Belly Flop Bastards
“Belly flop!” Benjamin Tipton roared with nearly supernatural thunder before he took the plunge. The boy was almost fifteen now, and the last of his childhood went with that magnanimous yell.
Everyone heard the passionate cry because, either by fate or design, the walls threw noise around no matter how far away they originated from.
Tipton and the rest of the bathing suit-clad kids labored up the hot, rough terrain mechanically; an assembly line of children of varying ages with the same shared focus. In a different world, it might have been waiting patiently in the school lunch line they stood in. Or maybe a slide at some crowded water theme park. In this world, however, they were waiting to belly flop.
Out of the scores of children in line, Hank was admittedly one of the few not exactly ready to flop. He had prepared himself mentally for what seemed like months, but still the belly flop daunted him. Still, there was little he could do. He was in line. He had a duty to Darren and his mom and pop.
Darren had coached Hank thoroughly, over and over again, about the importance of piety and selflessness. Less fortunate children, he'd said, would kill to be in their shoes.
Hank wished he was Benjamin Tipton, the boy who had just flopped. Then it would be over with; his anxiety washed away. He just wanted to get it over with and start anew.
Another one of the jumpers dove and screamed. After that, after hearing that high-pitched scream, dread rose up and began nibbling away at his insides. He tried to shut it out. It wasn’t easy. He could feel the sweat festering on his forehead; the stink of it.
That's when he heard a voice behind him. He turned.
“I said 'are you scared?'” The voice came from a girl, tall and thin, maybe twelve or thirteen years of age. As he stared at her, the mountain's shadow caught her face in such a way that it temporarily matured her. When the illusion passed, it dawned on Hank who this girl was: Amelia. He’d seen her around town from time to time, often around their church.
He nodded. “Bet your ass I'm scared.” He accentuated the“ass” part since he was only thirteen and he knew he was breaking a Law by saying it. “Aren’t you?”
She shook her head no. “It’s a long way down, but I think we’ll be okay.”
She was scared, Hank knew this. That's what everybody was supposed to say, that 'it was a long ways down' but everything ended up 'okay.'
Another voice chimed in, this one from a boy behind Amelia. “I don't think it'll be okay.” It was a quiet, but stern, declaration. The boy was about his age, one of the original town inhabitants from back during the communal days.
Before the massive influx.
Randall, Hank suddenly remembered. The boy's name was Randall. At that moment, Randall was telling both of them, or anyone within hearing, that they didn't have to go and do the flop. He sounded desperate and fatigued, like Hank’s strained knees.
But Darren told them that they had to do it. All of them. The instructions came right out of the Book. It wasn’t wild coyotes that lurked around this mountain, they'd told Hank. It was the Beasts.
That’s why you must not, under any circumstance, if even to empty your bowels, remove yourself from the line, Darren had reminded Hank several days earlier.
“He’s right,” said another boy, a boy named Thomas. “We don’t have to do it. We don’t have to do anything.” He might have been sixteen or seventeen, with patchy traces of facial hair and faint acne blemishes.
Hank sighed as the line inched forward. Several kids had taken the drop in silence — no screams or bellows of hope from them. Standing there, he thought of the Book then his parents and his looming belly flop down the side of the mountain of Darren's words – that what he was about to do was a “blessing and a privilege.”
Another kid flopped. This one screamed as he disappeared over the edge.
Hank wondered how far those screams traveled. Could they be heard all the way back to town? While it was against the Law to leave the line, and if a child here or there did the Beasts would surely maul them, what would the town say, Darren say, if forty or fifty of them suddenly turned right around and marched back down the mountainside?
Would the Beasts scream and flop off the mountainside?
Surrounded by kids and teens, those waiting in line twiddled their thumbs, softly sobbed, or screamed aloud when the belly floppers plunged. Most prayed, reciting psalms of inspiration.
“I’m gonna make a run for it,” Randall stated. After a slight hesitation, he made a run for it, just like he'd promised he'd do. He skittered wildly out of line and was trailing down the side of the mountain before anyone could even remotely do anything about it. He disappeared around the corner.
There was a stunned silence before many in line began clapping and cheering. Others hunkered down, waiting to hear the boy's screams as the Beasts sniffed him out and tore him to bits and pieces.
Amelia cracked her knuckles. When Hank turned to look at her, she gave him a crooked smile. “What a loser,” she said, spitting white cottony saliva from her mouth. “People are so dumb. They’ll tear him to shreds,” -- referring to the Beasts.
They continued to stand in line. With each scream, they would inch forward. The screams sounded like wraiths wracked with agony.
A hulking behemoth of a boy rose to the challenge at the tip of the mountain. There was certainly no mistaking the grossly disproportionate, lumping silhouette figure. And while nobody knew his name, it belonged to a boy who’d earned the moniker “Fish,” on account that he spent the majority of his time fishing rather than studying the Book. He had stumbled into town one day, a vagrant, little more than nineteen, wild and uneducated. That’s why he was in line today. He was a good boy and he could be taught, so Darren taught him.
Hank watched anxiously as Fish lumbered toward the plank and disappeared over the edge. There was a cacophony of gasps as Fish roared on his way down.
“What a turd,” someone muttered in amazement. There were giggles.
Four more kids did perfect-form belly flops after Fish had fallen before a fifth stalled, shouting about a sudden fear of heights. The kids behind him urged him to flop. He refused. The person behind him, a little red-haired girl, pushed him over the edge. The boy screamed with terror and plunged into the depths.
The line slowly inched forward then stopped. Moved backward. Stopped again.
“What's going on?” Amelia asked, tapping Hank's shoulder.
“I don't know.”
Up ahead, there was a commotion, a buzzing of voices. Those voices turned to screams. One bellowing voice drowned out all the others. It was loud and hysterical. Squinting ahead, Hank saw someone up there, another big kid, was hurrying through the line. Tired of waiting, he was making his way, people in front be damned, to the jumping off point at the edge of the cliff. The problem was that there was no room for him to cut in line without shoving people off the path and right over the edges of the mountains to either side of them.
So he shoved boys and girls off the side of the mountain. He was screaming as he did it, making a subhuman guttural sound between his words of “move it” and “tired of waiting.” When he reached the edge of the cliff, he put his arms out and leaped into the air. Despite all the screaming he'd done making his way to the edge, he remained silent as he sailed out of sight.
He glanced at the horizon. He wasn't far from the edge now — maybe fifteen kids in front of him.
A few steps away from my belly flop.
He almost had to pretzel his legs to stop the sudden urge to shit himself.
The others jumped. The line inched along. Until the line ended with him and, behind him, Amelia.
She shoved her way past him, walking to the edge of the cliff with a grin.
Hank felt himself losing it: the panic was electrifying, making him shake uncontrollably. Even his dinosaur legs felt like they were going to tumble out from under him.
Amelia turned and smiled at him. “Are you scared?”
He laughed nervously, feeling a slight déjà vu. “Bet your ass I'm scared.”
She grabbed his hand, clasping his fingers between hers. “How about now?”
He didn’t know what to say, so he let his blushing cheeks speak for themselves.
“C’mere.” She twisted his arm to her right so they could stand side by side at the head of the mountain, just barely fitting, so he could stare his fate straight in the face.
“We'll go together.”
He stared down into open air, suddenly feeling nauseous. He noticed two things. First, there was an ungodly stench coming from below. Second, there were layers upon layers of corpses lining the shallow canal.
Two days worth of them, in fact.
But not yet two full days: Amelia and Hank still hadn’t belly flopped, not yet.
Amelia tightened her grip on his hand and, for a second, he thought she was just going to swing him over the edge.
“Look,” she gasped, pointing beyond the mass grave.
“It's Thomas,” she said. “He's made it down the mountain.”
“They didn't get him.”
Hank nodded. “Ready to save the town, Hank?”
He paused, considering. Was he ready?
He finally nodded.
They held their arms out just as they'd been instructed to do — “straight out at your sides, like my crucifix, very good Hank.” Darren confirmed from the hot strata—and gave each other a parting glance.
“I’m not, “Hank suddenly muttered.
“What?” Amelia glanced at him.
“I’m not scared anymore.”
She gave him a sideways smile.
Then, hand-in-hand, they flopped off the side of the mountain, aiming for Thomas.
MASS SUICIDES IN NEVADA MOUNTAINS
Some estimations are saying as many as 1,200 men, women and children willingly plunged off of “Salvation Mountain” in the past two days, a seven thousand foot cliff in a remote shadow of the desert. While full details have yet to surface, investigators are saying this is the biggest mass suicide since the Jonestown Massacre. Police have uncovered a primitive town nearby after a young sole survivor of the incident, who’s name is yet to be released, led them first to the mountain and then to the town, informing police of the perverse activities taking place.
He said that the town was originally a quiet communal society, originally intended to be for the spiritual enlightenment of youth, providing mentors/surrogate mothers and fathers for the vagrant children. But in more recent times it had started to become unruly and overrun with “all the wrong people” after word of its comforts and simple lifestyle had spread throughout the surrounding communities. The sole survivor, who we can only say is a young man, had told investigators that this mass suicide was the result of what had become a new cult, led by some Darren Seckler, a retired priest who is now in custody. Darren has so far confessed to instructing the kids and their “parents” to “belly flop” off the mountain as the sun went down. He said if they did, they would be born and, together, they would reclaim their town that had now run out of control and was predominantly secular.
“Everyone was being brainwashed to jump. And those who didn’t buy it were forced to, or drugged, or did it out of a fear of death,” the young hero said.“I don’t know how I got away. But I’m very grateful I did.”
It was a sweltering late October, an Indian summer run amok. The occasional breeze scattered dust but otherwise brought little comfort. The heat didn’t bother Danny nearly as much as the boredom did. He had been wandering on his own, stealing food, throwing rocks at passing cars, but now he needed a new diversion. The deep oration from across the street drew his attention.
The revivalists had come, setting up in the dead of night. The sign outside the white tent promised shade and salvation.
A couple of large men worked the passersby, encouraging them to enter. They were dressed in white linen suits, wool trilbies and white-and-tan leather shoes. Even in the heat, neither man broke a sweat.
Danny wanted to watch, but the tent looked crowded. The last thing he wanted was to be caught by Pa, watching, of all things, a revival of sorts. Stealing food was fine, encouraged even. It was one less meal Pa had to supply. Messing with religion, though, was a major offense. Pa said Danny’s mother was taken by religion when he was just a baby.
He skirted the main entrance, taking a wide berth around to the back of the tent. From within, the deep voice shouted, "Let the holy spirit in!"
Some of the audience cheered and clapped. Danny considered crawling beneath the tent but found a rip in the canvas. He put his eye to the hole.
A low stage sat at the back of the tent, close to his vantage point. Upon it stood a few men dressed like those out front. Another man paced back and forth, holding a large black book in one hand and gesturing wildly with the other. He was heavy-set but not fat, dressed in a light pinstripe suit—sharper than those out front. This was his show.
"As Peter said in Acts five thirty-two, 'we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.' Are we not all witnesses to these miracles?" he asked, spreading his arms wide. Some of the audience reached up to the sky, or clapped vigorously; a few fell to their knees, their hands clasped before them.
Danny noticed a line of people to the left of the stage. Two of the men lifted the next in line, a young man in a wheel chair. The men formed a semi-circle around him. Danny never saw the preacher leave the pulpit or place his Bible below it, but he watched as he removed it again.
"My son, what ails you today?" the preacher asked.
"Doctor says it’s polio." He hung his head down. "I’ve been lame for years."
The preacher placed his hands on the younger man's shoulders and straightened him. “Are you ready to accept Jesus Christ as your savior, and to ask the Holy Spirit to dwell within you?"
"Yes," the man said.
"Shout it out! Yell 'I give myself over to Jesus.'"
"I give myself over to Jesus."
"'And I ask the Holy Spirit to dwell within me!' Shout it out, brother!"
The boy yelled the words at the top of his lungs.
The preacher pressed the book to the man’s forehead. "Holy Spirit, come into this man's heart and reside within him. Your indwelling is a mark of God’s ownership, that we are one of his own. Heal him and, in turn, use him. Allow the Holy Spirit in."
He pushed the man backward. The wheelchair tilted, and the preacher's helpers caught the man and guided him to the floor. The crowd gasped with shouts of “Amen” and “Jesus.” Danny held his breath.
The man stood and took a shuddering step. His eyes were wide as a large smile broke across his face. Danny was stunned.
The man spoke. It wasn’t English, nor did it sound like any real language. He raised his head high to the peak of the tent and yelled more gibberish. A few in the crowd answered back. The preacher smiled and spoke a few words in the same strange language.
"Behold, he speaks in the tongue of Heaven, the language of the Holy Spirit. As Paul said in two Corinthians five seventeen, 'Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; old things passed away; behold new things to come.' And our brother here is a new creature. Please, everyone, welcome him into the fold, and attest to the miracles you have seen here today."
The young man walked from the stage and into the crowd; they welcomed him with handshakes, pats on the back and a few hugs. A handful of young boys meandered through the crowd, receiving money and charity on wooden platters.
Danny’s attention stayed on the preacher as he walked back behind the pulpit. On a shelf below, the preacher opened a small chest and placed the Bible inside. Danny squinted. He was sure he saw a faint light shining from within the chest.
As he leaned in further, something charged at Danny from his left and knocked him to the ground.
"Getting a good peek?" asked his brother, Howie. He stood over Danny, his hands on his hips and a broad grin on his face. He was fourteen years old to Danny's twelve, and in the past year he'd shot up a good head taller.
"You should watch,” Danny said. "The preacher man is healing folks. It's amazing."
Howie stuck his eye to the hole. "He's a snake oil salesman for the soul, you dummy. That's what Pa says. Unless you want a whopping 'til you can't sit down, it's best you listen."
"Pa won't be back 'til after sundown. How's he gonna know?"
"Something like this? He will know." Howie’s eye was back at the hole, watching. The crowd inside began to clap and cheer and Howie busted up laughing. "They're all saps. Just look at them handing out their money."
Howie turned away and crossed the street. Danny followed.
"You know it's fake, right?" Howie asked. When Danny didn't answer immediately, he continued. "Fake people with their fake ailments, pretending to be lame or blind. A little prayer, gimme some coins and boom – Praise the Lord."
This was not quite how Danny had seen it. He knew he lacked experience when it came to religion. So did his brother. Their father strictly forbade it.
"They also talked funny," Danny added.
"What do you mean? 'Thee, thou, begat,' that kind of thing?"
"No, it all sounded like gibberish to me."
"I think that's called Latin,” Howie offered.
"Maybe. The preacher talked about letting the Holy Spirit in, and pushed this guy out of his wheelchair. He stood on his own. And he spoke funny. The preacher called it the tongue of Heaven or something." Danny tried to mimic it.
"You know what would be fun..." Howie started, then paused for a moment. He began dragging his left foot behind him, slacked his jaw and drooped his eyes. "What if, uh, I needs some healin' too?"
"There's no cure for your problems," Danny replied, shoving his brother.
"No, think about it. These hucksters are up there tricking all those folks out of their money, right? I go up there, pretend to have some problems, but they can't heal me no matter what they do!"
"These guys are big. I don't think you'd want to piss them off."
Howie thought for a minute. "Oh, that'd be even better. These religious guys beating up on a kid? See how fast those old farmers and spinsters scatter. Or maybe we work some money out of this.”
Danny saw this idea going downhill quickly and changed the subject. "What did you end up doing today?"
"Nothin'. This town's boring. I did snag some Camels, though." He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and handed one to Danny. They walked toward the market. "Maybe I could be blind?"
"Maybe you could be dumb. Oops, too late!"
Howie circled the block and passed by the front of the tent. Danny followed. The preacher and his men stood outside, shaking hands as folks wandered out. A sign beside the tent announced that the next service would begin at 5 p.m. Neither boy wore a watch, but the train station at the end of the street had a large clock visible from where they stood.
"Let's eat first and come back here at five," Howie said. "We can get in and out of the tent before meeting Pa."
Danny wasn't too crazy about the idea. In the end, though, he always followed Howie. "Sure, let's go grab some grub."
The evening service started with a prayer before launching into a sermon. Danny returned to the hole in the back of the tent and left Howie alone; he didn't want to be nearby if Howie's ruse went poorly. While he admired Howie's gumption, he'd learned long ago to stay well out of range of its effects.
The preacher paced tiger-like back and forth, gesturing, raising and lowering his voice. Danny focused on what he did with the book.
There was that shelf on the backside of the pulpit Danny had spied earlier that day. Darkness swallowed most of the details, yet the chest appeared to be closed. The preacher often placed the Bible there while he paced before coming back to it and picking the book back up again.
Howie sat a few rows back and followed along with the crowd. At the end of the sermon, the same three men joined the preacher, calling for people who sought blessings or healings to come forth; the line formed quickly.
Many people got in line before Howie and things progressed rather slowly. Most were young, a few a bit older. The late afternoon sun succumbed to twilight and Danny watched the book with increasing interest.
After the first couple of people had left the stage, the preacher opened the chest and slid the book inside. While quoting scripture, he fetched it again. Those in the audience never knew what happened behind the pulpit, but Danny could see it all. The chest, now opened, did indeed emit a faint glow. A subtle radiance appeared to cling to the book.
The Bible glowed now, carried across the stage in the preacher's large hand.
"It's my heart, I just can't..." The woman had come onstage carrying a baby, wearing a long dress, old and threadbare. She sniffled and turned her head away, catching a sob in her free hand.
The preacher put his free hand on her shoulder. The crowd hushed. Howie stood at the base of the steps, next in line.
"My husband died recently, leaving me and my little Jessie here alone. My heart, it's crushed, I don't know how..." She cried out, sank to her knees. "How can I go on?"
"With the help of Jesus Christ," the preacher sympathized in a soft tone. "Through him, all things are possible. He shall heal your heart and provide for your soul." The preacher placed his hand on the woman's head. The faint light emanated from the Bible in his other hand. “But you must ask for the Spirit to dwell within you."
"I don’t deserve Him," she whispered.
"You do. But you must ask to receive help."
The preacher grasped the Bible between his hands and pressed it to the woman's forehead. From Danny's vantage point, the darkness of the night painted a black background against the kneeling woman, making the book's glow visible for all to see.
"Holy Spirit, come into this woman's heart, reside within her." The nimbus swam around her head, the faintest swirls flowing out from the book and disappearing where it crossed in front of the light canvas of the tent. Danny’s heart quickened.
"Your indwelling is a mark of God’s ownership, that we are one of his." The glow flowed into her eyes, mouth, nostrils and ears. She squeezed her eyes shut, tears leaking from the corners. Danny couldn't believe it and blinked. The light remained.
"Heal her, and in turn use her. Let the Holy Spirit in."
What had been nondescript took on a form, incorporeal yet distinct, coming out of the book. A vague impression of arms held her shoulders and a shape like a head formed and flowed into her mouth. The rest of a small body followed—small, faint, and ethereal, but real. Danny saw her shuddering. His hands began to tremble.
The preacher pushed her head gently backward, her eyes wide and mouth gaping. She babbled in the strange language and the preacher responded in the same tongue. A wail rose up from the child in her arms as she stood and faced the crowd. They returned her stare faithfully.
Howie started up the steps.
Danny panicked, his heart racing wildly. He shot around the tent, the overwhelming need to stop Howie his only thought. Out front, one of the men made a grab at Danny but missed. The other man got hold of Danny’s collar, yanking him back and causing the shirt to rend.
“What’s the rush, little brother?” the big man inquired, turning Danny around away from the tent entrance.
“My brother’s inside and I’m supposed to watch over him.” He tried to calm his breathing. He turned his head but couldn’t see the stage; he resisted the urge to squirm. “Ma told me to make sure the preacher would see him, he really needs help.”
The man let go of Danny’s shirt, smoothed it out in back and gave him a friendly but firm pat on the shoulder. “If he’s in there, he’s in good hands. He’ll get the help he needs, don’t you worry. Children are the lambs of God. Bringing them to the Holy Spirit is the greatest reward. You can become born again and spread the word, too. Make your momma proud.”
Danny often used Ma as an excuse; having the man throw her back at Danny in this context raised hairs on the back of his neck.
“Go, get in line there, see the preacher,” the man continued. He directed Danny toward the far side of the crowd and gave him a bit of a shove.
Howie stood on stage, his feet hooked inward and shoulders hunched. The preacher went about reciting scripture.
“In Romans eight twenty six to twenty seven we are told, ‘And in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with utterings too deep for words.’ It is the Holy Spirit that shall talk and pray for us, take control of us when we are weak.”
As Danny moved toward the back of the line, Howie looked out over the crowd, his eyes crossed with concentration. When his gaze saw the line, Danny waved his arms, desperately wanting to catch his attention.
Howie’s eyes straightened and with a quick smirk, he winked. Danny shot him a come here gesture, but it was too late. Howie turned to the preacher.
“Romans eight eleven tells us, ‘But if the Spirit of Him Who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He Who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit Who indwells you.’ It is all there, in the good book.” The preacher held the book high, walking back from the pulpit. Against the light-colored canvas, no glow could be seen and Danny missed if the preacher had pulled it from behind, or if he had placed the book back there at all.
“Are you ready to be born again, son?”
Howie hobbled forward, trailed by the three men in suits. “I’m uh uh af-f-fraid,” he stuttered.
“There’s no fear to be had with the Holy Spirit, just ask and you shall be new.”
“It woh woh won’t work,” Howie said, looking down at his feet.
“It will if you simply ask.” The preacher glanced at the men behind Howie and raised an eyebrow. Somehow it clicked for Danny. The preacher understood Howie’s joke and didn’t seem to care. The preacher placed his hands on either side of Howie’s head, and Howie played along, tilting his head back.
“Ask for the Holy Spirit to enter into you.”
The preacher pressed the bible to Howie’s forehead.
“Holy sp sp…”
Danny lurched toward the stage but was yanked back by a large hand. The man from outside leaned down towards Danny. “No interruptions,” he said through pressed teeth. “Your turn will come.”
Danny turned his attention back to the stage.
“Holy Spirit, take this boy as one of your own," the preacher continued, his brother's face in his hands. “Enter him, dwell within him. Use him.”
Howie shuddered and tensed, his head tilted back.
“Howie!” Danny shouted.
Howie’s head turned and he locked eyes with Danny. His mouth hung open. His eyes softened. All tension drained from his body and he fell back into the arms of the men around him.
“We don’t like any trouble makers around here,” the man holding Danny said. “Maybe we’ll just tuck you some place for afterward. But we’ll get you converted, don’t you worry—”
Danny pulled hard and the back of his shirt gave way with a loud rip. He ran into the crowd, not stopping to look back.
Howard Senior sat on the back of the truck with crates of jugs filling the flatbed. He looked up as Danny ran toward him, his eyes narrowed and forehead creased with anger.
“You boys know how to ruin a treat, don’t you?” He pointed up to the big clock on the front of the station; it showed six twenty five. “Six o’clock I said, didn’t I? Didn’t I?”
“I’m sorry, Pa.” Danny’s chest pounded.
“And what in the hell have you done? Look at your shirt! Did Howie start some kind of trouble again?”
“No, it was my fault. I found—”
“Pa’s right, it was my fault,” Howie interrupted from behind.
Danny turned to face his brother; Howie stood behind him, his breath slightly labored and his face flushed, but otherwise looking like plain old Howie.
“I stole a pack of Camels and the guy thought Danny took them. He grabbed Danny so I smashed a window in the store to get Danny away.” He pulled the pack from his back pocket and tossed them to his father.
Their father pulled a cigarette from the pack and stuck it into the corner of his mouth. He lit a match with his thumbnail and sucked in the smoke. “Get in the truck before I beat your asses.”
The ride home was quiet; Howard Senior didn’t say a thing, which meant nothing more would come of it. About halfway home, Howie put his arm around Danny’s shoulders and leaned in to him, whispering into his ear.
“You should have joined me up there.”
Howie turned again to look out the window, but kept his arm around Danny.
Sleep did not come easily for Danny, his mind reeling and his dreams, when he did manage to doze off, plagued with large men chasing him. After the restless night, Danny slipped out of bed when he heard his father get up. Howie appeared to be sleeping peacefully in the lower bunk.
He found his father outside, stacking wood in the back of the truck. Howard turned when Danny came out.
“I’m going to need you boys out early today. After yesterday, we’re behind on cut wood out at the still and there’s plenty of other chores that need doing. And we’re out of wood inside. Get a bundle or two for the stove.”
“Pa,” Danny said. He just stared at his father, who returned the look with impatience.
“Well out with it, boy. The morning’s not going to last forever.”
Danny took a deep breath and blurted it out — all of it.
Howard let him finish and stood silent for a long time before finally speaking. "Your mother went to one of those things. She came back a different woman. Oh, sure, she still looked the same, but everything else about her had been turned upside down and inside out. I thought she was delusional at first, but there was more to it.”
"I know. I saw it. Something possessed them," Danny said.
"If she had her druthers she would have changed the whole lot of us. I did what I had to do, boy, and I thought it would stop then. It didn’t."
“Well, what do we do about Howie, Pa?”
Howard ignored the boy’s question. “Maybe I didn’t move you two far enough away. Don’t know if I can go through it again.”
“What are you talking about?” Danny asked, but his father stayed quiet. “Pa?”
Finally, after several minutes, Danny grabbed an armful of wood and headed back around the side of the house. He heard his father start up the truck. In front, Howie stood in the opened doorway. In his hand he held a small Bible. Danny saw the glow.
"I guess Pa was no help?" Howie asked.
"I'm done with the joke. It’s not funny anymore,” Danny said.
Howie’s face opened into a broad grin. "There's no joke here. You didn't experience what I did. I'm a different person now."
"I saw what happened. You are different. The preacher did something to you. I'm not so sure you're my brother anymore. There’s something inside you."
Howie's smile spread. “There is another here, yes. It guides me, so that my life has purpose and meaning. My purpose right now is to bring you in as well.” He spread his arms wide, but his knuckles bloomed white with the grip on the book.
"I don't want anything from you or from them. From that," Danny said, looking at the Bible. He pushed past his brother, bringing the armload of wood into the kitchen area.
"You'll come to see. You might not think so now, but I will show you. We are the chosen, you know. Ma told me so."
At the mention of their Mom, Danny's heart leapt. He dropped the logs and watched them scatter them to the floor. “You said you don’t remember anything about Ma.”
“Remember? No. But after last night I’ve talked to her. It’s been very enlightening. And she wants me to bring you into the fold.”
“You’re a liar,” Danny said, hissing.
“Dad’s the liar. I know the truth.”
Danny grabbed a log and pointed it at his brother. “I’m not listening to you.”
If his father couldn’t be any help, he’d take matters into his own hands.
“You don’t have to.” Howie’s voice softened as he said it. Then his smile returned, quirked up at the corners. Howie had never smiled like that before. “You can listen to me instead. I’m your mother, honey.”
His voice suddenly changed. It now sounded like a woman's voice. A real woman's voice. Not a fake female voice Howie sometimes used.
“Stop that,” Danny said, his voice squeaking.
“Oh honey, I know this is difficult for you to hear, but you must believe me. I can help you. We can be a real family again.”
Howie walked forward, his steps tentative but graceful.
Danny promptly backed up, the log in his hand shaking.
“You need to accept the Holy Spirit, the indwelling,” he said, using her voice.
Danny slid to the floor, dropping the log. Howie bent down, bringing his face close to Danny’s. Howie’s pupils were black and vast. Deep within them, beyond what could be, a faint glow danced sporadically.
“Ask the Holy Spirit to enter you.”
“No.” Tears welled up. He squeezed his eyes shut.
“You must ask.” Howie’s hands framed Danny’s head, tender in touch. He kissed Danny’s forehead. “My baby, we should be together again. All of us.”
His mind reeled, ripped between the fear of what he had seen and the longing for what he might never have again. He had always been closest to his brother. He needed him now more than ever before.
“Holy Spirit…” he started, and sniffled heavily. He kept his eyes shut tight. “Holy Spirit—“
A loud crack split the air, and a weight fell atop Danny.
Danny crawled out from Howie's sprawled form. Beside him now, his brother tried to rise. But Howard Senior swung a log down a second time atop his oldest son's skull.
“Back up, boy!” Howard commanded, but Danny could only watch, frozen in disbelief.
Howie’s hand twitched, still grasping the Bible. His head lay on the ground, his eyes wide; bloody spittle bubbled at the corner of his mouth. His lips moved but no sound came out. Howard swung once more.
Blood sprayed up the wall and across the floor, but Danny could only see his brother’s face; the lips stopped moving, the eyes dilated. He looked at the book in his brother’s hands, but like his eyes, the glow remained—faint, but still there.
“Boy, I’m sorry about your brother. He was no longer himself. Whatever happened to him happened and we couldn't change that.” He dropped the log. “He’s not in a better place, but whatever had hold of him didn't get to us. Just be glad for that."
Danny stared at the body, unable to think. “I don’t understand,” he finally said.
“I don’t either, son,” Howard said. “I don’t either. But whatever it is, it got to your mother and I think it wanted you boys, too.”
Danny stood up and gathered the remaining logs. He shoved a few into the stove. His father watched him in silence. After Danny got the logs started, he grabbed the iron tongs, pulled the black book out of his brother’s lifeless hand and tossed it into the flames.
“Good start, but it’s not enough. We need to put that,” he gestured at Howie’s body, “someplace deep. It’s still in there, even if his body is dead. When I took care of your Ma, I buried her. I thought that was the end of it, but a few days later a young man came to visit us and he spoke to me in her voice, just like she did to you today. I took you boys and scrammed.”
“What do we do?” Danny asked.
“Take the body out to the lake and sink it. It won’t stop them, but hopefully it slows them up, give us enough time to get away again.”
“Could we could burn him?” Danny asked hesitantly.
His father sat in silence for a minute. “No. I think that would just release whatever is inside. Best to keep it trapped in there. Let them work to find the body. I don’t know if it’s right, but it’s time we listened to our instincts.”
Danny watched the fire for a bit. The book had been reduced to fluttering ashes, and the glow could not be seen among the flames. His father stepped behind him and put his hands on his shoulders. Danny turned and faced the still form of his brother.
“We should get started,” Danny said.
“We can take a few moments still—”
“No,” Danny interrupted. “I don’t think we can.”
He walked over to Howie’s body. He lifted the feet and waited as his father grabbed Howie’s arms.
They carried Howie’s body to the truck, the faint blue light still dancing in the swollen blackness of the eyes.
Jacob Ruby makes his return debut at SNM Mag, following his SOTM. He lives in Kansas City with his wife, whose also a writer. He has a degree in painting and currently works as a 3-D illustrator and animator. He worries that he’s a figment of someone else’s imagination and has not figured out how to solve for that yet. Jacob spends much of his creative energies working on sci-fi, fantasy, and horror stories, and has recently started working on his first novel. He appears in an anthology called Rigor Amortis by Absolute Xpress and will now appear in his second anthology with BBB IV by SNM and as a podcast.
He didn't believe in hell until he touched the boy.
The entirety of his life after the requisite years of Belief, when God and the Devil were the equals of Santa Claus and The Boogeyman, he had been a man of science. Often he hadn't understood the science any better than the religion, but he had to put his faith somewhere.
"Are you nervous?" Shelley asked as they sat in her black Civic parked with one wheel atop the sidewalk of Albert Avenue. She wore a blue summer dress with moccasin sandals. Her blond hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail. Her horn-rimmed glasses, as usual, pinched the ridge of her nose.
"Not at all," Doug lied as he took a final drag of his cigarette, one arm hanging out the open window. He wore a dark T-shirt and semi-tight faded jeans with grass-stained sneakers. His dark hair hung long and brushed his shoulders. His light blue eyes were reddened and glassy.
"Good," she said. "If you can turn on some of your charm, this should be okay."
"Can do. Anyone who raised you is alright in my book."
Shelley puckered his lips and blew a kiss at him as if in a preemptive goodbye.
He opened the passenger door and stepped out onto Albert Ave. Shelley walked around the front of her car and came to his side. They held hands on the way up the sidewalk.
He felt for a moment like bolting, but that would leave Shelley to come up with some half-assed excuse about his. So he stayed by her side, ignoring his gut instinct.
The door was opened by a seven year-old boy in his pajama bottoms. His name was Sam and he was Shelley's younger brother. He stared up at the couple with muted interest. He had Shelley's hair, but his was short and spiky from a product his mother no doubt applied each morning while he struggled and complained.
His eyes were dark pools of introspection. When he smiled, he revealed a large gap in his front teeth.
"Shelley," said the boy. He ran into her arms and she gave him a bear hug and kissed the top of his head.
"You smell bad," she said, her nose in his hair.
"Shut up," said the boy as he broke away from her and looked up at Doug. He got rather serious and held out his hand.
Doug smiled at his businesslike nature and raised his hand and shook and felt
- A ripping sound tore along his spine and wide-eyed visuals dominated his mind. He left his body on the doorstep of 23 Albert Ave. and his mind took him into the future. The year was a mystery, though cars still drove on the road, not yet flying.
He could tell because he floated above Main Street and would have to been blind not to notice the burning wrecks of vehicles, stranded bumper to bumper, drivers scorched away to wicker folk.
Dogs as large as bears roamed the streets, haggling over strips of human bacon. The air smelled of gasoline and gunpowder. Black water rose a foot high from the sewer drains along the city sidewalks where maggots swam in synchronized motion.
He flew through such a stream of red light (red sun above, red blood below) and felt his face drenched in it. He was disturbed to find it as refreshing as a cool shower on a steamy day.
Graffiti dominated the spare spaces of all available real estate in large metallic ghetto colors and fonts proclaiming BLUE ZIPS and GOODBYE, AMERICA, GOODBYE and ALL HAIL THE BOY KING and LAST EXIT TO HELL - ZERO MILE.
A man stepped out from a dark building, leaning on a cane. He was old and withered but certainly no pushover, as evidenced by the sawed-off shotgun held in his free hand. He headed across the street to Barker Drugs, the pharmacy of pill delights whose building's windows had been smashed out. The old man was halfway across the street when the bear-dogs fell on on him. He killed the runt, blasted its head into bits, before he was torn limb from limb. The worst of it, Doug could not ignore as he floated directly above the scene, was the old man's smile as he died.
Doug turned his eyes straight ahead, sick, heartbeat pounding like a savage drum of war, only to see something that had not existed in any form of reality. A castle in the middle of Main and First. Metal men watched from the minarets; crocodiles swam in the moat. The drawbridge fell down like a snapped book spine. He had little choice but to enter.
Inside, he rocketed past halls of chained prisoners and cracking whips and flaming swords. He entered a courtroom before stopping with that sudden, gut-churning suddenness one feels at the end of a roller coaster ride.
The Boy King sat on a throne of matchsticks. He held a burning match between the index finger and thumb of his left hand. Doug knew he would drop it soon. The Boy King spoke:
"How are -
"You?" Sam finished for the boy, breaking off the handshake.
Doug came back to himself. He was back in reality, with Shelley beside him. He raised his hands over his mouth, afraid he would vomit. It passed and he stuttered like he hadn't stuttered for years, since his speech therapist had conquered that demon.
"I'm fine," he said. He forced himself to say, "How are you, little guy?"
"Not so little," said Sam, and Doug believed him.
That night, after they made love, he smoked a cigarette and stared up at the concentric circles on his ceiling.
"What did you think of my family?" asked Shelley as she packed a pipe on her belly.
Doug exhaled. "They were nice. Your brother is..."
"He reminds me of myself at his age."
He didn't believe in Santa Claus but yet he still believed in the Boogeyman.
Doug stared at himself in the mirror, face dripping from the water he had just splashed in his face, and tried to work up the courage to go back into the living room and celebrate.
He had done everything possible to avoid going to Shelley's father's house since the day he’d shaken Sam's hand and feared he’d lost his mind. The vision had passed as abruptly as it arose and the rest of the evening had been normal.
He’d met Shelley and Sam's father and he’d been nice. He’d met Shelley's stepmother and Sam's mother and she had been nice, as well. Apart from a moment of pure madness at the beginning, the evening had gone well.
Since then, he’d been over a few times when he had no choice, though more often he’d made up an excuse and let Shelley go solo. He told no one of his moment of wayward consciousness, precisely because he didn’t want to think about it. Sometimes he forgot it’d ever happened, sometimes he knocked it up to being too high. Sometimes, though, he wondered if there was something strange about that boy.
"Irrational," Doug said. He went back for another tour. He had a smile on his face when he walked into the kitchen. He sat next to Shelley. She turned to him, smiled, but said nothing. Doug tried to speak to her through his eyes but he was pretty sure she didn’t receive it.
"Did you already eat today?" Shelley’s dad, Stan, asked from the head of the table.
"No," Doug said. "I'm feeling a bit nauseous. But it's nothing serious. In fact, I'm a bit hungry." He tried not to look at the boy sitting across the table from him.
Andrea nodded. "I hope it's not the food."
"It's delicious," Doug said.
"Don't worry," Shelley added, straight-faced as she told her white lie, "Doug always has an upset stomach."
"You should chew crackers," Sam said. He smiled at him.
Doug didn't want to look at him so he didn't.
"Hey,” the boy said, a bit louder, the grin a bit wider. “Did you hear me?"
"That's a good idea," Doug told him. When he took a bite of turkey, it tasted metallic.
The boy considered him with that numb stare of his. Doug found himself returning the stare. The boy blinked and
- Dropped the matchstick. The throne caught fire all at once and Doug felt the heat of the blast upon his face, like standing too close to a campfire.
The Boy King laughed. "You know what I am. You always did.”
Doug fell flat on his face, flying some ten feet through the air. He looked up, craning his neck uncomfortably, to see the Boy King stepping through the flames towards him.
Sam Newcomb burned without burning.
"I ate my sister's soul," he said. "I tore my father's liver and I sliced my mother's womb. The world trembles at my tantrum."
Doug rolled over to look up at the ceiling. There was no ceiling on second thought
"Don't say that, Sam."
"I let you live because you were a coward. And cowards torture themselves more than the hells I unleash ever will. Your doom is to watch and know it could have all been averted."
"But you’re a little boy," said Doug.
The Boy King sat on the Court floor across from Doug. In that moment the boy looked sincere and his age. "Boys grow up to be men."
He blinked and scooped up a spoonful of mashed potatoes. His eyes drifted to his dinner plate.
"What about you?" asked a voice in Doug's head. He saw Stan in his peripheral and turned.
"Have you decided on a major?"
"Oh. Not yet, but I'm considering going in for history."
Stan nodded and took his bite.
"History is meaningless," said another voice in Doug's head, "it don't mean nothing in the end."
Sam grinned at him, his tongue pressed against the gap in his teeth.
Later that night, after they got high, he flipped through a Green Lantern comic book as he waited for Shelley to get out of the shower. He had trouble concentrating; the captions and speech balloons seemed incomprehensible. In fact, he felt like he was a much more powerful drug than he was.
When she returned, he had the comic spread across his stomach. Waiting.
"Reminds you of yourself?" Shelley laughed as she jumped in bed. "Eerie, isn't' it?"
He didn't believe in murder but he had to kill the boy.
He had known it for a week, ever since Shelley had received a phone call. When Shelley had turned to him, she had grown pale.
"Roscoe is dead," she said of the cat. The cat had jumped into the pool. It hadn’t gotten back out. But Doug knew better. The boy had thrown the cat in.
Now, Doug McLaughlin, a young man who had never done anything too illegal in his life, waited in his Chevrolet for the boy to get out of school. He wore normal street clothes, nothing that screamed pedophile.
He checked his car clock. Soon enough it would begin for real. He had a few minutes now to back out, to start his ignition and drive himself to the hospital and check into the sixth floor. He had time to get help. Even as he thought of it, he knew he would follow through.
Doug was not religious but he knew a jihad when he saw one.
Sam came at 3:10, walking alone in a stream of elementary school students, both hands on the straps of his Spiderman backpack. The boy stared down at his feet.
The boy was no more than a car length behind when Doug felt a numbness along his extremities. It took many seconds to turn from the rearview mirror and look straight out the window. The boy stopped before him and
- the world burned and the earth turned. Dark eyes stared into dark eyes.
"Are you here to pick me up?"
The boy smiled and ran around the car and climbed into the passenger seat. Doug waited till the boy put on his seatbelt then he started his engine.
The drive was silent for the most part. The volume of the radio was unusually low, Doug didn't even smoke his customary driving cigarette. The boy had said nothing as Doug turned the wrong direction and still said nothing even though they were miles from town, on a curving gravel road.
"We're going into the woods," said Doug.
"Cool," was the only answer.
Doug felt the need to say something else by way of explanation.
"You remind me of myself at your age."
The boy wasn’t impressed.
"Are we there yet?" the boy asked.
They sat parked on the wide shoulder some four hundred feet above sea level, overlooking a rock quarry long ago past being mined. The walls rose up to them like folds of a cigarette carton ridiculously expanded.
"Come on," said Doug as he opened his car door. He stepped into the warm breeze and closed it behind him. The boy looked at him through the window. For a moment, Doug suspected he wouldn't get out. Then he did.
The boy ambled over to the edge and Doug sighed. He followed after, not knowing who was leading who where.
"It's so big," said the boy. "The world, I mean."
"Big and mysterious."
Sam turned and considered the man he was with. His lips were pinched together like a fish puckered up. He didn't know there was a hook somewhere.
"Are you going to marry my sister?"
"No," said Doug.
"She doesn't love me anymore." It was a lie but not for long.
Sam nodded and kicked a rock off the edge of the cliff. They strained to hear its crash but it never came.
"Who are you?" asked Doug.
"I'm Sam," said the boy, staring out over the distance, "and I'm seven and three quarter years old."
"Who are you?" asked Sam.
"I'm Doug McLaughlin," said the man, staring out over the distance, "and I'm twenty-one years old."
"I know what you are."
No response. Doug reached back as if to scratch an itch.
"You are not a little boy."
No response. Doug lifted the hem of his shirt and felt cold steel.
"You're something older than that."
No response. Doug pulled the handgun he had bought three days before and let it drop to his side.
"I wanna go home," said the boy, still looking in the distance.
Doug shot him in the ear. The bullet exploded cartilage and blood too pink, then disappeared in skull and brain. The Boy King shuddered and fell over the cliff, still holding the straps of his Spiderman backpack.
This time Doug heard the crash.
You tend to smile after saving the world.
When the doorbell rang, Adam hopped up and said, "I'll get it!" It was a welcome diversion. Mom was making dinner and Dad wasn't home yet and his favorite afternoon cartoon was a rerun. He opened the front door to a tall stranger who warmly smiled down at him.
"Hello there. You must be Adam."
The newcomer was tall, even taller than Adam's father, who topped six feet. He wore black slacks and a black blazer with a blindingly white shirt underneath. His dark hair was swept back straight from his forehead. His eyes glittered like marbles with black and green veins running through them.
He didn't know why, but Adam felt he ought to slam the door in this stranger’s face.
Nothing in the man's appearance was outright threatening. Still, something seemed a bit...off.
"Are you a preacher?" Adam asked.
The newcomer erupted with a single burst of laughter that shook the foyer. "Well, you know, I hadn't thought of it that way before, but I suppose I am a kind of preacher."
He extended his right hand toward Adam. "I'm your Uncle Lou. Shall we shake?"
Uncle Lou? He didn't remember Mom or Dad ever mentioning an Uncle Lou. He wondered whether he ought to shake the man's hand. He had been taught about Stranger Danger at pre-school.
Don't take presents from strangers. Don't go with anyone you don't know. Don't let people touch you.
But surely this man wouldn't hurt him in his own home?
At that moment, Mom came around the corner, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. She saw the newcomer standing there in the doorway and the dish towel dropped from her hands. She immediately grabbed Adam by the shoulders and yanked him back against her thighs.
"Trish!" cried the man who referred to himself as Uncle Lou. "How good to see you! And just as lovely as ever."
Adam had to turn at an awkward angle to look up at his mother. She had dropped her head as if a heavy weight had suddenly settled on her shoulders. Her lips were moving, but she didn't seem to be saying anything.
"M-m-my lord," she finally stammered. "I wasn't expecting--"
"Why don't I be Uncle Lou for tonight, hmm?" The visitor stepped inside and gently patted Adam's mother on the butt. "Let's come into the living room; no need to keep the door open and invite the flies in."
The three of them moved into the house; Mom still clutching Adam closely to her.
"What a charming house. Very inviting." Uncle Lou turned his head slightly. "I think you need to check the water on the stove. Sounds like it's boiling over."
Mom put a hand to her mouth, as if trying to force something down her throat. She took a hesitant step away from Adam before turning and running into the kitchen.
What's going on here? Adam wondered to himself, more than a bit frightened. Mom never acted like that. Whenever someone came to visit, you could hardly shut her up. Here, she'd only said maybe five words.
He looked over at the television set for comfort, but the screen was dark and dead.
Weird -- it was still on when I went to answer the door.
Uncle Lou sat almost daintily on the front edge of the couch. "Just look at you. You're a handsome young man, Adam."
Adam sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the stranger; curiosity upstaging his caution. "Are you really my Uncle? I've met my Aunt Sophie and Uncle Dave -- that's Dad's brother -- and my Uncle Ralph and Aunt Louise -- that's Mom's sister. But they didn't tell me about any Uncle Lou."
By now the newcomer was chuckling at this impromptu speech. "Well, it's kind of complicated. Let's just say I'm close enough to your parents that you and I might as well be related."
He looked up as Adam's Mom re-entered the room. "Quite the talker, isn't he?"
Mom silently nodded.
"You know, Adam, I was so excited about finally getting to meet you I got a little something for you."
Adam's eyes lit up. "A present? For me?"
Uncle Lou reached behind his back with his left hand. "In an earlier time, I would have given my new friends an apple. But I said to myself, 'Adam will eat it, and in a week he'll have forgotten about it. So what can I give him that he'll want to keep?' So I brought you this." He brought out holding a new Color GameBoy unit and three game cartridges.
Adam bounced up to his knees. "A Color GameBoy! Oh, man! I've wanted one of these for so long, but Mom and Dad said I'd have to wait. How'd you know what I wanted?"
Uncle Lou shrugged. "I have a way of knowing what nephews desire."
"Thank you, thank you!" Without even thinking about it, Adam threw his arms around the newcomer's neck and hugged him.
Uncle Lou looked over Adam's shoulder at his Mom. She was staring at the floor. "We were…trying to have him…save his money to buy the GameBoy for himself…to teach him."
Uncle Lou snorted derisively. "Trish, why should the boy wait when I can give him what he wants now?" He released Adam. "All this 'storing up riches' for later on -- quite overrated. Enjoy this day that the Lord hath made."
Adam was putting batteries in the handheld console when the front door opened. "Trish, you would not believe the day I had--" Adam's Dad shut the door and his eyes took in the scene.
“Don,” he said with a slight nod of his head.
"Oh, no,” the man said, bumping against the wall. “Tell me it's not that time again."
Adam jumped up from the floor like a coiled spring. "Look what Uncle Lou brought me! Isn't it cool?"
His Dad, however, ignored him. "My lord, I'm sorry we weren't prepared; the house--"
"Don, don't apologize. You wouldn't believe how messy my place looks." He rose up to shake Don’s hand. "Good to see you again. You're doing well for yourself. Adam here is an absolute treasure."
Dad's mouth opened and closed several times before he found the words he wanted to say. "Th-thank you, my lord--"
The strange guest clapped Don on the shoulder. "I'm Uncle Lou tonight, alright? We should set the table while Trish finishes making dinner. I believe we're having chicken parm. Smells delicious!"
Adam explored the intricacies of the first level of play of one of his games. He only half-listened to the conversation from the dining room. Dad and Uncle Lou were setting out the plates and silverware.
They talked about boring, adult stuff: portfolios, investments, stocks and shares. Mom worked on dinner in the kitchen, pots and pans banging and clattering with more force and frequency than usual.
When they came to the table, Uncle Lou sat in Dad's spot. Adam was about to say something, but a signal from his father made him close his mouth. Mom and Dad usually talked so much at dinner Adam couldn't get a word in edgewise, but tonight it seemed they couldn't think of anything to say. Uncle Lou and Adam chatted back and forth, discussing various games and player strategies.
For an old guy, Adam thought, Uncle Lou sure knows a lot about how to win!
No one seemed to eat well except for Uncle Lou; Adam was too excited by the unexpected visit to concentrate on dinner.
“That was superb, Trish," Uncle Lou complimented the food. "Let's all help clear up."
"Time for boys to get a bath and get ready for bed," said Mom during clean-up.
Lou held up his hand. "He can do that later, Trish. This is a special evening. I want Adam to join our celebration."
Mom and Dad exchanged looks. Both looked as if Uncle Lou had just told them the sky was green.
"Please,” Don said, his voice choked. “Not with him still up. After he goes to bed."
"What?" Adam asked, excited. "What are we going to do?"
Uncle Lou was stern like Adam's pre-school teacher was when everyone was talking too loudly. "I want the boy at my side. We won't touch him, but he can watch. It's time he learns about his heritage."
Dad balled his hands into fists. He hammered them against his thighs, as if he wanted to beat himself up.
Tears were coming from Mom's eyes. "My lord, he's too young; he won't understand. . . . "
Instead of responding, Uncle Lou suggested, "Why don't we all go into the living room."
They sat on the couch, Adam beside Uncle Lou, Mom and Dad as far toward the opposite side as they could manage.
"Oh, look at this!" Uncle Lou picked up a thick black book from the coffee table. "A photo album! Adam, would you like to see some pictures of your parents when they were young?"
Adam shrugged. "I've seen 'em all already. They're boring."
Uncle Lou laughed out loud. "I don't think you've seen these before." He opened the cover and pointed to a black and white photograph. It showed two boys brawling. One was on his back on the ground; a bigger boy was astride him, pinning him down. A thin trickle of black ran from the smaller boy's nose.
"There's your father when he was about your age. And that's Web Brewster, who couldn't stand him. Your father got beat up that day. He thought he was going to die! Look at that priceless expression on his face."
Uncle Lou laughed, and Adam felt he ought to laugh too. But it felt odd inside as he did so.
"Is that really you?" Adam asked his father. Dad was looking at his hands, folded on his lap.
"But you got back at that guy later, didn't you?"
Nobody said anything.
Uncle Lou turned the page. "Look here." He pointed to a photo of a young girl in a pretty dress seated at a piano, as if getting ready to play. "Here's your mother at a recital when she was about eleven. She thought she knew how to play this piece, but she got so nervous she forgot how it went. She sat there, not moving for a full minute, until she put her face in her hands and ran from the room, crying."
Uncle Lou chuckled again, but this time Adam couldn't make himself join the older man. He showed him more pictures: his Dad cheating on a test by looking over someone's shoulder; his Mom sitting on a potty, crying (he didn't get that one); Dad smoking what looked like a handmade cigarette; Mom kissing a man that wasn't Dad… Uncle Lou really seemed to enjoy the scenes, wiping tears of hilarity from his eyes. Adam felt as if something icky were twisting around in his stomach.
"I don't want to see any more," he said, closing the cover on Uncle Lou's hands. Mom gasped. "These are dumb."
Uncle Lou placed the album on the coffee table, nodding. "You're right. Enough of that. Let's move on to something else. Adam, do you do show-and-tell at pre-school?"
"It's fun, isn't it?” Uncle Lou continued with a smile. “So we're gonna have Mom and Dad do a show-and-tell presentation for us. Trish? Don? Would you please stand up?"
His parents complied.
"Very good. Now please remove your clothes."
Mom and Dad looked as if they’d been slapped.
"Eeeww!" cried Adam. "Why do you want them to take off their clothes?"
"It'll be fun," Uncle Lou assured him.
Mom was openly crying now. Her cheeks and chin were shining wetly. "Please…my -- Uncle Lou…don't make us do that here, not with Adam here.”
Dad didn't say anything, but Adam could tell he was chewing viciously at the inside of his cheek.
That dark look came over Uncle Lou's face again, as if a dark thundercloud passing across the face of the Sun. "I don't like having to repeat myself, Trish."
Mom held her hands out, as if ready to receive a gift. "Please, I beg of you--"
"What'll it be, folks?" Uncle Lou snapped. "What do you want taken away first? Will it be one of the cars? Don? How about your job? Trish? Your house? You decide."
Mom wiped her nose with her hands; they came away covered with snot. She brought her hands up to her blouse and began to unbutton it. After a moment, Don did the same with his work shirt. Shoes and socks joined the shirts on a pile on the floor.
"They don't like doing this, Uncle Lou." Adam wriggled around uncomfortably on the couch. "Why are you making them do this?"
"They really do like it." He smiled at his young companion. "They just don't want you to know."
His parents stood in their undergarments. He had only caught half-glimpses of them like this before, when he had peeked into their bedroom as they dressed for a night out. Dad's tummy bulged over his underpants waistband. Mom's boobs swelled around the edges of her bra. Wisps of hair curled up out of her panties.
"What are they going to do?" Adam whispered.
No one answered him.
They stood there naked.
They don't look like my parents anymore.
"You two still love each other, don't you?" Uncle Lou prodded. "I brought you together; you can at least exhibit some passion toward each other."
His parents' legs were shaking so much it was a wonder they didn't fall. Their fingers trembled as they touched each other, then kissed.
"This is sissy stuff," said Adam. "I don't want to watch them do this." "This is why people get married," Uncle Lou told him. "They love it."
Mom and Dad turned their heads from side to side, kissing lightly. Saliva mingled with their tears. Mom reached down and touched Dad's pee-pee. (Dad had told Adam to call it a 'penis,' but that just sounded too weird.) It began to stretch, getting longer and turning bright red. Adam wondered if Mom had hurt Dad when he began to make funny sounds in his throat.
"Trish," Uncle Lou directed, "kneel in front of the coffee table. Rest your arms on top. Don, you come in from behind." Lou spoke confidentially to Adam. "This is called 'doggie style.' It's hilarious to watch."
Mom covered her eyes with her hands. Dad got on his knees between Mom's legs.
What are they doing? Adam wondered. He's not going to--oh, no! Dad put his penis inside Mom's pee-hole; Adam shut his eyes and turned away.
"Keep watching," Lou urged. "People who fall in love can't wait until they can do this. Their bodies take over their minds. They mate like beasts. I love watching men and women rut. There's nothing angelic about fornication."
Adam peeked through his eyelids. Dad had a strained look on his face. He would push his hips at Mom then pull back again. Their breathing was loud and raspy.
Adam asked his Dad if he was hurting his Mom.
Teeth clamping down, Mom said, "He's not hurting me, honey. He's not--"
Uncle Lou lowered his head and whispered in the boy's ear. "She wants him to do this. She wants him to push his pee-pee in farther, but she won't say that in front of us. They're almost done anyway. Your father never was an all-night Casanova."
Suddenly, Dad heaved his body against Mom's, shoving the coffee table across the floor. His legs and buttocks quivered as if he'd lost control of his body. He cried out wordlessly as Mom sucked air in between her teeth. Dad let his chest collapse on Mom's back.
"You're done," she snapped at him. "Get off. Now."
Still on his knees, Dad backed away from Mom, his pee-pee slick and dripping thick, milky droplets. Sitting on the floor, they began to put their clothes back on.
Uncle Lou applauded. "And just when I think people might transcend their inner nature, I watch a man and woman fuck and my faith is restored. Trish, Don: just beautiful. These are lessons Adam can't learn in school."
Mom and Dad were dressed again, but they still didn't look like his parents. Their shirts weren't tucked in; their hair was a mess; their eyes were flushed and red from crying and whatever they'd just been doing.
"Adam, that was just a warm-up to the main event. We're all going into the kitchen so your parents can pay me back for ten years of my guardianship." He patted Adam affectionately on the shoulder.
"What do you mean, 'guardianship'?" Adam asked.
The four made their way into the kitchen.
"I take care of people who seek me out," Uncle Lou explained. "And I make sure they have good homes and families. You yourself are kind of a gift from me to your parents. But you should know by now, everything costs in this world. Don, want to clear off the butcher block? Trish, want to find the meat cleaver?"
Neither moved for a second.
"The quicker you move, the quicker this will all be over with. Right, Adam?"
He didn't know the correct response; he just nodded his head.
Dad moved small baskets and condiments off the freestanding wooden butcher block in the center of the kitchen. Trish pulled the cleaver from a cutlery holder on the counter. The cleaver scared Adam. He didn't like to be in the kitchen when Mom had it out. His parents moved as if they were deep underwater, their limbs meeting resistance with each motion.
"Wait, Uncle Lou, what are you going to make them do?" Adam looked up at their guest. His head suddenly seemed even more distant, as if he were taller than the house itself.
"I'm not going to make them do anything, dear boy,” Uncle Lou said. “I'm not forcing them, they can stop any time they want to. They want to do it for me."
Adam looked at his Dad, accepting the cleaver from Mom. He looked at the gleaming edge of the cleaver, so sharp it was hard to tell where the cleaver stopped and the atmosphere began. He saw his mother put the pinky finger of her left hand on the butcher block. Her left pinky only had two sections above the main knuckle. Dad's left hand shared the same deformity. Mom told Adam that the mutual abnormality had brought them together, made them want to date each other.
"He's not going to hurt her, is he?" Adam tugged at Uncle Lou's blazer. "It's alright, isn't it? Dad? Is it all right?"
No one answered him. Mom turned her head so that she was looking toward the back wall. Dad was raising his right hand, which held the cleaver. He looked like a robot in one of Adam's cartoons.
"No!" Adam shouted. "Uncle Lou, make them stop! Don't hurt my Mom! Don't hurt my Mom!" He pushed away from their visitor and hurled himself at Dad.
Dad brought his arm down--
Adam flew across the intervening space--
The cleaver descended--
Adam had enough body mass to jostle his father, unbalance him, make him take a step back.
Don was trying to use enough force to go through Trish's finger in one stroke, minimizing the pain. But inertia was against him. He couldn't halt the stroke --
The blade buried itself in the back of Adam's head.
Don was screaming, still clutching the cleaver, holding up his son like a macabre marionette.
Trish, expecting extreme physical pain, turned and saw what had happened; she, too, began screaming. Don released the handle, and his son collapsed to the floor, a pool of crimson spreading out across the linoleum. Trish dropped to her knees, scooping her boy against her chest. The cleaver remained in Adam's head, and the handle struck her collarbone.
"Gonna be all right, gonna be all right," Adam's mother crooned again and again.
Don swung on their unperturbed visitor. "That's it!" he spat. "That's enough! Out of my house! Out of my life! You're lord of nothing, you hear? I defy you! You're nothing but lies! Take away whatever you want! Shit, take my life! You sick bastard, it's not worth anything without my son! I throw my soul on the mercy of Heaven! I'll ask for forgiveness! He can do with me whatever He wants--"
There was a crackle, an electric discharge, as if an unseen bolt of lightning had struck the kitchen. A sharp ozone smell filled their nostrils. Dad once more had the meat cleaver in his hand, raised over his head. Mom had her pinky on the chopping block. "Don't hurt my Mom!" Adam shrieked, pushing away from Uncle Lou.
Lou reached down and snagged the fabric of Adam's collar, hauling him up as the gently curving cutting edge thudded into the cross-hatched surface; a tiny wedge of pink flesh shooting through air and bouncing off the oven. It left a round, red dot where it hit the otherwise spotless surface. Mom immediately sank to the floor, pulling her wounded hand to her chest. She opened her mouth and everything in her stomach erupted forth, spilling down her front and across the floor.
"No!" Adam thrashed at the end of Uncle Lou's arm. "Lemme go! Lemme go! I hate you!" I'm so mad I wanna use words I know I'm not supposed to! "I God damn hate you!"
"A boy after my own heart," murmured Uncle Lou quietly.
Adam slid on his knees and threw his arms around his mother. She shook her head as if she couldn't believe what had just happened; massive sobs racking her frame. "It's alright, Mom!" he told her. "I won't let them touch you again!" He turned to the older men. "Get out of here! I hate both of you!" He was surprised to find he was crying; he didn't want to cry; crying was for babies, but the adults had made him feel like a baby again.
He continued to shout the few obscenities he knew at his father and this guardian. His father bent over and picked up the tiny nugget of flesh and bone between his thumb and forefinger. There was no expression on Dad's face; he looked like a zombie Adam had seen on one of those Saturday morning cartoons. He extended his arm to Uncle Lou, who accepted the fragment of finger with his left hand.
Lou brought the pinky segment to his chest, pressing it against the white fabric of his shirt. For just a moment, a scarlet blob stained the colorless material. Then the blot spread, like oil smearing across water, all down Lou's torso and up over his shoulders. The discoloration was bright red at first, but quickly faded, becoming light red, then pink, then pastel, then pure white once more. Uncle Lou dropped his hand. Nothing of Mom's finger segment remained.
"Thank you very much," said Uncle Lou. He stepped around the butcher block and bent over Adam's mother, spreading her legs apart. Adam punched at the visitor with his right hand, but Lou didn't seem to be effected .
He took Mom's left hand in his own and brought the seeping wound to his lips. He kissed the mutilated tip of Mom's finger, and a tiny wisp of smoke curled up through the air. A smooth, glowing scar capped the shortened end of her pinky. Uncle Lou released her hand, and it fell limp against Adam's back.
"You've been very hospitable," Lou continued, shooting his cuffs and straightening out his blazer. "But now I have to go and take care of some other appointments. Don, be safe, and remember those names I gave you."
He reached out and patted Dad on the shoulder; Dad made no reaction. "Trish, you take good care of our boy there. He's going to grow up to be one of our kind of people." He let his fingertips trail across Mom's soiled cheek; she didn't even seem to feel his touch.
He made his way to the door. Stopped. Turned. "You know, I had so much fun tonight, I may want Adam to come visit me at home sometime. Would that be alright with you?"
Mom and Dad said nothing, but their faces blanched.
Whistling, Uncle Lou exited the house, the front door opening and closing.
Dad's knees gave out; he sank to the floor, and his arms went around his wife and his son. Their eyes were open, but they saw nothing.
The kitchen light burned all night long.