a short story
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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?"
"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?"
"There's nothing to say." He wanted to leave, but she wouldn't let
"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 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.
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."
He paused. He had to consider how far he dared take this. "She smokes,"
"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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
"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
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).
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