This story is part of a series. For your convenience, here is the list of stories in this series.

One White Whisker - The Snoopy Dog

NovemberI hurt deep in my chest as a reminder when I tried to sleep which I couldn't do more than an hour or so at a time. It was warm, like fifty-five degrees, raining, and Mom would come to the door but I kept it locked and when she knocked I wouldn't answer. Eventually, she would leave, and I would be alone with my thoughts; a crazy jumble of scenes that were true but distorted into things that weren't true and in my head I could hear the voices so clear it was like I was hearing them for the first time. Over and over they played, with my teeth gritted past pain and my eyes hours out of tears, but my breathing still hitched in my lungs and I gripped the covers until I forgot what they felt like.

Yesterday, two weeks before Thanksgiving, we got the call from my uncle Grandma died in her sleep. He left the message on the answering machine.

"Kathryn, Mom died. I went to see her this morning and I picked up the paper like I always do. You know how Mom likes to read the paper with her oatmeal. I made it like normal with milk instead of water and a spoonful of honey and brought it up to her and I called her name while I was coming up so she knew it was me and I walked in and she was asleep so I put the oatmeal on her dresser on top of the paper and put my hand on her shoulder and-- she was cold. Call me."

I didn't bother to check the message when we got home. I was halfway up the stairs when I heard the beep and two from the top when Mom screamed. She must have dropped the phone because there was a loud thump and when I ran down to see what happened she was sitting on the floor with her back against the refrigerator crying.

"What the hell was that?"

"Your-- oh God."




"Grandma-- she-- she's-- passed away."


"She died. This-- this morning. Uncle Elroy found her."

"But she was fine. We saw her yesterday. She was FINE."

"I know."

"She was fine, Mom."

"I know."


"He-- didn't say."

But I knew it didn't matter what Uncle Elroy had to say. I knew what happened; what killed her. And I knew it was no one's fault but mine.

This is the part I don't like to talk about. Just sitting here, alone, when it's dark outside. Really, it doesn't really matter if it's dark or not because that's only part of the problem. I said it was my fault my grandma died and I truly believe that. I was a junior in high school when it happened, but the thing happened when I was a lot younger. I think maybe it attached itself to me or something. Followed me maybe. Whatever it was, it wanted me dead, of that much I'm sure.

Except it couldn't hurt me directly. I mean, it couldn't just make my heart stop or make me walk in front of a bus. It didn't work like that. It did everything it could to make me hurt myself, though. And it could do pretty much whatever it wanted with anyone else. People get hurt all the time, sure. People have accidents, get bruises, break arms, whatever. And they go to the doctor or the hospital and they get better.

Unless they've met me.

And hey, I'm not going to try to tell you to believe anything but what you want to believe. If anyone else told me this I'd be the first one to call bullshit. I go to church, but I don't really believe in God. I guess I don't care and that makes me agnostic or whatever. But believe what you want. I'm going to tell you what happened the way I remember it and you can decide for yourself if it's true.

It's true for the people who aren't here anymore.


I found out later that day Grandma died in her sleep. It was pretty much how my uncle said except for the part he left out. She was like eighty-five years old, but she was in good health. She exercised regularly, walking around the neighborhood and at the mall with her friends, watched what she ate. I mean, she was eighty-five. Most people don't live that long. But I'm serious when I say she was healthy. She even had all of her teeth she took such good care of them. Brushed like two or three times a day and flossed and all that. Saw the dentist regularly.

So what happened to her just doesn't make any fucking sense. I feel crazy even saying it. They were gone. Her teeth. Every damn one of them. Gone. No blood, no broken pieces. Nothing in the bed or in the room or in the house. She didn't swallow or choke on them. I mean, how could she? They were healthy. She still had all her teeth when I saw her the day before. Every time she smiled.
That's not even the worst part. Her gums were black. Completely black. And the nerves were, well, hard, like thorns, so they stuck out like little needles. I saw pictures from the coroner. Said he'd never seen anything like it in twenty-five years on the job. Said he couldn't be sure, but it was like they crystallized, like those spikes you find in caves where water drips limestone deposits and they form over hundreds of years.

I really don't know what any of this means except to say I didn't believe a word of it. I saw the pictures, sure, but that didn't make them any more real for me. Mom took them and hid them somewhere. I've looked all over the house-- I know where she hides stuff like Christmas presents-- even outside and the garage and the shed and there's nothing. Maybe she destroyed them.

I would have.

Why would anyone give those to a grieving family?

I should have figured it out. It wasn't the coroner's or the doctor's or my uncle's fault. It did this because it wanted to do it to me. Since I was six years old it followed me both times we moved, once a whole state away. I tried throwing it away, I buried it in the back yard once, smashed it with one of my dad's hammers. It was on his dresser the day he died and it was the only thing I had left to remember him by.

I kept it next to my bed until the day I figured it out was responsible for the deaths of everyone I loved.

More later...
The Snoopy DogDad was a cologne and aftershave man. He used a dented metal cup with a soap cake and horsehair brush to create a lather when he'd shave. The razor was old, was his father's, and when I was little I used to watch him in the bathroom with a towel wrapped around his waist, leaning over the sink, and the great big white glops of whipped cream with little black flecks of hair and sometimes blood plopped into the basin. I often wished he wouldn't turn the water on because I liked the way it swirled down the drain on its own. The little drops of blood where he cut himself were especially neat with the way they turned pink at the edges when they mixed with the suds. It reminded me of a strawberry sundae with chocolate sprinkles.

If the cut was bad, he used a styptic pencil, but normally he just used little bits of toilet paper. Then he'd put on aftershave and the whole room would smell like him. He kept the bottle in a little cabinet above the toilet; one I was expressly forbidden to get into. There was an eye hook lock near the top I couldn't reach even when I stood on the toilet seat. Mom caught me up there once and spanked me so hard I couldn't sit for two days.

I loved my dad like any kid does. On Valentine's Day Mom and I went to Woolworth's and I held her hand while we looked at the big bins of candies and roasted nuts and I got one of those silver balloons with an orange cartoon cat. Then we went to the section for dads and Mom wanted to get him a fancy electric razor since the one he used was old, but I saw a bottle of the cologne he liked and said we should get that instead.

"You think he would like it?"

"I think so."

"Do you want to give it to him for Valentine's Day?"

"Uh huh."

I was five years old.

That wasn’t the snoopy dog cologne. I don’t really remember what it was anymore, honestly. From that point on I got my dad cologne for every Valentine’s Day until he passed away. Now that I think about it, I don’t really remember how he ended up with the snoopy dog. I only remember seeing it on his dresser one morning and it always had the cologne I bought him and he wore every weekend. At first, I wanted the snoopy dog. I love the Peanuts specials on tv and the strips in the funnies section of the Sunday newspaper and Snoopy was my favorite after Schroeder. But whenever I was in Dad’s room and no one was there I never really felt alone.

In fact, it felt like I was being... studied. Not just watched, but more like the way a scientist looks at its subject. I didn’t want to go into the bedroom unless Mom or Dad was in there because at first I thought it was something about the room that made me uncomfortable. It was terrible when I would have nightmares and I wanted to sleep in bed with them where it was safe.

The last time I did I had a bad dream about an army of badgers that broke into the house and were creeping through the halls looking for little boys to eat. I ran into the bedroom and woke my dad and told him badgers were going to get me. He opened one eye, frowned, and told me to crawl into bed next to Mom and he would go take a look. I wanted to tell him he should bring something for protection, but he was already out in the hallway in his underwear and I cowered beneath the sheets with only my face uncovered so I could see if any tried to get into the bedroom. Not that it would have done any good.

A couple minutes later he came back saying he couldn't find anything and got back in bed. I huddled in between him and Mom and tried to get back to sleep but something made me feel funny in my stomach. I peered over the covers and looked around the room and saw the snoopy dog sitting on the dresser. It was glowing softly, like my bedroom when moonlight came through the window, but it didn't illuminate anything around it. As I watched it, I could see it smiling at me. I mean, it was always smiling, but somehow I knew this time it wasn't just smiling, but doing it at me. My stomach started to hurt and then I could see teeth and they were sharp, like an alligator, and the smile stretched up the sides of the snoopy dog's head almost to its ears. I was so scared I buried my head under the covers and pillows and eventually fell asleep even though my stomach still felt bad.

From that point forward, I avoided the snoopy dog at all cost.

"Daddy. Can you shut the bedroom door?"

"Sure, kiddo."

"And can you keep it that way all the time?"

"Ok. Why?"

"Umm, please?"

"I need to know why, son."

"It, umm. The room, I mean. It uhh-- scares me."

"I'll keep it shut then."

Dad usually kept the door open, even at night when he and Mom were asleep, but he started keeping it closed or mostly closed when he napped. For the most part, I couldn't see the snoopy dog from the hallway because my room was kitty corner from my parents' and the only other room was my sister's, who was away at college, and I had no reason to go down there. Once in a while, though, I'd notice the door was cracked open during the day and when I'd look inside I'd see the snoopy dog on the dresser, looking right at me. I only ever saw it glow or the alligator teeth the one time, but the smile never went back to its normal size.

As time went on, I stopped thinking about the snoopy dog, even when Dad wore his cologne, and things pretty much got back to normal.

That is, until the day it got out of the bedroom.

I was six and in kindergarten. Yeah, I was held back a year. Not because I was stupid, I just had trouble getting along with other kids. That was the polite conversation version. The real story is I was beating someone up or getting beat up on an almost daily basis. I went to a private school because my parents thought it would afford me the attention I likely wouldn’t get in public school. And while that wasn’t necessarily untrue, a handful of kids with those problems is manageable, but a school full of them? The building sat like a spider in a wooded area owned by an old money family, and recess, weather permitting, often consisted of breaking off into two teams, heading into the woods, and spending the next thirty minutes throwing rocks and sticks at each other. If someone got hit, we’d immediately stop and make sure it wasn’t a serious or obvious injury. Then it was back to business until we heard the whistle.

That day I was the recipient of a rather impressive bruise from a broken tree branch with a knotted, spiked end. It hurt like hell and turned yellowish-purple almost immediately. Everyone gathered around to inspect it and one of the older kids had the wherewithal to spread fresh mud over it in some white suburban eleven-year-old equivalent of primitive medicine. It was far enough up my arm my sleeve hid it sufficiently and I did everything I could to keep my mom from seeing it. She was already overprotective, overbearing, and enough other “overs” I knew it was in my best interest to keep it from her.

When I got home I went straight to my room and closed the door. This really wasn’t anything out of the ordinary; I spent a lot of time in there with my toys and games after school and would play with them until it was time for supper. I had other things in mind that day, however. I decided to put on a long-sleeved shirt instead of the tee I was wearing. Mom would notice I changed, but I could just tell her I was cold. She’d feel my forehead to make sure I wasn’t running a fever and once she figured out I wasn’t, I’d be home free.

My plan was perfect except for one thing: I really was running a temperature.

“You feel warm.”

“I’m just a little chilly, Mom.”

“Let me feel your forehead again.”


“Hold still. Yeah, you’re warm. I’m getting the thermometer.”



“It’s going in my mouth, right?”

Mom burst out laughing, but I didn’t see the humor in it. I was too worried about her seeing my bruise. While she was in the bathroom getting the thermometer, I sneaked into my room and went straight to my dresser for a long-sleeved shirt. I opened it, searching under neat stacks of tees, when I found something that wasn't supposed to be there.

Rolled up inside my Spider Man underoos was the snoopy dog.

I think I must have cried out because Mom came rushing into the room, worriedly asking if I was all right, if I needed to lie down. At that point, all I remember was staring into the open dresser drawer, trying to convince myself what I saw was a hallucination brought on by the fever.

"What's this doing in here?"

"What's what doing?"

"Your father's cologne. Why is it in your drawer?

"I don't know."

"Did you put it there?"


"Are you lying to me?"

"I'm not lying."

"Then how'd it get in there, hmm?"

"Errm. By itself."

I got spanked for that one. And not knowing what I did about the snoopy dog, I really couldn't blame her for it. I was taught to tell the truth, reinforced by an open hand or wooden spoon when I didn't. This was back when it was not only okay to hit your kids when they were bad, but expected.

She made a show of taking it from my drawer and putting it back on top of Dad's dresser and not only made sure I watched, but that Dad was aware I was messing around with his things. He didn't seem too upset by it, more like he was pretending to be to placate Mom. He pretty much never meted out the punishment when I got in trouble, only bore witness to Mom's dirty work.

I wish I could say this was the only time it got out of the bedroom, seemingly without help, and the only time I got blamed for doing it. Later I came to realize that's exactly what it wanted. It seemed to wait just long enough that Mom and Dad would forget about the previous incident. In a way, it was like every time was the first and my punishments reflected that.

If the worst that ever happened is I got spanked or grounded, I wouldn't have such awful memories of the snoopy dog. It seemed to delight in torturing me, and made every attempt to isolate me from those I loved. Until the day it figured out it could use me in ways I hadn't even dreamed.

I found it at the bottom of the dirty clothes basket the day my best friend's mom died.

Broken RecordAs I said before, I had problems with kids my age when I was young. I pretty much didn't know how to make friends and couldn't keep the ones I did. I was willful, tactless and too smart for my own good. This led to getting into fights virtually every day-- it was rare I didn't at least argue with someone waiting for class to start-- and not only did it sully my reputation with the other kids, but most of the faculty. A couple of teachers and even the assistant principal took a shine to me and did what they could to transition my attitudes to those more socially acceptable, but progress was slow and I was less interested in making personal changes than simply being left alone. At times I wondered if it wasn't at least partly to blame, but the fact of the matter was I was an asshole before my encounters with the snoopy dog.

Damon was my age and of similar disposition, but where I was primarily reactionary, he was a congenital instigator. He even had that look about him: like he wanted to make trouble. This was well before I understood family dynamics or abusive households, but when you're six, your worries tend to be a bit less complex. In those days, there wasn't yet a word invented to describe our relationship, but frenemy comes to mind. Damon desperately wanted to be liked, but seemed to derive even greater pleasure from causing grief and ratting out friends.

Worse, he brought out something in me I’d prefer never saw the light of day. When we were together, I found myself wanting to be bad, whereas the rest of the time I felt I at least made an effort to follow the rules. Later I would come to realize Damon was just the first in a long series of poisonous relationships I’d take part in, but at the time, it felt safer for me to be on his good side, treacherous as that was, than what I could only imagine was a waking nightmare on the bad.
One morning, after what had become typical classroom horseplay, Damon and I were instructed to stay inside and sit during recess as punishment for our antics. We were seated such that we could see everyone else outside through the window and that made Damon mad. There was a collection of ten-inch storybook records nearby and Damon, cursing under his breath, grabbed one from the shelf, pulled the record from its sleeve, and snapped it in half.

“Make me sit inside, fuckin bitch. Here.”

He handed me the one with Wonder Woman on the cover and took another from the shelf, snapped it, and put the pieces back in the sleeve. I removed the record, but hesitated. I stared at it while Damon broke two more.

“Whatsa matter? Chickenshit?”

“I don’t know.”

“Nothin to know. Just do it.”

“Don’t want to.”

“I already broke, what, four of these fuckin things? You’re not leaving until you do at least one.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“You know why.”

“I don’t.”

“Ask the snoopy.”


“Shut up or I’ll tell Mrs Switt you broke all these too.”

I stalled until recess ended and we were instructed to return to class. I never did break one of the records, but after a teacher discovered Damon’s handiwork, I was deemed complicit and I shared the blame through proximity, association and Damon's uncoaxed confession. After that day, I tried to distance myself from Damon and he, for whatever reason, seemed fine with it. I eventually forgot about the thing with the storybook records, but I never forgot what he said to me about the snoopy dog. Up to that point, I told no one of the snoopy dog or any of the other, more terrifying things that happened. I guess I should have found someone to tell, but my reputation being what it was, and other factors, I felt there was no one who would believe me nor could do anything even if they did.

Over the next couple of months, I saw less and less of Damon, which was just as well. Another boy my age, Chaz, was a big soccer player and someone I only kind of knew; we played every recess we had to spend in the gymnasium, and it was quickly becoming my favorite sport. He wasn’t the best at it, but he had a strong kick and a fearlessness I admired. By comparison, I was the worse player; I wasn’t very big for my age, nor fast, so I spent a lot of time protecting the goal. Through that common interest, we became friends. He played a lot of games and liked the same cartoons, toys and shows I did and was the one who got me into Dungeons and Dragons. I was already into mythology and liked reading about monsters, so he let me borrow some of his handbooks. Soon we were hanging out virtually every day and he became my first best friend.

Chaz was, unsurprisingly, a bit of a nerd. He, like myself, wasn’t one of the cool kids, but he didn’t really seem to give a shit, and when you’re six, at least for me, the only thing more important than being cool was giving a shit about being cool. I was both bewildered and fascinated by his seeming inability to give two fucks about what people thought about him or his interests, and in being his friend, it gave me confidence. In a very short time, we were practically inseparable. We even started hanging out outside of school, spending time at each other’s houses and making plans for movie engagements and sleepovers. This was all new to me, and I tried to make it seem like it was routine, but inside I was tying myself in knots with apprehension.

I’d gone maybe three weeks without even thinking about the snoopy dog or any of the related strangeness at home when we decided to have a sleepover there. Well, he suggested we sleep over at my house, and wanting to go with the flow, I agreed. It wasn’t until I was home from school that day I realized I made a grave error in judgment. I called him to change plans.


"Hey, Whisker."

"Do you, umm-- do you care if we sleep over at your house this time?"

"Sure. How come?"

"Well, it's-- you remember how I told you my dad was sick?"

"Not really, but ok."

"Yeah, he's been off work and now my mom's sick and you know."


"So can we stay at your house this time?"

"Lemme check. I'll let you know at school."


I really thought I'd dodged a bullet there, and while I wasn't happy I lied to a friend, I was all proud of myself for thinking I'd outsmarted it. Dad was changing his shirt in the bedroom and I stood in the doorway, talking to him, telling him about my day and the plans Chaz and I made. I could tell he wasn't interested, but I didn't care. I made a point to keep my eyes away from the dresser, but they kept darting to it, silently daring it to ruin my good mood. Dad walked past me out the door and down the hall. I stole another glance and saw the snoopy dog move. It pointed toward the back wall one moment and the next it was looking right at me. I ran after Dad and gave him a hug, trying to feel safe again. I kept watching the hallway, expecting it to bounce out the door, to see it glow malevolently, to smile that awful alligator smile. I watched all the way into the kitchen, following Dad as he sat down at the dining table and Mom put the last dish on the table for supper. Even though it was spaghetti, my favorite, and dad made the sauce special, I barely ate any of it.

I awoke with a gasp that night, sweating, heart bouncing like a medicine ball. Nightmares seemed par for the course, whether it was my mom's basement art studio full of stormtroopers or a maniacal doberman crashing through the kitchen window and tickling me until my stomach exploded, I usually chalked it up to drinking pop before bed and just assumed my desire for sugar had its consequences. That night it was different. The images were especially vivid and didn't smack of the absurd situations and sequences which comprised most, if not all, of my dreams.

It was dusk. I saw a late model full size Chevy van, with radial tires and moon windows, traveling down the highway. There was a family inside; dad, mom, a couple of kids. I couldn't make out specific features; it was like they kept changing so I could never pin them down. Whoever they were, they seemed happy. They were talking, laughing, not sullen or argumentative like so many of my own family car rides. I felt a pang of envy, wishing this was my family and I was one of those kids.

And then I was inside the van, sitting in a plush captain's chair with padded arm rests. They rotated so I could see everything inside. The rest of the family was there, all around me, but they felt miles away. The dad looked like he had facial hair and glasses. The mom was pretty, with Sheena Easton style permed and teased hair I could see over the top of her seat. They all talked and laughed and smiled, but I couldn't understand the words. Whatever they were saying, it was full of love.

The van changed lanes smoothly. I swiveled the chair to look out the back window and then we were air borne. Time slowed down. I tried to swivel back to face the front, but it was like I was at the bottom of a swimming pool.


They were all screaming.

My ears hurt, like they were pressurized and needed to pop. Glass shattered all around me as the first impact spun the world upside down. I held the arms of my chair, waiting for the roller coaster sensation to end. Everyone had their seatbelts on, but they still flopped and bounced around the cabin like dolls. The shriek of tearing metal joined the screams of the family and my vision swam. Something wet covered my face and when my eyes opened everything was red. I opened my mouth and my teeth shattered, spraying hard bits and blood all over my shirt. I could feel the raw nerves poking through the ruined gums, hardening, jabbing my tongue, the inside of my mouth.

I screamed with them.

I crawled out of bed, still gasping, and went into the bathroom for a drink of water. My mouth tasted funny and I took several gulps before it subsided. The night light next to the sink cast weird shadows as I leaned forward and studied my reflection. What I saw sluiced ice water down my spine.

The tip of my tongue poked through the gap where one of my front teeth used to be.

That morning Mom teased me at breakfast, grinning while I swirled honey into my bowl of cream of wheat.

"The teachers will think we beat you."


"Can't wait for that phone call."


"Maybe the police will show up. Take me away. Wouldn't that be a hoot?"

"Jesus, just-- I'M TRYING TO EAT."

"Did you find it?"

"Find what."

"The tooth."

"I dunno."

"Did you LOOK?"


"Maybe it fell between the mattress and the wall."


"I'll find it when I clean your room. Can't let a tooth just lay on the floor; it'll attract ants."


"Hurry up and eat. I don't want to run late."

I put on my school clothes and got my backpack in order. I thought I heard Dad in the bedroom and wondered what he was still doing home; he worked first shift and usually left well before I did. I saw the door was mostly closed and stopped outside, putting my hand on the edge near the doorknob. I could hear something strange; a wet, smacking noise coming from inside. I nudged the door open and saw Dad, shirtless, crouched on the floor in front of the dresser. The end of the bed blocked my view, but I could tell it was him by his hair. The wet sound was louder.

"I thought you went to work already."

I could only see his head from the top of his ear up, his face blocked by the bed covers pushed to the end, as it shook rapidly back and forth, like a wet dog drying itself. I heard something crunch.


He turned his head toward me, and I noticed the front of his hair was wet, slicked down against his forehead. I heard a grunt, like an animal, and he backed up a step. The bottom drawer of the dresser was open and I could see something red and black and glistening spilling out over the edge.

Dad stood, turning toward me. He was completely naked, his lower face, chest, stomach and groin smeared with blood and bits of dark gray and black-- stuff. He smiled at me, showing an empty mouth with withered, black gums and thin, coiled needles where his teeth used to be. His eyes were dead looking, glassy, like marbles; his voice phlegmy, congested.

"You need to eat more meat, son."

My eyes snapped to the top of the dresser and I saw the snoopy dog shuddering in place. It was smeared with blood.

Like Dad had been holding it.

I screamed and ran into my room, slamming the door and jumping into bed. I pulled the covers over my head and lay there, shivering.


Mom was yelling from the kitchen.

"WHISKER. Are you ready?"

I didn't budge.

I could hear her come out of the kitchen, through the den and into the hallway outside my room.

"Get your butt out here. It's time to go."

She opened the door and came in, pulling the covers away.

"What the hell are you doing? Are you feeling ok?"


"What is it? Your stomach? Let me feel your forehead."

"I'm not sick."

"What then? Quit messing around."

"In the bedroom."

"What's in the bedroom."


"What? He left for work an hour ago. Don't lie to me."

"I-- thought I saw him."

"I don't see how. Now come on."

I moved slowly, and, fed up with me, Mom grabbed my arm and pulled me out of bed.

"Let me fix your hair."

I kept looking over her shoulder, expecting to see Not Dad shamble through the doorway.

"I almost forgot to tell you there's a message from one of your friends. I wrote it down."

She straightened my shirt, running her fingers through my tangled hair and made sure my pants were all the way up and buttoned. Then she handed me a piece of paper.

'This is Chaz. My mom said it was cool if you--'

That was it.

"Where's the rest?"

"That's all he said."


"Which friend is this?"


"Oh, right. Well, I hope he's not some sociopath like that-- Darren kid."



"Are you sure this is all he said?"

"That's it."

I folded up the piece of paper and put it in my back pocket. The image of my dad's naked form smeared with gore made it hard to think about anything else.

"You two doing something?"


"Well let me talk to his mother before you start making plans."

She put her hand on my shoulder.


"And Whisker?"


Mom's hand tightened, to the point where it started to hurt.

"Stay out of our bedroom."
The Fucking SoundTimes being what they were, I had a healthy fear of my mom and, when I misbehaved, the looming apportion of swift retribution. Don't get me wrong-- I was a terror. In many cases, I deserved punishment. I lacked discipline and culpability, and when I stole pocketfulls of gum and candy from the butcher on the edge of town or ran away and hid in the racks at the clothing store, my mom was right to be pissed, to exact penalty.

What do you do with an impertinent child?

Spank them. Smack them. Beat the holy hell out of them. It's not something you mull or even think about, really, you just do it.

Muscle memory.


Speak out of turn? Smack.

Push the neighbor kid down? Whip them until those cheeks are bright red.

Is it excessive? Unreasonable? Where do you draw the line that, once crossed, leads to physical penance?

Mom's line moved all the time, and almost always closer to me. Like I said, it's not like I didn't do anything to deserve SOME kind of punishment. But between the belt, the wooden spoon, and the yard stick-- initially after the open hand hurt too much, they became preferred method-- it was less about message received and more how far under the bed I had to crawl to overextend her reach.

I made the best of the situation. I understood there were consequences to my poor choices and loved my mom regardless. I knew deep down she wouldn't hit me so hard if she didn't feel the same way. And while Dad never raised a hand to me, I knew in standing by as Mom did, he loved me too. His voice was softer, but if I listened close, I could hear it clear as a pitch pipe.

All that aside, I wasn't stupid. I spent a lot of time out of the house, to which Mom seemed relieved, and rarely reluctant to allow me to do so.

"Just don't go so far you won't hear me yell."

And most of the time I didn't. There were plenty of cool and interesting places in my neighborhood to while away an afternoon. It seemed the longer I spent away from home, the less Mom was quick to anger. Unless I stayed out too long, which never ended well. The longer she had to yell my name from the front porch, the more hot water I'd have to swallow.

Winter was the worst. There wasn't much to do outside and when there was snow, I wasn't allowed to leave the yard. Almost no kids my age lived on my street, and since I went to school in the city, I didn't really know any of the ones who did. I tried to spend as much time with Chaz as possible, but when you only have one friend, heedless to circumstance, even he gets sick of seeing you day in and day out. So I spent a lot of time at home, to my chagrin. Mom was getting sick of me too.

"Go play in your room."

"I did that earlier."

"Play in the basement."

"I don't like the basement."

"What's the temperature?"

"Uhh-- says it's twenty-six degrees."

"Bundle up and play outside."

"There's nothing to do out there. Snow's all melted."

"Then sit there and shut up."

"I don't--

"DO IT."

I sulked. Mom watched her stories and I concentrated on keeping quiet, but thinking that hard about only one thing-- one thing I didn't really want to do-- made me move around a lot. I changed position, crossed one leg over my knee, then the other leg, then both. I propped my elbow and leaned my face against my hand and let out a loud sigh. Mom's stories were boring and farty. It was always pretty women arguing with old, mustachioed men over love and money and babies. There were no spaceships, lasers or weird looking aliens. I wished it was late so I could watch Buck Rogers, or even Magnum P.I. Sure, he was an old, mustachioed man, but at least he had a cool looking car and broke the speed limit. I poked my tongue through the hole where my front tooth used to be and imagined it was a moray eel hunting up some Cheetos or whatever it is moray eels eat.

"Mom, do moray eels eat Chee--"


I slid off the couch and traipsed back to my room. When I got to the bathroom doorway, I heard something coming from the end of the hall. I craned my neck, trying to see. Both bedroom doors, to my sister's and parents' rooms, were shut.


My stomach lurched, and I could taste acid, leaving a scratchy sensation in my throat. I stepped into the bathroom and turned on the faucet. Over the rushing water, I heard it again.


I leaned forward and threw up all the contents of my stomach into the basin. I gasped, heaving, and gripped the edges of the sink. That time was nothing but acid.

sklop sklop

I felt dizzy, my throat raw, as I slid to the floor, trying to calm my churning stomach. The faucet was running and I was faintly aware of tiny, cool drops of water hitting my arms and face.


Then I blacked out.

Mom and Dad hovered over me with patent concern when my eyes opened. I had no idea how long I was out, but my mouth was dry and my stomach muscles felt like Sugar Ray Leonard used them for a heavy bag. I tried to sit up, but it hurt too much and I laid back with a groan. Mom frowned and Dad’s eyebrow furrowed.

“Just sit tight. We’ll get you something to drink.”

I gulped down the glass of Pepsi like it was my job, swallowing so fast some of it went into the wrong tube and I choked.

“Slow down there, son.”

I gasped in between swallows. The carbonation burned going down, but the syrupy sweetness was its own heaven. Feeling better, I managed to sit back on my elbows and my tongue went to work, swirling around the hole in my front teeth as I tried to remember what happened.

“Was it long?”

“About an hour, kiddo. How are you feeling?”

“Did the pop help?”

“Yeah. Better.”

“What happened?”

“I was-- going to my room. Then I heard something.”

Mom put her hand on mine.

“What did you hear, honey?”

“I dunno. It was weird.”


“It was like-- the sound my shoes make when--”


“--like when I, umm,”

“Like what, honey?”

“It’s-- crazy.”

Mom rubbed my hand, trying to be soothing, but it hurt. I rolled onto my side, away from her, and sat up. Dad stepped forward, putting a hand on my head.

“You can tell us, son.”

“It was--”


“-- like when my shoes get stuck.”


“In the mud.”


“That-- sucking sound.”

sklop sklop

Mom looked at Dad, frowned slightly, and Dad met her stare without turning his head. There was a silent communication going on between them only moms and dads could hear; the parental hive mind.

“Let’s get some supper in you.”

I ate chicken nuggets and fries until I thought I might pop. The way Mom and Dad fawned over me made me think of Hansel and Gretel, but they were several weeks overdue being nice for the sake of it and I chose to take it in stride. My fingers were greasy and I wiped them on my shirt, cheeks full, chewing. Being pretty much back to normal, they decided I didn’t need to see the doctor. Of course, I was told to get them immediately if I felt at all ill or uncomfortable. I promised I would and headed to my bedroom, unbuttoning my flannel.

Sleep was blissfully dream free.

But things would only get worse.

Chaz was absent from school the next day, but there was a bug going around, and with several other kids out sick, it didn’t register as odd. I asked some of the others, even a couple of teachers, and no one seemed to know anything different. They assumed he had a cold and would be back on Monday. It’s sometimes difficult to imagine what life was like before the advent of cell phones, or even the internet, and how waiting or being forced to wait was a hell all its own. I had trouble concentrating that day, keeping mostly to myself. I was interested in only one thing: the day being over so I could go home.

Mom was waiting in the car like any other Friday after school. I opened the back door, tossed my backpack on the seat, and crawled in. She was smiling.

“What are you hungry for?”

I watched her eyes in the rear view mirror; they looked tired.


“How about a cheeseburger?”

“I guess.”

“Where from?”

I shrugged. I wasn’t thinking about and didn’t want to think about food. I could eat after I figured out what was going on with Chaz. Mom was undaunted.

“How about Burger Chef?”

Now she had my attention. I was like any other kid my age in my love for burgers. But I had what could only be called an unhealthy obsession with Burger Chef. I like Burger King and McDonald’s and Wendy’s, too, but to my six year old mind and palate, Burger Chef reined supreme. I couldn’t even tell what it was about them, except to say there was something that happened between the mustard and pickles that was magic in my mouth.


Sorry, Chaz. Six year old loyalties only run so deep.

I found out halfway through my cheeseburger Mom needed meat from the butcher and a few additional odds and ends that would take at least a couple of hours. I was being bribed, but presented with a delicious burger and a milkshake, I knew I'd been bought. I thought of Chaz, but only in passing. Perhaps it wasn’t unreasonable to assume he came down with a cold. I just hoped he wasn’t throwing up his guts.

The next morning, Dad made pancakes. I briefly wondered if there was a special occasion, but it was the end of February, Valentine's Day come and gone, and no birthdays, so nothing came to mind. Then I thought about Grandma. She'd be gone well over a year and Mom hadn’t so much as mentioned her in weeks. Being a part of any other family, this might have bothered me more. But we weren't one that explored our feelings or had any real mechanism to deal with grief beyond the tried and true method of burying it as deep as possible.

After eating, I excused myself and headed toward my room. Dad still had to walk down to the bank and building and loan, and normally I went with him. Saturday was the day I got my allowance, something I immediately spent on a Mad Magazine at the drug store around the corner, but I wasn't feeling Mad that day, nor like walking downtown with Dad. As I entered the hallway, I involuntarily slowed down, listening. Mom and Dad's door was shut, but I noticed the door to my sister's room was open a crack. This was unusual; Mom always kept that door shut. Curious, I crept down the hallway and nudged it open.

It was no secret my sister left home for reasons other than school despite it never being acknowledged or discussed by our parents. In polite conversation, she was a golden child upon whose shoulders rode the privilege and burden of being the first in our immediate family to not only go to college, but graduate. The world in front of her was one of endless possibilities, an oyster or any other in a long list of clichés. In reality, it was just as much a bus ticket out of Crazy Town as it was a new chapter in her life. I wasn't old enough to know what madness befell her at the hands of our mother growing up, but if my own experiences were any indication, it was a story fit for Dante.

We didn't have much of a relationship, Haley and I. We were twelve years apart, and by the time I was old enough to notice, she was already moved out. My memories of living in the same house with her are few and fuzzy, snippets here and there, stills, like paintings and photographs: decorating the Christmas tree, eating the cookies she and Mom made, tossing bits of paper birch catkins in her bellybutton while she tanned on a chaise in the back yard summer sun. Our conversations would start out engaged, sympathetic, but always ended with her admonishing my youth or my tardiness to the soiree of life.

"That was before your time." or "You were too young to remember that."

Every time.

The room was how it had been left; sterile. Everything was stacked, sorted or put away. But it hadn't made the transition to spare or guest bedroom: it was Haley's room and would never not be hers. It was unsettling how nothing about it, other than its contents, made it feel like it was ever lived in. Rooms, places people live, they feel a certain way. You can tell there's someone who cares, or in some cases doesn't, and the environment reflects that. It's not just what things are there, but where they are, why they are where they are. Every place where people live, really live, has its own presence, an undefinable tangibility that extends beyond the occupants. This was where she studied for tests, talked on the phone to her friends at two in the morning, made love to her boyfriend, but Haley's room had the distinct absence of feeling like one where a young woman spent the past six years of her life. Almost like someone, or something, had erased not only her memory, but her existence.

I could feel my heartbeat in my ears as I took a step inside. The air was stale and smelled like the inside of a closet. The shades were partway down, and despite it being sunny and clear outside, the light didn't want to push past the window frames. The bed still had the tiny green and white checkered gingham bedspread with a pillow shaped like a heart and a stuffed bear beside it. There was a ornate carved wooden jewelry box I liked to explore on the top shelf of the bookcase style headboard. Next to it was a gooseneck lamp whose shade matched the coverlet. The bottom shelf was my favorite, and I ran my fingers over the rack of eight track tapes as I silently repeated the titles to myself: Good Vibrations, X, Back in Black, Alice Cooper Goes to Hell...


I jumped back, turning. The door was as I left it and I could see the door to Mom and Dad's bedroom was still shut tight. I looked at the crack under underneath and saw the light shift several times. Either the wind was blowing through the trees enough to circulate the incoming sunlight, or someone was in the bedroom.

Or maybe it was


something else.

As far as I knew, Mom and Dad were in the kitchen. The hardwood floors creaked whenever anyone walked around, and I could tell who it was by the cadence. I hadn't heard anyone since I left the kitchen and figured they were still at the table.

sklop sklop

It was coming from the other bedroom. My stomach quivered, but seemed okay otherwise. I didn't have the urge to hurl and was quietly thankful. I moved slowly toward the door, mindful of the noise the floor made when my weight shifted. It didn't seem too loud to me, but I didn't know who else was listening.


The floorboards in the hallway were louder, and the metal grate in the floor vent always shuddered as someone walked past. I took long, measured steps and stood before the door to my parents' bedroom.

I waited, listening.

Then I put my hand on the doorknob.

The spring mechanism creaked as I turned it and prepared to push.


Mom came down the hall toward me like a locomotive. I could see Dad behind her in the kitchen. He was watching.

"What are you doing?"

"Umm-- nothing."

"Your dad is ready to go downtown."


"You're going with him, aren't you?"

"I wasn't--"

"You're going with him, aren't you?"


"Make sure you bundle up."


The rest of the weekend was a lot more of the same and for the first time I can remember, I was looking forward to going back to school. It was snowing when I got there on Monday morning and the forecast showed there would be plenty more to come. Everyone was wearing their moon boots or moon boot replicas and I had cheap, clunky velcro ones. No one teased me to my face, but it didn't matter, I already knew they thought I was a turd.

Again, no Chaz. I didn't bother asking anyone that day. Between the silent, pervasive scorn of my peers and a mounting fear for my friend, I was all but struck dumb. My answers were monosyllabic and my attention span insubstantial. By lunch, I was practically incoherent, my heartbeat resonating like a gong in my head. My teacher, Mrs Switt, appeared concerned and, after feeling my forehead and seeing I felt warm, called my mom to come pick me up. The school wasn't allowed to administer any form of medication to the students even with parental consent, but she gave me an orange ice pop to keep me hydrated and hopefully alleviate some of the fever.

I was always either sick or pretending to be.

Forty-five minutes later I was in the back seat, head propped on my backpack, on the way home. Mom made me take children's aspirin and gave me a warm can of Pepsi to wash it down. Most days I had to determine if she would be Jekyll or Hyde. That day it was both.

"Why didn't you tell me you weren't feeling well this morning?"

"I didn't, I mean-- I felt okay."

"Well you better hope you don't have whatever's going around. And cover your mouth when you cough-- I don't want your germs."

"I don't have to cough."

"Then don't touch anything."

"Chaz wasn't at school today."

"Which one is Chaz?"

"There's only one."

"What about that Bashika? Or-- what's that crippled kid's name?"



"He's got other people he hangs out with."

"Well woopdy fucking doo."

"I guess."


"I guess."



"Don't talk back to me."

"I didn't."

"See? Talking back."



I put my head back down on my pack, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't go to sleep. Mom drove like she was possessed, cursing and muttering to herself, the other cars and Dad's name. As much as the fever dulled my senses, I still felt like every time she hit the brakes we'd just keep going and crash and die. I wasn't cold, but I shivered where I lay in the back seat, and tried to block out the sounds of the other cars, the wind rushing past on the highway, and most of all, Mom's voice.

I spent the next two days in my pajamas, either in bed or in front of the tv, eating soup and drinking pop or juice. The only time Mom ever bought Squirt or ginger ale was when I didn't feel well. It was something I came to expect with being under the weather, and, in a way, made it a little more manageable. Campbell's was the mainstay: either won ton or chicken and stars or curly noodle if they were out of the other two. Sometimes she made grilled cheese with it, but only if my throat didn't hurt. Tuesday it felt like someone scraped it raw with a wire brush, but by Thursday, the pain had almost entirely subsided and I was coughing up the last of the infected mucus. Mom gave me a travel pack of tissues to keep in my pocket before we left for school. She'd determined I was both fit for class and she'd seen enough of me to last until the New Year. A dose of that hideous red liquid children's decongestant and a hot bowl of cream of wheat with honey and raisins and we were on the road.

There was snow still on the ground, but the roads had been cleared and the walks shoveled and salted. Most of the kids had their tennis shoes on, but Mom insisted I wear my boots "in case I play outside". I found myself wishing I kept an extra pair in my locker, but being that I didn't have a lock for it, they would most likely end up stolen. All of this ran through my mind as I opened the exterior door and wiped my feet on the soggy doormat. I was putting my coat away when I looked over and saw Chaz sitting at a table by himself. I slammed the locker, catching a coat sleeve in the door, but I didn't care. I ran over and sat down next to him, forgetting all about my ensemble woes.

Chaz looked tired and distant. There was a large, white bandage on his forehead.

"Hi Chaz."

"Oh-- hey Whisker."

"Where ya been?"

"Umm-- home."

"Were you sick?"


"Uhh, what happened to your head?"


"What kind of accident? Did you fall?"

"Car accident."


"It was a deer."

"You hit a deer?"

"My dad hit a deer."

"Did he kill it?"


Every question took longer for him to respond and I could tell he was agitated. He refused to look at me, even when I moved my head so he would.

"Is everyone ok?"

"Whisker, why don't you come with me."

The assistant principal, Mrs Greer, someone whom I had come to trust because she was pretty and nice to me and tried to help me when I had problems, took my hand and led me into the kitchen area next to the cafeteria where we kept our lunchboxes or anything that required refrigeration. She stood me in front of her, hands on my arms, and bent down so her eyes were level with mine. I watched how her nylons ran up her legs into darkness under her skirt. She wore a necklace with a gold seashell that nestled in the space between her breasts. She looked me straight in the eye and spoke softly; her breath was sweet and smelled like coffee.

"Are you feeling better?"

"Yeah. Much."

She smiled with her mouth.

"Good. The reason I brought you in here is I wanted to make sure you knew some things, and being a good friend to Chaz, you might try to help him through this difficult time."


"Chaz was in an accident last Friday. His family hit a deer and he was in the car with his mom, dad, and younger sister."

"Are they okay?"

"Chaz and his sister both had some cuts and bruises and his dad hurt his leg, but physically they'll all be fine. What I want to talk to you about is his mom. She was hurt really bad and had to go to the hospital."


"The doctors did everything they could, but she was hurt too bad and she passed away. Chaz is having a hard time and what he needs right now is support. He needs you to be a good friend."


"Can you do that for me?"


"Good. I knew you would. Thank you, Whisker. You can go back to class."

I walked slowly back to my desk and sat down. I ran what Mrs Greer said to me through my head several more times and didn't know what to think other than Chaz must feel like I did when Grandma died. I then wondered if instead of it feeling like his stomach was a bunch of knots and crying it was just a big, empty hole inside with no tears at all. I was sad when I thought of Grandma, but it was grown up sad. It's okay for kids to cry; it's what they do. But grown ups have their own kind of sad where their faces look like stone and their mouths make funny shapes. Sometimes they cried, too, but I always thought it was because they remembered what it was like to be a kid. I figured one day that would happen to me. In the meantime, I was practicing my stone face. After seeing Chaz, it looked like he was too.

It snowed a lot that day, but was done before it came time for school to be out. Chaz stayed inside during recess. I tried to stay with him, but the recess monitor, Mrs Straw, said I couldn't since there was nothing wrong with me. I asked her how she could know and she threatened to keep me inside the rest of the week, separate from Chaz. I sulked all the way out the door. How could I be a good friend if I wasn't even allowed to be around him?

This dilemma bothered me the rest of the day, and yet again, my concentration was nonexistent. Mrs Switt kept giving me funny looks, like she was trying to decide if the horns I'd sprouted were supposed to be there. Normally I would reduce myself to a quivering puddle of distress over her potentially unfavorable opinion of me, but that day it was her problem. I was far too preoccupied with Mrs Greer's request to bother with Mrs Switt. She called on me several times to answer questions, but I pretended I didn't know the answers, eliciting arched eyebrows and denigrating frowns. By the end of the day, she was taking notes.

Woopdy fucking doo.

The roads still weren't completely clear when Mom took me home. She cursed and screeched at the other cars the whole way home, convinced we'd careen into a oncoming car or sail through the guard rail from an overpass. The 'bridge may be icy' signs were basically taking up space eight months out of the year, but this happened to be one of the other four, and Mom's shoulders looked like a linebacker's every time we crossed one. She knew how many we had to go over, having driven me to school so much, and she kept count out loud.

"That's Three. Just two more. Two more and we're home. Just two more."

"Chaz was there today."

"Wh-what? Oh? Good."

"He had a bandage on his head."

"Oh my god really? Is he okay?"

"I think so."


"He had an accident. His dad hit a deer."

"That's terrible. Two more."

"And, umm."

"Two more. What?"

"Something else."

"What? What else? Jesus fucking GOD these drivers are crazy."

"His mom."

"One more thank God. What about his mom?"

"She, umm. She died."

"OH NO. Is he okay? Oh my God. That's terrible. Is he okay?"

"I don't think so."

"We should-- Oh my-- call him when we get home."


"One more. We'll call when we get home."


Dad parked his car on the street and was shoveling the driveway when we got home. He stopped and waited while Mom drove up and parked in the garage, and resumed once we were past. Mom made sure she unlocked the door so I could go inside and went back to the car to get some things.

I took my boots off and left them on the back porch, careful not to step on any snow in my stocking feet. I went straight to my room where I threw my coat and backpack on the bed and pulled off my sweater. It crackled with static electricity and my hair stuck to it as I pulled it over my head. The hair on my arms tingled. I threw it in a wad next to my coat and shut my door.

I heard Mom come in the back. She was talking, but I couldn't hear what she was saying. Another, deeper voice answered. That was Dad. He must have finished the driveway. Mom's voice was excited, loud. Dad's was how it always was: low and measured. I looked out the window at the snow outside and saw how it laid perfectly across the front yard. I watched outside and heard two creaking sets of footsteps come through the kitchen, into the hallway and past my door. They disappeared into the bedroom across the hall and I heard the door shut.

It was perhaps the worst possible day to have after being sick. I had no idea how long Chaz was back in school, but I decided it was while I was out and a big part of me wished I'd been there the day he came back. Mrs Greer asked me to be a good friend and I planned to. Mom said we should call and make sure he was okay. He might not be home from school yet, but it seemed as good a time as



My head hurt. It didn't feel like any headache I'd ever had; more like I was in a speeding car toward a brick wall speeding toward me even faster stopped only with my skull. There was one spot on my forehead that felt like something cut it open, but I quickly touched it and found no blood.


It was the bedroom again. I heard them go in there, but I couldn't hear them talking or moving around. Only that awful, wet, mudstuck

sklop sklop

If this was the snoopy dog, or worse, something else, I had to make sure Mom and Dad were okay. After Grandma, and hearing about Chaz, death was becoming very real for me, and the thought of losing one or both of my own parents charged every terrified bone in my scrawny six year old body. I grabbed my flashlight from the shelf and held it like a club. It was plastic, but the batteries were big and it was all I had.

I entered the hallway and stalked to the closed bedroom door. A quick glance revealed Haley's door cracked open again, something a slippery memory of going to my room earlier contradicted. But my immediate problem was behind the door to Mom and Dad's bedroom, so it would have to wait.

I listened carefully as I reached for the doorknob and


Static discharge left the tips of my finger partly numb and I jerked my hand back, shaking it, trying to make the sensation leave. The whole thing tingled and I let out a huge breath. I quickly tapped the knob and nothing happened. Steeling myself, I grabbed it and pushed forward.

It was empty.

There was nothing out of place, as if no one had been there just moments before. I looked to the dresser and saw the snoopy dog was in the same place it always was. The smile was still too big, but it was otherwise unchanged, and, to my relief, stationary.

I turned out of the room and shut the door behind me. My head still hurt, but it was reduced to the same dull pain that resonated through my shocked fingers. My thoughts were hazy and my body decided I need to lay down, inconsiderate of the fact Mom and Dad were still


Haley's door swung wide and my young eyes fixed upon a scene hatched from the squirming, smothering wombs of Hell's forsaken holes.

Mom was on her back at the end of the bed, legs in the air, as Dad stood between them, shoving.



Mom moaned and cursed and licked her lips in exaggerated, profane circles. Her hands were on the edges of the shirt she'd pulled up to her neck, bra torn away, and her breasts bounced with every heave like the eyes on a Kit-Cat clock. There was a smear of blood on her stomach and I saw Dad's hands, his entire torso, were again caked with it. His hair was wild, on both his head and groin, and grew like thin, gnarled roots over his neck, hips and pubis. His open mouth was a glistening black mine shaft full of short, crooked prongs.

He turned toward me and pointed away with a nod.

"Go stand in the corner--"


"-- while I--"

sklop sklop

"-- teach this whore--"


"-- some manners."

My eyes followed his gaze and I saw Haley there, barely conscious. She was naked except for a pair of striped tube socks, blood smeared between her legs, over her chest, around her mouth. Her gaze was fixed, half-lidded and glassy, but I could tell she was still breathing.

I looked back to Dad, then to Mom, petrified. I was dimly aware the front of my pants were warm. And damp.

Mom fixed me with her upside down gaze; her eyes the only living things on her face. Even though her tongue still moved in slow, gut-wrenching infinity, it looked like a chunk of raw meat scouring a toilet bowl.

"Go on, Whisker."



Into the mud.



sklop sklop

it wasn't the mud.

It was


something worse.

Mom's tongue quivered.

"Be a good boy and maybe I'll have something left for you."
Taking TurnsIt would be two more years before I found out about sex, or aspects of such, from personal experience. In the meantime, I had the trauma of what I came to refer to as Bedbugs to keep me warm at night. Bedbugs was what I went to sleep hoping I'd have nightmares to cleanse from my memory. I guess I was lucky in that, with all the things going on around me, I began to lose details and it eventually became just a word-- a word, and a frame whose nebulous, insensate middle swirled with darkness and shadows and scratches of sinister deeds like a Goya.

The resilience of youth.

Mom and Dad had trouble looking me in the eye for a couple of weeks. I couldn’t really blame them; ours wasn’t a family that cared much for an audience. In fact, like grief, sex was a topic best suited for, well, never. It’s not like I’d never seen them unclothed. I used to bathe with Dad when I was tiny, and Mom, well, if she had occasion to walk around with nothing on, she did. Bedbugs, however, was something I didn’t yet understand nor particularly cared to. Supposedly it was how I came to be, but I had a hard time believing it. There was just no way I was involved with that-- business, no matter how small I was. I was pretty sure parents who wanted kids just went to the baby store, or maybe a vending machine, the mom took a baby pill, and that was it. Maybe Bedbugs was how they proved to the people in charge they were serious about wanting kids; anything that scary had to be a test.

The thing that bothered me most was why they were doing it now. I was told, by Mom, without reluctance nor uncertainty, I was both unplanned and, in a handful of turbulent circumstances, a mistake. Why would they want to take the Bedbugs test again? Did this mean I would soon have a brother or another sister? I didn’t know if I liked that idea. We, as a family, had enough problems without another kid coming along and upgrading our carefully metered chaos to cats and dogs cohabitating anarchy.

As the days wore on, and I went through them seemingly without irreparable harm, Mom and Dad began to dance around the subject of Bedbugs, sometimes individually, sometimes together. It became a middle of supper topic, or ice cream cones in the car in the Friendly’s parking lot topic; sometimes when a man and a woman kissed on the tv topic. And on a handful of occasions, a ride to or from school in the car with Mom topic.

“Whisker, honey?”


“Do you remember?”

“Remember what?”

“When you saw us.”


“Me and your daddy. In the bedroom.”

“Uhh, sorta.”

“Did it scare you?”

“I-- dunno.”

“Mommy needs to know if you were scared, sweetie.”

“Don’t remember.”

“You don’t remember anything?”


“Uh uh.”

“Nothing at all?”


“Nothing-- I want to talk about.”


sklop sklop


“What, honey?”

“Can we-- talk about something else?”

“It’s ok, sweetie. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”


“How about a milkshake.”


“You want a milkshake? A strawberry one?”


“That’s my good boy."


I wasn’t quite sure which good boy she was referring to. Just that morning I was cursed blue for leaving my dirty clothes on the floor after repeated requests to put them in the basket. Perhaps over the course of a day where I spent my free time trying to get Chaz to draw armored knights fighting dragons with me or coaxing him to join us for a soccer match at recess and Mom at home, laundering, vacuuming, dusting and all-around straightening up the house, the enormity of my task, and the sheer monotony of hers, drawn together like magnets, effected some universal convergence whose completion somehow lessened the severity of my transgressions.

Or it was bribery.

It was well documented I could be bought, especially with food. For as long as I could remember, I had two stomachs: the one I was born with and a little hole beside it that became its own stomach. The one I was born with told me I was hungry, I needed to eat, picky though I was, and I generally heeded its instruction. But the one that grew next to it, well, it was the one that told me I had to eat something after a bad day at school, or when mom yelled and called me names and hit me until I couldn’t stand up. It didn’t really care what I put in it-- it had this power to turn off my tongue and my brain so things I didn’t normally like to eat were okay too-- as long as I did my best to fill it. And while putting food in my born in stomach gave me some satisfaction, putting it in the other only really kept me from feeling worse. Not only did this second stomach grow as I got older, it grew into my born in one until, to look at them, they were virtually indistinguishable. I didn’t think it a problem except second stomach grew so much it could never be full, never satisfied, and it got so I had to actively shut out the nagging, scratching, biting that were its reminders.

Not that day.

It was already one I’d just as soon toss in the trash with the rest of my undesirables, but Mom having brought up Bedbugs pushed me beyond remission. Milkshakes, after donuts, were at the top of my children’s book of home remedies. Friendly’s had one that I especially enjoyed, but honestly, any milkshake would do. It’s tough, especially to six year old sensibilities, to fuck up a milkshake.

Mom went through the drive-thru and got me a fish sandwich and some fries to go with it. She got a double hamburger, like always, and we drove to the park to eat. I normally ignored the ducks that swam around the ponds, but that day I wanted to see them. To my chagrin, they still weren’t back from having flown South, and my mood darkened. The fish I was normally quite fond of, sliced thin, fried and salted potatoes, even the soothing pink blended milk and ice cream were flat and unappealing. I ate slowly, careful not to look at Mom too long. She kept smiling at me and it gave me the pee feeling.

“How’s your milkshake?”


“Just okay?”

“It’s good.”

“And your food?”


Screeching, crashing cars and trucks and planes and helicopters in my head told me where the conversation was headed, but soggy sandwich, limp fries and chalky milkshake made the noise seem far away. Even the Van Family, the one I secretly wished was my own, screaming through bloody bits of broken glass and twisted metal couldn’t bring me out of it. I resigned myself to the inevitable and set my shoulders in lax anticipation.

“I talked to Mrs Greer.”


“She really likes you, you know. She told me what you two talked about.”

“She did?”

“Mmm hmm. She says Chaz is having a hard time and you said you would help him through it.”

“I guess.”

“I’m very proud of you. Losing his mom must be killing him.”


“Maybe we should take him to see a movie. Do you think he’d like that?”

“I dunno.”

“Well what sort of things does he like to do?”

I had a hard time trying to articulate “nothing”. There were a lot of things Chaz used to love to do: soccer, movies, monsters, anything Star Wars. But anymore, being a friend to him was like being by myself in an empty room. I thought being friends was hanging out, doing stuff together, having a good time. Since his mom died, we were only really doing the first one and that was debatable. He didn’t laugh, he didn’t play, he barely even talked to me. He spent all day in a chair or at his desk, staring at the floor. Even when we went outside for recess he just leaned against the wall watching the cars go past. Most days I stayed with him, but it was slowly getting warmer and there were all kinds of sticks and stones just waiting to be launched between the trees at other classmates. I was frustrated and bored, and when I tried to talk to Chaz, his monosyllabic responses wore thin with me. I just wanted to kick him in the nuts and yell at him to wake the fuck up.

This wasn’t the topic I’d prepared for, but it didn’t make it a better one.

“I-- don’t really know anymore.”

“Oh, well-- what about the arcade? You both like that, right?

“I guess that would be okay.”

“Good. I’ll let your father know. Maybe you can go this weekend.”


“Finish up. We need to get going.”

I curled my lip at the thought of finishing my meal, but a little voice in my belly goaded me into another bite, and another after that. I thought about what mom said, about what she said Mrs Greer said, and about Chaz. I silently hoped Mom was done asking me questions, but something dark and ravenous quivered in the back of my mind, promising the dilemma with Chaz was only getting started. I felt my stomachs churn.


At least it wasn’t Bedbugs.

Mom was mostly Jekyll the rest of the school week and for that I was thankful. I had enough developing at school that getting it from the other end at home might send me over the edge. I tried talking to him about my dad taking us to the arcade on Saturday and, for what seemed like the first time, he was the least bit receptive. It was a few weeks since the last time I was there; the town I lived in had two, one called Starship and the other the Gallery, that were practically right across the street from each other. I preferred Starship-- they had better games-- but the Gallery was right across the alley from Pizza Bill's, which was, and still is, the best pizza ever and came in a respectable third in my book of home remedies. That made them pretty much equal to my six year old esteem.

When I talked to Dad about it on Friday, I was surprised to find out we would not be going to either of the ones downtown, but a relatively new one closer to where Chaz lived called the Boom Boom Barn. I thought the name was hinky, but it was an arcade, which meant it had games, and being new, would have the latest ones. As long as there were games and I had tokens, I didn't care.

Saturday morning rolled around and I was eager to get the walk to the bank done and over with so we could make with the taking Chaz to the arcade. We took dad’s work car, the Plymouth; it smelled like cleanser and factory grease. He used to drive a sandy-colored Camaro with rust on the doors and a broken window crank handle on the passenger side. I liked it better than the Plymouth, but it was gone; sold to a friend of my sister’s.

“Why are you driving this car?”

“Mom needs the other one.”


“I thought you liked this car.”

“I liked the other one better.”

“I did too.”

“Why did you get rid of it?”

“Well, Haley’s friend needed a car.”

“But don’t you need a car too?”

“Sure. That’s why I have this one.”

“But why didn’t you just keep the other one?”

“It needed a lot of work.”


“Besides, this is a good car too.”

“It smells.”

“Huh. I guess it does.”

Chaz was waiting outside with his dad when we got there. His dad talked to mine for a few minutes while Chaz and I got in the back and I made sure he got in on the side that didn’t have the big stain on the seat. We sat there in silence for several moments; he seemed tired, like he usually did at school.

“We’re going to that new arcade at the mall.”


“Yeah. Should have all the latest stuff.”


“Think they have a party claw?”

“Uhh, Dunno.”

“I bet they have one. I’ll try to win you something cool.”


“Did you see Buck Rogers last night?”

“Nah. Don’t have a tv in my room.”

“Oh. It was pretty cool. There was this guy--”


“Urm, yeah?”


The Boom Boom Barn was state of the art, boasting two full rooms of upright games, pinball machines, prize games like the party claw and even a sit down racing game in the center of the floor on the upper deck. Even though Chaz brought his own money, Dad gave us each ten dollars and put a five of his own in the token machine. I walked with Chaz through both rooms, trying to get a lay of the land before I decided what to play. They had all my old favorites: Frogger, Centipede, Galaga; I even saw Missile Command, which was perhaps my least adored next to Pong, and I stuck out my tongue in disgust. I surveyed the prizes for the party claw, but was disappointed to find they were junky and boring and not as cool as what I was used to from the ones in town back home.

It didn't matter. We'd come to play.

With both front pockets jammed full of tokens, I set about laying waste to pixelated aliens, insects, alien insects and whatever else they threw at me. Synthesizer music pumped through my ears and into my blood, giving me an adrenaline high. Thirty minutes later, I'd barely made a dent in my funds, but my forehead was sweaty and I had to pee. I kept my knees together while I flew a jet through time, annihilating enemy spacecraft, from WWI style biplanes to flying saucers. I smacked the joystick in disbelief when the screen flashed "Game Over", but my bladder was grateful and I waddled off to the restroom.

Having finished my business, I washed up and headed to the door, pulling it open just far enough to squeeze by. I wasn't watching in front of me and something checked my shoulder as I pushed forward, whipping me back against the wall.


"Oh, sorry."

A boy younger than me, head down, shoulders hunched, shrugged apologetically and pushed past. I silently cursed his manners, but my head was still light from digitized euphoria, and armed with an empty bladder, I was set for a rematch.

"Whisker, what're YOU doing here?"

I slowed down and looked to my left to see Bashika, a girl I kind of knew from school, standing next to the Galaxian machine. She was older, and towered over me, even from a few feet away.

"Come over here."

She crooked her finger at me and, like a good dog, I padded over, staring at her feet. She wore saddle shoes with red ribbons threaded over the white laces tied in bows at the top.

"Hi Bashika."

"Well aren't you all hot shit with your big boy shoes."

"I guess so."

"Look at me when I'm talking to you."

I looked her in the face to see her jaw set, brow furrowed. Normally she wore thick-lensed glasses that made her eyes look huge, but not that day; they were normal size. She had her hair coiled up in a single, thick pigtail on top of her head with beaded hair ties that matched the shoe ribbons. Once she knew I was looking her straight, her face softened a little, and she smiled, all teeth and gums, and planted an index finger into the sore shoulder.

I groaned.

"That's better. What're you doing here all by your little self?"

"I'm here with Chaz. And my dad."

As if on cue, Dad appeared next to me, putting a hand on my shoulder. He smiled briefly and Bashika returned it, bigger, rocking back and forth with her hands twisted up in front of her.

"Hi, Mr White."

"Hello, Bashika."

"I was just asking Whisker why he was here all by himself."

"That's very thoughtful of you, Bashika. I'm heading over to the book store for a little while; you think you'll be all right here with Chaz?"

I nodded quickly, catching Bashika smiling like the Cheshire Cat in my periphery.

"Ok, kiddo, have a good time. Nice to see you, Bashika."

"You too, Mr White."

Dad left the arcade and I quickly scanned the room looking for Chaz, but couldn't find him. Bashika put her hands on my shoulders and stood me in front of her, the top of my head came up below her shoulders. She wore a white sweatshirt with an applique rainbow on the chest. I noticed little bumps on either side and a small part of my brain wondered if she was cold.

"Are you staring at my boobs?"

"Huh, what?"

"I said. Are you staring. AT. MY. BOOBS."

"Uhh-- no. Why would I?"

"You saying I'm ugly?"

"I don't think so."

"Why don't you KNOW SO?"


"Bashika. I need more tokens."

The boy who almost knocked me down came up beside us and held out his hand. Bashika craned her neck at him, lips parted, jaw aslant, and looked at his open palm like it was covered in dog shit. After a long pause, she flipped an open hand up flat against the bottom of his, smacking him in the face.

"OW. Shit."

"Can't you see I'm BUSY?"


"Don't you Bashika me. Not my fault no one taught you manners."

"Ain't gotta hit me like that."

"I didn't. You hit yourself, stupid."


Bashika turned back to me, eyes slitted, smiling with half her mouth. I felt something shrink.

"This is my little brother, Damius. Say hi to Whisker, Damius."

"Ungh, hi."


"You out of money already?"

"Just about."


She dug in a front pocket of her green corduroy pants and pulled out a small handful of tokens, dropping half of them, and slapping the rest into Damius' hand. He dropped some of those, quickly shoved what was left into his pocket, and got on his knees to get the rest. Bashika sneered, her eyes never leaving me.

"Now leave us alone. Say goodbye to Whisker, Damius."

"Umm, bye."

He scampered off and left me alone with Bashika. I dared not turn my head, but my eyes scanned the room, looking for Chaz, my dad, even an employee who might be able to distract her long enough for me to get away. The room was dark, virtually empty, and getting smaller. I was running out of options.

“You should smile more.”

“It helps to, umm, have a reason to.”

“Well aren’t you fresh.”

“I don’t, I mean, I didn’t--”

“Didn’t what? I’ve seen you around school, you know. I see how you look at the teachers, Mrs Perrin’s daughter, the other girls.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“You know exactly what I mean.”

“I really don’t.”

Bashika punched me in the shoulder, pouting her bottom lip. Her eyes were dark and wet and made me want to crawl away.

“Why don’t you do that to me, white boy?”


She grabbed my arm at the wrist and held it up, showing it to me.

“White. Whiter than white. You’re Wonder Bread white. You’re Casper the White Ass Ghost white. Shit, even your name’s White”

“It’s not like I can help--”

“Snoopy white. Hear that, little snoopy dog?”

“What did you say?”

"Little. Snoopy. Dog.”

“BASHIKA. Father’s here. We gotta go.”

Damius ran up to us and tried to take Bashika’s hand, but she smacked it away with a scowl. Then she shoved me with her palm and walked past with Damius in tow.

“See you in school, snoopy dog.”

And she was gone.

My mind reeled at her mention of the snoopy dog. It was not a topic I shared with anyone; to me, it was a nightmare, both waking and unconscious, I felt was mine alone to endure. I hadn’t thought much about it since Bedbugs, and my last encounter was weeks before-- I found it at the bottom of the dirty clothes basket while picking up my room. I’d begun to think my problems with the snoopy dog were over. I’d hoped they were over, like only children do.

I would come to find out otherwise.

I hadn’t seen Chaz since before I left the restroom and that made my stomachs nervous. I searched both rooms and found nothing. Thinking he maybe had to pee, I checked the toilet, but it was empty. I was getting scared, wishing my dad was there to help me find him.
I considered trying to find an employee, but so far the only one I’d seen was a fat, middle-aged guy with greasy hair and an equally greasy complexion at the prize counter. While I’m sure he knew everything there was to know about Space Invaders, unless there was a video game called Missing Best Friend, he wouldn’t do much more than slow me down.

At my limit, I stopped in a dark corner of the upper deck, flanked by the Dig Dug and Berserk machines. I was sweaty, thirsty and positive I would be in big trouble for losing Chaz. My fear was slowly being replaced with resignation, and a cold stillness crept up my spine. I thought to myself, this must be what it feels like when people go to jail.

“Where the fuck are you, Chaz?”


The voice was small, muffled, but it was definitely Chaz. I turned around and saw him sitting on the floor against the wall in the corner. It was so dark I could see only the tips of his shoes, which used to be white, but were scuffed and worn to a somber taupe. I squeezed between the game cabinets and sat next to him, pulling my knees up to my chin. He was sitting much the same way.

“What are you doing back here?”




“About what?”



It was the first time Chaz mentioned anything about his mom since the accident and a subject I had yet to broach, thinking a good friend was about allowing him to bring it up on his own terms. But it was something I hoped never came up. I didn’t talk much about Grandma, either, and my grasp of her passing wasn’t so much a concept of death as it was a deep, bone-whittling sadness from her absence in my life. Thanksgiving, Christmas, would never be the same without going to her house, sitting with her, laughing, telling stories, eating until we couldn’t walk and passing out on the couch to holiday specials and candlelight. Her house was sold; to whom I didn’t know. And we never drove to that part of town anymore, and especially never past what once was hers. Maybe death was as much her ceasing to live as it was her living in the memories of who she was in all of us. Either way, it hurt, and I didn’t like associating pain with someone I loved, so I spent less time trying to remember, hoping that it might fade to acceptable levels by doing nothing.

Where my memory of Grandma ached a tiny bit less with each passing week, two months gone, Chaz’s wounds were still very fresh. For him, time stopped with his Mom’s death, and he was doomed to twist in eternal, torturous limbo. I winced at the thought, but found nothing within myself to say that might offer the slightest bit of comfort.

“I miss her.”


“I miss her kisses before bed.”

“Uh huh.”

“I miss how she made peanut butter and jelly.”


“Peanut butter on both sides, jelly in the middle.”



I felt a little better inside finally talking to him about his mom. I hoped he felt that same way.

“I want to see her.”



“What-- like at the cemetery?”

Chaz turned to me and looked me straight in the eye. Even in the dark I could see they were big and clear like a cartoon.

“In heaven.”
What About LoveBlinded.

I put my hand up, shielding my eyes.

The sky was so blue it hurt to look at; nevermind the sun, or its light, making my hand glow red around the silhouettes of bones dark and fuzzy like dirty secrets.

I was in the parking lot at the catholic school down the street from where I lived. It was a low brick building, all browns and deep reds, serious as cancer. But it was somehow different. The back doors were wide open-- something I'd never seen before-- and I could see daylight pouring through a matching pair at the opposite end of a long, open room. I leaned to one foot, head tilted, and peered inside. I could see the edges of rows and rows of pews, the floor waxed such that it reflected the light as would a mirror.

I wasn't catholic, but my mom and dad used to be. Maybe they still were, but we never went to church so I didn't know what that meant for them, only that I always thought the churches, especially the catholic ones, were beautiful on the outside, but their open doors were dark and foreboding and I was afraid to find out what lay within. I knew catholics: shopped with my mom around them, stood next to them at the Memorial Day parade, probably even ate beside them at the drive-in. They seemed normal, like my family, so why did they willingly walk through darkened doors into the waiting arms of barking, frothing dobermans, bike wrecks and beatings at the hands of neighborhood bullies? Those were the worst things I endured before snoopy dogs and Bedbugs came along.

I walked unsure to the edge of the open doors, stopping just outside the threshold. This was the school, not the church, and from what I could tell, it was not only well lit, but almost-- comforting. I briefly wondered why there were so many pews in a school, but having only ever seen churches on tv, I decided if adults out of school sat in them, kids in school would need them too.

"Why don't you go inside?"

I'll admit it: I jumped. But the voice from behind didn't sound angry or mean and I quickly composed myself. I looked upon the person who spoke to see them wearing a purple velour track suit with white tennis shoes and a silk-screened baby blue tee underneath. The jacket was zipped halfway and I couldn't see what was on the shirt, but it was colorful and made me think of Care Bears. There was something familiar about this person and I searched memories, rifling through desks, overturning boxes and tearing apart filing cabinets. A distant, high-pitched squeal pierced one ear and stuck in my mind on an endless loop like the thrumming of locusts. I stuck my finger in and wiggled it around, trying to jar it loose as my back teeth started to ache. The way the sun was shining I couldn't see the face, but the hair was light-colored, probably blonde, and long, just past the shoulders. They were nearly as tall as my dad and stood so close I could smell strawberries.

"Take my hand."

I did, and it was soft and warm and felt good against my skin.

We walked together into the building and things suddenly became ultra focused for me. Everything looked more brilliant, more intense; sounds were acutely clear and distinct; the strawberry smell so fragrant-- I've never experienced anything so sweet or inviting before or since-- even the physical contact felt so strong it had this-- tickling sensation or subtle vibration like every tiny part of the skin was individually alive, autonomous, and wiggling around like fresh bathed puppies.

It was almost too much.


"It feels nice, doesn't it?"

I nodded like my head was attached to a slinky, threatening to topple off my shoulders at any moment. I was guided to the top of the center aisle, where we stopped, and when I looked out over the pews I saw they went on forever into a horizon of light. I turned to my chaperon and for the first time I knew who it was.

The Van Family Mom.

Her features were static, unlike in the dream. And she was beautiful, like the women on my real mom's stories, but not so resolute or scornful or fake looking like they were. She smiled and the room seemed brighter. I studied her every feature, committing each one to memory: warm, liquid hazel eyes, a strong, slightly upturned nose, soft lips.

I knew at that moment I loved her.

She knelt in front of me and I thought of Mrs Greer, placing her hands over mine at my sides, then pulling them so they draped over her shoulders. Her hair felt like baby chickens, peach fuzz. Her hands slid flat up my back, pulling me forward so our noses barely touched. Then she leaned in and kissed me on the lips like I saw in the movies.

It was gentle and loving and made me feel warm in all the right places. My jeans were beginning to feel tight, and I briefly wondered if she noticed. I closed my eyes because that's how people kissed when they were boyfriend and girlfriend and I could feel her smiling. I ran my fingers through her hair and rubbed her shoulders and the back of her neck for lack of anything better to do with my hands. She made these noises like I'd heard Mom make when she ate chocolate, and I hoped it was as good.

My eyes flew open when her tongue poked between my lips and started to rub against my own. It was the kind of kissing I'd only heard about from older classmates and sometimes on tv. It was the way the French did it, they said, and I often wondered what made them so special.

Now I knew.

We kissed with our tongues for what seemed like forever, and every time she caught me peeking she smiled. When she started rubbing my bottom, I thought things couldn't get any better, and when she put my hands on her breasts, I knew I'd been wrong.

Then my tongue brushed up against something sharp, ragged, and crystalline and I tasted blood.

The world flew away into darkness.

"What did you say?"

"I want to be with her. In heaven."

My stomachs gnashed with glee.

If I’d known this was what was in store when Mrs Greer asked me to help Chaz, things might have played out very different. At first, I thought he was yanking my chain. Only dead people go to heaven, right? That aside, I didn’t even really believe in heaven. It was something I conceded in politeness to others, but not for myself. I never gave death much thought past the absence, even with Grandma. The concepts of heaven and hell were topics better suited for scary stories and Sunday school. If there really was a heaven, as in a place where good dead people went to play out their continued existence in virtual paradise, I was confident Chaz’s mom was there, being a good person herself, undeserving of death, yet unequivocally deserving of an eternity of bliss. But I also believed, in my six year old mind, everyone’s time would come, and to me, Chaz’s time was far, far off.

He put his hand on my wrist and leaned in closer. My instinct was to pull away, but I was lost in thought and my reactions sluggish.

“She’s waiting for me.”


“And I don’t want to make her wait any longer.”

“Don’t you, umm, think--”


“Don’t you think she’d, uhh, want you to be happy?”

“Well, yeah, duh. What kind of question is that?”

“So she’d want you to be here.”

“I guess so.”

“Having fun, hanging out with the ones you love.”

“I love HER.”

“That’s why you need to be here-- with your dad and sister. Because she can’t.”

I surprised myself with the Phil Donahue style exposition, and secretly wondered if all those hours in front of the tv weren’t rotting my brain after all. Chaz seemed less agitated, but I could sense we were just getting started. It was a process of stages, and the flood gates still had yet to be thrown.

I really didn’t want to be there when it happened.

“She still loves you, Chaz.”

“I know.”

“Do you?”

“I think so, yeah.”


“It’s hot in here.”

That’s when I realized the entire front of my shirt was soaked through, perspiration beaded on my forehead and upper lip, and my glasses were smudged from rubbing against sweaty eyebrows. I wiped my face with my arm and stood up, legs wobbly, and quickly cleaned my glass with my shirt tail. Chaz followed suit and we squeezed out from behind the cabinets where the air was somewhat cooler.

Perhaps twenty minutes passed since I found Chaz, despite feeling like an eternity. There was a weird energy in the air, and I scanned the room trying to pinpoint it. I noticed the door marked “Employees Only” was slightly ajar and murky blue light flickered from within. I could see shadows moving in pantomime, ranging in pace and intensity. I found myself wishing I was in there and my feet started to move toward the door when Chaz put a hand on my shoulder.

“I think I see your dad.”

It was true. Dad was waiting near the entrance, hands in his pockets, whistling, as he watched people pass on the causeway. He turned, waving when he saw us, and we started to leave. Chaz made a smacking sound with his tongue.


I knew what he meant; my tongue felt thick and pasty and I knew Dad would take us to Orange Julius or the Woolworth’s cafe for something to drink. A brief flash of Van Family Mom’s pert nipple dribbling sweet citrus over my tongue increased my urgency and I looked back over my shoulder at Employees Only.

The door was half way open, dim light trying to push through a haze of smoke. A girl stood just inside the doorway; she was thin, too thin, with shorts that looked more like underwear and a tie back bikini top. Her hair was long, plastered down and pulled back in a tight ponytail. And her eyes: dark, sunken, haunted. There was too much blush on her cheeks and what looked like bruises on her legs and arms and around her neck. She made eye contact with me and the lines of her frown deepened. She looked familiar somehow, but she had to be in her late teens, maybe even twenty. Then the world snapped into focus as it dawned on me.

She looked like Haley.

I stopped, trying to make sense of what this was. I hadn’t seen Haley in months, but she went to college hours away so it was to be expected. She was supposed to come visit over Christmas, but she called and canceled at the last minute, citing a bunch of her friends wanted her to go skiing with them. We were disappointed, but being that she was beginning to experience life at the cusp of adulthood, Mom and Dad uncharacteristically cut her needed slack. I’d never before seen Haley dressed the way this girl was, but the height, hair and features looked right.

“C’mon, kiddo.”

Dad took my hand and began to lead me out of the arcade, his pace leisurely.

I kept watching behind me, at the girl I thought was but couldn’t be my sister. A man appeared next to her, his back to me. He was bald, with a sleeveless shirt, narrow cut jeans and a metal chain hooked to his belt loop that hung partway down his leg and snaked back up into his back pocket. The girl looked at him, then back to me and her lips moved, saying something I could neither hear nor understand.

Then the door shut and she was gone.

“That’s Haley.”

Dad turned to me, creases in his forehead.


“I saw Haley.”

“She’s away at school, son.”

Chaz and I sat by the big fountain with our drinks while Dad drank coffee and paged through a book he bought. I loved Dad and looked to him for guidance and knowledge, but this time he was wrong.

The skinny, troubled girl I’d seen in the arcade was definitely my sister.

Or what used to be.

I woke up and it was still dark outside. I was dreaming something I couldn’t remember except there was this strange, frantic, rattling sound, like a rack of dishes going into the dishwasher, that woke me and it was so loud and so real it took me several minutes to realize it was part of the dream. It was the third time that week I had it, but it was one that faded almost immediately from memory, leaving behind only the knowledge it had happened. I groaned, rolled over on my side, and closed my eyes, trying to fix my pillow so it was comfortable, but after laying there for several minutes, I knew I wasn’t getting back to sleep.


It was two weeks since the Boom Boom Barn and I’d kept telling myself things were getting better, but denial was a talent I hadn’t fully realized, and it was a tiny voice compared to the very loud one telling me Haley was in trouble, Chaz was worse not better and other, equally terrible things that flitted just beyond my grasp. Dad brought up Bedbugs in the car on the way to pick up Mom from the grocery store when the battery in her car died, but I just pretended I didn’t hear him. The only part of that whole affair I was interested in exploring had nothing to do with Mom or Dad, and as much as I wanted to tell him so, a small part of me knew it would come out screwy and more than likely spark even more unwanted discussions.

Dad was erudite; an academic. Love wasn’t particularly difficult because it could be measured, treated empirically. But expressing feelings beyond the ones suited to men were, for him, akin to alchemy. We had a relationship based on the things we could do together and those experiences we shared, which was more than acceptable if what I needed was a friend. And in being friends, I was grateful, but when I needed a father, someone to be who I couldn’t, well, that subject was its own Bedbugs. When I needed protection from spectral badger armies, there was no one better suited. But Haley, Chaz, snoopy dogs, and yes, even Bedbugs, were just too heavy. As much as I needed solutions, I needed mechanisms to cope, and those things were, to my unease, beyond his scope of expertise.

I was acutely aware being a father to me wasn’t easy. If Mom’s frustrations were any indication, he was in over his head. But there is a unique opportunity, in being parents, to behold one’s own qualities, for better or worse, in their child, and that can be more than anyone is prepared to handle. I suspected I was a constant reminder of things better left unaddressed, but I didn’t give it much thought; it was beyond my control. That’s what I told myself every time things got out of hand, which seemed to happen more and more as the days passed.

It was a Tuesday; a day begging to end badly.

Just one more for the fire.

I was in my room, sent there for eating three cookies when Mom said I could have two. I could still taste the peanut butter since I didn’t have a chance to get a drink before she caught me. I was listening to my second stomach when I took it, whose voice was louder than the one replaying Mom’s instructions. It told me she made three dozen of them, she’d never notice one extra missing, and bad things would happen if I didn’t do as I was told. That was the problem: bad things would happen either way, and this was years before I’d even heard of Joseph Heller. I decided Mom’s was a fury which could be mitigated and committed myself to insubordination. Mid bite, I was told to stay in my room until supper and I’d be going right back when I was done, with a smack on the butt with the wooden spoon for emphasis.

When Dad walked in the back door forty-five minutes later, he got a wooden spoon of his own.

They were in the kitchen, and I couldn’t make anything out beyond they were fighting because their voices were raised. At that point, I was used to it, despite putting me further on edge than I already was. Second stomach chortled at the prospect of stuffing my face at the dinner table, but I ignored it. I needed a distraction and listening to Mom and Dad go at it seemed like as good a one as any. I cracked my door open and huddled on the floor, listening.

“--is again?”

“What? You think I don’t know what you do while you’re at work?”

“What I always do. Work.”

“HUH. Since you took that new position you have all that extra time to get all friendly with the secretaries.”

“And why would I do that?”


“We don’t even have secretaries.”

“What about that black woman?”

“Which black woman?”


“Now you’re just being irrational.”

“That sounds just like something you’d say, ASSHOLE.”

“How am I the asshole?”

“I’m not the one with something on the side.”

“Neither am I.”


I quietly shut my door and their voices faded, to my relief. It was worse than usual, but I mentally filed it away to be dealt with at a later date. Their arguments were like the weather: seasonal and ever present. And while they would always be there, there was a certain relief in knowing, like the weather, it would never not be there, which meant my home, damaged as it was, would never be broken. It was cold comfort, but to my six year old self, preferable to the alternative.

We ate supper in stone silence, but second stomach laughed the entire time.

The next day was only halfway through and I wanted a do over. Chaz was withdrawn and uncommunicative. I tried to cheer him up by telling him jokes and showing him where all the boob drawings were in my Mad Magazine, but every attempt fell flat. I kept telling myself it was a process, drawing on my knowledge of afternoon talk shows, and that he would come to terms with it in his own way on his own time. But I knew this was somehow different. He was improving after the Boom Boom Barn, day by day, until about a week ago, where he practically reverted back to where he started. I tried talking to him about it, but it was like he was completely shut down. The teachers noticed a change, but made minimal attempts to draw him out; even Mrs Greer came by more often than usual, always making eye contact and offering strained smiles. I felt like I was letting her down, but more importantly, I was letting down my best friend.

I decided to make one more effort to get him to at least talk or laugh at the end of the day. He was upstairs, in the furthest corner of the library, sitting by himself. I pulled up a chair and kicked his foot.

“C’mon. Grab your balls, it’s time to go.”

He made no effort to move and I decided to dial it up from rude to obnoxious. I sniffed several times.

“You shit yourself?”

Still nothing. I was getting annoyed.

“Mrs Switt said you were a cricket dick and has the pictures to pr--”

“I know what you’re doing.”


“Duh yourself.”

“C’mon, it sucks when you’re like this.”

“I have my reasons.”

“Which are?”


“No, really.”


“Tell me.”

“You really want to know?”

“What do you think?”

“I’m asking.”

“Errr, yes. All right?”


Chaz slouched, slipping a hand into his front pocket and pulling something out. It was folded once, a piece of paper maybe. He handed it to me and I realized it was a photograph.

“Dad took the picture. On the day-- the day she--”

I opened it carefully to see Chaz standing next to his Mom and sister in front of their van at what looked like a roadside rest area. There were trees in the background and an old man walking his--

“Well, you know what h-happened.”

At that point I’d stopped listening. I could only stare at the picture in horror.

It was the van.

The van.

Chaz was smiling, something I hadn’t seen him do in weeks.

So was his mom-- in her purple track suit, white shoes and baby blue tee--

Long, blonde hair.

Hazel eyes.

My head filled with screams.

Chaz’s mom was--

I felt acid splash in the back of my throat.

“You ok, Whisker?”

I dropped it and ran. Ran down the stairs, ran through the classroom, past my locker and through the double doors out into the playground area. I kept running across the yard and into the woods and didn’t stop until I tripped on an exposed tree root and fell to my knees, skinning my palms on a partially buried log under the leaves.

I sat there, lungs heaving, mind racing, trying to make sense of the picture Chaz showed me.

The Van Family.

My family.

The Mom.

She was--

She couldn’t be--

I started to cry; fat tears rolling down my face, nose running. I covered my face with my hands and bawled like a two year old as my stomachs too turns doing somersaults. I was beyond denial, beyond sense.

I thought of Chaz’s sister, grinning, arm around their mom, giving a thumbs up.

And the dancing, smiling Snoopy on her shirt.

Mom couldn’t get me to eat that night. She went through the whole rigamarole: checking my forehead, asking me if my stomach felt all right, asking if I felt tired, weak, cold. I always shook my head, but refused to speak. Second stomach howled with rage, but it was buried down deep in the hole that opened up that afternoon. Mom was concerned and sat with me, rubbing my back, but it felt more like she was scrubbing a dirty pan. She wasn’t the mom I truly, deeply loved and it wasn’t her hand that was supposed to be there.

I finally knew how Chaz felt. Ever since I had the dream, I thought of the Van Family as my real one. Mom and Dad were my adopted parents, who loved me in their own way, but like a movie, I would one day run out the door in search of them, and after adventures with strange children and stray dogs, fleeing capture from beat cops and a crafty yet sympathetic detective who understands my plight and ultimately lets me go, I am reunited with them and I finally get to live the life I was meant to. I knew it was just a fantasy, but when Mom whipped me for only drinking half of my milk, it was one I wanted to be real more than anything.

Mom was saying something, but I couldn’t hear her; everything sounded like when my head submerged in the bathtub. But there was one thing I could hear clearly, like the sound from the dreams that kept me from getting enough sleep for the past week, a jingling, rattling crash that just wouldn’t stop. I put my hands over my ears and stood up, walking from my room into the hallway. I could see both of the other bedroom doors were open just enough I could squeeze through. Haley’s was dark, except for a flickering, murky blue light. Wisps of smoke curled around the molding and I looked away before I saw the cavorting silhouettes.

Mom and Dad’s room was brighter, almost as if the sun shone through the windows, but it was after eight o’clock, and almost certainly dark outside. The rattling continued, and I moved toward the door, each step slow and careful, peering around the edge of the door. I saw the light wasn’t from the sun at all, but a lamp without a shade, the naked light harsh to my eyes. Frantic shadows bounced over the walls, but I couldn’t tell what they were, only that they appeared to match the tempo of jingling, rattling, crashing that concluded its crescendo when my hand touched the door and I could finally see everything.

The snoopy dog shuddered violently on top of the dresser, ears flapping back and forth, flat bottom bouncing off the surface in a racket that made my eyes water.

Jingle jingle jingle.

Rattle rattle rattle.


It danced back and forth, like a little kid shaking it.

Like the eyes on a Kit-Cat clock.

Like it was laughing.

I covered my eyes and screamed.

Sleep was deep and dreamless, and for he first time in what seemed like months, I didn’t wake up feeling like I’d never gone to bed. Mom wanted to keep me home from school that day, but after finally putting something in my stomachs, I felt good enough I convinced her I was okay to go. She was incredulous, and repeatedly asked if I was okay, if I felt well enough.

I answered yes every time.

For some reason the day felt right, but I took it in stride. I just wanted to get through school without a major incident and maybe get a cheesburger and a milkshake for supper. With all that had been going on, I really thought I had it coming.

Chaz greeted me at the door like he'd been waiting for me to arrive. He seemed surprised to see me, figuring after what happened the day before, I'd need a day or two to recuperate. But as we talked, and his mood darkened, I came to realize he wasn't surprised like I thought.

"What are you doing here."

"What do you mean?"

"Shouldn't you be at home?"

"Why? I feel fine."

"I'm sure you do."


"Don't you?"

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Stop fucking around."

I cursed like a sailor given the chance, as did Chaz, probably from hanging around with me. But one thing we rarely, if ever, did was aim it at each other. If the teacher was being a bitch, we said so. If one of our classmates pulled some asshole move, we called him on it. But when it came to calling each other out, we were a little less severe, understanding that we each had our own shit we had to carry around and sometimes that meant we weren't always perfect gentlemen. It was one of the things that defined us as best friends. And something I thought would never change.

"I'm not."

"Oh come ON."

"You're not making sense."

"How's this for sense? Stay away from her."

"What? From who?"

"You know goddam well who."

"I really don't."

"My mom."


"She isn't yours and she isn't some whore."

"What the fuck are talking about?"

"I know everything you did and it makes me want to vomit."

"I don't even--"

"Shut UP. Just shut the fucking fuck up."

Guilty cubes of ice crawled under my flesh, but my mind kept trying to convince myself I had no idea what he was talking about and, out of fear, I went along with it. My mouth was shut, but I couldn't keep myself from trembling.

"She's MY mom. MINE. Not yours."

I nodded in deference, backing up a step.

"And I'm telling you this because we were friends, but it'll only happen once, so listen up you piece of shit."

I swallowed hard and searched frantically for a way to resolve this, to calm him down, to keep the situation from careening into an ocean of fire.

"Stay away from her or I'll fucking kill you."

I blinked.

"You hear me?"

I froze.

"Do you?"

I nodded.

"Don't talk to me again. Ever."

He left me there, shaking, practically wetting myself. I felt nauseated, but didn't have the energy to throw up. Chaz didn't so much as look at me the rest of the day and I felt myself slipping back into an all too familiar feeling of helplessness. It didn't make sense he would be mad about something I was pretty sure only existed in my head. It was something, like the snoopy dog, I told no one. It wasn't exactly a topic I wanted to bring up in casual conversation. I may have only been six, but I wasn't an idiot.

Mom picked me up at the normal time and I crawled into the back seat like usual. When she asked me if I was still feeling okay, I told her I was, but didn't elaborate. I wanted a cheeseburger, hell, two of them, but just couldn't bring myself to ask Mom to take me somewhere to get them. I just wanted to go to sleep and hope when I woke up the next day I'd find out everything that happened was a dream or a hallucination or all in my stupid, screwed up head.

Mom looked at me from the rear view mirror.

"I need to stop at Woolworth's and pick up a couple things, okay honey?"


We had to pass the Boom Boom Barn to get to Wooldworth's and I looked toward the Employees Only as we went by. It was dark, but I could tell the door was closed. I wondered if what I saw, the girl I thought was Haley, was just another in what I was beginning to think was a long list of phantoms brought on by lack of sleep, dehydration and stress. The more I thought about it, the more it rang true for me.

Woolworth's smelled like it always did; something I normally enjoyed greatly and wanted to visit just so I could bask in the aroma of roasted nuts and candy bins. But that day I was in such a fog it barely registered. As we walked by the clothes, I slowed down, and eventually stopped; Mom kept walking and disappeared into the cosmetics section. I slipped through a couple of racks, moving toward the center, and stopped at one full of women's slacks. I got down on my knees and crawled underneath until I was at the center and sat down, pulling my knees up to my chin.

I wanted to cry, but couldn't find the tears. Instead, I just breathed in and out, in and out, and thought about Chaz, the seeming end of our friendship, and wondered what I would do without a best friend.

My only friend.

I felt a tap on my shoulder and I looked up with a start.


I scooted all the way around and saw the girl from the Boom Boom Barn hunkered between the pairs of slacks in front of me. Up close she looked worse than when I saw her the first time; eyes dark and gaunt with heavy eyeliner, hair in tangled sideways ponytails and a host of bruises around her neck and shoulders. She was wearing a tank top with Ms Pac Man about to eat some cherries and a pair of shorts similar to the ones from before. She looked like she'd been crying, and I knew how she felt.

"P-please don't say anything."

I nodded in assent. And in that moment, I realized how much I missed my big sister, heedless of our past.

"I need you to listen very carefully, Whisker."

I nodded several more times.

"You need to get rid of it."

My eyes went wide and I mouthed the word "what".

"The snoopy dog. It's trying to kill us."
The Trouble with WomenSo I wasn't alone.

And maybe I wasn’t crazy after all.

“Are you crazy? You RUINED it.”

Haley threw the picture on her bed and came at me, lips curled over her teeth, eyes wide.

“Stay out of my room you little fucker.”

She pushed me out head first and slammed the door.

Haley’s then boyfriend was sort of a big deal. Being in a small town, having a father who was a well-respected high school science teacher and a mother who worked for the mayor was almost the same as having money or being a member of the local government. People not only knew who you were, but took you seriously. He was popular in school, playing both football and baseball, and carried an air of importance wherever he went. He was also a fairly talented artist, as evidenced by a drawing of the Incredible Hulk he penciled and presented to Haley in a framed portfolio for her birthday. She wasn’t terribly impressed, but in being a gift from his heart instead of his wallet, she was appreciative.

I, on the other hand, thought it was the coolest thing in the world.

I studied every line, every muscle, the ridge of the brow, the wide, flat nose, the frayed jeans. I tried drawing along next to it, but every time it came out looking like a fat, shirtless hobo. Drawing was one of my favorite things to do and making it look like a comic book or Mad Magazine was something I wanted more than anything since I could remember. Being six, I still had a ways to go, but that didn’t keep me from trying.

I wanted to impress my big sister, but my skills being what they were, I knew I’d never be able to draw it the way I wanted to.

So I did the next best thing.

I watched the Incredible Hulk tv show religiously, and while I didn’t like it quite as much as Buck Rogers, that had more to do with lack of a recurring attractive female than quality or subject matter. And in being such a fan, I considered myself somewhat of an expert on the Hulk, particularly his look and demeanor. So confident was I, it was absurd I hadn’t come up with the idea before then, and when I went to my room for supplies, I was so excited I almost told Haley what I planned to do beforehand.


I waited until I knew she wasn’t home to start so it would be a surprise.

Then I got my best, sharpest crayons and set about coloring the original picture with all of the love and care a six year old can muster. I was especially careful to keep it inside the lines and make the rippled muscles and torn pants stand out with different degrees of pressure and line thickness. I couldn’t understand why Haley’s boyfriend hadn’t colored it himself, but silently thanked him for affording the opportunity to improve upon his work as a way of showing her brotherly affection.

I knew she’d love it.

“Oh my GOD.”

I knew she’d thank me.


Maybe even do something nice in return.


To see her now: lean, haunted, desperate, made me wish it was that day again. I would willingly endure her wrath a thousand times not to have to see her that way. There was something in her eyes that went beyond fear, beyond horror; a dull, vacant quality, a resignation to an un-life without joy, comfort or refuge. She sat with me in the clothing rack, legs crossed, with me in her lap, while she held and hugged me, lips pressed to my ear, dry and scratchy, whispering every dark, unspeakable cruelty she suffered. She was crying when she finished; a silent, shuddering thing, and I cried with her. For the first time, we were the same.

“You have to promise me.”


“You’ll get rid of it.”

“I will.”


“I promise.”

Mom was PISSED when she found me asleep under all the pants. She pulled me by my arm; legs still not quite awake, they were limp when she hauled me out. I fell to my knees, but she dragged me a good five feet into the aisle before she yanked my arm twice and my leash training told me it was time to stand up. I blinked slowly, brain and body unsynchronized.

"Didn't you hear me calling you?"


"I've been looking for you for twenty minutes."


"You're in BIG trouble, mister."


"No. You know you're supposed to come when I call you."


"It's too late for buts. You're lucky I don't spank you right here in front of everyone."


"What about Haley."

"I saw her."

"Don't lie to me. Come on."

"No, really--"


"But I saw her. She was--"

Mom spun me around so I was facing her and squatted down, which meant her patience was at an end and shit was about to get real. I swallowed dry.

"Now you listen to me. We're gonna march right out that door and I don't want to hear another peep out of you. Then we're going straight to the car and you're going to keep your mouth shut the whole way home or so help me God I'll pull over. Do you understand me?"

I nodded once.

"Good. We're going."

When we got home, Mom spanked me until I was able to get away and hide under the bed, where she cursed and jabbed at me with the yard stick. I flattened my back against the wall, one arm over my head and the other at my side and eventually she was too tired to continue. I laid there until it was safe, but ended up falling asleep and didn't wake up until Mom called for supper. I crawled out, both of my stomachs reminding me I would need to save my strength for the imminent battle with the snoopy dog. I ignored them, preferring not to think about it. Haley may have told me I needed to get rid of it, but what she didn't understand was I had other, bigger problems. My heart told me I promised, my stomachs echoing the sentiment, but in my head I knew I had only promised I would do it, without condition as to how and, more importantly, when.

Over supper, Mom recanted a tale of willful irresponsibility and bitter disregard. In it, she was the distraught mother, separated from her child, frantic, terrified, convinced her offspring fell prey to hoodlums and ne'er-do-wells intent on all manner of indescribable horrors she went on to describe in painstaking detail. Dad listened without a word, cutting his pork chops into increasingly smaller pieces as the story wove into a knot of outrage and betrayal. Once it was revealed I was not, in fact, a victim in at all, but the architect of this debacle, Dad looked to me moving only his eyes.

"Is this true?"

"Uhh, sort of."

"Did you leave Mom while you were in the store?"

"Well, I-- yeah."


"I was, umm--"



"Why were you sad?"

"I-- dunno."

"You know you're not supposed to leave your mom when you're in the store, don't you?"


"And you understand it's for your own safety, right?"

"I guess so."

"I think you owe your mom an apology."

"But I saw Haley."

"This again?"

"It's true. She was under the pants with me."

Dad looked to Mom with a raised eyebrow and she responded with her patented "bitch, please" face.

"Whisker, are you lying to me?"

"Of COURSE he's lying."

"Just-- let me handle this. Tell me. Are you lying?"


"Are you sure."


"Haley's at school, for chrissakes. He's lying."

"I know she is, but why would he make something like that up?"

"Who the hell knows? Why does he lie any other time?"

"Don't you think we should try to figure out why he says he keeps seeing Haley?"

"Why give him a reason to keep lying to us?"

"But what if he isn't?"

"Are you telling me you actually believe this?"

"I'm not saying I do. I'm saying I think we should figure out why he's saying it."

"This is a waste of time. And I don't appreciate you undermining my authority in front of him."

"Well you asked."

"Oh-- well why you just take him out for ice cream then? That'll teach him not to lie to us."

"Why don't you calm down."

"So you can gang up on me some more?"

"I don't think--"

"No, you DON'T think, asshole. I'm done with this conversation."

Mom took her plate, tossing it in the sink with a crash, and stormed out of the kitchen. Dad waited a full five seconds and went back to cutting up his food. His eyes didn't leave his plate until he was finished.

That night, Dad came into my room to wish me goodnight. He stood next to my bed, tucking me in.

"Why do you keep saying you saw Haley?"

"Because I do."

"You know she's at school, right?"


"Are you saying you lied?"


"It's impossible for her to be two places at once, wouldn't you agree."


"Then how do you explain yourself?"

"I can't. But I swear I'm not lying. I see her at the mall."

"The mall?"

"First in the arcade, then under all the pants."

"Why do you think you only see her at the mall?"

"I don't know."

"Do you think it's because you miss her?"


"You don't miss her?"

"Yes, but that's not why."

"Well-- does she talk to you?"

"Only today."

"What did she say?"

"Uhh-- I don't want to say."

"Why not?"

"It-- scares me."

"You know you can tell me. You don't have to be afraid."

"I can't."

"Are you sure?"


"Then I'm going to have to ground you from doing anything after school for a week. Or you can tell me. It's your choice."


Dad sighed and started to walk out of the room. He stopped in the doorway and looked back at me.

"Goodnight, Whisker."


"Sleep tight."


"Don't let the bedbugs bite."

I shuddered at the thought.

School was a progression of bad to worse in minute, pitiful increments. I got into three different fights just in the time I waited for the doors to open, the worst of which was with Chaz, who had become inconsolable and belligerent. He scowled at me, gave me the finger when no one else was looking and threw himself around, kicking and punching anything nearby. He acted like a rabid animal, out of his mind with anger. I tried to talk to him, but he was only interested in one thing, and once I was close enough, he punched me in chest. So intent on mending our relationship, I ignored it, pleading with him to calm down, but he took my unwillingness to fight as a sign of weakness and pounced on me, putting his hand on my face and grinding my head into the ground. I quickly pushed him off and ran for the building, having seen Mrs Straw unlock the doors. I slipped inside and threw everything I didn’t need in my locker, making sure I was within sight of at least one teacher at all times.

By lunch, Chaz was picking fights with other students and Mrs Switt separated him from the rest of the class, dragging his desk to the corner, where he was to sit for the remainder of the day. I watched him while he flipped through his workbooks, tearing out the pages one by one, and when he was finished with those, he started in on the textbooks. Mrs Switt took those away from him and warned him if the behavior continued, he’d be sent to the principal’s office. Instead, he stared at me, muttering to himself and smacking a fist into his open hand, promising a world of hurt when class was over.

Witnessing this behavior, Mrs Switt leaned down and spoke in low tones, but Chaz acted like he couldn’t hear her. Then she took his hand and led him from the classroom, his eyes on me until I thought his head would twist right off his neck. One of the boys who sat behind me chortled.

“Looks like someone wants to beat your ass, sissybitch.”

I stood inside the doors waiting for Mom after school. I saw Chaz’s father walk out the main entrance with him, holding Chaz’s hand and carrying his backpack. Chaz looked straight ahead until they got to their truck and he climbed in the front seat. Then his head turned slowly toward me and we locked eyes. He said something I couldn’t make out, but I could tell by the boiling hatred on his face it was better I didn’t.

That night, over pepperoni pizza and garlic bread, Mom and Dad said they were going on vacation for a week to visit Haley and that I would be staying with Aunt Kyanna and Uncle Trent while they were gone. I liked them a lot, but didn’t get to spend much time with them since Mom couldn’t decided if she could get along with her sister from one day to the next. Usually I would just get used to seeing them when Mom decided Aunt Ky was using her, talking behind her back, or just generally being a bitch. Ky was the cool aunt, at least in my book, and being her husband, Trent was by proxy. He worked on cars and Ky drove them; they owned a Corvette Stingray and an Olds Cutlass T-top I absolutely loved to ride around in. I swore I’d own a car like that when I was old enough.

I wouldn’t be going to Aunt Ky’s until that Sunday, but I already started making preparations. I made sure my Crayola crayon box sleeping bag was rolled up and securely tied, having tucked granola bars and some drawing supplies inside. Then I emptied my backpack-- which needed to be cleaned out anyway-- and set about getting clothes and other essentials. Once everything was ready, I tried to imagine the things we would do over a whole week. I only ever spent a few hours at a time with them and the prospect of seven days seemed like a dream come true. Most importantly, I would be out of the house, where the snoopy dog couldn’t get to me. I thought briefly of my promise to Haley, but it was just as quickly washed away with the image of relative safety in the hands of my aunt and uncle. I would be a chance for me to forget about everything and just have fun.

Isn’t that what kids are supposed to do?

There is a certain flippancy to youth I could easily see in others, but never myself. Carefree and without responsibility were concepts my young mind couldn’t wrap itself around. Admittedly, it was a rationale forged through fear and discipline; one I adopted out of necessity rather than choice. I sometimes wondered what life was like for other kids my age; not to have to do anything beyond being their age. Part of me thought it was possibly the best thing in the world. But another part thought it was quite the opposite: a life of illusion and ignorance. While illusion could sometimes be all right, the other was pretty much never so to my mind. I'd already spent so long being painfully aware of the decidedly un-childish aspects of life, the prospect of going back felt like just that: regression.

It was then I thought I should make good on my promise to Haley. With less than forty-eight hours until Mom and Dad dropped me off at Aunt Ky's, and be gone for a full week, I had the perfect chance to do away with the snoopy dog and afford it no means of retaliation by my absence. It was a plan borne of opportunity rather than prudence, but it was what I had.

I waited until I knew Mom and Dad were watching tv, walking first into the bathroom, flushing the toilet and pretending to wash my hands. I then walked quickly to my parent's bedroom door while the toilet water was still running, hoping it would mask the creaks and groans from the floor. I slipped quietly inside and headed for the dresser, mindful of my feet. From the edge of the bed I could see the top of the dresser where Dad put his wallet and car keys.

But no snoopy dog.

IT KNOWS was all I could think. But really, why wouldn't it? It was at least one step ahead of me from the get go and all I'd managed to do was fall into every trap it set for me. My mind reeled, and I backed into Mom's bureau, causing all of her bottles of perfume and nail polish and makeup to clink against one another. Something fell on the floor with a CLACK.

I turned to see what it was and found the snoopy dog sitting on the edge of the bureau, smiling at me. My bladder pinched and a broke out in a sweat. Then I took a step forward and, closing my eyes, I raised my hand to take it.



I felt like a dumbass. I suppose in my half-baked way at going about securing the snoopy dog, I was. Mom was less than pleased to find me in her bedroom, especially with all the trouble I'd been causing earlier in the week. Convinced I was still lying about Haley, her patience was already thin and she sent me to my room, slamming my door shut. At least she didn’t hit me.

I spent the rest of the weekend staying out of everyone’s way. Mom and Dad packed their things, argued a lot, but before I knew it, it was Sunday. We loaded up the car; Mom and Dad’s suitcases and overnight bags went in the trunk while my stuff went in the back seat with me. I was hoping we’d stop for burgers before they left me with Aunt Ky, but no such luck. The car pulled into her gravel driveway, the Olds parked off to the side, and I watched as five toy poodles popped their heads in the front bay window, one by one, in quick succession. Aunt Ky loved her dogs, likely more than people, and treated them as such. Mom told me on more than one occasion I was spoiled rotten, but compared to Ky’s poodles, I was an amateur.

When I said Aunt Ky was the cool aunt, what I meant was she was pretty much the polar opposite of Mom. She smoked, drank, wore frayed cutoff shorts well into September, and rode motorcycles when the mood struck. She was, in mom’s opinion, a bad influence, but not so bad I couldn’t spend a week with her while they were with my sister. Aunt Ky liked me because I was enough like Mom when she told me what to do, it was almost like ordering around her older sister, and I misbehaved enough she had plenty of opportunity. She lived in a squat ranch with an attached two car garage on the edge of town, just off the main highway. Her furnishings were straight out of the early nineteen-seventies, but half of the basement was finished, thanks to Uncle Trent, with a small bar on one end, and a man cave, replete with a lacquered tree stump coffee table and huge, fuzzy chairs in front of the tv, on the other. For as long as I could remember, the only source of light down there came from the television. Initially, I was scared, being a big, dark place I didn’t know. But several football games full of beer nuts, pork rinds and endless streams of pop later, it was one of my favorite places to be.

Aunt Ky opened the door inside the garage and I could hear barking from within. She walked out onto the bare concrete wearing faded Jordache jeans and a Dukes of Hazzard babydoll tee. Her feet were bare. She had a fringed brown leather necessaire with Native American beadwork where she kept her cigarettes and I noticed her hair was wet like she just got out of the shower. Then her poodles scrabbled out the door and surrounded her like bodyguards, barking and yapping. Dad let out a groan of resignation and Mom shot him a look. I could tell Mom's hackles were up and that it was best to just keep my mouth shut.

"Are we too early?"

"Naw. Just getting a few things straightened up."

"Good. We would have called, but we were already running late."

"I know how it is."

Aunt Ky lifted her chin, eyes sliding toward me, and gave me a wink.

"Go on and put your stuff in the spare, Bud. Don't mind the dogs-- they won't bite you."

I grinned and, armed with my backpack and sleeping bag, ambled into the house with three of the dogs bouncing around me, sniffing and yipping. Ky's house smelled weird to me; like stale cigarettes and dog fur and too long baked potatoes. I noticed a large basket on the floor next to the stove full of them, with a bright pink dog ball in the center, and I wondered briefly what dog spit would taste like. I could hear Mom talking to Ky outside over the barking.

"--ot a problem, Kath."

"Just looked like you had other things going on."

"My life doesn't stop when you call, if that's what you're asking."

"You know that's not what I meant."

"Why bring it up then?"

"Well-- I don't want to put you out."

"If I didn't want to do it--"

"I know. It's just, we haven't always seen eye to eye."

"And why do you think that is?"

"I wish I knew."

"That sounds like something you'd say."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You want me to spell it out?"

"We need to get going. Nice talking to you, Kyanna."

"Have a nice trip, Kathryn. Drive careful."

I listened to Dad pull the car out of the driveway and head back down the road, then went to the spare bedroom. It was dark inside, with a double-sized bed in the corner opposite the door, a dresser next to it, and other odds and ends stacked and stored at the end of the room. It looked more like a storage space than a bedroom, but there was a pillow on the bed, shaped like a football helmet, that said Pittsburgh Steelers, and for some reason it made me feel safe. I slept well that night and didn't have bad dreams or think much about the things that happened at home. I wished I could always live with Aunt Ky.

Or at least sleep there.

The following morning I had Sugar Smacks and rode with Ky in the Olds to school. There were only two weeks left, and being that virtually all of our classwork for the year was finished, Mrs Switt decided we could spend the whole morning working on personal projects and asked for volunteers to help her start getting the room cleaned and organized for the end of the year. I liked Mrs Switt all right, but straightening up wasn't something I particularly enjoyed, so I chose to spend the morning reading and drawing. I had a plastic shoe box full of markers I kept at school and I went through them all to see which ones I'd be taking home and which ones were dried out or broken and needed to be thrown away. I hadn't seen Chaz, but didn't ask anyone about him. After last time, I wasn't sure I still wanted to be friends.

It was a nice, relatively warm day; perfect jacket weather, and recess was outside. There was a recent crackdown on our collective stick throwing escapades, so that part of the surrounding wooded area was off limits, but the part around the side of the building where a large pile of overgrown fill dirt and surplus lot gravel sat behind the dumpster was still fair game. The usual forest war kids were elsewhere, and I surmised the recent restriction quelled much of the bloodthirst for fear of reprisal. It didn't matter much to me, and this close to Summer, without my best friend and partner in crime, it was just as well. I quickly grew bored, drifting over to a crop of foxtails near the dirt pile, and began picking them and swinging them around, listening to the way the air whooshed over the tips. I spun myself in circles until I was dizzy and wobbily sat down to steady myself. I closed my eyes, waiting for the elliptical sensation in my head to cease, when I heard crunching footsteps in the gravel nearby. They were slow and measured, and I waited while they came closer. Once they were next to me, I opened one eye and saw Bashika towering over me with huge brown eyes and an upturned lip.

"The fuck are you doing sitting in the dirt?"

"I made myself dizzy."

"That makes you a dumbass."

"Think so?"

"White Boy, I know so."

"Why do you keep calling me that?"

"You're white, aren't you?"

"What difference does it make."

"Makes no difference to me."

"Me neither."

"So what should I call you then?"

"What's wrong with my name?"

"Nothing wrong with it. I just like teasing you."


"Because your face gets all red when I do it."


"So I think it's cute."


"Give me your hand."

She held hers out, palm up, fingers wiggling, and I took it gingerly. She hauled me to my feet without preamble and I nearly fell forward from the force. She was strong.

"Come with me."

Bashika wore Pepto pink denim pants and a white hooded sweatshirt that had a cartoon puppy with huge, sad eyes on the front. And, of course, her saddle shoes, only today the ribbons were pink instead of red, matching both her slacks and the beads in her hair. She led me into the woods nearby, perhaps twenty-five yards, where we could barely see the playground, but were still well within earshot of the whistle. She stopped and turned to me.

"Right here."


She looked at me with a small, self-serving smile on her face. It made me nervous.

"What now?"

"I want to see it."

"Uhh, see what?"

"Show it to me."

"What are you talking about?"

"Your thing. Pull down your pants and show me."

"Umm-- no."


"I don't want to."

"You want me to hit you?"

"What? NO."

"Then do it."


Bashika balled up a fist and cocked her arm back, biting her bottom lip. She was used to getting what she wanted, and today was no exception. She punched me in the arm, above the elbow, and even though I knew she could have hit me a lot harder, it would most likely still bruise. I tried not to let her know it hurt, but my body ignored my brain and I held my arm protectively while twisting around in place.

"Pull your pants down now."


"Want me to hit you again?"


"Then you better do it."

I nodded quickly and started to unbutton my pants. I was grateful I could no longer wear the little kids jeans that had a snap in the front instead of a button. At least I could fumble with it for a while and try to think of a way out of this. I knew running was a waste of time; with her long legs, Bashika would catch me almost immediately. I looked around for a stick to throw at her, but dismissed that idea almost as soon as I came up with it. Hurting Bashika would only get me in more trouble than I already was.

"Why are you doing this?"

"I like you, stupid."

"You could've asked me."

"I did ask you."

"This isn't a very good place for this."

"I don't care. Just pull them down."

I resigned myself to the embarrassment and humiliation and finally unbuttoned the front, taking my zipper and slowly lowering it. Bashika watched me like a birthday girl watching her mom bring in the cake. I closed my eyes and sucked in a huge breath.


"Oh shit."

I opened my eyes and Bashika was already running back toward the building, leaving me to fix my pants all by myself. Considering the way things were going, it was probably a good thing.

"Who's with you? WHISKER."

Mrs Straw yelled my name two more times before I got out of the woods, trying to look casual. She gave me a disapproving frown and told me to stand against the wall until recess was over, but there were only five minutes left so it didn't matter to me. I noticed Bashika didn't have to stand against the wall and figured she'd told Mrs Straw it was my idea. Whatever.

When Aunt Ky picked me up, the whole inside of the Olds smelled like cigarette smoke and I coughed a couple of times.

"Lemme roll down your window, Bud."


"You bet."

On the way back to the house, we stopped for gas and cigarettes and she bought me a Pepsi. It was probably my favorite drink after milk, and I usually drank it fast so the carbonation burned my throat, but today I savored it. For some reason it tasted better than usual. It was a bottle instead of a can, and thought maybe that was why. When Ky got back in the car, she was sipping on a beer, cigarette dangling from her lips, and held out her hand.

"Lemme see that bottle."

I handed it to her and she tucked it between the seat and the console.

"Put it like this when you aren't taking a drink so you don't spill any."


She dropped the beer in the can holder and started the car, revving the engine, and I felt like King Shit of Turd Mountain riding shotgun with an adult who not only thought I was cool, but treated me like one. I forgot about my altercation with Bashika and just enjoyed the ride down the highway. "Magnet and Steel" was on the radio and the windows were down, the wind blowing through my hair. I didn't want it to end.

When we got back, we came in through the garage and I noticed several potatoes lined up on the stove top. Uncle Trent still wasn't home and I went into the spare to dump my backpack. Aunt Ky yelled from the kitchen.

"We're having steak and baked potatoes for supper."

I wandered into the hallway to see her walk out the door with the dogs, no doubt taking them outside to use the bathroom. I noticed the door to her bedroom was open most of the way and while it was fairly dark inside, something about the way the walls were bare and clothes were strewn about the bed and floor made me want to look inside.

The floor was carpeted in every room except the kitchen and I made no sound as I crept through the open door and began to search for something interesting. I tried not to step on any of the clothes, but there were so many it was virtually impossible. There was an open closet opposite the bed and I made a mental note to check that last. Then I walked along the side of the bed toward the nightstand where I could see an ornate alarm clock with a leaping buck on the face and polished gold bells, ringer and trim. Uncle Trent grew up on a farm and was a hunter and fisherman; if it came in camouflage, he either had it or wanted it. I had a pair of camouflage pants from the army surplus store I wasn't allowed to wear to school, but I brought them with me to wear while I stayed over thinking they would impress him. There was a pile of loose change around the clock and I looked to see a huge clear plastic jug sitting next to the stand about halfway full of coins. I thought there had to be at least a thousand dollars in there and it occurred to me Aunt Ky was pretty easy to get along with for someone who was practically rich.

I turned my attention to the high boy behind me and caught my reflection in the dark wood desk mirror. For some reason, I looked thinner, almost malnourished, and my hair hung thin, limp and lifeless. I could tell my eyes were dark, almost black, like the pupils swallowed the irises. I quickly averted my gaze, heart thumping. When I looked again, I saw that my image was back to normal and my pulse began to relax.

I opened the top drawer to find it full of socks and underwear, something I wasn’t interested in investigating further, and as I was closing it, I noticed something in the right side corner. I stuck my hand in and pulled out a Polaroid photo like the ones Mom took with her instant camera. In it was a nude woman laying in bed with her arms over her head, tied together at the wrist with some sort of cord, maybe a bungee, eyes barely open. She was covered in scratches and bruises and I could see the area between her legs covered in hair that looked like it came from one of Dad’s armpits. Somehow, she looked familiar to me, and as I searched it for clues, I noticed the end of a cattle prod lying next to her, the rest disappearing off the edge of the photo.


Aunt Ky came up behind me and snatched the photo from my hand, taking my arm and pulling me away from the dresser as she strode past me and opened the drawer to the nightstand, jamming the picture inside.

“You’re not supposed to be in here.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You should be.”

“I didn’t know. I just wanted to look around.”

“The bedroom’s off limits.”

“Please don’t be mad.”

“Go on. Out in the kitchen.”

I walked stiff-legged, expecting a spank before my feet hit the linoleum, but it never came. Ky shut the door behind her and walked over to the stove, turning it up to four fifty. She dragged a metal-framed step stool with reinforced hard rubber platforms out of the corner and over in front of the sink with her foot.

“Stand here and roll up your sleeves.”

I stood on top of the stool in front of the sink while she tossed the potatoes into the empty basin and turned on the hot water. She then handed me a short, wood handle bristle brush.

“Scrub these until all the dirt is gone, but don’t be too rough. Leave the skin on them.”

Ky got four steaks from the fridge and began to season them with salt and pepper while I cleaned the potatoes. She then laid them out across a cast iron grill plate on the front two burners, but didn’t turn them on. With a sigh, she opened the oven and put the potatoes in, stabbing each one several times with a fork.

“Dry your hands on the towel there and go sit on the couch and watch tv. It’ll be an hour before it’s ready.”

I watched Sanford and Son and the dogs chase each other around the house. Uncle Trent came home right before supper was ready and came into the front room, slipping his trucker cap on the coat rack and melting into the recliner with a grunt. Ky followed him in, opening the closet and getting three metal tv trays, setting Trent’s up first. Several minutes later, the food was served and she put my plate down in the tray with a glass of Pepsi. I was hungry enough to eat a moose and dug in with abandon, cutting the steak up into little bites.

It was then I noticed the steak was definitely not done.

I’d never eaten beef that wasn’t brown outside and gray in. Mom cooked it until it was dead several times over and did that with pretty much all the meat we ate. To me, the steak Ky made was raw, and she could tell by the look on my face something was wrong.

“Something the matter?”

“It’s-- red inside.”

“It’s just a little pink. It won’t hurt you, Bud.”

“Are you sure?”

“First time you eat bloody steak it’ll make your tummy a little sick, but it won’t last long and it’ll only happen the one time.”

“If you say so.”

I ate every bite and asked for more. It was so good I asked to eat what Ky didn’t and she said I should slow down. Almost twenty ounces later, I sat on the couch, watching tv with a full belly and a smile on my face. I went to bed early that night, just after dark, and fell almost immediately to sleep.

I woke up three hours later, stomach cramped, and I knew I should have listened. While I was trying to decide if I should get up and go to the bathroom, I noticed voices coming from the other side of the wall. They were low and muffled, and I could only make out a few words.

“--take it, you--”

“Oh, pleas--”

“--uck it, bit--”

“--es, mas--”

“--kin ho--”


The sounds scared me and I buried my head under a pillow. Eventually I fell asleep to bad dreams filled with whispering, moaning bits of conversation I couldn’t understand. It was fitful and once morning came I didn’t want to get up. Aunt Ky had to drag me out of bed and force breakfast down my throat. I felt like a zombie for the rest of the day and went to bed without eating supper that night.

The rest of the week was relatively uneventful. Ky seemed nicer than usual and spent time with me every chance she got, even sitting next to me on the couch instead of her recliner when I watched tv. Even though I’d been there several days, her dogs hadn’t yet warmed up to me. They ran away when I tried to pet them and generally avoided whatever room I was in, which I eventually decided was just how they were. I’d never had a positive experience with dogs before that, and I assumed this situation was no different.

Ky made steak for me again that night, giving me the whole thing instead of cutting it up into smaller portions like before. It was cooked the same way and I enjoyed every bite. She watched me as I cut it up and swirled the pieces around on the plate with my fork. Uncle Trent was gone overnight for work, so it was just us. We played several rounds of UNO when we got sick of watching tv and she even got the big people cards out and tried to teach me how to play poker, but it was too much for me to remember, so we settled on gin rummy. I won five out of six and I suspected she was letting me win, but when I asked she denied it. Said she was just having a streak of bad luck.

Before I went to bed, Ky asked me to give her my pajama bottoms so she could wash them with some of my other dirty clothes. I told her I didn’t have another pair to wear to bed and she said I could just sleep in my underwear. That wasn’t something I’d ever done before, but Dad did, and I liked how Ky made me feel more like an adult, so I agreed to it. I liked making Aunt Ky happy.

I woke up some time later, groggy, wondering what time it was, but sensing it was still too early to get up. It was pitch black in the room and I peered into the darkness, trying to see the outline of the bedroom door. Somehow I could tell it was open, but distinctly remembered closing it before I fell asleep.

“Shhh. Go back to sleep.”

My heart bounced in my ears and I looked frantically around until I felt a hand of my head, gently pushing it back down on the pillow.


“It’s okay.”

She got into bed beside me, pulling the covers over us both. My thoughts drifted to Van Mom, whom I hadn’t thought much about since Chaz freaked out on me weeks ago. I wondered if she would kiss me with her tongue like she did in the dream. And while I certainly felt like I was awake, a part of me thought I was dreaming and in bed by myself like always.


She took my hand, putting it on her leg and rubbing back and forth slowly.

“Close your eyes. No peeking.”

She put her other hand on my leg and, in much the same way, began to rub it slowly like she had me do. I concentrated on keeping my eyes closed and trying to go to sleep and after several minutes, the repetitive motion lulled me into a waking slumber where I was vaguely aware of motion and occasional low sounds that came from far away.


“That’s a good boy.”

I woke up late the next morning and I could hear Mom talking to Aunt Ky in the living room. I got dressed and walked in, rubbing the sleepers from my eyes. Mom was on the couch, Ky on the recliner, and they both stopped talking to look at me. They were both smiling, especially Mom.

“Your aunt says you were very well-behaved.”


“Uh huh. I hear you were quite the little gentleman.”

“I guess.”

“Well I’m proud of you, Whisker.”

Mom may have been proud, but that didn’t make me feel any better. The was something deep in my gut, something other than second stomach, that wouldn’t settle. I went back to the spare to get my stuff packed up while Mom got my freshly laundered clothes from Aunt Ky. She helped me put it all in the car and talked to Ky a little while longer out in the driveway. The dogs were all inside, barking and yapping and watching from the front window.

“Say goodbye to your aunt, Whisker.”

Aunt Ky got down on one knee and put her arms out for a hug, which I obliged with some reluctance. She held me tight and kissed me right on the lips; something she’d never done before. It felt weird and I tried not to show it on my face.

“Take care, Bud.”


I was quiet the whole car ride home while Mom told me about the things she and Dad did with Haley over the past week. I watched the cars and the houses go by out the window, barely paying attention. When we got home, Dad was in the driveway, changing the oil in the Plymouth. I grabbed what I could from the car and went in the back door, dumping my clothes in the kitchen and taking the rest to my room. I waited for Mom to come inside or to yell at me to get the rest out of the car, but after several minutes, I still didn’t hear her. Maybe she was talking to Dad outside, or the old lady who lived next door. The unsettled feeling in my stomach wasn’t as bad, but it still nagged me, like second stomach so often did. In this case, however, I didn’t even want to think about eating.

It was at that moment I knew what I had to do. It was my promise to Haley I’d been avoiding-- afraid of following through-- that made my stomach feel like it was full of marbles. My vision narrowed, my pulse quickened, but I knew I was beyond the point where I could keep pretending.
I walked straight to Mom and Dad’s bedroom, opened the door, and strode in, seeing the snoopy dog sitting on top of Dad’s dresser like normal. It smiled that awful, too big smile, but I put those thoughts aside, thinking about all the times I’d gotten into fights and kicked the crap out of the other kid, of Haley’s dark, hollow eyes, pleading with me, of Van Mom’s gentle touch and big boy kisses.

I knew I couldn’t reach the top of the dresser from the floor, so I pulled the bottom drawer out to stand on. I half expected to see it brimming with gore like in the vision, but it was just Dad’s cold weather sweaters. Then I pulled the top drawer out just a little to give me something to hold onto while I climbed up the bottom one. A few moments later, I was eye level with the snoopy dog and my breathing rapid fire like I’d just run home from down the street.

I put my hand forward.

The snoopy dog smiled.

My fingers strained, inching closer.


Finally, sweat dripping off my forehead, my hand closed on the snoopy dog and I yanked it from its spot, sliding off the bottom drawer with a thud.

I expected my hand to burn, to feel like I’d stuck my tongue in the wall socket, even cold, like the inside of the freezer. But it was smooth, and slightly cool to the touch, like a dinner plate.

Then I felt the sensation in my arm. A quick, intense pulse that shot from my fingertips all the way up my arm and into my belly like the fiery, incandescent balls of a Roman candle.

I gasped, taking a step back. There was no way I was prepared for what happened to me. I almost fell to my knees, so overloaded were my senses.

I stood there, in the middle of my parent’s bedroom, snoopy dog in hand.

And it felt--

Cat CakeBirds in the trees.

I could taste blood on my lip and I immediately knew there was no way I could hide it from Mom. I thought of my cousins and wished I was eating birthday cake. I didn’t even particularly care that much for cake. I mean, it was all right, but it certainly wasn’t better than donuts or pie. Yet in that moment, that tiny, wallet-sized measurement of time, I could really go for a slice of--

“Get up, mutherfucker. I ain’t done put a hurt on you.”

Déjà vu.

Shane was the kid down the street-- everyone with a down the street’s got one. He was stocky, tough looking, dark-eyed and dark-haired, wore his trucker cap cocked just to the side, knees of his jeans always dusty and dirty from playing too hard. His dad either worked at or owned-- I never figured out which-- a junk yard a couple towns over. He was a year ahead of me and had a sister a year behind. There was a mental demarcation I had separating my block into two parts: My Side and the Wrong Side. Shane lived two houses past the Wrong Side. If our street had train tracks, he’d live beyond them. I suppose it couldn’t be helped; it wasn’t his choice where he lived. In our town, there was you and everyone else and everyone else was from the Wrong Side.

I was halfway standing when he kicked me in the shoulder, knocking me back down. It hurt.

I guess I made it to his Wrong Side.

School ended that year with a whimper. With all our work done, there was a lot of free time, reading time, movies, popcorn, even recess was extended to forty-five minutes from the usual thirty. I felt down, withdrawn, and participated only when instructed to. I was ready for school to be over and, while I was mostly quiet, made no effort to hide it. I only saw Bashika a handful of times and, to my relief, always acted like she didn’t notice me. Chaz was absent, and while that too was somewhat of a relief, it was a stone deep in my belly; a reminder of something not quite lost, but hopelessly out of reach. I considered faking sick for the last day, but between the thing with Haley and other erratic behavior, my credibility was shot. Mom was likely glad to have me out of the house for an extended period and someone else’s problem for a change. In a way, I couldn’t blame her. I was tired of being around me too.

I spent a lot of time by myself, and when the weather was nice, did so outside. Most often, I was in the back yard, usually at the back of the property where Dad had a wood pile stacked around what I assume used to be a grill pit. I never found out if my parents used it or if was from the previous owners, but there was a partially exposed cinder block foundation and when I dug around I found tiny bits of charred tin foil and a few pull tabs from old pop and beer cans. I also liked to dig for earthworms and would routinely leave holes and divots until Mom yelled at me to fill them in and stop tearing up the yard, which always lasted until the next time I was bored outside. The yard had a small slope and a set of crumbling steps leading down to a tool room built under the garage which Dad kept locked most of the time. There was a family of chipmunks who lived under the top step and likely contributed to the way it would tilt forward precariously if I put my weight on the front edge. Dad was going to kill them, but I begged him not to. Chipmunks were my favorite singers.

Mom and Dad were getting so they argued more than they didn't. Mom cried a lot. When Dad got home, he'd spend most of his time outside or in the basement and he barely spoke during supper. It came to be expected that I perpetuate conversation while we ate, but with school out for the Summer, I didn't have much to tell about my day beyond the number of worms I dug up-- which invariably got me in trouble with Mom-- or if I found any interesting birds or ground animals while I was out. I had an old tractor tire Dad turned into a sandbox near the back porch and I would sometimes dig around in that, hoping to find toys I'd lost the previous Summer. More often than not, however, I only succeeded in finding the ones I didn't care about, so it remained largely left alone. If I found any cool bugs in there, I would report those as well, but as the days wore on, I had less and less to admit-- though a fair amount I kept to myself-- and supper at home became a long, silent thing I wanted less and less to be a part of.

Shane was a kid from the neighborhood I didn’t know very well. Since we didn’t go to the same school, he was virtually a stranger, but he’d ride his bike up near my house and if I was outside, he’d circle a few times, watching me. He only stopped when I had my little cars out since his dad was into cars and that made them, in general, a big interest of his. But being a kid like me, little cars were the only ones he could readily get his hands on and he would come by once a week or so asking to trade. At first, I didn’t want to, since I liked the toys I had and I was protective of them, but Shane insisted he was only borrowing them and when he was ready to trade again, he’d bring back the ones he got the last time. His cars were okay, but he had a lot of ones he put together himself from pieces of different ones I assumed he broke. It didn’t instill confidence he would curb his hankering for destruction when playing with the cars he borrowed from me, but I had trouble telling him no, and I rationalized the situation in telling myself I didn’t really have any hard evidence proving I couldn’t expect him to take care of my stuff. Where the neighborhood kids were concerned, I was kind of a pushover. I suppose in my not knowing them well, I wanted to make as good an impression as possible. And compared to the kids I knew from school, the ones from the neighborhood were kind of creepy. Ever since things with the snoopy dog changed, I was due to have something that scared me shitless on a routine basis.

I was out with my little cars playing in the driveway one morning when Shane came riding up on his bike, stopping his front tire inches from my hand. I pulled it back quickly and saw him smirk.

“Whatcha got there?”


“No shit, Sherlock. What kind?”

“Matchbox, Hot Whee--”

“No, what kind. Corvette, Superbird, 442...”

“Oh, umm, this one’s a van. I’ve got a Thunderbird here. And, uhh-- this is a Camaro.”

“What’s that one?”




“That van say Scooby Doo on it?”


“Lemme see it.”

I handed it to him and he turned it over several times, inspecting every detail. He tossed it back to me and it bounced off my fingertips and fell on the driveway.

“Hunka junk is what that is.”

“I like it.”

“Wanna trade?”

“Trade what?”

“Cars, retard.”

“I don’t--”

“C’mon. I’ll bring some of mine up and we can trade.”

“Like-- to keep?”

“Jesus, you always this big a sissy? To borrow.”

“Oh. I guess that’s okay.”

“I’ll be back.”

The idea of trading, borrowing or even letting him play with my toys didn’t sit well with me, but it was the first time he’d deigned to speak, so I didn’t want to come off like a pussy. Half an hour later he was back with a beat up mostly full plastic case of his own little cars. He had me go get the rest of mine and we sat looking through each other’s collection for about ten more minutes before he found half a dozen he liked and I found only two I’d even consider. His cars had a lot of the paint scratched off and a few with the wheels missing, not to mention the Frankenstein ones he fudged together. He watched me look through his stuff and when he saw I had only two of his, shrugged. He lined the ones he had up into two rows, three across.

“I want these.”

“I only found two.”

“Keep looking.”

“I think I’m done. Two is it.”

“I want these.”



He stuffed my cars in his front pockets, snatched up his collector case, and wheeled out of the driveway, pedaling hard. My head told me I just got scammed, but my gut told me he’d be back. It might be a year from now, but he’d be back.

There was a neighbor several houses down who had an arched trellis covered with grapevines at the back of the property I would see as I passed by in the alley. It was so overgrown it formed a partial dome, with an extrance big enough for someone my size to slip under. On a couple of occasions, I used it to hide, not from anyone or anything specific, but because I had a need to feel safe. It became somewhat of a refuge and place I would check several times a week and keep things I found around the neighborhood as I explored. The man who owned the house was old and lived with his son who was a dwarf. I rarely saw either of them outside, but the son was probably at least thirty-- I could tell he was older by his facial hair-- and only slightly shorter than I was. The property was always tidy, but looked like it was barely lived in. Being that most of my neighbors were seniors, I was keenly aware of the sterile quality of the properties of old people. Two houses down across the street was the kindly old Doc Johan who had a weird thing with the lower half of his face that made me think of Nazis. In fact, every house across the street from Doc Johan's all the way down to the end of the block lived seniors. The only ones with kids even close to my age were on my side of the street, which included Shane and his sister and another kid I'd only seen a couple of times, but Mom said the family were hippies and health food nuts and Jesus freaks. I figured it best to avoid them.

I went to the grapevine fort one afternoon to retrieve some candy and other odds and ends I'd stolen from the grocery store. There was a spot in the back behind a broken cinder block I kept things hidden. I ducked underneath the leaves, sat down and something poked me in the butt. I got on my knees, turning around, and brushed away a short, knotted up stick.

"You didn't do it."

I'm pretty sure I left something in my shorts at that moment, whipping myself around, searching frantically. I found myself eye level with Haley, who was sitting hunched forward, Indian style. Her face was serious, her skin a bluish tinge at the extremities. Unlike before, her hair hung straight down; greasy like an oil slick, it made me think of cartoon seaweed. When she spoke, her lips curled back and I saw an eye tooth was missing, the surrounding gums shriveled and dark like raisin flesh.

"Do you remember your promise."

It wasn't a question.


"It can't stay in the house."


"It won't let me come home."

"I don't understand."

"You promised me."

"Why won't it let you?"





"What the fuck are you doing in there?"

Shane was crouched down, peering at me from just outside the hole into the fort. He had a look on his face like he thought I was baby; probably one he learned from his father.

"N-nothing. Sitting."

"Playing with yourself?"


"Uh huh. Ain't got use for your junk. Let's go to your house so I can get my stuff."

"Umm, okay."

Shane rode ahead of me, cutting through the neighbor’s yard to the sidewalk since the fence around my house wouldn’t fit a bike through the gate. I was warned to stay out of Mr Kovacs’ yard since he and my parents didn’t get along, but I crept along the fence row since it was quicker and I thought it might make Shane think I wasn’t such a wuss. I entered through the front door to Mom and Dad yelling at each other.

“Wait out here. I’ll be right back.”

I headed straight to my room.

“I don’t want to hear any more excuses.”

“What excuses?”

“He needs a doctor.”

“You mean a therapist.”

“Whatever. Someone who can prescribe something.”

I went to my dresser and opened the middle drawer where I kept Shane’s cars. I made sure I kept his things separate from mine; not like I wouldn’t know the difference.

“I don’t think drugs are the answer.”

“What the hell do you propose we do then?”

“Have you tried actually talking to him?”

“Why is it my job?”

“It isn’t just your job.”

“Sure as fuck sounds like it.”

“I suppose it would.”

“Don’t take that tone with me.”

“Anything else I’m doing wrong?”

“You-- you’re an ASSHOLE.”

“So you’ve said.”

“Get away from me-- you fu-- NO. GIT.”

I shut the door behind me and found Shane riding in circles in the driveway. I held out his cars and he went into his front pockets for mine. He counted out one, two, three, four, five, informing me each one was a “hunka junk” as he handed them to me. I looked at them, then back to him. His eyes were slitted almost closed.

“There’s only five here.”


“You borrowed six.”

“I traded five.”

“It was six. I remember.”


“It was.”

“Ain’t my fault you’re shit for brains.”

“Give it back.”

“I don’t have it.”

I knew he was lying, and something deep inside me was tired of Shane’s games. Maybe it was second stomach or something else I had yet to name, but what I did next surprised even me. I stepped forward and popped Shane in the cheek with my right fist. It wasn’t very hard, and I could tell by his reaction it was more shock than pain. He dropped his bike with a clatter and took two steps forward, checking my shoulder with a stiff arm and kicking my leg out. I fell hard, but caught myself on my elbows. He got down on one knee, balling up the front of my shirt in his fist.

“Want your ass whipped, kid?”

“Give it back.”

“Ain’t got it, you little turd. Fuck with me again I’ll beat you shitless.”

He let go, heading back to his bike and rode off. I spent the rest of the day in my room trying to block out all the fighting.

There was a knock on my door.

“Whisker, sweetie. We’re getting supper out tonight. Do you want anything?”

I slid off my bed and went to the door, opening it slowly. I could tell Mom was crying by the smudge of mascara left on her cheek. She put a hand on my shoulder and when she smiled her bottom lip trembled.

“We were thinking about getting something from Peyton’s. You like Peyton’s, right?”

I nodded.

“What would you like, honey?”

I shrugged.

“Well, how about-- a milkshake. How does that sound?”

I nodded.



“Fries? The curly ones?”


“You want a sandwich?”


“A fish sandwich? Okay, sweetie. I’m going to place the order and then I’ll be back. I have something I need to tell you.”

Mom shut the door and I went back to sit on my bed. I really didn’t want to think about what she might have to tell me, figuring it had to be something I didn’t want to hear. Usually when she had something to say, she said it. When she made a point to let me know she needed to talk to me, it was almost always something bad. I could hear her on the phone asking what came on the Peyton Burger even with the door closed. My shoulders tensed when she hung up and I could hear her coming back to my room. She walked right in without knocking this time and sat next to me on the bed.

“I have some bad news I need to tell you.”

I made no response; only waited for what she had to say next.

“You remember that boy in your class, umm-- Damon was it?”

I turned my head and looked Mom in the eye.

“Yes, well, he was attacked. He was bit. By a dog. And he was seriously hurt.”

“How bad?”

“He’s in intensive care.”

“What kind of dog was it?”

“Well I-- I’m not--”

“Was it a doberman?”

“I’m not sure, honey. Mrs Greer didn’t say what kind of dog it was, only that Damon was attacked while playing outside and it was so bad he had to go to the hospital.”

“Will he be okay?”

“I think so, but all we can do is wait and see.”


“Are you okay, honey?”

“I guess so.”

“Is there anything you want to talk about?”

“Not really.”

“Do you want to come with me to get the food?”

“Not really.”

“Okay, sweetie. You just lay down and I’ll come get you when the food is here, okay?”

“Uh huh.”

“Good boy.”

The next morning I headed outside as soon as it was warm. It was still early enough in June the mornings were cool and the grass was damp. I headed down the alley, stopping at a neighbor’s for a handful of Concord grapes. The vines from the fort didn’t bear any fruit that I’d ever noticed, and the neighbors with gardens didn’t have much I was interested in pilfering this early in the season. I popped a couple in my mouth, enjoying the sweet and sour quality, chewing the thick skin that came off like a jacket. Mom always warned me not to eat anything from the neighbors since I didn’t know when they may have used to spray the plants, but unless she was standing right next to me, I was heedless.

The last of my ill-gotten gains were still in the fort which was where I was headed. There was a certain point on my block that no matter how many times I passed by remained utterly alien. I wondered about it on my way to the fort. It seemed to coincide with what I declared the Wrong Side, but it was more than that. Aside my from my own yard, I spent almost as much time at the other end of the block, yet for all those days and nights I explored, it never felt more familiar. The houses always seemed taller, more gaunt, their shadows longer. My mind was occupied with all of this when I arrived at my destination, ducking down, and crawling into my makeshift refuge.

It was torn apart.

All of the sticks I stacked carefully in one corner were strewn about the interior, the broken cinder block smashed halfway through and left hanging from the back wall of grapevine and latticework fencing. I searched frantically and discovered all of my loot was missing, only a couple of empty plastic wrappers left behind. I cursed back some sniffles, making an even bigger mess in my frustration. I was on my knees, getting my pants all dirty, and I knew Mom would be furious but I didn’t care. The fort was my safe place.


Something sour churned in my gut, a petulant thing full of lingering aggression that stippled my skin with perspiration. I clenched my hands, absently wondering if it felt the same way Chaz did the last time I saw him. It felt like sick stomach, but not like I had a cold or ate something that didn’t agree with me.

It was sick with violence.

It felt familiar, but wormlike in its desire to escape my grasp. Not unlike the way I felt when I wrestled in the dirt and leaves with other kids over exaggerated slights, it was far more intense; localized. And at that moment, I wanted only one thing: to visit injury upon another.


Mom was yelling from the front porch. I got up quickly, brushing off my jeans, trying to make myself not look like a total dirtball. I knew it didn’t matter what kind of mood she was in, if she saw I’d been rolling around on the ground, shit would hit the fan. As I made my way back home, my anger was slowly replaced with apprehension. I’d heard Mom yell for me enough I could tell by how it came out what to expect when we were face to face. Today it was somewhere between mad and scared, and that made me worry. The condition of the fort would have to wait.

Mom was standing just inside, watching for me through the screen door. Her eyes were slick and glassy.

“Come inside. Hurry up.”

As I ran across the front yard around the bushes toward the front door, I noticed Dad’s car in the driveway from the corner of my eye.

“Hurry up.”


“Go sit on the couch.”


Already preoccupied, I sat on the far end and half watched the tv. My suspicions drifted toward the identity of those who trashed my refuge and my blood began to simmer. I’d begun to mutter under my breath when Dad came into the living room.

“I’m going to be leaving for a while.”


“I’m leaving for a while. I don’t know how long.”

“Why? Where are you going?”

“I’ll be at the YMCA near where you go to school.”



“For how long?”

“I don’t know yet.”


Dad ruffled my hair and put his hands in my underarms, picking me up-- something he hadn’t done for quite some time-- and holding me like he did when I was small.

“Ungh-- you’re getting heavy.”

“Please don’t go.”

“I have to.”


“Your mom and I need to work on some things.”

“Why can’t you do that here?”

“Well, we talked about it and decided it’s best if we do it apart for now.”


“Sometimes it’s what moms and dads need to do.”

Mom stood several feet away, watching me. Her brave face didn’t look very brave.

“Will we still do stuff together?”

“Of course.”

“But what if I have nightmares?”

“That’s why Mom will be here.”

“But what if I miss you too much?”

“I’ll still see you on the weekend.”

“But what if I can’t wait that long?”

“Tell you what--”

Dad put me down and left the room, heading toward the back of the house; toward the bedroom. He returned, moments later, with something in his hand. He offered it to me and I just looked at his face, not sure what to do next.

“I want you to take care of this for me while I’m gone.”

“Won’t you need it?”

“Not where I’m going.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

I took it from Dad’s hand and it felt warm. There was a tiny static charge and something like the dial on a radio rolling through every station-- a jumble of static and sound-- echoed around me.

jingle jingle jingle

The snoopy dog’s smile vanished into its ears.

Shane was perhaps five long strides away from me, shoulders up, knees bent, dangling the remains of the orange Dixie Challenger in front of me like a dog treat. The top was smashed in-- like with a brick-- and all but one of the wheels was missing. It wasn’t an exact replica of the General Lee, but it was the closest thing I had.


Wicked deeds stewed in my guts and my eyes stung from duplicity. I’d told myself it would happen, even setting things in motion by allowing Shane to take my stuff. But the truth of it bit deep, and once again, I was consumed with the urge to divert the pain I felt onto whatever stood in my way. I made fists, tight ones, and I screamed every raw, dark, awful thing I knew as I crossed the gap between us with jet fueled adrenaline.

The world fell away.

Sun in my eyes.

Birds in the trees.

I could taste blood on my lip and I knew there would be a dumb ugly bruise. I thought of Haley and how she baked me a chocolate cake for my second birthday. I didn’t realize I’d forgotten it until just now. It was a chocolate cake to end all chocolate cakes, with creamy, swirled chocolate frosting all over my hands and face and it would be the last one since Mom and Dad found out I had a chocolate allergy. In that waking moment, that split ticking second hand blink of an eye, I found myself wondering who on Earth has a chocolate--

“Stand up, chucklefuck. I ain’t finished beating your ball baby ass.”

Cake with a cat on it.

I opened my eyes and rolled over on my side. Bad dreams could go suck an egg.

The snoopy dog sat on the shelf next to my bed for exactly twenty-seven-and-a-half days which was how I remembered how long Dad was living at the YMCA instead of home with Mom and me. So far, it was true: I saw him on the weekend; but only one day, and only part of that one day. It was either as long as it took to see a movie and eat lunch or go to the art center and eat supper or, in the case of last Sunday, eat breakfast buffet at Shoney’s and walk around the nature center. Since he left, we did more, but balancing out with not seeing nearly as much of him in general, I was undecided as to which was better. I liked doing things and much of those things being the things we did, but I missed having him at home and even more so when the bad dreams came which was happening more and more often. Mom tried to comfort me, but it was always with a “this again” or a “go back to your room” or a “stop eating sugar before bed”. I could tell not having Dad at home made Mom sad. When she got angry with me, she mostly just cried now instead of using her hand or a piece of wood on me.

I often wondering how Dad would be able to get the things at the YMCA he had at home. He ate Raisin Bran for breakfast every day and I was sure they didn’t have it where he was living now, so when Mom and I went shopping for groceries I made sure when I got the little boxes of cereal all together in a big pack I saved the Raisin Bran for Dad. By the weekend, I was lucky if I had two boxes, but I figured every little bit helps, and made sure I gave them to him when he came to pick me up. He always smiled and thanked me and said he would make sure he had them for breakfast before . Until he ran out, anyway.

I got so I didn’t mind so much sleeping with the snoopy dog next to me and even though Dad asked me to take care of it for him, I still couldn’t stand to look at it straight. The to the ears smile still gave me the creeps, so I turned it to face away from me and if I woke up in the middle of the night or had a bad dream, it wouldn’t be staring right at me when I opened my eyes. So far, it stayed the way I put it. Once in a while, I would again hear the radio station noise, but always soft, always when I was daydreaming in bed or on the verge of sleep. Eventually, it became like the rest of the background noise from my house and neighborhood and while I never could pick up more than fragments of songs and conversation, sometimes they coalesced into something more.

It was those times I found myself doing things I didn’t think were in me.

I kept having the bloody lip dream, which had many permutations, but always included two things: my demolished toy car and me on the ground with a face full of pain. Over the weeks, I’d caught Shane sneaking in and out of the fort a number of times, and coupling that knowledge on top of the dream, my thirst for retribution threatened to boil over. I let it fester inside me, a cauldron of hostility, until one overcast morning the second week of August.

I sneaked around outside Shane’s house, hoping to catch him unawares. I hadn’t seen him around the neighborhood for a couple of days, but normally didn’t more than three to four times a week anyway. His dad’s truck wasn’t in the driveway, but working days like he did, this was no surprise. I crept into the back, hoping to catch a glimpse of him through a window, but the curtains were all down. I climbed the back steps and knocked on the door. It wouldn’t add the element of surprise, but I could always lure him away from the house and pick my moment.

No answer.

I was furious. The time had come and I was in no condition to wait. I stomped off the porch toward the garage, absently jiggling the knob as I passed by.

The door opened soundlessly.

I’d only ever seen the inside of Shane’s garage from the street, but I knew that’s where he kept his bike, among other things. I poked my head in and saw his mom’s car was gone, too. I thought I remember him saying she worked days, which explained why Shane was allowed to run wild. I knew Mom would never allow me to stay home by myself and would be of the opinion that anyone who did was both an unfit parent and white trash.

I walked inside, looking for Shane’s bike. A couple of slashed tires might not quell my desire to pummel his face with something heavy and blunt, but it would have to do. I looked in the usual spot-- a two-by-four jutting from the wall where he hung the bike by its frame- but found nothing. In fact, there were no bikes in the garage, and as I searched, my frustration grew. I cursed and kicked things and made an ass out of myself to no one in particular for a good five minutes before I decided it would have to wait.

Sick to my smoldering emotions, I stalked toward the door, kicking an empty coffee can across the floor. I heard a hiss followed with spitting and growling, and a black and white blur flew past me, leaping up the wall and onto a cubby where the rafters met the edge of the roof.

Shane’s cat.

I’d seen it around his property a handful of times, but I didn’t realize it was his. I considered throwing something at it, mostly for scaring me shitless. Then I heard a few faint scratches and soft squeaks coming from where it ran across my path. I walked slowly toward the sound, eyes squinted, and found a shallow cardboard box with a red and black plaid blanket inside.

Under a litter of kittens.

There were six of them; tiny, fuzzy, burrowing against one another. They were at most a week old as their eyes hadn’t opened. One of them yawned and I got down on my knees in front of their box nest. I looked toward to the mama cat, who gazed balefully with glowing yellow eyes, but remained quiet. I turned back to the kittens, petting the one closest to me gently. It squirmed and flipped over on its back with a stretch, closed eyes pinching, and I smiled. Along with chocolate, I was allergic to dander, which meant I couldn’t be around animals that licked their own fur. This being the case, I’d only ever been in contact with adult cats on a handful of occasions-- ones briskly terminated by my mom-- and had never even seen kittens up close. I was mesmerized by their weensy, soft bodies; all crushed against each other for warmth and safety.

I knew I shouldn’t, heard Mom’s voice in my head warning they were wormy, seeds of Satan or worse, but I picked one up and held it aloft, watching as its little nose twitched with my scent and its nubby paws flexed nubbier claws where it lay suspended above its siblings.

Get up, mutherfucker.

I rotated my wrist, back and forth, watching the kitten blind dream airplanes.

Ball baby faggot.

Saw how its closed mouth, from the side, was a contented smile.

Gonna beat you shitless.

The skipping radio stations filled my head with such acrid ferocity I screamed only to remind myself I wasn’t dead. I shot to my feet, dropping the kitten in the box, staggered a few steps, room spinning and finally fell to my knees in front of them. My eyes stung, my chest heaved, my blood burned.

Before it registered, the first kitten was ten feet across the floor behind me.

Then another.

I listened to the way their little claws screeched on the bare concrete.

Their little cries.




The last one was the smallest, barely bigger than my hand. It mewled weakly; white pine needle fangs.

I launched it against the garage door and it landed with a crunch.

The mama cat shot daggers from the rafters.

I placed each one back in the bed like I found them; all coiled together, bloody nostrils and noses, some breathing.

Some not.

Haley swayed in the corner, arms wrapped around herself, shuddering.

I closed the door when I left.

I slept surprisingly well for a murderer. I awoke refreshed and invigorated and wondered how that could be. I looked to the snoopy dog from the corner of my eye and it sat there like always. It did give me a modicum of comfort with Dad’s absence. As I stretched and yawned and scratched myself, there was something else, near second stomach, that gurgled and cooed but was more of an itch than a need and was easy to ignore. I hopped out of bed, in nothing but my Underoos, and went to the bathroom.


I flushed and walked stiff-legged into the living room where Mom was at the screen door looking outside. She had the broom and was pacing-- well, more like tottering-- back and forth on the threshold.


“I’m right here.”

“OH-- come here. Hurry.”


“Hurry up.”

I walked up beside her, peering out the screen into the street. Everything looked like it always did and I looked to Mom whose eyes were wide, pupils darting.

“Here. Take the broom and get that.”

“Get what?”

“On the porch. Just flip it into the yard. Hurry up.”

Our front porch was more of a landing than a porch proper. It was a solid concrete slab, maybe five feet square. There was a metal awning attached to the side of the house above the door that extended out over it and a black rubber welcome mat with a hex design that had a rooster and a bunch of symbols I didn’t recognize as anything other than gibberish. In the center of the rooster was what was left of a field mouse.

With its head missing.

Mom wasn’t a fan of rodents and lobbied to have the chipmunks under the back steps forcibly removed before I intervened with puppy dog eyes and a healthy admiration for syrupy, high-pitched cover tunes. As such, I understood why Mom mustered me for summary disposal. She made a groan seasoned with revulsion as I used the brush end of the broom to flip the carcass off the porch and under a bush with a single motion.

“Hurry up. Get inside.”

She opened the door for me and I slipped into the house, broom snatched from my hand.

“Goddam strays.”

The next morning there were two, both on the front porch, both missing their heads. I was again summoned for corpse detail and dispatched them in the same fashion. Mom shivered and scratched at herself.

Over the course of the following weeks, more and more dead mice showed up, always in the early morning, and eventually moved from the front porch to include the driveway, the garage, the back door, and on a couple of occasions, on the sills in between the screens and interior bedroom windows. The morning Mom found those she shrieked like a bird of prey and planted ;herself on the couch, refusing to move; she merely pointed toward the attic way in the kitchen where she kept the broom. It got so bad I started shoveling them into garbage bags because flipping them into the yard would turn it into a compost heap or attract opossums and skunks, which could have rabies. The strangest thing was, aside from Shane’s mama cat, I’d never seen any strays in the neighborhood, and the sheer volume of dead mice was such that a single cat, no matter how proficient, could never hope to catch so many. This trend continued, with a standing record of eighteen, until my first day back at school, at which point the numbers dwindled, to Mom’s relief, to almost nothing within a couple of weeks.

The first few days were an adjustment, but on the positive side, I managed to avoid any kind of fighting with my classmates, and my mood improved for it. Chaz was nowhere to be found, Bashika in a different class and schedule, and the demons of my past appeared to be loosening their grip.

Two weeks in, I met a kid a year younger than me named Brett. I found out we shared a birthday, in late September, which would happen soon, and in the fastness of our friendship, decided to have them together at school. The teachers took to the idea, and I talked to Mom, who had no problem with it beyond wanting to meet his mother first, and plans were tentatively laid. Brett liked a lot of the same things I did, and at first felt like shades of Chaz, but as I got to know him better, I realized they were two very different people. Interests aside, Brett was a vegetarian, like his family. That was something I’d never before encountered, and with my great love of things that go moo, could hardly fathom life without meat.

Barely a week to go until our conjoined birthday celebration, I told Mom I wanted a cake with Garfield on it. Orange was my favorite color and when Mom made lasagna I always asked for seconds, so it only made sense I would like a Sunday funny who embodied all of those things and still found time to backtalk his owner in between naps. I told her it didn’t matter what flavor it was nor how big, only that it prominently featured a fat cartoon animal with a chip on its shoulder. It didn’t occur to me that might not be what Brett wanted, but I figured he’d have his own cake anyway, so it wouldn’t matter. Two kids, two cakes, too much.

Mom had the bright idea to offer to bring Brett home one day after school before the party, on the surface because she wanted to be a good new friend’s mom, but more specifically because she wanted to size up this other mother. Brett lived maybe twenty minutes from school, just off a very busy main street at the top of a steep, narrow suburban alley; it ended with a guard rail and a sign warning the steep drop. When we got out of the car, I walked to and peeked over the edge, watching as Brett’s neighborhood fell forty feet into a public park and a lazy, twiglike stream.

I was Saint Patrick’s Day with envy.

Brett’s house was a small, two-story affair with finished dark wood trim and lots of windows. It looked like a cabana from the outside, but once I crossed through the front door, I realized there was a lot more to it than I originally thought. It was slightly bigger than my house, but had the added charm of two bedrooms and a full bath where my upstairs was a musty, mildewy attic. His room was replete with Star Wars pretty much everything: sheets, wall decals, art, toys, clothing, you name it. I marveled at both his devotion and collection and tried to imagine myself in his place, sleeping in his bed, brushing my teeth with his Darth Vader toothbrush, eating his meals bereft of mea--


Mom called us downstairs and we gathered in the living room while moms talked mom stuff. Brett’s was tall and thin, with a big nose but soulful, smoldering eyes and freckles on her cheeks. She had an ever so slight accent I couldn’t quite place.

“So your mom says you have the same birthday as Brett.”

“Uh huh.”

“And you’ll be how old?”


“Wow. They grow up so fast. Would you like something to drink?”


“Pepsi okay?”

You better believe it.

We sat around and talked and played and had fun for most of the afternoon. When Mom was driving us home, it was the first time I’d seen her smile since Dad left. We had cheeseburgers and milkshakes at Burger Chef, which was right down the road, and I grinned to myself thinking about what Brett was missing.

On the day I turned seven, I felt high as a kite. I bounced out of bed, into my clothes and through a bowl of cereal, all the while dancing circles around Mom while she got ready to take me to school.

“Now remember, I’ll be there around lunchtime with the cake.”


“And I’ll have paper plates and plastic forks, too.”


“Try to behave yourself today, okay?”


“Will you stop that?”



I didn’t want to put my seatbelt on when we got in the car, but Mom made me. When I got to school, I almost left my backpack in the back seat and Mom had to yell for me to come back and get it. I was so hyper I was giddy, so giddy I needed to pee. When I finished I raced out of the bathroom and found Brett who was busy with a science project. I was too excited to work, so I paced around him while he did, talking to him, talking at him, breaking his concentration and eliciting dirty looks.

It didn’t matter, I was seven.

I was hot shit.

When lunch finally came, I was practically climbing the walls. Mrs Switt had to shush me repeatedly in class and even threatened to put my desk in the corner, which finally got me to at least keep my mouth shut. Mrs Greer came into the lunch room and announced there would be a birthday party for myself and Brett and that everyone should make sure they were seated because there would be cake and ice cream. Shortly thereafter, Mom and Brett’s mom came into the room carrying a cake and several plastic bags. They put everything down, first getting out several tubs of ice cream, then napkins, plates, spoons and finally taking the plastic cover off the half sheet cake. I couldn’t wait any longer and sprang from my seat, chugging over to where Mom was standing so I could see. I peered around her, eyes like saucers, straining to see the festooned cartoon feline with the namesake of an assassinated United States president.

My heart sank.

Second stomach cackled with glee, anticipating sweet suffocation.

I looked at Mom and she looked at me and my eyes asked why.

It wasn’t a fat, smarmy orange cat with entitlement issues at all.

It was Pac Man.

Fuck Pac Man.

Whoever decorated the cake I’d waited an entire breathless week for must have had hooks for hands and an eyepatch the size and fit of a hockey mask. Instead of appearing as a yellow pie with a slice out of it, it looked more like a banana peel with poor motor skills. There were two ghosts, if you could call them that, one blue, one orange, that hovered out of Pac Man’s reach like obese marshmallow peeps, cross-eyed and asymmetrical.

“What the fuck is that?"

The room went silent.

Mom’s face flushed deeper than her lipstick.

“Whisker, I think you should come with me.”

She grabbed my wrist and marched me out of the room and through the double doors to the cloak room where she spun me around to face her.

“Don’t you EVER use that kind of language around me OR in school.”

“But I wanted Garfield.”

“Straighten up.”

“I wanted Garfield. I asked for Garfield.”

“You’re asking for a fat lip.”

“Why didn’t you get it, Mom?”

“Brett didn’t want Garfield. He wanted Pac Man.”

“Did you even try?”

“Of course I-- this day isn’t just about you.”

“It isn’t just about Brett, either. He got the cake he wanted.”

“The decorator didn’t know how to do Garfield.”

They didn’t know how to do Pac Man, either.


“So stop your whining, Buster, or I’ll give you something to whine about.”

“That cake is stinky.”

“You heard me.”

“I bet it tastes like poop.”

“It’s chocolate and vanilla. Half and half.”

“Can I have chocolate?”


“This sucks. YOU SUCK.”

Mom slapped me and my cheek exploded like a firecracker.

I sulked in the corner, refusing to eat, while Brett and our classmates enjoyed both flavors of the stupid looking Pac Man cake. Mom was understandably embarrassed and apologized for my behavior, all the while giving me the hairy eyeball. I could tell when I got home I’d be in deep trouble; maybe so deep I’d never climb out. She tried to do something special and I showed just enough appreciation to spit in her face for it. On the car ride home, Mom was eerily silent, only scowling at me from the rear view mirror. It slowly dawned on me I’d done a very bad thing.

Another very bad thing.

A week passed, by which time most everyone all but forgot about my unfortunate display. It was back to business as usual, and when I got home, I was finally ungrounded, but far from off
Mom’s shit list. I informed her I was going outside to play and upon hearing her assent, slipped quickly out the front door. I headed for the alley at a leisurely pace, lost in thought, picking up a broken tree branch and swinging it absently at low-hanging leaves. There was the slightest hint of a chill in the air, the first indication Summer was over and Winter would soon be here. In the meantime, I would enjoy the Autumn months, the changing of the trees from green to red to yellow to--

“You’re a dumb mutherfucker.”

I spun around. Shane was standing in the alley, blocking my way back home. He looked taller than normal, tougher. His shoulders were rolled forward, stooped, his eyes dark and full of something I hadn’t felt since--

“I know you did it.”

I swallowed hard as the clouds parted enough to let the sun shine through.

Shane was closer, bigger; his dark clothes matching his eyes matching his intent and then he was in front of me.

Everything felt too close.

Sun in my eyes.

Birds in the trees.

I could taste blood from my lip and I knew the doctor would have to give me stitches. I thought about a birthday cake with a giant bloody orange sunset and a cat like the dipping sun smirking at me. I watched as it got smaller, its mouth opening to reveal a smile full of tiny white pine needle teeth that screeched like little claws across concrete. There was blood coming from its nose and its eyes erupted fluorescent yellow and-- no-- oh no--

“Get the fuck up or you’ll be shittin’ teeth.”

Haley choked misery from somewhere behind me.

This was no dream.

Shane dangled the wrecked Dixie Challenger over me like a butler’s bell.

jingle jingle jingle
More Like ThisIt was dark outside and I was scared. Mom and Dad went to bed and left the fire go to burn down to coals in the living room fireplace where we roasted hot dogs and marshmallows for supper. There were potato chips with waves on them. Barbecue were my favorite, but that's not the kind we had. We had the plain ones. I was in bed too, but it was too cold and I got out and went into the living room where it was warmer. I didn't turn on the lights because I didn't want Mom and Dad to find me and get mad. I sat in front of the fireplace and shivered. I was still cold.

Then the dog came. It was a big dog, a dark dog and I knew it was a doberman. It had a long nose and black eyes that made me feel funny where I pee. I didn't want to be close to it, but it wouldn't let me get away. It bit me bad. It bit me all over and in the places I'm not supposed to touch except when I take a bath. When it bit me it didn't bleed. All these little holes all over my body and no blood came out. Instead, I tasted chocolate, like I just ate a big candy bar. Every time I tasted my mouth it tasted like chocolate cake and chocolate milk and hot fudge all swirled together.

"My mouth tastes like chocolate." said Whisker.

"Do you like it?" said the dog.

"Very much." said Whisker.

"Now I will bite you some more." said the dog.

The holes on my body were gone until the dog bit me again and chewed on my thing and growled and scratched at me and made more holes and I wanted to cry so much because it hurt more than all the things that ever hurt me hurt all combined. I tasted trash and puke and worms and boiled asparagus and ice cream cones covered with ants on the ground and I shivered because I was freezing but my between my legs parts burned like they were in the fireplace and the dog smiled all these big ugly teeth at me like an alligator who never went to the dentist.

"My mouth tastes bad and my pee pee hurts." said Whisker.

"Do you like it?" said the dog.

"No. I hate it." said Whisker.

"Then you have to do things for me." said the dog.

"Like what?" said Whisker.

"Hurt your friends." said the dog and he licked my face all over like he loved me.

I went to school and hit Brett with a rock. Then I saw Bashika and I kicked her in the face. Chaz wanted to play soccer, but I just beat him on the head with a stick and called him names and said his mom was dead because he was stupid. Shane wasn't really a friend, but I hurt him too. I drove over him with his dad's truck until he cried. I hurt them as much as I could and hoped it would be enough.

At night when I was in bed the dog came in and started biting my legs. I tried to kick it but it held me down and rubbed its face against me, biting me more, and I tasted chocolate again and it made me feel good so I and it crawled up on me and breathed in my face.

"Why do you keep biting me?" said Whisker.

"It's the only way you learn." said the dog.

It bit me again and this time the holes bled drops of blood like marshmallows that grew into kittens with no fur and bloody noses that cried and squeaked at me. I knew all their bones were broken because they moved like Jell-O.

"Make them go away." said Whisker.

"You didn't do what I told you." said the dog.

"I HURT THEM ALL." said Whisker.

"All but one." said the dog. "And that's why I brought them back."

"They're-- dead?" said Whisker.

"You didn't love them enough." said the dog.

"You're lyin'." said Whisker.

"You're tiger." said the dog and it licked me because it loved me.

"I don't want to see them anymore." said Whisker.

"Then you have to hurt Damon." said the dog.

"I thought you already did that." said Whisker.

"I guess I did." said the dog.

It went away and I went back to sleep. There were no more kittens.

Mom read the top of the piece of notebook paper: "Bad Dog by Whisker White, Age 7" and let out a long, slow breath from her bottom lip.

"This is appalling."

I sat with Mom and Dad, in between them, on a high back chair that scratched me through my shirt and pants. We were in Mrs Greer's office with Mrs Switt, who sat next to Mrs Greer on the same kind of chair, but looked perfectly comfortable which looked tired and bored to everyone else. I rarely saw Mrs Switt smile, but when she did she was pretty. Most of the time, though, she looked worn down. I liked her okay, but I was pretty sure she didn't feel the same way about me and that is why I thought we were all sitting together with Mrs Greer after school. Mrs Switt spoke softly, like we were in the library.

"So you can see, Mrs White, why I-- we-- thought we should bring this to your attention."

"I should hope so."

"I really don't know what to say. Whisker is a good student, generally attentive--"

I looked to Dad who looked to me and smiled and then I looked to Mom who also smiled, but only with her mouth.

"But I think this here, it umm-- I think it shows there are deeper issues that should be addressed."



Mrs Greer cut in.

"Mrs White--"

"Call me Kathryn."

"Kathryn. Okay. We are not here to lay blame or intimate Whisker has any as yet unconfirmed-- issues-- we are merely trying to assess the situation before it becomes a bigger problem."

It was Dad's turn.

"Are you saying there's a problem?"

"Not as such, which is why we are here, as we are in a position to help should the need arise."

Mom was unconvinced.

"This smells like a witch hunt to me."

"We assure you it is most certainly not. We only wish to make everyone aware of the situation."

Mrs Switt leaned forward slightly.

"This is a delicate, urm, subject we will handle only with the utmost discretion."


"We just want to insure Whisker's best interest is taken into account."

"Are you saying I don't have my son's best interest at heart?"

"Not at all, we only--"

Mrs Greer gestured politely for silence.

"What we are saying is everyone here wants what is best for Whisker and that is why we asked you to be here."

Mrs Switt concurred with a wan smile.

"Are we done here?"

"I think so, unless you have any questions or wish to voice any concerns."


"Mr White?"

"I don't have anything."

"What about you, Whisker. Is there anything you want to tell us?"


"All right then. Thank you so much for coming in."

Mrs Greer smiled and offered her hand to Mom who just looked at it.


Dad offered his hand to Mrs Greer and Mrs Switt, eliciting warm smiles.


We got in the car and headed home, but the conversation was only getting started.

"I can't believe they acted like we were the problem."

"Do you think we are?"

"What are you, high? Those women are idiots."

"I don't know about that."

"Of course you don't. I saw the way they fawned all over you."


"Oh don't act all innocent with me. They were staring at your crotch the whole time."

"I honestly didn't see it."

"I don't know how you couldn't. They were drooling."

"What about Whisker?"

"What about him?"

"You read what he wrote. Do you think he needs help?"

"He needs a better teacher."

"I think Mrs Switt is an okay teacher."

"Whisker is bright. He's creative. He's only writing about the things he reads and sees on tv."

"He sees that stuff on tv?"

"You know what I mean. It's his age. And you know he doesn't like dogs."

"I think there's more to it than that."

"Are you saying you agree with them?"


"Well why don't you just have them take turns sucking your dick while you're at it."

"Does it always have to be that way with you?"

"Me? You're the one practically offering yourself to them for chrissakes."

"Let's just-- not go there."

"How about you drop us off at the car and go back to the Y or wherever the hell it is you're living these days."


I was hoping the ride home would include two forms of cow, but we went straight to the house and mom ordered a large pizza for delivery from Pizza Bill's and I deemed it a worthy alternative. Pizza Bill's had the best pizza ever and let me tell you why: the pepperoni would shrink and turn upward with drops of grease like little soup bowls and the surrounded cheese had its own languid pools of grease; the sauce was sweet, but not too sweet, and salty, but not too salty; the crust tasted like it had beer in it and I've never had one that even came close since. Sure, it was the cardiovascular equivalent of armageddon, but to my seven year old taste buds, it was me behind a kissing booth in a sea of chocolate lipped-- and tongued-- Van Moms.

It was really good pizza.

Mom sat next to me on the couch and we ate in the front room with the tv off, drinking Pepsi and making hungry people eating noises. Second stomach took the wheel, my very own one organ cheer squad, and praised every slice, every bite. They cut the pizza in squares instead of rectangles, so they were smaller than the average piece, but one wouldn't know it by the way I was going. Mom watched me while I ate.

"You're not crazy, you know."

I stopped mid bite and put the pizza on my plate.


"Those women are wrong about you."

"But I like Mrs Greer."

"You're not sick."

"Did she say that?"

"Not in so many words."

"Am I in trouble?"

"No. You're scared."

"I don't-- feel scared."

"It's okay if you are."

"It is?"

"I'm scared too."

The next day Mrs Greer pulled me out of class and asked me to come with her to her office where she shut both doors and we were alone. She smiled, the way she usually did, and I could see it was in her eyes as well as her mouth so I knew it meant she was happy to see me. I sat down in one of the scratchy chairs across from her, but she asked me to sit next to her so I did. She pulled her chair close and leaned forward so we were face to face and I could feel her breath on my nose and cheeks. She liked coffee.

"Whisker, I'd like to talk to you a little about yesterday."


"Do you remember what we talked about?"


"I have your story right here and, I must say, it's very creative."

I waited for her to continue.

"Did you make all this up yourself?"

I wasn't sure how to answer.

"There are some things here that I find very interesting. For instance: I see you write in the first person, you say 'I' or 'we', but in the parts where you speak, you refer to yourself in third person, by your name."

I looked at the paper, then at the floor.

"Is that bad?"

"Well, I don't imagine it's what Mrs Switt teaches you, but it’s not bad, no. I'm just curious as to why you wrote it that way. Do you know why that is?"

"Not really."

"So there's no reason in particular?"

"It, umm."


"It, umm, f-felt like."

I stuttered, and slouched in the chair.

"It's okay. You can tell me."

"It felt like someone else said it."

"Okay, that's very good."

She smiled again and I smiled back this time. I liked Mrs Greer.

"Now what about this part here. The part with the dog."


"The doberman."

"The doberman is bad."

"Yes, he's very bad. He hurt you in this story."

"He always hurts me."

"That’s terrible. Is this a pet? A dog you have at home?"

"Not really."

"A relative's dog? A neighbor's?"

"No. I got bit when I was little."

"Ohhh. I'm sorry to hear that. Was it bad?"

"I had to get stitches."

"And it hurt I bet."

"A lot."

"So this-- bad dog-- this is that same dog?"

"Sort of."

"Sort of?"


"What makes this bad dog different."

"It umm."

"You trust me, don't you?"


"Then you can tell me anything. I want to help you, Whisker."


"Why is the bad dog different from the one that hurt you when you were little?"

"It lives in the bottle."

"Bottle? Like a pop bottle?"


I took a pen from Mrs Greer's desk, a blank piece of paper, and began to draw. I made sure every line was perfect and showed every feature. I liked using a pencil better because I could erase my mistakes, but the picture came out almost exactly the way I wanted it to.

"This one."

"This is very good, Whisker. What is it?"

"The snoopy dog."

I told Mrs Greer about the snoopy dog, about the trip with Chaz to the arcade, but not the part with Haley, about Mom and Dad fighting a lot and how I dreamed Chaz's mom was in a bad accident. I avoided the subjects of Bedbugs, Bashika, Aunt Ky and Dad's bottom dresser drawer. There was only so much I could take, and only so much, I was convinced, Mrs Greer would believe.

"You're a very brave little boy."

"If you say so."

"I do. You're more like a man, like your father."

"I dunno."

"Look at me."

I looked up and straight into Mrs Greer's vibrant green eyes and for the first time saw how much they were somewhere I wanted be. There was a deepness of love and understanding no one I yet knew ever possessed, and I knew when I was there, in those beryl rice paper partitions, caressing me like flower petals, I was utterly lost and would never want to be found. She was watching me as I slouched and I wondered briefly if she was staring at my crotch.

"Mrs Greer."

"Call me Lydia."

"Okay. Lydia."

"That's nice."

"You're nice."

She was wearing a tweed business suit and a puffy, pleated blouse with an unpretentious neckline underneath. I saw her heels were off, somewhere under the desk, and she shrugged out of the jacket which she draped over the back of her chair. I wondered why it was suddenly so warm and my jeans were so tight, but when I looked down, it was clear. Lydia chuckled and began to unbutton her blouse, soft, slender fingers maneuvering ivory discs through silky slits, and I was gulping air. She was smiling with only half her mouth, but all of those luscious eyes, and when the blouse came off and I beheld the soft bandeau tethering her modest breasts, I felt faint.

"Put your hands here."

She took them and placed them lateral to her chest so that my palms just lightly brushed exposed skin. She inhaled sharply.

"Now give me your lips."

I kissed her like I remembered kissing Van Mom in the dream, eyes closed, using my tongue where appropriate and she held my hands where they were. I always liked Mrs Greer-- Lydia-- but now it was becoming something more. She was someone I thought I might be able to trust with the whole truth, not the heavily edited one she inherited only moments before. She wanted to help me.

As I wanted to help myself to her.


"Oh Lydia."

"WHISKER. Are you listening to me?"


"I asked if there was anything else you wanted to share."

Shamefaced, I wiped my mouth with my sleeve and slumped deeper in the chair.

"I think that's everything."

"Thank you for being so honest with me. I know it must have been hard."

That about covers it, yeah.

"It's okay. I'm okay."

Lydia-- Mrs Greer leaned right into my face, piercing me with her eyes.

"Now listen to me. I'm going to do everything I can to help you. Do you understand?"


“Good. Do you need anything?”

“Can I, umm.”

“What is it?”

“Can I-- have a hug?”


We hugged from our chairs and I knew she was smiling.

I was too.

When I saw Dad that weekend, we went to a Mexican place in the city we only went to on special occasions and as such was the case, I’d only eaten there once before. It was in a building next to a wide alley and had a huge mural on the side facing it with big people and cars and even a steamliner ship. It was called Witch and Weasel, a name I both loved to say and thought was funny for any kind of place you might eat, but the food was good and I thought maybe Dad had something exciting in store for our visit. When he told me where we were going, I cheered “WITCH AND WEASEL” until we arrived, even out the window where a older man walking by waved and shouted back “OH YEAH” like Kool-Aid Man.

The inside was kind of dark, but it reminded me of nights when Dad would make spaghetti sauce and we ate with the lights off, just candles, and he and Mom drank wine. While we waited for the food, Dad was looking around. He seemed nervous.

“What’s wrong?”

“Oh, nothing.”

“Is it about what I wrote?”

“No, but while we’re on the subject--”

“And here’s the steak tacos, with beans, and-- Mexican egg rolls. Is there anything else I can get you?”

“Some more water, please?”

“Sure. Would you like some more water?”


“I’ll be right back with those.”

Dad waited for the water before he spoke.

“Does your mom let you watch scary movies?”

“I don’t watch scary movies.”

“What about books?”

“I read a lot of King Arthur. I like dragons.”


That was about it. We finished eating, walked around towntown for a while, went to the library so I could get a card and it was time to take me back to Mom. On the way, I thought about the things Dad asked me and what Mom told me when we ate pizza and I realized Dad only ever had questions and Mom only ever had answers. I suppose that’s why they used to work so well together.

“Try this one.”

Haley had a white one in between her thumb and forefinger which she held out for me and I took it, squeezing it between my fingers and popping it in my mouth.

“What flavor is this?”

“What does it taste like?”

“I-- can’t tell.”

Haley got another white one and put it in her mouth, making her thinking face.

“I think it’s pineapple.”

“I like it.”

“Thought you might.”

“What are they?”

“They’re called Gummi Bears.”

“Do you have more?”

“Try this one.”

It was red, like Santa’s outfit, and when I ate it it tasted like how I imagined Mrs Greer’s lips did; her lipstick was the same shade. Haley had a whole bag she bought while she and Mom were Christmas shopping and she got them out while we were waiting for cookies to bake. We sat at the kitchen table together, which was a nook, with three benches attached to the walls, and a wooden chair with a woven seat on the outside. Wire racks full of cookies were all over the table and Mom was in the process of mixing up amaretto icing to put on the cutout ones. There were almond snowballs, seven layer and chocolate pinwheels as well. Second stomach howled with drunken anticipation and I knew I was headed for a sugar coma.

“It sounds like you love your sister.”


“I’ll be right back.”

Mrs Greer went out the door on the wall behind her desk and came back several minutes later with a cup of coffee and a can of orange Crush. It wasn’t as good as Pepsi, but I liked orange and I liked pop, so the two together spelled win in my book. Besides, it was something from Mrs Greer and anything from her was something I wanted.

“Is that flavor okay?”


“Good. Now I want you to tell me more about the snoopy dog.”

“Like what?”

“Do you know what it wants?”

“Me to do bad things.”

“What kind of bad things?”

“Be mean. And umm.”

“It’s okay.”

“And hurt people.”

“Like call them names? Hurt their feelings?”

“That and hurt them. You know, their bodies.”

“Oh dear.”

“It makes me scared.”

“I know, honey.”

I liked it when she called me honey.

“It gives me bad dreams.”

“Do you have them a lot?”


“Do you lose a lot of sleep?”


“Okay. You said you had a dream Chaz’s mom was hurt?”

“I dreamed she was in a car accident.”

I decided to leave out the part with the kissing; I didn’t want her to get the wrong idea.

“Are you saying you knew she was going to be in an accident?”

“It was in the dream. I didn’t know it was her until later.”


“Chaz showed me a picture and I knew her.”

“Did you tell Chaz?”

“Umm, no.”

“It’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong. I think maybe that’d going to be it for today.”


“Are you okay? Do you feel all right?”


“Okay, good.”

Mrs Greer smiled and it made me happy even though talking about all the bad things made me feel sad and scared. Her smile was second only to her eyes, which made me feel all mushy inside.

“Whisker, will you do something for me?”


“Hehe. I think I know something that could help you a great deal.”


“I want you to bring me the snoopy dog.”

My stomachs fell through the floor.

I sat on my bed after I was supposed to be asleep. It was dark in my room, but I could still see from the street lamp coming in through my window. The snoopy dog was sitting on the shelf, but now it was facing me.

“Mrs Greer is nice. You’d like her.”

It slowly rotated, back and forth, like it was shaking its head.

“She asked me nice.”

It moved again, the same way.

“She makes me feel safe. That’s supposed to be your job since Dad’s not here.”

The snoopy dog began to shudder violently.

“All you do is make me scared. I’m taking you to--”

It shot from the shelf and hovered in front of me, swaying back and forth.


My forehead jolted with pain, white hot sparks.

Something licked my face before I blacked out.
Warm FeelingsI guess this is where I should own up and come clean.

I lied.

I laid there on my bed, head pressed up against the wall, listening to the The Shining on the tv. My bedroom shared the wall where my bed was with the front room, and when Mom sent me away and stayed up late watching scary movies on HBO, I would listen to them through it. It was a little like listening to the radio, but the wall gave it a certain ears underwater quality, where the sounds felt like they were already pressed right up against my eardrums and even the slightest vibration was enormous.

Mom loved her scary movies and would watch them at every opportunity. Personally, I thought life, what with the snoopy dog, Bedbugs, and worse, was far scarier, but that’s just me. Mom couldn’t wait to see Halloween when it came out and she left me home with Haley while she and Dad drove to the movies. She never told me if it gave her nightmares, but what little I’d later gleaned from prolonged screams and an imposing soundtrack was enough.

So when I told Dad I didn’t watch scary movies, it was only technically true.

I listened intently until my eyes grew heavy and I was already warm from being under the covers. I’d since put the snoopy dog behind a stack of books on the shelf. The knot it left on my forehead wasn’t pretty, but it only lasted a couple of days. It stayed where I put it, but I had yet to do what Mrs Greer asked of me, and fear of the snoopy dog was quickly taking a back seat to my fear of disappointing her.

The things I did over boners.

The inside of the garage was hot and muggy and my shirt stuck to me like spiderwebs. It was empty aside from the six tiny balls of fur mewing on the floor around me. I looked all over, but the mama cat was nowhere to be found and I picked up the one closest to me, pinched face quivering, as I shuffled it quickly over to the box. I ran for the next one, legs splayed like an animal skin rug, and scooped it up, racing back and placing it next to the first.




Number six was at the garage door, claws scritching concrete, squeaking pitifully. When I got to it, I saw it couldn't move its back legs and I knew I had seconds before it was too late.

I was tired, sweating through my clothes, my butthole itched. When I looked to the other end of the garage I swore it was a mile away, but I moved my legs back and forth and ran like only a kid my age could; beyond pain, beyond exhaustion. I could hear them scratching and bouncing and bitching little cries that were a dentist's scalar over my teeth and I was panting when I put the last and smallest of them all in the donut hole between its brothers and sisters. They nuzzled and squirmed and purred their little hearts out, all twisted up like spaghetti.

They were alive.

I saved them.


I shouted at the top of my lungs and bounded out the back, racing up the steps and to the door. It was open, as I knew it would be, and I entered the kitchen without bothering to shut it behind me.


I charged through the short hallway toward the front room where I could hear them watching tv. Shane's father was a stern man, but had a gentleness and civility I'd seen only on tv between presidents and generals. His mother was soft and lovely, like the cover of a women's magazine. I could hear a commercial for TaB cola and jumped the last two strides into the room, arms raised, throat raw.


Shane's parents were slumped against the back of the couch, eyes rolled back, mouths gaping. All their teeth were missing, replaced with black, pitted gums and wiry splinters like some evil knight's tower portcullis. His sister was under the coffee table, just her arms, legs and trunk exposed, the limbs fixed at angles they were never meant to create.

"...and you won't drink TaB because you have to, you'll drink TaB because you want to."

Shane was in the recliner which was titled all the way back. He was completely crushed and looked like a rubber Halloween costume. The orange Dixie Challenger bulged from what remained of his left eye socket and I turned my head just in time to lose my stomach all over the floor.

Everything smelled like sick.

From under the table I heard a girl's voice, clotted and wheezing.

"You didn't chew your potatoes."

It was on my bed, my pillow and in my hair.

And she was right. I hadn't.

Mom tore the blankets, sheets and pillow case from the bed, wadding them up and rushing them to the washing machine before she spent the next half hour scrubbing and disinfecting the mattress. I sat in the front room watching the Munsters in just my jammy bottoms, head tilted back with a cool, damp washcloth on my forehead. We didn’t have ginger ale, so she poured a glass of orange juice and tried to get me to eat some hot cereal but both stomachs were queasy so she settled for plain toast. I only nibbled one corner and the grittiness made my tongue feel like sandpaper so I set it aside hoping Mom wouldn’t notice. My head hurt and I felt weak, and I tried to concentrate on how pretty Lilly Munster was but even that part of my brain wasn’t having it. I could hear mom cussing to herself because me being sick meant she had to clean the whole house again. Germs were sneaky and persistent.

She made noodle soup for lunch, but I was still feeling blah and only ate a couple of spoonfuls.

“You need to eat.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“You can’t just sit there on an empty stomach.”

“I’m not.”

“And you have to keep drinking liquids.”

“But I don’t feel good.”

“If you want to feel better, you need to eat and drink.”

“Ungh, okay.”

The fever finally broke mid afternoon and my appetite somewhat returned. I ate half a grilled cheese sandwich and the rest of the soup leftover from earlier. It felt good to finally have something in me and second stomach was surprisingly appeased. I slid off the couch, heading to my room to put a shirt on when there was a knock on the front door. I shrugged into my Spider Man Underoos top as Mom answered it.

“Oh, hello.”

“Kathryn, it’s good to see you.”

“Uhh, and you, Mrs Greer.”

“Call me Lydia.”


“I heard Whisker was sick today and I was concerned. I’m sorry I didn’t call first, but I was already in the area and wanted to see how he’s doing.”

“Oh, well he’s doing better. I finally got him to eat something.”

“Good. Is he-- here?”

“In his room.”

“Do you mind?”

“No, umm, not at all.”

“Thank you.”

I was petrified. I grabbed a flannel from the back of my chair and threw it on, tousling my hair from where it was plastered to my forehead with sweat. The back was still damp, but there was nothing I could do about that now. I was on the third button when she arrived, knocking twice on my open door.

“Hello, Whisker.”

I was buttoning frantically and not at all well.


“May I come in?”

Into my room? Alone?

“Yes please.”

She strode in with confidence, wearing a full length skirt and a turtleneck, rich earth tones, heels clacking on the hardwood. She had a leather briefcase she placed on the floor next to my bed.

“Do you mind if I sit?”

“Wherever you like.”

“Thank you.”

I moved so she could sit in my chair and I finished with the last button. Then I checked to see if the mattress was still damp and, finding it reasonably dry, took a seat on the bed facing Mrs Greer. She smiled at me, but I could tell there was something on her mind. I picked at the tail of my flannel, waiting for her to say something.

“How are you feeling?”

“Umm, okay I guess.”

“Your mom said you weren’t well when she called this morning.”

“I, umm, got sick. On my bed.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. And you feel better now?”

“Not like I’m going to be sick again.”

“Well that’s good to know.”

I nodded.

“Would you like to know why I’m here?”


“I’ve been concerned about you since our talk the other day. Do you remember what we talked about?”


“Do you remember when I asked you to bring the snoopy dog with you so I could hold onto it for a while?”


“And do you remember saying you would do it?”

“Uh huh.”

“Okay, good. It’s not a problem, is it?”

“I don’t think so.”

“I’m having a little trouble understanding why, then, you didn’t bring it to school these past few days.”



“I forgot?”

She put her hand on my knee which sent a shiver through my leg and up my back, culminating in a flower of pleasure that put me at ease.

“Is that really what happened?”

“Uhh, no.”

“Why then?”

“I was-- scared.”

“Are you scared now?”

“Not as much.”

“That makes me feel better. I know this is scary, but I want to help.”

“I know.”

“I brought something for you.”

She picked up her briefcase and opened it, slipping her hand inside and pulling out what I thought looked like a piece of yarn. She put the case back on the floor and took my hand, turning it over and placing hers over mine. A lingering moment of contact, I held my breath until she moved her hand away and I looked at my palm. She was smiling.

“What is it?”

“A gift.”

“But what is it?”

“Hehe. It’s a bracelet. My niece makes them and I thought you might like one.”

I looked closer and saw there were different shades of blue and green and even white braided into a narrow cord. I could see the hopeful look in her eyes.

“It’s nice. Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome. Would you like to see my tits?”

I froze.


“I asked if you would like to see how it fits.”

“Oh, uhh, sure.”

“Let me get that.”

She used her long, delicate fingers to expertly tie the bracelet around my left wrist and I watched her breathlessly. When she was finished, I offered her a smile.

“How’s that?”


“Excellent. Now, do you know what this bracelet means?”

“Umm, I’m not sure.”

“It means--”

We’re boyfriend and girlfriend?

“--we’re friends and we can tell each other anything.”



“And we trust each other and will help each other.”


“Can you do that?”


“I knew you could.”

I admired my wrist for several moments before Mrs Greer, Lydia, trusted friend and secret girlfriend, shifted in her seat and cleared he throat.

“Can you do something for me, Whisker?”


“I want to see it.”

That was fast.

“Y-you do?”

“If you don’t mind.”

“N-no. But what about my mom?”

“Do you want her here too?”

“What? No.”

“Okay. Then I’d like to see it.”

“Right here?”

“It’s someplace else?”

“No-- it’s here.”


Who was the adult here?

“It’s, umm, in my p--”

“Is that it? On the shelf there?”

“Oh, umm, what?”

“The snoopy dog. Is it behind those books there?”

“Oh. Yeah.”

“Would you like me to get it?”

“I think-- I would.”


She stood, leaning over to reach the shelf that was behind me. She was close, closer that she was when we were alone in the office. I could smell her perfume, her skin underneath it, the fabric softener she used, the hint of coffee and something else, something sweet, on her breath. My pulse quickened, but I sat stock still, and when her shoulder rubbed my forehead, my lips so close to those womanly curves, I involuntarily gasped. She pulled back, a reflex, and the moment was lost.

“Did I bump you? Are you--”

“I’m good. It’s-- I’m good.”

“I didn’t realize I was so close. I-- almost-- got it.”

She pushed the last of the books aside and took it from the rear of the shelf, stepping back, away from me, and in those precious seconds, she felt completely lost to me, drifting beyond my touch, beyond my breath, drowning. She held it in both hands, the head emerging from between her fingers, and she inhaled sharply like when the flesh of my palms touched her bare skin the way she asked me to.

The snoopy dog was smiling.

It was always smiling.

“So this is it.”

It sounded like a farewell.

Mrs Greer left with the snoopy dog in her briefcase, hugging me and speaking briefly with Mom before she got in her car and drove away. It felt like the last time I’d ever see her. Then Mom came in my room and checked my forehead, satisfied the fever was well and truly gone.

“Maybe I was wrong about her.”

“I think she’s nice.”

“You two had quite the little chat.”


“What did you talk about?”

“Stuff. School.”

“Anything else?”

“Not really.”

“You should lay down.”


“Your sheets still aren’t dry, so I’ll just give you a blanket, okay?”


Mom brought the blanket and I rolled over on my side with my back to her so she thought I was going to sleep, but I was far from tired, despite my condition, and it was still light out. When she left the room, shutting the door behind her, I waited until I knew she was sitting in front of the tv before I slipped out of bed and got a notebook and pencil from my backpack. Then I crawled back into bed and laid there, notebook open, and began to write.

Dear Dead Kittens,

I’m sorry I hurt you so bad you could'nt stand to live anymore. I was mad at Shane for lying about keeping my toy car. I was bad for hurting you and I want to say I’m sorry.

I love you and hope you are in heaven or some place where you are safe and not in pain. I had a dream where I saved you but your family died instead.

Please don't cry.


I put the notebook under my pillow and the pencil on the shelf. Then I laid on my back and moved so my ear was up against the wall and could tell Mom was watching something scary because the music sounded like nails on a chalkboard. Then I heard screams.

For once, they weren’t my own.
Which One Is the Big Dog"She took it."

"It won't make things any better."

"She's an adult. She can protect me."

"They aren't the solution."

"What is then?"

"You won't like it."

"I don't like being scared all the time."

"You won't like being dead, either."

"I don't want to be dead."

"Then listen to me."

Her lips were dry and scratchy against my ear when she leaned in close, whispering all the things I knew I didn't want to hear and a few I didn't. It unfolded like one of my nightmares, a twisting, curdled thing that superimposed reality with futility and denial. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Things anymore only ever seemed to be measured in degrees of worse, and spending time in my head was one of few viable opportunities for comfort.

I wasn’t ready for this.

“Can you do it?”

Please, just wake up.


Maybe I really am dead.

“Answer me.”


A dog barking.

“I can do it.”

Scratching at the door.

I felt her hand brush against my chin before a clipped scream. The air shifted, her scent lingering after she was snatched away.

Then came the biting.

I could no longer smell her over the taste of chocolate.

I felt better the next day and Mom decided I was well enough to go back to school. She’d been acting weird ever since Mrs Greer came to visit, kept looking at me like she expected me to say something or I was hiding something. I tried to go about my morning like any other: eat breakfast, put on clothes, brush my teeth, make sure I had everything I needed for school in my backpack. Aside from Mom awkwardness, I felt pretty good; more like I used to feel before all the snoopy dog business. On the way to school, I thought about what Mrs Greer said and I looked at the bracelet and couldn’t help but smile to myself. I was trying to figure out how I could broach the topic of taking our relationship to the next level, so good I was feeling, but the moment passed when I caught Mom staring at me through the rear view mirror.

This continued for the entire trip, and as much as I wanted to know what she was thinking, I was too afraid to ask. When she dropped me off, she didn’t kiss me goodbye, and even though it was odd, there were enough other things on my mind I didn’t think to address it. As I headed to the second set of double doors, Patsy, the secretary, a cheerful woman with a voice left sandy from years of smoking, opened a door at the main entrance and called to me.

“Whisker. Mrs Greer wants to see you in her office.”

She held the door open for me as I squeezed past her, went through the cloak room and into the office.

“You can leave your backpack next to my desk if you want.”

“Okay, thanks.”

I dropped it on the floor, scooting it partway under the edge of the desk with my foot. I saw Mrs Greer was sitting, head bowed, writing something in her day planner. I ambled up to the doorway, knocking twice. She lifted her head slightly, looking at me over the frame of her glasses and gestured for me to come in.

“Shut the door behind you and have a seat, please.”

I did so and sat down across from her, watching as she finished what she was writing. I couldn’t tell what it said, but she had a strong, flowing script that looked like swimsuit models on the page. When she was done, she put her pen down and removed her glasses as she rose from her chair, walking around the edge of the desk. She tripped the lock on the door handle and jiggled it to confirm it was.

“Whisker, thank you for coming in.”

I watched as she took her seat, noting the knee-length skirt and silky charmeuse top.

“I think there are some things we need to discuss.”


Mrs Greer opened one of the drawers in her desk and picked something out, plunking it down on the desk in front of me.

“I need to know what this is.”

I looked at it with only one eye open.


“That’s what I thought.”

She tapped it several times with the tip of her index finger. It was a folded up piece of notebook paper. But it wasn’t just any folded up piece of notebook paper: it was a folded up piece of notebook paper I thought I’d left in my locker several days ago.

With a love letter to Mrs Greer.

I tried to remember everything I wrote, hoping it wasn’t too suggestive, too incriminating, but sitting there in her office, across from her, with the door locked-- it all came up a big blank.

“How do you think I should handle this?”


“How old are you, Whisker?”

“Uhh-- s-seven.”

“Well I’m thirty-three.”


“Does that sound old to you?”

“Not-- really.”

“Good. It’s not. But it’s too old for you.”

I watched her eyes dart back and forth, searching mine, and tried to lose myself in them like I did before, but this time they were guarded and wouldn’t let me. They were cold-- and I shivered.

"Am I in trouble?”

Mrs Greer sighed and tugged the edge of her collar, lips parting, closing, parting again.

“You’re not in trouble, Whisker.”


“In fact, it’s really quite flattering.”

“It is?”

“I thought it was-- nice. Eloquent.”

Wait for it.

“And thoughtful. But I think it goes beyond, well, it becomes inappropriate.”


“I don’t want you take me wanting to help you the wrong way.”

“I don’t.”

“That’s kind of you to say.”

“It’s true.”

“Does it feel, hoo, warm in here?”

“Uhh, sorta.”

She was fanning herself with the front of her blouse like a bellows.

“I think you better-- get to class. We can continue this conversation another time.”


I unlocked the door and grabbed my pack where it lay next to Patsy. She gave me a warm smile and I returned it with a wave.

“Have a good day, Whisker.”

The dog was far away.

I could just barely see it, darker than the night around it. It barked and growled and yipped and paced back and forth, snuffling and trying to catch my scent. For some reason, it couldn’t get to me and it wasn’t very happy about that. I, on the other hand, was ecstatic; so much so I was filled with defiance and bravado. I knew in my head it was foolish, but the opportunity being what it was, I couldn’t help myself.

It barked.

I howled back.

It snarled.

I yowled and shook my head, jumping around.

It whined, a rhythm that came out like words.

I mocked it, in the most idiotic voice knew.


I was grinning and giggling and practically dribbling piss down my leg, so drunk was I to finally be out of its reach. It stopped pacing, ears laid flat against its skull, and begun to scratch at the ground. I walked around in circles, laughing, making up names for the ugly dumb mutt.

“Buttstink, assbreath, ballsface, stupidhead, assbastard, dickbrain, fartnose, boogernuts--”

Each new one I’d say to myself, and if it was good, I’d stop and scream it at the top of my lungs followed by moaning and barking and laughing and basically being a total shithead. If I had anything to throw, I would have. Dad and I would walk a lot of different places around town, not just the bank on the weekends. There was a family a block down who had the entire back yard fenced off where they kept a least half a dozen loud, smelly, barking their asses off dogs I loved to tease and holler at and generally make a nuisance of myself. At first, we’d wait for them to see us and start barking to go into our own retaliatory air pollution, but eventually I got so I liked doing it so much Dad figured it was best to just let them be. We called them the Baa Dogs on account of the sounds they made. But I guess that we, at least for a while, were the Baa People until we had sense enough to curb our impulses. Eventually, the people who lived there put up a privacy fence along the chain link one that kept the Baa Dogs in, and by that point, the fun was lost.

It was with fond memories of them that I was stirred into a shouting match with the dog.

Until I was the only one shouting.

“Where you at, BITCHSACK.”




“WHISKER. Can you hear me?”

“Huh? Mrs Greer?”

“I-I can’t quite-- oof-- see you. Can you come closer?”

“I don’t think so. There’s a big--”

She screamed.


“Help-- whisskurrr--”


“Hel-- meee--”

Stupid. Stupid. STUPID.

“Now can anyone tell me what sixty-four divided by eight is? Anyone? Whisker?”

“Damn asshole dog.”

“Excuse me?”


“That’s what I thought.”

After filling both sides of a piece of notebook paper with “I will not say bad words in class”, I spent the rest of the day sitting in the office with Patsy. I was given my homework, so if anything, it was more a vacation from Mrs Switt than punishment. I caught a couple of disapproving frowns from Mrs Greer, but it was hardly surprising. After the morning let down, I knew I was headed for a hearthbreak. Patsy could tell I was down and made an effort to lighten the mood.

“Ya know, asshole ain’t so bad. Everybody’s got one.”


“You get to be my age, things start to get a little rusty.”


“Enjoy all your parts while you can reach them, kid.”

“I will.”

Sitting with Patsy was nice, and her don’t give a fuck attitude helped me feel better about my classroom indiscretion. A lot of the kids in school liked her, and now I could see why. For a moment, I considered getting in trouble semi regular just so I could spend more time with her, but with the inevitable talk with Mrs Greer, likely joined by Mrs Switt, looming overhead, I decided it was better to pick my battles.


I slid off the chair and Patsy gave me a wink. Then I shuffled across the carpet and into Mrs Greer’s office.


“Have a seat.”

I did. And I knew it there would only be time for business.

“So I hear you’re having trouble finding appropriate language for the classroom.”

“I guess so.”

“So it’s true what Mrs Switt told me?”

“What did she tell you?”

“Why don’t you tell me what you said.”

“I’d rather not.”

“So you admit your language was vulgar?”

I slumped in the chair, chin to my chest, peering into those tantalizing green eyes through my bangs. Something glittered; something rich and warm.

“I, umm, guess I do.”

She crossed the desk with a leap and grasped the front of my shirt in her hand, running the other through her hair. Pulling me forward, she slid her face up my chest and her nose along the line of my jaw, inhaling and making these little sighs that left taught all the little hairs on my body. She clung to me; breathless.

“That’s what I was hoping you’d say.”

Mrs Greer held me for what seemed like hours. She was in her chair and I stood before her, arms at my side while she sobbed like I’d heard from Haley when we were under all the pants. I could smell her hair-- something sweet and floral-- where her face rubbed against my chest and I could feel my shirt was damp even through my Underoos. I’d never seen Mom cry like this and Mom cried a lot. Eventually, she pulled away, looking me in the eyes. She reminded me so much of my sister in that moment I almost pulled her back against me.

“How long has it been?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe two weeks?”

“It wants me. It always wants me. When I’m awake, asleep, in the shower, in the garden.”

I knew what she meant.

“It’s always scratching.”

“And biting.”

“And biting, yes.”

“And sometimes you taste chocolate.”

“Chocolate? No. It’s-- more like, umm, coffee.”

“It’s always chocolate for me.”

“Whisker. I’m sorry, but, I’m not sure--”

I waited.

“I’m not sure what to do.”

“I trust you.”

“I don’t think it, well, I don’t think-- it matters now.”

“You’re going to let it win?”

She looked stricken when the words sank in, and she was on the verge of crying again, but cut herself short. She sat up, rubbing the tears away with her palms, and sniffed a few times.


Mrs Greer put her hands on my arms, still at my sides, and looked me straight. I fell into the eyes that comforted me, but refused anything more. If it was as good as I could get, I’d take it.

Sometimes all you have is the person next to you.

Her lips parted slightly, eyes narrowing.

“How do you do it?”

Those green eyes scanned every inch of me, inside and out; hoping.

All I could do was shrug.

“Sometimes it, umm. Sometimes it helps if I-- if I don’t breathe.”

We spent the rest of our time together just like that.



Trying not to breathe.

Haley was rocking back and forth where she sat on the floor next to my bed with her knees drawn up to her chin. Her clothes were dirty, frayed, and almost the same bruised indigo hue as her extremities. There was a dullness to her color, like a popsicle with the syrup sucked out. And her eyes-- huge-- like the girl from the G-Force cartoon, were rainy windshields: perpetually teary.

Her head tilted to the side, cheek on her knee, bottom lip pouted, a thin rope of drool slithering from the corner of her mouth. I watched her from my bed, arm dangling over the edge, tips of my fingers lightly brushing her shoulder.

“Oh where-- oh where-- has my little-- cough-- little dog gone.”

“It’s good to have you home, Haley.”

Her bottom lip twitched with every word, mouth like a goldfish, hair like tadpoles against my fingers.

“Oh where-- cough-- oh where can he be.”

“I told you I’d do it.”

I traced with my eyes the way her kneecap jutted through the skin of the joint while she rocked. It was slow, but deliberate; a clock pendulum.

“With his ears cut short-- and his tail-- cut long.”

“I missed you.”

Whatever was in her hair, or on her scalp, was spreading to the crown of her forehead and nape of her neck. It was a cross between gelatin and oatmeal and made my skin tingle like muscle cream. She was missing a shoe, and I saw her big toe poking from a hole in her sock. Half the nail was missing.

“Oh where, oh-- cough cough-- where can he be?”

“Did you miss me?”

She stopped, turning her head such that her bottom lip dragged across her knee and left a track like a snail. Her cheeks and nose were puffy.


I stroked her shoulder, feeling a waxy residue on my fingertips.

“What is it?”

The look she gave me was a mix of fear and resentment.

"I lost another tooth."

On Saturday, Dad took me to Ponderosa for supper. We’d spent the afternoon at the Art Center, which was around the corner from where I went to school. It was a mixed show of local artists, with everything from oil paintings to sculpture, even an ornate table with chairs. It had two levels, lots of open space, with white walls and treated white pine floors. There was a window on the South side that stretched from the bottom of the first floor to roughly midway up the second, which you can look down onto the main gallery below from the cutaway wall behind it. I found the building itself more interesting than the contents, and would trace a circuit as many as four or five times to see what, if anything, changed with each pass. You could say, by action, it was the first sapling branches of insanity. For me, it was comforting. It felt safe.

Conversation with Dad consisted mostly of my week at school: progress, friends, what Mom packed for my lunches. I slyly avoided mention of the outburst and things developing-- or not developing-- with Mrs Greer. As far as he was concerned, everything was hunky dory and I aimed to keep him in that loop. I was kind of a bitch like that.

“So Mrs Greer seems to like you.”

“I guess so.”

“Mrs Switt, too.”

“Really? Feels like the opposite.”

“Nah, she likes you. She just wants you to work to your potential.”

“Why would I do that?”

“You don’t want to do your best?”

“I guess so.”

“I know a lot of things come easy for you.”

“None of the important ones.”

“You don’t think school work is important?”

“Not as important.”

“As what?”

“People. Girls.”

“You think girls are more important than your education?”

“I don’t have to work in class.”

“But you have to work at girls.”

“Something like that.”

“Listen. This early in the game, education only comes around once. You’ll have plenty of time to worry about girls when you’re older.”

“That’s the problem.”

“What is?”

“I don’t want to be a kid anymore.”

“Oh, I don’t think you mean that.”

“Wanna bet?”

“Why don’t you want to be a kid anymore?”

And that’s where I was at; still a kid, yet no longer wanting to be. Life had become more about everything I couldn’t do being a child than those I could. If that part was over, maybe I’d be able to do the things I wanted: date Mrs Greer, bring Haley home and stop the snoopy dog. I suppose that’s a tall order for anyone, adult or otherwise, but it’s good to have goals.

“Ehh, I don’t want to talk about this.”

“Come on. You brought it up.”

“Uh uh.”

“You think it’s easy being grown up? Being married?”

“I dunno.”

“It isn’t.”

“Didn’t say it was.”

“Trust me. Just-- try to concentrate more in school. Your teachers want you to succeed.”

“If you say so.”

“Talk to Mrs Greer. I have.”

“You have?”

“Just the other day. She sure likes it up the ass.”

I choked on my Pepsi.

“Tonsils deep in that miserable slit.”

He took another bite of macaroni salad.

“W-what did you say?”

Dad put down his fork, elbows on the table, hands pressed together. He was smirking when he leaned toward me.


“Tastes like chocolate.”
TripDad was in front of the mirror on the closet door tying his tie. He was wearing a dark colored suit which was something I pretty much never saw him in. He usually wore tee shirts and jeans, worn-in ones, with holes in them. He had a pair of jeans he liked to wear with one back pocket that had a hole as big as my fist and the other had an embroidered patch Mom sewed on it-- presumably to cover a similar hole-- that looked like a giant cheeseburger with layers of meat and cheese and lettuce and tomato and covered the entire thing. I called them burger pants or sometimes sandwich pants and when he wore them he usually wore old leather sandals that looked like they were about to fall apart.

He used to wear his hair long and wild and his beard big and bushy. The day he shaved it all off I cried because I didn’t know who he was. Thinking about that now, I guess I was a pretty dumb kid. I thought he somehow changed into a different person without it, but in a way, stupid as it was, it was also kind of true. Ever since that day he seemed a little less like Dad, even though I still called him that, and more like an adult who lived in the same house as me and Mom and only acted like Dad. I once saw a movie with a man dad’s age, except he had an afro, who was chased by copies of the people he knew-- they were aliens or whatever-- and eventually everyone in the city where he lived was one and it ended with him being one too. Sometimes I wondered if that’s what happened to Dad when he shaved. I guess you could say I had an overactive imagination.

Dad always carried a handkerchief, usually a red one, but sometimes blue, and had a short stack of them in his top dresser drawer. I always thought it was gross, basically a reusable tissue, and I pretty much swore to myself I’d never use one. At some point, Dad stopped using a handkerchief, but that was years later, probably after he retired. I never asked him why, and come to think of it, I don’t believe I noticed until well after he stopped. In a way similar to when he shaved his beard, he became a different person to me without that handkerchief; not as much that he changed, but I grew up.

Mom was putting on earrings on the other side of the bedroom. She had on makeup and her hair was done and she was wearing a dark colored dress with similarly colored flat heeled shoes. Unlike Dad, it was less ritual than routine. Mom always dressed in a fashion befitting someone twice her age, a vintage, layered look, that was as acclaimed by people her own age as reviled by those closer to mine. A lot of the clothes she wore she made herself, and many of the ones she didn’t she picked up from thrift stores. She had a definite sense of fashion, of style, but perhaps best suited for the generation before her own.

Dad left Mom alone in the bedroom and she sat on the bed, staring out the window. When he returned, he stood outside the door, hand on the knob.

“We should get going.”

They got in the car, Mom first, and started to go the way she normally drove me to school. It was sunny, but there were enough clouds it wasn’t too bright, and it was warm but not so warm you couldn’t wear a coat or a jacket. The wind blew hard enough to rustle what leaves were still on the trees. They were close to the edge of town, where the suburbs turned to farms, and when they passed Grace Avenue, Dad drove another half mile before the car slowed and turned into the main entrance at Oakland Cemetery.

They drove all the way to the back where the close cut grass abutted a farmer's field and the highway beyond and a handful farmhouses could be seen in the distance. It was the new part of the cemetery and the trees were still relatively small compared to those in the old section. Most of the graves here were new as well, no mausoleums, but modest headstones from equally modest families, with names like Shook, Baker and Frehley. Dad pulled the car over into the grass and we got out slowly, standing there, waiting for the wind to die. He went first, taking Mom's hand, and leading her to one of the staked oak trees, roughly three inches in diameter, where they veered right and stopped at a pair of granite grave markers. The one on the right still had the slightest lump of turned earth, only partially covered with grass and Mom crouched down, pulling weeds away and straightening a tiny wreath at the one on the left. Dad stood behind her, a couple of feet away, hands in his pockets. He sniffed.

"Hard to believe it's been almost a year."

"Close to four."

"No, I meant--"

"I know what you meant."

"I think-- we should start coming here. More often."

Mom was tearing up anything that even looked remotely like vegetation.

"I don't see what good that would do."

"Don’t you think we should?"

"Isn't it enough they're gone?"

"I didn't--"

Dad's voice faded out like turning down the volume on the radio and I went to stand next to him, but he felt really cold so I moved closer to the markers. They were both light gray, new, like the grounds.

The one on the left said, "Our Beloved Daughter: Haley White."

It was starting to make sense why Mom was so upset; Haley was the oldest and her favorite.

I wandered toward the other marker, which was completely gray and without color. A couple of dandelions curled around its edges with empty stalks like the eyes of a slug.

I read the inscription.

Whisker White: ...a burden too heavy to bear. Psalms 38:4.

A little boy who stole and lied.

I looked to my left and Mom and Dad were gone. The air was completely still, but I still felt cold.

Fucked his teachers til he died.


The wreath at Haley's marker toppled over.

I walked closer, staring at the ground, which was moving, little by little, until a finger, then two fingers, then a whole fist popped through and pulled some of the grass and dirt down with it.

Then he jumped into his grave.

I stood over the hole, roughly the size of a bowling ball, and peered into it. I could see someone in there, hiding, hair mussed, face smudged with filth. It was a face I recognized.

And snoopy dog made him his slave.


The tunnel was narrow and smelled bad and Haley showed me where to put my hands and my feet so I wouldn’t fall. We climbed for forever and I was sweaty and dirty and just wanted to go home, but Haley said I couldn’t go home anymore; not to my old home. I had a new home now.

We came out on our hands and knees through a hole in the back of a doghouse, busted out from the inside, that sat just far enough from the brick retaining wall to allow us to squeeze through. I dusted myself off out of habit. Haley just grabbed my wrist, dragging me along, and I stumbled the first couple of steps like a half strung marionette. For some reason I couldn’t get a good look at her, but when I turned my head back to the doghouse I saw the front was nailed up with boards. Then I tripped over something.

And fell to my knees.

“Get up. We have to hurry.”


“He’s coming.”

“Who is?”

“You know who.”

“I don’t.”

“Huhh, don’t argue. Just come on.”

“I’m coming.”

“Well come faster.”

“I am.”

We were running through a yard and about halfway across I realized it was my own. Dad’s car was parked in its spot and the garage door was down. Someone left the hose uncoiled on the driveway and a small stream of water trickled into the street. Dad never washed his car-- it was old and he just let the rain do it-- and only the side of the house was wet. The hose water smelled like it was fluoridated even though the police man at school said it wouldn’t change the smell or taste. I could always smell it.

We ran for the front door, Haley pulling it before she disengaged the latch and wrenched it open with a BANG that made my teeth ache.

“Come on come on.”

We charged through the door and I swung it weakly, hoping it would shut. The front door always swelled when it was warm and humid and I could tell by the trailed off hiss I’d failed.

This wasn’t the living room.

The room was dark, all wood paneling and a hardwood floor, with a pool table and a bar and animal heads on the walls. The hallway beyond was a solid rectangle of black, impenetrable, and I set back on my heels. Haley was yanking my arm, but I wouldn’t budge.

“Where are we?”


“This isn’t--”

“We can’t stand here and argue. We have to hide.”

“I’m scared.”

“There isn’t time to be.”

There was a crash from another room, breaking glass, and I knew something came through the window; the one over the sink.

This wasn’t my house.

Haley pinched the soft part between my thumb and forefinger and hauled me forward into the hallway.

Into darkness.

We cowered together under an end table, me in her lap, like before, like always, and I squeezed my eyes shut, finding comfort in the light my brain shined through my eyes onto my eyelids where there was only darkness and more darkness when they were open. We could hear it pacing the kitchen floor; scratching, snuffling, growling. I could feel Haley's breath in my ear; sweaty, clammy skin against my own. It was warm, but she was shivering. I ground my teeth together in frustration, breathing out a hiss.

It stopped. And then I heard it galloping through the kitchen, a PLOK PLOK PLOK PLOK PLOK like its legs were made of broom handles, and it galloped through the short hallway where the attic door was and through the den.

This wasn't my house.

The distance from the den to the archway into the front room was a matter of feet, with area rugs that covered the majority of the worn hardwood, and its strides alternated PLOKs and THUMPs as it passed over wood and fabric. It was coming around the end table and wing chair, past the grandmother clock and the HiFi and around toward the coffee table. It was so close I could hear its breath rustling like dead leaves blowing down a late October street curb.

So close its dank, clotted breath was tar on my exposed skin.

At the last moment Haley let go, pushing me out from under the table and it was upon me: scratching for my sides, wet nose against my ear, as it pawed unceasing fits of tickles and jabs and I flopped around like a sunfish tossed ashore, without control, laughing until I cried until I laughed until my sides began to split.

It backed away and I heaved repeatedly. My chin and part of my neck were covered with spit, pants freshly pissed and bunching between my legs. I could hear it only a couple feet away, coughing.

Not coughing.


This wasn't how the dream went.

Haley was next to me.

"There. Let me go home."

"It's too late for that."

Its teeth gleamed wet like icicles over a spotlight.

"Now get those pants off him or you're back in the doghouse."

Haley's hands were so rough I was glad I couldn't see her face.

I liked it when the sun was out and everything was bright but it wasn’t shining right in my face so I couldn’t see. The cicadas were buzzing, a dry, swelling sound that I always associated with the wind blowing through the trees. I was wearing shorts and an Izod polo shirt with the little alligator on the breast. My knee socks had one blue and one yellow stripe, and my Nikes had swishes that matched the sky. Haley was next to me while we stood at the edge of the yard where the town just poured concrete for a small section of the sidewalk out front. It was already settled, but still damp to the touch. She squatted next to it and put her palm flat, leaving a light, but distinctive print behind.

"Give me your hand."

I did and she put my print next to hers, using her finger to write "H" and "W" underneath them along with the year. She looked at me and smiled.

"Now we won't forget."

I smiled back when she ruffled my hair and I saw Mr Craff across the street working on his motorcycle. He just moved in, maybe a month before, and he had daughters who were all around my age, two older and one younger. I'd never met them since we didn't go to the same school and Mr and Mrs Craff seemed to keep mostly to themselves. He saw me looking and waved. I raised my hand, but it wasn't much of a wave; I was too busy trying to figure out what he was doing. I took two steps forward, to see better. and my foot caught on something in the yard, dropping to my knees. I got dirt and grass all over them and they were wet and sticky and I got up slowly, still preoccupied with across the street.

Mrs Coldman, who lived next to the Craffs, came out the side door and went to her yard, inspecting the bushes out front. She was always friendly, and nice to me; atypical from most of the older people on my street who went solely by my reputation for neighborhood mischief. She was wearing a floral print dress with a dark colored shawl. I wondered how she was’t too warm in those clothes.

“Old people get cold easier.”

Haley was reading my mind again. I nodded to myself, committing it to memory.

“Grandma Roe used to wear a sweater in the Summer, but you’re too young to remember that.”

“Was Grandma Roe nice?”

“I used to spend weekends with her and we’d go to the park or pick apples in the Fall. She loved me very much. I miss her.”

“That sounds nice.”

“She would have liked you. But she liked girls better.”

“I wish I was a girl.”

“No you don’t.”


“Trust me.”

“But why?”

“No one hurts boys where they pee.”

“Aunt Ky did.”

“No she didn’t. She loved you.”

“What’s the difference?”

Haley stopped and looked at me square.


I watched Mr Craff across the street and the youngest daughter-- Jaylee I think her name was-- came up the driveway. She had something in her hand, some kind of tool, but I couldn’t quite see well enough to tell. Mr Craff pointed to something on his motorcycle and Jaylee nodded. Then he stood up and started to walk across the yard toward Mrs Coldman’s. He shouted something that I didn’t understand and the sun came out from behind the clouds enough I had to put my hand over my eyes to see. Mrs Coldman looked to Mr Craff, waved, and walked unsteadily toward him.

They met in the driveway, where Mr Craff put his hands on his hips while they talked. Jaylee followed her dad, slowly, stopping every couple feet to look at something in the grass or swing the thing in her hand around like a toy. Mrs Coldman pointed to her house and Mr Craff nodded. They both laughed.

Then Mr Craff made a fist and smashed her in the nose and Mrs Coldman dropped cold, her glasses spinning off into the grass. He motioned to Jaylee, beckoning with his hand, and she half-skipped over, looking at Mrs Coldman, then her dad, and then she got down on one knee and started smashing Mrs Coldman’s face with the thing in her hand.

It was a hammer.

Mr Craff laughed and Jaylee was giggling like she was feeding goats at the petting zoo. Haley held my hand tight and I just stood there watching. I could hear them talking.

They were telling jokes.


Mr Craff answered in a parody of Mrs Coldman's sweet voice.




Kaylee smashed her face againand her dad was clutching his stomach, doubled over, howling.

Haley tugged my arm.

“Let’s go.”

“What’s happening?”

“What always happens.”


“Come on.”

“Why are they laughing? They’re--”

“Hurting Mrs Coldman?”


“This is how it is here.”

“People hurt each other?”

“There are no secrets.”

“But I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

“Don’t worry.”

She dragged me toward Dad’s car in the driveway.

“You will.”

Haley opened the passenger door and told me to get in. Then she walked around to the driver’s side and got behind the wheel. I started to put my seatbelt on, but she stopped me.

“We’re not going anywhere.”


She rubbed the side of her face and it came away skin colored; what was left beneath was the clammy, bluish hue I remembered from the mall and when she came to visit me and sing the little dog song. I thought it meant she’d be home for good, but she only stayed long enough to tell me things; things I was pretty sure weren’t true.

I hoped they weren’t.

“Cover your eyes. Don’t peek.”

I did, but the two fingers over my right eye weren’t quite together and I could still see her, even if it was a little fuzzy. She put a thumb and forefinger in her mouth and pulled out one tooth, then another, and placed them on the dashboard above the radio. She took a deep breath and a I watched as her hair went limp and hung in great greasy ropes.

“Open the glove compartment.”

Her voice was rough; like her hands.

“What’s in there?”

“Just open it.”


“DO IT.”

I put my hand forward, flipping open the glove compartment door and it fell open, revealing maps and manuals and fast food napkins.

“Put your hand inside.”

“I don’t want to.”

“You have to.”


“It’s done with me.”

My hand inched closer, finger bent.


“I don’t have anything it wants anymore.”

The tips of my fingers were on the edges of the carefully folded maps of the city, county and state.

“It’s hungry for something else.”


My fingers brushed against something cold and wet.


Teeth clamped down on my hand and yanked me headfirst through the hole.

The Bad Dog bit me in places I didn’t know I had, and every one burned like tabasco. It continued this until I was on the verge of hyperventilation and then it would stop and lick my face until I could catch my breath. When the tongue touched my skin it electrified it, sending blood and pleasure in between my legs. It lasted for hours. Or days.

All I knew was I didn’t know if I wanted it to stop.

Haley sat there and watched, sometimes made to turn around so she could only hear me, and others to tell Bad Dog where to hurt me. There were never any wounds.

Not on the outside.

Mom and Dad came to me once and brought a cake with a dead cat baked into it. They smiled and gave me kisses and handed me presents. One was a bottle of chocolate sauce I was supposed to rub into my skin so I would taste better when Bad Dog bit me. There was a box full of kitten bones that squeaked and mewled until I put the lid back on it. The last was a photo album: all of Mrs Greer in various states of undress, all with the Bad Dog hurting her.

Under every one was the same message:

Help me.

Fuck me.

Kill me.

Love me.

“Read it aloud.”

“Help me.”

The Bad Dog growled.

“F-fuck me.”

Licked its chops.



“K-kill me.”

Barked twice.

“Love me.”

“I’m the only one who ever will.”

Mom and Dad and Haley were gone. I sat there, too warm, but still shivering.

“Is this Hell?”

The Bad Dog grinned a mouthful of barbed wire fence.

“Hell is in your head. In your heart.”

“Then what is it?”


“Why are you doing this?”

“You don’t listen.”


“You told her. You never tell.”

It looked into me, muzzle pressed against my nose.

“Now I have to hurt her too.”

“Please don’t. I--”

“Love her?”


“You aren’t ready.”

“I want you to stop.”

“Then ask for it.”

“Ask for what?”

“For her.”

“I don’t--”

“I know what you want, boy, but that’s not enough.”

My bladder felt full, cramped, and I crossed my legs.

“Tell me.”

“I can’t.”

“Help her.”


“Say it.”

I spoke the words.

Each one a chocolate kiss.
About Reputations pt 1The leaves were changing, filling the streets and sidewalks and yards, some gathered up in big bags left by the curb, but most were loose and crunchy when you walked over them. It hadn't rained for a few weeks and the air was dry with the slightest bite of winter in the wind. I spent a lot more time watching the yards than I did the road and started riding the brakes to compensate. I knew Alli would be pissed having just gotten them fixed, but she wasn't here and I wasn't telling.

It was good weather for secrets.

The house was close to the edge of town, like the one I grew up in; still suburbs, but close to where streets turned to county roads and two-lane highways with triple digit designations. Much of the town reminded me of home, despite being half as much again bigger. It was in a state I'd only before traveled through, always wanted to vacation when I had the money, and I'd managed to make it almost the whole way on a tank of gas. This trip was a sort of belated birthday present from my wife, who would be with me now if her job hadn't denied her time off. This is our busiest time of year, they said, like any time of year wasn't busy when it came to working with the handicapped. She'd been trying to promote above a position that required her constant supervision for going on three years, but not having a degree in the as stated critical fields and despite strong interviews, her number had yet to come up. Money was tight and stress levels high and I wished she were with me. Everyone needed a break, and hers was heading toward an entirely different-- and unwelcome-- sort.

I made a right hand turn on the street where Linda lived with her husband, Scott. It was a big deal, both the move and the house itself, with a sizeable surrounding yard and added privacy behind a wrought iron property fence. It reminded me of b-movie haunted house, the kind I always wanted to explore as a kid, and by all accounts from the web forum we frequented, it was sizing up to be. There was a single battered aluminum trash can at the curb, empty and on its side, surrounded by half a dozen or so Hefty bags ripped open and the contents tossed about. Someone ate a lot of Totino’s.

The gate was open and I pulled the Saturn into the drive behind a cobalt blue Prius. There was someone outside on the porch smoking. When I got out, a man in a hooded sweatshirt came out the front door in a hurry, nodding to the smoker and taking the steps two at a time. He stopped as I was getting out.

“Hey, I’m heading out for beer and wine coolers. Anything you want?”

“Whatever you’re having.”

“I’m Scott, by the way.”

He held out his hand and I took it, the grip firm.


“You’re from the forums, right? Which one are you?”



He rubbed the back of his neck.

“That’s William on the porch -- I, uh, don’t remember his forum name.”


“I’ll be back in a little bit. Linda’s inside.”

“Cool. Thanks.”

“You bet.”

Scott disappeared around the side of the house and I turned toward the front steps. The porch was gray like the one at home, but a lighter shade and somehow warmer. The smoker tossed his butt, smashing it out with a Chuck Taylor high top.

“Did I hear you say you're Whisker?”


“I’m William err Francis. Baconator.”


“Like the Pokémon?”

He smiled and I returned it with a smirk.

“Ha, sure.”

“Scott’s getting booze. Even if we don’t find any ghosts, at least we’ll be shitfaced.”

“Good to know priorities are in order.”

“I kicked in a few bucks extra for the good stuff.”

“He said something about wine coolers.”

“Wine coolers? Nah, man. Jäger.

Hello freshman year of college.

“Oh-- yeah.”

“It’s gonna pown.”

“And here we are. In the Pown Zone.”

“You should say hi to Bobbie err Shannon. She’s inside with Tiny.”

“I’ll do that. You coming with?”

“What? Yeah. In a minute.”


The front door stuck so I had to put my weight behind a stiff arm. It opened with a POP and a gray and white cat skittered up the stairs. I called to it, but after several moments, I could tell it wasn’t buying what I was selling.

“That you, William?”

I looked into the dining area and saw a woman close to my age coming through the door I assumed to be the kitchen. She was at least a foot shorter and wearing woven leather sandals, every creaky step echoing that of the bare hardwood floor. It reminded me of my great grandfather laughing and a creepy feeling wriggled up between my shoulder blades. She was smiling when she wrapped her arms around my waist in a friendly hug and her hair smelled like vanilla. I patted her back like I would when I hugged my father.

"It's so good to see you. Welcome to my home."

"Umm, thanks."

"It's Musta, right? Musta Kraken?"

Her eyes were a terrific cerulean that caught the sun coming through the window and sparkled with affection. I tripped into them, her words falling to the floor and rolling away under the furniture, tiny and lost. She pulled back, lips parted.

"You still here?"

"Oh, umm, sorry."

"That's okay."

"I'm Merril."

She smiled.



She took a step back, smile now thin.

"I thought you were, hmm."

"Yeah, I get that sometimes."

"We're, uhh, baking cookies. Do you like peanut butter?"

"Definitely in cookies."

The warmth in her face returned.

"Come out and say hi to Shan."

I followed Linda into the kitchen which was twice the size of my living room. A young woman with faux fur lined boots mixed dough in a large bowl and when she turned I noticed some on the edge of her chin. She smiled with her teeth, even ones, and her cool latte eyes matched the smatter of freckles below them.

“Who’s the ginger?”

She was grinning.

“This is-- Merrill is it?”


“Hi there, I’m Shannon. Everyone calls me Shan.”


“So you’re--”

Linda cut in, half whispering.

“This is Whisker.”

“Whoa. Your shit’s fucked UP.”

“Haha. I suppose it is.”

“All that shit with the snoopy? Fuuuck. Crazy ass shit. Did you meet William?”

“I did.”

“OH. I’m Bobbie. From the forums. Bobbie Wickham?”

I smiled, Linda fidgeting behind and to the left of me.

“Whisker says he likes peanut butter ones.”

“Anything from scratch really. I was expecting Pillsbury.”

“Not in my house.”

“So Scott’s the one who digs on frozen pizza rolls?”

“Oh not THIS shit again. HARVEY. He’s been acting up for the past week.”

“You don’t put him on a leash?”

“Huh? Oh, you mean my dog, Charlie. Harvey’s the, well--”

I caught Shan looking at me and she mouthed “the ghost”, eyes wide.


"In a manner of speaking. Excuse me."

She strode from the kitchen and I shuffled next to Shan at the counter.

"Need any help?"

"Shit yeah, this is my vacation. Finish mixing this up while I find some sheets."

"Yes ma'am."

"Don't get fresh with me when there's cookies to bake, mister."

I chuckled and turned back to the task, hand mixing the batter with a wooden spatula. The smell of peanut butter and brown sugar reminded me of the ones Mom used to make with my sister when she lived at home. There was a dog barking outside as I finished.

"This is mixed up pretty well."

I turned around and the kitchen was empty.

Like no one lived there.

"What the--"

I moved to the doorway into the dining room and peered around the corner, noting it was also empty, a layer of dust undisturbed on the floor and sills. I headed for the front entrance, convinced it was time to leave, turning the handle and yanking as hard as I could.

William spilled into the foyer, nearly knocking me down.

"Wow, dude. Didn't know you were right there."

"No, it's my fault."

"You okay?


"Yeah. No problem."

I heard a voice from the kitchen, annoyed.

"Going somewhere?"

Shan had a hand on her hip, the other waggling the spatula at me. William smacked my arm.

"Dude, she's hot. I'd totally tap that."

"I'll let her know."

“Wait, I--”

“She looks like she can handle herself.”

"But aren't you like-- I dunno. A little old?"

I looked at William and he shrugged, jaw slack.

"How old are you?"


"Huhhhh, condolences."

I headed for the kitchen.

"I have cookies to finish."

"Sure, man, whatever. Sorry about the door."

An hour later, we were all sitting around the family room eating cookies and drinking lemonade. It was the kind from concentrate, but no one said anything. Linda was pensive.

"He's not usually this bad. And normally it's more-- localized."

"So it's never been anything outside of the house?"

I took a drink.

"Never. Just the stuff I described in my posts."

"What about Alma?"

"What about her?"

"She ever done anything like this?"

"Not that I know of."

"So it's possible?"

"Yes. But unlikely."

There was a pause where everyone just looked at each other, exchanging worried glances. William broke the silence.

"Didn't Musta say he was coming?"

Linda frowned.

"Last I heard. Maybe he was delayed. Does anyone have a number for him? I'll give him a call."

She grabbed her cell from the end table and it started to ring, loud and driving, the tone familiar to me. I felt pinpricks on the back of my neck as Linda answered.


Her mouth formed an "O".

"Where are you? Are you okay?"

Shan's eyes went wide, William drawing his legs up beneath him in the chair.

"Well we're here now. Just come on in, yeah, the door's open."

She hung up.

"That was Musta."

We all waited.

"He was already here. He knocked, rang the doorbell, but no one answered."

Shan made a face.

"The hell?"

I cleared my throat.

"Did he sound like a dog?"

Linda shot me a look.

"What did you say?"

I told them what happened.

"Where's your bathroom?"

William stood up in a hurry and Linda followed him over the rims of her glasses.

"Second floor, end of the hall."

He disappeared without a word and Shan slouched in her seat next to me.

"This is some fucked up shit."

I nodded assent while Linda sat there staring at her cell.

"This doesn't make sense."


"My-- call history is empty."

"Did you clear it?"

"I didn't touch it."

I raised an eyebrow with a slow inhale and felt a quick elbow in my arm from Shan. She was giving me what I came to recognize as her "what the fuck?" face. She got the eyebrow too.

"I dunno."

"And that ringtone. I don't even have--"


William appeared in the doorway, lips pursed.

"Is that your cat?"

Linda nodded without looking at him.

"One of them probably."

"It sounds-- sick."


Linda looked up, jaw askance.

"Harvey, you need to be respectful of my guests."

"It's-- not your cat?"

William sat back down in the chair, drawing his knees up to his chin.


I coughed.

"Maybe it's the one I scared when I came in."

"What color was it?"

"Gray and, umm, white."

"That's Eek. He doesn't meow like that."


"It sounds like it's coming from the kitchen."


"Or the front door."

Everyone made the same face.

Linda jumped from her seat, the rest of us following close behind. It was dark outside at just past seven o’clock and I could see the street lamp through a sidelight window, but it was too far down the block to offer a more than miserable glow. William’s sneaker squeaked on the hardwood.

“There’s someone out there.”

“Don’t open it.”

“What if it’s Musta?”

“What if it isn’t.”

“Maybe it’s Harvey.”

“Maybe it’s Alma.”

“This isn’t Alma.”

“Don’t want to know who it is.”

“Be careful.”

“Stand back from the door.”

“Somebody grab a weapon.”

“I’ve got a phone book.”

“I found a boot.”

“Here’s a-- felt tip pen?”

Linda shushed us with a finger over her mouth, her back to the door. Wrapping her fingers around the handle, she jumped back, flinging it open wide.

A young, muscular man of average height was there, stooped, and cradling a bloody hand. He looked upon our Scooby Gang with a mix of surprise and disdain.

“Name’s Pedro. And y’all are fucking DEAF.”

Pedro made the drive all the way from Texarkana and said he’d been banging on the door for close to forty-five minutes before we answered. He knew there was someone home because he could hear us talking. He also heard a dog barking out back.

“Woulda called, but my phone’s dead.”

No one appeared happy with that news.

“You mean you didn’t come by earlier?”

“Huh? Naw. Just got here-- an hour ago.”

“What the fuck is going on.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Harvey needs to cool his shit.”

Linda looked worried.

“I don’t think this is him.”

“What else could it be?”

William untied and retied his laces. For the fourth time.

“I-- don’t know.”

“Maybe your cats are, I dunno, messing around with us.”

“How many do you have, anyway?”


“I only saw the one. Eek. He ran up the steps.”

“He does that with anyone he doesn’t know.”

“What about the others?”

“They’re down here somewhere, or in the basement where we keep the litter boxes.”

“They don’t spend much time upstairs?”

“Not if they can help it.”

Pedro looked at his freshly bandaged hand.

“Y’all do good work.”

Linda smiled.

“It wasn’t too serious. Barely broke the skin.”

“How did you get that cut, anyway?”

“Bite. Was looking in one of the windows, trying to get someone’s attention, when it came up behind me.”

“What did?”

“Dog, I guess. Didn’t get a good look at it.”

“It just bit you and ran off?”


Shan blew a curl from her face.

“I need a drink.”

“Me too.”

I don’t really drink.

“Anyone else want anything?”

“No, thanks.”



I followed Shan to the kitchen where what was left of the cookies sat on a wine colored plate on the counter. Second stomach took a swipe at me, and I had a couple bites. Shan grabbed a beer from the fridge and unscrewed the cap, taking a long swig. She tipped it toward me and I held up the cookie, eliciting a shrug.

“Thought you wanted one.”

“It can wait.”

“For what?”

“Look, there’s something I need to be honest with you about.”

Shan’s eyebrow went up.

“You may not--”

“You wanna fuck?”

“--believe this bu-- wha?”

“I know William does.”


She crossed the distance between us and the cookie was forgotten.

“I heard you two talking about me.”

“I don’t think--”

“You don’t have to.”

“No, what I--”

“Oh shut up.”

Her arms snaked around my neck and pulled me forward, mashing our lips with undomesticated greed. I put my hands on her waist, wanting to push her away, but her mouth tasted too good, like she’d been sucking on Tootsie Pops. When she pulled away, she was looking down, biting her bottom lip, and I held my breath.

“You two need a room?”

Linda stood in the doorway, a crooked smile between her lips.

“I think we’re, umm, fine.”

I took a step back and put my hands somewhere safe while Shan took another swig of her beer. Linda covered the cookies with plastic wrap and I stood there trying to figure out what to do next.

My mouth still tasted like Shan’s.


Like a Tootsie Pop.

“The day beds are ready upstairs. In the puppet room.”

“Oh hells yeah. You like puppets, you old fucker?”

“Puppets are fine, but I may need help getting up all those steps.”

Shan and Linda exchanged glances that shifted to matching smiles; such were conversations among the psychic sisterhood of women. They reminded me of predatory cats considering their menu and I weighed my options, none of which looked promising.

“Linda. It’s your phone.”

Pedro stood in the doorway, hand outstretched, the same driving ringtone and screeching lyrics pumping through the feeble cell speakers. Linda crossed the floor and took it, answering with wild eyes.

“Hello? Hello?”

William appeared behind Pedro, at least a head and a half taller, jaw slack.

“SCOTT. Where are you? It’s been hours.”

Shan put the empty on the counter next to the cookies, concern furrowing her eyebrows.

“But-- where? Are you-- when are you-- okay. Please tell me you’re-- okay. Okay.”

Linda’s breathing was fast and shallow and I put a hand on her shoulder hoping to steady her some. Her eyes tracked me momentarily, back and forth between my hand and my face, before she looked away.

“Please hurry. I miss-- I love you too.”

Pedro took a couple of steps into the kitchen.

“Everything okay?”

“It was Scott. He’s, umm, on his way.”

I moved my hand from Linda’s shoulder to the small of her back. She was calmer, but far from relaxed.

“Is there something wrong?”

“I-- he’ll be home soon. He said he’ll be home soon.”

Shan leaned in close and whispered something I couldn’t make out. They headed toward the dining area.

“We’re going back to the family room.”

William’s lips upturned briefly.

“I’ll join you.”

Once they were gone, Pedro opened the fridge and gave it a once over.

“Whadaya think that was about?”

“Beats the shit out of me.”

“Where’d Scott go, anyhow?”

“Out for beer. A few hours ago.”

“And he ain’t back yet?”

I shrugged.

“There’s something weird going on here.”

Story of my life.

“It lives up to its reputation.”

“I mean besides this place. It’s like, I dunno. It ain’t just the house.”

“What do you mean?”

“Where I come from? I seen my share of freaky shit. But nothing like this. The drive here was boring as albondigas, but once I hit town-- it took too long.”

“Too long?”

“To get here. Town ain’t all that big.”

I waited for him to finish.

“Took near three hours.”


"Had to turn off the radio. Kept playing the same song over and over."


"Never been much for men who sing like women."

My phone started to vibrate in my pocket, but I ignored it, and waited for it to kick over to voice mail.

It didn't.

Pedro gave me a funny look.

"You gonna answer that?"

I put my hand over my pocket and turned away, the frantic beats and screaming guitars accentuated by measured vibrations.

"I already know who it is."
About Reputations pt 2“Suckers again?”

“Tootsie Pops.”

“Why do you do this to me?”

“You can have one if you want. It was impolite of me not to offer last time.”

Terrell just shook his head and stuffed a handful of them in the drawtie kitchen bag which contained fingernail clippers, a Guns n Roses cd, last August’s Club and a mostly empty bottle of Jergens. In general, he was a pretty okay guy, giving as much as he took, but it was the end of the month again, which meant spot checks and room tossing.

“You know I have to seize and report any contraband I find in your possession now, Mr White.”

“It’s fine, Mr Combs. Dancing is always more enjoyable with a partner.”

“You know you can call me Terrell.”

“I do.”

“Why not then?”

I looked up from the yellow tablet I was writing on, over the rims of my glasses.

“You don’t use my first name.”

“You know it’s policy.”

“I prefer equality.”

“I don’t think--”

“You don’t have to. You have my expressed written permission.”

I tore away the top page and leaned forward, offering.

“It’s signed and everything.”

Terrell read it and folded it neatly before putting it in the bag.

“I’m sorry, Mr White.”

“We’re friends, aren’t we?”

“I would say so, sure.”

“Then do a friend a favor.”

“Well-- all right. But just this one time.”

“Thank you, Mr Combs.”

“My pleasure, Whitley.”

Pedro looked at me, eyes wide, arms out, palms upturned. My eyes went from his to the floor.

“Wrong number.”

“My ass.”

I shrugged.

“It’s none of your business, Pedro.”

“If crazy shit starts going down on account of y’all, I’d say it’s my business.”

There was sweat on his forehead and I could tell by what I saw behind his eyes he’d made me a promise; one I wasn’t sure I wanted to be around for.

“You want the truth?”

“Hell yeah I do.”

I tried to steady my breathing enough the words wouldn’t stutter.

“It was my dad.”


“My father.”

“I know. I heard you the first time. It’s just--”


“You should be on medication.”

“Who says I’m not already?”

“Well, just-- don’t come near me. No offense.”


“I think I better tell Linda about this.”

“Whatever, Dad.”

“You-- fuck you, man.”

“It was a joke.”

“And-- keep your hands off the girl.”

He left the room shaking his head.

Pedro was standing, arms folded, next to Linda when I entered the room. All focus was on me and it made me self-conscious; even more than usual. He was frowning, eyebrows slanted, where Linda was more like deer on a spotlight: alert and rigid. William mirrored my smirk from earlier, like he’d been saving it up, and Shan refused any eye contact.

I was officially unwelcome.

“Am I voted off the island?”

There was a long pause and I thought I heard a cricket outside the window. Linda was the first to speak.

“I won’t stand for dishonesty in my house, Merril.”

“Who’s being dishonest?”

“Pedro says you lied to him about your phone call."

It was true.

"I really didn't think he needed to know."

Also true.

"Okay, I can go along with that. But it doesn't change the fact you lied."

"Fine. I lied. Apologies all around."

"That's not good enough."

It was William, pushing up his sleeves, which meant asses were about to get kicked.

"What do you want from me then? A money back guarantee?"

Pedro took a step forward and Linda looked at me square.


In my defense, I took three hits before going down.

I came to with a nasty taste in my mouth, which, after rolling my tongue around a few times, revealed itself to be blood. My head and face hurt, contrasted by my left hand that had almost no feeling at all. I wiggled the fingers and the porcupine quill sensation washed over them, taking my mind off my bruised melon. I sat up, smacking my forehead on the angled ceiling and promptly laying back down.

"Fuuuuck oww ow ow."

Such a baby.

I looked around with just my eyes, head far too sore to risk different circumstances. I was in what used to be the puppet room, but was now tasteful, if a little sparse. I was on the day bed closer to the door, which was shut. The other had a rather odd looking doll on it; a sort of emo Raggedy Ann, with black clothes-- pants and shirt instead of a dress-- black hair and no mouth, not even a stitched one. Whatever it was, it once had been loved; the edges were frayed, features dull. I snorted.

"You look like I feel, baby."

"Ain't your baby, pork chop."

Did I say my head hurt?

"Don't think on it too hard. The Mansons down there nearly cracked your coconut."

I lifted myself up on my elbows, trying to get a better look.

"You're-- a doll."

"For reals? Must be the smile."

It laughed and I needed to pee.

"Uh uh. Gonna have to hold it."


"Door's locked. Like always."


"Piss under the door. We all do."

My jaw went slack.

"Besides, I kinda wanna see it. Been way too long."

That laugh again.

"I-- don't think so."

"You really shouldn't. It only gets you in trouble."

"Like now."

"Like now."

"Is there a way out?"

"Of the whole thing or just this room."

"The room."

"Sure is."

I waited.


"I'll tell you-- but you have to kiss me first."


"But I don't have a mouth."

"Yeah. That's-- yeah."


I slid off the day bed on my hands and knees, halting halfway up.


"No time for second thoughts. Now get these pants off and make me scream."

The door to the crawlspace was covered with wallpaper, but the seam was perforated so it opened with minimal effort. I had to move a small dresser to get to it, and immediately regretted my decision when I was halfway through and couldn't see my hand in front of me. The space was too tight to shut the door from behind, but stealth never was my strong suit. The doll urged me forward, head poking from under the back of my collar, as I shuffled through a comical approximation of an army crawl. When I bumped my head on another door like the one I'd entered, I cursed, spitting away sweat stuck hair from my face.

"You'll have time to make yourself pretty when we're done."

A grunt was all I could muster.

The latch released with a unlubricated SKLACK and I pushed the door in with a loose fist. My eyes took a moment to adjust to the soft light from a murky gray ceiling bulb with a short pull string on the verge of petering out. It was a small room, empty except for the mountain of dolls and puppets and stuffed animals stacked just shy of the ceiling in the far corner. They were all shapes and sizes and states of condition and undress. Some didn't have all their arms or legs or facial features, even a Barbie with no face at all. I could feel mine grinning.

"This is us. Help me down."

I pulled her out from inside my shirt and placed her on the floor in front of me. Now one of her eyes was missing.


Not missing. Winking.

“This is just too creepy.”

“How ya think I feel?”

“Like a doll?”

“Don’t be a jerkoff. I may have poly-fil implants, but I still have feelings.”

“Is this going to get any less weird?”

“Depends on you.”


“For reals.”

“Care to elaborate?”


I grumbled and got to my feet, checking to make sure the bulb wasn’t loose in the socket. With a gritty, scraping twist, the room got bright enough to see without squinting.

That’s when I noticed the walls.

What I first thought was just some ugly nineteen-fifties floral wallpaper wasn’t a pattern at all, but thousands of tiny words, some in crayon, some pencil and a few I didn’t even want to know. The ones I could make out read like epitaphs-- by children.

Mommy didn’t love me enough 8/4/85

Hurt my arm real bad 3/21/87

Can’t make pee 11/1/81

“What the hell is this?”

“Where she left us when she was done.”

I didn’t want to ask who.


“Wait a minute-- Alma? The ghost?”

“She was our mommy. Now she’s like us.”

“Like you?”

“She’s part of this place.”

I'd heard enough.

I turned to find a normal sized door where the small one used to be and headed toward it. I could hear things happening behind me; things moving, things falling, things crawling.

It wasn’t my problem.

“So that’s how it is, huh?”

I grabbed he handle and it turned without protest.

“Hump em and dump em.”

I smacked myself in the shoulder trying to go through before I had the door all the way open, but it barely registered.

“That any way to to treat a woman?”

My head snapped over my shoulder.

“You’re not a woman, you’re a--”

“Bitch? Is that how you see me?”

I slouched in the metal straight back chair, staring at the floor. The only sound was the CLICK SH-CLICK, CLICK SH-CLICK of her ball point pen. Usually, she just snapped her gum at me, but today she decided to try something new. It was all part of the process, she assured me, a way to peel back the layers and get to the bones of what was troubling me. Explanation took a back seat to recognition, affirmation and discourse. I had to own the what, when and where before I could begin to tackle the how and why.

It was the only way I would be able to move forward.

“I think that’s all for today. Try to relax, keep up with your medication and I’ll see you-- same time on Thursday?”


She put her hand on my forearm.

“You’re making progress, Whitley. I really hope you see that.”

“Not today.”

“Well keep writing in your journal, do your breathing exercises and we’ll see where you’re at on Thursday.”


“Good. Be well and see you then.”

I left without another word and shuffled down the hall and through the set of steel double doors at outpatient registration toward residential.

The room was as I left it: sterile, without evidence beyond a pair of sneakers against the closet door that anyone lived there. Housekeeping must have dropped in while I was gone, making the bed, tidying surfaces and emptying trash. I poked my head in the bathroom and saw the half used toilet paper roll had been replaced with a fresh one. For a moment, I thought of checking for mints on my pillow, but only for my own amusement. Sugar was contraband since diet was closely monitored. They were attempting to transition me to a vegetarian regimen, starting my day with organic nuts and grains, light dairy and fortified fruit and vegetable blend smoothies, enhanced fluid lunches and an array of all vegetable dishes in the late afternoon. The dieticians added protein to the lunch liquids to insure proper nutrition, but felt a pork chop or even a steamed chicken breast would be detrimental to the psychological processes of diet reassignment.

I couldn’t remember the last time I ate something fried.

I went to the dresser across from my bed and opened the middle drawer, pulling aside the neatly folded and stacked solid color tees and taking out what laid underneath. Another aspect of my recovery had to do with personal order, which required me to assign, both physically and mentally, a place for everything and it became my job to insure every day ended with everything in its place. As such, my rational side deemed the entire process horseshit, but it appealed to my OCD, leaving any complaints to be addressed by internal agencies.

It was all one long, tedious life process designed to force me to appreciate the complexity of a given day. Instead, I often found myself identifying with Alex from A Clockwork Orange.

I looked at the thing in my hand: a cloth doll with long, blonde yarn hair, big painted on eyes and a red lipstick smile. It had a pink dress and a pearl necklace with matching earrings and a length of looped ribbon on top of its head. Dr Grin called it my Talk To Doll. I was supposed to use it when I needed to get something out but no one was available; a surrogate therapist. She assured me it was a great solution because it would only ever listen, always be available when I needed it and couldn't tell me no.

My pocket version of Dr Belinda Grin.

I slipped the ribbon over the outside latch on my door and shut it with an audible CLICK.

The room was as I'd left it. I turned for a moment, studying the door behind me. When I opened it, I was staring at a closet full of winter coats and sweaters. I sighed and shut it tight, deciding I needed to lay back down.

The locked door swung open, coming close to knocking me over. It was William, his mouth reduced to a grim dent. I could tell by the way his eyes followed me, he expected trouble.

"So what's the verdict?"

"They sent me up here to check on you. Make sure you're not dead."

"What a relief."

I sat down on the edge of the bed.

"How's the face."



"Yeah? You beat on all your new friends?"

"Just the ones that need it."

"And this is-- what? Round two?"

William's mouth dent got smaller.

"You-- you just had to fuck everything up."

I couldn't disagree there.

"Why couldn't it be you who didn't show? Huh? Fuckin nutjob."

Why indeed.

"For the record? I don't believe a word of your-- whatever you call it. Snoopy dog shit."

I didn't either, until it made me.

"And you kissed her? You fucking kissed her?"

Right. That.

"Technically, she kissed me."

"What, like you're some-- pussy hound? With your-- hair-- and a bullshit tortured past-- like those faggots on Supernatural."

If you mean the one with the car, then yes. My face told him he wasn't making sense.

"Keep your hands off."

His nose two inches from mine.

"Hear me, asswipe?"

"Look, I'm not here to fight anyone."

"Got a funny way of showing it."

"I-- what can I do to make it better?”

William’s face showed me he was trying to fight back the urge to shut me up with his fist. After several moments, he’d calmed down enough to attempt words.

“I’m not the one you need to convince.”

“I have to start somewhere.”

“Keep your tongue out of Shan and we’re square.”



“Can I talk to her?”

“I’ll ask.”

“I’ll come with.”

I started to get up.



William left, locking the door. My gaze wandered to the other bed, expecting to see my old friend, but it was empty.

I’m gonna make you howl like a trailer park wife,
On the first day of her new life,



Oh, the usual. Got beat up. Talking to dolls.

Some people I met online. The ones I told you about, yeah. I’m at the house.

Good. How are things with you?

Yeah? I always liked the ice cream there better anyway. Uh huh.

Same old shit, really. I don’t think it did, no. I’m not positive, but I won’t know until-- you know.

Hey, I’m not going to live in a hole the rest of my life. I barely see the light of day as it is.

I still have a life to live, which is more than I could say for you. Yeah, I said it.

No, I don’t think I’m being an asshole. You’re the one who left me.

Why do we always go through this? No, it’s not my fault. Own up to it, for fuck’s sake.

Yes, I’m sure I deserved to get punched. No, not at first. It’s not like they’d believe me anyway.

No, I’m not. I’m not. I dunno. Maybe they’re as crazy as I am.

I think so, yeah. I plan to find out. Just-- okay. Fine. Okay.

Miss you too.

I hung up the phone, taking a deep breath. I glanced over to my left and saw it sitting there. Both eyes were open now.

“And I thought I had issues.”

“So I guess a sex crazed talking doll is small potatoes for you, huh?”

“You could say that.”

“I won’t take it personally. My last boyfriend only had one nut.”

I closed my eyes and sighed.

“Well, he was a frog. Really. A stuffed frog. Had a beautiful voice, though.”

“I can imagine.”

I was getting restless waiting for the situation to change, wondering what was taking so long. Present company aside, I’d rather be anywhere than here. I stood and stretched, rubbing my eyes and scratching nervous itches.

“You’re kind of a dick, you know.”

I turned to face it and smirked.

“That’s the general consensus.”

“You joke, but it’s true. After all we’ve been through and you haven’t even asked me my name.”

There’s a reason for that.

“I don’t even know if you’re real.”

“Humor me.”

“Fine. Ahem. What’s your name, little girl?”

“It’s Carrie and you know damn well I’m not little.”


“Carrie Shoe.”

“Why Carrie Shoe.”

“Alma named me Carrie. Back when I was her favorite.”

“What changed?”

“Beats the fuck outta me. One day we were like this, then she beat me for no reason.”


“Always with her shoe.”

“So why aren’t you--”

“With the rest of them?”


“I’m not like them.”

“But you’re--”

“Don’t even.”

I didn’t finish the thought.

“Those jank ass bitches are more like your snoopy dog.”


“Sometimes I think you’ve got sense the Lord gave a bird.”

“Tell me what you mean.”

The eye was gone.

“I’m not dead.”
Part 13: The Spot on the WallThanksgiving failed to be more than a bunch of people uncomfortable being around each other while sober. Instead of Mom making dinner like every year before, we went to Grandma and Grandpa Schiller’s, who were her mom and dad, and most of the family was there. It was Aunt and Uncle Ky and Trent and Mom’s brother Gerry and his new wife Lauren. Aunt Lauren had a daughter a few years older than me, but she wanted to have Thanksgiving with her real dad, which made me the only kid in the house. Mom arranged to have Dad come by, but either we were really early or he was really late.

Grandma didn’t know how not to overwork herself. She made a whole ham around lunchtime, which was sliced up and fanned out over a couple of paper plates on the counter for anyone who wanted sandwiches while they waited for turkey. The bottom drawer was where she kept the bread; five varieties of sliced and buns, all white. She sweated and slaved over a host of pots and pans, opening and closing the oven door and clanking wood and metal with such frequency it developed its own cadence. When she had a spare moment to rest, she asked everyone if there was anything she could get them or if they were hungry because love was nothing if not a tightrope act of multiple household jobs; among them cook, hostess and server. After a while, I picked up on how Mom’s dad and siblings got their own form of entertainment from seeing how much they could add to Grandma’s already staggering workload.

I never was very close to them; Mom kept me at arm's length, which was all the closer she wanted herself. I suppose it wasn't unreasonable what with the things she endured growing up, but to a kid it made things-- awkward. Seeing Grandma and Grandpa Schiller wasn't unlike Christmas or Independence Day: a thing that came once a year to be observed with perfunctory attitude and choreographed ritual. Everyone played their part, but mine was one as yet unwritten.

I didn't really give it much thought and that's what I told myself when I did. The things crawling and scratching at the back of my mind were ignored in favor of my uncle Gerry-- who bought me a model train set the Christmas before-- and his new bride, who was by all accounts, quite attractive, and reminded me in voice and mien of Mrs Greer. Always at her arm, Uncle Gerry wore a lopsided grin like a toupée; one better suited for a mischievous child than a man in his thirties. I occurred to me I couldn't tell if he was in love with Aunt Lauren or the idea of having a beautiful wife to parade around. It was in that moment I knew it wouldn't last. She was a candy bar; something that once consumed, left an empty wrapper to be discarded.

Grandpa was on his fourth can of Schlitz which he poured what would fit into a highball and slurped down the rest in one go. It got so I began to associate the sharp metallic crack of opening aluminum cans with his presence; every sizzle of carbonation a preamble to his bobbing, inebriated gaze washing over Mom or me. Mostly, though, his eyes were on the teevee, where older men did older men things, like hitting a little white ball all over a park that was just grass and no trees. I preferred they were there instead of on me. Grandpa was a man who felt and expressed love not through kind words, hugs or other forms of affectation, but prolonged proximity. Maybe he thought the things in his heart could be transferred through emphysema labored exhales or processes better suited to single celled organisms. Whatever the case, I was made to hug him goodbye whenever we left-- the representation of Mom's affection-- and being so close to a man I barely knew felt somehow wrong.

I excused myself to use the bathroom and skulked past the dining table to the weird little area that connected every first floor room except the one where everyone gathered. There was Grandma and Grandpa's room straight ahead and a spare bedroom where I'd play video games and sleep when Mom had the occasion to leave me there overnight, access to the kitchen and dining area behind me and the bathroom to my left. Which left the door to my right that was always kept closed. It led to the basement by way of high, rickety stairs I hated to go down as they were open and it was always dark down there. I suspected for quite some time it wasn't Grandpa who was inherently the creep, but the influence of something wicked that lurked in the places you couldn't see. I'd often practice in the mirror trying to see in front as well as behind me, but it only worked when I faced it. Once the mirror was at my back, I was vulnerable like everyone else. The thought of the basement gave me shivers so bad it made my shoulders spasm and I hurried into the bathroom and shut the door so I would feel safe again.

It wasn't a huge bathroom, but neither was the house. It had ugly yellow wallpaper and frosted blue tiles with gold accouterments, towels and coverings. I perched over the toilet, hoping it would be quick and I could get back to where everyone else was. Even through the door I could hear them laughing, their grins a steady hum over grandma's measured percussion and the drone of the teevee. I sat there, concentrating, but with futility, and blamed all the cheese I ate to the tune of Mom's voice in my head:

"You better stop eating all that or you'll have to take a laxative and those things are dangerous."

I muttered along with her, rolling my eyes.

"You'll permanently damage your digestive tract."

Mom saw the world in absolutes, and like the Girl Scout leader she was for my young sister, always prepared for the worst case scenario. It got so every situation was an exercise in holocaust survival, from a home soil invasion to the length of my colon, and after years of exposure to manufactured fear, I was hypersensitive to changes in mood and body language, but my panic buttons were nothing if not dulled. My fight or flight got so it was more to akin to watch a cartoon and eat a bowl of chips; the world wouldn't end before Thundarr the Barbarian got to clobber the vampire mutants and lizard men of the distant future.

I tuned out the sounds on the other side of the door and concentrated on the ones in the bathroom. I could hear the faint woosh of the toilet bowl, the water constantly running, and the steady drip from the faucet. The only piece of plumbing that didn't leak was the bathtub, which had treads that scratched my bottom when I took a bath. Mom said I wasn't old enough to shower and warned that I'd slip and split my head open. I'd sometimes practice standing up when I bathed places other than home for the day I could finally shower like adults or responsible people
in general. I was lectured on the importance of responsibility, often on the heels of a childish act, but more specifically on how I knew nothing of it nor expressed myself in ways befitting. When opportunity arose, I was quickly dismissed, denied the opportunity to prove I was capable of anything beyond my own naïveté.

The self pity wasn't helping and I considered cutting my losses and coming back to do my business later when I heard it echo in the drips from the faucet. At first I thought it was coming from the running toilet, but when I listened closer, I could make out words. I put my hand flat against the wall and stooped my head, concentrating. They were faint, but distinct, and had the tinny quality of a car radio with the treble up and bass all the way down. I strained, trying to make them make sense, feeling the first inklings of what I'd come there to do. My palm ground against the wall when I felt something that wasn't wallpaper.

It was more like boogers.

I pulled my hand back like the time I used a leaf to touch the electric fence and was relieved to see it was no different than before. Then I saw what was on the wall where my hand was and the other things became less important.

There was a spot, darker than the wallpaper surrounding it, that looked like the stains on the bottom of a pizza box. It was roughly the size of my hand, but with no definite shape, and shimmered with the iridescence of blackbird wings. My fingers tingled with the memory of the spot and the fence.

"What are you doing in here?"

Aunt Ky.

She walked right in, shutting the door behind her, and the length of the narrow bathroom stretched out like taffy. I was aware of how the sound was sucked out; the carpeted area underneath pressed up such that it formed a seal when the door closed and everything outside sounded like it through a fish bowl.

"C'mon, you're done. I gotta pee."


"You've been in here half an hour and I can't wait any longer. Stand up."

I did as I was told, trying to pull my underwear up as I stood, but Ky was on me by the time my bottom left the seat, kneeling, grabbing my underwear from me and pulling it up too far. I tried to fix it, but she smacked my hands away and pulled my pants up with a single jerk. She sighed.

"Did you wipe?"

"I uhh-- didn't need to."

"I dunno what you're doing in here, but other people use this bathroom too."

"I wasn't doing anything."

"Sounds like you were goofing around."

"I wasn't."

She snapped my jeans and zipped me up, looking me in the eye.

"I won't tell, bud."

My eyes wandered to the spot, hoping Ky wouldn't notice and blame me for that too. It was barely visible, unlike before. I held my breath and nodded quickly.

"Good. Now go out there and sit with your mom."

Aunt Ky dropped her pants and sat leaning forward, watching me. I had to yank hard to open the door.

Supper was near ready because there were glass dishes with hot vegetables and a basket full of store bought rolls on the table. If it came in a can or out of the freezer, Grandma used it. Only the turkey and stuffing were made from a recipe and just so happened to be my favorite parts. I hadn't had turkey since this time last year; I was the only one who liked dark meat and I got to eat a whole leg by myself. Mom kept warning me to watch for little bones and to chew each bite carefully. I found them all and put them in a pile on the edge of my plate so she could see I did a good job.

Not only were things different this year since we were at Grandma and Grandpa Schiller's for Thanksgiving, but I wasn't alone in my desire for dark meat. Uncle Gerry and Aunt Ky picked and poked and joked and argued and bet each other for legs and wings and even the neck which was gross and made my stomachs churn. Uncle Gerry would dig his elbow in Aunt Lauren's side and wink and she'd always smile, but I could tell she didn't want to be a part of his and Aunt Ky's games. Not only were they like kids my age, but the kind of kids I didn't like to be around; the ones who picked on and made fun of kids like me. Every once in a while I got the wink instead of Aunt Lauren, but it didn't make me feel any better. Theirs was a game that would only ever have two players and I could hear the disapproval in Mom's exhales.

"Is it about ready, Ma?"

"You need any help with the potatoes?"

"Sweet potatoes are ready. Still need to mash the other'ns."

"Don't see any butter on the table."

"Butter's on the counter."

"What about plates."

"Your legs still work."

"You need another beer, Dad?"


"Want me to carve up the bird?"

"Nah, I got it."

"You sure?"


"Should be about ready."

"Another fifteen minutes, at least."

"Thought you said it was about done."

"Now I'm saying it'll be fifteen more minutes."

"C'mon, Ma. Whisker's dyin' over here, aren'tcha bud?"

All eyes were on me.

"Can I have a wing?"

I ended up with both wings, and a little bit of each leg from Ky and Gerry, along with a mountain of two kinds of potatoes, corn, beans, stuffing, cranberry salad, rolls and pan gravy. Grandpa was diabetic and only drank Tab, but my glass of Pepsi was bottomless, always someone cracking open a new bottle when the old one was empty. Mom was quiet and mostly just smiled a lot. Ky and Gerry did most of the talking with Grandma and Grandpa just grunted inbetween forkfuls or slurps on his beer. Trent and Lauren sat in the living room to eat with teevee trays since there wasn't room enough for everyone at the table. Dad still wasn't there and even though my stomachs were sated, it was my heart that gnawed away at me. I asked Mom when he was coming and it got so her only response was to glare at me. I knew that meant I was close to a spanking and I slid off my chair to hide in the spare bedroom and play with the molded plastic cowboys and Indians Grandma kept in the closet for me. They were as old as the hills and from before I was born, but the poses were interesting and graphic-- my favorite being the Indian crouched and holding an arrow in his chest-- and only added to the stories of blood and glory I conjured in my mind. My favorite was for the cowboys to kill all the Indians and then the Indians would come back as ghosts and get their revenge. I made no distinction between good and evil, only alive or dead.

I went through the story in my head, but my thoughts kept wandering to Dad not being there and wondering why. At first I thought maybe it was something I did. I was pretty sure he wasn't mad at me, but that didn't mean there wasn't some other thing that made him not want to come. He never seemed the most comfortable at Grandma and Grandpa Schiller's, but neither was Mom. I always assumed it was for the same reasons, but that didn't make sense to me now. Mom came to the doorway and watched me for a few moments before she opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out. I waited.

"There's dessert."

"Still kinda full."

"Pumpkin and apple pie. And vanilla ice cream."


"What kind do you want?"


"Thought you were full."

"I am."

"You're not eating it in here. Go sit at the table."


Grandpa was already back in his easy chair in the living room. He had to quit smoking on account of the emphysema so he left the table when everyone lit up their after dinner cigarettes. Mom used to smoke, but stopped when Dad did, which left Aunt Ky, Uncle Gerry and Grandma, who was trying to quit herself. Mom dropped the plate with a thin slice of each kind of pie and a fat scoop of ice cream in the middle. Everyone else had a fork, but she handed me a spoon.

"Don't make a mess."

My stomachs were drawn tight like basketballs, so I packed what was on my plate into my hollow leg. While I would have preferred a fork, the spoon helped me get the ice cream that melted, and when I finished I slid off the chair and rolled myself back into the spare bedroom to finish off the last of the ghost cursed cowboys. As I passed the open bathroom door, I heard it echoing in the drips and I stopped, listening.

"-- too sweet. I wanna piece of meat."

The room was dark except for the night light plugged into the socket next to the vanity, but I could still see where the spot shimmered like a parking lot oil stain. It pulsated with each word and made me think of a cartoon heartbeat. I closed my eyes and covered my ears and tried to ingnore it, walking toward the open door to the spare bedroom and trying to visualize where it was.

I walked into the molding with my shoulder and the pain made me open my eyes.

The girl sat on the floor with my cowboys and Indians, wearing a dress like the ones Mom did in pictures from when she was a girl. It hung below the knees, but with the way she was sitting, I could see halfway up her thighs. She was older than me; a teenager. Like Mom's used to be, her hair was light blonde and her face round and she had tight sausage curls that hung down past her nose as she leaned forward, surveying my orchestrated massacre.

She looked up at me, lips pouted.

"What happened here?"

It was like I'd been saving up the answer.

"Everything dies."

The girl's face fell, head tilting.

"That's what Daddy used to say."

The red and purple marks on her neck quivered.
Part 15 - Little Powdered DonutsWhen I think about Grandma Schiller, there are a number of things that instantly spring to mind. She was not a tall woman, and for part of my very early childhood, what many would call overweight. It never showed in her face, however, and her boobs were small for someone her size. Just her stomach and bottom were big, and some in the shoulder area. She kept her hair short and up, what I likened to a crown of broccoli, but puffier. She smiled easily, too much so, and bent over backwards to make you feel at ease, which often times did just the opposite. Hers was a life of carefully crafted lies and illusion, meant to replace reality with something akin to overdressed mannequins in a storefront window: perfectly hollow.

When I visited, trips to the bedroom were frequent for me. It was one that had old people written all over it; from the tacky bedroom set to the flimsy clothes on thin, wire hangers. None of these things held any interest for me, except Grandma’s upper-right-most dresser drawer. It was stuffed with breath mints and chewing gum like a pirate’s treasure chest. My particular favorites were the Velamints, which only came in two flavors, but were silky smooth in my mouth and made my breath feel cool when I inhaled. Mom was quick to curse on the handful of times she caught me rifling through the drawer’s contents, but there were dozens of others she didn’t and I took only enough to not be missed.

Grandma, on the other hand, wasn’t like that. While I was convinced she never knew, it wouldn’t have mattered if she did. She took a special joy in making sure she gave me the things Mom didn’t want me to have, both because the twinkle in my eye produced one of her own and it was a fine way to undermine Mom’s authority. She’d just laugh it away with a wave of her hand, but Mom never took it any way but personal. I become something of a pawn in their relationship in which Grandma saw that I had whatever I wanted and Mom did her damnedest to keep it from me. In those days, it only made me want to spend time with Grandma over Mom. Kids aren’t always built to pick up on the nuances of advanced alcoholism.

It did have its perks, however, if you could call it that. At least, that’s what I told myself while stuffing my face full of little powdered donuts in the back bedroom. I was starting to feel a little queasy, but that only made second stomach howl with glee. There were only two left, and I packed my cheeks full before I could talk myself out of it. Grandma kept the cupboards, and in this case, the refrigerator, stocked. Grandpa was diabetic, but he had Tab and an assortment of chips and pretzels to sate his junk food monkey. The cakes and donuts and pie and ice cream were for everyone else; children, grandchildren, neighbors and guests. Every day had the potential for a gala event, and Grandma prepared for that possibility in the same fashion doomsday survivalists stocked basement and backyard bunkers.

Then I felt it: intestinal distress.

There wasn’t a kid my age who didn’t have at least one fantastic pants crapping story. Most of them centered around too many funnel cakes at Cedar Point or no rest stop in sight road trips. The prospect of loading my Underoos at Grandma’s, without the undeniable added cool factor of some rare disease or bout of Asiatic flu, didn’t make for good storytelling to my eight-year-old mind. I got to my feet, knocking over a half glass of Pepsi in the process, and yelped with despair. My first thought was to run for paper towels, but another gurgle reminded me there were more pressing matters.

I rushed to the bathroom, pushing the door, with some effort, shut behind me. The long, narrow room yawned before me, the front of the toilet peeking out from the edge of the vanity at the opposite end. I wasn’t sure I would make it, all but running with my pants unzipped and halfway down my legs. Second stomach barked at me as I pulled my Underoos down and sat all in one motion.

I fiddled with my bracelet as I sat there, realizing it was past needing washed; the colors were fading, dirt and grime inbetween the threads. I frowned, thinking back to when Mrs Greer first gave it to me: those eyes, her smell, the way her skin against mine gave me shivers-- the good kind-- and how I hadn’t seen her again since that day. The stories varied, from extended vacation, hiatus, to things less encouraging. I knew what it meant and it was confirmed the morning I woke to find it sitting on the shelf next to my bed like before.

Like always.

The only real upside to spending so much time with Grandma and Grandpa Schiller meant I wasn’t sleeping-- or not sleeping-- at home. Which meant I wasn’t trying to sleep next to it. I didn’t even like to think about it, let alone talk about it. And who would I talk to? The last person I told tried to help me and all but disappeared. The teachers and even some of the kids at school talked about her like she was still there, but I knew better. I knew what it meant when she took it away from me thinking it would be my first step toward getting better. It wasn’t about that so much as getting rid of what made me do bad things. I only wished it were as simple as putting a candy wrapper in the trash or grass stained jeans in the clothes basket.

Mom took it better than I did, Mrs Greer leaving the school.

“They probably sent her to one of those sex rehabs.”

If that were true, I hoped it didn’t mean her sex would be gone forever. I was still a little fuzzy on the intricacies of such unions, but between the kids at school and, in no small part to Grandpa, a healthy dose of late night HBO, I was piecing it together at light speed. Mom tried to corral my viewing habits with her patented twisted up face and promises of swift retribution, but that was stuff for tit clutchers and bawl babies. I knew Grandma would let me watch pretty much whatever I wanted and Grandpa made it clear, usually with a grunt, he didn’t care. There’s no feeling quite like being eight years old with carte blanche to do as I pleased. With so many options, it was one I barely slowed down long enough to relish.

Even with this shift of power, Mom’s hold on me did not lessen. Where Grandma found a way to give me more freedom, Mom used another to keep me in check. It was for my own good, she’d tell me, often between curses. She had this way of standing, legs locked, feet apart, butt pushed out and shoulders set where it looked more like she was ready for war than parenting a little boy.


I would come to find out life at Grandma and Grandpa’s was a never ending war.

l opened the bathroom door far enough to notice Mom standing right outside. I couldn’t yet see her face, but I could tell from her posture I was in trouble. My stomachs did a little flip flop thing as she pushed the door open the rest of the way and clamped a hand around my wrist, dragging me out into the hallway and marching me into the spare bedroom where my still overturned pop glass left a darkening stain on the rug.

“Did you make this mess?”

“I had to go potty.”

“I told you to be careful in here.”

“It was an accident.”

Mom got down on her knees in front of me and looking into her face I could see traces of her mascara starting to run. Her lips pressed together in a flat line that quivered at the edges.

“I need you to be a good boy while we’re here, honey. We all want you to feel comfortable, but you must remember you are guest in this house and there are rules to be followed.”

Before I could reply, my gaze wandered to the doorway where I saw Grandpa standing there, forearm over his head and pressed against the topmost part of the molding. He had a funny little smile on his face, eyes pinched almost closed, but gleaming behind his thick black rimmed glasses.

“Everything okay in here?”

Mom stood straight up and put herself in front of me before heading for the door. Grandpa moved just far enough out of the way to let her squeeze through.

“Fine. Whisker just had a little accident.”

His head tilted back just a bit as he looked upon me, upper lip twitching into a smirk.

“Uh huh.”

I felt a tingling itch where I pee.

The bathroom again.

It was hot and muggy and filled with banks of steam to the point I couldn’t quite see where the walls were. Dad stood over the sink, naked except for the towel around his waist. His little bit of a stomach hung over just enough to hold the towel in place and I followed the moles on his back like a road map. I lifted a hand to trace them with my finger when Dad’s metal razor clanked against the edge of the sink.


Sound carried funny in that bathroom.

I hadn’t seen Dad in several weeks, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. He said he had a lot going on with fixing things around the house by himself. When Mom and I unofficially moved in with Grandma and Grandpa, Dad decided he needed to get the house ready to sell just in case. It didn’t make much sense to me, but it’s the story Dad gave and Mom stuck with. I already felt like I knew where things were headed. Mom and Dad never were very good at selling me their fibs.

I watched Dad’s face in the mirror, waiting for him to see me and wink and let me know everything was okay, but he was busy moving his mouth so his cheeks were flat enough to shave. The longer I waited, the clearer it became not only would I not get the reassurance I wanted, but Dad didn’t have any to give. I backed away from the sink and the steam almost made him disappear. I could still see the towel on his hip, the dark hair of his armpit, an elbow. The razor clanked again.

Something brushed against my arm and I looked to see the girl from before in the dress, but now she was wearing a brown corduroy jumper with a matching yellow long sleeved top and knee high socks. I couldn't see below her ankles.

She was taller than me, close to a foot, her hair long and straight, covering the sides of her face. She looked a lot like Mom, except for the eyes which were heavy-lidded, squinting. Her mouth formed a thin, bent line turned down at the edges and there was something with the way she looked at me that made me feel naked.

I took a step back, bumping into Dad, and the razor clanked down.


I watched the first drop of blood fall in perfect slow motion, fat and languid, quivering. When it splattered in the basin, my ears popped and everything sped back up. Dad's hand went to his neck and I saw another drop squirm between his fingers. The other hand gripped the razor, shaking, palm pressed hard against the edge of the sink. Two more drops.

"'Kin cocksucker."

Dad ripped the towel from his waist and pressed it against the wound. Then he turned to me, brow furrowed, and leaned forward.

A damp wave of tobacco smoke and cheap beer washed over me and I began to swoon. A hand clamped under my chin, pinching my mouth open, and I couldn't see the eyes through the steam on the glasses. The grasp was terrible and my jaw ached. I tried to squirm away, but my head wouldn't move with the rest of me. I felt hands on my back-- holding me there or pushing me foward I couldn't tell. I strained to see who was behind me, but their arms were too long. I knew in that moment it was useless to try and get away. My body went slack, but the grip didn’t lessen. The hands on my back were still there, and I could hear them mumbling something. It had a sing song quality, but I couldn’t make out the words. Part of me didn’t want to.

I realized the man standing in front of me wasn’t Dad, not anymore. Even at his age, he had some gray hairs, but the man before me was entirely gray. The build was similar, having been at least somewhat athletic, but the skin was sallow under the fading tan, and hung loose like a tapestry of crucified men, nipples bloated one eyed sea creatures. The razor wound was red and angry and looked like it was done with a knife and the way it followed the curve of the man’s neck in a satisfied smile made me think of a clown mouth. The thing between his legs unfurled itself from a dragon’s nest of wiry, dark gray hair and withered skin.

His breath was rank.

"Feel those teeth again I'll knock em the hell out.”

The mumbled words behind me spilled into nervous giggles.

I shoved little powdered donuts in my mouth straight from the fridge. With the way I was going, there wasn’t much chance there’d be any left to warm up and get soft again. Every chew lit my face up with pain, but second stomach had me on a mission and there were still four sandwich bags with green twisties of donuts left.

A chug of Pepsi fizzled up my nose.

It really wasn’t much of a breakfast, but it was almost time for school and choices were limited. Grandma wasn’t feeling well and Mom woke up late, so there wasn’t the morning feast of two kinds of eggs, meat, fried potatoes and toast I’d grown accustomed to. A hand appeared on the open door of the fridge, jostling the assortment of pickled vegetables, condiments and dressings.

“What ya got there.”

Grandpa was in his robe as was his usual attire, several days of growth giving his face a brushy quality. A crooked smile played across his lips, but the mirth was absent from the rest of his face.
I held a baggie up between two fingers, mostly empty.


Grandpa chuckled and shuffled around the edge of the door, brushing me aside with his hand. He stooped forward, pushing things aside, grunting to himself, and dragged something out from the back of the bottom shelf. With a sharp, fizzling pop, he tilted his head back and guzzled from a frosty can of Old Milwaukee.

I watched some dribble from the corner of his mouth and onto his pajama top and when he was finished, he wiped his mouth on his sleeve. He eyes slid down to me and his mouth twitched into that weird little smile.


He offered the can, lip still wet with foam. I’d only had beer once before, when Dad was drinking at a party a co-worker threw the previous summer. They had a huge ice chest full of it, and another, somewhat smaller one full of pop. There were fresh oysters and fire pit grilled corn on the cob with husks cooked black as the charcoal they used to sear their steaks. It smelled sharp, even bitter, and though my lip curled at the prospect, my mouth still watered.

I put the donut bag back in the fridge, still open, and took the can from Grandpa, feeling how the spot where he held it was warmer. I could hear Mom moving around upstairs and knew she’d be coming for me any moment. Grandpa cleared his throat and put a hand on my shoulder, a little too rough. I knew what it meant.

“Don’t forget those little mints or your mom’ll shit kittens.”


I held my breath and took the first gulp.
Part 16 - Cool"Are you mad?"

Brett stood over me, shirt half untucked, hair every which way. My mouth was numb and tongue felt too big to fit. I'd been hit before, by bigger, but this hurt the worst. I was sure he could see the surprise underneath all my scowling. I turned my head to spit and it was red.

"Just stay where you are."

Brett's face fell.


I gathered myself and got up with my back against the wall. If it could be believed, Brett was smaller than me; slight, neck like a fishing bird, with puffy round cheeks and vaguely almond shaped eyes. I blamed it on account of him being a vegetarian, my having grown up around people who believed eating red meat was what made man the dominant species. I wasn't a big kid by any stretch, but I ate a lot of hamburgers and second stomach promised one day it would all catch up.

Then it occurred to me: small kids sure had to fight a lot.

I touched the side of my jaw and made a face. Brett looked nervous. It was the first time we'd ever more than argued over who was cooler, Chewbacca or C-3PO. Since things were so weird at home, Brett came to be my every day normal. Unlike me, he was well liked by the students and the teachers and often found himself on the receiving end of their praise. I could see why others thought that, likely for many of the same reasons I did. Deep down I thought it was possible my being around him would somehow brush off. At least I hoped so.

Today it seemed something was brushing off, and it didn't feel at all like Brett's seven-year-old swagger. I kept one eye on him while I moved away from the wall. I could tell he was angry with me, and I couldn't help but concur. I was pretty sure he thought I'd lost my mind.

Maybe I had.

"Let's just forget it."

Brett pinched one eye part way closed. He was thinking it over.




He turned to me as we were walking away, skewering me with his stare.

"Don't do it again. Ever."

I gave him a stiff nod and stuffed my hands in my pockets. Brett's were still fists as he rounded the corner.

It was going on twenty minutes now, but I couldn't fake it any longer.

"You don't have to eat it if you don't want to."

Things were already weird enough, but "cooked corn" topped the list. At least everything else on my plate was normal: chicken, mashed potatoes, carrots. I was used to adventures in home cooking from Mom, who while not the most inventive chef, generally made things I could at least learn to enjoy.

Marcia, I determined, was less skilled in that area.

"He loves to try new things, don't you Whisker? I think it's delicious."

Mom angled another forkful of the caked monstrosity into her mouth, flashing me a scowl as Marcia got up for another bottle of wine.

"I just don't have time to cook like I used to with, you know, work."

"It's wonderful, Marcia. Thank you for having us over."

"I like having boys around the place is all."

"How long's it been since you and Reb--"

"Eight months."

She put a hand on her hip, striking a contemplative pose.

"My how the time flies."

Her laugh was easy and nervous. I didn't really know how Mom came to know Marcia, but they got along like old friends. She lived in a shadowy split level with an attached two car garage at the end of a development gone stale. An open lot littered with piles of weathered fill abutted the property, partially obscured by sowthistle and foxtails. Marcia's kids used to ride dirt bikes back there, or so I heard. I wanted to take a look when we arrived, but Marcia said the boys hadn't been back there for quite some time and likely there were snakes and other pests taking up residence. That put Mom on high alert.

I was, after all, allergic to snakes.

Marcia looked like a movie star to my young eyes; a Farrah Fawcett or Morgan Fairchild. She was slender, attractive, long too blonde hair feathered as was the custom. She wore an only halfway buttoned up blue satin top that, depending on how she stood, peeked the edge of her bra strap. Lots of mascara and eye liner belied her accessibility. I liked her smile: all those perfect teeth.

She poured another glass for Mom and put the bottle on the table.

"Just wait until you see what I got for dessert."

That smile.

I couldn't help but return it.

Ten bites later I was on my second slice of watermelon sherbet roll with chocolate chip seeds. It didn't even taste all that great, but it was watermelon ice cream which equaled awesome. Mom didn't have any, saying she was watching her weight. Well she could watch me eat her piece.

I liked the way Marcia's hands moved when she did things, any things. She made it all seem effortless. There was a grace in her where in Mom it was all semis and bulldozers. I found myself wishing Marcia were my mom and Mom was the friend whom we visited on occasion that cooked well, but not overly so, and I got to play with her son's Hot Wheels collection. Marcia seemed like the kind of mom who wouldn’t spank her boys when they did something bad, but maybe take away dessert or an hour of tv time. Stuff that worked. I doubt she even raised her voice; it was hard to picture her even getting mad. Then I remember she was an all but brand new divorcée and wondered what kind of asshole her ex husband had to be to make her leave him. I’d never met the man, but I had visions of sinister facial hair. Perhaps he was one of those people who look and act all normal until you live in the same house with them.

I contemplated all of this as my stomach filled with cream and sugar and at some point began to bother me. By then, however, I was lost in little metal cars and their carrying case that turned into a miniature city. Normally they stayed in her youngest son’s closet, but knowing I’d be there, Marcia got them out special. I was, in fact, so engrossed in making sure all accounted for vehicles made it to the service center, the wave of nausea caught me off guard. One minute I was rotating tires, the next I was honking bright pink chunks. I shuddered, gasping in between heaves.

At least I chewed my potatoes.

Once I’d stopped long enough to realize what a mess I’d made, it was cold comfort. Marcia’s house wasn’t immaculate, but compared to mine, it was the Ritz: wall to wall carpeting, plush furniture, dark wood paneling, even a finished basement. Now that carpet looked like the Pink Panther swallowed a live grenade. In the end, it didn’t matter how Marcia would react; Mom would have the conniption for both of them.

I stumbled to my feet and wobbled my way into the kitchen. The second bottle of wine was almost empty and Mom was giggling. Until she saw me.

“Whisker, what’s wrong?”


“Are you feeling okay, honey?”

Hearing Marcia ask that made me want to soldier up, maybe even try to walk it off, but second stomach had other ideas. I doubled over, tripping, and landing on my knees with a grunt.

“Oh dear.”

“Oh my God, are you alright?”

Mom knocked over her chair getting up and rushed to my side.

“Are you okay? Did you get sick?”

I nodded feebly. Marcia tugged at her collar, worried.

“I’ll get some towels.”

I hoped she didn’t have to use the nice ones.

It was just a regular day at school when I got there. I dropped my lunch box off in the cafeteria, put my jacket in my locker, grabbed the latest issue of Mad from my backpack. I saw all the same kids I usually did, a quick pass by the upstairs library revealed that it was, as the day before, a shambles, and my art supplies were still next to my desk where I forgot to put them away. It was an artificial comfort, this normalcy, this place for everything and everything in its place. In truth, there was nothing at all tranquil in always being on the outside, and while a part of me suspected the secret life I coveted was a prison of its own, I could tell the bed was comfortable.

I sat down, peeling back the cover of my reading material. The first story was a parody of a murderous man machine sent back in time to kill the mother of the boy who would grow up to destroy its maker. The whole thing was pretty unbelievable, but it didn't take a whole lot to imagine the fear of being hunted. The thought of a dog that was a machine underneath crossed my mind and I shuddered. I put the magazine under my desk and opted instead to pick at my fingernails until class started.

It was several minutes past the hour when Mrs Switt arrived, having no appearance of hurry. Next to her was a woman I didn't recognize, but there were plenty of teachers and substitute teachers I didn't know at school. Mrs Switt put her briefcase on her desk and smoothed down the front of her business skirt before taking a breath and walking to the front of the room to address the class. The unfamiliar woman followed.

"Class, I've brought someone with me I'd like you to meet."

I was too busy picking to pay much attention. It wasn't anything I hadn't heard before.

"This is my daughter, Kimberlea. She's thinking about going to school to be a teacher as well."

Yeah, whatever.

"And since this is bring your harlot to work day--"

Say what?

"I thought maybe she could send some time with you all-- get to know the class."

I decided maybe it was time to pay attention.

"Hi, everyone, I'm Kimberlea, and yes, Mrs Switt is my mom. If you want, you can call me Ms Switt, but Kimberlea is fine-- my friends call me Kim."

Brett raised his hand.

"Yes? Umm, Brett is it?"

"Uh huh."

"What's your question, Brett."

"Can I call you Kim?"

Everyone giggled at this. Even Mrs Switt cracked a smile, which was rare.

"Yes you may."

Brett's grin threatened to crack his face.


It started as a weird little tingle down in my belly, this thing. It was small and frail and hungry, like a baby chicken. No, not at chicken. Something not so nice. Something-- dark. This dark little thing, it had claws, but they were so small and its teeth had yet to come in, so it needed help. It needed to be cared for, looked after, nurtured and fed. I thought of kittens, but this was something that would sooner eat a kitten. It had fur now, and in its own way, was cute, even adorable, in a certain angle and a certain light. But when it grew up, that fur and cute and hugability would be replaced with something nasty; the kind of thing kids like me hid from in the closet or under the bed.

Unless it lived there.

Kim walked down the rows of desks, talking to each of the students, smiling, laughing, eliciting the same from my peers. When she got to Brett's desk, her smile was full of teeth.

"Hello, friend."

Brett didn't miss a beat.

"Hi, Kim."

They laughed together which made the dark thing in my belly squirm. Moments later Kim stood over me and I had to brush the hair from my face to see her. Sitting like I was, I was eye level with her chest, and I’m pretty sure she noticed how I lingered before looking her square. She was fair skinned and at the cusp of chubby, with wavy strawberry blonde hair that was a tad lighter than my own. Her eyes were sapphires, brilliant and glistening, with a splash of freckles over her cheeks and nose. I tried to smile, but it somehow seemed like a copout. Then my brain went stupid.

There are several hundred thoughts that cross a boy’s mind when he wants to impress a girl, all at once. It’s a river of ideas, some good, some not completely terrible, and a whole bunch of borderline offensive garbage. In general, I was pretty good at this game, and had yet to make a complete ass of myself, but there’s a first time for everything and today was no exception.

In looking at Kim, I could tell she wasn't your average teenage girl. She had finesse, refinement, and would grow into a woman who not only knew what she wanted, but how to get it. Of my several considerations, I decided a simple handshake would do the trick. It was polite, direct and reliable. Just like me.

Now I'll be the first to admit I didn't shake a lot of hands; it just wasn't something I, as an eight year old, had much occasion to do. I'd seen Dad do it plenty of times, and other men, and plenty in movies and tv, even a few times myself. Shaking hands is something men do with other men. I extended my hand, from my seated position, and in that moment dawned the gravity of my error.

I attempted a smooth transition from handshake to wave, achieving something more toward the middle one might perform when hailing the Third Reich. What I hadn’t anticipated was how Kim leaned forward, perhaps to make her greeting a little more personal. It was personal all right.

In my attempt to pass off the mid shake change of mind as some half assed wave, I instead planted my hand firmly on her left boob. My eyes went wide, then hers, and I jerked it away like I’d put it down on a hot burner. She let out a little gasp, and backed up a step as I discreetly removed the offending limb from sight under my desk, a petrified half smile on my lips. I hoped it came off as well meaning and not at all creepy, but my track record thus far pointed toward the latter.

To her credit, Kim composed herself and gave me a quick smile-- just her mouth, I noted-- and moved right along to the girl who sat behind me. It appeared no one else noticed, and I was, for the time being, free from ridicule or swift penalty. I caught Kim’s eye from the corner of my own, searching. My belly pinched.

Maybe Brett wasn’t rubbing off on me like I hoped.

Grandma could tell I was having a bad day-- she had a way of figuring out what was bothering you just by your look. I suppose sprawling myself across the couch with my arms folded, chin pressed against my chest was something of a tell, but I conceded her the simple joy of trying to make me comfortable. Not that I had a choice.

“Anything you need, hon?”

I twisted up my lips, not sure what to say and just wanting to be left alone.

“Not really.”

“Nothing to eat? Maybe some pop?”

“No thanks.”

“What about some ice cream? There’s two kinds in the freezer and other flavors downstairs."

I shook my head, trying to hide the involuntary shudder from Grandma having mentioned where it was. Downstairs meant the basement which I hated and always made second stomach curl up into a gold ball, as if making itself as small as possible might afford it some inherent safety.

Mom came into the room, breathing heavy. She probably just finished cleaning something.

"He says he doesn't want anything, Mom."

"Oh, he just can't make up his mind. You know how boys are."

"Yes, I do."

"I thought something sweet might improve his mood is all. It always worked with you."

Mom exhaled the way she always did when words might put her in trouble and pushed her way past Grandma, shooing me to the end of the couch so she could sit down.

"He already eats enough junk food as it is. It's a wonder he doesn't have diabetes."

Grandpa let out a short grunt at that, but whether it was amusement or disdain was anyone's guess. His eyes never left the tv.

"Kids his age need sugar, Kathryn, you know that. Look at him. He's skin and bones."

Mom knew what that meant, which elicited a glare. I could see the gears spinning.

"I'm quite capable of deciding what he does or doesn't need."

"Of course you are, dear. I wouldn't say otherwise."

"You mean like you just did?"

"I don't know--"


Grandpa's bottom lip quivered. A look of worry flashed over Grandma and in the next moment she was composed where Mom's eyes were practically bugging from the sockets. I bit back a giggle and Grandma turned to Grandpa.

"Is there anything I can get you, dear?"

I chimed in.

"A glass of pop."

Mom smacked my foot.

"What do you say?"


"Of course, sweetie."

My mood was improving.

I sat with Mom in the car in the mall parking lot. It was warm for being so close to the holidays, and we both rolled out windows down half way. It was my weekend to spend with Dad and I was excited having been close to three months since the last time we did something together. Today we would go to the arcade and I couldn't wait.

Mom fidgeted in her seat. It was an old Chevette, so there wasn't much seat to speak of. Everything squeaked when she moved around and a little grin broke out of my mouth thinking it was the mice who made the car go. My stomach growled and mom gave me a worried look. Another twenty minutes and both hands white-knuckled the steering wheel.

"I'm bored."

"Screw this. We're going to Burger King."

I spent the rest of the morning sulking at my desk. My class participation was at best minimal, and my hopes of impressing a girl twice my age all but dashed. In my defeat, I chose to be a spoiled sport and made no outward attempt to curb my attitude. Mrs Switt picked up on this right away and, while she had yet to call me on it, kept her eye on me the whole time.

Not that it mattered, but Kim was in a chair next to Brett's desk helping him work on our class project. We were given a sheet of paper explaining that while on an at sea fishing trip, our boat capsized and we were stranded on a desert island without aid for a least fourteen days. We were given a list of items that may or not be critical in a survival situation. There were a couple of dozen choices, but were told only five items would fit in the travel pack. I read through the choices several times, but nothing stood out. This was hard.

Why couldn't it be the best weapons to slay a dragon or even how to survive on almost no sleep and junk food against an enemy I couldn't see nor fight? I didn't fish, I couldn't even swim, so the likelihood of being in the ocean at all was slim. I checked off waterproof matches. It seemed as good a choice as any.

Behind me and to the left, Brett whispered and Kim giggled. Then she whispered and he busted into fits. It was hard to concentrate, all this interruption, not to mention the thing that hatched in my belly wriggling and kneading and scratching around. It was hungry-- it was always hungry-- and I fed it the things in my mind and my heart. First I fed it my happy thoughts, which were few, and it gulped them down like they were nothing. Then I gave it my fear and apprehension, and it shredded them into little bits and ate them piece by piece. I hoped it was satisfied, but it still paced and mewled and seethed. I offered it my shame, disappointment and loss, and it savored them, sucking them lewdly. Having next to nothing left, I figured I was done, but it just seemed hungrier. So I gave it my hate and jealousy as there was nothing else, and that’s when it changed.

It was no longer this pitiful thing unable to protect itself. It was still small, sure, but the fur was now scales, its mouth lined with tiny, sharp teeth. It shuddered and shook and caused a ruckus and let me know it was there to stay. A small part of me was pleased with this news, but the lion’s share was horrified. What was this thing inside me?

A tiny voice whispered behind my ear:


Something kept tickling my face. My first thought was spider webs, but with the way Mom cleaned I knew that was impossible, and I gathered up the courage to open one sleepy eye.

There was almost no light in the room, the heavy, layered curtains over the window soaking up the arthritic glow of the street lamp at the end of the front walk. I could just make out the shadow on the bed next to me and it felt like someone was there, watching. I checked my underwear-- it was dry-- and creeped the same hand across the bed under the covers until I felt something cool, smooth and hard.

“Keep your hands to yourself.”

It was going on four nights now I’d wake up and find her in the bed next to me. She did most of the talking-- almost all nonsense-- and a couple of times she sang a kid’s song I didn’t recognize. So far, by the time I found the courage to speak with her, she’d be gone.

“W-what do you want.”

The girl cleared her throat-- an impatient sound-- and I could feel her stare.

“It’s never what I want.”

“Why do you keep bothering me?”

“This is my room. You’re in my room.”

“Grandma said I could sleep here.”

“Grandma died in the storm.”

“What? She was fine when Mom put me--”

“Grandpa too. And Brushy.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re bad.”


“You’re all bad. Grubby, cross little monsters. Don’t touch me.”

“Ok, I won’t.”

“You-- won’t?”

“Not if you don’t want me to.”


She lunged toward me and I tried to melt into the mattress to escape, but just as her hands wrapped around my throat, she jerked upright, convulsed, and fell off the side of the bed. I listened for her, paralyzed, expecting her to leap up at any moment, but couldn’t pinpoint anything over my heart thudding in my eardrums. I peered over the edge and found only the clothes I’d left there before going to sleep.

I laid across the couch with nothing but the tv lighting the room. All that was on was baseball and I rolled over on my side, trying not to jostle my stomach too much. I could hear Mom and Marcia talking upstairs in the kitchen, but only made out specific words here and there. After I threw up half my life, Marcia gave me a spoonful of this pink, chalky stuff I surmised was akin to fighting fire with fire. The whole time Mom just sat there and watched, caught somewhere between fascinated and concerned. I never saw Mom drink before and wondered if that had something to do with it. She started washing dishes while Marcia cleaned up the mess I left in the front room. I guess being involved in some way was better than not at all. Marcia had an automatic dishwasher, but Mom did them all by hand.

"Feeling any better?"

It was Marcia. My heart did a little flip flop, which in turn made my belly do the same. I brought my knees up, fighting back the urge to make another mess.

"I guess so."

She got down on her knees next to me, running a hand over my forehead and brushing once sweaty hair from my eyes. I could just see her from the light of the tv, features softened by the corona. She smiled, yet still appeared sad. I blinked a few times and it never changed.

"You were very brave."

"I guess so."

"Are your knees okay? That looked like a nasty fall."

"I'll be all right."

"So brave."

I liked the way she talked to me. She made me feel strong, and smart; like the stupid things I did I meant to do and weren't stupid at all. I knew she was a great mom, maybe even a great girlfriend back when she was young. There was a point where they just blended together, but when I tried to make them separate again, I got stuck.

"How's your tummy?"

I barely heard the words, I was too busy trying to make the things in my head stay on their own sides. It was frustrating, like a puzzle; not only did they fit so perfectly together, but refused to come back apart. Marcia's hands pulled back my tee shirt, were warm on my skin. She rubbed my belly like she rubbed my forehead, slow and soothing.

"Is that better?"

The things in my head wouldn't make themselves right. Mom here, girlfriend there. Which was which? I frowned.

"What's the difference between a mom and a girlfriend?"

"Shhhh. Just rest."


"It's okay. Your mom will take you home soon."

That was the other problem. I didn't want to go home.

"Hey, Bud."

Aunt Kyanna popped her head in the doorway, grinning. She had on a faded yellow tee with Animal from the Muppets, cut off shorts and leather sandals. Her sunglasses made me think of tv police men. There was a pack of cigarettes in her hand, like usual.

"Whatcha doin?"

"Playing cars."

"Yeah? You seen your mom around?"

I shrugged.


"Okay, Bud. Thanks."

I saw Grandpa appear from behind as Aunt Ky turned away, putting an elbow in his stomach. He doubled over and staggered back a step. She just rolled her eyes.

"Told you you'd get it next time you did that."

"Tryin ta kill me?"

"You'll live."

Grandpa straightened up, no worse for wear, a little smile playing at the corners of his mouth.

"Whatcha got there?"

Aunt Ky twisted away, hands guarded.

"Nothing for you."

"Sure about that?"

"Better believe it."

"What are they?"

"You know damn well what they are."


"You know I switched to lights. Winstons."

"Thought you liked Marlboros."

"I did. These are smoother."

"Guess I just like em rough."

Grandpa let out a throaty chuckle that turned into a fit of deep, hacking coughs. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve when he was finished.

"You sound better."


"The medication must be working."

"Goddam pills."

Aunt Ky gave a small shrug, sucking in air through her nose.

"Lemme have one."

"You know what the doctor said."

"I don't give a fat fuck WHAT the doctor said."

"Well I do."

"Just one."


"You testin me?"

Ky's lips puckered.

"Fine. Just-- go out to the garage so no one sees."

Grandpa's smile was almost warm when he gave Aunt Ky a kiss on the forehead.

"Atta girl."

His gaze swept my way as he walked around Ky on his way to the back door and gave me the slightest of nods. Aunt Ky just stood there, arms folded, nervous. When she saw me, her eyes went wide.

"Don't tell your mom, Bud."


Ky disappeared into the kitchen and when I looked down and all my cars were crashed.

"Good guess."

Mrs Switt didn't seem like herself that day. She was smiling, laughing, making jokes. Normally she was just the opposite, but with her daughter, Kimberlea, there, she became a person I never thought I'd see. It was nice, even though I was in no mood to take advantage of it.

"How about you, Brett? What did you and Kim decide on?"

Brett's eyes pinched up, his patented unsure face. It was cute how he played it up.

"The, umm, peanut butter?"

Mrs Switt grinned.

"Excellent choice. You see, class, a five pound tub of peanut butter is a perfect way for someone stranded to--"

I stopped listening. It really wasn't fair Brett got all the credit. He had help, from a cute teenage girl with at least one nice boob, who was also the teacher's daughter and probably already had the answers. Just what made him so special?

"Peanut butter is my favorite."

Kim grinned.

"Me too."

I mumbled into my sleeve.


I knew for a fact his favorite was egg salad; egg salad with dill mayo and kosher pickle to be exact. He had it in his lunch three times a week. Mrs Switt shot me a look, but her smile never left. It was a warning, albeit a lazy one.

Brett wasn't done.

"Maybe we could find some berries and make jelly."

Kim beamed.

"That would be soooo good."

Everyone laughed in agreement. Everyone except me. Mrs Switt continued.

"That's very good, Brett. Though you might want to watch for berries, they could be poisonous."

"I know which ones are okay. My dad's a botanist."

Everyone seemed elated by this revelation, where I just rolled my eyes. I’d met Brett’s dad and he didn’t seem like anything special. Certainly nothing as cool as a cowboy or a race car driver. Botanists know a lot about berries. So what? At least the class project was over.

The rest of the afternoon was more of the same: Brett being his normal, apparently charming self, and me being a bitch. I’d never considered a girl might come between me and my new best friend, but I had a lot to learn. Girls were just now becoming a problem for me and it was all down hill from here.

Then I heard Kim pipe up.

“Can we take him home?”

Giggling. Even from Mrs Switt. I heard a couple of the boys groan, but she interceded.

“She only said that because she thinks Brett is cool.”

At that, Brett had the biggest grin, which made me want to rip it off his face. Before I knew what I was doing, the words just fell out of my mouth.

“You can take me home.”


No one dared say a word. The thing in my belly bounced like a lottery ping pong ball. Then one of the boys in the back broke the silence.

“Nobody wants you, moron.”

The room erupted with laughter.
Not Cool“Are you mad?”

Fanato sat next to me, so close I could feel her breath. I could see only the middle of her face, the rest covered by her long, platinum blonde hair. Still, her eyes bored into me and never seemed to blink. She had this way of tilting her face forward so she always had to look up at me and it never ceased to give me the creeps. All that hair made me feel kinda weird, too, but at least it covered up the marks on her neck.

“Just stay where you are.”

Fanato’s expression was steady.


I wiggled away until I felt comfortable with her next to me. I was very good at reading others, picking up on their moods, facial expressions, body language. It's how I made myself okay with people. Fanato showed none of those.

“Whisker is a dumb name.”

I didn't like it either; what I wouldn't give for a nice, normal, even strong name, like...

"John is a dumb name, too."

The hell?

"I call you Fanato."

"Fanato? What is that?"

"I dunno. I just made it up."

"My name is Kalliope."

"I like Fanato better."

"That is not my name."

"Why Kalliope?"

"Daddy named me that. He liked the sound of it."

I shrugged.

"Moms and dads are dumb like that."

"Daddy is not dumb. He loves me."

"Doesn't mean he isn't still dumb. Dumb people love stuff all the time. Like Eddie Rabbit."

Something boiled under the skin on Kalliope's face, a dank and nebulous thing that culminated with a twitch at the corner of her right eye; the blue one. Her other eye was somewhere between brown and orange, the spot where things catch fire.

"Take it back."


"I will make you do things."

"What kinds of things?"

"Things you will not like."

Even though her expression was blank, not like Bashika or Shane or even the Bad Dog, I knew she wasn't playing around. Still, knowing and acting on that knowledge often reside in different places. They did for me, anyway.

"Oh yeah?"

No reaction.

"Prove it."

Her head tilted forward, the way I didn't like, and her eyes sparkled.

"Get stiff."

I felt something stir down there, and moments later I had to adjust the front of my pants to alleviate the discomfort. I'd had boners before and it was no big deal. I wanted to ask her if this was some stupid joke.

"That the--"

"Now hit yourself."

Aunt Ky lived a few houses down from Grandma and Grandpa and since it wasn't too cold out, me and Mom decided to walk. It was a squat ranch, white aluminum siding, with an attached garage and nothing in the way of yard accoutrements except for a pair of bulldog shrubs guarding the front step. The garage door was up which meant she was home. I hoped for a peek of Uncle Trent's Vette, but the car cover was on. As soon as we were halfway up the drive, the dogs started barking. Two poked their heads through the curtains in the front bay window, the rest going wild at the interior garage door. I could hear their little nails scratching on the metal.

Ky walked into the garage from the back yard, in her hands a basket full of strawberries. They were small, not like the ones you get at the grocery store. She had a garden along the edge of the property with a huge berry patch at one end. I’d picked through it a couple of times, eating more than I put aside. Mom yelled at me, telling me the wash them first, but Aunt Ky just grinned so I paid it no mind. I noticed she was barefoot and her cutoffs so short I could see the pockets hanging out the sides. Mom clucked her tongue.


“Hello Kathryn. Hey, Bud.”

I waved.

“I wanted to asked a favor of you.”

Kyanna stopped, weight on one leg, basket against her hip.

“I need you to watch Whisker for a couple of days.”

She blew the hair from her face and held the basket out to me.

“Take these inside and put them on the counter by the sink.”

I frowned, but did as told, just slow enough I could absorb as much of the ensuing conversation as time would allow. This was not something I'd been apprised of, and while I still enjoyed being around Aunt Ky, after what happened during the last sleepover-- what I called Someone Else's Stockings in my head-- I preferred it in the company of others. I inched my way to the door as Ky lit a cigarette.


"Ahem. This weekend."

"Last minute, huh?"

"I know. I should have called."

"Don't know what to tell you, Kathryn."

"It would be a huge favor."

"Tell you the truth? I'm fresh out of favors."

Mom's eyes slitted.

"You know I don't ask much of you."

"Why should you?"


"You have everything you want."

"Oh, now you know that's not true."

"It sure as shit should be."

"What did you say?"

"You haven't changed a damn bit since high school."

Mom's face put on a color somewhere between raspberry sherbet and Grape Ape.

"You’ve got a lot of nerve."

Ky took a long drag on her cigarette, squinting at Mom, and I realized I’d paused just outside the door. She blew the smoke through her nose and made me think of dragons.

“Let me tell you about nerve.”

Ky tossed the cigarette on the concrete and smashed it out with her heel.

“The minute you turn eighteen you find some sweet, stupid boy to knock you up, light out of there like a cat with its ass on fire and leave me with him.”

She moved a step toward Mom. The dogs were going nuts on the other side of the door, but I could barely hear them.

“Then you fixed me up with this piece of shit who beats me senseless or his prick won’t get hard. I beg for help and you tell me to quit mouthing off.”

Another step. Mom’s colors were darker.

“And you toss your daughter out in the street for doing same as you when you were her age.”

Mom’s left eye quivered.

“She told me about the abortion.”

“Shut up.”

“Or what about dear sister?”

Mom shuddered back a step, lip trembling, legs stiff.

“Wouldn’t help her either.”

“Shut your fat face.”

“Did you see it happen?”

Tears ran down Mom’s cheeks, face wrenched into a mask.

“Did she call for you?”

“You spiteful--”

“Did she cry for her Katydid?”


She threw up the first choking sob.


I put the basket down on the floor next to the step and hurried out of the garage. It made my stomachs hurt to see Mom so upset and I put my head down so I didn’t have to watch. She caught up with me and grabbed my hand, crushing my fingers. I tried to pull it away but she held fast, marching me down the driveway. She heaved and cursed to herself, kicking stones with every step. Then I heard Aunt Ky call to us.

“What time this weekend?”

Mom threw her head over her shoulder with a snarl.


I kicked the dog in the face so hard I heard its teeth click together.

It was in one of those cartoon lion cages, rectangular, with high metal bars for sides. Before, all it did was growl and bark, but now had itself scrunched up, ears flat, and just kind of hopped around like a bunny.

The sight of this pleased me.

"Show it who is master."

I turned to look at Kalliope who was wearing a magician's assistant costume, somewhere between a tuxedo and a night club dancer's ensemble. My eyes tangled in all that fishnet.

"Then we can do things."


The cattle prod felt good in my hand. Sturdy. I primed it with several loud pops and watched the arcs reflect in those dark, bottomless eyes. The dog hunched in on itself like an accordion.

"Aim for the nose, Bud."

Aunt Ky's robe was open just enough to show everything under the mural of bruises. Then I felt Mom's hand on my shoulder and something warm and damp against my back, like her breath in my ear.

"Make it cry, sweetie."

Finally. Something I was good at.

Grandpa was right: the second one did taste better. Though it wasn't an improvement so much as I stopped caring. I discovered my face didn't hurt anymore, but I worried it might not go so well with donuts, even voiced my concerns. This made Grandpa chuckle and he assured me I'd be fine. He always drank beer with his.

It's a good thing I was in the back seat as I was pretty sure sitting next to Mom might be my undoing. She was kind of a bloodhound when it came to sniffing out lies, misdeeds and things like elementary school aged sons half lit on Grandpa's beer. Not that she'd need to be-- I knew I stunk. But if she noticed, she didn't say anything. I was surprised, but it didn't stop me from slouching, almost to the floor, trying to make myself too small to notice, or scrutinize.

I insisted Mom needn't walk me to the door, but for some reason she wasn't having it. Even in my state, I knew I was old enough to manage the trip on my own; the level of ridicule I'd receive if anyone saw might graduate my current situation from the fringe to full blown outcast. As it was, things were lonely enough.

"Give me a kiss."

I was petrified. Kid law dictated kissing moms goodbye was punishable by death after kindergarten, even though we all did it in the relative safety of our homes. The point was you didn't do it where anyone else might see. I wondered how this fit with the mom/girlfriend conundrum, but it all went away when Mom tugged my arm.

"Come on. I need to get going."

So did I.




"What the hell is wrong with you? Come here."

I inched my way toward the door, eyes wide, mouth warped into a stupid half grin that was equal parts apprehension and intoxication. I prayed I'd be sober enough to at least fake my way through class when I felt the door handle against my back. My eyes flashed with triumph.

Then I felt the hand on my shoulder.

"Mrs White, I presume? I'd like to speak with you sometime, in private. I'll have my secretary make arrangements."

"Umm-- okay?"

"Very well. Now, if you'll excuse us, I'm late for a meeting and Whisker needs to prepare for his studies. He'll see you at the end of the day."

"Of course."

"Good day to you, Mrs White."

Mom's lips made an effort to smile, but the rest of her face won.

"And to you, Mrs--?"

"Ichelheimer. I'm the new principal."

Oh no.

"You're a lifesaver."

Mom was smiling and it made me nervous. It wasn't something that came easy for her, not in the way anyone could believe. I was used to the half smiles, the corner twitches, straight lines with puckered cheeks. Mom had a hundred not smiles and they all meant the same thing: distrust.

"Oh, it's really no problem at all. The boys are off hunting this weekend and it's just too much house to be there all alone."

Marcia bent over so we were eye level. Her eyes glittered like a cartoon.

"We'll figure out some way to keep ourselves entertained, won't we honey?"

I felt one of Mom's smiles creeping up. I liked Marcia, maybe too much, but something didn't sit well. I found I couldn't meet her stare and put my eyes on the floor. One of my shoes was untied.

"Let me get that."

Marcia tied it expertly-- not too tight-- wrapping one string over the half loop of the other. I still tied them with two half loops, bunny ears, like Grandma taught me. I knew it was how sissies did it, but I never got the hang of the other way. I would leave them untied in public until I could find some place no one was looking. Mom knew I still tied them that way, and whenever she caught me I could see it in all of her face:


Or disappointment.

Maybe Marcia could teach me the right way to do it. She knew things.

Marcia stood up, brushing off the bottoms of her pant legs. She wore heels and I noticed the skin on the tops of her feet was a shade darker than her hands and face. Pantyhose.

I knew things too.

Bashika looked upon me with disgust.

"Ain't no two ways about it. You STUPID."

I wasn't quite sure what changed between us, Bashika and me. Ever since that day in the woods she'd made a good game of avoiding me. Maybe she thought I'd rejected her, but I really had no idea. My friendships were rarely more complex than common interest, and in general, I assumed the leadership role: I picked what we watched, what we played, when we ate. I just assumed kids had a pecking order, like wolf packs. Boys, anyway.

Girls were different. I couldn't pin down specifics, but I knew that much from watching them. Then there was Bashika, who felt more like a boy the way she ordered others, like me, around and took what she wanted without regard for hierarchy or decorum. Then there was the way she was less like a kid and more like an adult, which really threw me for a loop. In some ways, she reminded me of Mom, others-- far fewer-- like Marcia or even Mrs Greer. Not to mention the way my body reacted. I convinced myself it was involuntary, but deep down where the dark thing lived knew different. There was more about her that fit my still developing profile for female companionship than I cared to admit. Still--

Why did she have to be so abrasive?

"Tie that shoe before you hurt yourself."

I tried to ignore her. It wasn't the time nor the place. Until she smacked me in the back of the head.

“You deaf?”

“I’ll do it later.”

“I don’t remember giving you a choice.”

“What do you care?”

Bashika fixed me with her eyes, which were so wide I could see the pink of the sockets around them.

“You sassin me?”

I looked at my untied shoe, one of the laces trapped underneath. My bladder cramped.


I got down on one knee and gathered the laces in my hands, making the first loop, but hesitating before I made the second. I tried to remember how Marcia did it with her long, delicate fingers. There was something to the unlooped side, something I couldn’t quite remember.

“Oh gimme that, fool.”

Bashika smacked my hands away, taking the laces from me and tying them so tight my foot hurt. I nearly fell over when I tried to stand and she grabbed my sleeve to steady me. When I smiled my relief she was shaking her head.


“Get that baby bird look off your face.”

When I awoke that morning, I could tell something was different. I noticed since I moved to the upstairs bedroom I didn't remember as many of my dreams; waking life was hard enough. I could hear Mom yelling downstairs and it took me several moments to realize she was on the phone. Whoever it was, she gave them everything she had; the torrent of curses and epithets made my head spin.

I dressed quickly even though it was Saturday. Most times I spent all morning watching cartoons and eating cereal from the box in my jammies and rarely bothered to put on pants until it was time for lunch. Mom made plans for us to go shopping for my new winter coat, but I knew that wouldn’t be until afternoon. When I heard her slam the phone down and march across the kitchen, I knew where she was headed. I pulled my jeans on and went looking for my other sock.


Mom was halfway up the stairs. I had only one shoe on with the missing sock no doubt halfway to Albuquerque. I grabbed another one, three days worn, and the wrong color. At least I wasn’t getting new shoes.

“Finish getting dressed and help me get some clothes together.”

I put the other shoe on as Mom rifled through the dresser, pulling out shirts and pants, socks and underwear and began to stack them in my large duffel bag.

“Hand me those dirty ones.”

I put them in a pile on the bed next to the bag as she zipped it up and went to the bedroom across the hall for a basket. When she returned, her eyes were puffy. I couldn’t wait any longer.

“What’s going on?”

Mom sniffed.

“Your father is coming to pick you up. He’s taking you to Tennessee.”

I felt a ball of ice in my belly, where the dark thing slept.


"You're going to see Uncle Meldrick."

Uncle Meldrick was the older of Dad's two younger brothers. He was a hippie in the truest sense-- my sense of which was someone with long hair, both head and face, who sang songs and played guitar. Uncle Meldrick was all of these. He co wrote with a member of the Lovin' Spoonful in college and one of his songs made it on the radio sometime after they stopped working together, but he never got credit. Maybe he forgot to put his name on it.

I liked Uncle Meldrick, though I saw him a handful of times. His wife, my Aunt jean, was pretty fun, too. She baked cookies with seeds in them and I never liked seeds until I had her cookies. She and Uncle Meldrick were divorced, like Marcia. I wondered which one was the asshole, but it was replaced with more important things, like what it meant for me.

"But why?"

"It's some sort of vacation, I don't know. Your father seems to think he can bribe you into loving him. Whatever. Stop asking stupid questions."


“What did I say? Now go comb that rat’s nest you call hair. He’ll be here in twenty minutes.”
I tromped down the stairs, wondering why I wasn’t more excited. This was pretty much what I’d been waiting for. Better even. A vacation, time with Dad, and visiting Uncle Meldrick to boot. I’d never been to Tennessee, knew next to nothing about it, but no matter how I tried, my imagination just didn’t want to work. Instead, my idea of Tennessee was a giant, black hole. I just hoped I was in no way right about that.

I went into the bathroom, looking for my comb. It was big and green; hard to miss. I shut the door without really thinking about it, scanning the vanity top. I only saw my Mom’s paddle brush, light blue with little white flecks. I checked in the drawers, under the sink, even in the medicine cabinet. Nothing.

“You should take better care of your things.”

Kalliope placed the comb on the vanity top in front of me. I saw several long, light blond hairs in between the teeth.

“You used it?”

“Girl has to make herself presentable.”

She watched as I combed out the rats and made faces and cursed, arms crossed at her waist, one hand rubbing the other’s knuckles. I watched her through the mirror from the corner of my eye. She smiled like Mom.

“I’m going to Tennessee with my dad. To see my uncle.”

“To stay?”

“I don’t think so. Mom said it was a vacation.”



“This is where you belong.”

I hit another snarl with the comb, eliciting a yelp. Something didn’t add up and I turned to Kalliope.

“At Grandma and Grandpa’s?”

She was gone.

“Now get your things and come along with me.”

Mrs Ichelheimer waited while I went through my locker and got the books I'd need for morning period. I decided against grabbing Mad, instead stuffing it underneath a pile of notebooks and loose papers. I was pretty sure she wouldn't appreciate extracurricular reading.

"You'll be tidying that locker before you leave for the day."

She led me through the door at the end of the hall and across the main floor study and class areas toward the offices, hand pressed flat against the small of my back. I didn't like the way it felt; the imposed familiarity. It wasn't rough or cold, the way she did it, but quite the opposite. It was a hand practiced in keeping children calm, comfortable and focused and didn't fit what I picked up from being near her.

We passed Patsy's desk, where she smiled with a raise of her coffee mug, and entered the back office: what used to be Mrs Greer's.


"I thought you were taking me to class."

She closed the door and exhaled through her nose like a steam engine, straightening the ends of her sweater-- an uncomfortably tight thing-- as she walked around the desk and sat down to face me. It was the first time I got a good look at her and my stomachs began to dance like marionettes.

She was older, like Grandma's age, with short, curly gray hair that stuck out at odd angles and gave the impression of hasty grooming. Her face was round, the features puckered, with liver spots speckling her cheeks like a robin's egg. She wore thin, square framed glasses halfway down her nose, and peered at me from over the rims. Her eyes were sunken and overcast, a February sky, or sheet rock. Sheer and impenetrable, I couldn't lose myself in them like I did Mrs Greer's. Not that I'd want to.

"It seems we have a problem, Mr White."

Mr White? That was my dad.


Mrs Ichelheimer arched her fingers over her desk, pushing her chair forward so her large bosom rested on the edge. The chains on her glasses tinkled. I could see her nipples were hard through her sweater. There was a smell to the office, something-- medicinal. It was sharp, pungent, and tickled my nose. I tried not to sneeze.

"Let me start off by saying alcohol is strictly forbidden in this school."


"As are those who consume it in excess off premises."

I nodded, trying my hardest not to seem too eager.

"What I'm telling you, my dear Whisker, is coming to school under the influence of certain substances will not be tolerated."

"I should hope not."

Mrs Ichelheimer leaned forward, her sweater threatening to unburden itself with every inch. Her lips pinched into a button hole about the size of a--

"Are you mocking me?"

Oh shit.

"What? NO."

"You don't think I know what went on in here? With you and that what was her name? Greer?"


"I hear things. It's-- what I do. I hear things and I decide if they need to be dealt with."


She was standing, hunched over the desk, palms out flat but her fingers still arched like some mad pianist.

"Do you know what I hear right now?"

Please stop talking.

"Uhh, no?"

"Well let me tell you, young man. It's a voice, a tiny little voice in my ear, telling me I am in the company of a wolf who looks like a little boy. A wolf, it says. A shaggy, starving, desperate, depraved-- wolf."

Her face was inches from mine, breath creeping up my nose and scurrying down my throat. I swallowed hard, trying to chase it down, but it was too sticky, too many little barbs. I tried to sit back in the chair, but there was nowhere left to go. All I could see were her eyes, an unyielding haze of despair. Then it happened.


"I want Hammerhead."

"Then I get Han Solo."

"But you always get Han Solo."

"Yeah, but you have Squid Head. And the Imperial Biker Scout."


"That means I get Han Solo. And, uhh, Lando."

"I don't like this game."

I threw the Hammerhead figure on the floor and folded my arms across my chest, pouting. Brett just picked it up and held it out to me.

"You can have Luke and Leia too."

My lips were pursed.

"I don't want em."

"So you're done?"


Brett frowned, head cocked to the side.

"But we didn't even get to start."

"I don't care."

I got up and walked several steps away, picking up stones, woodchips, little bits of garbage and throwing them nowhere in particular. I tried to burn off my anger with controlled vandalism, but it was about as satisfying as a Happy Meal without the toy.

Brett was only a couple feet away when he spoke.

"Just-- come on back. We'll figure something out."

"I said I'm done."

"But we still have ten minutes."

I shrugged. Not my problem.

"I waited all morning for this. Didn't you?"

Of course I did.



I dropped my chin down, turning my head just enough I could watch as he walked back to his figures and began putting them back in the case. There was this way his bottom lip pouted when he was upset or exasperated. Today it was particularly cute since he was both.

Wait. What?

Second stomach did a flip flop.

"Here. Let me help."

I walked back over, crouched down, reached for a Stormtrooper--

"I got it."

Brett snatched it out from under my hand. It occurred to me I was being sort of a dick.

"Hey look, I, umm--"

Brett looked at me through his bangs.


"I didn't mean, to, you know--"

Brett forced air through his front teeth. He wasn't buying it.

"Be such a shithead."

"You know I can't say those words."

"Sorry. Umm, jerk."



"Well there's only three minutes left now so."

"Yeah, maybe tomorrow."

Brett got up, walked away.

"I dunno."


I was blowing it, something I'd come to be pretty good at. I put my hand on Brett's shoulder and he slowed down, but wouldn't stop.

"Look, just--"


"I'm sorry, okay?"

We were almost to the door. Most of the other kids were already inside. Brett stopped several feet short and turned to me.

"I guess so."

He looked sad, dejected. His eyes were bright and glassy, cheeks red, lips puffy. He looked like a puppy, which only made me want to hug that sad out of him. He was tense, shoulders hunched up, and wouldn't look me in the eye. I just wanted to see him look at me; see myself reflected through him so I'd know I was okay, and by extension, he was okay with me. I put my finger under his chin.

"Look at me."

He raised his head a fraction, staring me through his bangs again. It was irresistible. So much so, I couldn't help myself.

I leaned in and put my lips on his. Everything inside me screamed STOP, but it felt so nice. We shared a lot, Brett and me. It made perfect sense this might be the next--

Something smashed into my face and my knees buckled.

I got to sit in the front seat when Dad picked me up. He was driving his work car, a 1972 Buick Riviera. It was dark purple, plum, with white sidewalls. He helped me put my stuff in the trunk next to his suitcase.

"Good to see you, kiddo."

"Me too."

I was smiling for real.

"There's someone we need to pick up first and then we'll be on our way to Mel's."

I wasn’t paying much attention, I was too busy looking out the window from the front seat. For some reason, everything looked different sitting there. We drove for maybe ten minutes before Dad pulled into a gravel driveway off a county road. The house was small, blue, with flowers out front. It looked like an old lady’s house.

“Just wait here and I’ll be right out.”

Dad got out and walked up the drive, entering the house through the side door. I occupied myself watching the cows in a nearby pasture. Most of them were lying down, but there were several at the fence row grazing on tall grass. Cows weren’t all that exciting.

A few minutes later, Dad came out with a suitcase in his hand; then a woman, carrying only her purse, locking the door behind them. He came to my side of the car and bent down in the window so he could see me.

“You can get out for a minute. I have someone I want you to meet.”

Dad opened the door and I crawled out, walking around him to get a better look at this stranger. She was tall, at least as tall as Dad, with legs like telephone polls, and nearly the same color. She wore a blue dress, belted at the waist, and sandals. There was a flower in her hair, which was long, down her back, straight and very dark. Her skin was the shade Dad took his coffee.

I approached her slow, trying to take it all in. There was just so much.

“Hola, Weesker. Me llamo Rita.”


“He’s only partway through his first year, Rita. Just use English.”

I realized I’d backed up a step, right into Dad’s legs. The woman named Rita’s eyes flashed dark for but a moment, then she smiled big, showing me all her teeth, like a shark. She bent down to my level.

“Is okay. I use English with you.”

Dad was grinning when I looked up at him.

“Who, umm.”

“She’s a friend, son. She’ll be coming with us to Mel’s.”

“She’s not my friend.”

Rita took my hand in hers, pressing it against her chest.

“I would like to be a friend.”


Dad rubbed my shoulders, reassuring.


At that, Rita beamed, and I realized her teeth were huge. She rose back to her full height and wrapped her arms around Dad in a bear hug, crushing me between their legs.


Her bellybutton smelled like baby powder.

Marcia fed me chicken fingers and tater tots from the freezer when we got to her house; Mom dropped me off at her work which was for a car insurance agency. She made sure people got money if they were in an accident. She wore another one of those shirts with the plunging neckline and I spent most of the car ride back perched in the front seat with my head straight forward but my eyes sliding to the left stealing peeks at her bra. It was bright white.

With just us in the house, Marcia played the perfect hostess: always asking if I needed more pop or when I wanted dessert. Then we played board games which I always seemed to win. When I accused her of letting me, she played innocent.

“I haven't played these in so long I must have forgot how.”

We watched tv downstairs with the lights off, me sprawled on the couch, her in the recliner nearby. There were movies with topless women and men getting shot in the wasteland. They were the kind Mom didn’t let me watch. About halfway through the second one, I started yawning and Marcia helped me take my shoes and socks off, then my pants and shirt, so I could get into my jammies. She said I could sleep on the couch with the tv on if I wanted and five minutes later I was out.

The following morning I awoke to the smell of bacon. It was a smell I'd grown accustomed to at Grandma and Grandpa's and for a quiet moment I thought I was back home. Then Marcia appeared in this white, frilly robe that fell at most halfway down her thighs. Her legs were long, lean, the same hue as the hose she wore. And smooth as my own chin.

"Morning, Sunshine."

I yawned and stretched, trying to give Marcia the impression I was still waking up. We had an unspoken understanding-- at least I thought we did-- where the time we spent together was like a waking dream, where everything was perfect; I being the much beloved and pampered young man and she the sweet, doting mother. Our fulfillment spawned from my having want for next to nothing and her arranging every day such that I never would. We were companions: more than friends, more even than mother and son, with a deep, rich love that was about being happy and content with and doing things for each other. It provided a calm I rarely felt in my everyday life; not at home, certainly not at school, but in fleeting moments that wiggled away when I tried to hold onto them, make them last.


"Bacon and waffles are on the table and the eggs are almost ready."

"Should I get dressed first?"

"You can do that after you eat. And take your shower."

Those were the magic words. I'd do everything within my power to spend more time at Marcia's if it meant I'd be taking showers.

I wolfed down breakfast, heedless of any complaints from down below. This was my Special Time, and petty inconveniences like full stomachs and gassy bottoms were summarily ignored. After laying waste to the table, I patted my belly and retired to the bathroom, where Marcia presented me with fresh towels, a washcloth and a just opened bar of Irish Spring. Then she drew the water and had me run my fingers under until it was to my liking. She helped me undress, promising my pajamas would be laundered before bedtime. When I climbed into the tub, she arranged the curtain for me.

"Don't forget your ears and elbows."

I was in there so long Marcia became worried.

"Do you need any help, honey?"

"Almost done."

When I stepped out, Marcia was there with a towel which she wrapped around me so I wouldn't catch cold. I told her I could dry myself off, but she just laughed it away, making sure all my tough to reach spots were bone dry, fluffing my hair, even getting the spots between my toes.

"It's important you dry everything before you get dressed."

I wore my Iron Man Underoos, jeans, and a tee shirt with Oscar the Grouch. It was one of my favorites. Marcia grinned.

"Well don't you look handsome."

I looked like I did any other day, but I smiled my appreciation. If Marcia saw things in my every day look that made her happy, she was more than welcome to. We played Uno until lunchtime, when she informed me there would be bologna and cheese with Fritos.

"And something sweet I know you'll just love."

I was still full from breakfast, but didn't want to upset the intricate choreography of the day. I managed to find room for half a sandwich and a handful of corn chips. Marcia smiled as she chewed, apparently impressed with my ability to put away what she made with love. When she went to the freezer, I almost begged her to wait a couple of hours, but the way the light coming in through the kitchen window caught her hair, she looked like an angel and I just didn't have the heart.

When she set the half gallon of ice cream down on the table, I frowned to myself. Don't get me wrong, I love ice cream. Finding room, however, was another matter.

"And now-- the pièce de résistence."

She moved my plate aside and placed in front of me a white box with a clear, cellophane window on top. It was a box whose sole purpose was to hold things made in bakeries, and in this case, a lovingly frosted cake that spared no attention to detail. Marcia's eyes did that cartoon twinkle thing, mouth open in suspended joy, waiting for me to reciprocate.

It was a cake all right. One baked to look just like Snoopy with little cinnamon candy hearts for eyes and two simple words in bright red piping gel:

Be Mine.
A ListThis is a list of things I won't talk about. Whisker White. Age 8.

1. Bedbugs

2. What happened at Grandma and Grandpa's

3. Dad's female friends

4. When Haley said she was dead

5. The time the Bad Dog ate my privates

6. Someone Else's Stockings

7. What Uncle Meldrick told me

8. When I found the kittens

9. Ice cream and cake

This is an exercise to explore Whisker's reluctance to share during one on one discussion. He explained at some length there are a number of topics he does not wish to broach and I thought it prudent to request they be put into writing to create a paper dialogue. I will continue this writing technique with the purpose of developing further revelations.

Signed: Dr Benjamin Coker
Co-Signed: Whisker White
Get FreakyBrett's family seemed pretty normal to me. The were hippies, like Dad's brother Mel, and vegetarians: something I didn't fully comprehend. No meat at all? It was a foreign concept. No hot dogs, no steak, no shrimp, sausage or chicken. What kind of Thanksgiving does one have without turkey? Christmas without ham?

We sat around the dinner table, enjoying each other's company-- and the meatless meatballs. Brett's mom decided to ease me into the experience, being that I was a wanton carnivore. To my surprise, they were not much different than the real thing, tasted pretty much like the meatballs I'd had before. Even studded with grains of white rice, a healthy dollop of ketchup transformed them into bona fide kids food. Condiments were the great equalizer.

The rest of our meal consisted of a warm lentil salad with spring onion and little bits of green leaves with a pronounced minty flavor. Whatever it was, it was good, and I asked for seconds. Brett’s dad, Hugh, was a thin, reedy man; I could tell Brett got his build from him. He had a brushy beard and a receding hairline, with big, dark glasses. His mom, Ganice, was much the same, but shorter, with long, auburn locks and the aire of a bookworm. They looked enough alike they could be mistaken for brother and sister, but I was pretty sure they weren’t. At least I hoped not.

Brett picked at his plate, barely touching what he had. Ganice put her hand on his arm.

“What’s wrong, honey?”

“I don’t feel so good.”

“Do you need to throw up?”

“I dunno.”

“Well let’s get you to the bathroom in case you do. Come on.”

Hugh got up and started collecting plates.

“You done there, Whisker?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

He smiled and took my plate, heading into the kitchen, and called out to me as he loaded the dishwasher.

“You can watch tv in the sun room if you want.”

I climbed down from my chair and headed two rooms over, into the sun room, where the entire back wall and ceiling were a series of windows that sloped at the top. During the daytime, when the light came through, I loved being in that room. At night, however, or even after dinner when it was just starting to get dark, it took on an unsettling quality I couldn't quite put my finger on. I buried myself in the couch and concentrated on the tv.

I could hear Brett choking in the other room, no doubt getting a second look at his dinner. Moments later, he came into the room with his mom, a little sweaty, but no worse for wear. Ganice offered a thin smile.

"False alarm."

Brett plopped down on the couch, the family dog, an ancient hound named Bobcat, crawling up and making itself comfortable halfway over top of him. I raised an eyebrow at Brett, but he just shrugged.

"I dunno. Maybe I ate too fast."

"You two find something nice to watch. What time is your mother picking you up, Whisker?"

"Umm, what time is it now?"

"Six fifteen."

"Any minute now."

"Perfect. Why don't you get your things together and put them by the door so you don't forget."


Brett sucked on his middle finger, running the other hand over Bobcat's flank, and occupied himself with a rerun of Knight Rider while I slid off the couch and made sure I had everything in my backpack. Hugh walked through the room on his way to the door, shrugging into a tan Members Only jacket, a drivers cap perched on his head.

"We're out of yeast. And olive oil. I'll be right back."

Ganice waved her hand the way a wizard might as she tidied the living room.

"Take your time."

"I'm making more brown bread, with the olives your mother brought us."

"Then get some eggs for the salad."

"Of course, yakiri."

He blew her a kiss just before he left and I thought I saw Brett's mom roll her eyes, but she went back to fluffing pillows on the couch and reached for an empty wine glass on the end table. I carried my pack over by the door and dumped it with a thud, mouth twisted up thoughtful.

"Yah-kree. What's that?"

Ganice tipped the wine glass toward me, walking around the coffee table.

"It's Hebrew. It means--"

She shook her hair for effect.


I grinned. I liked Brett's Mom.

"Can you teach me any more words like that?"

Ganice shuttered past me and into the hall toward the kitchen, tossing her hair over her shoulders like the women in rock videos.

"Not until you're older."

I wondered what that meant, but forgot moments later when the doorbell rang. Ganice hurried to the door, brushing past me and peering around the edge as it opened.

"Hi-- ello. Please. Come in."

I was trying to remember if I brought a copy of Mad with me and if I saw it in my backpack while I situated my notebooks and papers. When I looked up to I was surprised to find Dad standing in the doorway. Ganice looked beside herself, running wizard fingers through her hair.

"Hey, kiddo."

"Hey, Dad. How come you're picking me up?"

Brett's mom chuckled.

"What a lovely surprise."

I noticed her voice was different; richer, smokier.

"Your mom's a little busy right now and I was in the neighborhood."

He turned to Ganice.

"Sorry for the confusion. I'm Alan."

It didn't bother me, quite the opposite. That made two of us.

"It's no problem at all. I'm Ganice. Please, have a seat."

"Well-- okay."

"Can I get you something to drink? Wine?"

"Oh, beer would be all right."

"Import or domestic?"



"Bottle's fine."

"Be right back."

Ganice scurried into the kitchen, hair appearing to have doubled in volume. She seemed different, and not necessarily for the better. I walked over in front of Dad, putting my hands on his knees.

"Are we staying?"

"For a few minutes."

"Then I'm watching tv."

I plopped down on the couch, startling Bobcat. He let out a lazy woof and went back to snoring. Brett's eyes were glued to the tv, still sucking his finger. I wasn't in the mood for shows about talking cars, but Dad said it wouldn't be long.

I watched as Brett's mom handed Dad the bottle, a glass of something red in her other hand. She sat not in the chair next to the couch, but on the arm, legs crossed, foot bouncing with her laughter. She twirled her hair while they talked. I couldn't quite hear what they said with the tv up, but what I did catch sounded boring. Hasselhoff was midair over a tractor trailer when I heard Dad call.

"C'mon, kiddo."

I turned to say goodbye, but Brett was asleep, the hound grumbling for a better position. I gave a half hearted wave and trotted into the living room to get my pack.

"Yeah no, it's no problem at all. He was an angel. He's welcome here any time."

"Thanks, uhh--"



Dad wiggled out a quick, tight lipped smile.

"Would you like-- one for the road?"

"Nah, thanks. I'm turning in early."

Ganice's smile was apprehensive, eyes to the side.

"Well-- don't be a stranger."

"You too, thanks. C'mon, son."

Ganice was at the door waving when we pulled around the corner.

“Brett’s mom seems nice.”

Dad was speeding. He wasn’t a speeder; he always drove no more than four miles over the limit.

“Yeah, she’s okay.”

“How’s Brett?”


“And how are things with you?”


“And your mom?”

“Okay, I guess.”

We drove for several minutes in silence. I watched the buildings go by, looking for anything that changed.

“You hungry at all?”

“I ate with Brett.”

“What’d you have?”

“Meatless meatballs with ketchup. And some kind of tiny bean salad.”

“Was the salad tiny or the beans?”

“The beans.”

“Sounds pretty good. Was it?”

“Pretty good.”

The rest of the ride back to Dad’s place was uneventful and when we arrived, I left my stuff in the back seat. Dad waited with the door still open.

“Don’t you need this?”

I waved my hand like I was swatting bumblebees.

“Nah. Already did my homework.”

The inside of dad’s place looked like a display at the mall. The only things I recognized from home were two photos, one of me and one of Haley, in frames on top of the tv. Haley’s was her senior picture, but mine was from kindergarten and over two years old. The rest of the place didn’t look lived in. I was used to the clutter from home, but this was more like a museum. And clean. Far too clean.

I switched on the tv and flopped on the couch. Buck Rogers wouldn’t be on for another two hours. Dad grabbed a beer from the fridge.

“You should hit the sack early tonight. We have a big day ahead of us.”

I shrugged.

“I’m not tired.”

“Fine. One more hour of tv and you’re done.”

“But-- my show's on at nine.”

“Sorry, Toots. Not tonight.”

“But I always watch Buck Rogers. It’s my favorite show.”

“You can watch it tomorrow.”

“It’s not on tomorrow.”

“I’m not arguing with you. One more hour and you’re off to bed.”

I don’t know what came over me, but there it was.

“You SUCK.”

I could see several emotions play across Dad's face before he took a deep breath and pointed toward the hallway.

"Go to your room."



I made a show of it, throwing myself around, tromping the whole way across the room and down the hall where I rattled the doorknob and shuffled my feet on the floor several times before I went in and crashed into bed with an exaggerated grunt. It was a tactic I normally saved for Mom, but she was almost always the bad cop. After several moments, I realized I might have ruined my chances with tomorrow's plans and fear creeped into my blood. What if Dad canceled the whole day and I just had to sit here with no tv and nothing to do? I felt an involuntary shudder ripple down my back and I was suddenly cold. I wrapped myself in a blanket and rolled over, waiting for the tears to come.


When I woke some time later, it was so dark for a moment I didn't know where I was. There was no light in the room, not even from outside. I pushed the curtain away from the window and nothing looked familiar. The cramp in my bladder reminded me I needed to potty and I shuffled across the room, reaching for the doorknob.

"Well I love kids."

"It's good to have little servants around I guess."

"Oh, you're TERRIBLE."

"Why don't you show me how-- terrible."

"Stop it. I thought you said he was in the next room."

"He's asleep. So--"

The rest was lost in a fit of giggles. I didn't know who this person with Dad was, nor did I really care to. The names-- and faces-- blurred together; an endless stream of feathered hair and fake smiles. I decided this was just one more, turning the knob slowly, trying not to make too much noise.

I crept down the hallway, one step at a time. There wasn't any more talking, just random noises, and I craned my neck to try to see around the corner where the couch and chairs were. Halfway down the hall, I hear a sharp inhale.

"What's-- that?"

I could hear Dad grinning.

"It's my good luck charm."

"It's cute, I guess."

"It helps me get the things I want."

"Is that so."

"Better believe it."

"You seem pretty-- mmm-- sure of yourself."

Kissing noises.

"So do you."

"Just help me get this thing off."

Shuffling; clothes hitting the floor. My mind whirled. This was something I saw in movies and on tv, not in Dad's living room; not with Dad-- doing it. Buck Rogers always had the decency to close the door. Dad was no Buck Rogers.

I peered around the corner, holding my breath. I could see the back of the woman's blonde head; feathered, as I’d expected. She was topless, with large breasts that hung to the sides. Dad was completely naked, chest and belly hair plastered with sweat, with a wicked look on his face. The woman put her hands on his waist and leaned into the area between his legs. He let out a long, satisfied groan.

I couldn't look away. It was Bedbugs all over again.


Then I saw it sitting on the end table, staring at me, shuddering like a wind up toy.

It was laughing.

My pajama bottoms felt damp.

“You-- pissed yourself?”

I looked at the floor, not wanting to answer.

“Uh huh.”

“Jesus fuc-- the bathroom’s RIGHT NEXT DOOR.”

I couldn’t look him in the eye.

“I was scared.”

Dad seemed unsure.

“Well, uhh, let me-- let’s just get those clothes into a basket and put you in the tub.”

Dad helped me out of my dirty pajamas and I made my way to the bathroom to run the water. I should have taken them off right away, but I didn’t want to risk leaving my room; not with it right outside the door. I buried my head under my pillow the rest of the night so I didn’t have to listen to Bedbugs. Which meant I had to tell Dad about the sheets, too. I decided that could wait until after my bath.

Once I was in the tub, Dad came to the door.

“You all right in there?”

“I’m okay.”

“So why were you scared?”

I did my best to scrub the pee smell off my body, but Dad’s soap was scratchy and felt like a cat’s tongue.

“I saw something.”

Dad came in, using the toilet lid for a seat.

“What was it?”

“Something from home. Something I hate.”


I took a deep breath.

“The bottle.”

“The bottle?”

Shampoo stung my eyes.

“The snoopy dog.”

Dad was across from Mrs Ichelheimer while I sat at the end of her desk, halfway between them. In a way, it was like sitting at the head of the table, but importance was the last thing I felt.

"So you see, Mr White, we have quite the little problem here."

Dad slumped back in his chair.

"Yeah. I guess so."

"What is there to guess? He was caught in the act."

Dad turned to me, brow furrowed.

"Son, did you do this? Did you write, uhh, 'eff the snoopy dog' on your desk?"

Mrs Ichelheimer raised her eyebrows at me, peering over the rims of her too small glasses. I fidgeted in my seat, trying to come up with the right answer: the one that wouldn't land me in ever bigger trouble.



"Spit it out."

Dad leaned forward, forehead creased.

"Now hold on just a minute here."

Mrs Ichelheimer slid her eyes toward Dad, still facing me. His knee bounced like mine did when I was nervous. Or angry.

"Isn't it obvious he's scared?"

A chill fell over the room, and Mrs Ichelheimer's chair squeaked as she turned to face Dad.

"He most certainly should be. Vandalism isn't something we take lying down."

I couldn't imagine there was much of anything Mrs Ichelheimer took lying down, but I kept that opinion to myself. It was better to play scared. Or better yet, be scared.

"Whisker has had some-- issues in the past. We discussed them at length with Mrs Greer and came to an understanding. While I don't disagree this is a serious matter, I think it makes sense to look at the bigger picture."

"And what is the bigger picture?"

Mrs Ichelheimer's mouth pursed with superiority; a face that made my crotch shrivel.

"The point is everyone is making an effort to accommodate him, for his betterment. We're consulting a psychologist."

"I'm not sure what that has to do with me, Mr White."

Dad's gritted his teeth.

"I, that is, we, would appreciate your cooperation."

Mrs Ickelheimer's glasses teetered at the end of her craggy nose, and I could see something nasty flicker in her eyes through the lenses.

"I see. And I feel I have to be frank, but this is something I've seen many times before-- a symptom of the larger disease. I very much understand the bigger picture, as you put it, and the picture I see is a steady decline in this young man's behavior. You may see this as petty, boys will be boys, if you will, but what I see is far less encouraging."

"And what do you see, then, Mrs, uhh--"

"Call me Vernice."

Dad looked a little green.


"What, I see, Mr White--"


"Alan-- is a decline in values, in self control. I've heard about Whisker's-- altercations. And frankly, I'm not surprised after having met his mother."

Dad's knee stopped. That was a bad sign.


She said it like it left a bad taste in her mouth.

"What kind of name is that anyway?"

Dad's bottom lip twitched.

"It's a family name."

"Ahh, I should have guessed."

"Are we done here?"

"Once you understand Whisker will be punished for his actions. And any further disruption will likely result in suspension."

"You don't think that's a little extreme?"

"On the contrary. Left unchecked, it's my experience such behavior rarely abates. He's already responsible for the destruction of school property and a shocking level of physical assertion with other classmates. Before long, he'll be skipping class, kissing girls, influencing others-- it's an unfortunate cycle, as I'm sure you’re aware."

"I think it's best we stick to the things he's actually done."

Maybe Mrs Ickelheimer was right. While Dad wasn’t getting into fights or destroying other people’s property, I’d lost count the number of times I saw him kissing a woman who wasn’t Mom. It was a safe bet he kissed the woman at his place with the feathered blonde hair and I’d seen him kiss Rita several times; even the woman who was the mother of Jamal, a boy in my class, whom Dad worked with. Was this where I was doomed to go, this behavioral mine shaft? I hadn’t even kissed any girls in a romantic way except in my dreams.

Is that where it starts?

“Then perhaps we should discuss the terms of Whisker’s correction. Might I suggest a cumulative approach?”

I looked to Dad, fearful, and his face told me it was time to leave.

“I think I’ve heard enough.”

Mrs Ickelheimer didn’t miss a beat.

“Then you agree we should explore, hmm, stringent punitive measures.”

“What? NO. He’s a CHILD. You talk like he’s some sort of-- criminal.”

“At this rate--”

“Just-- let me know next time something happens. If it happens.”

“I have little doubt that it will.”

Dad stood, shaking, trying to contain himself.

“Feel free to contact me directly. Good day, Vernice.”

Mrs Ickelheimer arched an eyebrow, then lowered her eyes to the papers on her desk. At that moment, it was clear we were no longer there. She spoke without looking up.

“Good day, Mr White.”

It took us all day to drive to Nashville from Rita's. I spent as much time as I could asleep so when we arrived I’d have plenty of energy for whatever activities might be planned. Rita talked pretty much the whole time-- the part of it I was awake for anyway-- and I had dreams about little barking dogs like the ones at Aunt Ky’s. We stopped twice; once for gas and once because everyone had to pee. The old man at the register kept the bathrooms locked and had the key attached to a hunk of wood the size of my forearm. Dad said it was a sawed down baseball bat, but it felt too heavy.

I went first-- there was room enough for only one person at a time-- and Dad had me hold the key while he went. I occupied myself watching the others who stopped, but it was mostly old people, who are never interesting. Until a man and a woman rode in on a motorcycle, both of which had a whole bunch of tattoos, and the woman had more. I heard the man cussing as he kicked the back tire, which made the woman laugh. Then she caught be staring and grabbed and shook her boobs at me. I waved sheepishly and she just laughed and waggled her tongue as they rode away.

Uncle Meldrick’s place was large and almost completely dark. It was two houses that were smashed together like Frankenstein and left uninhabited for many years. Only the front end of Uncle Meldrick’s part had electricity, and then, just living area and kitchen; which meant nothing but a kerosene lamp in the bathroom. He was fixing it up to sell, but judging from what I saw of the interior, it wouldn’t happen in his lifetime.

But a small portion of the place was livable, the rest sealed off for winter. There were various tools, sawhorses and an arrangement of tarps in the corners and almost anywhere that hadn’t been designated for habitation. Furniture was sparse, the majority of it hanging from the ceilings. There was a thin layer of sawdust over everything and I wherever I was inside I felt itchy. Uncle Meldrick advised I stick to the room with lights; he hadn’t yet found time to lay down traps for the mice.

Rita threw a fit.

“This house is no good. I NO SLEEP WITH MICE.”

I, on the other hand, thought it could be fun to share a sleeping space with little furry friends, but Rita was in no mood for my optimism.

“We sleep with the light on. Whisker watch for teeth.”

When I put my backpack, duffel and sleeping bag down, Uncle Meldrick gave me a nudge.

“Might want to pick a different spot, closer to your dad.”

I gave him a questioning look.

“They like to sleep in the sawdust.”

I could smell blood in the air, which meant it was only a matter of time before it had me. I crawled with just one leg as the other was broken and useless. The ground was slick, muddy, and got so I couldn’t move any farther. I was crying, but I wouldn’t let it register. Even in my defeat, I wouldn’t let it have the satisfaction of knowing I was beaten.

Baht Daog towered over me, breath fetid with the remains of my friends and family and what was left of my genitals. It didn't make sense that it didn’t hurt, but figured there would be no time to ask. Then its cape fell away and I knew that meant my execution would proceed. A low growl rumbled in its throat and I turned my face away, preparing myself for the end.


I opened one eye and saw Uncle Meldrick running toward me. Everything slowed down as he cocked his arm and threw it, end over end, gleaming fire as it caught the light, and landing mere inches from my nose.

There it was. Forged in the fires of Hell. Dipped in the blood of the Spider King. Slayer of the twelve headed crystal demon hydra.

The Deathsaber.

My fingers closed around the hilt and then I was standing before the architect of my nightmares, body whole, clad in armor blessed by the Elven Lords. I brandished the weapon and Baht Daog snarled.

“This changes NOTHING.”

Off it flew at inhuman speed, the ranks of its man dog army rising from the ground, beating their shields with their weapons, fangs dripping with bloodlust. They were at least three score deep, an army whose growls were thunder and ferocity a gale force. Uncle Meldrick stood with me, axe at the ready, beard braided with the colors of his clan. His armor was a patchwork of spiked and studded plates, making him a living weapon. His breath blew frosty, every heave of his chest and shoulders hurtling him closer to berserker rage. I admired his fearlessness.

“We can’t kill them all.”

Uncle Meldrick flashed a skeletal grin.

“Then we die with their throats in our teeth.”

“And their black dog hearts pierced in twain.”

A tongue flickered over my ear as Lydia appeared next to me, oiled leather from head to toe, the curved blades of her daggers like grim smirks. She had her hair pulled into ponytail, high and tight, an ebony band tied to the side across her forehead. She grabbed my hand and squeezed; there wasn’t time for more.

War horns brayed and the dog army began to march, a sea of abysmal black eyes and slavering fangs, wielding all manner of death and dismemberment. A foul wind blew over us, leaving bitter soot between our lips. I looked past them, searching the furthest reaches for any sign of the accursed necromancer Baht Daog. I shouted.


From upon a pyramid of bone, swirling with dark energy, was evil insensate, held aloft by ribbons of red-- the blood of his foes-- and purple-- the souls of the fallen. They were what gave him his power. All those, and fear.

The dog men were at the crest of the hill, so close I could see the mangy fur on their chins, arms and between their legs. Most were the image of Baht Daog, misshapen dobermans, but there were others: shepherds, mastiffs and hulking Saint Bernards. From either side, the shrill cry of battle clarions pierced the air, and Brett cried havoc, a host of Fellwood rangers loosing a gray hail of doom upon the front lines. Ranks decimated, still they pressed forward, crushing the fallen beneath them. Uncle Meldrick's berserker clansmen and Lydia's buccaneer horde steeled us as I held The Deathsaber aloft, commanding the charge.

The two forces met with steel, every moment filled with blood, breath and screams. I wish I could say it was something inside me that cut a swathe through the dog man ranks, but the power and fury was all in the Deathsaber, cleaving flesh and bone indiscriminately. Such was the death dealt by my hand, I found an opening, launching myself toward fear incarnate: Baht Daog.

A final tide of dog men surged forward to protect their master, but Uncle Meldrick and Lydia were there at my sides, and we made short work of them. What was left of their numbers were soon routed, turning tail and heading for the hills. Uncle Meldrick growled.

"Victory is at hand."

But it was too easy. Baht Daog looked down on us, shark tooth smile swallowing its ears. Its fingered paws bent at impossible angles as it muttered an incantation and a menacing synergy coursed through us, enveloping those who lay at our feet. It tossed its head back, howling victory.


And that's when things got bad. The dead, the ones we skewered, slashed and beheaded began to rise and take up arms once more, even our fallen comrades so great was the dominance of Baht Daog. Lydia cried with dismay.

"He means to bend the will of our own against us."

Uncle Meldrick hefted his axe and spat.

"Devil dogs."

We formed up back to back, but shock and terror rippled through us. A ferocious marriage of man and dog was one thing, but we were ill equipped to dispatch a legion wrought of such foul magicks. As the dead commenced their attack, some of those who were with us faltered, seeking escape, but among them who failed to defend themselves were cut down, only to rise again, swelling the ranks of our adversaries. Baht Daog cackled with glee, urging them forward, and I felt my own resolve begin to fail.

We'd come so far, to lose like this? Under the blades of our own? I looked to the heavens for some glimmer of hope, but the sky was cast in a bluish black haze, like some accursed, undulating bruise. Then there was a crack like a thundershot and a spear of white light forked across the horizon into the pyramid, where it sizzled and pulsed before exploding into a billion incandescent shards.

I saw them: on enchanted carpets of every color and pattern, and at their head was Chaz, astride a mighty griffon, a mythical beast with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. He brought with him the Sorcerers of Sal'Samoan, the fabled Wizards of Wundar. Legend told their magicks were second to none, that they commanded the powers of the elements and the stars beyond. We cheered as they soared overhead, countering Baht Daog's treachery and sending its aberrations back to the earth.

Chaz turned the tide.

Its monolith a smoking ruin, Baht Daog's power was all but extinguished. He cowered before us, one arm crossed over its face in a signal of defeat. Or was it? I saw something in its nebulous eyes, the predatory sneer. Its voice was shrill.

"It will never end, Whisker. I am the thing that waits at the edge of the light, what lurks where you can't see. I feed on your fear, your worry, the shame you feel amongst those your age and the impotence in the face of your elders. I am the thing in your belly what loathes happiness. I am the ache in your joints, the cancer in your blood. I am all these and more. I am forever."

I smashed the butt of my blade into its muzzle, shattering teeth and crumpling bone. Still, Baht Daog's defiance was palpable as it gasped forth a wheezing chuckle.

"Is this where I'm supposed to beg for my miserable life?"

My voice was strangely calm.

"No. This is where you die."

The room was dim, and it took several moments for my eyes to adjust. Dad laid on his side, snoring, with Rita draped over him like some great animal skin, her face in his ear. It looked like she had a secret to tell, but she could wait her turn. I yawned, stretching my arms and legs, and decided I'd better head to the bathroom.

I passed through the kitchen, where Uncle Meldrick sat a the breakfast table, lying face turned and drooling fast asleep with a half empty bottle of Rebel Yell and an upended plastic cup in front of him. His glasses were half off his head, bent up like on cartoons, a low flamed kerosene lamp throwing strange shadows on the counter next to him. He snored just like Dad.

Uncle Meldrick was tall and husky, Dad's height, with broad shoulders and a pronounced belly. He seemed to like flannel, and never shaved as far as I could tell, the hair on his head all pretty much the same length: shaggy. He was the type you felt instantly comfortable and could tell all your problems. He had an easy smile, a rich laugh, liked to give hugs. In many ways, he had the things I wished were in Dad. Except all that alcohol.

I inched toward him, planning to put the glasses somewhere safe. I saw it in a movie once and it stuck with me. A simple act of kindness, it was something I'd hoped I'd one day get to do. I grasped the ear sticking straight up and slowly pulled them away. Uncle Meldrick grunted, blinking through sleepy eyes. He smiled, smacked his lips, and within moments went back to snoring.

Once I was sure he was asleep, I dimmed the lamp until the room was just dark, placing the ears folded glasses nearby, and tip toed down the hall into the bathroom.

We sat together on the couch because I invited her to. At first, I took up the whole thing since I never got to at home, but it got so I liked having her there with me, next to me, enjoying the same things I did when we watched tv. It was a week night, so Tales of the Gold Monkey was on, which I could tell she wasn't all that into. She liked the shows with romance and men and women fighting over each other, but this show had its romance elements, too; somewhere under all the action and flying planes and shooting bad guys. I had to admit, jealousy motivated intrigue wasn't really my cup of tea.

After tv it was time for me to go to bed, which again was the couch, but I kept a sleeping bag close by and would lay it out and crawl into it with a pillow. She told me to leave the tv off so I wouldn't be up too late, but I would sometimes wait until she went upstairs to turn in back on with the volume most of the way down and eventually faint away in a sea of women with big earrings arguing with upturned collared men.

Then there was the night I decided I needed a hug before I went to sleep. It was so rare anymore, with Mom or when I got to see dad. I hugged Grandma and Grandpa plenty, but it wasn't the same. Their hugs were expected of me, not the ones I wanted in my heart. When I gathered up the courage to ask her, she just smiled that sweet smile and opened her arms. It felt nice, being so close, her arms around me. She smelled like perfume and hairspray and love, the skin of her neck warm against my cheek. We held each other for what seemed like years, and I finally pulled away just before I began to drool down her back. She was the first to speak.

"That was nice."

And that was the point where things became clear to me, and what once before was an intricate puzzle beyond my capability to fathom, now came into sharp focus. Moms you loved because they kept you safe, made sure you never went hungry or needed a place to sleep. Girlfriends got their safety and shelter from me, the boyfriend, which in a way, meant I was the mom. Or the dad. It made a lot more sense in my head. Whatever it was, I could tell she knew what I knew without any confusion or need for labels because we shared the same heart.

"I want you to be my friend. I mean, my girlfriend. I mean--"

"Shhhh. Don't talk."

Marcia shushed me with her full, velvety lips, and I finally knew forever.
The Big Lie"You don't have to give me a kiss if you don't want."

Was she crazy?

"I do."

We sat in Marcia's little red car outside the school; she was dropping me off that morning. We had to get there earlier than I was used to so she wouldn't late for work. The building was dark and there was only one other car there, a dark green sedan. It wasn't one I recognized and the windows fogged so I couldn't tell who was in there. It was the last week before Christmas vacation, half of which I had to spend with Dad, but that was the part I dreaded the most. I didn't mind seeing him so much as who he might be with. I really hoped it wasn't Rita; she talked to me like I was a little dog.

I wasn't quite sure what caused the split between Mom and Dad. I just assumed it started when Dad went to live at the YMCA, but seeing them now, I suspected it was before that. Maybe when I was born; Mom always said I was a mistake. I didn't quite know how to make sense of that. Mistakes were wrong answers on a spelling test or putting mustard on your hot dog when you really wanted ketchup. People you couldn't take back, no matter how much you wanted to.

Marcia seemed to tell me only nice things, like how handsome I looked when I got my hair cut or how smart I was when I got a good grade on a paper. With Mom, it was good grades or else, and when I did get them, my encouragement came in the form of a warning.

"Just make sure they stay that way."

To be clear, I was in no way an overachiever, but too scared to consider failure an option. Dad just wanted me to do my best, but when I did, his compliments came off as hollow.

"Keep up the good work, Son."

All Marcia seemed to want was for me to be happy. She knew I could do well, knew I could do whatever I wanted, really, and trusted me to do so. Maybe that's where it all came together: trust. It was a big word, something Mom threw around like it might find a means to fly away. But trust was something less like a bird and closer to a boomerang. A thought crossed my mind that the reason she didn't trust me is she couldn't trust herself.

"Looks like the principal is here."

I snapped out of it, turning my head to find Marcia's face right next to mine.

"C'mere, sweetie."

I kissed her on the lips, like many times before, but this one was quick, not long and all mashed together the way we did when we were at her place.

"Bye. Thanks for the ride."

"Is that it?"

She frowned, the funny way, like clowns did. Then she shook her shoulders, which in turn ruffled her hair, and closed her eyes, leaning toward me puckered up red as her little coupe. For a split second all I could think was don't try so hard, but my desire to make her happy was really no different than hers for me feel the same way. The last thing I wanted to see in her face was disappointment.

I mashed my mouth against hers until I couldn't hold my breath any longer. When I pulled away, her smile was sheepish.

"All that for me?"

I know I was blushing, but I couldn't find the words so I climbed out and ran to the door without looking back, lips still tingling.

I promise to never vandalize school property ever again.
I promise to never vandalize school property ever again.
I promise to never vandalize school property ever again.
I promise to never vandalize school property ever again.
I promise to never vandalize school property ever again.
I promise to never vandalize school prop

My hand started to cramp and I put the pencil down, massaging it until there was but a dull throb. It was the third day in a row I had to sit inside at recess and fill out sheets of paper until the bell rang. Mrs Ickelheimer wanted me to do it for a month, but Mrs Straw talked her down to a week, a begrudging compromise. Mrs Ickelheimer had herself convinced I wouldn’t learn without a real eye opener, but Mrs Straw insisted I always completed my work and generally did well in class, which at the very least warranted a reduced sentence. I never thought Mrs Straw liked me very much, but after that day, my opinion of her changed for the better. I was a rare thing when one of the teachers stuck up for me.

I checked the clock and it was less than a minute before the bell rang. By this time, Mrs Ickelheimer usually came out of her office to collect my work, but today there was no Mrs Ickelheimer, her door was closed, and Patsy wasn’t at her desk. I got up, taking my pages with me, and decided to try to slip them under the door so I wouldn’t be late for class. Once I was in the main office I realized the door to Mrs Ickelheimer’s had no space underneath. When I tried to shove a paper under it crumpled up and I almost had a heart attack. I had to figure out a way to make sure Mrs Ickelheimer knew I made a mistake and didn’t ruin the paper of purpose. I turned the handle slowly, pushing the door open just enough to slip inside, eyes on the floor, trying my best to appear defenseless. It must have worked.

“I thought I locked that.”

While still assertive, the usual hard edge to Mrs Ickelheimer’s voice was absent.

“Why don’t you do that for me."

I knew the only hope of keeping myself out of even more trouble was to comply, and I shut the door, locking with a sharp CLICK. I kept my eyes on the floor, waiting for things to go bad.

“I have the papers. Three and a half pages. More than yesterday.”

“Put them on my desk.”

I knew I couldn’t reach from the door and look up to gauge the distance. Big mistake.

Mrs. Ickelheimer stood behind her desk, her dress jacket folded over the chair, ruffled blouse draped across it, bra tossed on her desk. She held one of her enormous breasts in both hands, massaging it with her thumbs. Or that’s what it looked like anyway. I couldn’t make sense of the sheer size of them, let alone the circumstances which led to them being exposed in front of me. Then I remembered she was probably already like that when I came in and summoned forth a shudder.

“Bet you never saw any like these before.”


She was smirking.

I wanted to run, to hide under her desk, to gouge out my eyes and barrel screaming off the nearest cliff, but wanting so many things at once left me stone still.

Easy prey.

“My first husband couldn’t get enough of them. Called them my Love Pontoons.”


“Calm yourself. They’re breasts. Every woman has them.”

“Yuh, but--”

“And not that you need to know, but I’m giving myself an exam. I ran late this morning and
didn’t have time to before coming in.”


“It’s important we do it regularly, us older women. Lumps are a very serious matter.”

I tried to scrub the image from mind, but it was one that wouldn’t go away until Mrs Ickelheimer did. I hoped. She made a funny, thoughtful sound and nodded to herself.

“Whisker, I need your help.”

Oh hell.

“I don’t think this-- is something I should-- see.”

“You’ll see plenty more when you’re older. Now, I need you to check this spot and tell me if you feel anything unusual.”


But I couldn’t. With every moment my repulsion turned to fascination and even though they were attached to a bitchy old woman who had it in for me, they were still boobs.


"Come over here."

My legs moved without my consent, with enough conviction I knew something else was at the wheel. My mind screamed all the hard boiled obscenities I'd learned from Mom and the kids at school, but it was no good; the master brain already engaged. The failsafe.

Mrs Ickelheimer stared at me with cool expectation.

"Give me your hand."

She was surprisingly gentle for all her gruff demeanor. It reminded me of her hand on my back and how practiced it felt, like she'd done it a thousand times before. I knew at any moment I could take it back and it would all be over. I just kept telling myself that as she placed my hand at the end of her breast, on the darker part, next to a nipple that to my young brain resembled a cocktail weiner.

"There's the spot. Now squeeze and tell me what you feel."

Horrible, horrible images. The time I thought I broke my hand after smashing it in the door. Shane's kittens as I carried their shattered bodies across the garage. The bag of old marshmallows covered in ants at the back of the kitchen cupboard at home. When I left a peanut butter sandwich in a bag in the back seat of Dad's car for most of a summer.

"It's-- soft."

Mrs Ickelheimer sighed with impatience.

"Yes, yes. What I need to know is if you feel something hard-- like a marble."

Something was hard all right.

"No. N-nothing like that."

She breathed her relief.

"Thank heavens."

I turned my head and looked on her desk. Papers, several pens, a picture of a boy close to my age with a bowl cut even more ridiculous than my own. He smiled like a chimpanzee, like his teeth were trying to swallow his face.


I snapped my head back around; feet, stomach, freakishly large breasts, my hand on a freakishly large breast, Mrs Ickelheimer's scary face. I gulped.

"You can have your hand back now."

I pulled it away, but felt like I didn't want to use it to touch anything else. It was bad news, damaged goods. Images of having it chopped off crossed my mind, but it was the one I used to do everything. I put it in my pocket until I could figure out what to do with it.

"Thank you, Whisker. You've been surprisingly helpful today."

I nodded, looking nowhere in particular.

"And just so you know, what happened here is perfectly normal. It's not wrong, dirty or something to be ashamed of."

She put her finger under my chin so I had to look her in the eye.

"Do you understand me?"


"Excellent. You may go."

I backed away, afraid if I turned around something would jump on my back and bite through my brains.

"Oh, and Whisker?"

I stumbled, but she was smirking again, her scary old lady code for I wasn't in any trouble. She hoisted her bra across her chest, looking me first in the eye, then at the bump in my pants. A curt nod.

"Put that thing away before you hurt someone."

I knew I shouldn't stay up too late on a Sunday night, but there being only a week left before Christmas break gave me a nervous energy that defied sleep. Grandpa was in his chair, no doubt gobbling up every last bit of weekend premium programming. Mom and Grandma were in bed already, Mom trusting Grandpa to send me off at a reasonable hour, but ours was a conspiracy borne of unspoken mutual understanding and compulsion. In a way, Grandpa was my dealer, supplying covert defiance of Mom's authority and a steady stream of questionable viewing material. Maybe he decided I needed a father figure, what with Dad barely in the picture. I guessed that's what dads, or in this case, Grandpas did; helping grade school age boys across the land unlock the mysteries of women. At that point, my lasting impression was if two women were involved, the man usually wound up dead. To my mind, it was a mystery better left unsolved.

I looked over and saw Grandpa slouched in his chair, head back and jaw loose, at the precipice of slumber. In a way, he reminded me of a turkey the way the skin on his neck stretched taught but was loose at the same time. I wondered if I tickled it with my finger he'd make the sound, but he hadn't shaved for a while and it was prickly, like a cactus, and the thought of touching it made me squirm.

Kalliope was on the floor in front of Grandpa's chair, legs pulled up and tucked underneath, the way good girls sit she once told me. I did my best to ignore her, but she was not one to suffer my indignities, and stared at me the entire time, smiling with only her mouth. It was Grandpa's smile, the way it turned up at the corners. On him, often after a few beers, it was funny in its own way, but on Kalliope it bordered on menacing. I patted the cushion next to me, knowing it's what she wanted. It's what she always wanted. I didn't know how to tell her other things wouldn't be the same, but she had a habit of getting them regardless of my compliance. She was a lot like Mom in that way.

Kalliope rose, gathering herself up like a marionette. Her head stayed level, staring, and always that smile. She said she didn't used to show much of anything on her face except sad. That is, until she found me. We played cowboys and Indians with the little plastic figurines which was mostly me playing and her asking me why I did the things I did. It wasn't a complex game, but having to explain everything sucked the fun right out. Then I found out I was doing it wrong, which was news to me. Nobody ever told me I played the wrong way before, but Kalliope was insistent. The cowboys and Indians scattered across the floor, scurrying under the bed, into the open closet, until the floor was bare. The door slammed shut and I jumped, goosebumps sprouting on my arms. The room got warm, humid, and the little bumps were soon covered in a fine sheen of sweat. I felt myself scooting away from her, but my back was soon against the edge of the bed and there was nowhere left to go. She crawled toward me on her hands and knees, slow, jerky, each movement exaggerated to the point of lunacy. The smile was gone, but she was doing the thing with her eyes, showing the barest pinpricks of each pupil from within the choppy seas of the iris. I found myself lost in them, but not the way I did Mrs Greer's. I was trapped, on one side a barren, frigid wasteland, the other coals from a house burned to the foundation. Her fingers were zaps from a wall outlet on my skin, my mouth wide, breaths hitched and shallow. Then I felt her voice in my head, muted, lulling.

"It will only hurt for a moment."

It all became clear: action figures and little metal cars and plastic cowboys were for babies and children with no imagination. What I thought were games, these things I did to crawl into a world away from all the awful things that never left me alone, were delusions, trickery.

A big, fat lie.

It was true, she told me. She had this way of saying things without all the cues, both verbal and physical, I was used to from people I knew and saw every day that told me I could trust them. It was a gift, what she did to my mind, erasing fear and doubt. Doing it wrong was something I couldn't help, small and broken as I was. Mom and Dad, the rest of my family and friends, were similarly lost and just as ignorant. But I wasn't some dumb animal, she told me, if equally malleable. What I needed was someone with right amount of expertise to prepare me, apply the slightest nudge, and send me forward without fear or shame or remorse. Come from misery and emptiness, with her direction I would transform. This revelation left me shuddering to the point of convulsion.


It was all I could muster.

"I will show you what to do."

Her smile returned, with just a hint of pity, and so it begun.

"You have something from the mail, picantito."

Rita wore this yellow thing that tied at the neck and left her back exposed. In December. Mom's voice was in my head spouting curses.

"Doesn't she know it's CHRISTMAS? I hope she catches cold."

It was twenty degrees outside, but a balmy eighty two with the fire going in Dad's living room. Rita told me twenty times where she comes from Christmas was warm like summer and she only ever saw snow once when she was an airline stewardess. Then she moved to the midwest and became a receptionist for Dad's physician, Dr L.G. Brotty. She didn't look like any receptionist I'd even seen; late twenties to early thirties, tall, fit, tanned golden brown and obnoxious. Her boobs were absurd, like the four inch heels she always wore, or the things that came from her mouth.

"Is letter-- maybe from a secret girlfriend?"

She grinned with her whole face; eyes, nose and teeth. I didn't have a problem setting her straight.

"I don't have a girlfriend."

Dad took a slurp from his beer, groaning at a bad play on the football game. He only got like that when he drank.

"Good thinking, Son. Girls are trouble."

Rita's eyes went wide and she grabbed a pillow, swatting him repeatedly until he stopped laughing. It was always the Two Stooges with them, and it always made me want to bury my head in the sand, especially in public. With Mom, it was a scene caused by her general displeasure with the state of the world, but with Dad and Rita it was an overabundance of pleasure with each other. I wanted them to be happy, I guess, just not sloppy wet kisses in front of God and everyone happy. I didn't think I was being selfish, but if there was one thing I learned early on, it's that kind of business belonged somewhere private with the door closed. HBO was an ever surprising resource.

I took the letter to my room. I found no return address, only a stamp from the neighboring city. It was a standard, card sized envelope, like the ones I got for my birthday, and rigid enough I decided there must be one inside. My birthday, however, was almost three months over, and it didn't make sense I'd be getting one now.

I shut the door and flopped down on the bed, turning the card over in my hands, frustrating myself with the mystery. It was a brief discomfort, soon to be alleviated with strategic tears and unceremonious disposal. It was a card, all right, with a white background and a scene in watercolor of a boy holding his arm up, watching the string on a balloon floating just out of reach. In flowing, gold script, it read: Thinking Of You.

I opened it carefully, and a folded piece of paper fell out. I looked, but there was nothing written inside the card. When I unfolded it, the writing was a thin, tentative cursive I didn't recognize.

My Whisker,

I suppose it has been quite some time now, but I want you to know I am well and in a good place. I am still working with children, ones I have grown quite fond of. Despite some setbacks, I have been able to move past the things that caused me to leave your life and I think you know in your heart that, under the circumstances, it was the best thing for both of us.

Please know I did everything in my power to help you, but the things you encountered, and those I did through you-- they were just too big. I am truly, deeply sorry there was not more I could do for you.

It is nice here, where I am. I get to spend a lot of time outside, with the sun and the birds. And I very rarely see it anymore, at most, once a week. It comes to me when it is just dark outside, always the same way, but it does not treat me like it used to. I figured out how to keep it happy, and it only hurts when I fail to bring it pleasure.

I want to thank you, Whisker. You have shown me things I never thought possible. I never realized how empty my life was before I met you. I mean, because of you I found it, and it showed me just how much time I wasted not being one of its willing participants. I spend a lot of time with them, you know; Damon, Chaz’s mom, all those floppy little kittens, even Haley. We get together and talk about you; how much we miss you, how much you need to be with us.

The snoopy dog says you need to be punished for quite some time yet before you are ready, but I put up the strongest argument against this. See, I know how you feel about me, the things you think about when you are alone, and I laid it all out rather matter of fact. Truth is, I know how much you want my pussy, and I can use it to make you do, well, pretty much whatever I want.

Even submit to the snoopy dog.

I can show you things that would break your little mind. Who knows? You might even like it.

I know I will.

Until then,
Your Lydia

P.S. Get a good whiff of this letter. I made sure to rub it somewhere naughty.

I jumped off the bed, throwing everything on the floor and stamping on it like it was on fire and screaming curses, the ones Mom saved for when she was beyond reason. Moments later, Rita came to my door, her concern evident, but dulled by too much beer.

“Why you so loud, picantito?”

I had to come up with something quick.

“I, umm,--”

Rita raised an eyebrow, unamused.

“Saw a spider. It’s dead.”

“Oh. Well. You hungry?”

Second stomach clawed at me.

“Not really.”

“Okay. I go watch tv. You tell me when you get hungry.”


She stumbled down the hallway, mumbling something about bananas and tarantulas. I looked on the floor, the letter ripped in two and I shoved it under my mattress as far back as my arm was long, even the envelope. Then I ran into the bathroom and washed my hands three times with the stinkiest soap I could find.

I could still smell it.

It was close to two hours since we got back to Marcia's, but I hadn't watched one minute of tv. The little cars were put away and we ate before we came back. She kept telling me there was something special planned, a big event, whatever that meant. I was all for big events; things like my birthday and Christmas and even Halloween were my favorite times of year. Most of the big events in my family centered around holidays, which I supposed was true for most. Still, there was something off, and a little too much rushing around behind closed doors that happened to be, in this case, the one to her bedroom.

I'd been in there once before, when I was bored and she and Mom were talking at the kitchen table. It was pretty standard for a girl's bedroom, I guess. It had all of the usual suspects: bed, dressers, closet, clock radio, mission style vanity covered with perfume bottles and makeup cases. The color was an interesting gradient of sea green at the ceiling that faded into white at the baseboard, like the ocean turning into a beach. I remember staring at it for several minutes trying to figure out exactly where the water stopped, but then I remembered there were things like waves, which made shorelines tricky things to measure. I watched a lot of public programming, too.

I could hear music coming from inside, a man singing, maybe piano, but it was one I didn't know and just assumed it was something from the radio. I was about to go wait in front of the tv, certain there had to be something better on that waiting around outside the door while Marcia fixed her hair and whatever it was she was doing in there. I couldn't imagine she'd even need to; it always looked so perfect, like the women on the shows I watched. Then I heard her.

"Come in."

I put my hand on the knob, but felt overcome. Something itched in the back of my brain, something small and quiet, but insistent nevertheless. It wasn't enough to give me more than pause, and I pushed the door open.

"Make sure it's shut."

The lights were off, the room cast in shadow. Once I close the door, I couldn't see a thing.

"Come closer."

I didn't want to move without being able to see where I was going. I only somewhat remembered the layout of the room, leaving my fear of tripping and cracking my head open acute.

"I can't see."

"Follow my voice."

It made perfect sense to me.

"Over here. That's it."

One step at a time, arms out in front of me, reaching, feeling.

"You're almost there."

The encouragement gave me confidence, which in turn made my feet shuffle faster. In several moments, I'd found the edge of the bed and followed it toward Marcia's voice. I first felt one of her slippers when I stepped on it, then her hand in mine, guiding me into a sitting position. Her hands were soft and sure, one on my leg, the other rubbing my back until my apprehension subsided.

"That was very brave of you."

"I did what you said. I followed your voice."

"I can see that. Now, do you know what today is?"

"Umm, not really."

"It's a very special day."

"What day is that?"

"Mother's Day. Do you know what happens on Mother's Day?"

I shook my head even though she probably couldn't see it. Her hand squeezed my leg in a way that made the little hairs stand up.

"You get to show me how much you love me."

"But you're not my mom."

I could hear her smile, the way little girls smile at puppies and ducklings.

"But you love me, right?"

It was true. In my own, overly simplistic way, both as a mother and what I thought of as a lover, I did. I nodded hard enough she could feel it.

"Then I want you to show me how much."


I leaned down and wrapped my arms around her neck, my cheek coming to rest against her neck, the edge of my lips just touching her skin. I breathed in her scent, something lightly floral and powdery. She put her arms around me, stroking my hair and the spot at the middle of my back just below the shoulders. It tranquilized me with little ripples of pleasure that felt like when I ate my favorite things or brushed up skin to bare skin with a random stranger at the mall or the doctor's office. It was a feeling I savored, held onto, never wanted to leave me. I could feel her heartbeat against my cheek and it was fast like mine. It's how I knew she felt the same way.

"That feels good."

I nodded my agreement up and down the length of her neck.

"Now what else can you do?"

I moved my hand up to her cheek, guiding her face toward me, where I searched out her lips with my own. I kissed her for as long as I could hold my breath, which after quite a bit of practice, was well over a minute. The whole time I stroked her cheek like I would a cat's whiskers, and she made a noise like she tasted something sweet. When I finished I could feel her eyes on mine.

"You're such a wonderful kisser. Have you ever thought about doing it to my neck?"

Of course not. Only unshaven men with big belt buckles did that.

"All the time."

"Would you like to show me now?"

"Only if you want me to."

"I think you know I do."

Oh silly me.

I kissed her neck much the same way I did her lips, but since there was more area to cover, I tried to move it around. I thought of drawing words in the sand and made my lips do the same as would my finger or a stick. The way I was laying, I had to change positions, and put my hand down on the bed to get a better angle.

Except it wasn't the bed.

"What are you doing?"

"It was an accident."

"Does that mean you're going to stop?"

"Umm, I-- don't know."

Marcia sat up with her back against the headboard, which meant I needed to move too. I crawled up next to her, laying against one of the pillows. I could hear her suck in a big breath before she began.

"Now honey, I need to be very clear with you. If we continue down this road, things will change between us. I won't just be your friend anymore."

My head nodded without my help.

"It will make me your secret girlfriend. Which makes you my special little boy."

It seemed like a no brainer to me. No brains whatsoever.



Marcia took my hand and placed back where it was over her left breast. It was the first one I could remember touching, and it was glorious.

"Now squeeze. Gently."

I did what she asked and the little noises she made seemed better suited for game shows or cartoons set in the jungle. She kept stroking my lips with the tip of her thumb, fingers cupping my chin. I starting rubbing it with my palm until the nipple was sharp enough to cut.

The doorbell rang.


Marcia launched herself on the bed, one arm straight to keep me from following. In seconds she was at the door and wrapped in a robe, opening it just enough to slip through.

"Ohmigod ohmigod ohmigod--"

I could hear her feet down the hall, through the living room and to the front door. Mom wouldn't be picking me up until the following morning, and she usually just announced herself with a knock and a hello and came right in, familiarity trumping courtesy. I heard the interior door first, a CLUNK and SWISH across the carpet as it opened. It was a man's voice.

"Hey, Baby Bird."

Voice hushed, Marcia didn't sound at all happy with the man's arrival.

"Not today, Louis. I have company."

"I thought it was just you and me."

A short, unenviable laugh.

"You know you shouldn't keep smoking. And you're not supposed to be here. Not today."

"But it's Mother's Day."

"Go home, Louis."

He made a sound like a car without a muffler.

"Not without a kiss."

It was several minutes before Marcia returned, slipping into the room without a word. She went to the vanity and sat, switching on a table side stem lamp with a glass shade in the shape of a flower. I stayed on the bed, searching her face through the mirror, but she wouldn't look at me.

"Are you okay?"

"I'm really upset with you right now, Whisker."

Mom was on a tear ever since she discovered some things I stashed under the bed with my art supplies. She spent a lot of time cleaning, both as a means to relieve stress and amp herself up for the next inevitable fight. As such, part of her routine included straightening up my things, which was code for going through my shit. In Mom's house, wherever she held domain, there was no such thing as privacy. Compounded by the fact I was a troubled boy with the inherent inability to make good choices, it was a necessary evil. One that included raking me over the coals for drawing pictures of naked women.

"Is this how you see women? As objects?"

"They're not objects."

"Sometimes I really fear for what kind of man you'll turn into."

I shrugged, not really seeing the harm in expressing my dreams. I drew the things I liked, in which I found beauty or happiness; at least, what I approximated as happiness. It wasn't a concrete thing for me, being happy; more like rain dripping off the leaves on a tree. I could see it, even feel it for a moment, but then it was gone. It was also a lot like eating tater tots.

"I'll be me. Just bigger."

Mom gave me the look: eyes stark, mouth a betrayed vowel.

"That's what I'm afraid of."

I tried to compartmentalize the shame, chop it up into bits so small it no longer resembled itself. Maybe that's what I had to do to keep from growing up to be whatever coarse beast kept her up at night. The only birds and bees discussion we ever had wasn't really discussion at all. It was more like an omen.

"You're not having sex until you're an adult. You have no business having babies when you can't even wipe."

"But I don't want babies."


"Is that what happens when you--"

"Stick your thing in someone? What do you think?"

She said it like a curse.

"I'm-- not sure."

Mom was to the point of hyperventilation, so great was her nuissance. I could tell in her face she had to make a decision, an important one; one that could change our lives forever. She put her hands on my arms and sat me down on the bed.

"Listen to me. Are you listening?"

I nodded my hair over my eyes.

"You don't worry about girls right now-- you worry about school and being a good boy. Your penis is for making piss, not babies."

So that's what it does.

"But why--"

"You hear me?"


"And I don't want to find any more of these-- drawings. They're disgusting."

"Then how can I, umm, draw them so it's not disgusting?"

Mom glared holes through me.

"With their clothes on."

Not likely. I gave the slightest nod.

"Oh, and not that you deserve to know, but Haley's coming home for Christmas. Make sure you keep this room AND the living room picked up."



"Yes. Now go get in the tub before you get your dirt all over this bed."

It took a while, but with the help of a warm washcloth, I was able to wash away where the tears ruined Marcia's makeup. We sat on the edge of the bathtub, she in her robe, me with my shoes off. She seemed better, calmer. She still sniffed a lot, but stopped crying, which I knew was a good sign.

"Not really the Mother's Day I had in mind."

Her giggle was self conscious.

"It's okay."

She gave me a verge of tears smile and I held it close to my heart where it would feel safe.

"You think so?"

"Uh huh."

"You're a very special little boy."

I was pretty sure that boy was never me.

"And you deserve a kiss."

Maybe I was wrong.

I puckered my face and she leaned down, pressing our lips together. I felt her tongue just before she pulled away.

"You know, Mother's Day isn't over yet."


"And I think it's time I let you in on a little secret."

I liked secrets.

We went back to the bedroom, where she turned on the radio. It had an eight track player with a tape that said Bee Gees. She plugged it in and soft music emanated from the lone speaker.

"This is my favorite song."

It was called "Words" and she told me about the Bee Gees and how Robin was her favorite because he reminded her of a little boy, all while she helped me take my shirt off, then my pants. I only knew them from Saturday Night Fever which had the guy from Welcome Back Kotter. I told her I liked the song "Staying Alive" and this seemed to make her happy. Happier, even.

Once I was in nothing but my socks and Underoos, Marcia told me she was ready to share her secret. She had me sit next to her, on my knees, while she rubbed my bottom, the other hand stroking my hair. It felt good, and I couldn't help myself. I remembered what Mom and Mrs Ickelheimer said, but there was no amount of bad things in my head that could keep me from responding.

The weird thing is Marcia didn't seem put off by this, and it occurred to me that she was the one who saw bad behavior in little boys for what it was: a need for attention. She didn't think less of me for being who I was, and even though there was an ever growing problem in my lower half, I felt just fine in my heart.

"It's called a lollipop."

I looked at her with half lidded eyes, my smile the only question.

"Did you know that?"

I shook my head.

"Want me to show you what I do with lollipops?"

If it means you won't stop.

She showed me what to do, put my hands on her legs and chest and bottom, made me stick my fingers in her mouth, two or three at a time. In exchange, the little shocks I felt were more-- localized. It still hurt, but like a really good poop hurt, or scraping your thing with a sharp piece of soap. She taught me all the wrong ways first, and left me little more than a puddle of sweat and jangled nerves. As the nights wore by, she showed me other ways, right ways, and my pleasure blossomed.

She was a good teacher, and in no time I had top grades in pretty much everything. Still, it was tiring, and I lost more sleep than I could handle. It got so I slept on the ride to school, hoping it would be enough to keep me going through the day. Most times it was, but that depended entirely on Kalliope.

Sitting next to me on the couch, I could tell it would be a long night. There was just so much to remember, so many different ways to do what amounted to the same thing. I hoped I was past the punishment phase, but it was anyone's guess. She wasn't one for cues, just words; only ever words. They were the beginning and the end amd I shivered when I felt her hand on mine. Most disturbing, I no longer knew what kind of shiver it was.

“It felt nice when you kissed Brett. Like the real thing.”

My hands belonged to someone else as they began to unbutton my shirt.

“I didn’t like it.”

“Well I like him.”

“I don’t want to do it again.”

“You will do what I tell you to do.”

Or make me do. My shirt was on the floor, pants half off, not my hands still working.

I looked up, into the eyes that never matched, and I felt a last, tiny breath push through my heart and out my nose. It would be years before I realized what it meant, but in that moment, in those haunting eyes, in a face without pleasure or fear or ignominy, I found something darker than the longest night on a sunless world.

She was learning is what her smile told me, but with the words still came the tears.

"Let's play."
Haley Come HomeI pulled the cord on the little wall hanging music box just inside Haley's door and it began to tinkle out "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head".

"I told you never to do that."


"I hate that song."

"Then why--"


"But I brought you something."

"I don't care."

"It's something you like. It's chocolate."

"What is-- is that-- that's MINE you fucker."

It was true. Haley had a box full of king sized candy bars she had to sell for, well, something. I didn't really listen to that part once I discovered what they were. She kept the box in a leather carry on at the end of her bed with a couple pair of socks, underwear, earrings, a V.C. Andrews paperback and her birth control. I went through the whole thing looking for more of those gummi bears she brought home last time, but found nothing else of interest. I took two figuring they wouldn't be missed and hid them under my pillow for later.

"But it's your favorite."

"I have to SELL THOSE. How many did you take?"

It was a tricky question.

"Umm, total?"



I dropped the rejected offering and scrambled for my room, running through a mental inventory of my misdeed and hoping I hadn't left any more clues. I had a habit of stuffing wrappers and other scraps between the mattress and frame in my bed where I was certain no one would find them. It was my secret trash can, where bad things-- or evidence-- could be forgotten. I heard Haley's door slam, cursing, unintelligible noises. I tried to decide how long it would be before she forgave me, even talk to me again.

Two days. Tops.

Our rooms were right next to each other and I could hear her through the shared heating duct.

"Yeah, hey-- I'm-- oof, so pissed right now."

I shut my door and sat down next to the air vent, legs crossed.

"My little shit of a brother-- ugh-- he took some candy-- yes, those."

She was talking about me.

"Yeah-- I dunno-- he wouldn't tell me-- I guess."

I hoped Haley wasn't in trouble and decided if I could throw the candy back up whole and unmolested, I'd do it. She might even decided to let me keep one for being so adult about it.

"Just-- yeah-- I can't wait to get out of here, you know?"

But coming home to see us was all she talked about. Well, that one time.

"I just have to remind myself it will be over soon-- not soon enough, believe me."

I thought she missed us.

"I'll call Tuesday-- from the station-- ha, yeah-- I miss it too."

Kissing noises.

"Okay-- yeah, okay-- bye."

She hung up the phone and I got up quick, trying to make myself look busy. Moments later she opened my door, arm extended and palm up. Her face was a stone.

"How many."

"I bought three tickets to see Santa. Bet you're excited, huh?"

I grinned like a fool; Dad always knew how to get me to do that. Things were better now with Rita gone. She took a plane to see her family for the holidays, but not before keeping me up all night making animal noises with Dad in their bedroom. She yelled a lot in Spanish, but none of the words I recognized from class. All this I filed away to process later, more concerned with seeing Haley and then Santa. I had to come up with something new to ask for Christmas since my first wish was already coming true. It was something I'd have to really think about, but could wait until after breakfast at Denny's. Pigs in a blanket took up all my concentration.

"I don't think I want to now."

Mom and Dad and Haley stood with me in line behind a large woman and her equally large son with a rainbow ski hat. Every time he moved his head, the pom pom bounced like a hand puppet and only made my apprehension worse. This was the first time I wasn't sure I wanted to tell Santa what I wanted for Christmas, but I guess there's a first time for everything. I was close enough to Haley she felt something weird too, but she was miles away, which left me on my own.

"Well that's just tough. We've been in line for over an hour so you're going."

Mom was in no mood to suffer my acting the child. Lines weren't really her thing, especially with people crowded in close enough to share personal smells. The big kid in front of me smelled like Life Savers and butt, like he never wiped. Looking at him I wondered if he could even reach.

"Santa looks-- scary."

Dad gave my arm a reassuring squeeze.

"It's okay, Son. He's probably just a little under the weather."

This was news to me.

"Santa gets sick?"

"When he's away from Mrs Claus for too long, sure."

Dad winked and that's how I knew things would be okay. Mom made one of her unhappy sounds.

"Or a bottle."

"I think we should get soft pretzels afterwards."

Haley always knew how to appeal to the need for distraction. I was partial to the assortment of roasted nuts and chocolates at Woolworth's, but pretzels were a sensible alternative. Dad grunted his assent.

"Sounds good to me. You want a pretzel, Mom?"

Mom's eyes rolled over him like he sprouted a second head, but after a moment, something softened.

"I suppose."

And we were one big, happy family again. Butt Kid went ahead and took his turn with Santa who, judging from the way he leaned to the side-- no doubt searching for fresh air-- smelled it too. His mother hovered nearby, trying to snap a picture with her Instamatic. This made no sense to me; she already paid for a picture from the elves. It’s how Santa could afford all the brussels sprouts to feed the reindeer. Didn’t she know anything?

In my consternation, I failed to realize it was my turn until Haley smacked my elbow and nodded toward Santa.

“You’re up, Fanato.”

I never did like that nickname.

“I don’t want to.”

I could tell Mom was on the verge of pissed, but that was nothing compared to the people behind us. They looked positively ready for murder. Haley was comforting in her own special way.

“C'mon, you're too big to eat.”

But this was Santa. He could do anything.

Like the snoopy dog.

I took a couple of steps before one of the elves, a short girl with brown hair and a mouth like a typewriter, intercepted and took my arm, guiding me. I tripped, but managed at the last second not to fall down. Then I was in front of Santa with his arms open wide, huge eyebrows and bright red Rudolph nose. His glasses looked like Grandpa’s.

“Ho ho ho.”

I wasn’t ready for this. Not then, not ever. Even so, I was resourceful, and in that moment of indecision, something came over me and I knew what I had to do. My mouth curled down, jaw slack, and I began to bawl my eyes out.

“Get that fucking kid outta there.”

It was one of the murderous line waiters, one of the angry mob. Dad looked ready to leave, Mom’s face a pickle. Only Haley seemed at ease; smiling, even.

“I’m on it.”

Haley moved with purpose and nudged me out of the way before sitting on Santa's knee, hands on her own, looking me square.

"C'mon. Tell Santa what you want so we can get outta here."

Feeling a little better, I took a seat opposite my sister and studied the pained face Santa made. He smelled funny, like the medicine cabinet; a cross between rubbing alcohol and band aids. The closer I got to him the stronger it was and I perched myself as far away as possible while still technically being on his knee. It was one of the requirements of getting what you wanted for Christmas, sitting there. Santa let out a sigh.

"What would either of you like for Christmas?"

Haley went first.

"A new pair of skis, a big tin full of gummi bears-- just the red ones-- and dinner with Madonna."

She seemed pretty proud of herself judging from her smile. She looked like Mom, except happy. Santa flashed one of his own: a brief, crooked thing. From being so close, I could see how dirty his glasses were.

"Uh huh. And what about you, little boy?"

I swallowed. It was the moment I'd been waiting for, secretly, an appeal to a higher power I could both see and feel. Santa could do magic; he was one of the good guys. Haley tugged my sleeve, speaking through tight lips.

"Just say it already."

I looked Santa in the eye and saw how bloodshot they were. Something lived in there, something not very Santa.


He grunted, bouncing his knee a couple of times and Haley started to get up, an apology. It was right there on the tip of my tongue, but the words kept slipping away, sliding back down my throat. Haley put her arms out, eyes somewhere else.

"I'll take him."


Santa let out a long sigh and nodded toward Haley, ready to turn me over to the proper authorities. I could hear Mom from where she waited in the wings with Dad.

"What's going on?"

That was it.


I grabbed Santa's collar, refusing to let go. Haley looked worried, but with her hand on sleeve, it was only a matter of time. Santa, on the other hand, looked like I was getting ready to bite, genuine fear in his eyes, sputtering obscenities through his frosty white beard.

"Just tell me what you want."


My head snapped back as Haley yanked me away, my demand cut short, and Santa looked relieved if a little worse for wear. He waved at Mom and Dad.

"Better keep a leash on that kid."

That got him the pickle face and Mom corralled me to her side, leaving Dad and Haley to retrieve the picture. When they brought it over, I saw Haley's big smile, showing all her teeth, and my eyes locked on Santa with a face like I was mid poop. I took the picture from Dad and studied it closer. I realized I wasn't looking at Santa, but something on his collar, a pin of some sort. It was small and white and partially obscured by his beard, but I knew what it was and why I didn't want to go up there. Dad tugged on my earlobe the way he did when he wanted my attention. It barely registered.

"Did you have fun with Santa?"

I looked first to Haley, her smile saying everything's fine, eyes telling me to keep quiet; then to Dad, who looked concerned. I held out the picture.

"Snoopy got him."

It got so I started to enjoy the time went spent together after everyone else was asleep, Uncle Meldrick and I. He always had the bottle with him, but he’d pour me a glass of milk so I didn’t feel left out. I even had the idea to get some cookies, which he obliged, and what was left of the bag sat on the table nearby. I was plenty hungry seeing as I failed to consume very much of my rather expensive dinner earlier in the evening.

It seemed Dad and Uncle Meldrick had a common interest in trying new and exotic places to eat. Mel suggested a Japanese steakhouse at the other end of town called Hibachi Tokyo. My only familiarity with Tokyo was through Saturday afternoon Godzilla movies, and the only Asian cuisine I’d tried was Chinese, but everyone thought it sounded good, even Rita, and the prospect of hidden adventure got the best of me. Mel sat in the back seat with me and he and Dad sang songs, some that Mel wrote, others from back when they played in the same band. They weren’t ones I knew so I just sat and listened while Rita make contented sounds.

We arrived just as it started to get dark, the parking lot about half full. Dad sounded cheerful when he pulled into a space.

“Looks like we picked the right time.”

We shuffled into the long hall ahead of the waiting area, replete with decoration ranging from jade statuettes to rice paper wall scrolls. It felt like a shrine it was so quiet, and for a moment I thought maybe we had the wrong place. The path at the end of the walkway split into two directions; one toward the bathrooms, the other where a hostess waited to seat us. She was a small woman, Asian, impeccably dressed. Her smile made me think of kewpie dolls.

There weren’t any open tables so we sat at the bar. After our drinks, they brought little wooden bowls of soup with things in them I didn’t recognize. There were soft chunks of something white and little curly green things I decided were snake tails. Whatever they were, everyone agreed they were tasty and I ate mine with such abandon I decided I had to hold the bowl to get a better angle with my spoon.

With incredible finesse, I managed to spill the entire bowl all over the bar. No one seemed upset by this, the waitress even laughed as she sopped it with a rag, but the damage was done and I was ready to put the evening behind me the only way I knew how: by burying my face in my arms and refusing to budge until everyone was done and ready to leave.

To my credit, I didn’t cry, but my embarrassment was such it wouldn’t have helped. I blocked out everything around me and waited, through the rest of the appetizer, more drinks, dinner and dessert. Dad came over and put his hand on my back to let me know it was time. I didn’t raise my face, watching the floor the entire way out and to the car. Even though we were leaving, I felt marginally better. It was an evening I wanted to remember for the fun we had in each other’s company, not my inability to keep from making a mess. Uncle Melrick was quiet when he climbed in the back seat next to me, a brown paper bag in his hand. Once we were on our way, I decided I was somewhat safe and gave Mel’s bag the eye. It was on the seat between us, and smelled fantastic. I nudged it with my elbow.

“What’s that?”

Uncle Meldrick leaned over, loosing his customary half grin.

“That’s your din din.”

Sitting with him at the table, both stomachs sated on cookies and milk, it was like the Hibachi Tokyo fiasco never happened, a bad dream. As far as Uncle Meldrick was concerned, it was a non issue. He was glad to have Dad and me and even Rita with him and that’s all that mattered. In some ways, he reminded me of me, and there were things in him I wanted to see in myself when I got to be his age. If I even did.

“We’ll go somewhere tomorrow and get you a burger.”

I nodded several times as Mel poured another drink. The bottle was almost empty, but I knew where he kept the others in the cupboard near the sink. He wouldn’t run out anytime soon.

“Why do you drink so much?”

It was an honest question, if lacking in manners. Uncle Meldrick didn’t seem upset, his eyebrows drifting high above the rims of his glasses, nudging the glass away from him with the back of his hand. His voice was scratchy.

“After your Aunt Jean left, I had a lot of time to myself. Some of it good, most of it not.”

I put my elbows on the table, cradling my chin in my palms.

“I realized there were a lot of things I didn’t like about myself. Jeannie saw them too, but they weren’t what made her have to go.”

He paused and I waited for him to continue, watching as his eyes lost focus and took on a far away quality. His lip sagged enough I could see his bottom teeth. Then his eyes found me and I saw something I felt I wasn’t meant to.

“Said I loved this bottle more than her. Maybe more’n myself.”

His eye quivered as he reached for the glass.

“Only ever been good for one woman.”

He tilted the glass toward me before knocking it back with one gulp.

“And she’s still here.”

His laugh sounded more like a hiccup and I extended my arm across the table, palm open. Uncle Mel gave it a glance before he looked me in the eye, a resigned smile, and placed his hand over mine. It was warm.

“I’m sorry.”

Mel shook his head, gritting his teeth, biting back laughter or tears I couldn’t tell. For some reason I knew I was the only person he ever told. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that, but I didn’t feel bad or scared so I figured it was okay. Uncle Meldrick squeezed my hand.

“It’s fine. Even big people have to learn.”

I nodded. It made sense. More than what happened next.

“I have something I wish would leave.”

Mel let out a laugh that wheezed and sputtered like boiled over pasta. I pulled my hand away before I realized he wasn’t choking.

“Rita’s not that bad.”

I shook my head.

“Uh uh. Worse.”

And I told him things. Things that made me scared, that made me lose sleep. Things I wanted, things that were taken away. Even the letter from Mrs Greer; parts of it, anyway. When I was done I was shaking and Uncle Meldrick got a flannel shirt from a hook near the door which he wrapped around my arms.

“That’s a, uhh-- quite a story.”

I looked at the floor.

“You don’t believe me.”

“I don’t have to. I see it in your face.”

“What do I do?”

Uncle Mel sat back down, pouring himself another drink.

“Tell an adult.”

“But what about--”

“If someone is hurting you, you need to tell your mom and dad, your teacher, a police man, even--”

He took a long drink, refusing to look me in the eye, bottom lip on the glass.

“Even me.”

Hot Sam’s kept the pretzels warm so they stayed extra soft. Dad got his with mustard, Haley’s with fake cheddar cheese. Mom and I ate ours with just salt. It was Haley’s idea to share a pop.

“One large Dr Pepper.”

There was a little too much syrup, the drink so sweet it made my teeth ache. But Haley asked for an extra cupful of ice and poured some in that one for me. It helped, and I smiled my thanks.

Dad decided we’d put the picture on the fridge when we got home, right under the advent calendar that counted down the days until Christmas. Today’s was a partridge in a pear tree, yesterday’s a toy train with a red bow on it. Neither left me excited. Dad seemed suddenly dissatisfied.

“What we should have done was get one of those family portraits done, like the ones from--”

I felt my ear pop, a steady whine fading in and out like those old sci fi movies. I tried to find the source, but everywhere I looked were people and kids and shopping bags overflowing. I rattled my finger around in there, even flexed my jaw, but nothing helped. I turned to Haley, about to ask if she heard it too when I saw him.

He was taller somehow, hair blonde as corn silk, with a bright blue winter jacket. There was a man with him: rangy, balding, on the verge of famine, with squirrely facial hair. His glasses were tinted, not like sunglasses, just darker than normal ones. I could see his eyes, like a pair of eight balls.

Damon walked straight toward me, the man just behind and to the left. His eyes were on mine, but I somehow knew he didn’t see me. He raised his arm, brushing loose hair from his face, and I noticed something strange about his hand. I looked closer, trying to figure it out, when it dawned on me.

It only had two fingers and a thumb. Even part of the palm was missing, which made it look like a cross between a hook and a flipper. Scar tissue formed a web of red and pink.

Gawking, I grabbing Haley's hand. The slender man turned his head, saying something I couldn’t hear, and as Damon passed, he looked right at me, smiling a toothless pit of rusty wire barbs, the leftover fingers of his ruined hand twitching the way frogs jumped.


Haley punched me in the arm and I spun around, mouth gaping.

“Not so hard you little turd.”

I turned to point at Damon and the weird tall man, to give them the first glimpse of my waking nightmare, but it was only more shopping bags in a sea of people and kids.

My teeth still ached.

"You're doing it wrong."

Haley took my end of the red, fuzzy garland and wove it into the branches of the Christmas tree, adding the illusion of depth and movement. I thought you just draped it over the ones that stuck out the furthest. Haley knew about things like beauty and design whereas my expertise centered on cartoons and junk food. She would make the tree pretty in spite of my help.

We had a lot in the way of decorations: strings of lights, tinsel, candy canes and ginger bread men and all kinds of ornaments; even an angel for on top of the tree. There was a pine branch garland that went across the mantle where we hung the stockings, red and green felt with our names on them. Dad strung the outside lights over the bushes in front earlier that week. Mom said they would be red and white only, but the ones on the tree inside could be every color we had.

"Can I hang the candy canes?"

I found a good spot for one, right in front, trying to visualize its majesty as I guided it into position, but Haley smacked my hand away.

"Those go on last. Before the angel."

I frowned and put it back with the others.

"Who wants hot chocolate?"

Dad just came from the kitchen through the swinging door, where Mom no doubt was hard at work baking thirteen kinds of cookies.

"Yes, please."



"Of course."


"The tree looks nice."

Haley took it personally since she did all the important work.

"Thank you."

"Why don't you come help so your sister can finish."

"But I'm helping."

"Then you can help me. C'mon."

Haley stuck her tongue out at me; she was letting me know who's boss. I watched her butt the whole way into the kitchen, thinking about how much I'd like to kick it.

It was a couple of weeks since last I spent any time with Marcia. Being near her again made me realize what separation anxiety really felt like and I made sure to hold her hand while we walked across the parking lot. I had the feeling this was a pretty big deal since Mom was with us, too, though I wasn't sure why. I didn't really even know what we were doing, except that we were involved and it was happening tonight.

She and Mom talked for quite a while on the phone last night and I overheard just bits and pieces of the conversation since I was too busy playing in the bedroom. Whatever it was, Mom didn't seem too sure about it to hear her tone, but agreed. She drove since Marcia’s car seated just two.

The drive felt like forever, down twisty two lane roads overgrown with weeds and droopy trees. It was after dark when we arrived, the only lights from inside the building. Mom parked next to a station wagon with faux wood paneling. It made me think of the Vacation movie.

The room just inside the door was filled with coats and hats and gloves and boots of all sizes and colors. There was a narrow stairwell leading up and a short one down to a door with a sign stating it was for employees only. It had a small window that was blacked over, but I could see the light was on from one of the corners. Marcia placed her hand on my shoulder.

"Leave your shoes here."

We walked in our socks through a heavy metal door with no window down a short hallway into a large room filled with people. There was a small stage with a podium, a piano like the one at school off to one side. I saw men and women, old and young, fat and thin, kids my age and older and a couple that were just barely toddlers. The older woman at the piano reminded me of a bird with her oversized glasses and spindly features. Her smile was artificial.

"Welcome, everyone, welcome. So wonderful to see you here tonight."

Everyone stopped talking and turned to face the man on the stage. He was short, with a large stomach and matchstick legs. He was bald except for a strip of dark hair that started behind his ears and wrapped around the back of his head, tips curled up like pork rinds and just as greasy. His thin, wire-rimmed glasses gave him a Benjamin Franklin quality.

“I see we have some old faces and some new.”

His gaze fell on the little girl in a flower print dress a few feet from me. She was there with a man I assumed to be her father, his hands resting on her shoulders. She wore her hair in loose pigtails that hung down past her shoulders. She was probably half my age, with chubby cheeks and big eyes. She was still a baby.

I stood closer to Marcia than Mom, who was near the back of the congregation.

"So let me ask everyone here tonight--"

The Fat Man spread his arms open wide, a smile spreading over his face like spilled soda. His head dipped forward, perspiration at this temples, and pinched his eyes shut tight as they could. His arms began to shake, then his big belly, followed by his shoulders and his head, shaking, shuddering, grinning teeth and gums and sweaty little glasses, greasy curls bobbing.

"-- who wants JESUS to COME INTO YOUR LIFE."

The piano exploded with something between George Strait and the Jeffersons theme, the Bird Lady banging away like a soul possessed.

"Who wants JESUS to be in your HEART."

Several people shouted "AMEN" and I felt myself backing away, bumping into Marcia, and she ruffled my hair, bending down to give me a kiss on the cheek. I looked for Mom, but there were too many people, all shouting and dancing and humming words to a tune I'd never heard. The Fat Man swayed back and forth, arms wide, face glistening.


Several people up front fell to their knees, wind up toys tottering toward the podium. There were several couples dancing together, the men behind the women, and while the women shook, the men raised their arms and lowered them and moved their hands over the women's legs and bellies and chests and they all cried out for Jesus and other things of that nature. It looked a lot like the couples on HBO who ended up having sex to me, but what did I know. Marcia was there, right with me, and Mom somewhere close. I was, by all accounts, safe.

So why didn't it feel that way?

Everyone began to sing some song about Jesus and the Divine Light. Bird Lady played for all she was worth, grinning like an idiot, while people danced by themselves or with each other, some with their eyes closed, some clapping, a couple of the moms and even an older sister holding the ones too little to dance on their own while they moved their hips back and forth. When the song was over, Marcia squeezed my shoulders, whispering in my ear.

"Didn't that feel good?"

Fat Man put his hands on the podium. Solemn. Overcome.

"And we are gathered here tonight on this seventeenth day of December nineteen and eighty three exactly one WEEK before the birth of our Lord Jesus CHRIST."

People nodding, children looking bored.

"Christ the SAVIOR."

A few peppered amens.

"Christ the King."

Fat Man's chin dropped to his chest.

"Let us pray."

I closed one eye and used the other one to watch. I'd seen funerals on tv, and this was one of them. Fat Man was grinning when he finished.

"Show me the children of Christ our LORD."

The toddlers went first, then some older kids; the girl with the one too little to dance. A couple cried. Then Marcia nudged me forward and legs not my own, I began to approached the line formed in front of the stage. I stood between the big sister and the flower print girl, who gave me a tv star smile.

"Jesus loves me."

Mouth hemmed, I nodded. Why wouldn't he?

"Just as these young ones are gifts unto you, so are they gifts unto the Lord."

Fat Man's voice was but a whisper.

"The children, you see, I believe they are the future."

I looked for Mom in the crowd.

"We need to teach them well and-- let them lead the way."

I still couldn't find her. But Marcia was right there in front, riveted.

"We need to show them-- all the beauty they possess inside."

I felt someone's hand on my shoulder, something big and soft against my back.

"We need to-- give them a sense of pride."

Everyone was nodding, words on their lips; words I couldn't make out. Fat Man's belly rubbed against me and I felt bad inside. I wanted to run, but knew I'd never get far in socks on the waxed floor.

"Can you feel it? Can you feel the love?"

I looked at Big Sister. There was something weird about her: the way she stood, the clothes she wore, the way she was thin all over except for her stomach. The little boy she held looked just like her.

"Let us show the young ones here tonight what it is to know of love and divinity and Jesus son of the FATHER AMEN."

Marcia's statue smile was little comfort as I prayed it would be over soon.

Haley stroked my hair the way she used to, on the couch with my head in her lap. This time I was on the floor at her feet while she sat on the bed. There wasn't much left since Mom moved her things to the attic, and even though the floor was bare and most of the things that made it Haley's room gone, it felt pretty much the same.

The raindrops music box still hung on the wall by the door.

"Remember when I used to pull the string just to see you mad?"

Haley's hand stopped.

"Remember when you promised me you'd get rid of it?"

I frowned.

"I never promised to get rid of the--"

"Snoopy dog."



"Well, technically--"

"Don't give me that."

"Well, I did."

I shrugged and scooted away from the bed, wrapping my arms around my knees.

"You did what you wanted."

"YOU never told me what would happen."

"I told you what wouldn't happen."

"It's not the same thing."

"Don't get smart with me."

I let out a sigh.

"Do we have to argue?"

"Only if you keep it up."

"But they're gone."

"Why do you care?"

I turned to look at her, face pale underneath all the hair.

"Marcia loved me."

"The only thing she loved is between your legs."


"I can do it again you know."

"Screw it up you mean?"


"NO. Fix it. Make it work. So I can have you back."

Haley's face wasn't convinced. I can’t say I was either.

Uncle Meldrick was just three shots in a new bottle when he brought out the playing cards. These weren’t brand new like the ones I was used to playing with, but old, worn, broken in. He shuffled them with skill and for a long time, splitting the deck several ways. I liked the way the cards sounded slapping together all fast. I used to make the same sound flipping through the unabridged dictionary at home, which usually got me yelled at.

Once he finished, Uncle Meldrick dealt all the cards between us and proceeded to arrange his cards in a stack face down. I mimicked him and once I was done, he took another drink.

“Ever play War?”

I made my why kind of question is that face. There wasn’t a kid my age who didn’t know how; Dad taught me once he got tired of playing Go Fish. While I didn’t play all that many games of cards, when it came to War, I could hold my own.

“Sure. Bunch of times.”


He slapped the first card down -- a ten of club. Mine was a two of hearts, and since he won, Uncle Meldrick took the cards and added them to his pile. He won the next two rounds without blinking.

“War isn’t just a game of chance.”

I slapped down a jack of diamonds. His was a seven.

“One of luck.”

“It isn’t?”

Uncle Mel shook his head as he laid out another card. A king.

"It’s about knowing where your men are even when you can’t see them.”

I looked at my pile of cards, perhaps half the size of Uncle Mel’s. In all the times I’d played, I’d never really put that much thought into it. I really only paid enough attention to make sure I knew who won each round. Most of the time it took forever and I ended up bored; a few I even gave up up before with finishing.

“Think of the king as your general.”

I gave him a funny look.

“But that’s not the highest card. The ace is.”

“Aha. And it’s the ace’s job to protect the king.”


“It’s the only card that can beat him.”

I nodded to myself; it sort of made sense.

“If you want to win, you need to not only have all the aces, but know where they are.”

“But what if we each put down an ace and have to fight for it?”

He gave me a little smirk.

“Make sure you bring the right backup.”

Uncle Meldrick won that game in record time; the next two even faster. I quickly grew bored with losing and after the fourth game, I decided it was time to throw in the towel.

“I give up.”

Uncle Mel rubbed the bridge of his nose with a thumb and forefinger.

“You give up you’re dead.”


“Life is a lot like War, Whisker. Sometimes you win, others you don’t. But you can do things that make sure you win more than you lose. Giving up doesn’t even enter into it. Giving up means you stop living.”

I considered this, looking Uncle Mel square.

“I haven’t given up.”

Uncle Meldrick screwed the cap back on the bottle and put it on the floor under the table.

“Neither have I.”

I sat by myself on Christmas Eve, alone in the bedroom, wanting desperately for it to be tomorrow morning and doing none of the things I had every one before. No building a fire in the fireplace nor sneaking just frosted cookies from the kitchen. I didn't beg to open just one present early as become tradition. There were no fights over what to watch with Mom, groans when Dad brought out his guitar to sing John Denver nor any of my usual grade school antics. Instead, I waited, hoping what little magic was left in such a hallowed day would bring that which I most desired, make the impossible possible.

What was supposed to happen three days ago.

For some reason I didn't dare ask Mom why it hadn't happened. There was something about the way she moved around the house the past few days, the way she cleaned, the things she said, not to me, but just in general that gave me an impression it wasn't a subject she'd take easy. I even saw her crying in the bedroom with the door open but a crack, but I never asked what's wrong. That was Dad's job. When he was home.

So caught up was I in my reverie, I didn't see Mom in the doorway until she cleared her throat. It was a thing she did when she wanted someone's-- anyone's-- attention for as long as it took to look her way and wonder what's wrong. After that brief moment, it was gone; replaced with indifference. It was a game she played, so much and for so long it was akin to reflex; her way of saying she's here, should anyone still care. It was the most a sad woman could ask for help in a world where there was none to give; one tailored for a specific condition of misery, built of stuff stronger than brick or steel. It's a world I saw on an every day basis, but the walls were still far enough away they blended in with the hills and the trees to the point they looked like they belonged. I'd spent half my life doing the same thing. Then I wondered how long it was for Mom.

"There's still some cookies out there."

She sat next to me on the bed, rubbing my back through my shirt. For once it wasn't perfunctory.

"Not hungry."

Second stomach lodged its protest with a gurgle.

"Well, they'll be there if you change your mind."

I nodded. It wouldn't be me changing it.

"She's not coming, is she?"

Mom inhaled long and slow, a drawn out, ominous thing I equated to that of dragons; the ones that preceeded a face full of fire. Mom's words were small.

"Not this year."

Nor any other.

"What about Santa? Can't he bring her?"

"I don't think there's enough room in his sleigh."

"She could ride one of the reindeer."

A choked up laugh from Mom quickly strangled.


We sat there quiet with the wind blowing outside for company. It gave me a chill.

"What about Dad?"

Mom's body tensed.

"He'll be here."

With that, she rose and headed out purposeful. A moment later she paused in the doorway, clearing her throat. Once I'd summoned up the guts, my voice cracked.

"I miss her."

Mom wouldn't look at me; looking at me meant it was true. She left without a word.

Haley's breath was the wind outside in my ear. Slender fingers through my hair left rivulets of ice down the back of my neck. It was how she showed me she still loved me, such a calculated despair. Bit by bit, piece by piece, the important parts inside me withered black, kissed their goodbyes, and I crawled inside the space they left behind where she draped me with a shroud of my skin. I felt her shushes shrivel my tears to stones, heard the windchime tinkle as they fell. I shuddered, from cold or grief I could not tell.

My words were sand.

"She lied."

Haley's came out pulverized.

"Told you."
AlmostDear Haley,

This isn't the letter I want to write. I want it to be the one that says things are good at home and at school, I'm keeping myself out of trouble and I can't wait for the weather to get warm again. I want it to show you how good I feel, how happy I am, so you can be happy for me. That's what letters are supposed to do.

I am none of these things. It's my fault you can't come back, my fault I haven't kept my promise. My fault you're miserable.

I'm miserable too. And I'm sorry I--

I crumpled up the pice of paper and threw it across the room, where it bounced off the wall and landed near my shoes. Since it was the letter I didn't want to write, it was better left unwritten. I'm pretty sure Haley knew how I felt even if she wouldn't admit it. It wasn't a relationship of shared feelings with us, but they were understood. At least, I thought they were. It's complicated.

After the first of the year, there was snow. It was light, the powdery kind and grew in intensity over several days. By the second week of January, the ground and trees were covered and everything looked like pillows, adding an illusion of softness. But, like life, it only hid what lay underneath; things better left that way. I spent a lot of my free time outside where things were simpler. The walls were still far enough out on the horizon they were easy to ignore.

Grandma and Grandpa Schiller lived just off the interstate, on one of the two intersecting roads that dead ended at the same field. One end was the creek that ran behind the house, the other at a pile of rocks and leftover concrete. There was a small outcrop of trees behind it, which gave just enough shade to make it a good place to waste a summer afternoon hunting snakes. It sat past the gravel driveway that led to a kid named Jack's house; he was a couple years older than me, went to the public grade school. Now it was a giant pile of half melted and refrozen snow and ice, a fortress of quasi linear wonder to my mind and a death trap to Mom's. She forbade me to play there, but what I did outside in the snow was for me to know as long as I came back safe and sound.

I walked along the edge of the road where the snow mixed with stones. I listened to the crunches under my shoes and thought of cereal. The air was cold, dry. My eyes filled with tears to keep them wet. I wore a hat when Mom told me even though my hair stood up stupid when I took it off. Someone might see. Someone might understand how strange I was to look so different from everyone else; the way people did when they were foolish and weak. Physically? I was a number two pencil, a wildflower. Still, there were things I'd seen, felt, been party to that could melt mountains. There must be some way of measuring such things in the eyes of a stranger.

The tears froze halfway down my cheeks: my memory of Haley. No smiles, no stolen candy bars, no warm goodbyes.

Nothing soft was left.

The space under my mattress was running out.

Unlike at home, Mom couldn't clean all the things she wanted to at Grandma and Grandpa's and that made her surly. Grandma put up with it for about a week before she told Mom to just sit down and relax, but cleaning was the part of Mom's routine that had to happen or bad things might. What kind of bad things? It was anyone's guess. Maybe if I cleaned more it would make things so Bedbugs and Someone Else's Stockings never happened, but that was ridiculous. There was life, the things you dreamed, and profound forever evil like the snoopy dog. Everything else was fiction.

Still, it meant I had a semi safe place to put things I didn't want anyone else to see. It's where I stashed my bad grades, pictures of girls I drew in various states of undress, half eaten candy and other sundry pants pocket fill at one end and what I got from Santa at the other. To my credit, it was an expert tactic in that it hadn't moved since I put it there. I checked it every night before I went to sleep, slipping my hand into the crevice until I felt the cool, polished skin, fully anticipating a bloody stump upon withdrawal. I think it was, in its own way, happy to be there. So close to me. Maybe it was once a little boy too.

The past Christmas was an exercise in pinpoint focus on a poorly constructed lie. A trimmed plastic tree, naught for lights except over the archway going from the living room into the abrupt foyer and, most disheartening, not at home, made for poor celebration. Everyone opened presents as might hobos picking through yet another tin of beans. Great gifts became common, good ones dismissed. Socks and underwear and ties went out with the garbage. There was nothing of cheer. Aunt Ky and Uncle Gerry both stopped in, but didn't stay. There was only enough oxygen for those of us with the forethought to order ahead.

I made the mistake of mentioning Haley; you could frost a cake with the tension. Mom made a noise caught between a cough and a sneeze and went to the kitchen. Grandma was there, too; where it was safe. Once it was done-- the damage, that is-- I traipsed up to my bedroom to accept defeat. It wasn't a story for children though there were none present. The sun slithered through the blinds and cast itself upon the floor, a beached whale. The door wasn't as I left it.

There was something other than the bed on it. A box. It was wide but not tall, wrapped by a strung out addict's hand. The paper was colors, cartoons, wrinkles, wreckage; one corner crumpled in on itself, what's left of a ribbon holding everything in. The writing on the tag felt like a threat.

To: Little Boy
From: Santa

I was talked into opening it. No. Compelled to. It wasn’t curiosity or desire or greed that made me do it. I don’t think there’s a name for it, really. I’ll call it an accident.

There are no accidents.

The paper came off a patch of dead skin, revealing a box like the ones they used at Woolworth’s. I’m not sure how I even knew seeing as it was a plain and white. It smelled just enough of roasted nuts to feel like a yesterday. When I pulled the top off I didn’t cry or yell or run away. I sat down, like a man, picked it up, felt it in my hands, against my flesh.

It wanted to love me.

I’d never really noticed how it wasn’t so much white as pearl. Scrimshaw. There was the tiniest crack in the cap, the dark pleather scuffed café au lait in spots, worn down along the edges. Smoothe all over. Curves that defied time. A beautiful girl’s body. It felt so right against me I couldn’t fathom wrong. Half the world just washed away.

I slipped it under the end of the mattress closest to the door, where it could sleep.

And dream little doggie dreams.

I’m not sure when Mom decided to start smoking, but I remember the day I found out. It was insufferably hot for the end of March, almost shorts weather, and I left my jacket at home. Mom insisted I wear something long sleeved so I didn’t catch cold, but the only thing I had any real threat of catching was Mom’s ire. I don’t know if she woke up on the wrong side of the bed or what, but she’d been on a tear the whole morning and once she’d laid sufficient waste to the house, she set her sights on me.

“It’s too hot.”

“Don’t you dare open that window.”

“I’m sweating.”

“Well don’t sweat in those clean clothes and get them all smelly.”

“But I don’t stink when I sweat.”

“Everyone stinks when they sweat. You’re just too young to notice.”

"Do you stink when you sweat?"

Mom shot me a look. I was treading on thin ice.

"Women don't sweat. Get in the car."

We had errands to run, Mom and I. Really, it was just part of the routine. She needed someone to be there with her, see all the wrong, bear witness.

Even a little liar like me.

The Chevette didn't leave much room for, well, anything. I asked to sit up front.

"Wear your seatbelt. Last thing I need is some cop pulling us over."

There was something in the air that day. Maybe it was just the heat making people's brains a little crazy, making them see things, feel things that were only sort of there. That's how it was for me, anyway.

"Can I roll the window down?"

Mom's mouth strapped on steel toed boots.

"Just a crack. It's still winter."

I put my hand on the crank, wrapped my fingers around the handle, and rolled it counterclockwise. Halfway through the third revolution it fell on the floor and I had an epiphany of personal harm.



"Uhh. The window."

"What? What about it?"

"I think I broke it."

It was a feeble old man noise she made.


I held the broken handle up and she snatched it away, looked at it like it might start breathing again.


It was a valid question, one I sometimes asked myself. So far, I couldn't come up with much that didn't tailspin into academic fantasy. If I had too many muscles, there'd be a tv show about it. If my brains were popping out my ears, I might get to work at some university developing military weapons. As it was, I was just some boy with a disproportionate amount of personal trauma. I suppose it's only natural it would find its way out, if unintentionally. There were no such things as accidents, only actions and reactions. I felt bad for the window crank. It didn't put up much of a fight.

She put the crank in the console and rummaged through her purse, one hand on the wheel, cursing without passion. I inventoried the words, reviewed the meanings, mentally bookmarked their associations. Each one of them had a special place and when I looked at Mom I saw them as name tags on her face, her arms and chest, legs and stomach. They were who she was, while I was what she pointed them at. It was its own kind of love, a giving of herself to me, except it was sometimes the kind of love people didn't want, the forced upon them kind. Sometimes I had trouble telling the difference. Sometimes not being able to tell made me feel stupid. Sometimes I couldn't feel the love at all.

Mom calmed herself down enough to pray.

"You're just lucky I don't drink."

She slipped the cigarette between her lips and lunged for the car lighter under the panel that explained how to make the car warm. We didn't need any help with that. The first curls of smoke were yellow, banana balloons, then white like Santa's beard. A thousand lifetimes of snow. The smell made me cough.

"You hadn't broken it, I'd let you roll that window down some more."

Thanks, Mom.

We rolled into town, heading for the grocery store. It was close to the edge, with a bowling alley at the back of the parking lot. Dad told me they used to live in a house right next to it, but that was before I was born. Haley's favorite thing was to tell me about what happened before I was born, maybe to make me feel sorry for missing it. It wasn't meant to be mean, it's just how she was, and I loved her anyway. Even so, it worked. I missed all the things I didn't know happened.

Mom lit another cigarette like it was a competition. It was her third since we left Grandma and Grandpa's and though it was all I could smell, it became like the trees and houses that went by.
West Whitney Avenue had a way of going from pleasant to spooky in the width of a cross street. I had an idea what street that was, but it didn’t much matter since the unfortunate fact was our grocery store lived on the spooky part.

Mom flipped the turn signal and waited for a pickup to pass before she went. She was most of the way through the turn when the other car darted out from behind a station wagon, clipping our front driver’s side corner. Both cars stopped, Mom’s face a wreck of its own. I didn’t want to move, taking in the silence. It was lovely.

A car door. Then another. Mom got out and I followed suit, walking around the front to survey the damage. It wasn’t bad, to my mind, but my only comparison was from tv and movies, where crashes normally resolved with an explosion. The headlight was cracked, signal light smashed, a rumpled fender and a cool purple streak of paint left behind; a tattoo. I traced it with my finger until Mom smacked my hand away.

“Don’t touch that.”

The other driver was a woman younger than Mom, but you wouldn’t know it to look at her. She was thin, somewhat tall, withdrawn. Her dark hair fell to her shoulders, limp and mousy. Her eyes were dull and glassy, convalescent. She looked like she needed something. Sleep. A hug. A way out. Mom hugged the woman with her mouth.

“Jesus, did you even look?”

The woman’s reaction was careful.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say.”

It was an honest mistake.

“I have a kid in the car. He could have been killed.”

“I thought it was clear.”

“Well it most certainly wasn’t. You’re lucky he’s okay. You’re okay, aren’t you?”

I nodded, hands in my pockets. My body was fine.

“Can we just-- forget it? I’ll give you money.”

This seemed to trip some internal switch for Mom. Her eyes flashed, a pinball table.

“Money isn’t the issue. The car can be fixed. What you did was--”

I faded Mom to static, a car starting, a dog barking halfway down the block. There were birds and I concentrated on them, watched them fly across the lot, over the houses across the street, into the future.

“Your mom’s kind of a bitch.”

Spoken like an expert.

She was right next to me, just a bit taller but built the same. Her hair was dark like the woman in the car, off her shoulders but past her ears. Full. I saw red in there, underneath loose curls;undulating, controlled flames. The way she was turned I couldn’t see much of her face, but the sun was pretty bright for winter.

“Yeah. She’s having a day.”

“I’ve seen you before. Next door.”

I could only imagine what that meant.

“Next door?”

“At Yanya’s. You know, on Henna.”

“I live on Henna.”

“Duh. That’s what I mean.”

“Sorry. Yeah, okay.”

She was waiting; it was in the way she stood there.


“Umm, what?”

She faced me, rolling her eyes to tell me I was being obtuse. I watched the way they danced over round cheeks, a perfect little mouth smiling diamonds. They were green, but deep, like a Christmas tree. There were things in there I wanted to find, protected things, hidden around short corners at the tips of my fingers.

She kicked my knee.


“Did you see me too?”

“You kicked me.”

“You deserved it.”

I rubbed the spot through my jeans and felt the warmth spreading through my leg. It wasn’t the bad kind. I considered her question, knew the answer, and decided to give her a different one. One that wouldn’t end with another kick.

“Yeah. I think so.”

Her face was fireworks.

“Really? When?”

Shit. This was getting sticky.


She looked into me, didn’t mind what she saw; maybe even liked it. My clothes felt thin.

“Well, the one day, I guess. When you were outside.”

It was probably true.

“What was I wearing?”

I was in so much trouble.

“You know. Shorts.”

“What else?”

“A tee shirt?”

“The one with the puppy?”

“I dunno. Yes.”

“That one’s my favorite. I wanted to wear it today but it’s got ketchup on it.”


Her shoulders were up, almost to her ears, cheeks flushed. She twisted, hugging herself almost. Happiness.

I made her happy.

“Do you have a name?”

I have a hundred: Pest. Shit. Goddam You.

“I’m Whisker.”

Something twinkled in her eye. A birthday card.

“Like a kitty cat?”


“Hey Whisker Like a Kitty Cat.”

A smile forced its way out.



It was Mom. All caps meant it was time to leave.

“I gotta go.”

“Okay. Bye.”

She turned and skipped back to her mom who was standing next to their purple car. It was a Gremlin. Mom made me get back in and buckle up before she turned the car on. The engine made a racket before it settled into its usual four cylinder chug. The little black car that could.

Something itched in the back of my head as we started to pull away, something under the skull. It felt like I was forgetting something the way it dug around in there. I watched out the window, saw the mom opening the car door, looked for the girl who was nearby. Then it hit me.

I didn't get her name.

I went to roll down the window but my hand felt door. Broken. I pawed at the window, put my nose to the crack in the window like a canine. I saw her wave as we passed by, saw the little bumps under her sun white shirt, finally read the letters. I hadn’t seen them under the rainbow, stitched into a cartoon cloud, but the name rolled over silent lips and all down the front of me as we passed.


We sat across from one another at the kitchen table, eyeing each other up. I didn’t like his haircut, the way he smiled. Taking into account his funny polo shirt -- a frog with a sombrero over the left breast-- didn’t help either. Everything about him screamed used car salesman, but Dr Benjamin Coker spent all day appraising used brains.

“How are you feeling today, Whisker?”

“Umm, tired mostly.”

“Would you say you’ve been getting enough sleep?”

I shrugged.

“I guess so.”

“What about school?”

“What about it?”

“How are things going with your classes?”


“And your friends?”

“Brett’s fine. We play a lot of Star Wars.”

“What about your other friends?”

“There, umm. There aren’t any.”

“I see. Would you say Brett is your best friend?”

“Yeah, I guess so. It used to be Chaz.”

“Used to be?”

“We had a, umm, fight. We don’t talk anymore.”

Ben wrote something down, then looked at me, smiling.

“Tell me about Chaz.”

My mouth was an asterisk and I shook my head. Ben made this little noise that sounded like “mmm hmm”. It was this thing he did.

“So you told me you were friends and that you had a fight. What else can you tell me?”

“His mom died.”

“And how does that make you feel?”

Ugly inside.

“I dunno.”

“Do you ever think about it?”

Whenever I’m awake.


“And what do you think about?”

“Stuff. Umm, how sad he is I guess. And angry.”

More writing.

“Anything else?”

“What happened.”

“What do you mean?”

“What happened when she, umm-- died.”


“Can you be more specific?”

“I dunno. What parts she hurt, I guess.”

“The injuries she suffered?”

I thought long and hard on that one, wanting to be sure I got it right.

“Where the blood came out.”

I could think of a hundred things I’d rather be doing than standing in the bathroom with the door shut. I already did my business and it smelled like it, but Kalliope insisted it was important, something I needed to stay for. She stood in the back of the bathtub, behind the edge of the sliding glass door, with the fingers of one hand curled around the edge like she might jump out at any moment. The mirror started to fog at the corners even though it wasn’t any warmer in there than the rest of the house. I watched Kalliope in the reflection: a long bunch of blonde hair and the rusty eye, the marks on her neck that ran over the line of her jaw angry bright.

Grandpa was there, in just his pajama bottoms. They were a faded green checkered affair, worn and loose at the waistband, the ties frayed at the ends. They’d been through the war, those pajamas, the kind fought on the homefront; I could almost taste the arguments, inappropriate touches and beer piss. He muttered things to himself.

“Goodfernothin stinkin whores.”

There was lather on his face, thick and marshmallowed. I didn't get to see him much without his glasses and I never noticed how small his eyes were; little ones, hard and dark like marbles. The razor sat on the edge of the sink near his hand while he studied himself, moving his lower face around the jaw. I saw the things in his heart through the reflection; dark, squirming things. Things without compunction. Things I saw in me.

Grandpa's words wound up like a car wreck.

"Which oneayou thievin shits TOOK MY GODDAM COMB."

He leaned over the sink, heaving, arms of lumber. His breath became the steam and with it filled the room until all that was left was his shadow. Something grabbed my collar, pulling me back, and I nearly fell into the tub. Scrambling, arms and hands a search party, cold fingers over the mouth clipping my shout. Kalliope's face was next to mine, a second head, the one with enough sense to stay hidden. Her lips tickled my ear and an exhaled syllable slithered down the hole.


I moved my head to let her know I understood, felt familiar parts of her against my back. My eyes were wide and I watched, waited. Inhale. Exhale. Great, billowing, seething oaths. I could hear my heart beating with them, urging them on. The door slid open with a shush.

Kalliope hovered into the room, eyes wide, mouth hyphenated. Her hair was almost to her waist, long and straight, a bright blue comb in her hand offered up like some ancient sacrifice. The door slammed behind her without anyone touching it. Then Grandpa turned, but a hair, and snatched the thing from her grasp. He began to comb.

“Told you this weren't to be touched.”

Kalliope looked at the floor.

“I could not find my brush.”

“Ain’t my fault your head don’t screw on right.”

Her face made more punctuation.

“I am just--”

Grandpa looked at her sidelong.

“Just what.”

I could feel the words clogging her throat. Dead leaves. Oatmeal. Hair in the drain.

“I am slow. It is what Momma says.”

Grandpa’s mouth hinked.

“Your momma made you that way.”

“No. I-- I’m slow. I am not s-stupid.”


Grandpa put down the comb and took up the razor, drawing the first plow.

“I suppose that doctor was wrong, you bein the expert and all.”

Her hands went into fits as her sides.


“One that came to the house. Way back when.”

“I do not r-remember.”

“Guess you wouldn’t.”

Grandpa’s razor clanked on the edge of the sink, foam splattering. He started on the other cheek.

“Don’t really matter none long as you act a lady.”

Another clank. Only neck and chin remained. Kalliope looked everywhere, eyes bouncing, but all the exits were walls. I could taste it, her desperation. It tasted like chocolate.

“Shit’s all a sudden sideways with you, girl.”

One stroke up the neck.


“Forget your damn name it weren’t stitched on your collar.”

Another stroke.


“Work all day with the mutts and them half nigger whatsits always sittin around with the cigarettes and dice on the goddam clock.”


“And for what? Come home to beer turned warm and supper gone cold.”


“Can’t even get this cock sucked without knockin around that mom a yours.”

Grandpa’s face was a lemon, squinting eyes the seeds. The last stroke caught on the curve of his jaw, drew blood.

“Mother FUCK.”

The razor landed in the basin, a bright red scar behind it. It looked like a fish gill flapping on his neck before he clamped his hand down on it, grabbing a towel mere inches from where I cowered in the clutches of a different monster. She pulled me back further, lips all over my face. They felt like snake skins.

I tried to see the other Kalliope, the one in trouble. She backed away, the way a statue might; her heart was in it but nothing else. Grandpa’s voice spat a porcupine.

“Lookit YOU MADE ME DO.”

He grabbed her under the chin, pinching her mouth open, head bobbing goosey. He just held her like that, but she didn’t struggle so much as teeter; an almost suicide half off the straight back chair. I held my breath even though I was out of practice. I hoped it would make things better, or at least make them go away. I tried to ignore the hands all over me, rough lips, little girl sighs. My spine felt like a creepy crawly.

Grandpa released his daughter and she windmilled into the door, fell, arms and legs jumbled up every which way. Only her face was composed. A mask. I tried to see what wriggled underneath, but it was too far down, too far to dig.

"Breaks my heart how much a your momma's in that face."

He started toward her.

"And next to nothin a me."

She pulled her legs up, compacting.

"Almost as if--"

He pawed at the drawstring, loosened the waist.

"As if you ain't even mine. Heh."

I watched through the mirror, whispers seeping into my pores while grunts buffeted my eardrums. This was no Bedbugs. This was something I couldn't find a name for, something better left in a hole a hundred miles away. Covered with dirt. With buildings.

When he finished, Grandpa stood over her, glistening like some profane athlete, the spot on his neck a leftover kiss that spoke nothing of love. He went back to the sink, opened the cabinet; all the little bottles and tubes and implements. He reached for the top, took it from the shelf and unscrewed the cap. I shuddered when it upended. Splash.


He patted his face and neck and chest, rubbed them. Massaged them. Cool hands mimicked the same on me. Then he put it down, sucked in his breath seeing his kiss in the mirror. It was a bottle. White. Slim. A little dog.

A smiling little snoopy dog.

The rumbling in my ears was from oceans falling. Hurling. Slapping me down. The bathtub became a tomb: my forever hiding place. Still, she who was with me held me tight, promised. Made me see.


A crooked girl hand. Reaching. Grasping.

Grandpa smiled in the mirror, appraising his reflection. Testing the weight. The purity. The girl hand fluttered over the vanity, knocked away the comb. Smack.


Grandpa turned as the dog bottle crashed over the side, glugged liquid nightmare. Kalliope's mouth split wide in triumph before his hands closed around her neck. Shaking.

The line of her nose. Wisps of blonde hair.

And an eye once blue rimmed red gasped murder, and transformed.

Into a tiny orange sun.

It wasn’t the first time I’d wet the bed, but I sure hoped it was the last. It hurt a little bit extra because it was at Marcia’s and even though she just laughed and told me it was no trouble as she put the blanket with my clothes in the washer and scrubbed the spot on the couch with a bristle brush, I knew I’d done something irreversible. Something I might not ever make right.

Marcia was worried I might be sick, and that scared me even more so I told her I had a big glass of water before I went to sleep and that must have been what did it. She didn’t seem so sure, but I promised not to drink anything before bed from then on and that seemed to do the trick. It was a tiny lie, even though a part of me figured it could be true. We’d done a fair amount of that between us of late, between the secrets we kept from Mom and Dad and trying to comfort each other. I tried to tell her about other things, but it mostly just ended with us praying together. Right before the kisses and fondling. It became its own sort of ritual. It got so I tried to admit things just to get to the other parts, like eating my vegetables to I could have dessert. If she knew, she didn’t seem to mind.

After the incident, Marcia led me to the bathroom so I could make myself clean. She ran the water the way I liked-- not too hot-- and got out her own special wash cloth. When the robe fell away and she climbed into the tub behind me, it felt like the way things should be. I spent a lot of time doing things that I didn’t want to, went against what I thought was right. Being with Marcia in the tub while she scrubbed me clean was so far away from that I had trouble putting it in perspective. She felt good with me there, between her legs, against her body. Natural. Maybe I was meant to be there.

She toweled me off when we were done, even let me do the same for her. It took a long time, but I wanted to make sure I did it right. I might have lingered over certain parts, but I couldn’t be roasted on the spit for exercising diligence. She giggled a lot, said I was tickling even though I wasn’t; at first. The power of suggestion. I had a change of clothes, but they were down in the basement, so I ran out of the bathroom in my birthday suit. It felt good, free. I wanted to be like that all the time, like Mickey in the Night Kitchen. Marcia called for me, but didn’t immediately give chase. I imagined myself as like the girl in the Rio video. Desired. Pursued.

I had my underwear and one sock on by the time Marcia found me. She had her hair pulled up, wore her favorite robe-- a pink, silky thing-- white panties peeking from the vee it made under her belt.

“There you are.”

There I was.

She knelt down beside me, put her hands on me, turned me toward her, weighed me solemn.

“I want you to come with me to see Pastor Raoul. Just you and me.”

Who's Pastor Raoul?

“Okay. When?”

Marcia’s face got smaller. She was thinking.

“Well, the next service won’t be until Wednesday. I guess it will have to be then.”

I thought it over.

“If you want me to.”

She gripped my arms, made my back straight.

“Oh I do. I really do.”



I felt the question coming. It waited in line for quite some time.

“Do you-- like it?”

Her eyes glimmered.

“Like what, honey?”

“When we’re, you know. Like this.”

“Together you mean?”

“Alone together. So we can be like we’re married.”

“You know I do.”

“Do you like the way I feel?”

The smile admitted more than I’d hoped.

“I do. You’re magnificent.”

“I like how you feel too.”

Giggles. A little girl again.

“Can we?”

Her bottom lip stuck to its sister for a second before it fell away and a soft, pink tongue brushed it moist. I knew what that felt like. It was all I ever wanted to feel again.

“I think we can. Now sit on the couch so you can watch.”

She made a show of it, revealing herself to me. And while she didn't have far to go, it was done in such a way it took just long enough to make me squirm. It felt like something she'd done before, practiced, and made me glad I was in just my Underoos. If I'd had real clothes on I might be frustrated past the ability to do things for myself. Maybe that was the point. One of them, anyway.

When she finished, she sat next to me on the couch, putting her hand on the small of my back. She left the robe on, open, leaving some of the work for me. My hand hovered over the edge where it formed the curve over her breast. That's when she put her hand on my wrist.

"We have to decide."

I was still trying I liked them both so much. She shook my hand, once, moved so her eyes could see into mine.

"What to call it?"

"Umm, huh?"

"So your Mom and Dad won't make us stop?"

"Does it need a name?"

Her eyes were liquid. Her face was earnest.

"Oh yes. Every love needs a name. Especially one as strong and deep as ours."

It made sense. About as much as anything could in my condition. I searched through the fog, remembered things.

"I, umm, well. I sometimes call it Someone Else's Stockings. In my head."

Marcia's smile was quick, meant to be reassuring, but it said something different. It said I wasn't scoring so well.

"That's nice, honey, but I was thinking it should be more, you know, happy sounding."

"Like how?"

"My youngest used to call it pizza party, but he's just about grown up now."

Pizza party. I liked pizza.

"So you want to call it pizza party?"

A quick shake of her head. One two.

"We need a name for just us. Only we share."

I drew a blank. This was algebra, missile science. Too much and too hard.

"Let me give you some help."

She pulled her robe aside, placed my hand on her breast like she'd done before, and I became awash with need, fevered and fitful. I moved my hand like she showed me, massaged the nipple with my palm until it made diamonds seem like marshmallows. It's what I thought about when it was supposed to be numbers with decimals. Action and linking verbs.

I made all kinds of verbs.

"How does that feel, sweetie?"



"What else?"



"HOW does it make you feel? WHAT does it make you think of?"

All kinds of things. Late nights watching HBO. Mrs. Switt's daughter, Kimberlea. That time in the woods with Bashika even though it was scary too. Even Someone Else's Stockings. Even though I didn't want to think about that.

"Good things. Things I like."

"Like what?"

"The first time-- you know."

Marcia's cheeks flushed. She was still a little girl.

"What else."

"Star Wars."



"What kind of dessert?"

I thought of the watermelon roll she got me special. Chocolate chip seeds.

"Ice cream cake."

Marcia's eye lit up, lips made ready to receive.

"Ice cream and cake. Perfect."

She smiled, this time approving, and moved my hand away so she could kiss it.

"We'll call it ice cream and--"

"Marcia? WHISKER."

Mom. Marcia shot up from the couch, pulled her robe together, tying crazy with one hand. Her voice was hushed, frantic.

"Stay there. Stay. Right. There. Don't move. I'll be right back."

She hurried across the room, a funny, straight legged prance, to the short steps. She turned to me just before she went up, shaking, mouthing something. All kinds of words. The same thing maybe three times.


I couldn't tell what she meant, but it made me want to smile. Maybe even laugh. Marcia was funny. One more thing we kept just between us. I did what she said and stayed put. Even though my between my legs place felt like a headache.

I heard them talking upstairs and that wasn't unusual. Mom was early, by maybe two hours. I tried to think if there was anything special I had to do that day, but couldn't figure it out. I was a little angry the way she barged in when I was so close. Maybe I'd tell her on the car ride home about the mother/girlfriend puzzle, about how I figured it out, and how I loved Marcia and Marcia loved me and that's just how things were going to be.

They were close to the stairs.

"-- know how it is, but he was a perfect angel."

"I should hope so. He's always so well behaved with you. I wish I could say the same when he's at home."

Mom came down the steps, stopped halfway, stared at me. The words made me jump.

"WHISKER. Where are your clothes?"

My pants and shirt and one sock were on the couch nearby and I grabbed them, holding them up so she could see. All here. No harm done.

"Put those on this instant. Marcia? What's going on?"

Marcia stayed at the edge of the kitchen. I could see just her feet. I heard the way her words quavered.

"Whisker had a little accident, but he's f-fine. I put his clothes in the laundry."

"But why isn't he dressed? It's two o'clock in the afternoon."

"He took a long bath. I think he fell asleep. He was in there quite a while."

"You left him in there alone? Why weren't his clothes with him?"

"I- I guess he just forgot. I didn't want to make him feel uncomfortable."

Mom closed the gap between us, held my shirt while I put my pants and sock on. Handed it to me when I was done. Mom was having a day.

"What you should be worried about, Marcia, is making me uncomfortable."

Marcia was in the room now, by the stairs, legs pinched together. She looked afraid, small. She looked like a little girl.

"I'm sorry, Kathryn. It was a mistake."

"You're damn right it was."

When I finished putting my shoes on, Mom took my hand none too gentle and marched us across the room, up the stairs, to the front door. Marcia followed behind, stopping and starting, pleading. Mom pushed me out the front door, forgot to get my clothes from the dryer. She turned to Marcia.

"Don't call me, I'll call you."

I stole a quick glance at Marcia, saw how the mascara pooled under her eyes, made them blurry. She tottered inside the front door, cracked open enough I caught a peek of the vee between her legs. Dark, swirling hair. She smiled, waved, tried to get my attention as I climbed into the car, put my seatbelt on, adjusted myself.

Mom shot out of the driveway and tore down the road while I tugged mutely at the front of my pants. She was halfway past the sign when the car finally stopped, but there weren't any cars coming. Lucky for us.

Unlucky for me, my between the legs place still hurt.

I was holding it when she came to me, from the corner where stood a plastic plant Mom still watered. She pulled the hair back from my face, curled it over the lip of my ear, sighed. I could hear the way her tongue poked at the hole where the tooth used to be, where the barb moved in, a tiny snake fang. It’s the only place she touched me; she wasn’t like the other one. She understood boundaries.

“It wants to stay.”

“Well it can’t.”

“It asked nice.”

“It doesn’t know the meaning.”


“We don’t have time for this.”

Her hand was a one of those tools used to core an apple the way it went through my back, grasped the place where my heart was and held it like a baby bird fallen fresh from the nest. I listened for the chirp while my arms and legs and everything else fitted. Cold. Intense, relentless cold. I’d died before, but never like this. Never having felt such abandon. When she pulled out, I collapsed against the bed.

“Now you know.”

My teeth clacked together, wind up plastic dentures.


“It lasts forever, little brother. And it’s always tomorrow.”

Warmth returned, fingers and toes first. My words were little frogs.

“I l-love you. M-miss you.”

Haley’s look became stone.

“Show me.”

Haley followed me to the basement, down the creaky, shuddering steps. It was dark but I knew where the light was and ran to it before anything worse could get me. The naked bulb flickered, blinked, and blazed to life, casting light into everything but the farthest end. I caught a glimpse of her out of the corner of my eye, remembered when she told me that’s where she lived when she couldn’t be with me. It was the same clothes from in the bathroom, eye glowing like a cigar butt. She was too tired to move after having been up all night playing with me, but she’d come again.

She always did.

Haley ignored her while I rummaged through Grandpa’s things. He had all kinds of tools and other junk down there along with Grandma’s stuff she painted on a table in the middle of the room. The washer and dryer were there, a stand up shower with a plastic curtain to one side. The freezer where they kept the extra meat and ice cream. Fruit pops. This wasn't it.

I pushed on the door that led to the room before the garage and a gust of cold air knocked me back. The one at the other end was closed, but still felt a breeze. It was where Grandpa kept the extra things, like lumber, things he didn't care if they got stolen. It was also where I saw the hammer.

It wasn't special, not his favorite or even one have gave half a damn about. It was old, worn down, the wood lost its color and the head caked with rust. Blunt and ugly was what I knew, was just what I needed.

Haley stood over my shoulder as I placed it on the floor, got down on my knees, held the hammer with both hands. When I raised it over my head, it stopped. I felt Haley's hand on mine.


She took it from me, tossed it on the table. Bang.

"This isn't the way."

"But why?"

Her lips curled back from her teeth, the ones that were left.

"Make it feel what I do-- what I made you."


My brains felt like a cinder block sitting up there. A cinder block on a rake handle, ready to topple.


A long, agonizing inhale followed by a just as withering exhale.

"Must you make me do everything."

The outer door flung open with a shower of glass, chill air smacking me back to sense. The garage door was up.

"Put your coat on."

We walked along the edge of the road where the snow mixed with slush. I listened to the crunches under my shoes and thought of packing peanuts. The air was cold, dry. My eyes tried to make tears to keep them wet. I didn't wear a hat because I didn't tell Mom I was going outside and my hair blew across my face; all over the place. No one would see. No one could understand how one little boy might carry such a burden of meted pain and suffering for so long and look like everyone else; the way kids did when nothing affected them. Physically? I was a pretzel stick, a soap bubble. Still, there were things I'd seen, felt, been party to what made nightmares the things that were my every waking day. There must be some way of measuring such things in the eyes of the ones I loved.

The were no tears to freeze when Haley was with me. No smiles, no hugs, no murmurs of joy.

Nothing soft was left.

It looked almost pitiful in my hands with its floppy ears and that simple, insipid smile. My fingers were fast becoming claws in the cold, but I was so completely far from caring. I was warm inside, boiling in fact. A dragon's belly. Main stomach, second stomach, even that shitty little black thing that lived in my gut, they were packing, locking up tight. This wasn't a storm they could ride out with the neighbors and the family dog. They needed to find a way out. Higher ground. I felt Haley's hand on my shoulder. It told me she approved.

"Finally-- the ballllls drop."

I was past hearing her at that point, so great was the thud of my heart. It was the badger legion, only this time they were with me. I saw Brett and Uncle Meldrick, Chaz and Mrs Greer, like the time we vanquished Baht Daog and its infernal canish horde. Now I had it where I wanted it. Where Haley wanted it. It shivered in my grasp, trying to make itself small.

"You knew this was coming."

"I never wanted anything else."

"This isn't goodbye."

It trembled.

"Goodbye means I'll remember."

"But I just want to see you happy."

What's happy?

"You're a liar."

"I learned from the best."

"Shut up."

"It won't stop."

"It will when I forget."

Its eyes got so big, the snoopy dog. Full moons. It played cute like one of those cartoon kittens with eyes so full of love and innocence and something else.


I knew that look well. I wore it every day under the costume of a little boy.

Every day was Halloween.

The spot where I left the snoopy dog was perhaps seven miles from my house as the crow flies. It was cold that day, record temperatures as I recall. The city had problems with frozen water lines and several neighborhoods were without power for days. Snow fell, drifted, covered the roads. Most were stuck in their homes, cut off from their neighbors, with no one but each other and the family dog.
Of those who lost heat-- mostly older folks-- a handful died. It was sad, tragic even, but to be expected. When extreme weather left the civilized without electricity, the elderly were always the first ones to perish. It was nature's way of clearing out the dead wood, or so I'd been told. What a heartless way to see it.

The other parts, well, they're still a bit fuzzy. Mom was frantic, couldn't find me. When I rang the doorbell she pulled me into the house off my feet and cried while she beat me. Well, spanked is more like it. With my clothes still on. I barely even felt it. We still had power, but were snowed in for two days before the plows could get to us.

Dad came by the next day. Or was it the one after that? Funny thing about electricity is it does all kinds of things to your head. Some good. Some not so good. The important thing was the overall benefit. I got so I could sleep through the night again. Even looked forward to it.

I tried to write the things down as I remembered them, keep a running dialogue as they called it. Sometimes writing one thing down triggered something else, and that triggered two more things, like a string of firecrackers. I thought about how good this chocolate tastes and POP POP POP I remembered that time I stole my sister's candy bars she had to sell for, well, something. It made me smile. Sometimes in a sad way.

Dad had to remind me about Haley when I looked at the pictures. They were part of my recovery, along with a bunch of books on animals and dinosaurs and all kinds of things. They said the effects were meant to be a measure of improvement, not a cure. The more I talked with Mom and Dad about her, the more things started to fall into place. Pieces of a puzzle. Scattered, but coming together.

One thing I like to think about is when it finally made sense to me. It was this time where I was under all the pants at some department store that smelled like roasted nuts. I mean, it was all you could smell. So I was under the pants with this girl who, well, I dunno what you'd call her. She was kinda-- creepy, really. But I just couldn't get over how I somehow knew her even though she didn't look familiar. She had this awful hair, all wet and stringy and, well, like seaweed I guess. Anyway, that's not the important part. The important, the really important part, is what she told me to do. And what I said to her.

So I told these things to Mom and Dad and even though they kept giving me funny looks, they knew it would help me get better and just let me go. I went on and on, about the little dog and Bedbugs and the weird thing at Aunt Ky's. Then I told them about the letter Mrs Greer sent and how it smelled just like her vagina and about Rita and Ganice and the blonde lady, whatshername-- oh, it doesn't really matter. What matters is she gave Dad a killer blowjob, like in pornos, and that really got Mom going. The best part was when I told them how Haley helped me be a man for once and even though Dad looked like he wanted to run screaming from the room I knew in my heart of hearts it just meant he was proud of me.

They said I had one more session and I should be okay to go home. It meant I might forget some things, but they'd come back one day. No worries. It made me happy to know they were taking such good care of me and wanted to see me get better. When I went to sleep that night, I went through all the things I remembered, all the things that happened, even the ones I didn't tell Mom and Dad. I decided there was one thing I should take away, focus on, think about so hard there was no way I could forget even if I was made to. And when I woke up, even if everything else was a barrel of monkeys and I didn't know a number two pencil from a wildflower, I'd remember what I did the time Haley hugged me so hard her love hurt me inside and out. I could still feel it, that hug, when I coughed.

Sometimes I wondered why she picked that moment, that particular point in time to show me the things I was never good enough to see before. Every chance I remember it's like the first.

I kept my promise.