Authors: Mark Ferguson
In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.
The fox pulled out his knife, shouting: “I’m going to teach you how to live!” Then he took to flight, turning his back. But he had no luck. The snake was quicker. With a well-chosen blow of his fist, he struck the fox in the middle of his forehead, which broke into a thousand pieces, while he cried: “No! No! Four times no! I’m not your daughter.”
—The Fire Chief
The Bald Soprano
enry left his
mother’s house at two thirty in the morning. The sound of the bright green spastic low vibration emanating from the house across the street crescendoed when he opened the front door, and got louder still when he stepped down onto the lawn. It sounded like cicadas at the height of a seventeenth summer, or a dense forest being chewed apart by wildfire.
At first the dangerous journey ahead had been too daunting to properly consider. Now Henry felt he had no choice. For weeks the sound had made sleep an impossibility. His body felt papery and insubstantial, and at last he feared staying more than he did the uncertainty of escape.
The previous day’s run-in with the cops had cemented it. It was really just an unfortunate misunderstanding. Cause and effect, once so reliable, were no longer correlated in any meaningful way, so Henry had taken to running little experiments. For instance: If he tossed an egg-sized pebble at the house across the street, would it stick or bounce off?
The rock ricocheted off the wood of the front door with a sharp crack and landed on the bright orange welcome mat. Feeling comforted by the normal response from rock and door, Henry walked to the house, peered into a ground-level window, and saw the woman who lived inside. She didn’t seem to have noticed him, so he banged on the glass.
“How do you sleep?” he yelled, but only so she could hear him. “Where is it coming from?”
Henry just wanted to talk—to gather information about the vibration. But then he saw how scared she was and he got scared too. He ran back to his house. When the police arrived he watched through the living room curtains as the woman gesticulated wildly in his direction. A moment later, the officers knocked on the door. Henry opened it, then quietly stared at them in protest of what he felt was unnecessary and unlawful intimidation. They were afraid too. He could tell by the sound of their voices, though he couldn’t make out what they were saying. He was too transfixed by the way the one cop’s Silly Putty eyelid dripped slowly down his face, too confused by the confetti that spewed out of the other’s mouth.
“All that confetti!” he said, and then he laughed.
They must not have liked that, because their incomprehensible racket got louder. Henry’s mother joined him on the threshold, pill bottles in hand. They rattled pleasantly as she shook them in the cops’ direction. The officer who’d brandished his handcuffs put them back in his special shiny handcuff holster, and they left.
The neighbors might have said how sad it was over their morning coffee, but sadness was not what they felt. Henry knew that. He heard them whispering from a block away, through brick and wood and open air. They were scared of the hairy antisocial teenager. Scared that he wandered, muttering, through their backyards on his way to the woods. They all wanted him gone and would find some pretext to get the police back to his doorstep. But Henry would not be caught, and he would not wait until that bright green mess of a buzzing window turned fluid and shook the teeth right out of his head before sucking the whole goddamn street out of existence.
He squinted through the darkness, searching for any sign of a patrol car at the entrance to his cul-de-sac. There was no moon that night and very few stars on account of the lights of the city nearby. Henry walked to the end of his lawn and stepped onto the street. It was softer than usual. His shoes sank into the pavement, but only slightly. He jumped up in the air and landed a moment later. No lag. No puddle splashes from the asphalt.
I must have chosen the right night,
He stepped forward, and by the time he reached the third house down from his own he felt lighter. The air felt good and the sky was big and clear. He was almost happy, the fear momentarily out of reach. Distracted, he could no longer recall the reason for his nighttime walk.
What am I doing?
I have no idea,
said a voice.
He recognized that voice. It was his own, from before everything went wrong. Henry wanted to grab on to it and climb it like a rope out of quicksand, but it was already gone. In its place stirred a familiar sadness spiked with fear, a purple and black bruise of a sensation that caught at the back of his throat, drew his eyebrows down, swelled his tongue. He wanted to sit down and cry but knew it wouldn’t do any good, so he forced himself forward. The first step was hard but they came easier after that until half a block later when he heard a click and was hit by a pure white light that surrounded him completely. He stared unblinking into its epicenter, and though it hurt he could not turn away. He saw concentric circles like solar flares—they grew and contracted as his pupils tried to find the right focus and Henry was suddenly conscious of his eyeballs in the most curious way. They were moving inside of his skull without his consent, just millimeters away from his brain, and the light was manipulating them, working its way inside. But just as that strange fear was threatening to overwhelm him, he heard the same click as before and the brightness disappeared.
In pieces, like the melody of an old song, a memory materialized. Henry and his best friend, Gabe, used to walk this road at night when they were kids, and the light had come on then, too. It was controlled by a motion sensor mounted to a tree trunk at the edge of his neighbor’s driveway. He and Gabe used to play spy and try to move so slowly that their little bodies wouldn’t trip the sensor. They always failed, but that was most of the fun, and when the spotlight bathed them in blinding white light they’d jump in the air as if from the force of an explosion. Henry could remember Gabe’s elongated yell, how he would deepen his young voice to mimic the sound of slow motion. Then they would stand, brush loose gravel from their clothes, and casually walk away while hoping that none of the older kids on the block had seen them playing make-believe.
The memory made Henry miss the world he had left. It made him miss himself in that world. It made him miss Gabe and Val and nights spent in the impossible comfort of his dorm room. The thought of all he’d lost was devastatingly painful and unbearably seductive. Like gravity it pulled him toward his home and his bed and his mother, and he almost turned around.
Stoppit stoppit stoppit.
He had vowed that he would escape. This sadness, however real it might feel, had been turned into a weapon in the arsenal of the enemy. Henry could not allow himself to be prey to the spastic vibration. There was no more time to debate or to question. With balled fists pinned tightly to his sides and teeth clenched to the point of almost breaking, he marched forward. The asphalt turned to soup, and strings of black elastic tar wound themselves around his feet. He lifted his old sneakers higher with each step, shook them to dislodge some of the goop. It felt awkward and his thigh muscles burned with the effort, but it worked. When finally he reached the end of his street, Henry smiled, eyes wide with wonder. The bushes that bordered the road rustled in applause, and the streetlamps lowered their curious faces, burst open like flowers, and showered him with orange and yellow sparks of congratulation.
The hard part, he hoped, was over. He pointed his shoes toward the city. Val was there, somewhere deep in the labyrinth of Lower Manhattan, and he would find her. She would save him.
abe’s first memory
was of a game. His T-shirt was pulled up, pinned between chin and chest, and his pants and underwear were around his ankles. Henry was there, his clothes in roughly the same configuration. Henry was singing, and Gabe was listening. They would take turns making funny noises in the dark. They were both four years old, and though they would remain best friends throughout childhood and adolescence and beyond, they would stop taking their pants off in closets together shortly after the time of Gabe’s second memory.
Gabe’s second memory was of being caught. This time, he and Henry were together in a sleeping bag. All of their clothing had been left in a reckless pile down past their feet. They lay on their sides, foreheads pressed together. Henry hummed notes up and down a scale, and when he hit just the right one the air inside the sleeping bag seemed to come alive and tickle Gabe deep inside of his ear. When that happened they both laughed and Henry said, “Now you go.” But Gabe could never find the right notes. His role in the game was to take his index fingers and try to tickle the inside of Henry’s ears directly while singing a silly song. Henry giggled and fought back until one or the other of them gave up.
Henry’s mother’s voice was surprisingly clear inside the bag.
“What are you two doing?” she said.
Gabe froze. He wasn’t positive that what they were doing was bad, but the fact that they’d always kept it a secret made him feel afraid. Henry, believing the bag to be magical, whispered that if they were quiet enough his mother wouldn’t find them. Gabe remembered the blinding light when she opened the bag and the feeling of the cool air replacing the moistness of their breath. It made him feel small and cold. Henry’s mother dragged her son out by the wrist. He cried and tried to get away, but she held on to his arm and spanked his bare behind as he ran in a circle around her. That image was clear in Gabe’s memory. Henry was like the tail of a dog being chased by the snapping mouth of his mother’s open palm.
Gabe doubted that she’d spanked him, too, but he couldn’t recall. His mind hadn’t recorded anything beyond the air and the light, her loud voice and the sound of the spanking.
Fifteen years had passed since that moment, but when Gabe was reminded of it the shame was still fresh. It opened up somewhere in his sinuses and spread down through his chest before pooling and hardening beneath his breastbone. He never told his own parents what had happened, and as far as he knew Henry’s mother had never revealed their secret. Because of that, Gabe always felt like he was still hiding, even after having been found.
He never fooled around with another boy again, and he and Henry never talked about it. As he got older, as he came to understand how typical their early, unfocused impulses had been, Gabe resented having been made to feel bad about it in the first place. Even so, the shame remained like the phantom of a severed limb. It was there inside him whether it made sense or not, one of the many strange stones that formed his crooked foundation.
For reasons he could not at first understand, Gabe thought a lot about those memories when Henry disappeared. Eventually, after long consideration, the reason for their persistence became clear. In the blackest corner of his mind, the place where Gabe put sex and pain and fear and humiliation, this memory was king. And at the center of it stood Henry, singing, his pants around his ankles.