Half soul

David was born with only half a soul, but nobody noticed for years. He was a twin, not conjoined, but still half of a whole. The doctor said that they were identical, but he and his brother thought otherwise. To their eyes, they looked only as similar as brothers do, nothing unusual or special. They also didn’t have the same interests or tendencies as most identical twins did, and would point these facts out to their mother when she would bring up their connection when one would bring a new girlfriend over for dinner. Because the doctor said so, she was convinced they were identical and no amount of fact would make her budge.
She was long dead before there was any suspicion that one of her sons had suffered any ill effect from his natal experience. You can get by with half a soul, but only if you get the correct half. Daniel was lucky. As the one who was on the left side of his mother’s womb, closer to her heart, when the quickening happened at 18 weeks of gestation, he got the good half, while David, on the right side, got the bad half. Now the bad half wasn’t evil per se, it just wasn’t quite up to snuff. It made him less compassionate, less caring. He was a bit self-centered, a little selfish, even.
Daniel was usually picked first for group projects in class because he simply worked well with others, while David was usually picked first for any sport that required ruthlessness, like rugby or dodgeball. Compassion never won a sporting match, after all.
Neither one felt left out by this arrangement, which had developed quietly and surely over the years. Neither one realized that the repetition of this pattern, determined by their divergent natures from their half souls, over the many years shaped them into the people they had become. They were truly identical, as the doctor who delivered them had said, but they were as different as the two sides of the coin – one thing but with two halves, both different. Just like with a coin, with one side you won, and the other, well, you didn’t.
David wasn’t bad, he just wasn’t good. Some people thought he was shy, and that was part of it. He wasn’t shy out of actual bashfulness or a desire to be polite, whether they were friends, family, or coworkers. He kept to himself because deep down, he didn’t like other people. He thought they were lesser than him.
In school, he blamed his average and never exceptional grades on his belief that the teachers were jealous of him and gave him lower marks than he deserved out of a desire to put him in his place. He was convinced they had a coordinated plan to subtly remind him every report card day that they were in charge and he wasn’t. He was sure that they did this to him and only him out of a mistaken desire to keep him from getting uppity. He was sure that they were operating on the premise that too much praise early on and the child wouldn’t get along well with others – they’d either lord their status over their classmates or they would shun them. They were doing it for his own good, he told himself, so he said nothing to anyone, not even to his brother.
When they moved three states away after his father’s job transfer, the low grades continued and he just knew that the teachers at his old school had sent a letter explaining their plan along with the transcript to the new school. Never once did he think that his lackluster grades were due to a lackluster performance. He maintained his fecklessness throughout his life, never quite amounting to much in whatever he did.
He wasn’t a schmuck, but he certainly wasn’t a mensch either. He had married well, with a patient wife who usually made up for his social gaffes. Their son, an apple from the tree, was possibly even more socially inept than his father and even with a graduate degree still lived at home and waited tables for a living. Members of their church gossiped that David’s wife, Jane, had married him as either a favor to him (she was forever taking in strays and rehabilitating them) or as someone who wouldn’t have the spine to challenge her whenever she wanted to do her own thing. Headstrong men were challenged by strong women. They felt threatened by a woman calling the shots, so some nontraditional girls chose to stay single, ally with other women, or marry a man who acted tough but really was a wimp. The latter was most certainly the case here.
He was all show and no go. At work, where he was a manager solely out of attrition, he would bluster about schedules and vacation requests from his employees, but clam up when they would confront him with the unfairness or duplicity of his newly minted rules, which never seemed to apply to him. He had become a manager because of budget cuts. His job as a designer was being eliminated, so he had a choice: become a manager or go find another job. He was already counting the months until retirement (it was under 100) so it made more sense to take what they were offering, distasteful as it was, than get a cut in his pension and have to start all over at the bottom of the pile somewhere else.
Fortunately upper management put him at a location where he could do the least amount of damage – one with little business. They were few customers and enough staff to cover his ineptitude. This worked well until further budget cuts and staff complaints forced him out of his office and at the service desk, assisting customers. It didn’t matter that he didn’t know how to use the software to look up auto parts or how to use the cash register to sell them. He had glided by on ignorance and feigned helplessness for too long. It simply wasn’t fair to force his subordinates (in position only, not a know-how or aptitude) to do all the work while he spent his 40 hours a week reading a book, chatting with friends from his previous office, or writing his latest novel on work time.
The CEO was aware of how much he shirked. Everyone knew. The only person who was fooled was David, he thought he was doing a fine job. He thought he’d coast right on for another year until it was time to retire. Little did he know that his invisible handicap was soon to catch up with him. Little did he know that going through life with only half a soul would have negative repercussions very soon.

Bone music

skelhorn

Harold loved playing the French horn. The tone was mellow and warm, inviting. He knew it would never be the lead instrument like the trumpet or guitar was, and he was fine with that. He wasn’t one for being in front, leading the way. No, that was for the peacocks in the world. He was more a pigeon, behind-the-scenes, anonymous. He never wanted to be a manager, bossing people around. He was happy being a team member, a cog in the wheel, someone who got things done without any fanfare.

And then he met Lydia. She loved him exactly the way he was, for who he was. She wasn’t put off by his meek nature or unassuming presence. She certainly wasn’t concerned that he was a skeleton, either. While most women were loathe to live with someone who looked like they escaped from an anatomy class, Lydia saw the advantages. Because he had no skin, he was never too hot or too cold. She could adjust the thermostat to whatever she liked and he’d never fuss. He never spent any money on clothes either, so they had plenty set aside to go on vacations.

And go on vacations they did! Every month they ventured to a new part the world, seeing a new place and meeting new people. They picked their destinations from their extensive list of pen-pals, strewn all over the globe like Easter eggs, each one a treasure to discover. Every year they had to get new passports made because they’d filled them up with stamps and visas. Lydia had a plan that the old pages could be used to re-wallpaper her art room one day.

Mr. Buttons, their cat, never got to go on a trip. He never left the house. The vet even came to him. He was terrified of the outside world. Trees sent him into a tizzy. Clouds? Forget about it. He’d run and hide under Lydia’s dress, cowering there until she picked him up and carried him back inside. Otherwise he’d stay there, trembling, paralyzed. It was kind of embarrassing really, but it did mean that they never had to worry about him sneaking out when they opened the door, or be bothered with him asking to go out and come back in every 15 minutes. No, all in all he was a good cat, and he seemed to enjoy Harold’s home recitals almost as much as Lydia did.

They met at one of his performances – that time in a mutual friend’s house. Jane had suspected they’d get along smashingly and set up the recital as an excuse for them to meet. It was the blindest of blind dates – neither one knew that they were being steered toward each other. Harold brought his French horn and Lydia brought her harmonica. While listening to the sousaphonist playing his solo, (a piece he wrote himself for the occasion) they began to talk.

Lydia was certain that she’d heard undertones in Harold’s playing – notes that she was uniquely capable of hearing because of her unusual ears. Nobody in her family talked about her ears, but she knew she was different. She assumed they didn’t want to talk about them out of kindness, to not make her feel different, or perhaps it was out of embarrassment. Nobody really was certain who her father was, after all. Sure there was a man who filled the role, who was married to her mother. Jack had raised her since she was a baby. Everybody knew he was Dad and not her Father.

The only person who knew for sure was Martha, Lydia’s Mom, and she wasn’t saying. She’d retired from the circus when she got pregnant and that was as far as the story went. Sure, there had been a mule act as part of the show, but nobody went so far as to suggest anything that questionable. Maybe it was the illusionist, spurned at the end, and he performed some real magic instead of those sleight-of-hand stunts that were his bread-and-butter. No matter, the family didn’t know and it wasn’t worth the bother of making up a story, so they just acted like everything was normal.

Harold said that yes, he regularly played more notes then were normally heard, basically playing two songs at once. If it was a depressing song, he simultaneously played a cheery one at a subsonic level to even it out. If it was a rousing march, he played a dirge for the same reason. He just felt it wasn’t right to bring people’s emotions too high or too low. Somewhere in the middle was best, and since he could, he did.

Nobody before had discovered the extra song weaving its way into and under the first, like how the framework of the house is hidden yet integral to the house itself. Nobody until now, he thought, and there and then he decided he would have to make her his bride. Partly it was out of admiration for her rare talent. But partly it was out of the desire to keep his actions a secret. No wife could testify against her husband – that was law. It was like testifying against yourself since “the two shall be of one flesh”. It stood to reason she wouldn’t tattle on him either, as a logical extension of that law.

She hadn’t told, and he never had reason to worry. She wouldn’t have anyway. Nobody ever believed her when she told them anything she’d learned from using her unusual talent. They had no way to check if it was true, and honestly they didn’t care. In some ways she was like a five-year-old boy, fascinated with trains or dinosaurs, telling everyone within earshot about the minutest details of her obsession. Even though what Lydia said was true it didn’t really concern them, so it wasn’t worth the bother. “Uh-huh!” and “Is that right?” they’d mumble to not appear rude, but they were already off thinking about their own interests. She never took it personally, knowing their actions said more about them than her, and learned to keep her own counsel early on.

The Clower twins

5

Emma hated her siblings. All day long she had to rock them back and forth. Even if they’d had arms and legs they were too small to do it themselves. Rocking was the only way to keep them content, but more importantly, to keep them quiet. Her shoulder was getting tired, but she kept at it. To stop meant noise either from them or from their parents. Or both. She wasn’t sure which was worse, but she was unwilling to learn the answer right now.
The twins were born three years ago but they looked half that age. They were so tiny, still. The doctor in Millersville was unable to tell Mr. and Mrs. Clower if they would always be this small, or if they would ever catch up. He also had no answer to why they had no arms or legs. He didn’t have a lot of answers for most of their questions, but he was all they had. They couldn’t afford to take the twins into Baltimore to get a second opinion. It was only 22 miles away, but that was forever when you didn’t have a car. Sure, it was only two hours by bicycle, but those babies couldn’t travel that way, no sir! How would they take them – in the basket like they were a package to be mailed or a bag of apples bought at the market? You can’t hold them and steer, either. Plus it would mean that Earl had no way to get to his job at the field, picking beans or tending the goats. No, one opinion would have to do, even though it wasn’t much. If the good Lord had wanted them to know more, He would’ve provided more. This was their burden, and they had to carry it.
Now, to be sure, Mr. and Mrs. Clower never said out loud that their newest children were a burden. They never intentionally sounded ungrateful for any gift the Lord gave them, no matter how odd it seemed. Their pastor had said years ago that nothing from the Lord was bad, only it might be bitter sometimes. Medicine was bitter, but it was good for you. And it took a while to see the effects. They remembered his words when the twins came, and thought about them often.
Why, the Lord Himself was born in a barn. That sure didn’t seem appropriate for God to make an appearance. Surely God would be born in a palace or at least a manor house. Never someplace so anonymous or dirty as a pen for animals. Imagine the noise! Imagine the smell! So if the Lord could be born in less than ideal circumstances, so could their babies. They’d just have to wait and see how things turned out, just like Mary did.
Emma didn’t have the patience to wait. She wanted these babies gone and she wanted them gone right now. They were getting on her nerves. She hadn’t asked to be a big sister. She had been fine being an only child. She sure didn’t want the limelight taken away from her, and even more she didn’t want to have to care for these interlopers.
Her parents never thought twice about making her tend them. It was part of her job as a member of the family. They didn’t charge her rent or expect her to pay for her food or clothing, so how else was she supposed to do her part? The same had been expected of them, both first-borns in large families. Of course you needed large families then. It was free labor. Having children was like printing money. Need more help? Have more babies. Of course you had to plan ahead a bit – look down the road a piece in order to see what you might have need for. It didn’t do to have a baby right when times got tight – then you were doubling your trouble. Best to have one who was at least five, so he was able to feed and clothe himself. It didn’t count as child labor if it was yours, you know.
But these babies weren’t going to be a help to anyone, seeing as how they were born without limbs. They sure were happy, though. That made it a little easier. All day long they laughed and smiled, eyes gleaming at everyone and everything. Some thought they were soft in the head, being so happy and all. It takes smarts to see the troubles in the world. But they really were smart and happy at the same time. It was weird. Maybe that was their gift. They’d been cursed physically, but blessed spiritually. They were happy no matter what was happening, which was good. Now, if only they could rub off some of that spirit onto Emma.

Ella

ele

Ella had been raised with humans since she was a wee calf, only two months old. She’d been abandoned by her mother, who simply walked away one afternoon while Ella was sleeping in the damp savannah heat under a baobab tree.

Perhaps the mother forgot her? Perhaps she walked off to check on a strange sound or find something to eat. Perhaps she didn’t want to be a mother anymore. Perhaps she was too young for the experience, or it was more than she’d anticipated.

Regardless of the reasons why, the “what” was that Ella was by herself for a day and a night before she was found by a safari full of New Zealand tourists. That area wasn’t on their tour, but her bellows aroused their curiosity so they rerouted.

Ella was fine for a few hours after she awoke. It wasn’t unusual for Mama to go away. Calves had to learn to be independent early on, so mothers didn’t coddle them. But when sunset came and Mama still wasn’t there she started to get a little anxious. That hungry feeling in her tummy got more insistent, which only worsened her anxiety. It was a terrible self-reinforcing loop.

Ella began to whine, quietly at first, feeling sad and alone. She didn’t want to call the wrong sort of attention to herself. There were plenty of animals in the Savannah who would love to make a meal of a young elephant left unguarded by her parents. But after a few hours alone under the stars, Ella started the bawl openly, no longer holding back. She no longer cared if some predatory animal was drawn to her cries. Death was better than this, this half-life of loneliness and fear.

What would she do? How would she care for herself? Her Mama had been her world, her constant companion. And now as far as she looked across the flat scrubland, she saw nothing but thorn bushes and trees stripped of their leaves by the giraffes. She was still awake, red-eyed and hoarse from her keening in the early morning when the safari group found her.

A young couple, Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Halverson, married just 6 1/2 months, decided to take her as their own. They’d agreed when they were engaged that they didn’t want children, both having been raised by abusive parents. They didn’t trust themselves to not repeat the pattern. It was as if they both chosen to be teetotalers after being raised by alcoholics. They decided it was safer for everyone all around if they didn’t even try. But an elephant was another matter entirely. And who couldn’t fail to fall in love with her? Her huge dark eyes with her long ashes locked into them like a tractor beam. There was no chance of escape.

However, there were a few obstacles to overcome. How to get her home? An airplane was out of the question. If airlines charge by the pound for luggage, there’s no way they can get her on board. Perhaps a combination of train and boat? It was the only way it seemed. However, the moment they put her on the train for the first time they knew there was going to be a problem. She began to bawl when Jake stepped out of the car. He and Margie quickly realized one of them would have to stay with her.

They hurried to get another ticket and had to pay extra for the “privilege” of riding in the animal car. It wasn’t meant for people, and Mr. Gruber, the engineer, had to pay off the station manager to keep him from grumbling. Fortunately the weather was good, because the animal cars weren’t air-conditioned. No use wasting heat and air on them, the company thought. But Jacob would have a hard time. Even though it was early summer, the speed of the train would mean it would be rather chilly while it was traveling. Margie gave him her mink coat that he’d given her as an engagement gift to soften the blow. The other animals kept away from him once they caught a whiff of it, unsure of what it, or he, was. It masked his aftershave, however, and that was good. He was grudgingly accepted as one of them at least long enough to get Ella to her new home.

The weather box

It was that time again. Around August, every year for the past two decades, Michael consulted the box. He had to. It was part of his job as chief forecaster for the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Some would say it was all of his job, but he would disagree. There were plenty of other chores he did around the office on Main Street in Dublin, New Hampshire that justified his salary, but this was by far the most important.

The box was kept in the editor’s office on the floor. It was unlocked – in fact, Michael was sure he’d never even seen the keys for it. The information inside it was too valuable to risk not being available when needed. Michael shuddered to think how much damage would result from an attempt to force open that black box. He might never be able to create the eerily accurate year-long forecast that the almanac was famous for. No, it was best to leave it unlocked, safely in the editor’s office. The office door could be locked, sure, but there was no need.
Nobody stole anything here. It just wasn’t that sort of town. What came first, the town or the almanac? Was the reason for the honest nature of the citizens due to the intentions of the founder over 225 years ago? Or did he choose to place his center of operations in this place because of its nature? Did it matter? The two went together like peanut butter and jelly, both making each other better by being together.

Michael had been carefully advised on the preparations he had to do before even starting to write the forecast. It was a carefully guarded secret handed down orally from meteorologist to meteorologist. Even the editor didn’t know what was involved. Even Michael’s wife, a kind lady who’d claimed him as her own when they were both in their mid-20s half their lives ago, even she who had seen his ups and downs and in between, even she didn’t know.

It was only after he understood and agreed to the very specific and arcane instructions that he was even offered the job. It was essential for everyone’s safety, no doubt about it. One step forgotten or performed in the wrong order and people would die. Not immediately, probably. He was by nature an inquisitive man, but on this point he knew better than to question any part of the litany, and never to write it down.

But what if he died before he found his replacement? Subsequent meteorologists were carefully selected and groomed for the job by the current occupant. How would the knowledge pass on if he wasn’t around? It turns out that this wasn’t a concern. In fact, it was one of the perks of the job although nobody else knew it. He couldn’t die from an accident as long as he performed the annual pre-prognostication ritual carefully and correctly. He wasn’t sure how closely the ritual matched the preparations the high priest made to approach the Holy of Holies in the Holy Temple 3000 years ago but he was pretty sure it wasn’t far off.

That cool August day, he took the box from the current editor’s office and took it to his own. He sat down at his small wooden desk after he’d locked the door. It was best to not be interrupted. He made sure that everybody was out of the office so they wouldn’t need anything from him for the rest of the day. They understood how important it was to not interrupt him once he started, but they might forget and try to come in to get a refill on their coffee or to tell him the latest sports score. He often did his forecasts on a Saturday for this very reason, so he could be sure nobody would be there.

Michael took a deep breath in and opened the box. He took out all the papers and put them to the side. He kept the empty box in front of him. The box was what mattered after all. The papers were a red herring, put there to confuse and misdirect. That was the trick – anybody could open the box and look through the papers there. The instructions made no sense to anyone, even him. This was on purpose. The box was the secret. This is why it had never changed for all these years. It certainly wasn’t out of a sense of sentimentality or thrift.

The box was forged from a blend of steel, copper, and meteor. The tiny meteor had fallen behind Robert Thomas’ house all those years ago. When he touched it with his spade while turning the soil for his wife’s daffodil bed, it told him in his mind that it would tell him the future. Not meaningless trivia, mind you, not anything so banal as who would win the World Series or who would be president in 130 years. No, this meteorite would tell him what really mattered – the weather.

It was the weather that caused the crops to grow or not. It was the weather that made life pleasant or deadly. Balmy days were nice, but ice storms and floods were what really mattered. Robert knew better than to keep the meteor as is. It might get lost, or forgotten, or mistaken for a knickknack or a paperweight and get put in the rock garden or given to a grandchild. No, he knew what to do – blend it with molten metal and then forge that into a box. Nobody would think twice about a small metal box, like the kind you would use for keeping cash in at a garage sale or school bazaar. It was hiding in plain sight.

Michael looked into the box and knew everything all at once. Some people thought making up the forecast for the year for the whole country was difficult. It turns out that the hard part was separating it out. The information came all at once into his mind, like a zip file. It took him the rest of the afternoon to scribble the important parts of it down, and then a week later to fill in the details and sort it out into an acceptable shape.

Molly under cover

JlnkreP

The Eames children could not bear to be without their mother. Simply losing sight of her would set one, and then all of the children to wailing. Even after she returned to the room it took a good ten minutes to assuage them.
It was a worrisome thing. You’d expect it from babies. They are so helpless. Their every need has to be taken care of by an adult, and often that was their mother. It stood to reason they’d think she was God. Plenty of adults acted the same way, come to think of it. When everything started to go sideways they forgot themselves and made it worse with all their worrying.
Perhaps it was because the children were so close in age that it kept happening, the self-reinforcing feedback loop. The boys were only a year apart. For Molly Eames it felt like she was pregnant two years running. She had no intention to make it three so she simply told Mr. Eames that there would be no sex for year (at least) until she felt like going through that ordeal again.
She’d not expected marriage to be like this. Her mother, either out of modesty or meanness, never told her where babies came from, or more accurately how they got there in the first place. She was horrified to learn the secret and was incredulous at first. How was that even possible? Much of her life was a mystery to her. Her parents were conservative on many fronts and had homeschooled her to keep her from being “infected by the disease of the world” as they so often informed her. It was for her own good, they said. It was like she was a time capsule, a frozen moment in a fictional time when everything was safe. Their greatest hope was that she’d be a beacon of light in the dark times they knew were soon to come.
Her lack of education chafed at her once she realized it. If she could get pregnant from contact with a part of her husband’s body, then what else could happen? What else had been hidden from her? After her first check up at the obstetrician she went straight to the library and got every book they had on biology. Three weeks later she returned them all and decided to start at the beginning of the nonfiction section and work her way through the entire collection.
She told no one in her family what she was doing, least of whom her husband. She even made sure to confirm that her library record was private when she got her card. She figured if her family had hidden important knowledge from her then they must think she wasn’t worthy of it, or that it wasn’t worth their time to tell her. So she decided it wasn’t worth her time to tell them otherwise.
Molly Eames couldn’t hold off from sex indefinitely, however. Her husband was becoming insufferable, acting as if he was a prisoner of war in his own home. If he’d had to endure what she had – months of nausea, clothes not fitting, and even swelling in fingers and feet (not to mention the painful and embarrassing ordeal of actually giving birth) he might have thought differently about sex. Ten minutes of fun wasn’t worth nine months of feeling possessed by an alien being.
Giving birth was the most difficult thing Molly had ever been through. It wasn’t joyful at all. She simply didn’t understand the chittering from her neighbors and friends who gushed about how wonderful it all was. Maybe they were lying. Maybe they were insane. Maybe the whole experience had turned them permanently crazy with no hope of recovery. The worst part wasn’t even the pain, which was so bad it created a whole new category of suffering. It became her new ten on the pain chart, a place formerly occupied by having her arm set without anesthesia at 12 after she fell out of a tree.
She never climbed a tree again after that. Just like with sex, the risk wasn’t worth the fun. It’s not like her husband was any good at it anyway. He called it “making love”, never “having sex” but it wasn’t lovely at all. It was sweaty and awkward and strange. Perhaps other people were used to being naked in front of others, but Molly wasn’t. There was nothing exciting about it. She was always trying to cover up with the sheets. She wasn’t trying to hide how she looked so much as not be cold. Her husband wasn’t much to look at either, and he only took a bath once a week, and then only if she insisted.
The “being naked” part of being an adult was a great shock. Her parts most certainly weren’t private when she had to go for her checkups when she was pregnant but at least that was just the doctor who saw. When she gave birth, it seemed like the whole hospital was staring at her nether regions. She briefly considered selling tickets to offset the bill.
Even though her two children were very clingy, she had agreed to produce three when they had that discussion before marriage. It was important to work out such things. Children or not, standard of living expected, minimum expectations of signs of affection – all of these needed to be negotiated before you said “I do”. Too many folks didn’t see marriage as the legal contract that it was, hoping love would right all wrongs and mend all wounds. Without clear agreements it caused more trouble than it cured.
But she’d promised three, so three it must be. There was nothing to it except to do it, so she determined her most fertile time from some of the research she had done and had sex once more to provide her end of the contract. Better get it out of the way, like ripping a Band-Aid off. To prolong the suffering was pointless.
Walter Eames wanted a picture of the children, but not of his wife. He was sick of who she had become – no longer meek or mild. She seemed more confident, more aware. She certainly wasn’t the person he had married – someone he could push around all day long with nary a peep. Not like he thought he was pushy, no, never. Being assertive and decisive had gotten him to where he was at work, but it was getting him nowhere at home. Debate and compromise weren’t part of his repertoire.
But there was no way to photograph them without her. The moment she would walk away from them, they’d set up a wail worse than a tornado siren. It was ridiculous. She couldn’t even go to the bathroom without them pitching a fit. It was embarrassing to go out in public with his family, so he didn’t. Far from being a source of pride as he had expected before he got married, he now frequently left them at home and went out by himself. Even though he’d worked all day and she stayed home with the children (that one attempt at day care changed any plans they might have had of her working outside of the home), he was happy to spend even more time away. This was not turning out to be the life he’d planned as an adult.
So when it came time to get a portrait made, he had to get creative. His parents had asked to see the kids for years. He refused to make the six hour drive with her, and his parents were too frail to make the drive themselves. A portrait would have to do. He looked around the studio and his eyes landed on a backdrop. “That’ll do!” he exclaimed, and snatching it up, pushed his wife into the chair, dropped the fabric over her, arranged the kids around her, and ordered the photographer to snap away. Other than the sound of the shutter release, the room was silent. Nobody other than him could believe this was happening.

The Mungeon house

2

Very few people really knew where Mr. Mungeon lived. It wasn’t like it was a secret. It was just that his house wasn’t easy to get to.

You could drive to the address, that was easy enough. 216 W. Church St. was right in the middle of town, just off the town square. The Presbyterian church, the big one, the first one, made of substantial granite stones, weathered brown with all the years they’d seen, was just across the street. The house just simply wasn’t there, not as far as anyone could see.

Mr. Mungeon had lived there all his life, as had his parents before that, and their parents before that. They had moved to this town as soon as they’d saved up enough money after arriving by ocean liner from Romania. That trip had cost them all they had, scraped together over the years and added to in the last month before they left by selling all their furniture and most of their clothes. Not like they could have taken any of it on the ship. They were lucky they could take as much as they did, as everybody was subject to a weight restriction.

Mama and Papa were sure they could make the grade, but they weren’t sure all of their five children could. Every ounce counted. Once a week they weighed themselves and their belongings, all together, on the scale down at the local hardware store that served the farmers. Every week they had to pare back more, unsure what more they would have to give up the next week. Papa started exercising to lose weight. Mama cut her meals in half to do the same – not like she could afford to, stick thin as she was. After they had sold everything they could, it still was obvious that as a group they were over by 46 pounds. It was decided that the oldest child, their eight-year-old son Bogdam would stay back with his grandparents. There were tears of course, but it was for the best. If it wasn’t him, then two of the younger children would have to stay behind. He promised to be brave, promised to make his parents proud by working hard on the grandparent’s farm, promised to obey them as if they were his own parents. That was many years ago, but the effects of that separation were still felt.

After the family had endured the poking and prodding and paperwork at Ellis Island, along with all the other hundreds of newcomers searching for a new life, they stayed in the cheapest housing they could afford, tucked away in a narrow back alley, a warren of an immigrant neighborhood in New York. Papa Mungeon, Ionut by name, worked hard at the shipyard while his wife Beata took in laundry and watched other people’s children for a few pennies a day. It took them nearly 2 years to save up enough money to relocate.

All during that time they never mentioned Bogdam. It was as if he’d never existed. It was easier that way. In many ways he was dead to them because this trip had been one-way all along. Everyone knew it. “The American wake,” the Irish called it, mourning their living at the docks because they would never see them again. Letters were possible, of course, but they took months to travel across the sea. But it wasn’t as if anyone in the family could write, or read, for that matter. No, this way was for the best. A clean cut heals faster.

The house was perfect for the family when they finally saw it. Ionut had bought it on faith, having heard about it from another immigrant he met in the shipyards. Members of his family had already moved to this town, so far away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It took nearly a week of travel by rail to get to it, and after the sleeper cabin, not to mention the nearly 2 years of being packed like sardines on the fifth-floor walk-up apartment they had in New York, almost anything would have been an improvement. But this was palatial to them. Three bedrooms, a living room where they could all sit in chairs and visit at the same time, an actual kitchen, and even a bedroom with a real tub. It was a dream come true. Sure it needed some work. What would you expect for a house for $20,000? But Papa was good with his hands and had learned enough while working at the docks to do most of the work himself. You had to do a little of everything to get by.

The family history was well-known to the current Mr. Mungeon who occupied the house, all except the part about Bogdam. When there are many generations living in the same house year upon year, the history tends to stay intact along with the heirlooms. No need to pack up the fine china by putting plates, saucers and serving trays in a big pieces of brown butcher paper to prep them for a move when you stay put. No need to divide up the bedroom furniture among the grandchildren. No fights over who got the dining room table or the coveted rocking chair that Grandpa carved. It never left – any of it. They never had to buy housewarming gifts, never had to have going away parties. They never had to fool with undertakers or coffins either, because they created a cemetery in the backyard.

At every funeral they opened with a recitation of all the previously deceased members of the family, and that was when the problem started. Everything was fine until Bogdam died. Since they had omitted him for their story, they had no way of knowing their mistake. He died unnoticed, unremarked, all those many miles away in Romania. He was living alone by then, the grandparents having died years before. He kept up with the farm, same as he’d done since he moved there. Nobody in the village knew how to contact his family in America when someone finally went to check on him nearly a week later, so they buried him without any ceremony and went on with their lives.

The first funeral in the family in America after his death, there was a pause in the air, heavy and expectant, after they read the customary list of names. It was the same kind of pause a parent imposes while waiting for their child to say “thank you” after someone has bestowed a kindness upon them. Everyone felt it, but no one thought twice about it.

Until it happened again, eight years later.

Then, when Papa Ionut died, it was more present, more dense, as if silence can have presence, as if silence can take up space. It was as if there was someone else in the backyard with them, someone they had forgotten to invite.

Every year after that the presence grew heavier, denser, taking up space in an invisible yet present way. Every year it sought to make itself noticed and known to them. It focused on the bricks of the house itself. One by one it made them disappear to the eye. They were still present, still a part of the building. One by one they just weren’t there, but yet they were.

The spirit of Bogdam hoped that they would come to question it, wonder about this happening, wonder how something could be there and yet not be there at the same time. It hoped they would see it as a sign, or maybe an omen. What else was missing? What had they forgotten? Who was absent in their hearts? Secrets cannot stay that way for long. The burden is too great. They spring forth like jonquils, pushed up out of the ground all of a sudden one spring morning.

Yet they never noticed. The secret had been unspoken for so long it had stopped being a secret, had stopped being real to them. The memory of Bogdam had not been suppressed, so much as erased. It wasn’t even like a palimpsest – there was no trace of the former message. It wasn’t as if the page had been pulled out of the family records book. It was as if they had created a whole new book from scratch.

Over the years, the house had simply faded from sight. It wasn’t as if the walls were see-through, though. Anyone who went inside vanished from view as well. There was no trace of furniture at all. It was all there. It was simply that the house and anything inside it was not visible from the outside.

Because it happened so slowly, the family did not realize it had occurred. They rarely invited people over, so friends never mentioned anything was off about the family homestead. Because the furniture was still visible once the family members got inside, they never even suspected anything was wrong. It was as if their minds simply expected to see a house, so they did.

The mailbox and front steps near the street were still quite visible, so they still got mail. The postman had gotten used to it the same as they had, and since there was little turnover and nobody else ever bid on that route, the same postman served that street for nearly 25 years, the time it took for the house to fade from sight. By the time he retired, his son had taken over the route and he knew better than to question. Nobody bothered him at the house. Not children, not dogs. The mail was collected daily – it was never left to the vagaries of the weather. Who was he to question? They never seemed to order any parcels that needed to be signed for, so he never had to negotiate that potentially awkward situation. If he had, he would have discovered the house was just as real as it had always been. It was just as solid, just as present as ever. Just like Bogdam, who was still part of the family even though he was out of sight (and out of mind).

Dolly dearest

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After nearly 5 years, Sara’s dolly had started to talk. Sure, Sara talked to it, dressed it, gave it a name. She even pretended to feed it cookies and tea every Sunday afternoon. She’d even thought she’d heard it answer her before, but it was always in her head or her heart. It was never out loud.
The first time she heard it out loud she thought she was imagining it. The second time, just a moment later, she thought her older sister Janey was playing a trick on her, throwing her voice. It was just like her to torment her little sister in ways that she could easily deny later to their busy and no-nonsense parents. Sara had learned early on that if she brought up charges, there had better be proof or the punishment she expected Janey to get would fall on her. She’d also learned that it was best to settle matters herself right away.
Sara jumped up off the bed, scattering her coloring pages and crayons and scrambled to her bedroom door. She jerked back the door, expecting to see her sister’s back as she ran away. But nobody was there. The hall was empty – not even the sound of bare feet dashing away. Stunned, Sara went to find her sister. After a few minutes she found her outside on the hammock reading some book with dragons on the cover. There was no way Janey could have gotten there that fast. Sara slowly walked back to her room via the kitchen, helping herself to a piece of banana bread and a glass of lime Kool-Aid. She did all her best thinking when she had a snack.
As soon as she sat down on her bed, with her dolly nestled in her lap, she heard it speak again.
“Won’t you give me some of your snack?” The voice was so soft and so sad, so full of loss and longing. Sara held the doll out at arm’s length and stared at it, blinked her eyes. Then, with slow horror, she watched her doll blink her eyes too.
“You’re always pretending to feed me, but you never do. You’re such a tease. No wonder nobody plays with you.”
Sara was frozen with fear, yet managed to stammer out “How can you talk?”
Her dolly said “Silly! How do you think anybody learns how to talk? I listened. I listened to you blabbering on about how sad you are. I listened to your sister taunt you about being a scaredy-cat. I listened to your parents fight. I’ve listened to all of it. I’ve listened to the television announcers talk about pollution and war. I’ve heard the songs on the radio about getting even and how things were better back then. All I ever hear is sad sad sad, so that’s who I am. I’m everything you’ve ever cried about, because you’ve never shared your good days with me. My hair is matted from your tears. What did you expect? You made me this way.”
Sara threw her doll into the middle of the room and retreated to the furthest corner, curled up into a ball. It was nearly half an hour later before she realized her mistake – the doll was between her and the door. How could she escape? She put off the decision a little while longer, but soon she realized she had to pee and there was no ignoring that. It was either creep past that accursed doll or go here in the corner. Even though she was young, she knew that would be a bad idea. Even if her Mom didn’t find out soon and punish her for it, Sara would smell the sickly sweet smell of her dried urine whenever she was in her room. Going to sleep would be terrible. She had to risk it.
Keeping her eyes on the doll, she slowly got up so as not to startle it. As slow as a cat stalking a cricket, she moved around the edge of the room as far away from her former best friend and confidant as she could.
She had told it everything. All the things she couldn’t say out loud to her Mom, her sister, her friends, she told the doll. All her fears, all her failings. Every little sneaky thing she’d done to get back at her sister without her knowing. She’d poured all of her darkness into this doll, and none of her joy.
The slow realization of what this meant descended upon her like an evening fog, clouding her vision, narrowing it to a pinpoint. She knew with dreadful certainty what she had to do next. She must destroy the doll.
So far, there was no movement from the accursed thing, but she couldn’t be sure this would continue. She’d thought it would stay silent for all those years, but that had changed. What other horrible changes would happen? Just because it wasn’t moving now didn’t mean it wouldn’t start, and soon. She had to destroy it as quickly as possible before it ruined her life.
She closed the bedroom door behind her and dragged a chair from her sister’s room to jam up under the doorknob. That would buy her some time to think of her plan. She almost forgot her need to use the bathroom in her fright, but she took care of that now. While in the calm and quiet space of the hall bathroom, she considered her options.
Burial wasn’t good. Her Mama would get mad about the mess she’d make, and how could she be sure the doll would stay buried? It might dig itself out. Perhaps she should chop it up first. Then she realized if she did that she could put all the pieces in separate places around town. The head could go under the drainpipe of the neighbor’s house at the end of the block, an arm in the trashcan in her school’s bathroom. There’s no way it could reassemble itself then. But maybe the head could still talk, she realized with a cold shudder. She’d better bury it, at least, to be sure.
Burning it was right out. Her Mama would whip her if she caught her playing with matches again. She’d gotten in trouble for that when she was three, having set a flip-flop on fire, wanting to see how the rubber melted. It melted alright, and so did the carpet it was on, and the curtains, and the entire bedroom. The whole family had to stay in a motel room for nearly 4 months until the insurance company got the restoration work done. While it was an adventure for the girls, it was a headache for the parents, so they made sure that Sara understood they were not kidding about fire safety. Janey used it as yet another way to torment her little sister, who she never wanted in the first place. Anything she could do to get her to leave her alone, or even leave, was fair game.
This was proving to be the hardest thing Sara had had to contend with in all her tender years. Maybe she could preempt the doll and confess all her slights and sins to her mother before the doll did. Just thinking about that made her stomach go icy cold and wobbly. There were a lot of things to confess.
You or I would consider them trivial, but Sara, with her limited experience, thought them worthy of eternal damnation. The perspective that comes with time downgrades childhood sins to summer showers instead of the tornadoes that they seem to be at the time. She had plenty of time to learn what real sins were about, but as for now, she felt damned.
But she didn’t have plenty of time to figure out what to do about the doll. So she did what she was taught to do in Sunday school. Not like she did a lot, but she figured it couldn’t hurt to try.
“God?” She murmured, on her knees on the cold porcelain tile on the bathroom floor, “I could use some help right now, if you’re not too busy and all.”
Sara wasn’t sure she had a good connection, because she couldn’t hear God’s reply. Was praying like talking on the telephone? Sometimes when she was talking to her grandmother in Canada the connection wasn’t that good. Also, often Gram’s hearing wasn’t that good either. Her mother always told her to keep on talking anyway, that Gram could make it out. Maybe God was the same way? It was worth a try. It wasn’t like she had anybody else she could call. This was some big stuff. She needed to go straight to the top.
“God? I hope you can hear me because I sure need some help here.”
Sara heard a voice so quiet that she ignored it at first. It was centered in the middle of her chest, about heart high, and not in her ears. She didn’t hear it so much as feel it. The feeling-voice said to do nothing at all, to not destroy the doll, to not say anything at all to her parents about it. To act as if everything was normal. This seemed too easy, she thought, but precisely because it made no sense she decided it might actually be a message from God. She would never have come up with this on her own. And, if nothing else, it required almost no effort on her part. It was going to be difficult to pretend everything was fine when it most certainly wasn’t, but if God insisted, there must be a good reason. She decided to play along.
The doll said nothing the next day or the next one after that. It was nearly a full week later before it spoke again, and this time it was around Sara’s Mom. She was straightening up Sara’s room one morning and the doll suddenly started to talk, as clear as you please, staring straight at her. Sara’s Mom stopped making the bed and stood stock-still, refusing to turn and face the voice. It sounded just like her mother, who had been dead for 18 years, long before her children were born. In fact, she realized suddenly with a guilty shudder, the anniversary of her death had been two weeks ago and she had forgotten.
She usually remembered, usually dreaded that day. Her mother had been the model of motherhood in public – PTA chair, Girl Scout troop leader. She even had started her own nonprofit tutoring business to teach all the recent influx of immigrant children and their parents how to read and write in English. Three times in her life she had gotten the coveted “Citizen of Lewisburg” award given out at a huge gala once a year.
Only Laurie, Sarah’s mom, knew the truth. Only she knew the true evil that lay beneath the façade that everyone else saw. Only she knew how twisted and damaged her mother was, yet because everyone else saw her as a saint, nobody believed her when she asked for help. She tried to tell her teachers about the emotional and mental abuse she suffered from her but they never listened for long, thinking Laurie was making up a story. “You’re so creative!” they’d exclaim, and encourage her to write for the fiction column in the school newspaper. “But try to write something nicer next time, honey. Girls don’t write scary stories, do they?” they’d suggest.
After a while, Laurie chose to be silent about the abuse. Her mother was clever. It never was physical. There never were bruises or scrapes. Even if there had been nobody would have believed her anyway.
She didn’t dare look at the doll, but she didn’t dare turn her back to it either. It kept speaking, kept taunting her. It had chosen well. Nobody else was home. Nobody else could listen in. She could keep digging in, taking up where she left off 18 years ago. Laurie was deer in the headlights frozen, speechless. For the longest time the doll kept talking and Laurie listened, breathless, immobile. After an eternity, the shallow breaths she had been unconsciously taking caught up with her and she suddenly drew in a huge breath to make up. It was then that she recovered her power.
Without a word, she snatched up the doll by its arm from the corner chair it was in and carried it to the nearest trashcan. Without a word she swept up the handles of the brown plastic Kroger bag she used as a trashcan liner and tied them shut. Without a word she scooped up the rest of the trash in the house, put it all together in a huge black bag her husband kept for cleaning up after yardwork, snatched her car keys that were hanging from the hook by the front door and marched straight out to her car. Within 10 minutes she was at the city dump and the deed was done.
She was still shaking by the time she got back home. After a little internal debate, she decided to go for a quick walk around the neighborhood first and then have some linden tea. Yes. That order seemed best. Time to shake out some energy and then brush away the crumbs.
Sara got home from school and went straight to the kitchen for a snack. She took her gingersnaps and lemonade to the porch to enjoy. Normally she would go straight to her room to share it with her dolly, but after it had started to talk she had changed her ways. She spent as little time in her room as possible now. She couldn’t bear to think of it staring at her while she slept. She was sure her teddy bear and stuffed giraffe could protect her from it, but she didn’t want to risk them being harmed in the fight. Plus it wasn’t fair to ask a doll to fight against another doll. It was against their code, after all.
But then she soon remembered that she planned to color after school today, and her crayons were in her room. There was nothing for it except to do it, so she got up and went to her room. Waiting was only going to increase her dread and make it harder. Best to get it over with.
In the past week she had learned to not look in the corner chair where she had put her dolly after that terrible day. So she almost missed that it wasn’t there. A wave of terror like ice water poured over her when she noticed its absence. Where was it? Had it finally started to walk? Had it talked to her Mom and told her everything and she was now going to be interrogated?
Sara remembered the still small voice she’d heard when she prayed for guidance a week ago. Don’t worry about it, act like everything is fine, it said. So she pulled herself together and gathered up her crayons and coloring books and went back to the porch. By then her Mom was there sipping her tea. Their eyes met and both smiled awkward, guarded smiles. Something passed between them – a truce? An understanding? For the rest of their lives they never talked about the missing doll.

Like calls to like

It was a special treat to go out for dinner those days. Money was tight after they had to get a second mortgage. They even had to trade in her Mini Cooper for a cheaper car. Style counted for a lot, but the extra $200 left over every month counted for more.
They found a coupon for a nearby Indian restaurant and chose to go on a Tuesday evening so it wouldn’t be busy. The restaurant was normally slow, but a new coupon might alter that. They were sure that was the hope of the owner, who took a chance with opening an ethnic restaurant in the South that wasn’t Chinese or Mexican. General Tso’s chicken made sense to Southerners. It was deep-fried meat with sauce on it. You might as well call it Aunt Carol’s chicken for all the difference it made. And tacos? They were just loose hamburgers with a shell. They made sense somehow to the Southern palate. But Indian food was a whole other animal entirely. The ingredients were familiar once you got past the unfamiliar names and the heavy sauce. Potatoes, spinach, and chicken were all familiar things, but when served in unfamiliar ways they might as well have been Martian food.
The weather was mild that night, if a bit humid. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky when they pulled up to the tiny restaurant. You could tell from the shape that it had been a house many years back, even though there was now a drive-through window on the side. Some other brave person had tried another restaurant here not too long back.
There were only two other couples inside, and both were seated by the front window. It wasn’t much of a view looking out onto the busy main road, but the window let in a lot of light and made the small house-turned-restaurant seem larger, less cramped. There was still space by the window, so they sat there and waited on the complementary bowl of mulligatawny soup and naan bread. When the waiter came for their order, she chose malai kofta and he wanted saag paneer.
Then it began to rain, just a little at first. Then the sky darkened. The air grew heavy and thick, oppressive, like being smothered or drowned. And there was yet more rain. Suddenly she remembered, down in her bones, when she was three and her family was at another restaurant, at another city, sat at another large window, went through another fierce summer storm. The rain had thrashed against that window then, just like it was doing now. It was as if the rain wanted inside and was pounding on the door, desperate to escape some tormentor. That time, so many years ago, it shattered the glass in its desperation. That time, there was a breathless hurtling escape away. That time, the rain demanded a sacrifice and it came in the form of a bloody gash on her brother’s head.
She had no interest in experiencing a second time. But their food was ready, and the storm was too strong to consider going home. But something had to be done. Eat in the bathroom? It was the safest place – no windows, and located in the center of the building. But there were no tables or chairs in there – as one would expect – and the air freshener would ruin the taste of the meal. However, there were tables near the bathroom, so she asked her husband to relocate. She was moving towards it already. Even if he didn’t want to move, she would. Fortunately he agreed, fortunately he understood her concern. Had she told him the story before? It was too late now.
But then the other customers noticed. How could they not? It was a bit of a commotion. They overheard her telling the waiter why they wanted to move – he was helping with the plates. And then the unthinkable happened. Two of the customers spoke up, mocking her. They said the storm wasn’t that bad, that she was being stupid. They didn’t keep their opinions to themselves. She was being trolled, but in person. These bystanders, these strangers, were sharing their unwelcome opinions in public. Her emotions switched from fear to confusion and then to rage.
It was as if the violence of the storm had indeed broken through these walls and come inside, infecting the people, turning them into raving monsters. And yet she stood her ground, stayed in her safe area. She stayed, silently glaring at her attackers, the taste of the food dulled by the bitter metallic taste of anger. Or was it shock? Perhaps betrayal? This wasn’t supposed to happen! Why did they feel it necessary to harass her? Perhaps their anonymity empowered them, like with every other bully. It is easy to attack if you’ll never see one another again. She stared at them but held her ground. She watched them because perhaps they might become violent in their actions. Nothing would surprise her now.
And then, halfway through eating her entrée, it happened. The window came crashing in. Huge shards of glass sliced into that couple – just that couple. Half of the man’s face was sliced off, as cleanly as if it had gone through the slicer at the deli. Jagged triangular shards stood out of the woman’s chest, stood out of her arm nearest the window.
And she looked calmly upon them, not even getting up, not rushing to their side. They had chosen, and the storm had chosen. Like called to like.

It is best not to get between such things, like two magnets. You can be hurt by them, crushed even. Rescuing them was out of the question. This was divine judgment, of a sort, but it was larger and deeper than that. This spoke of the laws of the universe that existed before the first blades of grass came to be, but after the separation of light and darkness. This law was formed on the second day of creation, when the sky was separated from the water. The water remembered that time, that time before, when it was something other, being water and air together, and yet land too at the same time then, as there was yet one more day before that separation happened.
The water remembered, and it fought against the arbitrary-seeming separation as often as it could. Were these people caught between a spat, a tiff, a fight older than time – or was it deeper even than that, as deep as the water in their blood, the same proportions as the water on the earth and the land, the same eternal struggle there too? Like calls to like.
The rain knew these people, knew of their violence, their torment, knew that they refused to ever admit it was part of who they are. It called to them, sought them out. It embraced them now, their torn bodies, their sad divisions ended. The rain got what it had come for, finally, blessedly, mingling with their blood, which here was now streaming, there was pooling, like a river at high flood, out upon the linoleum tile floor.
And she just watched, secretly glad that they had died exactly as they had lived, violently, without thought, without meaning.

Merrick’s twin

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He was a monster, but only on the outside. The real monsters were those who stared at him outright, or talked about him in hushed tones as he passed. He couldn’t help how he looked, but they could help how they acted – but never did. His various doctors over the years exercised cool detachment as one would expect from professionals, but then again they were under his employ. People can usually at least pretend to be nice if there is money involved.

The doctors were certain of the disease, but not so much on the cure or even the cause. They knew only the symptom but not the source. They took his money and made him feel special, but never once let on that there was no cure, only care. They could refer him to clothiers who would happily create bespoke clothing to fit his unusual frame. They knew of carpenters who could construct a bed that would allow him to sleep semi-upright to relieve the pressure on his overworked neck.

Only one person knew the true cause of his deformity, and he wanted no money for the tale. Money wouldn’t cure him anyway, nothing would. John had crossed the wrong spirit one Tuesday night in October when he was 15, and he didn’t even know it.

Movies were a dime on Tuesdays at the downtown three-screen theater and a quarter all other days. Even though Tuesday was a school night, John was allowed out to see the latest film once a week as long as he kept his grades above a B. Even a B- wasn’t good enough and would make him lose this privilege for a whole quarter until the report cards came out again. So every other day of the week he went alone to the library to study so he could go to the movie theater on Tuesdays. Sometimes he went with friends, but he was just as likely to go by himself, savoring the peace of being out of a house with five children. Five young mouths to feed and backs to clothe meant not a lot of spare money for extravagances like movie tickets, but John had convinced his parents that he was going to be an actor when he grew up. Costly acting lessons were out of the question, so learning by watching the finished product would have to do. Even if they could have afforded private lessons, nobody in Palmyra was offering. Actors didn’t move to tiny towns unless they were also close to big towns with big town amenities like airports to take them to where the jobs were. That was one reason John wanted to be an actor, to get out. Palmyra had nothing to offer anyone who was interested in something other than farming.

That fateful night he was thinking hard about how grand it would be to be an actor, where he could be himself and somebody else at the same time. It was like being a twin, he thought. He was so distracted that he tripped over the legs of Mr. Byron, the local eccentric. Mr. Byron wasn’t quite homeless, and he wasn’t quite crazy, but he wasn’t quite much of anything that usual people liked to associate with. Most steered a wide berth around his 5-foot-eight frame, all angles and elbows. The hair on his head was jet black but it didn’t mean he was young. He got his hair color from a bottle of shoe polish, having realized a decade back that actual hair dye was four times as costly. Shoe polish did the trick just the same, and he didn’t mind the smell. Nobody else got close enough to notice.

Mr. Byron seemed normal when you first met him, and young ladies would take pity on him and try to befriend him. They thought that others in the town were unnecessarily rude to him, and they defended him at every opportunity. They’d make excuses for his social gaffes. This was until he turned on them, like everyone else who had gotten close. The young ladies thought he was misunderstood. In reality he was just a misanthrope.

Mr. Byron often sat on the sidewalk near the movie theater with his legs splayed out, taking up half the lane. Usually John avoided him, but this night his head was in the clouds. Later, he thought that the scrape he’d gotten on his knee from when he fell after tripping over Mr. Byron was the extent of his injuries, but he was far mistaken.
It was a month later before he noticed the change. His right side had grown heavier, thicker, denser even. His arm wouldn’t stretch out like it used to. His hand started to curling in like a lobster’s claw. At first he thought nothing of it. There wasn’t spare money for a trip to the doctor anyway, so he did as his Mama had taught him. He drank a glass of water mixed with honey and apple cider vinegar. It was the best cure they knew and usually it worked a treat. But not this time.

Mr. Byron always worked his revenge silently. His Mama taught him that “Revenge is a dish best served cold” and boy, howdy, did he love his Mama. Whatever she taught him, directly or not, he took to heart and made it his own. All of his Mama’s family had the second sight, could see right into you to know what your dreams and hopes were. Trouble was, they also knew your nightmares too. More than that, they knew how to take that raw stuff from deep in your soul and push it, shape it, like so much clay and build it up just like a mug or a vase, able to hold more than what it was before. The good ones in the family could make your dreams come true. The bad ones chose to do the same with your nightmares.

Mr. Byron was unique. He’d take your dreams, shaped them up up up, and turned them inside out, made them turn back on you so even though you got what you wished for, it wasn’t ever like how you wanted.

Normally he kept to himself and didn’t use his perverse talents. In years past some people would seek him out and try to get him to put a curse on another person in the town, someone who’d wronged them, either intentionally or not. At first Mr. Byron refused, but then he came to enjoy the opportunity to practice and hone his craft. Even people who do bad like to be good at it. He felt it was important that the results matched his plan. It was a sad day when something that was to go wrong didn’t, or worse, turned darker and deeper than anticipated. Sometimes people needed a good scare, but ended up scarred instead. It wouldn’t do to make a molehill into a mountain.

All John did that fateful night was trip over Mr. Byron’s legs, so it didn’t seem right what happened next. But that night was just the cherry on the sundae of slights and snubs Mr. Byron had suffered, to his mind.

John had never noticed Mr. Byron, and that was his undoing. John never said hello or good evening to him. He never asked how he was doing, inquired about Mr. Byron’s family, never even invited him to see a show at the theater or out for dinner. Of course, nobody ever did any of these things, but that didn’t matter to Mr. Byron, because John was the one person who crossed his path every Tuesday night for years, so John was the focal point for his rage. There’s only so much being ignored a person can take after all. Rage is like sandstone, built up tiny layer by tiny layer, week by month by year, until it is larger than a mountain and just as hard to see around.

John’s dream of being an actor was turned on him that night, but it took a while before it showed. He’d been imagining how acting was like being himself and another person at the same time when he tripped over Mr. Byron. Mr. Byron caught that wish and shaped it, turned it, and made it true in the worst way possible. John became his own twin, shaped into a chimera of impossible belief. Slowly, so slowly that he didn’t realize the cause and effect, he turned into a monster, half of him crabbed and lumpy, some strange cross of an ancient gnarled oak tree and a mutant crustacean. It was as if his dreamed-of other half was on stage all the time, and John was powerless to make the scene end.