Copyright 2016 by Roman Theodore Brandt
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Mom started freaking out as soon as the Dad turned the car down the drive to Grandma’s house. “Oh god, oh god,” she said, gripping the arm rest between the front seats.
Dad took his hand off of the steering wheel and put it on hers. “It’s only a couple hours.”
She took a deep breath and exhaled, looking out at the woods on either side of the car. “Yeah, well,” she said. “For you, it is.”
Dad patted her hand. “You want to just do it next time?”
Grandma’s house appeared from around a curve in the drive, a run-down cape cod in a clearing at the end of the driveway.
“No,” she said, finally. “We’ve put it off too long. She nearly killed that toll booth kid.”
“She shouldn’t be driving,” Dad said.
“I don’t know if we ought to go taking all her freedoms just yet,” Mom said bitterly, gripping the door handle. “It was just the one time,” she added.
“The poor toll booth kid was pinned in the booth,” Dad said.
“Oh Frank, really. Anyone could have mistaken the gas pedal for the brake; it’s not like she killed anyone.” Mom sighed and started gathering her latex gloves and her spray bottles. “I’m going for the kitchen as soon as we get there,” She said. “I guarantee the stuff in her fridge is expired.”
“Mom, don’t make her mad,” I said.
“You just mind your own business back there,” she told me, shoving all the spray bottles into her tote bag. “I should have done this before we left.” She sighed, unbuckling her seat belt. “Seatbelts off, tuck and roll.”
“You’re hilarious,” Dad said.
Grandma’s house was a sad, white cape cod box, two big square windows and a wide black door watching our approach. If Grandma were a house, she would be her house.
We got out and Dad stretched for a minute. “I hate that drive,” he said.
Mom rolled her eyes and pushed past him toward the front stoop. “Don’t start that, Frank.”
“I’m just saying,” Dad continued, “That it’s a really long drive to have to make every week.”
Mom was already at the door, ringing the bell and then straightening the front of her sweater. Grandma answered the door looking like a pile of dirty laundry and said, “What?”
“Can’t we just come for a visit, Mother?” Mom smiled at her.
Grandma looked at mom and moved her dentures around a little in her mouth. “What?” she said finally.
“Can’t we come for a visit, Mom?”
Grandma squinted at her. “I heard you,” she said. “I’m not up for company.”
“Oh, come on, Mother,” she said.
Grandma shuffled away from the door, moving back to let us in. “Well, whatever,” she muttered, and Mom and Dad pushed past her. She and I stared at each other for a second, and then she said, “You coming in or are you just gonna stand out there?”
Once she was inside, Mom went right for the kitchen. She flung her tote onto the kitchen table and snapped a pair of latex gloves onto her hands.
“How old are these eggs?” she asked, holding open the fridge door.
“They’re still good,” Grandma said, shuffling around in the laundry room.
“Mother, you’re going to kill yourself. Would you come sit down?” Mom picked up the egg carton. “Oh my god. These eggs expired five years ago.” She looked back at me. “Put some gloves on,” she said to me, her voice like steel.
“I can still use those eggs. Don’t throw those away,” Grandma told her.
“They don’t even weigh anything anymore,” Mom said, shaking the egg carton. She tossed it in trash.
“Do whatever you want,” Grandma said from the laundry room.
“Mother, would you sit down?”
Grandma shuffled around the house for a while, actively avoiding questions from Mom about her health, her urine and her insulin levels until finally, she said, “I’m fine,” which was the end of all questioning.
Mom sat at the table, massaging her temples. “Mother, if you don’t sit down …”
“The world can’t stop just because you show up,” Grandma said.
“Go help your grandmother before she kills herself,” Mom said to me, putting her head down on the table.
I got up from the table, still pulling a pair of gloves on, and went into the laundry room.
“I don’t need help,” Grandma said, struggling to put the laundry soap back on the top shelf.
“I can get that for you,” I told her.
“No, I got it,” she said, practically creaking. She strained, the box of powdered laundry soap shaking in her bony hand.
“Let me put it up there for you, Grandma.”
She sighed, putting the box on the dryer. She leaned forward against the washer, breathing hard. “I can get it,” she mumbled.
“If you say so.”
She turned and looked at me and smiled a little. “I know, I know. I look stupid.”
We stared at each other for a long time.
“My goodness you’re getting big,” Grandma said absently. She reached over with a feeble old hand and pulled the string of the blinds toward her, and the blinds creaked and squealed up the window frame, but the room got no lighter. “I wish the sun would come out,” Grandma said. She dumped some soap into the washer without looking and shut the lid. The washer kicked on, and Grandma heaved the box up to the top shelf, spilling it. “Damn it,” she mumbled.
“Mother, you need hand soap,” Mom called from the kitchen. “Would you come sit down in the living room.”
Grandma stood there for a minute, looking at her feet. Eventually she said, to me, “Don’t ever get old. It’s not worth it.”
She shuffled out into the kitchen, and I stared up at the top shelf.
“Why are you here?” Grandma asked once Mom convinced her to sit down with us in the living room.
Mom sighed and said, “Can’t we just talk like a happy family? Can’t we just sit around and talk about the weather?”
“The weather’s awful. What do you want?”
Mom and Dad looked at each other and then Mom said, “Mother, don’t you think it’s time…” Her voice trailed off.
Grandma sat in her recliner, a menacing lump of clothes and horn rimmed glasses. “Listen, I’m not going to an old folk’s home. I don’t know how many times I have to tell you.”
Mom sighed. “Jeez, Mom. Just listen to me.”
“Well why not?” Mom blurted, and then the two of them glared at each other for a long time.
Grandma made some noise with her dentures and said, “I get by just fine.”
“You have ten-thousand-year-old eggs in your fridge.”
Grandma moistened her mouth for a few seconds, and then she looked up at the wall clock. “My program comes on at six. Are you leaving soon?” She wanted to know.
“Let’s just go,” Dad said.
Mom’s snapped her head around to look at him. “Are you kidding me?”
“Look, she’s obviously going to fight us on this. Let the old broad fall and see what happens,” Dad told her.
“She’ll hear you,” Mom whispered.
“I can already hear you,” Grandma blared from her chair, startling them both. “If you’re gonna stay, I want you to shut up. I got television to watch.”
Dad stood up and walked out into the kitchen, shaking his head.
“Just think about it, alright?” Mom said, defeated.
“I said think about it.”
She laughed a little. “Oh, I’m thinking about it, alright.”
We sat around in silence for a while and I heard Dad say, from the kitchen, “Linda, let’s just go already.”
“Don’t have kids,” Grandma said to me, flipping the channel. “They try to put you away. Look at these vultures circling,” she added, gesturing to Mom, who looked indignant.
“Mother, I swear,” Mom said, getting up from the couch.
Grandma chuckled and said nothing when we got up to leave. As Mom closed the door behind us, I heard the volume on the TV climb to deafening levels, the roaring of a TV audience blocking out any sign that we ever existed.
Mom sat down on the stoop and just stared out at the car, her eyes not registering anything. After a few minutes of that, dad sighed and helped her up and took her to the car with neither of them saying anything.
On the way back down the drive, though, I listened to Mom and Dad fight about what happened.
“I don’t see why your brother can’t come help us with her,” Dad said.
“He’s all the way in San Bernardino, Frank. What’s he supposed to do? Get on a plane every other day?”
“I don’t know,” Dad mumbled, gripping the steering wheel.
“You’re a real asshole, Frank; you undermined my authority in there and I want to punch you in the face. You really made me look stupid.”
“Your authority,” Dad mocked her.
As we neared the road, I watched Grandma’s house disappear around the bend. Suddenly Grandma was just a figment of my imagination again, a tale to be told at family gatherings, and I wondered if she was actually real to begin with. She existed most of the time in my memory, a spilled box of laundry soap. Sometimes, being able to reach the top shelf is all you have left.
It was half past three when the phone rang. The children were outside, and Betty had just started to vacuum the stairs. She let it ring twice, knowing at once who it was. She sighed and dropped the cord and went to the phone. She sat down on the chair and picked up the receiver. “Yes?”
“Betty, you won’t believe what the children are playing with,” said the voice of her neighbor, Doris.
“What is it? Have they got the dog tied up again?” Betty heard the sound of the dog barking far in the distance on the other end of the line.
“No, no. It’s just bizzare. It’s so strange. It’s like… Here, give me that,” she said to one of her children, followed immediately by a barrage of screaming children and a crying toddler. “I’ll give it right back, go wash up. Heathens.”
Irritated, Betty reached for the basket of clean clothes and began to fold them, right there in the living room. “Well, what is it?” She wanted to know.
“Betty, it’s the silliest looking thing. It’s some kind of metal. I can’t tell.”
“Well let’s have it; what’s it look like?” Betty started a stack of folded towels.
“Well, it’s shiny and kind of shaped like a… well, it’s like a rectangle, I suppose. Oh!” Betty heard the sound of something hard hitting the linoleum of Doris’s kitchen floor. “Oh my gosh,” she said in Betty’s ear. “Hold on one second.” She heard Doris put the phone down and seriously thought about just hanging up. After all, she had work to do.
“Oh, Betty, it’s the strangest thing.”
“Listen, Doris, tell me what the silly thing is or I’m getting off of here. I’ve got floors to do.”
“It lit up, Betty. It lit up and I dropped it. It’s glowing.”
Betty looked up at the wall, at the picture her mother had made for her of a house with “Home Sweet Home” in script under it. “What do you mean, glowing?”
“No service. What on earth?” Doris’s voice trailed off.
“What?” Betty looked down at her feet.
“That’s what it says. There’s like a… I don’t know, a read out I guess. It says ‘no service.’ Oh… well, it’s gone. It went dark.”
“Listen, I’m coming over there. I’ve got a pie you can have anyway.” Betty put the clothes aside.
“Oh my goodness!” Doris dropped the receiver on her end. Betty could hear a metallic rendition of Battle Hymn of the Republic playing over the distant sound of Doris’s screaming.
“Doris? Doris?” Betty heard Doris’s screams retreating further into the background and finally the little metallic song ended. She waited a minute, and then she said, “Doris, I’m coming over.” She hung up the phone.
She left the clothes in the basket and the vacuum on the stairs and hurried into the kitchen where she scooped up the pie in its pan and went out the back door, not bothering to close it. The screen door slammed, and all the appliances in the house were left to wonder where she went.
It wasn’t the first time I’d killed a man. You had to have been there to understand though, because it looked like any other day otherwise. In fact, it was a really nice day, full of sunshine and cars rushing past the exterior of the house on Bentley Street. There I stood in the picture window, sleeves rolled up, hands dripping red. I don’t remember much about how it happened, but I knew it happened. I didn’t do it, but I did. I guess that’s hard to understand. I remember he came to the door, selling magazines or some shit like that, and when I saw him, I heard the faintest buzzing, like a florescent light humming in a distant room. The light was on, then. So I opened the door and let him in, this kid. He couldn’t have been eighteen yet. He was all new muscle and sculpted hair, smiling lips and blue eyes shining. I wanted to put that light out. I know I did. I go through buildings switching off lights and the lights inside the minds of strangers are no different, because where there are lights, there are shadows. So I put the light out.
I remember flashes of bubbling, wet red and his gasping mouth, fingernails tearing away across the hardwood. I remember him screaming some name, his mom maybe, and then just his sad, little noises. I can only imagine what he must have thought of me.
It doesn’t matter now. He’s not alive anymore. I cleaned him out. I took all his human parts and made room for love, but as usual, as it always does, love killed him. Love is lethal. It kills everything it touches. I tried to find out what made him live without love. I drained his blood, swabbed his saliva, pumped out his semen into a red solo cup as he cried, and none of it was very useful. In the end, he wasn’t empty enough for love to save him.
So now, I watch the cars rushing past the house and I dream of tomorrow, other boys, other people waiting to be loved, waiting to be made ready to love. I can help them. I will help them. I can take them from their empty lives and their Styrofoam families and show them love, even if it kills them, because in the end, we all die. Better to be dead than to feel all this pain.
This Melinda creature had shown up to the restaurant wearing a bed sheet with a red rope for a belt. That ought to have been a sign. Hannah stayed, but only because Melinda was blocking her exit.
“I said to my mom I might die if I can’t go out tonight,” She cackled loudly once they were seated, so loudly that the other diners glanced over from their table. “I told her I might fall down dead into a lake somewhere,” she continued. “I might end up homeless, a bag lady in the street, you know? Looking for nickels and peeing under bridges. Missed opportunities. I might have been a great veterinarian if she’d only let me go out.”
“Are you always like this?” Hannah wanted to know, trying not to look directly at her.
“Like how?” Melinda looked out the window next to them at the night sky as she unwrapped her silverware. “The sun sure is pretty.”
Hannah decided to change the subject. “What do you think of children?”
Melinda’s eye twitched, and she looked down at her fork, hovering just above her empty plate. “Listen,” she said again, “I haven’t had my pills, so let’s not talk about having kids just yet, alright?”
“No, I mean…” Hannah stopped talking when she saw her dinner companion ball up a napkin and shove it into her mouth. She blinked as Melinda began to chew. “What was that?”
“What was what?” Melinda asked with her mouth full.
“Are you out of your mind?” Hannah cried, shoving herself back from the table, the wheels of her wooden chair squealing. “What are you doing, anyway? What is this?”
Melinda’s eyes bulged. “Stop making a scene,” she said, and little bits of napkin fell from her mouth onto her plate.
“You’re eating paper!”
“Yeah, well, I’m hungry.” She swallowed the napkin. “Listen, are you wanting to come to my place after this or do you want to, like, rough up some old people or what?”
“Rough up some old people?” Hannah said the words, but they made no sense, until she looked again at the bed sheet rope dress. I need to get out of here, she said to herself, and she started to excuse herself from the table. “Look, this has been nice—”
“It has,” the bedsheet beast said, interrupting her. “So don’t mess it up.”
Right then, the waitress came to take their order. Melinda ordered fries and told the waitress that Hannah didn’t want anything.
“What? You don’t know—”
The woman in the bed sheet interrupted her again. “We’ll share my fries.”
Hannah stopped talking and just sat there, looking for the fastest way out of the building.
“Alright, rules.” Melinda said. From somewhere, she pulled out a red leather notebook that matched her rope belt. “Alright,” she said again, opening apparently to a random page. “One,” she told Hannah, “Don’t ever touch me unless I want to be touched. I am like a cat, and if you touch me when I don’t want it, I’ll bite you and claw your eyes out until you bleed.”
“This is nuts.”
She shut the notebook. “I don’t want to, but I’ll compromise on the second rule because you’re so pretty, so I won’t even read it.” She put the notebook away and said, “Come to think of it, I don’t want you knowing anything. I guess you’ll go in blind and come out deaf.”
“I need to get out of here,” Hannah mumbled, no longer trying to be subtle.
“What a great idea,” Melinda said, gathering her bed sheet and standing up. “Let’s go make out in the bathroom.”
“Yeah, sure. You go on ahead.”
Melinda left the table, humming to herself, and Hannah ran a hand through her hair, gathered her things and walked shakily to the door, picking up speed as she went. By the time she reached her car, she was out of breath.
I’ve been staring at these dusty fields since we got here, straining to see the freeway in the distance, a shimmering black ribbon across the horizon. Sometimes, I think of running away, but then I think: to where?
When we first got here, it was dark, so I couldn’t see anything beyond the house in the glow of the buzzing safety light. Nathan came around the front of the car, laughing. “Isn’t it great?”
“Yeah,” I said, looking from the empty, staring windows to the sagging roof. “It’s great.”
By then, he was already at the back of the car with the hatch open. “Let’s get our stuff inside. Joey’s coming by with the van tomorrow. We don’t need two cars to unload in the morning.”
“Right,” I mumbled, turning to look at him.
He peeked around the side of the car. “Come on.”
“I’ll be right there.”
A few trips in and out of the house carrying luggage and lamps and end tables revealed room after room of cobwebs and peeling paint, hanging from the ceiling like fly strips, dangling and sticky from rain. “Oh my god,” I said quietly, squinting up the stairway into the abyss overhead.
Nathan bumped into me on the way past, sending me into the railing.
“Where do we sleep?” I asked.
“Are you kidding?” He came up behind me and sighed happily. “Isn’t it great? Our own place.”
We spent the night in sleeping bags on the floor upstairs in some room with a window. I thought of all the places I could have been by now, all the dreams I packed away when we got married. This stupid house, I thought bitterly, looking around at the burned electrical outlets and rotting baseboards in the glow of the safety light from outside.
In the morning, Joey came by with the furniture in the moving van and helped us pile the contents into the rooms we assumed they belonged in. I spent a lot of time out on the front porch alone, staring off at the freeway and wishing for a free moment and the keys to the car.
Nathan came outside with two little bottles of sweet tea. He handed me one and I took it, but I just stood there while he drank his.
“What’s on your mind?” he wanted to know.
“It’s a real circus right now,” I told him.
He laughed and looked out at the fields as well. “Look at all that. It’s all ours.”
I sighed and shielded my eyes to see the freeway better. I pictured a tombstone with my name on it with the words ‘died of dusty fields and a stupid old house.’ “There’s got to be some town nearby,” I told him.
“Not for miles,” he said, like he was proud of himself for it.
“I’m going to die out here,” I said finally.
He was quiet for a long time, and I could feel his anger building. All the money that went into moving us out here, chasing his dreams down the highway, shoving me into the car with everything we owned once the novelty of marriage died down.
“I don’t want any more negativity out of you,” he said quietly, and the distance between us grew.
“Yeah, okay,” I told him. I stood looking out at the fields, trying to shove my own anger back down inside and just find something good to focus on. My sweet tea was shaking in my trembling hand as my eyes darted from him to the dust to the freeway. “I just need to adjust.”
“You’ll get used to it,” he said on his way back into the house. The door slammed behind him. I let out a long breath that I had been holding since the last time I spoke and looked down at the bottle.
“This stupid house,” I said under my breath, and I stepped down off the porch into the yard, turning the bottle over in my hands to read the back. I walked to the edge of the yard, to where it became dust and forgotten crops and it seemed like the whole world was dust except for our little square of brown grass. I heaved the unopened bottle of sweet tea as far as I could toward the freeway.
I did get used to it, though. The freeway became a silent, unknowable place, a roaring strip of cars in the distance, phantoms on the horizon going nowhere just like me.
On the starlit horizon, two cars meet in a sheet metal kiss. The sky lights up for a second, then it’s gone, spinning away into the ditch. The trees stand as silent witnesses.
Two cars speed toward each other in the night, the red one skidding around a curve and the white one jumping a railroad, tires spinning in the air. They hit like dynamite, fire and glass, singed oxygen and coolant spraying the trees and pavement as they spin away into the ditch, burning in the dark.
Even with the dash lights burned out, Jake could tell they were going too fast. He looked over at Stephen, whose knuckles were white from gripping the steering wheel so hard.
“You need to slow down,” Jake said.
Stephen said nothing and stared out at the road, and Jake turned to watch the trees flying past the passenger side of the car. There was a flash of red and white.
“Jesus, Stephen. That was a stop sign.”
“Yeah, so what?” Stephen yelled, filling the far with a sudden, oppressive silence afterward. Jake stared at him for a minute.
“Can I drive?” he asked.
“No, you can’t drive,” Stephen roared. “This is my god damned car. I’m driving.”
They ramped a railroad, sending Jake’s stomach up into his chest, and suddenly the windshield was bright, a flash of light, a honking horn blaring everywhere over Stephen’s voice saying, “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
The impact was huge, worlds colliding, McDonald’s bags and sweet tea cups tumbling in slow motion up from the back seat toward the dashboard, which suddenly flickered to life, lighting up and cracking and going dark. The second impact was also huge, skulls to plastic, metal to bone. Then, nothing. Silence.
The brain was alive, firing panic messages from the corneas to the brain stem. Start the pool of ice water in the stomach, shut off the pain sensors. This is going to hurt.
A dead eye, not blinking in the dark, watching the flames all around. The brain sends panic messages to the legs. Move, move, move. The message comes back: return to sender. Invalid address.
A flashing banner, red on black: save yourself, save yourself, save yourself. The neural highways are destroyed at the bridges, trucks tumbling end over end into darkness, spilling words and sentences into the void below. The eye blinks once, then never again, and the world collapses into a single point of light, a dot on a map, a truck stop town in a rectangle state on a blue planet in an empty, gaping, starry void with no sound, silent and cold and getting bigger every second.
In a galaxy far from here, now, the tiniest point of light shines with no change.
I’ve seen a lot of characters on the Subway, and these two were characters. Two teenage boys, both dirty and wet, one wearing a black hoodie and the other in some kind of blue blazer and tie, like a private school uniform. They sat down across from me and didn’t look at each other. The train picked up speed, plunging in the dark underground of the city. These two, with their big wet eyes in the buzzing florescence of the train, looked like they had just climbed out of the river.
“I don’t know what to tell my mom,” Uniform Boy said eventually.
Hoodie Boy turned his head to look at him.
“I mean, how…” Uniform Boy’s voice trailed off.
“Let’s just find a place to sleep,” Hoodie Boy told him, and then he sat back against the seat. “I just want to sleep,” he murmured.
“I just don’t know how you can sleep,” Uniform Boy told him quietly. “With everything that’s happened tonight, you feel safe enough to—”
Hoodie Boy nudged him and gestured toward me, and that was the end of the conversation. They got off in a hurry at the next station, leaving two empty seats in the flickering light of the train, plunging again into the darkness.
It felt like hours that I stood at that stop sign in the rain waiting on the bus, and when I finally heard the rumbling diesel engine and saw the headlights coming over the dark horizon, I knew everything was going to be okay. I thought of my parents, asleep in their beds, their dreams filled with nightmares of my future. Never mind them.
The bus slowed to a stop and the brakes hissed, and I could see him inside waving to me, and I felt the warmth pooling in my stomach, sparks igniting in my veins. The door opened, revealing a large, uniformed woman behind the wheel. “You got your ticket?” She asked when I was up the steps. I pulled it out of my back pocket, wet from the storm. She took it and put it through the reader. “Yep,” she said as she closed the door behind me. “Welcome aboard.”
I hurried toward the back of the bus and let myself drop into the seat beside John. “You look like you just climbed out of the river,” he said.
I sighed and leaned my head against his shoulder. “I feel like I did.”
“What did your parents say?” He asked, and I didn’t say anything at first, picturing the conversation the night before. Dad sat glaring at me over his dinner, and Mom stood at the sink, wringing her hands.
“No son of mine,” Dad started to say, and then he stopped, unable to continue.
“I might throw up,” Mom said from the sink.
“Jesus, Barbara,” Dad said to her, and then he continued glaring at me. The silence was palpable. Even breathing was hard to do, with the whole house closing in on me. Finally, Dad spoke again: “This isn’t over. They have those camps… you know…”
“We are not sending him away,” Mom said, her voice low and unrecognizable, and she started to cry. Dad and I sat at the table and listened to her sob. Finally, she turned to look at me with her face wet from tears. “Do you even know this boy, Bradley? Is he really worth throwing your whole life away over?”
Back on the bus, I sighed and closed my eyes, breathing in John’s scent. I imagined a little house far away, with a white fence and a dog. I saw the two of us sitting on the couch, watching TV. “My parents,” I said quietly. “Never mind them.”
THE TRUCK STOP
At a midnight truck stop, I stopped for some coffee and a candy bar. It would be a long drive to Vermont where my mother no doubt sat waiting for me in her living room, bathed in the flickering blue of the TV.
I passed two boys crowded around a pay phone. “Tell her we’re here,” one of them said.
The boy with the receiver handed it over. “She wants to talk to you,’” he told him, and the first boy rolled his eyes, grabbing the phone.
“Yeah, Mom,” he said into the phone as I left the store, tucking my candy bar into the pocket of my hoodie. In the distance, I could hear the sound of the river rushing past.
All the families in our neighborhood went on vacation at the same time we did. That’s what Mom said, anyway, and that’s why we were stuck on the freeway in a van with no air conditioning. We left the house pretty fast, with my brother and I carrying suitcases and Mom and Dad grabbing everything that would fit in the car.
“Did you grab the photo albums?” Mom asked, turning in the front seat. Dad sighed.
“You’re worried about pictures, Linda?”
“I’m just thinking about the kids, Henry,” She said, and then she looked behind her, over our heads. “I just want them to have pictures, that’s all.”
“We can take pictures when we get there, Mom,” I said, and she laughed.
“Yeah,” she said. “Pictures.” She turned around in the seat to face forward. “We should have left when we had the chance.”
“Let’s not start,” Dad said.
“I said ‘Henry,’ I said, ‘Let’s leave before the neighbors find out.’ And you said ‘Oh Linda, we’ve got plenty of time.’”
I looked out at the sun, bright and hot in the sky through the minivan window. My brother squirmed in the next seat. “I want to ride the llamas,” he said to no one.
“I want to drive the cars,” I told him, and he laughed.
“Quiet, quiet,” Dad said.
We were all quiet for a while, and traffic moved a little bit.
“Boy, I wish we had air conditioning right now,” Mom said, turning on the vents. She laughed. “Not that it matters, anyway.”
“Would you not talk like that?” Dad asked.
I looked out the window again and saw people standing outside cars, doors open, shimmering exhaust rising into the air.
“You suppose it’ll hurt?” Mom asked.
“Not if you close your eyes,” My brother said, and I laughed.
“I want to go on the log ride,” I told him.
“Look, look,” Dad said. He turned the van off.
“Why’s everyone getting out?” Mom asked.
I looked outside again, and I saw all the car doors open, people running past, screaming, heaving themselves up and over the metal bulk of vehicles. Far behind us, I heard rumbling.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Everyone let’s not panic,” Dad said.
“I want to get out,” Mom said, flinging her door open. “Let’s get out.”
“Are we taking pictures?” My brother asked.
“We aren’t even there yet!” I said.
“Linda, close that door!”
“I’m running, and you can run with me or you can stay here, but I’m not staying in this van.” Mom started to climb out of the van and Dad grabbed for her, pulling at her hair, her arm, and she slapped him away. “Get out,” She said. “Get out and run!”
I was getting scared at that point, and I said, “Where are you going, Mom?”
She looked right at me with the rumbling behind us getting louder and she said, “Oh my god. It’s too late.”
It was the loudest thing I’d ever heard when it hit us, and it sucked Mom away, slamming her against a car and then she was gone. The last sound I heard was Dad trying to start the van.
Somewhere in the shimmering, dark recesses of my mind, I knew something wasn’t right. The glittering landscape around the house hadn’t felt as deserted as it usually did, the fire felt as though it had warmed another set of hands, and my hot cocoa tasted vaguely like the saliva of someone else. I’m the only human for miles, and that’s the way I like it, so falling asleep with this new sensation was difficult. I wasn’t really surprised when I was still staring up at the ceiling past midnight. There was someone in the house, I knew that much. I’d not heard much more than the sound air makes as it parts around someone, but it was deafening. I imagined a hand picking up the little gold-framed pictures on the tables in the living room and staring at them, putting them back. I heard something conclusive soon enough, the brush of a hand on the wall outside the bedroom door.
There’s no one for miles, as I’ve said, so for someone to come this far to break into a house in the middle of the woods was not an accident, and I stared at the door, waiting, and when it didn’t open, I knew I was almost dead. My heart pounded in my chest. My veins pumped battery acid, and my stomach filled with ice water, bubbling up my throat. I remembered my mother’s first visit to my solitary little house, her lips pursed against telling me “you are out of your mind, son.” Right then, I finally got it. With no one for miles and bad cell phone service and sounds in my house, I suddenly wished for neighbors, anyone really, to see me about to be killed.
Just then, I heard the door knob turn, and the door swung open with a long, low creak to reveal the blackness of oblivion, where someone stood in the shadows, invisible. “Get out,” I said, unable to move. Suddenly, with all the force and anguish of someone facing death, I screamed, “Get out of my house! I know who you are!” Footsteps retreated, fast and clumsy, and a table fell over in the living room. I sat up and breathed heavy, heaving myself out of bed, still shaky. I heard the front door flung open and then the distant crunching of snow. “You go on, get out!” I yelled on my way to the light switch. I flipped it on, flooding the living room with light, but everything was normal now aside from the open front door. The only thing the only real proof it had even happened now were the boot prints in snow across the floor, and I knew them too well.
Something wasn’t right. I live alone, but from where I parked my truck, I could see smoke coming out of the chimney down the road. “What on earth?” I mumbled to myself, staring down at the windows in the fading light of another sunset. With no neighbors for miles, for someone to come to a house in the middle of nowhere and start a fire in the fireplace was no accident. Strange things had been happening in the house though, come to think of it. Maybe this was just one of those things.
I figured I’d better wait until dark to go back, and it’ll be over. I’d track some snow in for sure, and there wouldn’t be time to clean it up before I went to bed, but it would melt by morning.
I was in Wisconsin when I was picked up again. This time, it was a small car, a hatchback. It slowed to a stop, the brakes screeching, sending the car fishtailing past me, then it backed up. I stood for a minute staring at this lone car in the middle of nowhere, and then I approached the passenger side. I opened the door and got in. My body fit into the seat uncomfortably, and I looked over at the driver.
“I’m sorry for getting your seat wet,” I told him.
He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter,” he said.
We started down the road, and then we rode in silence for a long time. The inside of the car was plastic and littered with old foam coffee cups and fast food sacks. “I like to eat, too,” I said. I realized how stupid it sounded after I said it.
He laughed a little but said nothing.
I stared out at the fields passing, the woods in the distance, and I listened to the rattles and clunks of the car as it straddled the ribbed asphalt, thudding over potholes and bouncing around corners.
“I need to go to Idaho,” I told the driver. “I should have mentioned that before I got in.”
“It’s okay,” he said. We said nothing for a while, and then he said, “We all go the same place in the end.”
“What?” I asked.
He shrugged again, looking over at me. His eyes were the bluest I’d ever seen, as though they were illuminated by some ethereal light.
“Or just the next town, I guess,” I said quickly.
He turned again to watch the road. “No more towns,” he said quietly.
“Sure, just around this curve,” I told him.
“Nope,” he said, so I dropped it. I was starting to get nervous now, because it felt like the car was going to fall apart. I swear the wheels were getting further apart. The door panels and dashboard seemed further away.
“Is something wrong with this car?” I asked him, because it was really happening. It was definitely pulling apart. My door was three feet away, separated from the dashboard, and in between was blackness. The scenery still passed outside the window.
“Nothing wrong with this car,” he said.
Then the car was so far away that all the parts were separate points of light on the horizon, zooming away, vanishing like the world it took with it. Suddenly, there was just a steering wheel and two seats, and he and I.
“I’ve been watching you,” he said quietly, not looking at me. “And now I’ve got you.”
“I think I want to get out of the car,” I said, but he laughed because there was no car anymore. The only thing left was my heart pounding, the sounds of the road somewhere below us in the dark, the distant squeaks of some phantom suspension. “Who are you?” I whispered, and he looked at me again with his blue eyes, more ghostly than before.
“You know who I am,” he said, and then he was gone, but I still heard his voice, laughing. I sat in an invisible car seat, hard and uncomfortable, rattling over imaginary potholes. “You know who I am,” he said again, his voice echoing into the void.
I was born in the wastelands of the American Midwest, and I still live there, much to everyone’s regret. I started writing as a teenager as a side effect of what psychologists refer to as the “personal fable.” I believed that I was unique, that my personal life story impacted the world, and that the world revolves around me. In my mid-twenties, I picked up writing again because I was sick of reading slosh and tired of having to go back fifty years to find books I actually want to read. I was especially over the only gay literature available in 2008 being soft core porn romance bullshit with jacked, oiled-up porn stars on the covers. I decided that if I wanted to read something that wasn’t 500 pages of comma abuse and boners, I’d have to write it myself.
And so I did. It may not be the best, but it’s what I want to read. Thank you for the support, and I hope my writing means something to you as well.
If you liked this book, make sure you rate it and review it on Shakespir. It helps me, even if it’s a bad review. I learn from bad reviews.
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Thanks for the continued support and thanks for reading.
This story collection is dedicated to my partners in writing, a very select group of people who are also writers. They are all extremely talented and they write things that I look forward to reading (a rare thing these days because, in my opinion, there’s a lot of literary slosh in the world right now) and they have all at one point or another helped me shape one of my typo-riddled landmines into a finished book. Without the guidance of these awesome folks, I wouldn’t have the courage to publish anything I’ve written. I’d like to say that I do everything myself, but without the help of these people and being constantly inspired by their ability to keep writing and creating new works, I’d have given up long ago. I am inspired almost every day by you guys, even by things so mundane and inconsequential as status updates on social media, so thank you.
If I forgot anyone, I’m sorry. I blame my advanced age.
I want to extend a very special thank you to all of my readers for your support and encouragement during the 2015 season. I’d like to extend it like the neck of a giraffe, but alas. I have no god-like abilities. You’ll have to accept some kind of mechanized extension.
Look at all these neat tags! This guy must really think he's some kind of writer or something. My goodness, what a buzzkill, this guy who uses the tags "gay" and "incest" and delivers something other than shiny pecs and bizarre words for "dick" and "balls." Back to the bowels of hell with me! Sass and feces in my general direction. It's all a shit show from here.