Fahrenheit 52

Latchkey 17

The St. Anne’s cafeteria was a chameleon.

Among its transformations (aside from its obvious lunchtime duties) were the annual Christmas Bazaar, monthly post-Mass ”Donut Sunday”, and King Arthur’s court. Move a few chairs, get rid of some tables, lay down colored tablecloths, add in the 6th grade class dressed as Friar Tuck, Guinnevere, Uther Pendragon, and Sir Gawain - and boom, medieval Britain. The cafeteria also hosted bingo night for the old folks at the old folks home across the street. Unlike the other events, bingo seemed to follow no set schedule, but Will and the other kids always knew because they’d find little green and red coins under their folding chairs the next morning, which they’d trade and bicker over.

Ask any kid at St. Anne’s - the whole school could set their Timex Indiglo wristwatches to these transformations in their beloved basement cafeteria underneath the church. But only a select few knew what happened there, every day of the week, after school. When it became the home of latchkey.

Will made sure to always be the first to hit the cookie table. Newcomers might be deceived. Yes, there were mountains of cookies laid down on unfolded cocktail napkins by Mrs. Conroy, the older of the two keepers of the latchkey kids. But most of these cookies were detritus. There were only so many Oreos, and Will always got his six.

Post-cookie acquisition, Will would rush to complete his homework in the five minutes it took for his Oreos to turn to mushy, delicious lava in his glass of milk. He usually did, well before his best friend (and fellow latchkey-mate) Max had even opened his workbooks.

“Is today the day?”

“Max! Be quiet,” whispered Will. “Remember?”

Max nodded. He removed a binder from his black Jansport backpack and reverently flipped through its clear plastic pages of Star Wars trading cards. He still hadn’t even attempted to open his math book yet. Standard Max stuff, thought Will.

“But, yes,” whispered Will. “Probably.”

“Then we should stop talking about it,” said Max.

“Stop talking about what?”

Max and Will looked up at Alice, Will’s little sister.

“I know what you guys are doing,” she said as she peeled a clementine. Apparently, there were non-cookie things available on the snack table.

“No, you don’t. Go away,” said Will.

“I’ve seen you digging.”

“So what? Wanna see me dig a booger next?” asked Will. “Cause I think I’ve got a nice juicy one, right about here…”

“Gross. Well, if you don’t let me come, then I’m going to tell Mrs. Conroy and Mrs. Nell.”

Will slammed his social studies book closed. “Okay, fine. You can come with us. Just don’t tell Cole or Gabriel. They’re too little, even if they’re our cousins.”

Alice clapped, dropping her clementine peel. Max picked it up and flung it into a nearby can.

“Will you stop making a mess, and go watch the movie? You know where to find us later.”

Alice turned and went over to the roundup of kids circling in front of the CRT TV on a wheeled platform. Mrs. Nell plucked one of latchkey’s three VHS tapes (A Nightmare Before Christmas, The Wizard of Oz II: Return to Oz, and The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride) from the base of the cart and jammed it into the VCR. Today‘s pick was Return to Oz. Will no longer partook in viewing this one, due to the wheeler-based nightmares, so he went to the craft table and grabbed some construction paper and colored pencils.

He drew a picture of Link from memory, which wasn’t very good at all and wished that he had the little booklet that came with his Nintendo cartridge. He was always a better drawer when he could look at something as a reference.

Max slammed a green construction paper right on top of Link’s face.

“See this?” asked Max. “It’s a map. Of where we’ll go today. I’m thinking Attilio’s first, for pizza. And then McDonalds. For fries. And then we’ll go to Peter’s house. He lives down this street.”

Will crumpled up the paper.

“Max - what if someone found this? We’re this close, and it’s like everyone’s trying to mess it up at the last minute.”

Max looked upset and he took the wadded ball of paper.

“It’s a good map, Max. Let’s do all those things.”

Two hours later, the entire lot of them were led upstairs and across the blacktop to the fenced-in playground, where they’d be given their 30 minute allotment of fresh-air, just enough time for the first parents to show up after work for pickup.

Max and Will split up upon entering the playground: Max to the climbing dome and Will to the wooden castle and pirate ship. They would meet in the middle at the sandbox some five minutes later, staggering their arrivals to dispel suspicion. For the past three weeks, they had been doing this same pattern: spend a few minutes in the sandbox, and then go back to the swings or the slide.

As Will cross the outer ramparts of the wooden castle, he heard crying from the upper level. He tried to avoid going inside the castle, given the large host of wasps he’d seen inside last year.

But he recognized the cries. It was Gabe - his younger cousin. Will could see Max had already reached the sandbox. He better not do it without me…

Will climbed up the rope ladder to find Gabe and — of course — Rex Throckmorton, the resident latchkey bully. Rex was in the same grade as Alice, and everyone agreed, was kind of a jerk.

“Stop pushing him,” said Will.

Will reached Gabe, putting himself between Gabe and Rex. “Are you okay?”

Gabe wiped a tear and nodded, then he slipped away and went down the yellow slide.

“Stop being annoying, Rex,” said Will.

Rex smiled his annoying smile and jumped off the edge into the central hole of castle. But Will reached down and snagged the hood of Rex’s San Jose Sharks Starter jacket. Will pulled Rex back up to his eye level.

“Stop messing with my cousin. Today.”

Will let go.

Rex fell into the castle.

Will glanced into the darkness. Rex got up and shuffled through the castle door, heading to the swings. Good, he’s not actually hurt, thought Will. Maybe that will teach him a lesson…

Then Will saw Max and Alice waving at him from the sandbox.

“Oh god,” said Will.

He flung down the slide and ran over to the sandbox.

“Well, are we going or what?” asked Alice.

Max nodded continuously, too excited to speak.

“Yes, let’s go.”

Will pushed aside the wooden slat at the back of the sandbox, revealing the hole he and Max had been digging these last few weeks. It was more of a depression than a tunnel, but that was all they needed: just enough to get under the fence and into freedom.

Will climbed through first. He stood up. Rex and Alice came through next. Will sniffed the air. The next step was planned. Sprint to the picnic area to get out of sight, then head around the softball field, and then down the street to the strip mall.

But none of them were moving.

“I’m… I think I’m going back in,” said Max.

“Me too,” said Alice.

Will shrugged. He followed them back into the playground, back into latchkey.

The three spent a few minutes wordlessly filling in their hole, erasing their evidence.

“Well, what should we do now?” asked Alice.

“Should we dig another hole?” asked Max.

“Yeah,” said Will.

They got to work.