Jerome was being followed. He ducked out of Mrs. Tan’s fourth-grade class and cut across the baseball diamond to avoid the other children. He took a different route home every day, but still, he knew he was being followed. There were no footsteps to betray his stalker, no shadow suddenly darting away from the corner, but he could feel it. He knew he would see it almost before he spotted the bottle at the crosswalk before his house.
Jerome hunched low, looked either way across the street. No one. No cars, no other pedestrians. The lights were timed, so the red at his stop was just a formality. He turned and glared at the bottle.
It was fancy and aerodynamic, probably a sports drink or one of those new macrobiotic teas. It was plastic; otherwise Jerome would have derived great pleasure from throwing it high up in the air and seeing it shatter. Instead he crept over to where it lay innocently on the cement.
“Go away!” he hissed, and beat a retreat. The bottle did not move.
They never moved, nothing they did betrayed their special properties. Not every object was alive, but the objects that were alive looked like any other object.
Jerome hitched his collar up as he walked home, keeping careful watch. No one lived in the houses near him, but he knew to look out for anyone who might follow him home.
All his precautions were rendered null when uncle Odwin opened the door holding the bottle.
“Curious,” he said, “this one has come home to roost.”
Uncle Od was not mad. He was never mad that Jerome let things follow him home.
“After all,” he would say as he built a wall of old record sleeves, “if they were too smart for me in this house, how would you have hope?”
The plague of lost objects had struck the house long before Jerome was born. Uncle Od had lived most of his life in the house, but the plague had not begun until after Od’s parents died. First gramma from strep and then grampa from cirrhosis of the liver. Od had pictures of the house back when it had just been built. It was grand; parquet floors, embossed wallpaper and walnut trim. Now that Jerome lived in it, everything was the same dun color and anything of value was buried under the tide of objects.
The objects were insidious. They disguised themselves as trash, but Od would never let Jerome call them that.
“They’re too smart to be thrown away,” he’d say, “don’t they deserve their own title?”
They outsmarted Od, drowning the house in a tide of their bodies. Each day he’d try to stack them in some order, and when Jerome got home from school he would help too. But they kept coming, and it was only the two of them in the house.
Jerome had tried throwing them away by the time he was old enough to think of it. Od watched him with misty eyes. He didn’t stop Jerome.
The things were back in the house the next day.
“You see?” Od asked Jerome. “They are too smart to be thrown away.”
Jerome tried getting smart. He took bits and bobs in his backpack, to abandon in the school dumpster. But then the school put a padlock on it, and new objects replaced the old.
Od would just sigh, shrug, and go back about his work. Gramma and grampa had left enough money to live well on. Even so, Od and Jerome ate the same humble meals, slept on the same dingy sheets every day. Jerome did the shopping, since Od had to make sure the objects stayed in their right place. He tried to buy the same things every time, because whenever he bought something different, the boxes and bags that the food came in would wind up part of the plague.
Od cooked in the same saucepan every night, and they both ate with the same spoons to save on dishes. The third-floor parlor was packed with fancy china, but they never ate off it. Jerome never wanted to use a lost object. At sunset every night, Jerome would take the toilet bucket out to empty in the far corner of the yard, while Od cleaned out the old bedroom that served as the privy. Jerome had never seen the house’s proper bathroom, objects had eaten it all.
Od would tuck Jerome in bed every night and read him a story. They were all very old stories, Ivanhoe and The Three Musketeers and all in a language Jerome could barely understand. But Od had read them when he was a boy, and Jerome liked hearing them.
The day they called him into the nurse’s office, Jerome knew that something horrible was coming. Change. The lost objects had found a new way to plague him: biting him in his sleep, leaving little red welts. He made sure to wear shirts and jeans that covered them up, but in PE he hadn’t been able to wear jeans, and coach Sam had seen. He’d made Jerome stick out his arm and sucked air over his teeth when he got a close-up look at the bumps. Even when Jerome told him they barely hurt anymore, Sam made him go to the office.
Jerome shut up like a mussel, ready to lie through his teeth to get them to leave him alone. But, unlike any other time Jerome had been in trouble, no one talked directly to him. The nurse whispered to the principle, the principle whispered to the phone. Jerome was given a headlice examination and asked if there were rats in his home. He bit his tongue to avoid saying, “no, I’ve got a plague of lost objects.”
No one told him to go home, but while the principle was out in the hall, Jerome slipped away. He left his jacket and bag and ran.
He could see litter everywhere, sneering from cracks in the sidewalk, overflowing from cans to him. He waved at them, ‘go away, go away,’ and breathlessly ran on.
Uncle Od was outside. That was new. There was another man with him.
The new man was dressed nice, in a suit and tie. He had uncle Od’s pudding nose and his dark eyebrows, but his cheeks were thin and cratered. He didn’t look as nice as uncle Od, though that may have been because he was very agitated.
“—can’t live like this,” he was saying, “you can’t keep a little boy in this! I don’t care—”
Uncle Od smiled patiently. “The boy was given to me. I’m the one that mommy and daddy gave the money to. You may not agree with that—”
“This has nothing to do with the money! I don’t care whether they loved you more or not, this isn’t—” the man spotted Jerome and swallowed.
“Hi Jerry,” he said. He did something surprising and knelt. “Hi there.” His voice was trembling. “you probably don’t remember me—”
“Jerome,” uncle Od said nice and crisp, “will you grace us with your presence? Your uncle Frank would like to measure you and find you wanting.”
Jerome edged past the other man and came to stand beside uncle Od. The man called Frank seemed slightly hurt.
“He looks just like her,” he whispered, “like Callie.” Now he spoke up to Od, and he sounded angry. “You should never have been considered for guardianship. You’re barely fit to care for yourself.”
“Says the man who only completed a secondary education,” Od said, squeezing Jerome’s shoulder with a pudgy hand. “if we need your assistance, we will call. Until then…” he waved loftily at the street.
Frank stood. “Od…you don’t get it. The authorities have been called.”
The color drained from Od’s face. “You told on me?”
Frank held his hands open. “The school called them, there was nothing I could do. Od, if you had come to me earlier…”
Od’s face was filling with red, it dripped down from his forehead to his cinnamon-roll cheeks and his protruding chin. He clenched his fists and made frothing noises.
“I’m sorry it had to be this way,” Frank said. He really did sound sorry. “Don’t you want help? You can’t be happy living this way.”
Od managed to get a word out. “Filthy,” he spat, and he made it sound like the other f-word Jerome was never allowed to say. “Filthy, filthy little beast.”
The words sounded ridiculous, almost silly. But Frank went white now, Frank’s face shifted between disgust and sorrow and he backed away.
Jerome tried to shake Od, tell him to stop it and run away. But Od would not look at him.
They came and picked apart the house. They made it look so easy, agents carrying away the doorposts of soup cans that had been there as long as Jerome could remember, tracking mud over the neat piles. Odwin withdrew into himself. He sat with his feet dangling from the hood of Frank’s car. Jerome watched, fascinated, ashamed with himself for feeling anything other than grief. They did not understand the plague, they thought Jerome wanted to live in a house like that!
A bored young man with a clipboard approached where they stood in a clump; Jerome, Od, and Frank.
“Sir, are you the boy’s guardian?”
Od clamped his mouth shut, calculating.
Frank sighed. “Yes he is.”
The young man checked a box and nodded. “Sir, are you aware that your living conditions are unsanitary?”
Od’s eyes went sly. He didn’t answer.
“This is your place of residence, yes?”
Jerome silently urged uncle Od on. Go ahead, tell them about the plague.
Od said, “It was the boy.”
Frank stared at Od. Jerome stared at Od.
Od nodded vigorously. He pointed a finger straight at Jerome’s heart. “He brings everything home with him. I try to keep it clean, but he just won’t stop.”
Frank looked sick. He circled Jerome’s shoulder with his arm.
The young man betrayed no emotion. “Sir, you’re saying your ward filled the house with trash?”
Od nodded emphatically.
“Yet you made no attempt to hire help to take it away?”
“I have no money—”
“Liar!” Frank shouted. He drew up to full height. “Liar! Liar!”
“Filthy!” Od screamed up into Frank’s face. Jerome saw the young man motion a few officers closer.
“And you have been living here without working facilities?”
Od went sly again. “We have a well.”
“Sir, you have no electricity, no waste removal, and your house is incredibly unsanitary.”
Od was red again. “It’s my house,” he insisted, “you can’t take my house.”
Frank shook his head. “Can I take the boy with me?” he asked, “he’s my nephew too.”
The young man nodded.
Frank picked Jerome up and walked to his car. Behind them, the officers were taping up the doorway with yellow tape that said “condemned.” Od was still arguing with the officer, and didn’t even look after them. Jerome looked down at the objects. Their flickering shadows in the light of the police cars seemed to be laughing.
Frank’s house was small.
“You have to share a room with Toby,” he said, “I hope that’s not too much. He’s five.”
Toby was asleep when Jerome arrived. His sister Tracy was slumbering in her cot in the next room. Tracy was three, and she stayed home with Jerome the next day while Toby went to kindergarten. Jerome would be going to a new school, with new clothes and new shoes. Frank had bought him new clothes and put the old ones in the incinerator.
Jerome had a little bed and a shelf next to it. He and Toby shared a night table between their beds. There was a box for toys and a table for crafts, and the house was tidy.
Frank watched him those first few weeks. Jerome wanted to tell him not to worry.
He taught Tracy and Toby all about the objects. He taught them that they were alive, and they all had a proper place where they lived. Tracy’s shoes lived under her cot, and Toby’s books lived on Toby’s shelf. Sometimes when the house was asleep, Jerome would rise from bed and tiptoe around. He would peek in on the objects and see them resting on their sides, not disobediently moving, but finally tame.