Short stories

Garbage Men

Drawtober -- or "Inktober" -- is back! My friend, Bryce Huff, is creating drawings from the Drawtober/Inktober prompts provided by DeviantArt. Once again, for each of his drawings, I'm going to attempt to write a short story (emphasis on the word "short," although my definition of that word is not necessarily other people's idea of short). I'm starting with Day 3 because I also don't understand numbers, apparently. Or logic. Or order. Chaos rules! Day 3's prompt: "Collect." 

Art by Bryce Huff

The garbage men work at night. The tall one has been on the job longer. His shoulders are slumped and his back hunched, as if he has spent the last decade hoisting the brimming trashcans and dumpsters himself, instead of using the truck's hydraulic arms.

The new garbage man is short, but muscular. His hands, in particular, look very strong. Until now, his hands have been his most valuable tool. Tonight, he only uses them to press a button, steer the wheel. Signal to his partner.

He looks into the sideview mirror to see the tall garbage man wave, then eases the truck forward to the next house.

They creep through the neighborhood in this way until the new garbage man sees something different in the sideview. The tall one slashes a single finger across his throat.

"What've you got?" the new one says after he has cut the engine and lowered himself from the truck's cab.

Garbage. Bags of it, each of them knotted at the top. The tall garbage man produces a switchblade and slices one open.

"You see?" he asks his protégé.

At first, the new garbage man doesn't. He plunges a hand into the trash -- greasy fast food containers, blackened banana peels, twists of used Kleenex, toenail clippings, wads of hair -- then the tall one shakes his head. The new one takes his hand out again, wipes it on the leg of his coveralls, then regards the trash for a minute more. Then he says, "I see."

Wordlessly, he follows the tall one to the front door of the house where the trash belongs. It's a modest place. A perfect square with a triangle roof, like a child's drawing of a house. A set of stairs leading to a screenless front door.

They do not knock.

Inside, dishes are piled in the sink. More fast food containers, the kind that come with a toy, strewn across the counter. The television is on. Infomercial. The computer is on, too. Images that make the tall garbage man turn away. That make the new one's mouth fill with the taste of vomit. He chokes it down.

The first bedroom is a child's. Action figures, train set, dolls arranged around a tiny table, waiting on tea. Empty bed.

The second bedroom is the one they came for.

The man is asleep. He looks no different than any other man. His neighbors will say that he was friendly, but quiet. Kept to himself.

The new garbage man waits for the tall one to do what they came to do. Instead, the tall one takes out his knife again and offers it to the new one.

The new garbage man hesitates, then shakes his head. Wraps his hands around the man's neck. The man's eyes open; his mouth pulls at the air like a fish's. The new garbage man is patient -- he has to be, for this kind of work -- and watches the whites of the eyes go red as the vessels in them burst.

Outside, they light cigarettes.

"You understand?" the tall garbage man asks.

The new one inhales. Up the block, the houses are dark, the windows blank. Each one holds secrets. Tonight he will learn them. A woman is having an affair. A child wet the bed, hid the sheets from his mother. A teenager cheated on a test. A girl has a crush on her teacher. A man is stealing from his employer. Most secrets will be uncovered, given enough time. Or they will vanish without ever being shared. Some will be kept for lifetimes.

Others need a reckoning.

The new garbage man flicks the butt of his cigarette to the pavement. Grinds it out with a heel. He thinks of the blood in the eyes. The toys in the empty room.

Says, "I understand."

 

The Palladium

The most challenging Drawtober pictures were ones that featured already existing characters. Am I going to write a Bob's Burgers episode, or an homage to Donnie Darko? Not quite. This drawing allowed me to make good on a little idea I've had for a long time: a story set in a movie theatre at the dawn of the apocalypse.

They’re still trying to catch their breath when they take their seats. The theatre is empty. It’s an old building — Toby’s grandpa has reminisced more than once about the “nickelodeons” he used to see here — and practically soundproof. They can’t hear if they were followed, or who might be outside.

There’s no one in the theatre. Toby had a key. He’s been manager now for three weeks.

“Who the hell were those guys?” Kim asks. “Did you see — ?”

“Yeah,” Toby says. “I saw.”

He doesn’t want to admit yet what he’s ninety percent certain of. It doesn’t seem possible. This is the kind of thing that happens in the movies he shows here, in this very theatre. Up in the projector booth, Dawn of the Dead is on the reel, ready to flicker its way across the blank screen. It’s the Scare-o-Thon, brainchild of his boss, Mr. Harker; they do it every year. This year’s theme? Zombies.

Toby lets loose a laugh that borders too closely on the hysterical.

Jules whimpers.

“Hey,” Toby says to her. “You okay?”

“She hasn’t said a word since those guys —”

“Don’t say it,” he cuts Kim off.

“Say what? That I just saw four guys in Adventure Time costumes tear Bart Simpson’s arms off and eat them?”

“Fuck!” Jules says. She’s drawn her knees up to her chest and started to rock back and forth. Her bunny ears tremble.

Toby can’t help it; he has to smile, looking at her. He also can’t help the pride and strange sense of satisfaction that wells up in him. He was the one who noticed the Adventure Time guys first, and he was the one who had snatched Jules by the back of her shirt and whispered in her ear, “Run.” If it weren’t for him, they’d all be — well, who could say? Dead? Undead? He has no way to know what they're dealing with yet. Only that there are things out there, things that tear people limb from limb and eat what's left.

Jules sniffles, and Toby sees that she's crying.

“Hey,” he says.

She shakes her head, and her bunny ears wobble wildly.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I just —” She falls silent, shaking her head again.

“I know,” Toby says. He can’t quite bring himself to put his arm around her, even though this is a movie theatre and if there's any best time to make a move like that, it has to be in a dark movie theatre at the dawn of what could very well be an apocalypse.

Kim stands up, tears the glasses from her face. They're fake; she only wore them for the evening, to complete her Tina look. She throws them to the ground.

“For fuck’s sake,” she says. And storms up the aisle.

“Where are you going?” Toby shouts after her.

She lets the door to the lobby swing closed behind her.

Toby sits back in his seat, his arm brushing against Jules’s. It's almost like the date he never got around to asking her on. But tonight was never a date. The three of them had agreed to go to the Halloween party at the Rec Center together. Come as your favorite cartoon! the flyer had instructed, and they’d barely even discussed it. After all, they watched Bob’s Burgers every Sunday together, cramming for Monday morning classes during the commercial breaks.

Jules pushes her ears back and rubs her eyes. Toby has to smile again. She hadn’t been able to find the right ears for her Louise costume, but leave it to her to take a can of pink spray paint to her Frank mask from last year’s Donnie Darko party and call it good. When she pulls the mask down over her face, it looks like an Easter-themed Frank is trying to eat Louise’s face off.

The notion of someone eating someone else’s face makes Toby’s stomach drop.

“Toby?” Jules speaks up.

Her eyes are huge, and they tug at him, begging him to know what to do in this situation. To be the hero.

“Wait right here,” he says.

He passes Kim in the lobby, where she's trying to raid the snack bar. “Everything’s locked,” she complains when she sees him.

Toby produces his key ring, a bulky thing he initially balked at — how could he be expected to keep so many keys on his person all the time, as Mr. Harker had directed? (“You never know when there might be a movie emergency!” the old man had claimed; for once, he hadn’t been wrong).

Now, Toby selects the snack bar key and unlocks the glass case with a flourish. “All yours,” he says, and Kim dives in, grabbing Reese’s and Mars bars by the handful.

Another key lets him into the upper reaches of the theatre, and a third key unlocks the projector room. He turns the projector on, readies the film, moves about the room almost automatically — he’s been working at the theatre since he was thirteen, back when all Mr. Harker would let him do was sweep floors and count the inventory. Once the film is running, he stays in the projector room long enough to make sure the picture is synched up with the sound, then he descends the stairs.

“They don’t build ’em like this anymore,” Mr. Harker has said more than once of the Palladium, and it's true. The new 16-screen theatre out by the mall has a glass facade that lets the daytime sunlight stream into the lobby. The Palladium has no windows, except  two tiny portholes in the grand-entrance doors — thick doors, and heavy, and wide, meant to make coming inside the theatre an experience, which it would have been, back in the day when Toby’s own grandpa forked over his nickel and lined up to see the latest cliffhanger. The Palladium, Mr. Harker had claimed, could probably withstand a bombing or an earthquake, its walls were so sturdy.

Toby draws close to the doors, which he’s made sure are locked. He has to stand on his toes to see what's happening outside.

When he sits down next to Jules again, he's shaking. His hands tremble so hard, he dropped his keys half a dozen times on the way back to his seat.

“Everything okay?” Jules asks between handfuls of peanut M&Ms.

She seems calmer. Normal, almost. On the other side of her, Kim is contentedly nibbling on a Mars bar. Up on the screen, Stephen and Francine have already decided to steal a helicopter to escape the city overrun with zombies.

But there are no helicopters. There’s no help coming, Toby knows, and no escape. There’s only this theatre, the Palladium, and its thick walls separating them from what he saw in the streets of the city, through the window, tonight.

“Everything’s fine,” he says, and takes the Snickers she offers him. They sit in the flickering light, watching actors flee a horde of monsters, while outside, the world crumbles.

Toby slips his arm around Jules without even thinking about it.

***

A Well-Dressed Man

Arty by Bryce Huff
Arty by Bryce Huff

When you're writing stories about someone else's art, sometimes you get a nice landscape or a really moving scene. And sometimes you get this:

When Dave Grohl woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed. Before he even opened his eyes, he tried to scratch an itch on his cheek. But his hand had no fingernails and, in fact, he had no hand. Instead, he had a sort of nub. A nub covered in slime, he discovered when he made contact with his cheek — which was also covered in slime.

He opened his eyes to find that his vision seemed different. Elevated, somehow. He reached with his nubs and discovered not eyes, but stalks, upon which his eyes were mounted.

“What the holy hell?” he muttered, and the sound he heard was not his voice but a sort of thick, gravelly garble.

He tried to raise himself onto his feet, but of course he had no feet, and instead slid out of bed into a gelatinous puddle. At first, he merely quivered where he was, unable to stop himself from trembling, a great mound of lime jello with nubs and eye stalks. Once he had calmed himself, though, he found that by concentrating very hard, he could inch forward. He pulled himself toward the full-length mirror on the wall and beheld what he had become.

“A slug?!” he garbled. “This can’t be!”

“Oh, but it is.”

The voice, smooth as silk, came from the corner of his room. Dave swiveled his head as fast as it would swivel, a motion that more accurately resembled the final movements of a wound-down wind-up toy.

“You —”

“You recognize me, Dave?” asked the well-dressed man who sat regarding him.

Dave’s mind reeled. The man was familiar, he realized. He remembered a summer day, the year he turned twelve. He’d gotten a guitar for his birthday and his mother had signed him up for lessons. But he’d hated them. He hated the lessons, but he loved the guitar. He loved the music he heard over the radio from the nearby college station, and he loved the idea of standing on stage, rocking out to an auditorium full of screaming fans.

That summer day, he’d been walking home from his most recent lesson — a debacle, he had absolutely no instinct for chords or rhythm, and his fingers were thick as sausages, and about as graceful. He’d dragged the guitar behind him in the dirt, no longer caring if it got broken. If he couldn’t play it, he didn’t even want to look at it.

“Oh, dear, that’s a terrible way to treat such a fine instrument.”

It was the well-dressed man. He wore an elegant linen suit and shoes that somehow had not a speck of dust on them despite the dirt road and the clear fact that the man must have walked to this spot, since there was no car in sight and the bus didn’t run this far out of town.

“You want it?” Dave asked the man. “I can’t play for shit.”

“Would you like to change that?”

Dave frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, what if you could play that guitar like a god?”

And then the well-dressed man told him what was possible. The gift of music, flowing freely from his fingertips. The success of a rock star. Auditoriums full of screaming fans.

“You can have it all,” the well-dressed man said.

Dave scoffed. “In exchange for what? My soul?”

It was the well-dressed man’s turn to scoff. “Please. Souls are passé. I’m interested in something more…entertaining. Let’s just say that when your bill is due, I will collect.”

Now Dave regarded the well-dressed man and remembered what day it was. He was to be honored tonight at the Billboard Music Awards with a lifetime achievement award.

“You’ve got to be shitting me,” he said. The well-dressed man seemed able to understand him, despite his strange voice. “My bill is due now?”

“Like I said.” The well-dressed man stood and straightened his tie. His suit was silk this time. “I love entertainment. So entertain me, Dave Grohl.”

The well-dressed man doffed his cap, revealing a pair of small, jet-black horns that complemented his pointed goatee. He bowed, returned his hat, and vanished in a puff of smoke.

“What the devil?” said Dave, then realized what was happening. “Oh. Duh.”

*

It had been a long afternoon. And he wasn’t sure it had been worth the effort. But there was only one way to find out.

It wasn’t hard to convince the limousine company that was sent to pick him up to instead take the large box on his doorstep and put it in the back of the limo. After all, he was the third-richest drummer in the country; if he wanted to parachute into the venue, someone would have made it happen for him. And it mustn’t have seemed terribly irrational to event coordinator when Dave requested, over the phone, that the box be placed on stage just before he was to go on. Rock stars were always making strange requests, and famous people always got what they wanted in situations like this.

Still, he wasn’t sure what would happen.

He trembled slightly as he listened to the announcer list his many achievements:  drummer for Nirvana, founder and front man of the Foo Fighters, member of Queens of the Stone Age, numerous awards. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been nervous to play the guitar. That summer day, perhaps.

“Ladies and gentlemen…Dave Grohl!”

The audience screamed and, with all his strength, Dave slipped the lid off the box and raised himself onto his gelatinous belly, then wobbled at his full height, his guitar around what approximated his neck.

The audience screamed.

He’d practiced all afternoon. His nubs flew across the strings as he began to play. And was it him, or was he playing better than ever?

The audience gasped.

The were terrified, he could see, but he kept playing, and slowly he began to win them over. They swayed and sang and danced. He still had it. He was still the greatest guitar player in the world. He played the two songs he’d been scheduled to play, and then he played an encore. And then he should have stopped, but he kept playing.

Five songs. Ten. Twenty.

His nubs began to bleed.

Thirty-five.

The other musicians left the stage. The audience began to filter out of the room.

Fifty.

Someone shut the lights off, save one spotlight that shone directly on Dave.

Seventy.

They weren’t even songs anymore — just one endless guitar riff. His nubs moved so fast, they were a blur. Could slugs sweat? He felt something pouring down his forehead. He gasped for breath. His soft limbs ached and he longed to stop. But he couldn’t.

He looked into the audience, hoping there was someone there, someone who could help him, stop him, tackle him to the ground and make him stop playing.

There was a figure. Seated in the front row. Dapper in his silk suit, still wearing his hat.

Smiling.

“Please!” Dave howled. “Let me stop!”

“Now, Dave, why would I do that?” the well-dressed man said over the music. “I told you I love to be entertained.”

Dave’s whole jelled body began to quake. He had no control, yet he kept playing. He never would, he realized. There had been no concert, no award. He’d never spoken to anyone at the venue. When he’d gotten into that limo, it had transported him, but not to the auditorium.

“Entertain me, Dave,” the well-dressed man said. He smiled. “I want one hell of a show, you hear?”

Dave screamed.

***

By the Light of the Moon

Another Drawtober story, this one a little shorter, and creepier, than the last. Here's the inspirational drawing.

When I was a very small child, it never occurred to me to wonder why my mother drew the drapes — heavy, black lengths of cloth that fell to the floor in puddles — over every window of the house every night. Nor did I question why I had to be indoors long before dark, long before the other children. I would sit at the kitchen table, spooning mother’s hearty stew into my mouth, and listen to the other children of our town laugh and shout as they played outside. I longed to go to the window to watch them, but the drapes were already drawn.

At age eight, I finally asked.

Then came the stories of a gang of madmen who had roamed the countryside looking for families reckless enough to leave their windows open. The men would creep through villages, their knives concealed inside their clothes, until they came upon a house where the curtains had been left withdrawn, the window open the tiniest crack. Once inside — my mother shook her head.

They did awful deeds.

And then they would vanish into the night, wiping the blades of their knives on their thighs, leaving streaks of red that looked black in the moonlight.

But this was a word I had never heard. Moonlight?

Mother sighed.

There is an orb, she said, much like the sun, which illuminates the sky at night. But the light which emanates from this orb is different. Dangerous.

We lived at the end of the village road, on the edge of the great wood. By day, I would stand at the window and watch the trees for sign of the men. Somehow, despite their reputation, I did not fear them. Instead, I was fascinated by them — by the way they roamed the earth, homeless yet resourceful, and by their comradeship. I had no friends. No siblings. Father had left the night I was born.

I was fascinated, too, by moonlight. I murmured the word as I tipped the bowl and drank the dregs of the stew’s thick red broth.

By day, I did my chores and played with the neighbor children until their mothers told them to come inside. I heard them scold their children and couldn’t understand why. After a time, the neighbors wouldn’t play with me anymore.

I gathered our chickens’ eggs and harvested the last of the potatoes. I milked our goats, then watched as mother slit the throat of the oldest one, drained it and collected the blood in a bucket. I asked what she did with the blood, but she didn’t answer.

I drew a curtain back the tiniest bit and looked for the madmen with their knives and dark purpose.

Come away from there, mother said.

I dreamed of moonlight. I imagined standing outside in the middle of the night and the moon showering its light down upon me, and my skin glowing with it. When I woke, it was in darkness, until mother came and drew the curtains, and harsh sunlight poured itself into every corner and banished the shadows from every room.

I heard the clatter but I was not there to see it. I came running into the kitchen, where mother had been placing jars of the red stock she had canned onto the high shelves. But the ladder had fallen, and so had mother. Her head cocked at a strange angle. Her eyes open but unseeing.

Mother, I said.

I sat with her that day and into the night. At some point, I must have fallen asleep, for when I woke, I realized the curtains were open. There was no mother to close them, and I had not thought to do so.

Moonlight poured into the house from every window.

It drew me across the room. My hands against the glass, I gazed upon the great white orb in the sky, heavy with its own light. It painted everything in the yard with silver. Wanting to touch the light, I opened the window, reached out.

I began to change.

I felt my organs shift. My skin burned and tore. I shed the hair on my head, grew something matted and coarse to replace it. My teeth rearranged and sharpened themselves.

With the change in me, I felt an insatiable hunger. I do not remember deciding to run across the grass and into the street. I do not remember coming upon the home of a girl I’d once considered a friend, or peering into her window. Discovering that her mother had neglected to close the curtains completely. I worked my fingernail, now as long and sharp as the blade of a knife, under the window frame.

I left only minutes later. Dropped from the open window, sated now, my stomach no longer gnawing at me. I wiped my long claws against my thigh, leaving bloodstains that looked black in the moonlight.

***

Funnily enough, I wrote this story to go along with the illustration at the top of the page. Then, twenty-six days later, Bryce — who had no idea I was writing these stories at the time — drew this for Drawtober Day 30:

Coincidence?

Imagination

If this Drawtober story were a T.V. show, it would be an episode of The Twilight Zone. Here's the drawing that inspired it.

Sheffield tossed the iPad onto Danny’s desk. It clattered across the surface, and Danny winced. He didn’t know how much an iPad like this one cost, but he knew he couldn’t afford one.

“What the fuck is this supposed to be?”

Danny glanced at the screen before it went dark.

“What you asked for,” he said. “Bears.”

“I asked for photorealistic bears that also look cuddly and appealing to children,” Sheffield said. “And you gave me monsters!”

“They’re not monsters…”

But a swipe of the screen told Danny that it had happened again. He’d drawn something without realizing it. The bears — which were to be the stars of Pixel Entertainment’s newest short film, Grin and Bear It — had started out fitting the description Sheffield had emailed that morning. Danny had drawn Papa Bear as an overstuffed grizzly with a dopey grin; Mama was his match, with eyelashes and a softer, more feminine face. The kids were roly-poly black bears, and their neighbor, an adorable panda. Danny was especially proud of Petey Panda. Once the film hit theaters — attached to Pixel Entertainment’s feature film, Sideways Sam — he knew that the stuffed version of Petey would sell like hotcakes.

But not this version of Petey. This version of Petey had fangs. Instead of front paws, he had mechanical claws, and one eye had been replaced with a metal eyepatch capable of firing a laser. He was half bear, half machine — a steampunk bear. Truth was, he looked kind of cool.

The rest of the bears had their own problems. Papa Bear peered from the screen with clouded eyes, his fur a white shroud; he looked like some sort of ursine sorcerer. Mama’s fur was gone completely, replaced by a coat of live rabbits that hung over a bear skeleton. And the bear kids? Danny didn’t think America’s parents would be too happy about their kids seeing a short film about zombie cannibal bears.

“Shit,” he muttered.

“‘Shit’ is right, my friend,” Sheffield said. He dropped into the chair on the other side of Danny’s desk. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but it’s gotta stop. What were you thinking?”

Truth was, Danny hadn’t been thinking. It happened every time he picked up his stylus and began to draw. At first, he felt in control, knew exactly what lines to put down, where to shade, how to make the pictures he saw in his head come to life. As he worked, though, he always fell into a sort of trance. This was what flow was like, he’d learned from his favorite art teacher. That moment when you no longer felt in control, and the thing you were creating just flowed through you, like a gift from the muses. Inspiration came straight from them, bypassed your brain, coursed through your hand and onto the page. Or iPad screen.

It was when that flow took over, though, that Danny got into trouble. He couldn’t seem to control what happened when he was under that spell. But surely he hadn’t emailed these bears gone wrong to Sheffield? That was career suicide.

“…career suicide,” Sheffield was saying. “It’s not just your reputation on the line, here, kid.”

Danny tried not to resent Sheffield calling him “kid,” and failed. After all, they’d gone to school together. In the same grade. There was a time Danny had called him “Joey,” not Mr. Sheffield. Just because Joey “Fartface” Sheffield’s daddy owned the country’s most successful independent animation studio — something Joseph Senior had actually earned with his own talent and hard work — Joey Fartface had landed a position as lead animator, despite a monumental lack of real ability and exactly zero imagination. He’d kept his position by farming out the most difficult jobs to his underlings. Guys like Danny, in particular, who had actual skill and an expansive imagination.

Still. Danny wouldn’t have taken the job if he hadn’t needed it. If it wasn’t at least a foot in the door. He wouldn’t work for Sheffield forever. Already, the higher-ups had started to take notice of him, even despite Sheffield’s attempts to take credit for Danny’s work. Why, Joseph Senior himself had stopped by Danny’s cube only a week ago to compliment him on the robot character he’d developed. Said it showed that Danny had “real imagination.” Joey Fartface had deemed the robot “too scary” for kids, so Danny had no clue how Joseph Senior had ended up seeing it. But he’d liked it; that’s what mattered.

“…even listening?” Fartface Sheffield was saying. “I’m going to do the generous thing here, Danny-boy — ”

Danny stabbed a sharpened pencil into his own thigh to keep himself from telling Sheffield to fuck off.

“ — and give you one more chance. Because like I said, I’m the one who got you this job, and I’m lead animator. So it’s my hide that’s gonna get tanned if I have to bring Psycho Bears to the table tomorrow. Do it again, and do it right this time.”

“Joe — Mr. Sheffield, I mean.” Danny grimaced. “It’s already after five. I told my kids I wouldn’t be late tonight.”

“Should’ve thought of that before you drew this garbage.” Sheffield was already out the door, his words fired back over his shoulder. “Do it again.”

So Danny did it again, after the phone call home. After the explanations and apologies. He could hear his kids in the background, giggling, playing. He’d been planning on drawing with them tonight — his favorite kind of drawing, when the kids would scribble a shape, and then Danny would create something from that shape. Those drawings, he never lost control of. Those drawings flowed, too, but not like the stuff he came up with for Pixel.

He drew the Bear family again. Drew the friend, Petey. Drew their neighbor, ungainly Mr. Moose. They all started out right, but they ended wrong. Who wanted bears with horns? A panda with the scaly wings of a dragon? Who wanted a moose that looked like a monster from another dimension altogether?

Danny’s cell phone buzzed, and he glanced at the clock as he answered. Midnight? Shit.

“You missed bedtime again,” his wife said.

“I’m sorry, I really am.” Danny swiped the Bears and their friends away. Mindlessly sketched as he talked with his wife. “I didn’t realize the time.”

“I know you said you were going to be late, but Danny — this is nuts. You’re not a surgeon or a firefighter.”

He drew a bulbous head with one great eye. Tentacles.

“I know.”

“I don’t get why you let that Fartface guy push you around.”

“I told you, Annie. He’s my boss.”

The octopus took shape on the screen almost independent of his hand.

“It just doesn’t seem worth putting up with so much bullshit. Especially when you’re the one with the real talent. What did Sheffield Senior say? That imagination like yours is what started Pixel in the first place?”

The suckers on each tentacle were huge, almost like giant mouths themselves.

“Listen, I’m leaving now, okay?” Danny said. “Be home in twenty.”

He stood and pocketed his phone. On the iPad screen, his octopus glared up at him, covered in neon zebra stripes.

Danny shook his head. “What’s wrong with me? Some imagination.”

He tapped the screen dark and left his cubicle. If he drove fast, he could be home in ten.

*

The next morning, Danny arrived to discover the flashing lights of several squad cars reflecting off the exterior of the Pixel Entertainment building.

“What’s going on?” he asked the receptionist.

She shook her head. “I’m not sure.” Then lowered her voice. “They say it’s Mr. Sheffield.”

Danny grimaced and hurried down to his cubicle. But his cube was blocked by a crowd of suits and uniforms.

He tapped one of the officers on the shoulder.

“Excuse me. This is my cube?”

“You’re — ” The officer glanced at his notepad. “ — Daniel Wong?”

“That’s right.”

“Any idea what Joseph Sheffield, Junior, might have been doing at your desk last night between one a.m. and three a.m.?”

“What? No. What’s going on?”

He pushed his way past the officer to find Sheffield Senior in a corner, holding his head and surrounded by secretaries and more police. Plainclothes detectives swarmed his cube, each of them careful to step around the body in the floor:  Joey “Fartface” Sheffield, his face a purple-blue shade that only an absence of oxygen could account for, his neck wearing a red ring of welts.

“This him, Mr. Sheffield?” asked the officer Danny had just spoken with.

“Yes, yes,” Joseph Senior said. “It’s just awful, Daniel. My son — it seems you were the last to speak with him?”

“I guess I must have been. I left around midnight — ”

Joseph Senior waved a hand. “Yes, there’s no concern that you — the security cameras show you leaving at midnight, just as you say. It’s just — ”

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Sheffield.”

“Listen, son.” Joseph Senior took him by the shoulder. “We’ll need someone to take over Joey’s projects. Immediately. I know, given the circumstances, it’s asking a lot of you. But you’re the only animator I can think of who would be up to the task. Are you?”

“Uh — oh. Yes,” Danny said. “Yes. Thank you — thank you for the opportunity, sir.”

The officer gestured to Danny. “This is technically an active crime scene, but I know it’s also your office. You want to gather up whatever you need and see if you can find another space to work?”

Danny grabbed his essentials and let himself be led down the hall — to Joey Sheffield’s office, it turned out. He let the secretary who’d shown him there close the door, then let out a trembling sigh. It was too much. It was awful. And yet —

“No more Fartface,” he murmured as he swiped his iPad’s screen.

His stomach dropped.

There was his octopus, its huge tentacles curled beneath it. Its silly neon stripes practically glowing on the screen. It gazed out at him with one huge, knowing eye. But it wasn’t the octopus he’d drawn — it wasn’t in the same position he’d drawn it. He swiped away from the screen and found the Bear Family, their moose neighbor, earlier drafts of the Bears, the robot Mr. Sheffield had liked so much. There was no other octopus. Just the one he’d drawn. Yet not the one he’d drawn.

Except.

He thought of Sheffield’s purple-blue face. The welts on his neck, just the size and shape of —

“No,” Danny said to the screen. “Impossible.”

The octopus on the screen dropped its eyelid. Gave him a wink.

***

One Hundred

Here's the very first Drawtober story I wrote, along with the picture that inspired it. The prompt for the drawing, "A Medieval robot, along with its operator," helped set the tone.

One hundred turns of the handle. By the time he was finished, his legs trembled beneath him and his breath came in short, wheezing gasps. Merek lowered himself from the platform and gazed up at what he had created:  a man. A sort of man, hewn of wood, bolted and wired together, carved by his own hand. Crude, but magnificent.

Merek nodded, satisfied.

“Come,” he said to the wooden man.

The wooden man wore the pack Merek had prepared, while Merek carried a rucksack and leaned on his walking stick. At the edge of his modest property, which was marked by a small stone upon a larger stone, Merek looked back, once.

One hundred turns of the handle would power the wooden man through one entire day. The wooden man easily kept pace with Merek as they moved across the fallow field, toward the village.

At the end of the first day, they camped. In the morning, Merek hoisted himself into the low branches of a small tree and cranked:  one hundred times.

They detoured around the village, a longer route but necessary. Merek did not want to be stopped or questioned about his companion.

On the third day, he looked back. He could no longer see his home and wondered if he was making a mistake. In sixty-three years, he had never left. He’d been born there, grew up there, learned his trade. Took care of his father and buried him under the willow tree when old age took him. Merek had married his love young, and they had shared his home. She was gone now, too. Had taken with her the children they never had, ghosts of their own hopes. Still, it had been a happy place. At night, after the sheep were in their pen and the work of the day was done, he would take out his knife and carve by the fire, while his wife knitted and sang. Curls of wood fell onto the floor. He held up the object he had made.

“A bird!” his wife said, delighted.

He placed it in her hand and she fingered the handle.

“Turn it,” he said.

She did so, counting under her breath. “…ninety-nine, one hundred.”

The bird flapped its wings, turned its head to and fro. Its tiny beak opened and closed.

“It’s brilliant!” she exclaimed. “Will it sing?”

Merek shook his head. “It has no tongue,” he explained.

“Then I shall sing for it.”

And she did, her lovely voice warmer than the flames that blazed in the fireplace.

He made other birds. He made a furless dog, able to wag its tail but unable to bark. He carved creatures no one had ever seen, and they roamed the yard until they wound down, and then Merek turned their handles again — one hundred turns for each.

He never showed her the child he made. Instead, unable to bring himself to disassemble it, he left in the night and buried it in the center of the fairy ring that sprouted each spring, out by the willow tree where his father rested.

Now, Merek pulled himself onto the top of a fence. Balanced as he turned the wooden man’s handle.

They walked side by side. They crossed the river, Merek riding the wooden man’s shoulders. At night, under the stars, when Merek grew cold, he drew the arms of the wooden man around him.

He crawled onto a boulder and turned the handle. Once finished, he sat at the base of the rock, breathing heavily. Regaining his strength.

He dreamed of his wife. Of her laughter, often heard, as sweet as her singing voice. Of her body, warm against his in the bed they’d shared for more than forty-five years.

In the foothills, as they climbed, Merek’s walking stick broke. He took the wooden man’s hand and continued to climb.

The rain came, and Merek sat beneath a tree to wait out the storm. He fished in his rucksack and found the oil can he’d brought along, and when the sun returned, he oiled the wires and bolts that held together the wooden man’s joints.

Higher up, the air grew thin. Merek labored for breath. He ate the last of the bread he had packed, drank the last of the water. Above the treeline, the mountain was covered in scrub brush and stones. No trees to climb, no fences upon which to balance. He moved slowly, hunched over, and slowly gathered stones. Piled them. Wobbled as he turned the handle. “…ninety-nine, one hundred.”

Together, they climbed.

Sometimes when the wind picked up, he heard her voice, singing.

On the fifth or sixth day, Merek stumbled. His legs were finished. His stomach moaned, the sound of a wind blowing through a hollow tree.

The wooden man lowered itself to the ground, its handle turning more and more slowly, until it stopped.

“We are finished,” Merek said.

He fell asleep dreaming of the mountaintop.

In the morning, he found himself floating. Hovering several feet above the ground. He opened his eyes and discovered that he was being carried in the arms of the wooden man. Its joints creaked as it walked. Its face and shoulders were chipped, its body weathered from the journey. Its handle turned, and somehow, the wooden man climbed.

Merek drifted to sleep as he was carried, lulled by the gentle movement of the wooden man. He dreamed of a giant wooden man, even larger than the one he had made, one whose strides spanned whole cities, whose arms could carry entire families.

He woke when the wooden man stopped. It had finally happened — the handle had stopped turning, and the wooden man would move no further. Merek steeled himself, searched inside himself for the strength he would need to drop to the ground, gather stones, climb them, and turn the handle again. He searched, but could not find it. He had no strength left.

He opened his eyes. They had reached the top of the mountain.

Merek gazed out from the pinnacle. It was a clear day, the afternoon sun blazing. He could see everything. The forest where he and the wooden man had gotten briefly lost, where he had played as a child. The river they had crossed. The village they had bypassed — Merek had sold his sheep’s fur there, had bought flour and sugar and a scarf he knew would please his wife. His own home, a tiny speck. The land he had tended all his life. The place where his wife was buried, not far from his father, not far from the child he had made.

“Thank you,” he said, his voice barely a rasp. “Thank you,” he told the wooden man.

The sun began to set. A gentle wind rose. Merek’s eyelids fluttered, and he struggled to keep them open, to keep his gaze on the rivers and trees and village and home. Shadows on the mountaintop grew longer as the swollen sun sank lower.

Merek rested in the arms of the wooden man. He heard singing. The wind had died and carried no tune, and there were no birds at this altitude. Yet he heard it:  a wandering melody, punctuated by a faint creaking, as if the wires and bolts of the singer’s jaws were rusted, as if the singer himself had never before given voice to the song inside him.

The sun dipped behind the mountain, and the people in the village below lit their fires.

***

Last Supper

Last year, my friend Bryce participated in Drawtober, a Deviant Art challenge to draw something new, based upon a prompt, every day in October. Unbeknownst to him, I decided to participate in my own challenge: to write a story about every picture Bryce drew. But then I got a book agent (yay!) and suddenly all my writing activity focused on the revision of my novel, and like so many writing projects, "Write-tober" (ugh, not a good name) had to die. But I had a lot of fun writing the few stories I managed, and looking back at them, some are kinda nice. So I thought I'd stick 'em here on the blog, in no particular order, over the next couple weeks. Here's the first one. And here's the drawing that inspired the story.

Last Supper

They’d heard about this day.

“There goes another one.”

“Where?”

“There. Building on the corner, window on the tenth floor. Where Buddy likes to sleep?”

“Oh, snap.”

There’d always been rumors. End of times. Loss of power grid. Riots, chaos. Mass hysteria. Like the movie said, Dogs and cats, living together. As if.

“You think Buddy’s okay?”

“He knows the drill.”

One by one, the lights of the city went out. They watched it all from their window.

“How’s Doug?”

A quick glance over the shoulder. Doug hadn’t moved in at least twenty minutes. His phone, still lit — he never remembered to set it to Power Save Mode, even in times like this — showed the last number he’d tried to call:  911.

“Not good.”

Another light flickered, went out.

“That’s Slinky’s place.”

That lucky bastard. You ever seen the size of his lady? He’ll be in hog heaven.”

“You are so insensitive.”

“Oh, come on. Like you haven’t had the same thought. Meanwhile, here we are, living with the world’s most committed runner. Nothing but muscle.”

They perched on the sill until the last light went out and the entire city was plunged into darkness. Still, they had no trouble making out shapes in the darkness.

“Well, that’s it. Next the riots begin.”

“They’ll do each other in and leave nothing.”

“Just like our parents warned us.”

The phone went dark.

“You hungry?”

“I could eat.”

They leaped from the sill. They’d known Doug all their lives, but still, it never paid not to be cautious. He was changed now; he no longer walked, or talked, or sat on the couch yelling at the television. They approached one step at a time, their backs low, shoulders hunched. Sniffed.

“Where do you want to start?”

“I’ve heard the eyes and cheeks are good and soft.”

Later, they licked their paws clean.

“You were right. That was much better than the dry food.”

“I’m so stuffed, I could take a nap.”

And while the riots began and the world below their twentieth floor apartment tore itself apart, that’s exactly what they did.

***

The Boy in Question

grave-yardHere's a short story I've never been able to find a home for -- perhaps because I've never been willing to rethink it, or haven't found the right way to tell it. But, like a lot of ideas that don't stick long enough, somewhere along the line I lost interest in tinkering with this one.  Still, I think there's something to it; even if all the parts don't quite work, I still really like the collective voice of the town, and I'm still interested in the idea that once a person passes on, the reconstructed memory of him or her becomes more potent than the reality of that person.

The Boy in Question

When he shows up, the other guys scatter. Like he’s a cold wind, and they’re a pile of leaves, a stack of paper. Then it’s just me under the net. The basketball rolling across the court.

Later, one of the other guys will ask, “Doesn’t he creep you out?”

But it’s not like that. What I mean is—he scoops up the basketball and shoots it, not at the net but at me. Fires a pass straight from his chest, the way he would when we were on the team together, and it lands hard in my hands, stings my palms. It’s like the taste of toothpaste or the sound of the church bells that ring every evening at five o’clock. You don’t hear them. And what does toothpaste even taste like, really? It’s all the familiar stuff, the stuff that doesn’t change, that makes you forget something’s wrong.

But then all of a sudden, you remember. Nothing makes it happen. There’s just a moment where you go, Oh, yeah, everything’s fucked up. And then that cold wind is inside you.

We play a little one-on-one, a little Horse. The sun gets heavy and drops out of the sky, and I say, “Listen, I should really—”

“Just one more game?” He spins the ball on his finger. When he drops it, he looks right at me.

(This is one of those moments.)

“Okay,” I say.

But when the next game is over, he says, “Just one more.”

“I gotta go home,” I tell him. “I’m already way late for dinner.”

“Luke, come on. Please?”

“I gotta go.” I jog across the court to get the ball. Keep going. Try not to look like I’m running away.

I tell him, “You should go, too.”

He shrugs. “My parents don’t care how late I stay out.”

That gives me a shiver.

I say, “No, really. You should go. Like, you know—toward the light. Or whatever.”

He just gives me this look, and sort of laughs. “You totally crack me up.”

I’ve got the ball under my arm. It’s full-on dark now, no moon, just the streetlights all the way down Elm, and I already know I’m going to run from one puddle of light to the next, like a little kid. I can feel him behind me, watching me try not to run.

I don’t look back. But I hear him say, “See you tomorrow, Luke.”

*

After a number of complaints, the Mayor called a special town meeting. Most meetings were held at the Municipal Building, in the Chester P. Deakins room, but by six-fifteen it was clear that not everyone who wanted to attend would fit inside. At six-twenty-seven, a swarm of folks poured from the Municipal Building, led by the Mayor himself. The town council members. The town clerk, Alicia Scott, with her thick notepad for taking the minutes. The librarian and the fire chief, the chief of police and several deputies, and the clerks of most of the stores. The town’s only lawyer. The dentist and his hygienist. Husbands and wives, older children who’d insisted on coming despite their parents’ protests. They’d left the younger kids at home with babysitters, and the babysitters held phones to their ears, twirled cords around their fingers, told each other they were sure they’d heard a noise, somewhere inside the house, maybe, or right outside. The little kids stared at television screens while their babysitters shushed each other and listened for the sound to happen again. Blue light from T.V. sets flickered across the kids’ faces; the children drew together on sofas, on living room floors. The crowd that drifted down Main Street, across Cherry, over to Maple Grove Road, a murmuring, solemn parade, passed the blue-lit windows of their own houses, the faces of their children behind glass, pale and strange.

*

I get up early of a Sunday, move slowly out of bed, not on account of the arthritis, in fact I feel pretty good this morning, but on account of the wife. If she woke up, she’d give me hell. I have heard it all before; I know what she thinks. It’s just I can’t help it.

By seven, I am on the stoop outside, got my thermos of coffee and my tackle box, looking for my Lazy Ike, that’s the one he likes best. Don’t know how things get so jumbled around in the dang box when all I do is snap the lid shut till the next fishing trip. Like them lures rearrange themselves when I ain’t looking.

The screen door opens and closes. Well, now I am in for it.

“Henry.” Her hand lands on my shoulder like a tiny bird. “Listen to me.”

“If you say something worth hearing.”

Used to be, I said something like that to my wife, her face would go red as a barn and she’d get real quiet. Scary-quiet, my grandson called it.

“It’s not right,” she says. “What you’re doing.”

“You know what I think ain’t right, Margaret? A woman who don’t want nothing to do with her own kin. You won’t even look at him.”

She’s got her hands on her hips now. Means business.

“You think I don’t wish it was different?” she says. “That I could just go along with it?”

“Why can’t you?”

“It’s not right, Henry,” she says again.

I lift the tray out of the tackle box. It’s in here somewhere.

“Henry.”

I look out at the yard, the place where we scratched his name in the concrete when I poured the front walk. He was just a little tyke then.

“I just want to take my grandson fishing,” I say.

“You can’t change what’s happened.”

“He’ll be here any minute, now.”

She stands up and opens the screen door, then hesitates. “Don’t you let him inside this house, Henry Simmons.”

I don’t know where that Lazy Ike run off to. Well, it’ll give us an excuse to try something else, one of the lures I never got the chance to show him before.

He comes up the walk ten minutes later. Right on time, same as always.

“Hey, Grandpa,” he says, and shakes my hand, like a man. “You ready?”

I hand him his fishing pole. “As I’ll ever be. Let’s catch us some fish, kiddo.”

*

At the back of the crowd, moving slowly with the aid of his beechwood cane, was Dr. Tinwell, who still practiced medicine after fifty years and who had set the broken bones and stitched the open wounds and taken the temperatures of most of the town’s children, the boy in question included. Up ahead, the night janitor opened the doors of the middle school, and the crowd filed in. Tinwell paused to let the younger folks go on inside while he turned his face to the sky, the rustling leaves, the first stars of the evening. He’d come out to the meeting because it had seemed important. Something had to be done. He caught a whiff of hyacinth on the air, although the season for flowers had long since passed. The scent reminded him of Beverly—he hadn’t thought of her in years. His gal, he’d called her, back when they’d planned to marry after he came home from the war. (Her letters had stopped coming, and then the letter from her mother: I’m at a loss for the words, grieves me to tell you, it came on so suddenly. She asked after you more than once.) The last of the crowd had funneled into the school, and the doors had fallen shut, and he felt no particular pull, now, toward the brick building and all the worry inside.

He had stitched that boy’s forehead, once upon a time, after a fall from a tree. Had told the child to be brave because in the end, there would be a reward. Afterwards, he’d given the boy a candy and said, See, there, that wasn’t so bad.

The evening was warm despite the breeze, and the ache in his joints was inexplicably gone. The scent of hyacinth was stronger still. All at once, he felt years younger. He thought he might take a walk. There was an old elm tree off Seminary Lane, just over the town line. He remembered how they’d carved their initials into its trunk. LT & BD. He turned on his heel and started back the way he’d come, up Maple Grove Road, with the wind behind him now, nudging him onward. Let the folks inside the school fret over what couldn’t be helped. He had somewhere else to be.

*

What worries me is what it means. I pull the curtain back and watch them shake hands, and wonder how Henry can touch him. It’s not like one of those awful films, those terrible things you see commercials for on television, blood and gore, lifeless shuffling people with their insides hanging out of their bellies, or specters flecked with the dirt from their own graves. He looks like I remember him. Except there’s something wrong. You look at him, and something flickers at the edges of him, faster than you can register. It’s less about what you can see, and more about what you feel.

I ask the pastor how I’m supposed to handle this.

“Shall we pray?” he says. “Ask the Lord for patience, and guidance.”

That’s not what I’m after. What I want to know is this: If he’s here, where does that leave heaven, and hell?

The pastor shakes his head. His sermons are so illuminating, so well-crafted and full of knowledge. He doesn’t say anything now. Just shakes his head.

Where does it leave me?

Just shakes his head.

I ask the pastor if he’s seen my grandson.

“No,” he says too quickly.

*

Most people wanted to know if something could be done. No one liked the way he just showed up, without warning. In the park. During story time at the library. On doorsteps. In Nadine Eisenhart’s guest bathroom. The Mayor suggested preventative measures. Like what? asked Joe Briskovich, the writer who lived on Silver Street. He had come to the meeting mostly for material. He’d already decided he wouldn’t mention to anyone how the boy kept slipping into his office each morning while he tried to write. How the boy said nothing, just stood in the corner, but was somehow all the more intrusive for being absolutely silent. How now the boy managed to work himself into every story, and how no matter what Joe intended to write about, it always ended up being about the same thing: the silent, burdensome boy in the corner of the room.

No one could come up with any solutions. No Trespassing signs could be ignored, and anyway, Frank Holt pointed out, it wasn’t exactly like you could carry a No Trespassing sign around with you everywhere you went. Someone suggested that if he showed up, you ought to just tell him to go away. Someone else said that wasn’t the point; nobody wanted to deal with him, period. A third someone proposed a law. But who would enforce it? Heads turned to the chief of police and his deputies, all of whom suddenly became very interested in the tops of their own shoes. The lawyer pointed out that it wouldn’t be right to make a law that applied to only one person. The dentist said, Person? The librarian suggested that the Mayor declare a state of emergency. But what does it mean? asked Harold Culp, a farmer from the outskirts of town.

A state of emergency, said the Mayor, is a governmental declaration that—

No, no, Harold interrupted. I want to know, what does it mean?

*

He never just comes in like he used to. He stands at the door and knocks, like a visitor. Down the hall, in the bedroom, his mother stirs. All she does these days is sleep.

He knocks again. I’m in the kitchen, spooning ice cream into my mouth. I don’t even taste it anymore.

He’ll knock all night, if I let him. I think of that old story, the one I read in grade school, “The Monkey’s Paw.” The cursed paw that granted wishes, the first frivolous wish for two hundred dollars, the death of the son. The second wish, summoning the dead son to the doorstep. The lesson was: Don’t mess with fate.

When I open the door, it’s only to stop the knocking.

There he is. In his ratty jeans, holes in the knees. That stupid tee shirt he liked to wear. He shifts his weight from one foot to the other. Tugs on his ear, the way he always did when he was thinking. In the story, the father fears that the son will come back wrong. That when he wishes his son alive again, what he will find knocking at the door will be an abomination, a zombie, a dead-eyed thing. But what if he had not undone his second wish with his third? What if he had drawn the bolt and opened the door? He never considered the possibility that his son would come back to him unchanged—every gesture familiar, every freckle in place. He looks exactly as I remember him.

“Can I come in?”

When he was six, he fell out of the tree in the back yard, busted his forehead on a rock jutting from the ground. Ten stitches. It left a scar.

(Wish!” the mother cried in a strong voice.

“It is foolish and wicked,” the father faltered.)

He gestures at the carton of ice cream in my hand. “Leave some of that for me, will you? You know caramel fudge is my favorite.”

(“It’s my boy!” she cried. What are you holding me for? Let go. I must open the door.”

“For God’s sake, don’t let it in!” cried the old man.)

There. Above the right eyebrow.

“Come on, it’s cold out here,” he says. “Stop standing around. Let me in.”

He grins, and shows me that tiny gap between his two front teeth, the one that remains despite the braces, the endless orthodontic bills.

The story’s all wrong, the way it goes. The true story, the ending that would feel right, would be the one in which, desperate, fully aware of the wrongness of his actions but unable to stop himself, the father runs down the hall, pushing the wife aside, and flings the door open. Sees his son. Unchanged. Takes him into his arms. Ignores the stench of the grave on the boy’s skin, the grit of dirt in his hair. The nagging thought in his mind that when you are given an impossible thing, something else must be taken away. He draws aside, his arm around his son’s shoulders, come in, come out of the storm, come home. The real story would not end with the deserted street, the cold wind, the wife’s despairing wail. It would end with the father’s words.

Come in. Come in, my son.

*

They asked the pastor to come to the front of the gym. The Mayor stood behind the makeshift podium on the stage where the high school students would perform Our Town later that fall and spoke into the microphone the janitor had hastily set up. Come on up, Pastor. The crowd shifted and parted and looked around. Even the ones who’d stopped going to church years ago, even the ones who’d never been, felt a burst of optimism: Maybe it was as simple as this. The pastor would say a few words, a quick prayer, perhaps, flip through the pages of his Bible. Ah, yes, here it is. An explanation. Some direction. Even if it was something terrible—the end of the world, say—there was still time to do something. The lights were still on. The sky had not turned to blood. There’s still time, Ed Nolan thought, wringing his hands, straining to remember the lessons he’d learned in Sunday School as a twelve-year-old boy. Yea, though I walk through the valley, For God so loved the world, Now we see through a glass darkly but then face to face.

Pastor?

The door off the side of the gym swung closed.

*

She sleeps, and dreams: He is always a baby again. She never preferred one age more than another; she was never the kind of mother who became disinterested the moment he was out of diapers. But in her dreams she drifts down the hall to find him in his crib. Wide awake, not fussing but smiling, cooing, reaching his tiny hands out to the mobile that turns above him. The soft glow of the nightlight, shaped like a butterfly. The sigh of the fan in the corner. That part of the room, where the rocking chair stood, that always seemed swathed in shadows.

Before he was born, they had a cat. A Maine coon, a massive tom who used to sit in her lap and purr, who would lick her bare toes with its sandpaper tongue. Then she’d gotten pregnant, had delivered and brought him home from the hospital, and something changed in the cat. It sat outside the closed nursery door, waiting, and when she opened the door, it darted inside and leaped onto the railing of the crib. Stared down at the baby lying there, and growled. When she thought she had closed the door tightly, it managed to paw its way into the room. She would find it looming over the baby, a vulture, a shade. A cat could steal a person’s breath, her grandmother had told her when she was a child. There were scratches on the baby’s cheek, maybe from his own nails, which grew faster than she could remember to trim them.

Then one day, the cat disappeared.

She dreams, and the cat pads into the room. It cuts across the carpet between her in her rocker and the baby in his crib. Leaps, agile as a knife, onto the railing. She rocks in her chair. She knows this isn’t right. There is the open door, and there is the cat lowering itself into the crib. This, or that. She should try to wake up.

Instead, she goes to the crib. Lifts the cat into her arms. Snaps its neck. Returns to her chair.

Minutes later, the cat comes back. Slinks across the floor, leaps into the crib. She’ll stay as long as it takes.

*

Above the crowd, the clock on the scoreboard ticked away. One minute, five, seven. Feet shuffled. Hands dug into pockets.

They’d voted. They’d made some sort of decision, although no one could say for sure what it was. Looking through her notes, Alicia Scott, the Town Clerk, couldn’t find what she’d written down, how the vote had gone, who’d moved and who’d seconded. She flipped through the pages, more frantically the second and third time, sweat on her brow. Pages tore as she riffled through them, and she heard herself gasping, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Few people heard her. Ed Nolan, who stood at the skirt of the stage, heard, and thought, It’s all her fault, all of this. The dentist’s hygienist heard and whispered, There, there.

Well, the Mayor said. The word echoed through the gym. Any questions before we dismiss?

A hand went up. Harold Culp.

Yes? Go ahead, Mr. Culp.

It was more statement than question: We’re just going to have to live with this, Harold said. Aren’t we.

*

Because he’ll be up in my room when I get home. Every day. He’ll sit on my bed and ask if there was algebra homework, and ask if I want to see a movie, and be the same as he always was, except he’s not. He’s a stone in my throat.

There are whole stretches of the day where I’ll forget. I laugh at jokes. I take notes in English. Yesterday in gym Luke Fisher got hit in the face with a hockey puck and bled all over the place. The blood on the hardwood floor was so fresh, it looked almost black.

If I could shrug him off like a heavy coat.

I open my bedroom door, and there he is, perched on a corner of my bed. He looks up and smiles.

There you are, he says. I’ve been waiting forever.

Because this is the worst part. Because there’s a part of me that runs back downstairs and drops onto the sofa and waits until my dad gets home, until he says, Sweetie, what’s wrong? and then he realizes, and then he sits next to me and strokes my hair and says he’s sorry, he’s sorry. But there’s this other part of me that slides onto the bed and giggles at the fact that we’re here in my room alone, and no one knows, and if I smile a certain smile and look away from him, I’ll find his lips on mine, his hand where no boy ever put his hand before.

Because it would be so easy to stay here, to get stuck here. I don’t want to grow up if we both can’t. Because before I even open the door, I’ve already chosen which part of me I’ll give in to.

*

For a long time after Harold Culp spoke, no one moved. Then, slowly, they began to drift toward the exits. First the Ennis family, then Joe Briskovich (who was eager to get back to his desk), then Ed Nolan. The Hunters, the Lovejoys, the Spanns. Alicia Scott stood from her chair on the stage, and her notes spilled from her lap. The Mayor left by the stage-door exit.

A few people lingered. Then they, too, turned and left. Only Frank Holt stood against the tide of his exiting neighbors, gaping. Is that it? he hollered. This is bullshit. We got to do something! Aren’t we going to do something?

*

Outside, the air had cooled considerably. Husbands put arms around their wives. Mothers held their children’s hands. Friends strolled side-by-side, listening to the crickets chirping, not saying much, only commenting on the change in the weather, observing that winter was on its way.

Yup, it’s coming all right.

Nothing you can do about it.

Behind them, the janitor turned off the lights of the school building, came outside, and locked the doors.

I’ll have to bring the potted plants inside pretty soon.

Have to put up the storm windows.

Find the snow shovel.

The breeze picked up, and most people caught the whiff of decaying leaves on the air.

Batten down the hatches.

That’s all you can do. Get ready, best as you can. Am I right?

The crickets went silent.

Am I right?