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Authors: Caleb J. Ross

Tags: #Thriller

Stranger Will (20 page)

BOOK: Stranger Will
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Mrs. Rose pulls a dead snake from the duffle bag, its skin brittle with decay. She pinches it between thumb and index finger, allowing a pendulous swing. “Good,” she says. “And that is all I’m really here to say.” She swings the snake faster. “It might be years from now that these kids look back and realize that they’ve been controlled their entire lives, but it will happen. They might hate me, you, and all the others, but they will understand control—they will realize their life. It might take therapy, it might happen behind a giant oak desk in a corner office, but it will hit them, and they will have an entire childhood of proof. It’s something big, William, something big that will reveal all the little things. Context
is
everything, and if we learn to ride with it,” and she throws the snake against a wall, its insides exploding wide, “isn’t that perfection?”

“Bullshit.” William reaches for the duffle bag, but Mrs. Rose pulls it away. “Frank says you’re full of shit.”

“Frank,” she says handing William the bag “is living on a thin welcome.”

Mrs. Rose fights the zipper closed and sets the bag by her feet. The schoolyard has resumed its organized performance, children waiting in line and peeling scabs.

“It’s okay, though,” Mrs. Rose says. “We’re all infatuated with something.”

They spend a few moments in uneasy silence. Watching the children.

“Shelia told me about you and Eugene,” she says. “I’ve noticed it, but she confirmed it.”

William remains silent, fearing whatever he might say would only incriminate.

“She says that you two have developed quite the relationship.”

Like it’s an afterthought, like he has pondered the idea only when leafing through a fishing magazine at a barbershop William says, “he’s a good kid.”

“He can be,” she stretches her eyes and swallows a yawn. “Didn’t get much sleep?” William asks.

“Never.”

They fall back into the ambient laughter. The clouds split, making room for a slight sun as the children continue playing. William is happy that they don’t consider the proof of a day, that they don’t feel they need to.

“Tomorrow,” Mrs. Rose says, “you can meet me in the classroom during recess. No earlier. You’ve done enough out here. We’re going to talk to some parents. Dress appropriately.” She lifts the bag and reenters the playground through the gate, immediately absorbed into the swell of children again. Her smile returns, the children redeem their affection, and somewhere in there is Eugene getting trampled and pushed aside because he isn’t strong enough to fight against the pull.

Chapter Twenty-One

Mrs. Rose has demanded William wear a tie. And because his house sits now as muddy ash, he is forced to beg Philip for the item. Though the request might feel menial, William knows Philip will be in no mood to offer favors.

William has learned from Mrs. Rose to believe that generations are a singular evolution and that every move moves forever, without direction, only presence. Now he knows that Mrs. Rose trusts none of it. She believes in an end, and William has been pulled into its attainment, regardless of how inaccessible he understands it to be. He only floats, guided by the unavoidable currents of Mrs. Rose.

And his father, still William wonders where his father stops and he starts. As a child, William was impressionable, thinking of himself then as a symptom of an unacknowledged genetic disease. He felt defeated by present eyelids, damned never to lose them. He hoped the flaw would vanish generations later and his children’s children would be left with light shoulders and perfect vision. These years he wonders what perfect vision really means.

After having learned of his mentor ’s true motivations, everything comes to William as a testament to predisposition and so brings with it generational baggage. A storefront decays for the sake of ancestral character, the antique façade so popular, especially to Julie, who purchased needles and thread from this very passing store in hopes of building her own familial legacy. Every automobile vibrates above third, fourth, maybe fifth generation asphalt, loosening equally distressed bolts and hinges. New, better screws will roll from new, better factory lines, inspected by new, better eyes from new, better generations. What, William wonders, will become of this ephemeral perfection in twenty years? Where is all the asbestos? What happened to cooking with butter? Transportation is road-locked cars and buses, but for how long?

When he arrives at Philip’s house William skips opening the door and instead rings the doorbell; he wants Philip to situate his hair and straighten his shirt. This may be the last glimpse William will ever have of Philip trying to be something great around him. William will be wallpaper soon. He will be the guy on the couch whose presence Philip has to explain to company. He will be pity embodied, a story Philip uses to prove that he tries as best he can to help the less fortunate become something better.

The porch creaks as he waits, as he sways back and forth, practicing his smile. The door opens. Philip nods and returns to a stain on his living room rug. The dead pigeon.

William mouths a shallow “hello.” He steps in and sees familiar bottles with forgotten names, -oxides and chlorhexidines, and a small, red biohazard bag, the type reserved for coroner oversights.

William slides close to his friend and peaks over his shoulder. “Spill something?”

“Shut up,” he says without shortening even a single rough stroke against the carpet.

“She burned my house,” William says. “She really did. She admitted it.”

Philip looks up and parts his lips, but he stops before speaking. He turns, first his eyes, then his head, back to the stain.

“She isn’t what you think,” William says.

Philip stands. “She is exactly what I think. You aren’t what I think. She has always been what she is—kind, caring—but you’ve changed.”

“Change isn’t possible,” he says and regrets it even before the breath has left his lungs.

The sun bleeds through the windows. The clouds have moved on and the puddles have emptied into the air. Philip’s home feels to William like an extraneous dot on a map, something even the elements no longer acknowledge. Nothing William could say to Philip would pull him away from Shelia. Nothing could convert this fallen friend so he digs deep and pulls out an immature thought. “She isn’t worth it,” he says. “She makes fun of retards, you know.”

William wouldn’t need Philip’s exaggerated sigh or his twisted bewilderment to know that what he just said was perhaps the defining argument against listening to anything he has to say, has ever said, or will ever say. William strains for something better, but Philip is already three rooms away before he can mutter a single syllable.

The circle of fried carpet sits dark and deep. William assumes Philip knows it will need to be replaced, but he stays silent. Philip’s steadfast dedication to even the most obvious failures is one of the reasons William has grown to feel protective of his friend’s wellbeing.

“I’m sorry, Phil,” William says, but the sentiment dies. “I know she is important to you.”

Quiet. William drags his feet across the room, turning to the hallway, but stops at Shelia’s empty birdcage. The door swings open, shining bright by the help of the strong sun. He doesn’t regret killing the bird. He would only regret letting it live to spread Mrs. Rose’s influence, but if keeping it alive meant keeping his friend happy, he would redo everything. He closes the door as Philip leaves the bedroom with eyes glazed, cheeks red.

“She loved that bird,” he says and wipes his sleeve across his nose. “It was like a child. We were going to name it, but Shelia said we couldn’t do that. She said it would screw with its flight patterns or something. I don’t know if I believe that. It was a messenger pigeon, you know.”

“I know,” William says.

“Right, the billboard. You shoot anything lately?” William shakes his head. “I don’t anymore.”

“Good,” he says and walks back to the bedroom. “I always thought it was little creepy.”

William kneels to grab the abandoned brush and a bottle of bleach. The smell dominates, something he had once been accustomed to and now cannot understand. He continues on the dark circle where Philip had stopped. “I had fun, though,” William says, coughing on the fumes. “Like I was getting something done. Not that it needed to be done, but I could see the results.” Philip walks back into the living room with a fresh perfume scented shirt. His hairline drips wet and his face shines. “It won’t come out,” he says. “You know that.” “Sure?”

Philip nods and takes the equipment from William’s hands. “So you’d better be gone before Shelia gets home. Or at least keep your guard up.”

“I’ll sleep with both eyes open,” William says.

Philip admits that it wouldn’t be a bad idea and circles into the kitchen, grabs a knife, and starts crafting a sandwich with all the romanticism for which he is known, alternating layers of twisted meat and sliced cheese, a dollop of mayonnaise, and the crusts gone. William follows the example realizing he hadn’t eaten since breakfast with Shelia. He understands this communion as temporary, but holds onto it. He doubts Philip offers true forgiveness—as the carpet remains stained with the bird’s panic-ring—but the possibility of a friendship reinstated to an as pre-Shelia routine as possible is a thought William welcomes.

Philip hands him the bread. Together they eat.

Sitting at the kitchen table William takes a drink and tells his friend about his new job in “adoption,” minus the incriminating details. Philip is receptive to the idea, saying “that’s great” through a dense ball of ham and provolone.

“I need to borrow a tie,” William tells him. “And some clean pants if possible.”

Philip leaves for the bedroom immediately, returning with a pair of gray slacks on a metal hanger.

“Thanks,” William says and pulls from his own dirty pocket the pink thank-you note he’s kept near for days. He places it in the new pants, afraid to lose its meaning before he’s had the chance to understand it.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Recess roars. The children swarm the playground, yet they lag, beg for the weekend. Their ambient breath hangs like smog over the Harold Straton yard, nesting until the final school bell relieves them for day. William watches from the perimeter fence, praying with them that the weekend finds a way to rescue more quickly.

Eugene stands at the fence by the bench with a brown lunch sack in one hand while he bounces a ball against the wet grass with the other. William takes the approach slowly, feigning accidental eye contact.

“William,” Eugene says and the ball escapes his hand, bounces off his foot and rolls into the dense community behind him. “You have new clothes.”

William wants to explain the tie and pants, to explain that they are only temporary, that he will be back tomorrow with the rags he has always worn, but William does not know the truth behind tomorrow. “I borrowed them,” he says softly. “They look a little weird, but I’ll get used to them.”

Eugene smiles and holds up the brown sack. “I brought you something. I saw Mrs. Rose take your red bag.”

“What is it?” William asks.

Eugene froths. He loves having a secret, loves even more letting the world know he has one. “I’m not telling.” He shakes his head so hard his disheveled hair whips against his giant forehead.

The smell offends, but William manages a façade otherwise. Take away the odor and the bag could be any sack lunch packed by any parent. It is a bag, a dense bag William offers as rationale for his curiosity, but otherwise unique only in the anticipation it garners from Eugene.

“You’re gonna’ like it,” he says, an eager, giggling crescendo as the words spill. “I promise.”

William shakes the bag, opens, and reaches in. He feels the fading silk of bird feathers and immediately drops the package, exposing the bird. Eugene holds his grin, but his eyes drop to the bag, now on the ground. The dead pigeon feigns life with the help of a subtle breeze. “Where did you get that?”

“It was my mom’s,” Eugene says. “I took it because Mrs. Rose took all your animals. Do you like it?”

William nods.

“My mom did, too. She tied paper to it and let it fly away. She never let me touch it or pet it so I had to take it when she was asleep.”

Paper
.

“She really likes it,” he says, “but you will like it more.”

Paper
.

“She always got real happy when the bird came back. She would smile all day and make muffins. I don’t like muffins but my mom does.”

“Paper,” William says.

“I got one,” and he brings from his pocket a small sheet, still rolled tight. “I asked her what it was for. She said it was none of my business and that I need to go outside and play.”

The recess bell rings, and the schoolyard reduces to just the two of them. Eugene turns without a single glance of remorse. This simple act kills. “I have to go,” he says waving.

“Wait…”

“But Mrs. Rose will be really mad,” he says.

“Can I see it?” William asks. The child exudes pride and, bloated with enthusiasm, reveals the message. The paper fits tight in his fist. William yearns to reject the truth behind what he knows it says. For as long as Eugene stays visible William doesn’t need to rely on memory.

“I can read it,” the boy says, his breath already bouncing hysteria as he unrolls the paper quick enough to tear.

“Okay,” William says.

The boy takes a long look to the note. “It says my name.” William nods. His eyes swell.

He continues through the note, reading recognizable words with pride and clarity. New words like “regret” and “unable” and “child” he sounds out, looking to William for confirmation. “Good,” William says each time. His eyes fill faster now, and

he hopes that his pronunciation exceeds his comprehension.

“My mom has nice writing,” he says and turns the paper for William to see.

He agrees, never looking at the paper because he doesn’t want to know the exact language. It’s enough to hear the child read the planning stages of his own death. It’s enough to hear him celebrate his correct pronunciation of the phrases “raising a child is hard,” and “out of options,” without seeing the words himself. It’s enough to know that it will happen without hearing the date, but Eugene brings the paper back and continues, showing off his knowledge of numbers.

BOOK: Stranger Will
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