John North Radway
Posted on May 14th, 2014
Summer rotted as summer always did, then shriveled into fall’s mummifications. Winter was sterile as moondust and had very little to do with blood and breath. Then spring came, or something like spring, and death walked the hills again.
Mostly he watched it from his bedroom window. On his braver days he wandered out into the brunt of it to try to find an answer. Yesterday had been a braver day. He’d pulled on his rubber boots, slipped his lucky stone into his jacket pocket, and knocked three times on the porch railing, once for the past, once for the future, once for making it back again. Then he’d rubbed his teeth against one another and plunged into the wild, bloody field where robins ripped worms from the earth and late frosts had strangled the first seedlings. He’d gone because he had to. It was a ritual through which he hoped to glimpse his enemy’s hand. To study his movements. To beat him.
He only lasted three minutes, until a sick squirrel limped across his path, fur peeling from its flanks like sheets of rain. He sprinted back to the safety of the porch, eyes clenched, lips muttering a spell he didn’t trust.
Today was not a brave day. Today he lodged himself in a corner of his bedroom and waited for breakfast to end and for the others to go away. He didn’t want to see them. They were deer in the crosshairs of a rifle sight and somehow it didn’t bother them at all. He couldn’t face their smiles and their patronizing kisses. They were big. They could do something about it if they wanted to.
Yet they did nothing. Conclusion: no help there. He’d have to fight this war alone.
Even his bedroom didn’t look safe today. Too much blue plush, too many fringes reaching out like tentacles, too much room for pestilence to lurk between the piles of the carpet. His breath came in narrow gulps. He tried to keep it out of his lungs. No good. It was everywhere. He could smell it.
He slipped out his bedroom door and down the hallway on tiptoes in search of some other shelter. A draft from a window tickled his face, smelling of rot and the dark parts of the earth. He squinted, squealed. It was horrible. He needed a place to cower, a place where even the wind couldn’t enter.
He closed the bathroom door behind him, grinning at the sterile click the latch made. Everything was better here. Fluorescent lights, dark blinds, and the satisfying odor of chlorine bleach set him free for a moment from the panic of living. And better still—a little giddy, a little smug, his eyes fell on the door to the cabinet below the bathroom sink. That was it—his fortress within a fortress. The darkest, cleanest corner. Sanctuary.
No. Danger. He opened the cupboard. A forest of bottles and boxes, each one marked with small print and words like WARNING and some even with skulls and crossbones. It looked like his nightmares. Where were the crisp, bleached linens? Someone must have rearranged the world. He knew who. He’d seen pictures.
He squeezed his eyes shut so that purple dots danced against the black field of his withdrawal, fleeing backward into the place inside himself where he was nothing but thought and mind and the mucky contortions that held them together. But it was no good. The skulls followed him, smirking like the April sun, and the empty black robe with the curved blade and the hands like skeletons chased behind them, laughing like a kettledrum as it wrapped around his face, plugged his nose, snaked down his throat, crept across his skin in tiny tickling shimmies—
Wait. He opened his eyes. It was all just his—what was the word?—imagination. Except for the tiny tickling shimmies. Those were real. He looked down at the bare skin of his ankle, where three or four ants crept in an line. Their antennae swayed thoughtfully as they sniffed up and down the length of his shin, wagging like pups.
He liked them somehow. They were on his side.
Then he saw that the last one in the row carried the twisted husk of what had been one of them, split nearly in two by some sudden and thorough trauma. The boy stared. No sorrow here. No panic. No tiny wails.
It was as though they didn’t even mind.
Then a wicked smirk spread across his own face and he knew what he had to do.
It only took a few minutes to set up the operation. He had a sense of purpose now and he didn’t even mind that the others had left the window open and that the kitchen smelled pleasantly of lilacs that would shrivel to nothing by the end of the month.
When everything was ready he lay down on his belly on the yellowed linoleum of the kitchen floor so he could watch from eye level and miss nothing.
* * * * *
His mother came home to disaster.
As her car arced into the automatic garage she was startled and maybe a little pleased by the sight of her child outdoors by himself with a smile on his face. Last week he hadn’t wanted his feet to touch the grass even through his sneakers. Too dangerous, he’d said. She didn’t know for whom. But now he lay on his back, fingers spread, staring up at the leaves of the oak tree and appearing to breathe without effort. She tried to wave through the car window but he didn’t see.
The garage closed. She locked the car, unlocked the house, wiped her feet, stopped cold on the threshold, stared.
It was like blood under a strong microscope or the ploughed fields of the Western states seen from above. Red plastic disks lay around the floor in rough clusters. Between them, interstitial blots of pale ooze overlay the dull yellow linoleum of the kitchen floor. The whole affair had a sticky look and smelled almost pleasant, like a gentle blend of jams and syrups.
She crouched down to examine the nearest of the red disks. She hadn’t used these in years. Where had he even found them? Under the bathroom sink, probably. He liked to hide there. Maybe they shouldn’t have moved the linens. If he’d poisoned himself too she wouldn’t think twice about blaming Pete.
She sighed, shook her head, looked again at the floor that she would now have to spend the afternoon washing. Caught in the wide swaths of syrup and jam were hundreds upon hundreds of tiny black bodies, a few of them still wriggling.
She shouted to him from the porch. He turned and looked toward her with a smile that she found upsetting. The counselor had called him disturbed but that didn’t mean much.
He turned, smiling, to see her watching him with that look that meant she didn’t want to tell him what he’d done wrong. He ignored it this time, too pleased with his victory to care. Probably he’d just left the fridge open. Probably she wouldn’t be angry at all when he told her what he’d done for them. He grinned wider when he saw that she held one of the ant traps in her left hand, a little talisman of hell and deliverance.
“I figured it out,” he said. “I figured out how to keep him from coming back.”
Her eyebrows folded. She hoped she didn’t understand. “You’ve made quite the mess in there.” Did she sound angry? She wanted to.
“I know, but it was the only way I could think of. We’re safe now. See, I lured them in with all the jelly. It was like an appetizer. Like eggrolls. Then they ate the poison too and then they all died.”
“Why did you do that, sweetie? They didn’t do anything wrong, did they?”
He didn’t hear the question. He just saw her face fold up in that way it only did when she tried to explain what had happened to Jenny. Then something flashed between them like a jolt of static and he felt what she was feeling. It was too much. It didn’t fit inside him. It came out in sobs and howls. “I was just trying to help. I just thought—he’d leave us alone. If he got a— a lot of them. He’d be—all full, and—and never come back again. I just thought—” Then words weren’t any good anymore. He fell in a pile on the lawn and listened to his own fantastic ruckus as though it were the last echo of something very far away.
With a certain reluctant grace she crossed the lawn to where her only child lay crying. His face made a dent in the soft earth and his tears filled it, a vernal pool that would vanish in the first summer heat. “Hon,” she said, almost touching him, “You can’t stop death. You can’t just— feed it till it’s not hungry anymore. That’s just the way things work.”
All she could make out was a muffled string of nos.
No use. She sighed, turned, walked back inside to have another look at the aftermath of the massacre. Hundreds, and all for nothing. She didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know what to say. She wanted to shake him, wanted to scream, wanted to tell him that he could get a new goddamn hamster if it meant that much to him.
She knew it wouldn’t help. Nothing would, ever.
Back on the lawn dark shadows gathered, the grass grew tall, and a hundred thousand black ants milled about in the eternal darkness of the soil.