept his eyes peeled for signs of Trish, who he still hadn’t seen.
By this time, Tommy was beginning to think he should just give up and go home. His legs were starting to hurt from crouching, and the sun was getting lower. As he made to start crawling back around the line of trees, the faint murmur of voices behind glass exploded into a shouting match. Trish was standing in front of the table and yelling at her parents, who were giving it right back. He couldn’t make out what they were screaming, but their faces said enough for Tommy to know that he’d seen plenty. He was starting to feel uncomfortable, which wasn’t right. This was supposed to be his fun little game, not something that made him feel guilty or embarrassed.
As the shouting continued, Tommy started crawling. He needed to get out of here, needed to get back home. He’d already have some explaining to do when he showed up over an hour after his bus was supposed to drop him off. But he could make something up. At the most, he’d get a stern talking-to.
Tommy was only a few feet away from the gate when he heard the glass door slide open. He froze, and watched as Trish stepped out, giving the sliding door as much of a slam as she could. Then she sunk to the ground and put her head in her lap. Tommy could just make out the faint, gasping sobs from where he crouched.
But he was so close. Tommy eyed the gate, started inching towards it. He lifted a foot, set it down, lifted the other. He’d almost reached the end of the line of trees when he heard the snap of a dead branch crack underneath him.
“Who’s there?” The voice didn’t seem like it belonged to the sad, lonely girl Tommy had just heard crying alone on the ground. But when he turned to look, he saw Trish standing tall, with a hard look in her eyes. She had a bottle in her hand, and held it above her head, ready to throw.
Tommy stood as still as he could. He didn’t blink, and kept his breathing as shallow as possible. She was staring right at him, but he was sure she didn’t know whether he was there or not. His eyes flicked over to the gate again. If he ran, he could make it. He glanced at Trish, who took a hesitant step closer.
Tommy bolted. He heard a cry and an explosion of glass behind him. She’d missed. He nearly laughed at the thrill of it. His hands hit the gate, and he opened it.
Something stopped him from just running. No one had ever caught him before. He had to take another look, had to see the expression on her face. Tommy looked over his shoulder, expecting to see a mixture of confusion and admiration splattered across Trish’s features.
Instead, he got a broken bottle to the face.
He blacked out from the pain. When he woke up, the world looked flat and narrow. He put a hand to his face, and felt the gauze and tape blocking his left eye. The doctor told him it was still possible to save it, but he didn’t want Tommy to get his hopes up too high. Tommy’s mother told him they would be having a long talk when they got home, but she was glad he was okay. Tommy didn’t say anything.
When he went back to school, no one asked him any questions. No one told him they’d heard anything. As far as he knew, Trish had stayed quiet. It was a small favor to Tommy, but he was grateful for it. Sometimes they would make eye contact across the lunchroom, and Tommy knew, and Trish knew, but no one else.
Tommy still had a secret, but he didn’t want one anymore.