Don’t Look Now
This is so unfair. It’s not carving his way from the sanitarium that slowed him down, finally. It’s not the rain either, and the alarm blaring across the grounds—who cares about the alarm?
For nearly sixteen years he’s seen this day coming. Tomorrow is the anniversary. No institution could have held him. They should have just unlocked his door, stepped away, stood there with heads bowed as he shadowed past.
They wish they had, now. Or, they would, if they could still wish for anything.
For nearly sixteen years, he’s fixated on the straight, unflinching line between him and his home town. Between him and her, him and them. All of them.
Part of living in your head for a decade and a half, though, it’s that you never get to turn your wheelchair to directly face the dayroom television.
That’s where he would have learned, he knows. That’s where he would have learned, if he’d learned.
Granted, a year before getting locked up, his dad had sat him on his lap, let him turn the steering wheel this way then that way, but the steering wheel is such a small part of this, evidently.
Surely somewhere in nearly fifteen years of soap operas in the dayroom—police or crime programs excited the patients too much—surely somewhere in there, a camera would have looked down along an actor’s legs. To these maddening pedals.
He’d presumed that, once he figured out where the key went, the car would just drive itself.
The key part of it he’d learned from being institutionalized. Insert, twist.
The station wagon had screamed awake with that twist, then kept screaming until he looked down at the key, let it go. The key twisted back a quarter turn almost on its own, and the engine normaled down. At least he thought the sound it was making was normal.
But these pedals.
He has them both pushed, one foot per, but still the car is just sitting there under the carport.
Coming down the hall from his room had taken two minutes, maybe, and that was just because of the one doctor and the two orderlies, none of whom were going to be doctoring or orderlying any more.
He smiles, thinking back to how he’d left them, but then he covers his smile with the web of his left hand.
This has always been his problem—it wasn’t just his sister who could read his face. Everybody could. Everybody can.
He’s going to have to do something about that.
Later he’s going to have to do something about that.
If there’s even going to be a later.
The way the night’s going, he’s still going to be sitting behind the wheel of this station wagon when the sirens roll in, when the next straightjacket billows open over the wide lawn, envelopes him again for years.
That would be unacceptable.
Tomorrow is the anniversary.
Frustrated, he pulls at the knobs on the dash.
One of them turns the headlights on, announcing where he is.
He pushes that one back in.
But he’s learning. Good. He can figure this out. He has to.
The next knob flinches him back, his left arm coming up to shield his face, pure instinct. It seems a large black bird is screeching up from the hood of the car, into the glass.
And again, and again. Against the rain blowing in under the carport.
Windshield wipers. He doesn’t know where he knows the term from. Could be he’s just making it up.
Further exploration blinks orange lights with a sound he finds comforting in its regularity. A twist of another knob turns the light over his head on.
He reaches up, crushes it slowly with the knuckles of his right fist. The plastic sharding into his skin is delicious, and the filament there leaves a faint line on the back of his middle finger.
It’s dark again. Like he prefers.
He breathes in, lets it back out.
The next knob pushes in, stays there.
The knob after that turns on music. He leans his head back to show he can take this too, this music. But he doesn’t have to.
Instead of punching this knob in over and over, deeper and deeper, he twists it back the other way.
This is how cars work. They’re a series of on-off switches, all needing to be flipped in the proper order, according to the intentions of the driver. And even then, he remembers, you have to negotiate the road with this cumbersome steering wheel.
It’s hardly an elegant device.
Give him a blade, though. A blade has an elegance. With a blade, there’s only one on-off switch, and it’s pulsing in everyone else’s throat.
Soon, he tells himself.
Once he masters this device.
At which point the knob he pushed in thirty seconds ago, the knob that did nothing, it clicks back out all at once. He stares at it, daring it to move again. For a moment he wonders if there’s someone lying inside the car, trying to communicate with him by pushing this knob back out. Another escapee? Another like him?
Except there are no others like him.
He pulls the knob the rest of the way to look through the hole, see if there’s an eyeball looking back at him, but the knob is coils of red-hot metal.
He drops it onto the seat. It spirals colored smoke up.
He wants to cough from it. He won’t let himself cough.
He feels a moan building in his throat, but doesn’t let that come up either.
Silent. Never a sound.
He twists the steering wheel back and forth hard, until his right hand hooks onto a lever or a stick.
It catapults the station wagon forward, into the side of the sanitarium.
Dust drifts down from the underside of the carport, onto the hood.
The stick, then. This is a lever he can move the world with.
He holds it in his right hand, feels its potential range of motion, and clicks it up once, the station wagon still nudging into the wall. The next click is the same. And the next. But the one after that, it relaxes the car, though he can still feel its heart beating through the pedals.
He looks up, sees his own eyes in the mirror.
He nods to himself, then pushes the lever one click higher, and the station wagon screeches backwards all at once, throwing him into the wheel.
All that’s behind him is open space.
He launches from the carport, stomps both pedals with his feet.
The engine screams. The rain behind him is washed red like blood.
He lets off one foot and the engine murmurs down, like some of the patients in the day room: a steady, incoherent mumble.
He lets off the other foot and the station wagon rolls back slower now.
He pushes that foot—the left—back down and the car stops.
He flashes his eyes in the mirror again, sees himself again at six years old, looking through a domino mask, and then he reaches up, twists the mirror away, lurches into the rest of the night.
He doesn’t need them because his house doesn’t have electricity.
He needs them because they’re candles.
He remembers the way light from a flame flickers on a face, makes it look alive.
Candle light will make Mother’s face change expression with each flicker, with each warble of flame.
It’ll be like it was when he first came to camp.
It’s what he remembers best, when he remembers at all: the counselors and the campers ranged in a circle around the bonfire that first night. There’d been a guitar, and he’d always been fascinated by guitars, with how the sounds plucked from the strings go into the hole first, and then come back out, somehow without hitting into the other sounds already coming in. Or maybe they were hitting, maybe there was a purer sound inside the guitar, hiding like a secret.
The world had been full of maybes that first night.
At a certain point in the song, with the sparks feeding up into the sky, he’d looked out across the lake’s shimmery back and he’d rasped a breath in, felt content for once.
He was sitting far enough back from the flickering light that none of the counselors or campers had been able to see his face. Or the silhouette of his head. Nobody was looking at him, for once. He was just there.
Between his thumb and forefinger had been one of the jumbo grasshoppers from the tall grass.
He’d just been holding it, so it couldn’t get away. Its front legs pedaled through the air slow, and its back legs would kick out and then stay, like reaching for something. For the ground.
You don’t have to always have plans.
What he’d found out with the grasshopper was that he could apply pressure to the shell its skin was and the rest of the grasshopper would bulge at the joints, at the cracks. But when he let go, the grasshopper would go back to how it was.
Because he’d always been able to hear his heart in his head—Mother told him his head was special—he’d tried squeezing the grasshopper in time with that beat, slower and slower like he could, but then the camp counselor with the brown cowboy hat leaned forward to tell her scary story.
Halfway through it, when she strummed the guitar hard and sudden, his heart burst warm between his fingers.
It smelled like tobacco and sunlight.
He would have told Mother, but she didn’t like to hear about dead things. Only living ones.
She’s going to love the candles, he knows. They’ll make her alive again.
If he can ever get them to balance, that is.
It’s not his fault they won’t stand up. He knows that. And he also knows that he’s seen them standing up. So there must be a way.
But what is it?
All the images in his head of candles are of them already standing up. None of them are of how to get them that way.
On one knee in front of the table now, he tries again, holding the thick eye-yolky candle so hard that his fingers warm dents into it.
He moves his lips in appeal to the candle, but the bag hides his lips, he knows.
Four seconds after he lets the candle go, it leans over, falls to the tabletop.
He lowers his head, so Mother won’t see his eyes.
Getting the candles hadn’t been easy—there were some left behind in the cabins, but most are from the edges of town, which meant a slog through the woods, and dealing with the dogs, and then the people protecting the candles—but he never dreamed that the real task was still waiting, here at the shed.
He rights the fallen candle, swallows the bile in his throat—they’re not tears, he’s not crying—holds it in his fist this time, forcing it down into the wood grain of the table.
His hand slides down the candle, and the candle is grabbing onto him now.
He’s pretty sure it’s standing on its own, but it’s also holding onto him.
Ten minutes later, the long muscles in his forearm are trembling, and Mother is still watching.
Now, she says, and because she’s always right, he opens his hand all at once.
The candle doesn’t come with it. The dents from his fingers are still there, but the bottom of it has smushed to the top of the table, and the waxy flesh is grabbing onto that now.
Behind his burlap face, he chances a guilty smile.
His head is special. It figured this out, the Secret of the Candles
Two hours and twelve candles later, Mother is ensconced, and every candle has his finger dents, and his hate.
He stands before Her, waiting for the next part.
Light them, she says in her deadlipped way.
He lowers his bag head, closes his eyes.
Outside, the walls of the shed are crawling with golden-legged grasshoppers.
None of them have a match either.
The Sawyer Boy
The old ways are best.
This is what Grandpa is always telling him.
So far he’s been right.
Meat is the old way, and the meat is good. It keeps the family right. It keeps them together.
What did Grandpa call it? A scythe?
Grandpa had only given one demonstration, from his wheelchair. He’d taken the tall implement in his withered hands and swept it back and forth through the yellow grass like a broom, like he was sweeping. And then he’d explained that the only thing different for a tall boy was that you hold the sideways handle like this, and use it like a lever.
It had seemed so easy.
A long handle with a curved blade at one end.
It makes him feel like Death.
And Grandpa was right. The side handle sits right above his hip, feels almost like an oar might, he thinks.
Everybody else is inside by this time. Out of the punishment of the afternoon sun.
Except him. At least until he’s knocked down all the volunteer winter wheat moving in on the porch. It’s gotten tall enough that armadillos and rabbits are blazing paths and tunnels through it, and two days ago a covey of quail exploded up from it right as they were all carrying some meat in from a school bus. The quail had been enough of a startle that they'd dropped the meat into the ground, and then it had dirt and seed heads all on it.
It hadn’t been good.
So now he’s supposed to take care of it, the grass. With this. The scythe. Not the tractor with the shredder. Not the three bad lawnmowers out in the back of that one truck, that he’s pretty sure he could build one good lawnmower from, if given an afternoon.
No, this is the old way, and the old ways are best.
He draws the blade back, about as high as his ribs, and swings it forward just like Grandpa said.
It catches the outside of his right boot, takes his feet out, thunks him back-first onto the ground, his breath whoofing up out of him all at once.
He looks up into the sky, imagines his foot sheared cleanly off.
It’s still attached, though. The blade is too dull for that, hasn’t been used since Grandpa had been of age to use it, probably.
Into the shed, then.
Into the shade.
The old way is best for sharpening.
Spin the old wheel, hold the blade to it at the precise angle, dangling your own white spit down onto it to keep the metal from overheating.
Grandpa said blood was better for that, but that shed is on the back side of the house.
Spit will work. Spit is practically the same thing.
And there’s blood already on the stone anyway, it turns out. The spit activates it back red, makes the ground edge of the blade gleam and smile its curved smile.
Because he knows better, he doesn’t run his finger along that edge. But he does use it to split a green blade of grass longwise, the edge fine enough that all it takes is the grass blade’s own weight to halve it.
He’s always been good with angles, with blades.
Hooks are his favorite to sharpen.
If done right, the point of contact will hover a nail paring above the actual point, the same as the heat of a flame will burn you before you got to the orange.
He leans the scythe upside down against the bench, careful of the balance. To let the metal settle, to let it get used to its new, dangerous shape. If you went right out and used a blade after a change this radical, it would scare back into its dull self, and then you’d have to start all over.
Nobody had to tell him that.
Grind enough cleavers down, the metal lets you know a thing like that all on its own, without any help.
And, with the scythe leaned up against the bench, he can get used to it, too.
He can see himself and it in silhouette, against the sunset. The figure they cut together—he smiles behind his leathery mask.
Cutting a figure like that from the horizon, the meat will just lie down, offer its throat.
Once he gets the hang of swinging it.
He’s going to look like Death, coming at you.
And the winter wheat creeping on the house is going to be the first to fall, cut off right at the neck. Or is the feet?
Either way: dead.
When enough time has passed for the blade to be comfortable with its new edge, he takes it reverently, let the heavy head find the ground again like it wants.
This is a balanced tool, there’s no arguing that. And generations of his family have used it to carve out their place in the world.
There’s no reason he can’t as well.
This time, standing out of all the direct lines of sight from the front windows—he doesn’t need an audience—he first just scrapes the blade through the grass delicately, deliberately. Like shaving.
The grass doesn’t even shiver, the cuts are so clean. It just leans over, falls in sheaves, a congregation of penitents bowing as one. To him.
If your tool isn’t in order, neither will your work be.
Grandpa said this too.
Now it’s time to clear some land.
He’s just going to have to be careful to stop when the trees start, at the edge of the field. Else he might mow all of Texas down.
He nods to himself, sets his feet, holds the side handle like Grandpa said, and cocks the head back, holds the scythe for an instant to be sure of its path, and then he lets fly.
The blade whispers through the grass as deadly as anything, and scoops a bushel of gold an inch or two up. Any higher and that would mean the blade wasn’t sharp enough.
But it is.
The grass sighs back down the moment after, lies down beside its own stumps.
What it uncovers is a blackened finger, with a wedding ring on it.
He wondered where that had gotten off to.
And then the blood pools up around that finger.
From the grass? From the finger?
From his ankle.
His boot is sliced through. Not from the swing, but from when the swing settled back.
He closes his eyes for a moment, opens them onto the eyeholes he’s used to, and directs his face’s face down to this stupid thing in his hands.
Without looking to the house for permission, he spins once, twice, and sends the scythe spinning through the sky. It crashes back in the trees, scares up the morning doves he’s always threatening to bring down.
Let them fly away.
This afternoon, he’s after the tall grass.
He limps back into the shed, his right boot sloshy and warm, and if anybody had been on the porch, they would have heard him in that darkness, yanking the ripcord once, twice.
Third time is charm.
This, this is a proper tool.
When the door back to the yard is suddenly too narrow for the giant he’s becoming, he carves his way through it, and then he carves his way through the tall yellow grass, and then, for as long as the gas holds out, he carves his way through the rest of the afternoon.
Sometimes the new ways are just as good as the old.
Sometimes they’re better.
Nobody ever comes in the boiler room.
But today is taking longer than it needs to.
The problem is the stupid tape.
At first he thought that it wasn’t sticking to the boiler because of the heat—and that made perfect sense. The adhesive on tape has to get leaky with heat, right? Of course anything that tape tries to hold up will slough off.
But when he holds the back of his hand to the boiler at eye-level . . . nope. Just the usual. Maybe a touch above room temperature, but that has more to do with the whole facility being a steam room than it does with the heat warming the metal. The metal’s thick for a reason. The pipes running overhead and alongside, sure, they’re boiling to the touch—he has the thousand little burns to prove it—but the actual boiler, its walls are thick, to keep the whole place from blowing up.
Good. He shouldn’t complain about that.
But still, right?
So he goes through the options: wood? Could he get a tackboard to hang on the side of the boiler somehow? Probably from wire, hooked to some bolt or gauge higher up.
Except the wood, if it was soft enough to push tacks into, that would mean it would also be soft enough to bake in this place. To bake and contract, shrivel in the heat.
Never mind that when Ross or the next boss up the chain came through he’d call it a safety violation.
His mind is a roiling furnace, trying to dream up a solution.
He mutters to himself, pacing back and forth, stopping every few turns to eyeball the side of the boiler, to shuffle through the cards in his pocket, to peel his hat off and wipe the sweat from his brow.
A different place, a different room?
Except what he likes about the floor right around the boiler, it’s that it’s a grate.
Below the grate are generations of rats.
Rats clean up anything.
He likes to watch them, some afternoons.
He would be watching them right now, except the tape won’t stick, even when he uses too much.
It’s not the heat, but the flaky rust coating the boiler.
Sure, he could get a pad or a wire brush, scrape a clean spot in the boiler for the tape to grab onto, but, if he doesn’t want Ross asking him what was up with the boiler, he’d better just go ahead and scrape the whole damn boiler, right?
And that would be a job of work for sure.
No, there has to be another way.
If not tape, then wood, and if not wood, then . . . metal?
That has a ring to it, yes.
This whole place is metal. Even Ross wouldn’t notice some extra metal, would he?
Of course not.
See? he tells himself. Easy. Just use your brain.
It’s how you’ve got away with everything else, isn’t it?
Ten minutes later he’s back with the leads from the welder. He clamps the ground on, flips the helmet’s dark face over his own, and—this is the genius part: instead of finding some scrap metal to weld on, all he does is aim the rod right into the sidewall of the boiler, right at eye level, and turn on the juice.
The electricity pops and smokes, the arc a tiny sun, dim through his tinted glass like another world altogether, like a world past this one, or under it, before it.
Once the rod’s tacked on solid, and level with the ground, he backs off, unhooks, lets that rod stand there on its own.
Because he only has three more rods, he repeats this three more times, until there’s four rods evenly spaced on the side of the boiler, just like pegs. They’re black near the burn, white up the shaft.
All there is to it then is snapping the rods off where the black becomes white, and letting the white fall down through the grate.
He backs off to inspect, makes a judgmental face like Ross.
At first the rods are invisible, are factory, are nothing, but then, slowly, they’re four fingers, four sharp fingers, just starting to reach through, as if from inside the boiler’s dark dreams.
Each peg is maybe an inch long, and sharp at the break-off. A definite safety hazard, especially as camouflaged as they are against the side of the boiler, but he’ll always be aware of them. If Ross isn’t?
Bye-bye, Ross. Should have kept an eye out.
The rats chitter and scrape in the space under his feet.
Now he’s ready, now he can get on with it.
One by one, he pulls the cards from his pocket.
All face cards, he says to himself.
It’s not a joke.
On each card, he’s glued the face of one of the missing children. Well, one of what the people in town are calling the missing children.
But he knows where they are.
So do the rats.
One by one now, he holds them up at eye level and pushes the back of the card—the boring part—onto the sharp metal pegs.
Those sharp fingers thrusting through those unsuspecting faces, out through the eyes, erupting through the bridge of the nose, right up through the mouth, it’s so—
He only makes it to the third one before he shudders his own whiteness down through the grate.
And then he chuckles to himself at the beauty of it all.
Nobody ever comes in the boiler room.
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