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Collecting Dust

a short story
by Gregory Frost

 


I.

In the morning, when he went downstairs for breakfast, Thomas found new dust on the table. It lay between the folded newspaper and Dad's half-finished cup of cold coffee, in two small heaps. He'd brought his jar with him -- a plastic peanut butter jar rescued from the recycling bin -- and he carefully brushed the dust with the edge of his hand into the jar. It was getting pretty full. Then he went back upstairs and put it away.

Mom had left him a granola bar and his vitamins, one glass of orange juice and another of milk. The juice had gone watery because the ice she insisted on putting in it had melted. The milk was tepid. It was breakfast like any other weekday morning.

He heard his sister moving around upstairs as she got ready for school. Una was three years older. She had a silver ring through one eyebrow, smoked cigarettes, was having sex with Kevin Blodgett, a senior like her, and called Thomas a dick every chance she got. He had seen her naked more than once since he'd turned fourteen. He'd heard her fucking, smelled her smoking, and knew that he could threaten her whenever he chose just by mentioning the skull tattoo that resided above her pubes. Of course it was a double-edged threat, in that knowing of the tattoo's existence meant he had seen her naked.

She was either unaware of or ignored Dad's condition, the same as Mom.

He saw that he had time before setting off for school to check his email. Norman was supposed to have sent him the secret shortcut code for Devilry, which would let him jump five levels, collect extra lifepoints, and become invisible to all opposition. But Norman had forgotten, and there was nothing in his mailbox. He was a little annoyed; but it wasn't as though he could have played before going. Norman had better have the code written down for him in home room, though.

Thomas shut down the computer to keep Una from being able to access any of his stuff. Fortunately she had neither interest nor aptitude for it.

As he was pulling on his backpack in the foyer, he heard her moving in the kitchen. "Bye, Tuna!" he called.

She answered by calling him a "weasel." He left, satisfied to have provoked her.

 


II.

At the end of the school day he was the first one home. Una would be off with the mall zombies -- the five or six girls with whom she did absolutely everything. She couldn't make a move without them. They were stupid without exception, and he was glad they kept her away. It was really hideous when they came here in the afternoon. This way he had the house to himself.

He'd copied Norman's shortcut codes, and instructions. The secret exit to the extra levels was through one of the six canopic urns in the burial chamber of the game temple. He had to collect enough lifepoints before that, but once he had them, he could play extra Devilry for hours. Norman swore it would be cool.

Predicting when Mom came home was tricky. She'd already lost one job so far this year. When they ordered her to stay late now, she didn't dare refuse. She was lucky to have found other work. Unlike Dad, she didn't show any signs of the condition yet; but he had a jar rinsed out for her, just in case. The way he figured, it was just a matter of time.

By six o'clock he'd grown weary of the game and its constant, droning soundtrack; and he still lacked enough lifepoints to jump to the extra levels. He shut it off and retreated into the closet with his comics.

He lay on his sleeping bag and, lost in adventures, pored over the graphic panels and superhero physiques -- the women's smooth, nippleless breasts, shiny as the lines of a new car; and all of the bulges. Every impossible muscle, flexed or not, bulged, rigid, the bodies like roped cables under balloon rubber.

Una came home while one of his favorite heroes, The Schizoid, was splitting in two to take on multiple street gangs. He heard the sounds she made as she moved through the house; heard her mutter curses in the kitchen, slam cupboards, and then retreat to the den. The TV blared to life. Distantly, he knew she hadn't started the dinner. He could have done it, could have rescued his sister; he knew how to nuke things in a microwave; but he remained in the closet with his heroes.

By the time Mom came in, he'd had to turn on his portable reading light to see the pages of the comics. His watch showed it to be after eight. A fairly long day for Mom; she'd been as late as ten before, but not very often. Not yet.

This time when he heard the angry cursing, he sat up, slid off the bag and tiptoed to the door.

"Una!" Mom was shouting. Her footsteps hammered through the house. The door to the den squeaked. "Una, why is the dinner still in the refrigerator?"

Una's reply was low, sullen, dark and unfriendly.

Mom snarled, "You self-centered -- "

Una yelled back in shrill defense: "Who cares what I do?"

"It's your responsibility, damn you. I can't be here to watch either of you, to feed you. You're part of this family -- you have to do your part!"

Una mumbled something again that he couldn't catch.

"What do you think I'm doing 'til eight at night? Hanging out at the mall, smoking with my friends? Don't look all innocent. You reek of it. Well, I've had it with your attitude, young lady. Had all I'm going to take. You're going to pull your weight around here or else."

Una shrieked the word "Bitch!" -- punctuated a second later by a slap, loud and sharp as breaking glass. Before he could think to move, his sister was charging down the hall, right at him. Her narrow eyes brimmed with tears and her cheek glowed where she'd been hit. He slid back into his doorway, and she swung at him anyway. She would have stopped to hit him, but her momentum pitched full-tilt toward her room. The door slammed behind her. A moment later she let loose an unfettered scream of rage, and Thomas smiled with contentment.

His mother went into the kitchen. He listened to her murmurs, her occasional sniffles, which made him wonder if the two of them had slapped each other -- but probably not. Una had yet to go that far.

After awhile the microwave beeped and Mom called out, "Thomas, your dinner's ready."

His sister's room was dark and silent as he passed it. He abandoned his post, and headed down the hall and down the stairs to eat.

It was a small meal of tortillas with chicken, beans and rice. His mother, red-eyed, smiled at him when she caught him looking at her, but mostly sat in her private misery. She asked a few cursory questions about school and homework. He answered in quick, practiced lies, not wishing to encourage discourse in this territory.

Throughout the meal, Una's voice yowled in the distance, an off-key banshee, singing along with silent headphone music. He figured she knew exactly how annoying she was.

When the food was gone, he volunteered to clean up. His mother beamed at him from a thousand-year-worn face. "My angel," she whispered, and brushed her bony hand across his cheek. "Why can't your sister be like you?"

He knew it for a rhetorical question and said nothing, but let her get to her feet and leave. He didn't look straight at her.

Much later, while he sat in darkness lit only by the glow of his computer terminal, he heard the front door open and close. Dad was home.

Tomorrow was Saturday. Maybe this weekend Dad would stay home the way he used to.

Thomas hadn't seen his father in two weeks. Only his dust.

 


III.

He nearly didn't recognize the man seated at the breakfast table. He'd always thought of Dad as imposing -- a man who filled a suit the way Clark Kent did. Here instead was a man who might have collapsed and blown away in a good wind: hair receding, a face so sharp it might have belonged in a comic. He could almost see the penciller's work.

As though he hadn't had the energy to undress last night, Dad wore a stiff white shirt and a tie.

"Hi, Tommy," he said. "How's my boy?"

"You're dressed."

"Well, your mother doesn't like it when I come naked to breakfast." He winked, as if a joke could smooth everything.

"No, you're dressed for work."

"I have to go in. Finish what I couldn't yesterday."

"But you didn't get home 'til eleven!"

Mom interjected, "What were you doing awake at eleven, young man?"

"No, it's all right, it's okay," said Dad. "He doesn't understand. See, son, it's almost time for the quarterly report. And even though it's sure to show a profit -- it always does -- there are bound to be some cutbacks. Layoffs. Got to increase those profits any way we can. You don't want me to lose my job, do you?" The way he emphasized "my" made Mom blush and turn away.

Thomas barely withheld his response. They'd been down this road before. If he said what he felt -- that it would be an excellent thing for his father to lose his job -- he would just suffer the longer version of the "dog-eat-dog, cut-throat-job-market world" report: It was practically all he'd heard while Mom was out of work. Instead, he grabbed the Cheerios box and started pouring.

Dad leaned in closer, touched his hand. He twitched a little, put down the cereal and stared at the light streak of dust leading across the wood veneer tabletop; at the trace of it like baby powder on his wrist now. "Tommy, I'm sorry I can't be here for your softball game. I know you'll do fine."

"What are you talking about?"

"Why, your Saturday game. I know that's why you're upset, son."

"There's no game."

"Well, was it cancelled?"

"There wasn't any game."

Dad's mouth worked as if he was trying to get at something caught in his teeth. He looked to Mom for help, then at the calendar on the refrigerator. "But it's scheduled right there." He pointed. Dust sprinkled lightly down from his sleeve.

Thomas didn't even turn around. "The team died," he said. "We all quit. Okay? Nobody was showing up regularly anyway, and the dads who coached kept making excuses why they couldn't come, and everybody kept forfeiting games, so we just quit."

Dad looked at his empty bowl for a moment, then quietly pushed back his chair and walked out.

A few minutes later, with his suitcoat hanging loose upon his frame, he slunk past the kitchen and out of the house altogether.

Mom went after him. She came back as the car started up.

Thomas didn't look up at her, but ate his cereal attentively. He could feel the crunch of every bite through his skull. He focused on the fake grain in the table, as if by staring very hard he could blend into it and become invisible.

Mom sat beside him. "Tom, why didn't you tell us?"

He set down his spoon. "Tell you what?"

"About softball?"

"There's nothing to say." He wanted to leave, but she wouldn't let him.

"But why didn't you tell us?" she repeated.

"Why would I? I haven't had a practice or a game in a month. It had nothing to do with you."

She looked like she might start to cry. He almost hoped she would. Finally she got up and left the table.

His sister came down quietly. Her radar attuned to the emotional pitch in the room, she glanced around, trading a portentous look with him, then slipped past the kitchen and was gone. On her way to meet the zombie-herd, he supposed.

He got his jar and swept up the dust Dad had left. He was glad at least that Dad always sat in the same chair at the table. A little order was helpful now and then.

The jar was full. He placed it in the closet, on the shelf beside two others, then pushed his clothes in place to hide them. He had no idea how many jars it would take, or what would happen when he was finished. Somebody had to hold everything together, and nobody else was going to do it.

 


IV.

Sunday morning he awoke to the smells of bacon and coffee. It had been a long time since Mom had made an old-fashioned family breakfast. It meant they would all be together for a change. But arriving downstairs he found only Una at the table. She was halfway through her pancakes. Anticipating him, she commented, "He's sleeping. And Mom went back to bed, too. Your food's in the microwave." She bobbed her head at the counter without looking up from the fashion pages.

Sullenly, he reheated his breakfast. He was disappointed with himself for allowing such hope to grow. Had he really expected breakfast would bring them together?

Una remained conspicuously isolated behind the newspaper.

After eating, he went into his closet, turned on the light, and pushed the clothes aside. He sat awhile on his sleeping bag, beside the stack of comics, and just stared at his collection. Dad's first jar had started out ocher. But if one tracked the jars in order, the color leached out. The dust in the last peanut butter jar was bone white. Eventually he got up, pushed the hangers together again, and turned off the light.

At eleven, Kevin Blodgett showed up for Una. Like many of the kids at the school, he was tattooed and pierced. A deep indigo tattoo circled his skull in a narrow band. He had slash scars across both forearms, which were supposed to be intimidating but just looked ugly. Thomas had seen cooler scarrings among his own classmates.

It was the two silver balls pinned through the tip of Kevin's tongue that disturbed him; Kevin clicked them against his teeth when he was agitated, like a rattlesnake shaking its tail -- a venomous promise. Around Thomas, he was always clicking them. With his lips curled and his tongue protruding, he looked exactly like the gargoyles in Devilry. Una, thought Thomas, couldn't have picked a bigger doofus to fuck. Kevin acknowledged him by saying, "See ya, dick," as they left. He pretended not to hear.

Mom, back from her nap to clean up the breakfast dishes, muttered, "I don't know if I like that boy."

Without thinking, Thomas answered, "He's an asshole."

She turned around. "What did you say?"

He knew what he'd said very well, and had no hope of recanting. Too late for that -- Mom was staring so hard the whites showed around her eyes. "Well, he is," he insisted. "He's always calling me names for no reason, trying to provoke me so he can beat me up in front of her. She gets him to do it."

Somehow that seemed to shift the focus away from his tactical mistake. Mom replied, "Maybe if you were nicer to your sister -- "

"She'd have to be somebody else. "

Mom seemed dispirited. "Why do you hate her so much?"

He almost said "for the same reason you do," but checked himself. "'cause she gets away with things."

"For instance?"

He paused. He had to consider how far he dared take this. "She smokes," he said.

"Yes, I know that. I've found her cigarettes. I've smelled her. She's really not getting away with anything."

"But you don't do anything about it."

"What do you think we should do?"

"Ground her. Don't let her go off with her mall zombies."

Mom smiled and nodded sagely. "And who's going to make sure she comes straight home. Are you going to? And when you come and tell me she didn't do as she was told, what privilege do we take away next?"

"I don't know."

She toweled off her hands and sat with him. "That's a relief." She patted his hand. "See, there are good children like you and difficult ones like Una. We try to give them the best sense of right and wrong we can and then they have to decide what they want to do with that, because we can't be here to supervise. It's their decision. Look at you -- you come home, you do your homework. You don't get into trouble."

She was right -- he didn't get into trouble. He was careful.

"I wish Una were more like you. I watch her. I try to talk to her. But, you know, she isn't very interested in what I have to say. I wish I had time to find out what she is interested in."

"Is this how grandma raised you?"

Mom shook her head. "It was a different time, you can't compare things one to one that way. Look at your educations -- four years of college is going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. We want you to be in the best schools. You have to get into the best schools for your futures."

He refrained from asking the burning question of what future they thought they were providing. A lot of his time was spent not asking controversial questions. But he didn't have to ask about his father's work. He wanted nothing to do with it.

Dad didn't get up until after four that afternoon. Mom was in the den, working on her laptop, surrounded by all the paperwork she'd brought home. Thomas sat reading a comic at the kitchen table, pretending to take a break from his homework.

Dad emerged from the dark bedroom, his eyes encrusted, his chin stubbled. The sleeves on his pajamas almost reached his fingertips; the legs were folded over his feet. He stood in the kitchen, with his fingers entwined around a coffee cup.

It was pure coincidence that Una showed up then. She made a noisy, clumsy entrance. She came up behind her groggy father, her head topping his. Her face was slack, drunken. Her eyes focused slowly on her father's shriveled form, then widened with cruel delight. She began to laugh. Dad turned about like a lost and confused lunatic, and she laughed into his face.

Thomas lunged past Dad and slugged her in the belly. She screamed and folded up. Dad dropped his coffee, clutching at his ears, then yelped as the coffee scalded his feet. Behind him, Thomas hit his sister again as she tried to rise. Her shrieking, like a siren, never let up. Mom came running in, yelling, "Stop it!" but not loudly enough to drown out the shrill screams. Dad reached out ineffectually to pry the two children apart, but Una scrabbled back, shouting, "You little fucker, you'll pay for that!" at Thomas. Dad began to quiver. He yelled, "I can't stand it! Can't I have one day of solitude? One place to go?" He started to cry -- an act so unthinkable that both children gaped at him. He looked at Mom. "Can't you control them even for an hour?" Then he turned and dove for the bedroom.

Una swore quietly to her brother, "You'll be sorry."

"That's enough!" Mom stepped in between them. "How could you behave that way to your father? After all he does for you. You go to your room right now. We'll -- we'll see what we do with you."

Una sneered as she stood up. Mom accepted the look for only a second. Then she slapped her face so hard that Una's head thudded against the wall. "You filthy, drunken little ... If I ever see that look on your face again, you'll wish I hadn't."

Pain sobered Una. She sped, wailing, up the stairs. But not before Thomas saw the dusty handprint splayed across her cheek. His heart ceased to beat. He stared at Mom, and all he could do was wonder how many jars she would fill.

She faced him and said, "You cannot go around hitting your sister."

The proclamation freed him from the moment's spell. He shook his head. Nothing was going to happen to Una. Mom couldn't even formulate a punishment. They all knew it.

"What's happening to Dad?" he asked.

Mom seemed to cringe away from the question. "He's fine, he's just over-stressed."

He hadn't really expected a satisfactory answer. He had hoped to divert her attention, but this time it didn't work. "I'm sorry, Tommy, but you have to go to your room, too. I can't get my work done and have you two fighting."

She seemed resolved, but even before he was halfway up the stairs he heard her first sob. The sound moved off, away into the bedroom.

Una's door was shut.

In his closet he lay on the sleeping bag, with jars of Dad towering in the shadows above him. Drifting into the membrane of sleep he heard a distant susurration like the voices of ancestors embedded in the walls, bleeding through time. All of them talking at once; he understood nothing until one voice shouted his name and he jerked awake to find himself still alone and undiscovered.

Later Mom ordered a pizza. The two of them ate in silence.

 


V.

In the morning there was more dust than ever. Both parents had gone. He filled his jars before eating. When it was time to leave, he called up the stairs for Una, but received no answer. The house was silent. He hesitated to go up and wake her; if she wanted to skip school, it didn't matter to him. Let her get in more trouble -- not that it would change anything.

As he was putting his lunch in his backpack, the front door opened. He went into the front hall and there was Una, a cigarette poking between her lips. She gave him a smoldering look. Behind her, Kevin eased into sight in his leather jacket and black pants. His look was as unfriendly as hers. He began clicking his tongue against his teeth.

"See, I told you he'd still be here," Una said, "Mom's little angel." She walked into the living room and opened the liquor cabinet. A stack of Mom's papers on top fell off the moment the doors opened. Una ignored them. She took out a vodka bottle, then held it up, daring Thomas to say something. He wasn't about to provoke her, and tried to edge to the front door.

Kevin turned suddenly and caught him by the shoulder. "Hold it, dick," he said. "We have a thing to discuss. You beat her up yesterday."

"She was laughing at my dad."

"Wow. A serious offense -- laughing at the parental unit." He pulled a black utility knife out of his jacket and pushed the blade up with his thumb. Una's gaze shifted between it and her brother with awful fascination. Then she turned her back and pretended to dig through Mom's papers with her toe.

"Hey!" Thomas protested and tried to pull away.

"Like I said, serious." He swiftly slashed the top of Thomas's wrist.

Thomas clutched the cut. It wasn't deep but it stung and blood spilled between his fingers. He looked for his sister to step in and protect him. Una had gone to ground behind the liquor cabinet.

Kevin said, "Hey, what do you know, we match." Grinning, he stretched out his scarred wrist. "That's only a taste, dickboy. You ever punch her again, it's death by a thousand cuts for you. Get me?" He let go. Thomas ran to the bathroom. He poured cold water over the cut. He didn't know where the gauze was, so he taped two band aids across his wrist to hold the cut together. Then he sat on the toilet lid and waited.

The cut stopped bleeding shortly. The house fell quiet.

He crept through the hallway to the front door. Una had poured vodka in tall glasses of ice. She and Kevin were on the couch, kissing; he had her shirt pushed up and her bra off while he kneaded her right breast. She opened her eyes and stared fiercely at Thomas. He threw open the door and ran.

All the way to school he thought of things he was going to do to Kevin, and things he wanted to believe he could have done. He hoped Mom would come home early and find the two of them fucking on the couch. But he knew that if he told, there would be retribution for that, too. He was alone and defenseless. Kevin could get to him any day, anywhere.

He was late arriving at home room, and made up a story about hurting himself with a broken bottle and having to stop to bandage the wound. The story was awfully lame, but the substitute believed the cut when he showed it to her. The band aids were splotched with blood, and she sent him to the nurse to have it bandaged properly. The nurse was out: she traveled between half a dozen schools every week. The attendance secretary attempted to bandage him, but she moved clumsily, as if fearful to touch him, touch the wound, and Thomas finally taped the gauze pad in place himself.

After school he went straight home. He was tired and his arm ached.

As he approached the house he thought his prayers had been answered. Dad's car was parked in the driveway. The driver's door hung open. He imagined that his mother had found Una and Kevin and had called Dad to come home and deal with his daughter. Some things were so bad they had to be confronted. At the same time he knew how implausible this was. Dad wouldn't come home for that.

He went to close the car door and saw the dust in the crevices of the front seat. There was more on the pavement, like a thin trail of ashes.

He followed the trail along the walk and into the house.

The vodka bottle was gone but the glasses were still on the coffee table, standing in little puddles of water. The couch cushions were on the floor.

In the hallway, Dad's clothes were strewn as if he'd undressed feverishly on his way through the house. His leather briefcase lay on its side, his silk tie beside it. The dust led to the back den. There, in the recliner as if watching the giant TV, sat a small dried husk. It was barely identifiable, like a frog that had withered on the pavement in summer heat, shriveled by the sun. Sockets empty of eyes, the mouth twisted back around blackened gums.

He knew what he was seeing, but its identity seemed distant and unaffecting, like something in a video. Like porn on the net. It didn't really register. It wasn't real.

Thomas backed out of the room. With supernatural calm he went to get his jar. His sister's door was open and he looked around the corner. She lay face down, naked, asleep, the empty vodka bottle and a crumpled cigarette pack beside her, the glass ashtray overturned. He contemplated setting fire to the bed.

He supposed he should call Mom, but she would only rush home and lose her job as a result, and that wouldn't help. It was odd how objective he could be in a real crisis. He swept up all the dust he could gather -- everything out of the car, on the walk, down the hall.

There was too much of it for one jar. He had to use a whole relish jar for everything around and under the recliner.

Dad's empty eyes pleaded with him to do something. He decided he should call the family doctor, Dr. Gilbeck; Dad must have gone to him.

The doctor was thin, and younger than Dad, but he looked just as harried. He arrived with a cellular phone in one hand, assuring someone that this would only take a few minutes and to line up the next patient. He set down his bag beside the recliner. He only looked the corpse over cursorily. "You found him?" he asked Thomas, who nodded and began to explain the circumstances. Dr. Gilbeck cut him off. "We'll have to call your mother. Think they'll let her come home early?"

Thomas shrugged doubtfully.

"Well, I can't stay." He checked his own pulse, then nodded to himself, tore open a small foil packet and took two tablets. "Patients won't wait more than three or four hours before getting irate." Thomas gave him Mom's number at work. The doctor called out on his cellular phone again, but turned and walked into the hallway for privacy.

Thomas stared after him, mutely hostile to be cut off from the events. What was the doctor doing that was half so critical as Thomas' own work? He was nothing more than a policeman -- someone who couldn't act until it was too late to save anyone. But then neither could Thomas. Dad was dead and what had he done to prevent it?

The doctor came back in. He folded and pocketed the phone. "That's that. They'll be by on Tuesday afternoon between twelve and three to pick him up."

Thomas asked, "What was wrong with him?"

"Wrong?" Gilbeck tapped the back of the recliner. "Well, you can't burn the candle at both ends and not fizzle out in the middle sooner or later." He seemed to wake up suddenly to what he was saying, and quickly added, "But I'm sure he was a dutiful father. Right?"

Thomas couldn't explain why the bland sentiment sent a knot to his throat. "I didn't ... I wanted to -- "

"Look, son." The doctor squeezed his shoulder. "Don't start blaming yourself. You didn't cause this, you kids. You're just stuck with it."

Mom arrived twenty minutes later, looking wretched and a little resentful. She set her laptop and a stack of papers on the footstool just inside the den, and walked past Thomas as if she didn't see him. The doctor ushered him gently but firmly out the door and closed it.

The crying began softly but built to a wail. It even woke Una, who stumbled blearily down the stairs wearing only a large T-shirt. The doctor's presence surprised her. She sat in the kitchen and lit a cigarette. "What's goin' on?"

Thomas told her. She hissed a cloud of cigarette smoke. Only the shifting of her eyes betrayed her deeper terror.

The doctor emerged from the den and came out to the kitchen. He gave his watch a glance. "She'll sleep awhile. Listen now, you kids," he said. "You're going to have to pull together."

Una looked from her brother to the doctor. Thomas saw the queasiness that had been in her eyes when Kevin flicked his razor. "No way do I pull anything together with him. I'd rather die." Trembling, she sucked on her cigarette.

Dr. Gilbeck eyed her with apparent distaste. He addressed Thomas. "You and your mother -- well, she'll need your support. You two have after-school jobs yet?"

"What?" Una snarled.

"Well, you should think about after-school jobs." He made a gesture in the direction of the den, the meaning of which eluded Thomas.

"This is not what I'm -- " Una shook her head violently; she floundered for words, but they eluded her and she finally just blurted, "I'll, like, leave, okay? I'm old enough."

The doctor's eyes narrowed but his face remained slack. "Your mother -- "

"What about her? The last thing she did for me was name me!" Her voice broke and she grit her teeth together and marched out of the room.

The doctor watched her retreat with opiated calm. He glanced around the room at the microwave, the food processor, the blender and the rest, as if adding up the value of each. "Everything's going to change," he said. "I'm sorry." He squeezed Thomas's shoulder. "I have to get going," he added, then went back to check on Mom.

As soon as he left, Una returned to the kitchen, but maintained a wary distance from her brother. At the sound of his car starting, Una muttered, "Fuck him." She stubbed out her cigarette in the butter dish, then hurried up the stairs. Her door slammed.

Thomas got up and wandered to the den. Through the crack in the open door he saw that the husk in the chair had a bar code sticker on its skull. Tagged and identified like something out of the produce section.

Mom had been moved to the bedroom. The curtains were drawn. He switched on the small table lamp on the dresser. Mom was asleep and there was a syringe in the wastebasket. He crept beside her to watch her breathe in shallow, rhythmic, drugged breaths. Her slack features looked like someone else. Someone he'd never seen. He couldn't remember when her face hadn't been taut, strained, worried.

He patted her arm and dust puffed up. He drew back instinctively. The dust settled like insects on a corpse. He glanced across the bed, at the depression where Dad had slept. How much dust lay there? How much had washed down the shower drain?

He accepted then that he could never get it all -- not Dad's, not Mom's. And if he did, what then? What if Dad, like the Schizoid, could be reassembled again? He'd have Dad again: the same overworked and dedicated-to-the-murderous-system Dad. Not a defiant superhero, not a comic book champion. It would only begin all over again. They couldn't help themselves. None of them.

He went upstairs. He switched on his computer, but then sat and did nothing.

The front door thumped. The sound woke him from his thoughtless torpor. He got up and went to the dormer window to watch his sister leaving. She'd pulled on a backpack, probably stuffed with clothes and cigarettes. She strode down the driveway, past both cars and into the street. On her way to Kevin. She was doomed, too, one way or another.

He watched her climb the hill into a late-afternoon haze thick as incense -- an ocher pall smearing the sky. Una simply, steadily, evaporated.

Thomas drew the blind on the window. He returned to the computer and opened Devilry. Soon he'd accumulated the necessary lifepoints and made it to the tiny vault where Norman had directed him. He knew what he had to do next: take the lid off the jackal-headed canopic jar in the corner. That was all he had to do to skip to the extra levels, but he couldn't do it. He understood now about the jars, about what they were and what they contained. He could feel their pull.

He stood up on tired legs and, with a last look around, went into the closet and closed the door on his world.


© Gregory Frost 1999, 2005.
This story was first published in White of the Moon, edited by Stephen Jones (Pumpkin Books, 1999), and is reprinted in Greg's collection Attack of the Jazz Giants & Other Stories (Golden Gryphon, 2005; with a foreword by Karen Joy Fowler).

Fitcher's Brides by Gregory FrostAttack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories by Gregory Frost
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