Tag Archives: disfunction junction

Green Grow the Rushes

“They gave these to me at the EFC office.” Elliott set a white envelope on the table.  The packet had no writing, no images of what might lay within. “Low maintenance. Just water and sun and they’ll do the rest.”

Kelly stared at it. “I wanted peonies.”

“These are engineered to interact harmoniously with the soil here. We can’t plant anything else.” Elliott swept the remains of his eggs into his mouth with a piece of toast. “Gotta fly. Love you.”

He wiped a kiss on the top of her head. Kelly stayed at the table long after the outer door slammed, smoking a cigarette. The envelope lay on the mustard-colored plastic of the kitchen table. The whole house was a variety of plastics in bright, clashing colors. Most of the fixtures and decorations were inbuilt. Vases stuck to counters, ashtrays grew from tabletops. Nothing moved. Kelly regarded the white intruder into her world, mouth curving down like a scar.

The yard was almost insultingly perfect. The grass was a plastic-looking variety that grew to a length of one inch(no mowing!) and every shrub was green and nondescript as a crayon scribble. Kelly left a blue front door exactly like every front door stretching off in either direction from her own.

There was a rectangular patch of bare earth by the front door, a small assent by the architects. You really can’t be satisfied with a perfect yard? Fine, here.

Kelly rolled a few seeds into her palm from the white envelope. They were perfectly spherical and characterless. No germ, no seam where the skin would part for the sprout. They looked like buckshot.

The earth in the rectangle looked packed and lifeless as styrofoam. Kelly plunged a finger into it. It squeaked.

Kelly upended the pack of seeds over the patch, letting them clump haphazardly wherever they fell. Then she retrieved the blue hose from where it sat in a coil and sprayed the patch. She watched the water carry most of the spheres away. Kelly left the hose where she dropped it, turned the water off, and went inside.

“Kindergarten’s getting bigger every day,” Elliott said over soy burgers and lentil fries that night, “I’m sure they could use a teacher.”

“I’m not a teacher,” Kelly said. She was lining the square of her burger with her fries like a barbed fence. “I didn’t go through four years of university to teach.”

“Ah, well.” Elliott shrugged. “Have fun in the garden today?”

“What are those seeds?”

Elliott shrugged again. He did the gesture well. “Dunno. Flowers, I guess.”

Kelly did not water the square patch. In fact, she did all she could not to go outside. The sprinkler must have hit them errantly as they soaked the perfect lawn. The perfectly spherical sun smiled down and nourished them. No human hand needed to guide their birth.

“I’m loving the flowers by the door,” Elliott said, packing a few square stacks of paper into his satchel. He stepped carefully through the nest Kelly had made of the den floor out of blankets, pillows, old paperbacks, dirty plastic dishes, dirty plastic cups, hairbrushes. He stopped, a question written in his hunched shoulders and not-quite-turned-to-go posture. “Maybe they’ll look nice in here.”

Kelly didn’t pick her head up from the stack of clothes she was using as a pillow. She counted to three hundred after she heard the front door slam. Elliott’s car was electric, no growl of the motor to let her know it was safe to emerge from her cocoon.

The things in the flowerbed had grown to three feet tall in their first week. They were not peonies, or roses, or daisies, or any kind of plant she knew of. Those messy celadon ruffles tipped with orange at their peak—were they petals or leaves or modified sepals? There was no stamen or pistil, no recognizable sexual organs. The branches formed a perfect upward spiral, three leaves to each branchlet. The stems were smooth and green and featureless as pipes.

Kelly grasped one by the stem and yanked. Whatever root system they had, it didn’t so much as budge. Sweating and puffing, she finally had to accede defeat. Kelly licked the sweat off her upper lip and looked up and down the street. No one around to witness her struggle. Elliott danced around the question, but only half the houses were occupied after months of pushing. Paradise wasn’t as popular as they planned.

Kelly set to her task with renewed vigor. She cried out in pain and drew her hand away from the plant sharply. The formerly smooth surface was covered in minute bristles that came away in her palm and stung, stung, stung. Kelly looked contemplatively from her hand to the plant.

“I really think this campaign is the one,” Elliott said over brown-rice rotini that night. Did he even notice that he smelled like someone else’s perfume? “People were put off by the deductions they’d get, made the place sound like the projects. But this will class it up.”

“The flowers,” Kelly said, “what are they?”

Elliott frowned over being interrupted. “They’re engineered, I told you. So Sam had the idea that—”

“Engineered how? What are they? Phylum? Kingdom?”

Elliott put on his lecturing smile. “They’re actually a fungi and a plant working together, like lichen. Plant, plants, not entirely sure. The boys who did it were the ones who made the Fire corn, matter of fact. I’d hate to see them take on thistles.” He chuckled as he stabbed his food.

“So—what, do they germinate? Produce fruit?”

Elliott frowned. “That’s not my department, baby.”

The next morning she pretended to sleep as he got ready, shooting pointed glances at her prone form. Her books had been passive-aggressively tidied into a line at her head, dog eared pages straightened so her place was lost. This morning she waited until a count of one thousand before she heard her husband’s angry sigh and footsteps going from the door.

The plants all wore bristle-beards today. She sized them up before selecting the most slender stem. A pair of kitchen scissors, because she had no gardening equipment save for the hose, pincered the plant/fungal hybrid. Kelly squeezed.

Where did the cut come from? She had felt the leaves of the other hybrids brushing against her knee and then suddenly a wet trickle down her leg. Her knee was cut. Not just once, many times from many thin blades. She pressed the hem of her shorts over the bleeding and looked at the hybrids. Their leaves now bore a jagged edge that glistened dangerously in the sun. The stem she had been cutting was now lying crooked, leaking a sap colored the same shade of blue as a robin’s egg.

Kelly limped into the house to find a bandage. In the bathroom was a first-aid kit carrying only a few white squares that vacuum-sealed to her wound once applied. She had set the scissors on the counter to attend to her knee, now she picked them up again. The blades were pitted and eaten away where the blue sap had coated them.

Elliott picked at his bean-and-broccoli stir fry. He was surprisingly taciturn tonight.

“Work go okay?” Kelly took a sip from her water glass.

“Oh yeah. Closed out the south quadrant.” Elliott stabbed at a carrot. “Not that you’d care,” he added under his breath.

“Run into the boys who made the plants again?”

Elliott shook his head. “No. We don’t mix departments.”

“Well, I was going to ask them something, but instead I’ll just ask you.”

“What?”

She set a jug of weed killer beside her knife/fork combo. “I want you to kill the plants.”

Elliott frowned. “Why do you have that?”

“Every house has this in case the lawn care service is out for holidays.” She pointed to the open pamphlet where she’d found such crucial information.

Elliott shrugged. “Seems silly, is all.” He went back to eating.

“I want you to get rid of them. Now-ish.”

Elliott rolled his eyes. “Why, are they too much work to take care of?”

“Just the opposite. They don’t need me. I don’t want to have to live with anything that doesn’t need me.”

Elliott looked at her. She smiled.

“Indulge me.”

“Fine.” He set his water cup down with a bang. He grabbed up the jug and pulled it, sloshing, outside with him.

Kelly rose from her seat and took her plate to the kitchen. She counted to three hundred and two  before the noise started up in the front yard. Then she started up the disposal in the sink and the compactor that lived in a small cupboard beneath it. The food that went in the disposal was ground and cultured until it resembled wet newspaper primed for easy decomposition. The compactor pressed them into perfectly rectangular nuggets. The disposal took the bars apart again, grinding them, tearing them. The compactor made them whole. Together they formed a perfectly closed system that needed only the barest of input. Kelly yoyoed between the two of them, fascinated with their efficiency, as her husband screamed outside.

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Decisions

The double-wide trailer had vinyl siding that buckled and lifted away from the walls at odd points, allowing a joint of Bermuda grass to poke triumphantly out the top. Beside the trailer was the flatbed of an old ford, divorced from the cab and shored up with chicken wire to make a coop. Save for a mess of bleached feathers, the coop was empty.

James took a moment to peer beneath the coop, a space hardly big enough to squeeze a hand through. Only a few fence lizards escaping the heat.

The trailer door hung wide like a broken jaw, displaying the mess of a quick struggle. Someone had put their fist through the paneling a few times. Fixtures were missing, plundered in the time the trailer had sat vulnerable and open. Dishes in the sink grew a thick crop of mold. The trailer clearly had not been lived in for some time.

James rotated in place. The grass along one side of the trailer was flat, pointing towards the lattice that enclosed the trailer bottom elevated by cinderblocks.

James had drawn his sidearm on the walk up to the trailer, now he holstered it. He walked away, deliberately crunching gravel with his steps until he reached the sandy stretch just before the road. He doubled back through the grass, creeping so that the sound of his steps blended into the other incidental noises of the day. Crouching down by the far fender of the coop, James drew his piece again and waited.

Three minutes, not enough time to even boil an egg, there was movement. The lattice pried away from the trailer side and someone came wiggling out of the space. Leonard, his brother Leonard with a camo jacket thrown on over his work shirt, crawled out from under the trailer.

James waited until he was nearly out before rising, training his sights on Leonard’s back. “Hup.”

Leonard thrust his hands up, dropping his stomach to the dirt, before recognizing James. His face relaxed into a comfortable leer.

“Jimmy. Holy hell.”

“Leon. What’re you doing?”

Leonard squinted up at him, sweating on his belly in the dirt. He lowered his hands and pushed up to his knees.

“Sprayin’ for bugs. The hell’s it look like I’m doing?”

“Jessica’s worried.”

“Jess can goddamn well worry, I told her to sit on it until next Monday.” Leonard held out a hand, waiting to be helped up. When no help came, he stood on his own muster. “She whine to the cops?”

“No. Just me.”

“Good.” Leonard swung his hands at his sides, looking at the ground. “S’pose it didn’t take much to find me.”

“Few hours. I asked around: this trailer’s rented out to Ed Brinkley. Ed’s down at his folk’s place for the summer, so I came to poke around and found signs of habitation.”

“Ah.”

James drew in breath. “Leon, if I can find you, the cartel’s men can damn well find you.”

“This is just a stopgap, I’ve got a plan.” Leonard studied his brother’s face, attacking the corner of his mouth with his tongue. “Don’t s’pose I can convince you to give me a lift?”

James holstered the pistol. He ran his hand over his hair. “Don’t have much choice, do I?”

“‘Course you do. You always do.” Leonard beat him to the car, opening the passenger side door.

“No. Backseat, there’s a blanket.”

“I can duck.”

“Backseat. I’m not taking chances.”

“Tou-chy,” Leonard said, but obeyed. James made sure to arrange the blanket over him, tucking it in around his ankles.

James piloted the jeep back over the gravel lane to the paved road. A car with two hispanic men, one old and one young, sat on the shoulder of the turn off. James sat, turn signal clicking, sweat plastering his shirt to his neck. He looked. The men in the car looked back. James turned onto the road and drove south. The other car grew small in his rearview mirror. It streaked off just before disappearing from his sight, peeling off in the direction he had just come from.

After a while Leonard said, “pull over.”

“We’ve got a half hour to go.”

“We’re out of the danger zone and I got a cramp. Pull over.”

James turned into a rest stop. Leonard got out and stretched his legs at leisure before getting into the passenger seat.

“Get the blanket.”

“I can duck.”

“Not enough. Get the blanket.”

Leonard retrieved the blanket, folding it neatly before sitting on it with a grin. James stared at him for a good long second before starting the car.

James took the back roads, adding ten minutes on to the journey. Leonard did not even bother sitting low in his seat, pressing his face to the window and squinting.

“We’re going to the train yard, right?”

“You know everything, don’t you?” Leonard dug in a pocket of his camo jacket, peeling the foil off a strip of nicotine gum.

“That’s where you put the money.”

“I can spring for gas, if that’s pressin’ on your bladder.”

James said nothing, clicking on his turn signal.

“S’pose I ask why you needed to scratch a cartel man for cash,” he said at length. “You could have come to me if you had money troubles.”

Leonard laughed. “You, baby brother? I make two more decimals than you, and I’m supposed to drop by, hat in hand?” He stretched out. “It’s not about ‘need’ anyway. You’ll understand someday. I grew that money. That money’s going to keep paying dividends—”

“While the cartel’s shaking down your family?”

Silence in the car.

“They’ll leave Jess alone. She had nothing to do with anything.”

“They won’t care. The wives never know anything. But they’ll do things to her, Leon. They’ll do things to her and Janey.”

Leonard laughed again. “What, you her new daddy or somethin’? You have my blessing, if that’s what you’re angling for.”

James navigated a stretch of broken pavement, wheeling out to the opposite lane and pulling back in just as a truck came by. Leonard didn’t bother to turn his face away from the other driver.

“S’pose you might want to visit Jess after I’m gone. Don’t blame you. You got my blessing. I could never make her happy, she wanted some nine-to-five goon. It ain’t me, babe.” Leonard rooted around in the glove box. James pretended to adjust a mirror and watched him slip a registration card into his pocket. He would probably call in the plates to the cops to create a diversion.

“Train yard’s coming up,” James said, “you’ll have to tell me where to go.”

Leonard peered at him from half-lidded eyes. “Just hit the end of the lane and keep going. I’ll tell you where to stop.”

The asphalt ended suddenly, turning into rutted clay and jimpson grass. James guided the jeep over the ruts, worn shocks screeching in protest at every new bump.

“There.” Leonard pointed suddenly to a gap between disused boxcars. James braked, too late.

“Go back around.”

James engaged the parking brake and got out, matching stares with Leonard. He got out of the passenger’s side, breaking into a brisk walk and shooting a glance behind him every other step. James followed at a distance.

“I can pay for your troubles, don’t worry.”

“Not worried. How you getting out of here?”

“You need to run the bills by Benny, he’ll swap ‘em out for you.”

“I got a plan. How you getting out of here?”

Leonard chewed his bottom lip a bit. “…I got a boat down at the marina. Got a little place south of Mazatlán to go to.”

“Fleeing south o’ the border to escape a cartel? Must be the dumbest gringo around.” James smiled at Leonard. The uneasy laugh they shared was like a breeze in a stagnant room, gone altogether too quickly to be true relief.

A square hole had been dug between the rotted slats of a bit of old railway, into this space had been flung a canvas bag. Nothing, not even a branch to disguise the shape. Leonard jumped into the hole, deliberately keeping the bag beneath him as he counted out bills.

“You know it’s not too late.” James mopped at the sweat on his neck. The gun hung heavy at his belt.

Leonard did not react, coming up with a small wad of bills and pressing it forward. James pushed it back, shaking his head. Leonard smiled sickly. He did not press it, but stashed the bills in a front pocket.

“Can’t thank you enough, lI’l bro.” Leonard turned back to the hole.

“Don’t thank me, we ain’t got out yet.” James paused to listen. Was that the sound of an idling engine? “It’s not too late,” he said again.

This time Leonard really did laugh, a nice deep chortle that was infectious as an itch.

“I can’t worry about that right now.” Leonard rummaged around in a bag. “I got shit on my mind. You can drop me behind the feed store, I’ll leg it from there.”

“You’ll be seen.” James wiped his cheek on his sleeve. “What about pops?”

“Look, just drop me a quarter mile from there, then. Pops is old, they won’t press an old gummer like that.”

“They will after they run through Jess. They won’t stop until they get a body. You have a choice, Leon.”

Leonard was scooping something into the bag. “No anymore, Jimmy. I made it already.”

James sighed. He unholstered the pistol, wiping his hands before doing so. He sighted his brother’s back.

“Yeah,” he said, “I guess so.”

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That Time of the Month

“Sure is good of you to come to dinner like this.”

Amanda, hunched over her aching belly, smiled. She’d had misgivings, of course, but Kieran was good. They understood each other.

Her older sister Eliza had never gotten that part. She’d had plenty of boyfriends, men tended to be attracted to women who raged like fires, but in Amanda’s world it was quality, not quantity that set the standard.

Not like that had mattered to her. Lizzie, recipient of a little genetic…problem, had never put much truck in social niceties. Each time her father related a new emergency from Lizzie’s end, he’d point at Amanda and say, “don’t you ever be like that.”

And Amanda wasn’t. She starved and preened and bent herself into the good girl shape society left for her. That’s what it took. Even when the genetic curse struck her too, she kept to the wall. She was on her way to meet Kieran’s family, wearing a dress and a bow in her hair (a bow!) and even a hint of makeup. She could do this. Yes.

The waxing moon followed the car, puffing out its pale cheeks at her.

Kieran’s mother opened the door. She brushed kisses to either side of Amanda’s face and pronounced her the prettied thing under the sun. Amanda smiled back and willed herself not to scratch the spot where she’d waxed the unibrow away.

Kieran’s older brother and wife were there, and Kieran’s uncle, and Kieran’s father. Amanda’s smile went to all the right places in her face. She was properly demure. She laughed at off-color jokes. She let Kieran’s sister-in-law admire her nails, which always grew long and straight.

The first rumble of trouble was very much disguised as a well-meaning jest.

Kieran’s mother, a plump woman who didn’t look like she’d skipped a meal in her life, asked, “so when are you and Kieran going to give us kids?”

Amanda stopped and flushed. She hadn’t expected this so soon.

Kieran came to the rescue. “Mom it’s too early to be thinking about this.”

“Sure, sure, but when,” the old bitch prodded.

Amanda realized she was drooling and dabbed daintily at her mouth with her napkin.

“Actually,” her voice broke. She cleared her throat. “I have a genetic condition. I just as soon wouldn’t pass that down to anyone.”

The family blinked as if she’d spoken in a different language.

“You know, they do wonders with IVF these days,” Kieran’s uncle put in, “I bet you could season your turkey and cook it in another pot.”

“Oh, Bill,” Kieran’s mother said.

Amanda was on edge now. The questions picked at her like biting ants. She went to school where? Her family was from where? She was getting a job when? All the while a tingle and burn in her abdomen. She could do this. She could do this. Normal people did this all the time.

She was salivating excessively now. She thought to excuse herself from the table, but Kieran’s mother misunderstood it as a gesture to help clean. She ordered Amanda back down.

“Mom, it’s not that,” Kieran said, picking up on her body language. God bless that boy. “She’s got real intense monthlies, you know?”

“Oh dear.” His mother smiled widely at Amanda. “You know, a girlfirend of mine switched to soy? Never had cramps again.”

Amanda smiled tightly as she got up from the table. The bathroom was alarmingly neat, like no one had ever used it for its intended purpose. She went to rub her eye and—too late!—remembered her eyeshadow. Then she wasted clumps of wet toilet paper trying to scrub it off.

Someone knocked at the door. “Sweetie, are you almost done in there?”

She hadn’t been in here that long, had she? Amanda looked at her face in the mirror. God, she had really botched the removal job. And, yes, when she leaned in for a better look, she could see the unibrow was already trying to re-assert itself.

Kieran’s sister-in-law looked surprised when Amanda finally opened the door. She rallied, but Amanda had seen it.

Her skin was flush and felt prickly. God.

Kieran was conversing in the dining room over beers with the men in his family. He was just so good-looking and sweet it made her ache for a minute.

Kieran caught her gaze. He came to her, free and easy.

“I’m sorry sweetie,” she whispered as her stomach constricted, “but I’m going to have to go. Tell your family I’m sorry, okay?”

Kieran shook his head. “No.”

Amanda gulped down panic. No, not you. You were so good. “Sweetheart, I mean it. You agreed to let me go when I said go.”

But now Kieran was blocking her way, shaking his head and setting his beer aside to take her hand.

“You don’t get to walk out,” he said gently, “it’s family time. You’re always telling me on how you’ve run from family your whole life. Well it’s time to stop running.”

Amanda bent double with a twinge. “Not my family,” she managed through a constricted throat.

“Well they will be. So take an ibuprofen or two and lay on my mom’s bed, but you’re staying,” he lovingly ordered.

A thin drool ran from her mouth. No keeping it in any more.

Amanda lashed out with her free hand, slashing Kieran’s throat clean through.

Kieran was more surprised than anything. He put his hand to the blood at his throat and then looked at it, as if unsure what had just transpired.

Kieran’s mother happened to look down the hall at precisely the wrong moment. She dropped a dish. Her face was round and plump, her cheeks fat white moons that mocked Amanda.

Amanda threw back her head and howled.

 

Lizzie shut the door on her truck. “Jeeziz, smells like my bachelorette party.”

Amanda was on the stoop, smoking a cigarette. “It’s not funny. I thought it would be okay.”

“Ah, everyone thinks that. One more shot of whisky, one more hit, I’ll be okay.” Lizzie had embraced her monthly hirsuteness, scratching one hairy forearm with long nails. “You can’t get with someone normal and expect it to fix you. S’what I learned with Andrew.”

“Is he the guy dad liked?”

“No, that guy was actually a coke dealer.” Lizzie snorted through her nose as she surveyed the carnage within the house. “What have you done, Mandy Jane, Mandy Jane?”

“Lizzie Ann, Lizzie Anne, I done a shame,” Amanda said back.

Lizzie scrubbed her eyes with a sleeve. “That’s my girl. Now up and at ‘em, it’s gotta look like a wild dog let loose in there.”

“You won’t tell dad?”

“I won’t if you won’t.”

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How Much is That Doggy in the Window?

It was a dog made out of wood. Some kind of retriever or something. It sat by the wash-mangle and the old coke sign by the doorway of the antiques place. The wood was lacquered, but the lacquer had been allowed to dinge in the decades since.

David bent low to marvel at the craftsmanship. Every lock of fur was represented with a chisel stroke. The dog even had a knotted rope leading from its neck, carved from the same wood. The dog looked wistful in its state of repose, perhaps waiting for an unreturning master.

It was a masterpiece of kitsch.

“Hey, how much is that doggy in the window?” he called to the man at the counter, only half-joking.

The balding man, who looked less small-town hick and more art-school-dropout, barely looked up from counting bills.

“Oh that?” he adjusted his granny glasses. “That’s not for sale. It’s a whatchacallit. Fixture.”

David looked back at the dog. The more he studied it, the more details jumped out at him. The enterprising soul who had sought to fix it with such detail even included a doggy member lying casually between its hind legs. David found himself checking for fleas and laughed.

Karen was browsing the milk bottles. That had been the whole reason for their trip. Karen was collecting them. She was looking between a milky-glass specimen with a broken neck and a faceted brown jug.

“Kare, you have to come see this dog.”

Karen made a noncommittal noise, deeply absorbed in her bottles. It irritated David a little that she wouldn’t peel herself away from her hobby for even a minute when he had been coerced into giving up his morning for this trip.

“Come on. Bring the bottles.”

Karen made another noise. “In a minute…” she said absently.

David stalked back to the front of the store, skirting around milking stools and washboards. The man at the counter was now sorting the vintage button display. The dog sat where it had probably sat for years, decades David estimated. There was something melancholy about it. The dog’s expression—if animals could possess emotions—held a kind of delayed sorrow. It had been carved to wait patiently and mournfully. David thought that was terrible.

“What is this thing, seriously? Was it part of display? The work of a hobbyist?”

The man looked up from his sorting, an ‘I like Ike’ circle in his hand. “That’n? He was carved by Emmet Welch, a few towns over. He liked to carve wood. Probably every cigar-store indian in the county came from his shop.”

David chuckled to himself, squatting down to look at the dog. More kitsch. Indians and cigar stores. Endangered species in this politically-correct, vape-happy society. Serving some extinct function. Just like this dog.

“So what was it,” he continued, running a hand over the neck, “part of a display? Did it hold a sign?”

The counter man looked over, frown lines forming between his eyebrows. “No.”

David waited for more of that statement. Apparently it didn’t exist.

“So why do it? And in such detail?”

The man at the counter semi-turned, intently absorbed in his buttons. “He just wanted to carve a dog one day, that’s all.”

David felt he was being handled like a bratty child. He resented that.

“Really, I’d like to buy it. Or is it some kind of priceless artifact from an artist dead before his time?” Really, David thought antiques were a scam. But maybe if he insulted the man, he’d have to name a price he could be argued down from.

Instead the man set the buttons down with a smack. “That dog isn’t for sale, never going to be. It was evidence in a crime.”

“Oh.” Rather that quenching his interest, it only whet David’s appetite. “What kind of crime?”

“Murder.” The clerk was looking over with undisguised distaste. David felt his umbridge rise at that. He wasn’t a criminal! He was just asking questions. If antique stores weren’t cults, they were doing a piss-poor job of supporting that.

He found Karen squatting by a shelf of moonshine jugs and old irons. Antique places were always disorganized eyesores in his opinion. Would it kill them to stock it like an actual store and not someone’s attic?

“Hey Kare,  you know that dog? Evidence in a murder scene. Isn’t that wild?”

Karen barely looked up from the bottle in her grasp. “Wild, hon.”

“The guy doesn’t want to sell it, but maybe we can bargain him down. I’d love to put it in the front hall, really throw guests into confusion.” David knew he was rambling, trying to yank anything other than a canned response from his wife. “Maybe together we can strongarm him into selling it. Crack his noggin a little.” He chuckled.

Karen mmphed. “In a minute, dear.”

David went back to the front of the store. The man had stepped from behind the counter and was now dusting an elk head that lay conveniently close to the dog. David wasn’t stupid. The guy suspected something was up.

“Listen…”

The man let the sentence dangle for painful, awkward seconds. “Gary.”

“Yeah. Listen, Gare, you can tell I’ve fallen in love with that dog, right? Everything you’ve told me, it’s really piqued my interest. Maybe—”

“Look, son,” Gary interrupted. “The dog’s only out here because storage is full. And I only kept the thing because Emmet wanted me to. He put a lot of work into that dog, and I’ve got a lot of respect for the man, otherwise I would’ve burnt it. I’m not selling it, not lending it, and I sure as shit ain’t givin’ it away. So why don’t you go find your wife and quit goin’ at me?”

David felt his face heat up. It always fled to his ears and reddened them, something he was very self-conscious of.

“That’s no way to make a sale,” he said flatly.

Gary was squinting at him. Like he was a bug on a tobacco leaf. Stupid hick. Why did small town shops always act like customers were a nuisance?

David cleared his throat. “Look, I realize you’re attached to it. But if you just—”

“Son, why ain’t you hearin’ my no?” Gary said, crossing his arms. The feather duster he held in his hands made the gesture ridiculous.

David turned on his heel and went to get Karen.

She was smiling sappily at a flour tin now, not even pretending to be looking for bottles.

“He won’t give me the dog,” David snapped as he walked up.

Karen stood up, puzzled. “What dog?”

“What dog? Have you not heard a thing I’ve been saying? The wooden dog by the door!”

Karen looked at him oddly. Just great. It was probably some antique etiquette he didn’t understand.

“Come on,” he grabbed her hand and towed her to the front of the store.

Gary was still in the same place and position as he was when David walked away. He raised his eyebrows to Karen. David didn’t like the familiarity of that gesture.

That dog,” he said, tossing his hand at it.

Karen frowned and crouched down, squinting at it. She ran a hand over the fur, tracing the paws with a fingertip. David shot Gary a smug smirk.

Karen stood up. “So it’s a dog. So what?”

David gaped at her. “Are you serious?”

“I told him it wasn’t for sale,” Gary said to her, “maybe we ain’t speaking the same language. Can you give it a try?”

Karen turned to David. “That thing doesn’t go with our decor.”

David felt like screaming. “I know—just—”  he flapped an angry hand as if trying to catch the word he was looking for. “Why can’t I have it?”

Gary was looking at him. David didn’t care for that look.

“Why do you want it?” the shopkeeper said warily.

David looked between the both of them. “Have I gone crazy? Are you asking why I want to give you money?”

Karen was getting a similar look. David really didn’t care for that.

“Dave,” she said, “I really didn’t budget for this. You remember what I said on the way here? A few small things. No more, no less.”

“So? We can cut out the trip to your parent’s place.”

Now they were both looking at him like he was crazy. Good God.

Gary was teetering between a look of concern and mild horror.

“You still ain’t telling me why you want it.”

David ran hands through his hair, catching a few strands on a jagged nail and ripping them out. “Am I on trial here? Why do you want to hang onto it so damn much?”

“I told you why. You give me your reason.”

“You go to hell,” David snapped.

“David—”

“Save it.” He threw a hand up between them. “We always make time for your bullshit bottles—”

“What?” Karen was looking him up and down like she hadn’t seen him before.

“Son, you don’t talk to a lady like that in my store.” Gary folded his arms, shifting into the part of the reasonable authority figure. “Should I ask you to leave?”

“No!” They both stepped back from him. “I want you both to stop fucking with me! Stop treating me like I’m some kind of mental patient for wanting the dog!”

Karen put her hand up to her mouth. Gary murmured something like, “sweet Jesus, not again.”

“Not what again ? Huh? Not what again?” David tried to control his anger, tried not to let them win, but he couldn’t. “Did someone else want to buy your precious dog? Or did they just demand basic respect as a human being?”

Gary backed away. He was shaking his head subtly. “Son, you need to go. I might have to phone the ‘thorities if you don’t.”

David’s vision went red. Karen let out a sharp gasp as he picked up a rusted chisel, putting out a hand like she could force him back with her mind. The storekeeper stumbled back, hands held out before him. As David swung, he saw the dog from the corner of his eye. The dog looked wistful in its state of repose, perhaps waiting for a master that would never come back, or something else entirely.

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Prelude to an Exorcism

An older, stocky man opened the front door. “Dr. Elliott, I presume?”

Elliott offered a small, formal smile and a limp handshake. “Sure. Father, doctor, whichever you feel comfortable with, Mr. DeLuca.”

“I feel much more comfortable with you here now, father.”

Elliott had trained his senses to pick up on minute, ephemeral details. Was Daniel DeLuca a bit too enthusiastic? Did his smile match the reflex-crinkle of his eyes? Was his handshake firm, too firm, or phoned in?

DeLuca nodded crisply, though no one had said anything. “It’s so good that you’re here.”

He went in for a hug. Elliott chose to dodge nimbly around his other side, as if he had mistaken the gesture. Families under stress were more inclined to be physical with strangers, seeking the comfort denied them in their own home. Elliott tried to avoid undue familiarity whenever possible.

DeLuca took his coat, hanging it up on a coat rack that also held a white woman’s duffle and a brightly-colored child’s parka. The parka had a light layer of dust on it.

The front hall was sparse in both furniture and decor. There were a few nonthreatening landscape paintings, the customary bowl of random wicker balls on a table, but nothing besides that. No clutter. Few human touches.

DeLuca had come to stand just a little too close to his right flank.

“Father Corsey tells me you were a newspaper editor?” Elliott said politely, using pretext of turning to face DeLuca to put some distance between them.

DeLuca nodded. “The old St. Louis Spirit. Deader than disco now. They have an online component manned by a skeleton staff.” He leaned forward, negating the distance Elliott had bartered. “Right around my severance was when the troubles started.”

DeLuca’s face changed from an excess of enthusiasm to sorrow so quickly it was almost farcical.

“Fiona was very…affected by the change,” he related in a whisper. “To see her father fall from primary breadwinner of the household must have been quite a blow to her delicate constitution.”

Elliott made a note on his mental notepad and then underlined it. “So around….”

“Four months ago. It’s been horrible.” DeLuca seized Elliott’s hand in his own, suddenly clammy grip. “She won’t even let me touch her anymore. She won’t eat. She says such…horrible things.”

Elliott cleared his throat. “Well, the diocese has sent me here to evaluate your situation, to see that an exorcism is indeed the best course. We do not make these decisions lightly, Mr. DeLuca—”

Daniel, please.”

“—and only advise it as a last resort.”

For a few moments, there was only the barely-audible rasp of Mr. DeLuca’s breathing. He smiled with glazed eyes.

“Once you meet Fiona,” he said, “I am sure you will advise the best course.”

As they struggled up the narrow staircase, Elliott saw a woman flit ghostlike down the end of the hall. DeLuca stopped just before the top of the stairs, his back a solid white square like a limestone block.

“Margerie,” he said under his breath. Then, in a louder voice, “he’s here now. Get back to your room.”

Elliott swiped his tongue along the bottom right corner of his mouth. “Your wife?”

DeLuca made a dismissive motion with his hand. “She’s not taking it well, either. Possession is hardest on the mother. Maternal instinct demands you bend to the child’s demands, but giving the demon what it wants only serves to prolong the possession.”

Elliott sifted the statement, storing certain parts in their own bins. “So, is your wife providing primary care to your daughter?”

DeLuca chuckled low, shaking his head. “She’d give her the moon if I let her. No, the only one with a key to Fiona’s room is me.” He held up a brass key from the lanyard on his neck.

Elliott frowned thoughtfully. Something he had picked up on during the course of their walk was the lack of church memorabilia. Usually families stocked up on crosses, Christ figures, anything they could. DeLuca’s key hung where a crucifix normally would be. He held off on remarking on this.

“Could I see her, please?” he asked, “I would like an interview, if that’s okay.”

DeLuca took the key from his neck and twirled it on his finger. “Ask and ye shall receive.”

He stuck the key in the knob and turned it slowly, keeping eye contact with Elliott the entire time. As the door swung open, a draft played around their ankles.

The lack of memorabilia in the rest of the house was compensated for. In spades. Someone had scratched crosses into the wall, gouging them deeply into the plaster in a variety of sizes and lengths. Someone else had sloshed a bucket of white paint over them, sloppily, so that the room still smelled of latex and acrylic.

The sole piece of furniture was a bed pushed against the wall. Leather restraints, the kind used in mental institutions, crowned each bedpost. A slip of a girl lay in the middle of the bed, limbs stretched to meet each restraint. Her hair was greasy and her pale limbs covered with scratches. She wore a white, stained shift and a rosy gold crucifix hung around her neck.

All in all, Elliott mused, a picture straight out of Hollywood.

The girl on the bed stirred, flesh of her throat flexing. Her eyes rolled down to display the whites above her iris, much like a startled horse.

Elliott turned and found DeLuca looming in the doorway like a disproving stormcloud.

“I would like to conduct the interview alone, if it’s at all possible.” Elliott said.

DeLuca didn’t move. His gaze was pinned to the girl on the bed.

“Please,” Elliott said, lightly pushing his chest.

DeLuca backed out of the room, still facing the bed. He left the door ajar. Elliott gently pushed it closed.

The girl on the bed lay perfectly still as he approached, putting him in mind of a fawn trying to look like dappled sunlight on leaves. There was no chair, so he crouched by her side.

“You’re Fiona?” he asked.

The girl swallowed, nodding gently.

“Can I ask you some questions?”

Her eyes strayed to the door. He nodded without following her eyes.

“We can talk quietly, if you like,” he whispered. “Have you seen a doctor recently, Fiona?”

A headshake.

Elliott motioned to her scratches. “Did you do this to yourself?”

Another headhsake. “He did this.” her voice was like the flutter of a moth’s wing.

“He?”

“The demon. He comes to me at night.”

Elliott nodded, tentatively turning her wrist in his hand. There were lacerations from the restraint, some old enough to be scars, some fresh and red.

“When did this…demon manifest itself?”

She blinked.

“When did you first notice it?”

“When daddy got fired.” Her eyes flicked to the door again. “He showed up. It left a space for him to squeeze through.”

Elliott frowned. She hadn’t said anything about her crucifix. Usually, even the people undergoing a mental collapse in the guise of religious mania discarded the cross.

“Who made these scratches on your wall, Fiona?”

“I did.”

“And who gave you that lovely necklace?”

Fiona said something under her breath. Elliott leaned closer.

“Don’t let him know you can hear me,” she murmured. “He made mom tie me down.”

Elliott rubbed her arm, mindful of her scratches. “I’m going to try to get you some help, okay Fiona?”

Fiona blinked. She did not seem especially sad or happy to hear the news. She seemed as if all the energy had been drained from her, through some monumental effort. Elliott clasped her hand.

“I will be back,” he promised, “with more men like me. You will get help.”

Fiona blinked. Her eyes were the clear blue-green of thick bottle glass. “That’s what he wants,” she whispered.

Elliott rose, knees creaking. He shot one last look at Fiona before he opened the door. Her eyes had risen heavenward, or perhaps only ceilingward.

Elliott slowly turned the knob, mindful of a series of creaks suddenly starting at the door and ending at the hall. DeLuca stood at the stairs as if he had always been there.

Fiona’s mother poked her head out a side door. Her eyes carried such heavy bags they looked bruised. The marks on her neck were not bags, however. They were purple-green and clearly finger-shaped. DeLuca shifted on his feet and the woman darted, shutting the door behind her.

Elliott did not disguise the fact that he saw her. “I’d like to speak to the girl’s mother, as well.”

DeLuca shook his head. “No use. She’s too close. Wouldn’t provide anything useful.”

“Still…” Elliott let the  statement hang in the air.

DeLuca did not answer. Instead he turned and ambled over to the banister, looking down over his first floor. Elliott joined him.

“I don’t like to make decisions based on such small crumbs. I’d like to hold a series of interviews. With her, her mother, some school officials, perhaps another medical official. Has she seen a psychiatrist or someone like that?”

DeLuca made a noncommittal motion of his head.
“Then, of course, I will review the information gathered here with the diocese, possibly consulting—”

With a single, deft motion, Daniel DeLuca reached over and broke Elliott’s neck. He held the body while it spasmed. Then, with calculation and care, he tipped the body over the bannister so it landed head-first on the floor.

He listened for a moment, nodding as if agreeing with something  inaudible. Then he calmly went to the hallway telephone and dialed a number.

He smiled placidly as the phone rang six times.

“Hello?” he forced distress into his voice. “This is Daniel DeLuca. My daughter has—has—oh my God, I think it was an accident! She just ran and pushed—” his voice broke. “Please, can we move the exorcism up? I’m at my wit’s end, I don’t know what to do. She won’t even let me near her anymore…”

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A Portrait of the Leith Family

[John Alan Leith. Silver gelatin print, taken by a Zeiss Ikon camera. Leith poses with five business associates, cigar held up to his mouth. Leith does not look directly at the camera, but at a focal point to the left]

John Leith made his fortune in oil. He quickly became known for his business tactics of sinking a massive amount of money into a well and then selling it at what appeared to be the zenith of its production. Buyers would be astonished to find that not only were the wells tapped out, but that the yields had been inflated on paper.

Leith was a fixture at gentleman’s clubs and social events. He bragged of touring the world and going on frequent safaris, though his escapades were easily debunked due to his complete lack of geographical knowledge. When Leith built Montbello, the 120-room house in the Catskills, he populated it with hunting trophies he purchased overseas.

[The Ladies’ Auxiliary, group photo. Silver gelatin print, taken by a Kodak “brownie” camera. Margaret Cornelia Van Allan stands seventh from the right, third row. She is wearing an empire-waist gown with a frilled lace collar capped by a pearl pin, and her hair is loosely marcelled. Margaret does not smile at the camera, only squints as if caught between expressions.]

Margaret Leith was almost 30 years her husband’s junior. The decade between their union and the birth of their first son led to gossip about her inability to produce an heir. Whispers abounded about Leith’s infidelity, unspeakable illnesses caught in his youth rendering him sterile, or even Margaret’s own illness. Whatever the cause, Margaret produced only two children and then retired from motherhood, choosing instead to busy herself with various goodwill societies. When John Leith died in 1954 of a stroke, he left her several business debts that ate into what little personal wealth she had left. Margaret set up a trust with an oddly vague purpose: “to maintain the household.” The named trustee was Abigail Reyes.

[A candid moment: Margaret Leith, mouth open, hand pointing to a place somewhere out of the frame. Abigail Reyes, in a white headscarf and maid outfit, is nearly invisible due to the poor exposure of the film. A penciled message on back proclaims this photo the work of John Alan Leith, jr. This is the only known photo of Reyes.]

Abigail Reyes had been born in a small village outside of Manila. Her parents sold her to the Leith household with the understanding that she would get an American education. Abigail never set foot back in the Philippines, never learned English above a sixth-grade level. Associates of the prickly Margaret vouched that the maid was the closest thing she had to a friend. Indeed, something deeper seemed to bind them together. Even after dismissing most of the house staff due to lack of funds, Margaret retained Abigail at cost. Reyes would outlive most of the Leith family, dying in 1989 in a hospice.

[Black and white, tinted by hand. Taken with an Argoflex. John Alan Leith and son both shoulder rifles that would never be fired. John jr wears a coonskin cap and a rawhide jacket two sizes too large for him. Beneath a smattering of freckles, his smile is cocky.]

John jr. always expected to come into wealth on the day he reached adulthood. It was often said that he was the biggest casualty of John sr’s lies, for he was the only family member who believed them. After an idyllic youth filled with surprise gifts and long holidays, John jr. found that his 18-year vacation was funded by his father raiding the inheritance set up by his maternal grandfather. Dreams of living the high life in Monte Carlo and other such exotic locations evaporated, and John jr. found himself living at home well past thirty. After several ill-advised business ventures, John jr. died running his cherry-red mustang into an embankment. His death was ruled a traffic accident, though absence of brake marks belied that.

[The first color print, taken with a handheld Kodak. Maretta Jane Leith sits atop a Shetland pony in jumping gear. Maretta sticks her tongue out at the photographer. The buttons on her red hunting jacket are unbuttoned.]

It was always said that what little love remained in Margaret Leith was squeezed out in her second birth. Maretta was a rebellious second child. Ignored by a father who favored his only son, and shunned by a mother who palmed her off on a revolving series of nannies, Maretta was the most ambitious of the Leiths. From an early age she set her hopes on Olympic competition. Her father indulged her by building a show-jumping arena and purchasing a number of horses for her. However, her career was cut short by a pelvic fracture at fifteen. Like her brother, Maretta turned her hand to a series of unsuccessful bids to reclaim the Leith fortune, increasingly stymied by her mother spending all available cash for the upkeep of the Montbello house. Ironically enough, Maretta had purchased IBM stocks that, had she not died of cirrhosis of the liver at 45, might have replenished all her money and more.

[Montbello. Taken by a professional photographer for a magazine spread that never materialized, the photograph captures the house in its most endearing light. The architecture is based on French chateau style, with extensive manicured lawns and a carriage house just visible beyond the side of the house.]

Montbello’s future was uncertain. Margaret Leith had outlived both of her children, but not her husband’s debt. After Margaret was given a city funeral at the Leith family plot, Abigail Reyes retired to live a life of quiet anonymity in the Los Angeles suburbs. After her departure, she left a cryptic note reading, “all this and no more.”

Executors of the Leith estate found little of value in the late John sr’s paperwork. Forged checks, doctored bank balances, and a birth certificate of Margaret Helen Leith, a stillborn from the early days of their marriage. The furnishings and architecture of the house, save for a few repairs, still held value. An estate sale was in the works. However, two hurdles remained before the sale could be complete. The first was more minor: the house had an odor that would not go away no matter how they cleaned. The second was an architectural error: one room had a wall far thicker than normal. It was the maid’s quarters.

Examination of the wall found a loose patch of wallpaper. When peeled up, it disclosed not bare wall, but a door.

[Taken by a police camera. The wide shot completely discloses the metal cot and crude toilet structure in the corner of the room. The ceiling, glimpsed in the upper-right corner, is abnormally low. The cot holds a woman. She has been shackled at her wrists to the bed and wears a crude rope harness. Her unkempt hair and long fingernails speak to a long-term imprisonment. Though she has been dead for some time, the  drawn nature of her flesh tells that she died not from any illness, but dehydration. She wears a pinafore in a child’s size, one that barely fits her stunted frame. Closing the neck is Margaret Leith’s pearl pin.]

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The Fierce Fenimore Clan

The story of the Fenimores begins with a birth and a misdiagnosis. Eunice and Harlow Fenimore were fraternal twins born to Bart and Claudine Fenimore at their Missouri farmstead. The doctor attending the home birth noted that the twins did not show what he considered a normal amount of activity for babies and estimated that they might be developmentally slow. The elder Fenimores took this to mean the infants were disabled and subsequently spent the remainder of the twins’ childhoods treating them as such. The children were barely spoken to, neglected of all but the barest means of survival, and confined to sleeping in a corn crib.

The twins were estimated to be of average-to-middling intelligence, and this early misunderstanding only served to isolate them from outside influence. Since they were never spoken to in complex sentences, they formed what their father dubbed “idiot english” and spoke it rapidly amongst themselves. The two were largely left to their own devices all throughout adolescence. Since the family included nine children(not counting the twins) there was little furor raised when the twins disappeared one day in July of 1908.

In 1935, a reporter was in the area following the trail of a moonshiner when a local storekeeper told him of a mysterious clan of mountain folk who spoke in an impenetrable language. The reporter initially dismissed it as a retread of the Sawney Bean folktale devised to throw him off the trail of the moonshiner. The shopkeeper then took him to a neighbor’s barn, where a feral girl was kept tethered to a wagon wheel.

The girl wore a tattered dress that they’d had to sew around the armpits to keep her from removing it. The storekeeper said she’d been naked, babbling an unknown language and fighting tooth and nail when captured. The reporter was intrigued. Over a series of weeks, he gradually built a rapport with the locals until the day they allowed him to take the girl, leashed, from her pen.

The girl immediately tried to flee through the bushes, calling like a wounded calf. To the reporter’s shock, she was answered from the treeline.

More feral children, some nearly adult age, amassed in the undergrowth. The reporter let go of the girl, afraid of reprisal from such a large force. As the girl fled with her fellows, the reporter signaled to the townsmen, and they began tracking the children.

The Fenimore compound has never been viewed in full, as it spans an extensive amount of tree cover and does not follow any known building plan. The men from town came close to the main development before they fell afoul of several defensive snares set out on the perimeter. They described what looked like a wasps’ nest of boards and other wood scraps, not like any other house they’d ever seen. They took this information back to the reporter. The reporter returned with federal marshals.

Under the guise of busting a moonshine still, the marshals trampled the undergrowth to the compound. Primitive early-warning devices, such as bones strung on a rope, lead most of the clan to flee the oncoming invasion. Those too ill or weak to escape were captured by the marshals. Two of them were Eunice and Harlow Fenimore.

The subsequent investigation turned up a few points of interest. First, that the Fenimores were suffering from a number of preventable diseases but not in poor health. Second, that there seemed to be a high rate of genetic recidivism. Third, that the Fenimores spoke not gibberish, but a complex idioglossia devised and developed by the twins during their years of isolation. The adults showed no compunction whatsoever to learn english, but the few children captured during the raid did, and eventually provided more pieces to the puzzle.

The clan was the result of the union of Eunice and Harlow Fenimore, who produced several children(an exact number was never determined) who thereupon produced grandchildren. Occasionally a Fenimore would abduct a stray child who would then be integrated into the clan, but on the whole the clan was so inbred that every third child was stillborn. The clan survived by a mixture of hunting and scavenging, sometimes stealing from homesteads too far from town to raise an alarm.

The remaining Fenimores were removed from the area by repeated raids. Most were sterilized in keeping with the attitude of the time that medically designated “imbeciles” should not breed. The adults spent the rest of their lives in asylums or group homes when it was determined that they would never fit into society. The children were confined to foster care until they reached the age of eighteen, when they were flushed from the system and all but vanished from written record. The last known Fenimore died of coronary thrombosis in 1998, in an adult home. The Fenimore twins were separated on arrival, Eunice sent to a woman’s sanitarium south of the state, while Harlow was confined to a nearby prison. The twins died on the same day, minutes apart. Harlow from an aneurysm, Eunice from unknown causes.

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The Knapsack Man

Look, I’ll tell you right off the bat: you aren’t going to get a villain here. Just a bunch of angry, sad, and tired people. Myself included.

There isn’t a whole lot to me. We were poor growing up, and I’m slightly less poor now. The only difference between me and my folks is that I’d never dream of bringing a kid into this life, much less two. My sister was over ten years my senior, so much older that it just became unreal. She wasn’t like a sister, she was another, harsher grown-up in a house that couldn’t afford much patience. Mama worked two jobs, daddy worked one that took up all his daylight hours. Sister worked part-time at a shop, but she hated being home with me. She hated me. One of my first memories is my sister screaming in the other room, begging, pleading not to have to stay in the same bedroom as me, and mama calmly and quietly cutting her short. She had to. She had to stay with me. It was her duty.

Man, nothing like staying with someone who hates your guts.

I didn’t hate my sister.

I was scared of her.

I’d be doing nothing and she’d take two long, candy-red nails and pinch a part of my arm until the skin burned icy-hot. Whenever I cried, which was often, whatever parent was home would immediately turn on her. That was probably part of why she hated me so much.

As she grew older, graduated high school(or flunked out, I was too small to know which) she started chafing at the collar. Wanting to move out. Our parents wouldn’t let her. They made her turn over every cent she earned, even checked with her boss to make sure she wasn’t squirreling any money away. They’d give a little back to her in an allowance, but they held onto most of it. She wasn’t responsible, they said. She had to learn.

God, I was a mess. That much tension in a house could turn even the Dalai Lama into a headcase. I was crying all the time, scared of my own shadow. My sister just made it worse. She couldn’t hit me and get away with it, but she would do other things. She’d tell me scary stories she’d ripped off horror movies I couldn’t watch, tell me something was lurking just outside our bedroom window. She never let me sleep with the light on, and she’d whisper scary things in the dark.

It got to the point where I internalized everything she said to me. It was so horrible having to watch me, I had to be a bad person. I stopped calling for mama when she hurt me. I never repeated the scary things she told me. It didn’t make her ease off, instead she just got worse. And the very worst night was also the last time I saw her.

Mama was off on job #2 and daddy was still at the yard, so me and sis were on the couch watching tv. I remember how it started. She gave me a sidelong glance and changed the channel to a scary movie. Not that I was going to complain. I couldn’t. So she turned the volume up way too loud. I just kept reading my school book. She knocked it out of my hands and told me to pay attention, it was important. On the tv, some kind of monster-man was torturing a woman with his claws. It was probably tame enough to be shown on network television, but to my six-year-old mind it was a view of hell. I begged her to turn it off. She turned up the volume full blast.

I told her to stop it or I would tell mama.

She turned off the tv. Then she turned off the lights. Whatever had been on the tv, this was suddenly worse.

All I could see was her long, scraggly hair and the shine of her eyes in the little light that leaked in off the streetlight. She asked me if I had ever heard of the knapsack man. Of course I hadn’t, it was something she had just made up, but she acted like she was shocked at my ignorance.

The knapsack man lurked outside houses, she said in a whisper, he looked for real bad little kids.

For some pretty bad kids, he took their pets and drowned them.

For some worse kids, he took their hands and feet so they had to hobble like the guy on a dolly near the train station.

For the very worst kids, though, he took their entire family so they were all alone.

When I finally found my voice again, I asked her which one I was.

She said I was the worst kind of kid, and that it was my fault everyone had to work all the time. Just by being alive, I made everyone unhappy. And she herself had called the knapsack man to take us all away, just to be rid of me.

And then she ran to the bedroom and slammed the door.

I didn’t start screaming then, not until I saw the silhouette of someone on the front curtains with a lumpy shape on its back, and then I feel like I never stopped. Daddy got home past eleven, he had to duck my head under the faucet to get me calm. I clung to him like a bear trap. In the middle of all my ramblings, he heard my sister’s name and his face stormed over. He opened the door to our shared bedroom. My sister wasn’t in there, the curtains were drifting out the open window. I’ll never forget his first words to mama when she got home: “she’s got away from us.”

Gradually I learned to calm down. I made friends in school, graduated with mostly B’s from the same place my sister had gone. My parents had managed to put a little money by in their long hours, so I went to the local community college, got myself an AA in Business. When I walked for graduation, mama was there for me. Daddy had suffered a stroke while I was matriculating, she had a neighbor watch him while she was out.

I remember thinking how old she really looked, the weight of all those years whitening her hair and twisting her back. I marveled at the people who thought to bring not one, but two children into such a hard life, just to push them for something better.

Mama gave me a peck on the cheek and told me she was proud of me. She also gave me a white envelope that she told me to open later. I was expecting money, such a humble woman would probably be shy about a gift like that. Instead it was a letter.

“I ain’t your mama,” the very first sentence said in her never-finished-sixth-grade scrawl.

The letter said, in short, that she and daddy weren’t my parents, and my sister wasn’t my sister. My sister had done something stupid, and they were determined to make her own up to her mistake. Even if she was too young to be a mother then, they would make sure she knew the weight of what she’d done. The letter closed by pleading with me to make something of myself, because they’d put so much into me.

That letter is still haunting me. I have it in a box somewhere, beneath bank statements and certificates and other papers important but not worth reliving over and over. Yeah, I’m something now, I guess. Maybe I could take care of kids if I had them, but I don’t plan on it. After what I went through, I feel cursed. I know firsthand how someone with the best intentions can still screw something up royally. I wonder about my parents, my grandparents, doing the only thing their limited, overworked minds could think of. I wonder about my mother, whether she ever got to be an adult, or is she still dragging her feet in teenage stubbornness. I wonder what she looks like, who she’s with, if she ever had any other kids and if she did, did she treat them any better than she treated me. I wonder if they would ever have had a chance to be a nice family if I never had been born.

Sometimes I wish there was a knapsack man, something sharp and shadowy that had made off with my family because I was so bad. Because all I’m left with is a whole lot of loose ends and that’s what keeps me up at night.

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Pima

Valerie was in the kitchen when she heard Reggie talking to someone. She chased a charred hotdog around the pan and tried to listen in, but the murmuring was too indistinct. Maybe Reggie was talking to an imaginary friend, it wasn’t unusual for a four-year-old to do that.

Valerie snorted and took a drag from her cigarette. With her luck it was some busybody from another trailer looking for her. The guy who rented the place out tried tricking the other tenants into finding her for him. Fuck him. Rent was only two weeks overdue.

Her son sat alone at the tv tray that served as their only table when she came out with the hotdog and a slice of white bread on a paper plate.

“Who ya talkin’ to, baby?”

Reggie was coloring, keeping one eye on the tv. He stayed perfectly within the lines, something she’d had trouble with even at 10.

“My new friend.”

“Some kid move in?” Someone he could go play with, maybe? She was hoping to have him gone by the time Dave got there. She didn’t want them getting familiar, for multiple reasons.

“No. His name is Pima. He comes from the future.”

Valerie nearly swallowed her cigarette. Fuck, had the kid been listening in on her and Dave? Pima, an acronym for “pain in my ass,” was the name she used to bitch about Reggie.

“That’s real cute,” she snapped, “you eat your lunch smart quick or there’ll be trouble.”

Reggie obediently shoveled the burnt meat and bread into his mouth. She had to go grocery shopping soon. If only a new kid had moved in, maybe Reggie could take meals somewhere else for a while. Or maybe she could just palm him off on a new family. Shit, if it wasn’t for the support check, she’d drop him here.

Valerie scrubbed angrily at her face and went to the kitchen. She ate some oreos and had another cigarette while she stared out the window. Dave had better get there soon, she was fucking gagging and the kid was getting on her last nerve.

She couldn’t understand why it bothered her so much that the kid knew something like that. He was a pain in her ass. Maybe it was the implication that he had been listening in on her and Dave. Maybe the little blabbermouth would repeat something in the wrong place and get the cops on them.

The talking started up again. Red tinged her vision. Valerie put her head down on the table and counted 1-2-3. The talking faded as the screen door screeched open and shut. The red receded as Valerie breathed.

Dave had promised to be by at around 10. It was 11:59 when his Charger tore the gravel up in her driveway. If he hadn’t been holding a bag of oxy, she would have kicked him right the fuck back out. But she purred and pulled him in, spending most of the afternoon chewing on him. They snorted oxycontin in white drifts and laughed at some private joke.

“What does it matter what he knows, he’s, like, three.” Dave reclined on Valerie’s mattress and rubbed his chest.

Valerie could not say that she was afraid of him accidently busting them, because then Dave would bash the little creep’s head in and probably hers too for good measure.

“He’s gettin’ too big for his britches,” she said finally, “I don’t like pushy kids, because then they think they’re the parents.”

Dave rolled his eyes, scratching the tribal antlers tattooed on his neck. “Fuck, I don’t want to talk about your kid anymore. I wanna do something fun.”

And so they did for the rest of the day. Then Dave zipped up his pants and left and Valerie ended up sleeping for fourteen hours. She only woke up because of a burning smell. Groaning, she made herself rise and walk painfully to the kitchen.

Reggie was at the stove. The single working burner was blazing, and the pan she used to boil equipment sometimes was brimming with a bubbling liquid.

Reggie kept up a wall of bright chatter as he poked at the mess with the kitchen’s only cooking utensil, a spatula.

Valerie gave a pained groan that stood in for an inquiry as to what the fuck was going on.

Reggie stopped talking and turned to her. He looked like he was evaluating her in some way, judging her. It made the red seep in again.

“Pima told me how to make soup. I didn’t burn myself, honest.”

Valerie grabbed her face with both hands and sucked in a breath. He may not have intended it, but every word out of the kid’s mouth just made her angrier. “Did you use up all my salt?”

“No, mommy. I used the old dried baloney and the frozen peas and Pima showed me where onions grow. Did you know you can grow food?”

Valerie waved in front of her face, as if the question was an errant fly.

“It’s almost done. I made enough for both of us.”

As she sat at the dinner tray and tried to move as little as possible, Reggie dipped a mug into the concoction and brought it to her. He even blew on it.

Valerie took a sip and almost gagged. The soup wasn’t bad. Her stomach was.

“If you don’t like this, Pima knows how to make pancakes. He’s real smart. He says he’ll teach me how to take care of myself.”

Can he teach you how to shut the fuck up?” she screamed.

Reggie took his soup outside.

God, everything was Pima now. Pima knew where to get the best value out of their foodstamps. Pima knew how to fix the rabbit ears on their loaner TV. Pima knew that Reggie needed shots before he started school next year. Pima said that Dave was more trouble than he was worth, and might bring bad things if he kept coming by.

She was getting sick and fucking tired of Pima.

Valerie was rattling around the stove one day. The last burner had called it quits, so she took a pipe cleaner and some soda water to the line to try and clear it. Her phone buzzed, so she smoothed the hair from her ears and tried to speak like she wasn’t sweaty and frazzled.

“Hello, lover,” she purred.

“Who is this?” asked an unfamiliar male voice.

Valerie shrieked and clapped the phone shut. Thank god it was just a shitty burner model. She immediately opened the back and ripped out its guts.

“Reggie?” she called, fiddling with the stove knobs, “baby, we gotta go.” She turned them too much one way, then the other. “Now.”

“Pima says no.”

Valerie looked around. She was the most lucid she had been in days, and still she couldn’t discern where his voice came from.

“Baby, uncle Dave got into some bad trouble. We need to leave now.”

“Pima says that Dave brought his own trouble.” Reggie’s voice was monotone and hesitated in odd places, as if he was only repeating something he half-understood. “He said that it was only a matter of time before Dave got caught, and hurrying it along wasn’t wrong. He said that Dave would have a trunk full of bad things while he was at home today. He said the police would be happy to know that.”

The red rolled in like a tidal wave, swamping Valerie’s reason.

“You fucking little fucking shit!” she screamed. The club soda hit the floor and bounced, gushing all over her. “I’m gonna fucking kill you!”

She tore through the trailer, trashing any little space she thought he might hide in. She punched the hamper, and wailed on the shower curtain with Dave’s baseball bat. It was only by chance that she looked up and saw a flash of Reggie’s sunshine-yellow shirt out the window. Valerie bodyslammed the trailer door, falling painfully to the gravel as her son ran away. Getting to her knees was agony. She stumbled after him, chasing him, screaming at him that she was going to kill him. Her energy drained quickly and she was reduced to shuffling and calling out half-hearted curses as the bat dropped from her grasp.

The trees around the trailer park were littered with trash from homeless camps, too many places for a little boy to hide. Valerie collapsed on an abandoned mattress surrounded by garbage, breath sobbing out of her. She held her throbbing head in her forearms and rested it on her knees.

After a while she heard the sounds of worn tennis shoes on dead, dry grass.

“Pima says we can go back now.”

Valerie waited until he was too close before lunging at him. He cried out. She dug her nails into the back of his neck as she dragged him, promising all sorts of terrors that awaited him once they got back to the trailer.

What could she do? Mom had promised to call the cops the next time Valerie even set foot on her lawn. Uncle Hank would want a little touchy-touchy before she could stay, and even then there was no guarantee he wouldn’t sic the cops on her once he was done.

Valerie sucked on a lock of hair that had landed in her gasping mouth. God, she just needed a little. Then she could think straight.

They would get in the car, she decided as the trailer drifted back in sight, and just drive. They could work out the how’s and why’s later. She just needed to escape.

Valerie slammed Reggie into the car door. “Now you wait here, godammit. One step and I’ll leave you somewhere and never come back.”

Reggie nodded, dabbing at tears with the hem of his shirt.

“Good.” She nodded and stalked to the trailer. “And just for all that trouble, we’re leaving Jerry giraffe and your penguin here.”

The kid was silent, like the threat didn’t even mean anything.

Valerie opened the door. “I mean it, you little turd. You can’t get any of your animals to bring with us. You’re staying out there.”

“Oh, that’s okay.” Reggie called as she  fumbled for the light switch. “Pima knew you would go first.”

The switch clicked on, and the gas that had been filling the trailer exploded.

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Obligifts

I guess we all had to deal with them one way or another in childhood. Mine were so frequent I came up with a term: obligifts. You don’t want them, don’t need them, but you can’t throw them away because it’d be rude.

I never got that last part. Aunt Myra never really seemed to care what I did with her gifts, never asked after them. She just came back every visit with more crap that looked like she picked it up from the side of the road. She’d smile with nicotine-yellow teeth, arching her penciled eyebrows as she handed me a battered watch that didn’t even work or one half of a BFF necklace.

It was only ever me, too. Not my younger brother. Maybe it was because I was a girl, or maybe it was because I was older. My mom said that Myra and and her husband Eddy had always wanted kids but could never have them. I never got that impression. Myra’s concern began and ended when she handed me the newest present, she never asked about school or what books I was reading. Eddy didn’t come over as often as Myra, and when he did he would ask me to sit on his lap. Always came off as skeevy to me.

Anyway, Myra wasn’t really my aunt. She was like a second cousin twice removed or something weird like that, but mom said I had to call her aunt just like she said I had to accept all her gifts like they were gold. They were crap. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said it looked like they were road litter. They were all used kid’s stuff, just random crap like a yo-yo or a scrunchie she probably picked up for ten cents at a thrift store. Half the time it was boy stuff I wanted to pawn off on my younger brother but my mom wouldn’t let me.

When I was ten she brought me the headband. Purple with tinsel threading through the chunky plastic. It smelled like the kind of perfume they sold with fashion dolls. The plastic was scuffed, and it had just a little bit of hair grease on the underside.

I hung it from the end of my finger and stared at it.

“Say ‘thank you,’” my mom prodded.

I mumbled something that sounded like thanks and took it back to my room. Myra stayed through casserole and cigarettes at the dinner table while my brother and I had to go to bed early. The headband sat necklacing my Garfield lamp until the day I saw the news.

The weather had just ended and they were getting to local events; you know, where they announce rummage sales or animal rescues. That kind of thing. But this one was different. This one had the girl with my headband in her hair.

She was Jobeth Nichols, age 8, and she’d gone missing a week after they’d taken her school photo. That was the one they used in the story. She’d gone missing on a walk home from school. My mom would never let us walk home from school. I took out the headband and hid it in a drawer. I didn’t know what I was afraid of.

The next time Myra came over, she brought Eddy with her. He had too many beers and leered that I was never too big to sit on his lap. I was too distracted by the headband to react. It had to mean something.

My brother finished early and went to the den. Eddy followed soon after and the sound changed from cartoon noises to the roar of a football game. I picked at my potatoes. Myra lit a cigarette.

Mom prompted me to finish my dinner so I could go to bed. That gave me a little push. I set down my fork and said, “I was thinking of going to the police station, to ask them something.”

Myra’s hand tensed. Smoke steamed away from the end of her cigarette, forgotten. She was looking at my mom washing dishes, but she wasn’t really watching her.

“Why, sweetheart?” My mom asked from the sink.

“Did you see that news story that was just on, the missing girl? I think I might know something.”

Myra’s mouth pursed like it had drawstrings. From the den, I heard the sound of a can of beer being set down.

My mom flicked her hands and dried them on the towel pinned at her waist. “Don’t waste the police’s time, sweetie. That’s finished enough. I want your teeth brushed and you in bed.”

I left the kitchen but I didn’t go far. I paused in the little piece of hallway outside the door and listened.

Aunt Myra asked if I could spend the night at her house.

My breathing stopped for a second. My mom said no, it was a school night. Myra pleaded: I was such a good girl, mom knew her and Eddy didn’t have kids of their own, couldn’t she spare me one night? Miraculously, my mom only got more firm the more Myra pushed, finally snapping at Myra that they had survived all these years without a child, one more night wouldn’t kill them. Myra went silent. Out in the den, only the TV sounded.

Dad came back from the bathroom and told me to get to bed. I lay on my side on top of my pony quilt, unable to sleep.

The stairs creaked. One by one, steadily, like someone was sneaking up. My dad called Eddy’s name. The steps paused. Eddy called back that he just wanted to wish me goodnight. Dad said I was a light sleeper, he shouldn’t give me any cause to miss the alarm in the morning. I held my breath until I heard the steps downstairs again.

Myra and Eddy didn’t visit anymore after that. Mom didn’t seem too put out by it, I guess there were some limits to even her patience. I got rid of everything but the headband, still have it today. Sometimes I take it out and stare at it, like I’m doing right now. Guilt is the ultimate family gift. You don’t need it, don’t want it, but it’s yours.

Forever.

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