The sounds from the hammer shook the boy awake. They came in bursts of four, rhythmic strikes. As the previous blast echoed off the trees around his house, a new one would come, except for the last strike, which fell silent before the next sequence began. The boy starred at the ceiling above him. He wanted to sleep longer, but the beating of his dad’s hammer and the humid air, which felt like a soggy blanket, made it impossible. Instead, he sat up and crawled to the bottom of his bed. He stared out the window at his father who was crouched on the roof of the almost finished shed he was building in their front yard, laying shingles. Over dinner the night before, his dad had told him that all he needed to do after the shingles were done was put in the windows and paint it.
Pretty soon the boy knew he would hear his father’s voice from outside telling him he needed to help—to bring him extra shingles from underneath the deck or grab a tape measure from the basement or something else he couldn’t anticipate. Ever since he’d been laid off a few months earlier, his father had thrown himself into any task he could find around the house. The boy had spent most of his summer helping him—digging post holes for a new fence, replacing the lattice work on the deck, and now, the shed.
As he watched his father hammer, the boy looked through the small strip of trees behind the shed, where he could see Tyler’s house. Tyler was a year older than him, and they had met in that same strip of trees the summer before. He had gone into them with his older sister to see a fort Tyler had built with his own sister. The fort was made of fallen branches that Tyler had leaned against a tree in a circle to make a teepee shape. In the section of the fort facing Tyler’s house, he had removed a few of the branches to create an entrance. The boy had been ready to fight with him if he said he couldn’t go into the fort, but when Tyler did come out, he told them that they could play in there whenever they wanted. He said the areas between their houses was ‘no man’s land.’
Tyler went to a private Catholic school, so he didn’t wait for the bus with him and the other kids from down the street, but they would see each other on weekends. In the fall after they had met, he and Tyler were playing in the fort when Tyler said he had to leave because his mother had a doctor’s appointment, and there was no one to watch him. Later, the boy found out from his mom that the appointment was because Tyler’s mom had cancer. The boy and Tyler still played on weekends after that, and Tyler never said anything else about his mom.
The boy thought little about Tyler’s mom until a week earlier, when he had been sitting on the computer in his parents’ room playing a video game, and his mom came in to the room and asked him to stop playing for a minute. She sat on the bed across from him and said that Tyler’s mom would likely pass away soon. The boy couldn’t understand what his mom meant. No one ever said that Tyler’s mom was dying, only that she was sick. What did that even mean? He knew she had come home a few days earlier after spending months in the hospital, but the boy thought that was because she was starting to feel better, that the cancer was going away. His mom hugged him when he started to cry. The last time he had seen Tyler was after one of their neighbors had set up a rotation so that families in the neighborhood could bring meals to Tyler’s family. The boy had gone over with his Cub Scout den to drop off a baked chicken dinner his mom had made. It was the first time he had seen Tyler in a few weeks, so he told him he had just got a rare Pokémon card. After they got home, his mom told him he shouldn’t have done that.
When he was falling asleep the night after his mom told him, he tried to imagine what it looked like inside of Tyler’s house. Was his mom hooked up to some beeping machine? Were they standing around her all the time, waiting for the inevitable? Did Tyler read about the disease online and dream of miracle cures? It was hard for him to believe that right next door someone’s life was about to end, but inside his home everything was normal.
The boy heard his dad’s hammer stop. He knew what was coming.
“Are you awake? Come out here.” His dad’s voice echoed like the hammer strikes.
The boy rolled off the bed and walked downstairs to the front door. He could feel the heat coming through the screen before he opened it. It was so bright outside, his eyes were almost shut as he walked over to the shed.
“Why aren’t you wearing any shoes?”
His dad was staring down at him from the top of the shed. The boy looked at his feet. He never liked to wear shoes when he could avoid it in the summer. He preferred the heat of the driveway’s asphalt warming the soles of his feet to the suffocating sauna his shoes made.
“If you’re gonna help me, you need to put shoes on.”
He turned and walked back into the house without saying anything.
“Can you go down to the cellar and grab the electric sander when you’re in there,” his dad shouted from outside, as the boy slid his shoes on with no socks.
He knew the sander was in the corner near the furnace, but he didn’t go to it right away.
He loved the cellar, especially on hot days. Earlier in the week, he had asked his mom if he could sleep down there. He had his radio ready and wanted to lie down in his sleeping bag and listen to the Red Sox play the Devil Rays, but she said no.
Even in the corner with the furnace, furthest away from the shed, he could still hear the echo of his dad’s hammer. He wondered whether Tyler’s family could hear it too. Of course they could. It was hot. Their windows must be open. What did Tyler think about his dad hammering away all morning while his mom lay in her bed dying? What if she way trying to say something to her kids and each of her words were cut off by his dad’s hammer like the way they edit swears out on the radio? What if they just wanted to rest and the hammer kept them awake?
The sander was heavy when the boy finally picked it up. He held it with both hands, but even then he could only let it dangle under his waist with his arms fully extended. When he reached the shed, his dad climbed down.
“You know about Tyler’s mom?” the boy asked his dad as he took a sip of pink lemonade.
“Yeah, your mother told me. It’s really sad.”
The boy had more that he wanted to say, but he didn’t know how. He plugged the orange extension cord into the sander, but when his dad flicked the switch, it wouldn’t turn on.
“God dammit,” the boy’s dad said. “Go check if the cord fell out of the socket.”
The boy walked toward the socket in the side of the house. He didn’t know how he could bring up the hammering to his dad again. Working on the shed was practically all he ever did, and he knew he wouldn’t spend a day just sitting around. A few days earlier, his dad had said that he would have been almost done with the shed if they hadn’t got so much rain earlier in the summer when he was building the foundation. He was afraid that if he said anything about stopping for the day, his dad would think that he was lazy.
The boy’s mom would be getting home from the bank in the afternoon. Maybe he could mention it to her. She would know how to tell his dad about it. She understood. She was the one who told him about Tyler’s mom anyway. But how long would it be until she was home? How many times would that hammer echo off of the side of Tyler’s house before she was able to say something about it? Would Tyler’s mom already be dead?
The orange extension cord was spread on the ground. He thought about saying that the sander was plugged in and trying to convince his dad that it was broken. He wondered how long it would take before he was caught in his lie and if that delay would give Tyler and his family any relief. The boy reached down and returned the plug to the socket. He walked back to the shed rather than shouting to his dad that it was plugged in.
His dad climbed the ladder back up to the roof with the sander. He turned it on, and the sound of it grinding against the roof was even louder than the hammer had been. There was no break from it and rather than the echo fading away, each second it seemed to grow, like feedback from a microphone. The boy put his hands over his ears.
“Dad! Dad!” he yelled as loud as he could, but he could barely hear his own shouts. His dad kept sanding. It was five minutes before he turned it off.
“Were you saying something?” his dad asked before he started to blow bits of dust away.
“That thing’s so loud,” the boy said.
“Sure it is. Would you rather we sanded the whole thing by hand?”
“No—I just thought that it might bother Tyler’s family.”
His dad paused for a moment.
“I don’t think it’s that loud. They can probably barely hear it inside. I’m almost done anyway.”
His dad started the sander again and the boy’s hands returned to his ears.
He felt himself start to cry. Pretty soon the sanding would be done, and his dad would be hammering again. He knew he couldn’t keep thinking about it, so he distracted himself by thinking about the Red Sox’s batting lineup and trying to remember how many home runs each player had hit and their batting average.
It was an afternoon filled with more sanding and more hammering before the boy’s mom got home. He hoped that she would have some news about Tyler’s mom.
“Do you know anything?” he asked her after she got out of the car and gave him a kiss on his forehead. She knew exactly what he was talking about.
“I haven’t heard a thing. I don’t even know who would tell me. It’s better to just let them be right now.”
“Do you think you could call them and ask?” The boy knew that was a bad idea even as the words were leaving his mouth.
His mom shook her head.
All the boy wanted was to let them be, but how could he let them be if all day long they were hearing hammers and sanders and saws and electric screwdrivers?
“I’m afraid dad’s hammering is bothering them. It’s so loud. It woke me up this morning.”
The boy’s mom looked at him for a moment before she walked over to his dad on the shed.
“Honey—do you think you could stop for the rest of the day?”
He stopped and looked down.
He dropped his hammer and put two hands up like he was surrendering to the police.
“You can find something else to do that isn’t so loud,” the boy’s mom said.
The boy’s dad come down the ladder. It shook with each step. After he got to the bottom, they all heard the screen door to Tyler’s house open and slam shout followed by a high-pitched scream from a girl’s voice. The scream sounded like it was trapped in the trees around them, the way his dad’s hammer had sounded that morning. The boy knew it must have been Tyler’s sister. The boy looked at his mom, and she looked at his dad. They stood in silence until they heard Tyler’s screen door open and slam shut again.
“Do you think that means she died?” the boy asked his mom.
“I don’t know,” she said.
The boy thought so. He tried to imagine what it looked like inside of Tyler’s house again.
What Tyler might be doing. Was he crying and holding his mom’s hand? Had he locked himself in his bedroom? Was he smashing glasses and plates on the floor? No matter how hard he tried, it didn’t seem right. He didn’t know how Tyler felt, and he wondered if he ever would. His mom was standing right there, and tomorrow his dad would be hammering again.
Devan Hawkins is a freelance writer from Massachusetts. His fiction has appeared in the Penn Review, Litro, and In Shades magazines. His writing about travel, books, and politics has appeared in a number of places including The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Islamic Monthly, CounterPunch, and Matador Network. Outside of writing, Devan is an epidemiologist and public health instructor.