The first of 2 parts. Expect the conclusion on May 5th.
The damnedest thing about it, looking back, is that it wasn’t even an old house. That sticks with me. Whenever you hear about a ‘troubled’ property it’s a house with history, with some wicked depths. Literal skeletons in the closets. When I eventually moved away to college, my friends and I moved off-campus in junior year and rented an apartment across from an ancient farmhouse with the prerequisite wicked past – jealousy, murder, a woman’s body stashed under the slabs in the cellar – and no troubles to go with it. The same sweet family lived there, happy as anything, up until my boyfriend and I splintered off from the college household and moved across the country. The rain in Seattle is spectacular right now, by the way.
My own troubled house was far from ancient. On top of that, for being a brand new house it wasn’t even attractive. It was a pre-fab, a rectangular chunk bolted to a foundation on an acre of wooded land just outside town. My dad was determined to farm new lives for us out there, even if his literal farming efforts never expanded outside the bucket-bound tomato plants he cultivated on the patio every summer.
We were a household of boys. My brother Tad was only nine when we moved in, I was waiting to turn fourteen in a few weeks, and Dad was the oldest (honorary) boy at forty. Our mother was absent from our lives by her own choice. During the divorce, we’d failed to anticipate her needs and hate Dad appropriately, so she decided she didn’t want us. This was totally fine by me and generally fine by everybody else. We lived squished into the – clean, new, downright nice – one bedroom apartment Dad had hastily rented for a few months and ate pizza every other night while Dad powered through work and finalizing everything with the new house. A lot of that liminal period of my life is a foggy smear, now, but my overall impression is a good one. I remember being annoyed or sad sometimes, or frustrated, but I had breathing room all of a sudden.
It can feel like that when you’ve been sitting between two simmering, resentful adults for years.
As for the new house, we all liked it fine at first. The land Dad bought to set it on had more character, naturally. Set just off the crumbly unlined road, it was thick with whippy new trees trying to make up for past logging. The house itself, with its minimal number of straight lines and crisp cool colors, made me think of the toy houses in my friend Barry’s model train setup. It may have been a literal, physical house, but it didn’t look like a Real House. The interior looked like a sitcom set someone tried and failed to imbue with realism by dressing it half in Dad’s old furniture.
But we were happy enough in our house of boys. Dad still blasted off to his office six days out of seven, and we still ate pizza with disquieting frequency. We ate salads on those nights, too, but only as little as we could get away with.
As for the trouble itself, it started in my bedroom. Or, I guess, I was in my bedroom when I first realized something was off. It could have been going on for however long before I noticed, but we had been in the house for months by that point. It was the height of Louisiana summer, which meant Tad and I enjoyed full run of the house from eight in the morning to at least seven at night every day but Sunday. Honorary boys don’t get summer vacation, you see, because they’re through with school and can’t get away with becoming teachers.
So we were inside, in our separate rooms. Tad couldn’t bear to be alone outside his room, and at that point I couldn’t bear to be alone with Tad. We struck what I recognize now as an absurd, childish compromise by carrying toy walkie talkies. I kept mine propped up on my dresser, but Tad carried his clipped to the side pocket of his shorts like a genuine field operative. If field operatives wore shorts.
I was luxuriating, as I had been for months, in having my very own room again. Door shut, stereo playing without the first thought to headphones, spread out on the too-fresh Berber carpet in a pool of video game and aviation magazines.
To accept what happened next, you have to understand I had a real good sense of hearing as a kid. Or that’s what I called it. More truthfully, living with a parent who would read malice or disrespect in any action or inaction and fly off into a rage had left me with something of a radar for out of place sounds. Heavy footfalls across the house, a cup set down too hard and too purposely on the glass patio table, clanking bottles in the fridge. Since moving into that house, I’d even developed a sensitivity to the tinny hum of that stupid walkie talkie picking up a message from across the house.
These days, only sudden bangs like a slammed door make me jump, but that afternoon it was a rustling.
It was something moving through the bed of desiccating tiger lilies that ran underneath my bedroom window. I got real still – not because I was scared, but because I was listening and deciding whether or not I should be scared – and reached over to crank my the knob on my stereo down to zero.
The rustling moved right on past my window. I could hear the lily stems snapping. We got a fair number of squirrels and possums nosing around the house, seeing as we lived on the edge of the woods, but never anything big enough to walk through bending and snapping things.
I imagined and hoped, for a second, that it might be a lost dog. I like dogs. Slowly, I pushed myself up on my bony arms and half-crept to the window. I peered through the brand new aluminum cased window and tried to sweep my gaze over the lily bed. It was little tough. The lip of my window was a good six feet off the ground. I could see the edge of the flower bed fine, but whatever was snuffling around down there was pressed right up against the house. Opening the window and leaning out for a better look would mean going to get a screwdriver to take the screen out, and whatever it was would probably take off in the meantime. Rather than be bothered with that, I turned away and went to my door, intent on just going out and spooking it away.
The instant my bedroom door whispered open on its brand new hinges, something thudded against the siding under my window. I jumped so hard I put a twinge in my neck that had me wincing as I hurried to the window. I was just in time to see something with long, slim limbs and a stout torso book it into the line of trees and brush at the far end of our backyard. From behind, as I saw it, it looked a lot like a doe bounding off.
Except, I had never seen – have never seen – a black doe.
“Is it possible for an animal to be all black?”
I usually brought such scientific inquiries to Dad. This was the 1990s and we lived in the boondocks on the border of Mississippi, so even the rudimentary AOL internet would be out of my reach for another year. Unless I asked for a ride to the library.
“Sure.” Dad was cooking that night, grilling hamburgers and halved crook neck squash on the grill that kept his patio tomatoes company. He’d learned to grill faster than he picked up any other cooking skill, and I always suspected it had something to do with providing hot food without turning the house into a meat-smelling sauna.
“I mean when it’s not normal for it to be black.” I felt it necessary to clarify. We’d had a black cat in the past, and I didn’t want to look stupid.
“Oh, yeah, I figured that.” Dad shut the grill and stooped over the card table that was his impromptu kitchen counter and our summer dining table. He cut some tomatoes into fat wedges while he talked. “It’s a genetic thing, like albinism but backwards.”
“Can a deer be like that?”
“Sure they can.” He dumped the wedges into a bowl and shook salt and pepper onto them. For the last step, he’d drizzle them in olive oil to complete the one tasty vegetable dish a co-worker had managed to teach him. “They’re beautiful animals. Have you been seeing deer around?”
I picked a tomato wedge out of the bowl and ate it, knowing he wouldn’t complain. I was hard to feed to begin with. “I saw a black one. I think it was a doe.”
“That sounds like a lucky sighting.” For someone who worked in numbers, Dad was pretty hung up on luck. To his credit, he almost never declared something unlucky. Things were lucky, or they were neutral. Real optimistic. “There’s wild blackberries and stuff like that around the outside of the yard, so she might be drawn in by those.”
Tad walked out in his bare feet and plunked down in one of our creaky plastic-string-and-aluminum lawn chairs to read something from the huge stack of little kid books he’d brought home from the library that week. I considered killing our conversation, having long been conditioned to shut down any communication Tad just happened to walk in on. It didn’t matter if the topic didn’t matter. It was just what I did.
“She got real close to the house,” I finally said. It didn’t matter. It really, truly didn’t matter, and I was being stupid.
Tad perked up and set down his book of true gross facts. “Who did?”
“The pretty deer your brother saw,” Dad said. He opened the grill again and weathered the ensuing smoke plume like an old sea captain standing in the spray. He cleared his throat. “Thaddeus, don’t put library books on the outside table.”
Tad pulled the book into his lap. “Why not, though?”
“Because you walk away, and they get rained on.” Dad dished a patty and two squash halves each onto our plates and passed them off to us. No bread on no-pizza days. No pasta, either, or rice. Or potatoes. You’d think he didn’t have a chronically skinny son. “Then I have to give the library twenty dollars to replace a moldy book.”
“I don’t do that,” Tad said, reaching for a big plastic spoon he’d use to serve roughly half the tomatoes onto his plate. He’d eat them, too.
He did do that, of course. It had already happened twice that summer.
“Well, please don’t do it this time,” Dad said, taking a seat with his own smoky meal.
“I won’t,” Tad said. He spread the book out on his lap, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell Dad he’d consigned the thing to ending its useful life as a crumb catcher.
“Thank you, Tad.”
In a house of boys, nobody says grace. We ate immediately, and for a while I put the black doe out of my mind.
One night, a little over a week later, my eyes snapped open suddenly. I was wide awake, facing the wood paneled wall I’d covered over with foldouts from my airplane magazines within a month of moving in. I couldn’t say why I was awake, either. I didn’t feel spooked or on edge, just significantly alert. The universe gave me half a minute to mull this over before it offered an answer.
My shoulders jerked.
A hollow, percussive sound. I slammed my eyes shut and pulled my sheet tighter around my shoulders.
“Go to bed, Tad.”
He hadn’t asked my to walk him to the bathroom since we moved out of the old house, but I knew the routine. He’d stand in the hall pitifully tapping on my door until I walked him down the hall, turned on the bathroom light for him, and took him back to his room after he did his thing. After months and months of respite from this, I was in no mood to do it anymore.
“Nope. Forget it.”
I breathed in, sighed, and stretched out my legs. “Thaddeus, I am serious. You’re way too freaking old for this. Go to bed, or piss your pants in the hallway.”
Silence. I waited for the sound of footsteps sulking down the hall, but it never came. Instead:
I threw my sheet off and slung my feet onto the floor, livid. Tap on my door? Fine, if annoying. Punch my door? No, no way.
“You little dick!” I said it quietly, mostly to myself, because I knew Tad’s first line of defense if this came to chasing him back to bed would be snitching to Dad about my language.
I made it halfway across the room.
My radar blipped. The sound wasn’t behind the door.
It wasn’t in front of me at all.
It was at the window and, I realized in that instant, the glow from our blazing halogen yard light barely made it through to my room. In the dark, I tried to look to the window without turning my head.
Whatever was tapping, it was tall enough to blot out the yard light and tap on the unscreened upper pane of the window.
Maybe it was the silhouette effect, but it was also very, very black.
I exploded backward. There’s no other word to describe how forcefully I threw myself into my dresser trying to put distance between myself and the thing at the window. Pain bit into my forearm and I toppled forward onto my knees.
Now, I could hear footsteps in the hall. A slice of yellow light appeared through the crack under my door.
We and Dad had an agreement about not locking bedroom doors at night anymore. Not for creepy reasons, but because we lived in the middle of nowhere and had to rely on one another to make it out fast in case of a house fire. So he burst into my room with ease.
“Frankie, you okay?”
Cradling my sore arm, I cast a wary look at my window. Nothing. I blew out a breath. “Yeah.”
“You sure?” He flipped the switch by my door. “It sounded like someone jumped you in here.”
I faked an embarrassed smile. “I tripped and landed on my wrist. I’m good.”
He sighed and extended a hand to help me up. “Well. If you’re good, buddy, I’m good.” He gestured vaguely to the floor. “But I can’t get on you for leaving magazines all over the floor if you’re gonna trip over your own feet even when you pick them all up.”
I shrugged. If Dad noticed my eyes straying over and over to the window, he didn’t mention it. “I don’t know what to tell you.”
“How about good night?” He slipped out the door. “I’ll be up for another hour or so if you need anything for your wrist.”
I cringed. “No, I’m good.” At the edge of the yard, the trees rocked in a stiff wind that would carry in a thunderstorm before daybreak. “I’m good.”
Cognitive dissonance is a Hell of a thing. Looking back, it shocks me that I didn’t at least tell Dad that I’d seen ‘someone’ in my window that night. A weirdo looming outside your teenage kid’s room in the middle of the night? It happens. Not as often as the news cycle needs you to believe to keep you tuned in, but it happens. He would have taken me seriously.
But I needed to go on operating as if our new house was safe, so I put it aside. I even went straight back to bed after icing my arm and vacuuming up a slice of cold pizza.
July pushed on toward August, and we got bored. Nintendo and air conditioning can only nourish the spirit for so long unless you’re a very specific kind of kid. Barry was exactly that kind of kid. This probably contributed to his mom’s willingness to let him ride his bike the half mile out of town to come entertain us every Wednesday after his Bible Drill practice.
Barry was then and remains now a doughy, round-faced guy with stamina at odds with his physique. He’d clomp up onto our patio soaked through with sweat, his bike ditched on its side just off our gravel driveway, but he never arrived out of breath. It was unnerving, frankly.
Like any kids left alone long enough, we got to executing a series of time-eating projects doomed from the outset to fail. We constructed a tree house, notably, though it was essentially a platform built high up on one of the few older trees near the edge of the clearing that made up our enormous backyard. It was a mix of sloppily sawed fallen branches and the pallets left over from the pavers Dad had used to ring in our flower beds. We reached it via a rope ladder. Without Barry around to apply some rudimentary knowledge of physics and geometry, we probably would have come crashing down with it halfway through its construction.
The platform, even when the sun beat down hardest, became our base of operations. With enough batteries, enough light to read by, and enough shade to keep from frying, it was a more acceptable place to lounge than you might imagine. If we felt like burning through batteries, we’d hang the headphones of Barry’s Discman from a twig jutting off the main trunk of the tree and crank the volume all the way up. On the rare days we hung around until after dark, we’d fire off bottle rockets hoarded from the Fourth. Most days, we’d lie on our backs or bellies and just pass the day. It was nice.
“Frank, I’m hungry,” Tad announced one afternoon, falling back onto the very middle of the platform like a man wasting away in the desert. “When’s Dad gonna be back?”
I jabbed him with the capped end of my pen and he yipped. He didn’t move, though. He was dedicated to his performance. “You don’t need Dad’s permission to eat. Just go get something.”
“I don’t wanna.”
“Well, I guess you’re gonna starve.” I went back to scratching in the margins of my book – which I could do all I wanted, because I bought it – and pretended not to see him rolling from side to side in mock agony.
A little chime sounded and Barry put his paused Game Boy off to the side. “I need to take a leak anyway,” he said with all the sweetness and patience of someone who didn’t have to deal with this every damn day. “What do you want?”
Tad sat up, rejuvenated. “Cheese and tomatoes.”
We had plenty of both, considering Dad’s patio garden and infatuation with the idea that Kraft singles were a healthier food than bread. I ate a lot of cheese sandwiches that summer – literal cheese sandwiches, with two slices of Kraft cheese awkwardly enclosing the inner ingredients – and Dad’s hypertension, shockingly, did not improve.
“You got it.” Berry stepped down onto the ladder and, as an afterthought, held a hand out to me. “Gimme your radio.”
“Walkie talkie.” I unclipped the little plastic nothing from my belt. Barry had a better understanding of the psychological value the things had for Tad than I did, and he treated them with due gravity. This annoyed me.
Barry shrugged and took it from me. “Technically a radio.”
He descended, Tad took up his Game Boy, and I went back to trying to teach myself aeronautics. I didn’t get so much as five minutes of peace.
I lowered my face to the page and scratched harder. It was my book, and I had to look busy to convince him to leave me alone, so what did I care if I wrote right through one sheet and onto the next?
My plastic pen snapped on the paper page. “What?”
He was sat bolt upright, looking through the thin screen of trees between the platform and our house. He had his shoulders hunched up around his ears. “What’s that?”
Something cold busted out of my spinal column and spread all over my back. I lifted myself up on my arms, slowly, and looked.
There it was again.
It picked its way across our yard on its tall legs. They splayed out from its fat trunk a little, not quite like a deer after all. When it reached the telephone pole that supported our yard light, it… You could say it stood up. Like it got confident once it got halfway to the house. It unfolded onto its two hind legs, and I suppose they did look like a deer’s legs, still, in a way. Long and slim with strong upper construction and either dainty hooves or no feet at all. Its front feet were like that, too, more like pegs than legs past the knee.
It was totally black, and it glinted where its body caught the sunlight.
Its long, thick neck was bowed forward to where I couldn’t make out the shape of its head if I tried. As it walked to the house, it held its upper peg-arm-legs out in front off it, crooked, like a cartoon tyrannosaurus.
“Frank,” Tad piped. He pressed in close to me like he would when he was much smaller. “What is that?”
I reached over without taking my eyes off the house and took the walkie talkie from its clip on his shorts. “It’s an animal,” I said, very quietly. I scraped around in my skull for the name of any animal that walked out of forests on its hind legs. Finding one relieved me so much that I got lightheaded. “I think it’s a bear, but I can’t be sure. You hush.”
Tad snuffled, and I didn’t have to look over to know he’d started to cry already. He never learned to just lock down like I did. I brought the radio up to my face and depressed the one bright orange button on the side. “Barry. Are you still inside? Over.”
The thing from the woods went to my window first. It braced its peg feet on the frame on each side and, I can only assume, looked inside with its stooped over head. I prayed to God we were within the thousand foot radius the walkies boasted.
Crackle. “Yeah. Why?” Silence. Crackle. “Over.”
I sucked in a breath and prepared to lie. “There’s a bear in the yard. I’ll let you know when she leaves. Over.”
Silence. Silence. God, that thing was so still all of a sudden.
“Shit, really? Over.”
I sneered into the speaker like Barry could see me through it. “Yes, really! I wouldn’t jerk you around about something like this. Stay inside til I say leave. Better yet, wait for us. Over.”
“Are y’all okay out there, though? Bears can climb trees. Over.”
Tad whimpered and I made a mental note to slap Barry in the tits later. “It’s not gonna climb the tree. It’s just… scavenging, I think. It’s been around a couple times. I think it’s looking for food ’cause we cook outside all the time. Over.”
Barry’s face appeared from behind the curtains over the kitchen window that faced the woods. He waved.
The thing moved. Or, rather, it unfurled itself further. Its drooping neck rose, thick and smooth like a snake’s body, a delicate and angular head that did remind of a doe up top. It whipped that head in the direction of the kitchen window.
Tad was quiet, but I felt him shaking beside me.
I squashed the radio in my hand. “Stay away from the windows, you dumb dick!” I hissed.
The curtain fell back into place. That thing was already making its way to the other window. Seeing it in profile, I was positive it had no hands or feet at all. I realized, too, that with its doe head periscoping around it was as tall as the eaves of the house.
“Is it on this side or something? Over.”
“Yeah.” The doe thing stopped at the kitchen window and planted its peg hands on either side of the frame. It rotated its head to look through the upper pane, where the curtain didn’t reach. “Barry, go in the bathroom and stay there.” I took a breath and depressed the button again. “Over.”
Silence and silence. Not even Tad was making a sound at that point.
“Frank, that’s not a bear.” I heard something clatter and crash across the floor, distantly, on the other end. “Uh. Over.”
“I know,” I said in the stupid robot voice I put on whenever things went to shit. “Just stay inside til it goes away. It always goes away. Over.”
“Always?” The thud of one of our house’s cheap hollow core doors slamming sounded. “Does it show up a lot? What is it?” Breathing. “Over. These things are stupid.”
“It’s been here a couple times. I don’t know what it is. Over.”
The doe-head peg-leg monster dropped down on all its pegs and paced the perimeter of the house, pressed up against the siding like it had done the first day I saw it. Our bathroom had the exact appropriate number of windows – zero – so it was out of luck. It disappeared around a corner to stalk the front of the house.
“Does your dad know about it?”
I rolled my gaze over to Tad’s still, tear-streaked face. “Yeah.” It was easier to lie in the moment of crisis. “He says not to bother it and just let it go away on its own. Like a bear. Over.”
“What he oughtta do is shoot it. Over.”
“No gun. Over.”
“I stand by my point! Over!”
A spraying crash carried across the field to the platform. Tad and I both sprang up on our bare feet on sheer reflex. Barry’s voice hissed over the radio before I could think to depress the button.
“Jesus Christ, it just broke a window. Can you see it? Did it come in?”
I rubbed my empty hand on the cold nape of my neck. No, I couldn’t see it. “Stay where you are. Over and out.” My arms dropped to my sides, and I nudged Tad with the radio so he’d take it. With my hands freed up, I started down the ropes to the forest floor.
I heard Barry’s voice snap, “And do what, exactly?” over the radio.
Tad didn’t answer. His head popped over the edge of the platform to watch me go. “Franklin, don’t.”
“It’s just an animal,” I said, trying my damnedest to disguise the robot voice I’d been told was disconcerting. “I’ll spook it away, and it’ll be fine.”
I swung back, kicked off the tree trunk, and dropped the last few feet to the carpet of leaves and pine straw. How I expected Tad to buy that I’d scare anything away in a tank top and shorts, I can’t say. Some beanpole kid dressed to keep the heat off isn’t exactly intimidating. Forest trash gave way to patchy grass as I tore out of the woods and into our yard proper. I was in full robot mode and, for the moment, not too worried.
It was just an animal. That this seldom stopped bears from mauling people didn’t occur to me.
I came skidding around the corner of the house, by the patio, and found it thrashing around in the living room window, half in and half out, peg legs battering the side of the house as it tried to scrabble inside.
It was huge. Of course, I knew it was huge before, but seeing it up close with our raised patio and the eaves of the house handy for scale drove the point home. I hurried up the patio steps and, because I absolutely couldn’t help myself, stopped still with my hand on the kitchen door just long enough to get a better look at it.
My first thought was, ‘This thing is covered in garbage bags.’ Its skin was black, glossy, crinkled, and loose-fitting.
As it struggled to pull itself into the house without any hands to grab on with, it made no sound. No mouth type sounds, anyway. It communicated its fury through the frantic thrashing and thudding of its pegged legs.
I ducked into our kitchen. Driving it from behind would only force it into the house. I took the broom from its little nook by the fridge. Nothing liked getting bashed in the face.
The prospect of looking into its face didn’t exactly thrill me. I put it out of my mind and made for the open archway into the living room.
From the inside, it was even more obvious that the thing just couldn’t get its fat haunches through the window. It was bottom heavy, apple shaped with the exception of its snake neck and peg legs, and it had trapped itself only in that it refused to stop trying.
Like catching monkeys. The thought came to me spontaneously, delivered in Tad’s voice. He was full of stuff like that and saw nothing weird about sharing. Poachers fill gourds strung from trees with food through a small hole and throw nets over monkeys who come for the food and, being stupid monkeys, don’t think to open their hands and release the food to get free.
That was comforting.
It was just an animal.
Never mind that, in this analogy, Barry was the food. Or I was.
It snapped its doe head up on its snake neck when I stepped through the archway. Its eyes reminded of a deer’s, too. Deep and dark and empty. They sat far forward on its skull. Predator eyes.
The thrashing stopped. It was fixed on me, now, and sizing me up. I raised the broom over my head, stepped forward, and swung down hard.
I don’t know how many times you’ve taken a punch to the head, run face-on into something while riding your bike, or got nailed by a baseball, but let me make something clear: It’s not just the point of impact that hurts. The neck, shoulders, and back seize up in last-second anticipation. If you’re hit hard enough, those tense muscles pull with the force of the blow and pain rolls down from your face to the middle of your back.
That thing nailed me right across my cheekbone and over the bridge of my nose, and I went down.
Most of its ridiculous height was in its legs, after all.
I smelled my own blood and felt the percussion of heavy steps thudding from the direction of the kitchen. At the time, I was too dazed to make sense of that. The thing was right in front of me, thrashing again, trying to get at me. It couldn’t have come around to the kitchen door.
A hollow rasp sounded from somewhere over me and something very cold sprinkled down on my bare arms and legs. I rolled over and my face caught a cloud of icy spray wafting over from where that thing was pinwheeling its legs with renewed urgency. I coughed on the cold.
The thudding turned sharp as the thing’s frantic feet scattered backward, away from me, to the window. The rasp died down and the cloud started to thin out. That thing only vocalized in reaction to a harsh clang that rang out by the window, and it was gone.
Barry was standing over me, red-faced breathless. Our kitchen fire extinguisher, totally spent, rocked back and forth on its side by the window. That was about all I could make out through the clearing fog. He dropped down by me and hauled me up under one arm.
I forced a smile and used it as an excuse to take inventory of my teeth with my tongue. All accounted for. I ducked around him and made for the kitchen door.
I cleared blood from my nose and wiped it on the front of my shirt.
Barry tromped after me, wordless. A certain understanding had welled up between us very rapidly, and we simply floated in it. We floated to the edge of the trees to get Tad down, bring him inside, and put something cold from the freezer on my face while we decided what we’d tell Dad about the window.
I don’t remember what I was using as an ice pack that day. I don’t remember what I said to Tad or what he said to me when I was trying to talk him down the ladder.
Stupid robot brain has poor memory retention sometimes. Read-only.
The clarity of my memory didn’t return fully until the next night, after dinner.
“Can Barry stay over on Saturday?” Tad asked from his seat of power, balled up in the corner of our sectional sofa, watching the patched up section of living room wall across from him.
We’d boarded the window up.
Dad wouldn’t be buying a gun.
I resented that, though I understand it now. I can’t be angry at him for not wanting to bring a deadly weapon into the house over what he understood to be a confused animal. One I’d tried to smash in the face with a broom.
Dad crashed in the recliner that anchored one end of the sofa. “I thought you didn’t like Barry.”
Maybe it was my fault he didn’t take it seriously. I was the one, I remember, who was trying to push the unidentified animal angle in hopes of being taken seriously at all. Tad just called it was it was.
“Barry can help us kill the monster,” Tad said plainly. He took a very careful sip of the carton of chocolate milk he’d convinced Dad to let him drink on the couch. “And I like him fine.”
In a house of boys, it’s perfectly acceptable to roll your eyes like my dad did at the suggestion that we ‘kill the monster.’ “Tad, nobody’s gonna kill anything. If that thing didn’t learn its lesson about scrounging around here, the new fence will keep it out of our business.”
He’d called a contractor about the fence that afternoon, I know now from what amount to secondhand accounts of my own life.
I was playing Super Nintendo, ostensibly, though I spent more time on the pause screen while I swiveled my head around to monitor the room at my back. I paused again and shifted my body around, kind of rotating without compromising my criss-cross-apple-sauce position on the carpet. It still hurt my face to talk. “Can he come anyway? It’s weird when you’re not here at night.”
I was playing a delicate game. I’d been spectacularly stupid very, very recently, and anyone not acting as head of a house of boys would instantly shut down the request. I knew that I had guilt on my side, though, and the ever-present threat of some meltdown or another on Tad’s part on account of his intolerance for loneliness.
Trying to project this through my eyes – to say that he had to leave us alone all day, to ask him to look at my bandaged face with the livid stripe across my nose – I watched Dad think.
He didn’t think as long as he put on a show of thinking, I’m sure. “If it’s just Barry, I guess it’s fine,” he said, pushing off from his seat to go get something from the fridge. “You know I have to ask his mama, too, right?”
I bristled and turned back to my game. “Of course I know that.”
I also knew he’d do all the requisite lying about not being away at a training seminar, knowing Barry’s mom would buy it from his mouth and not mine. Nobody in the room had to say that, but we all understood that would happen. It was on understandings like these that our house of boys was built.
Tad and I would both sleep terribly that night and the next. On Friday night I answered a call on my radio and wound up crashed on a bean bag in the corner of Tad’s room, sleeping for an hour at a time between episodes of watching the window.
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