The Dogs of Babel

Fiction by Tom Howard

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The Dogs of Babel

by Tom Howard

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Sunday morning Petra wakes up to find her nail polish laid out on the bathroom counter, while her eleven-year-old son sits bent over in concentration on the tile floor.  Eight of his toenails are purple.

“Was bored,” says Del, without looking up.

“Okay, yeah.  It’s not even seven o’clock.”  Leans down for a closer look, says, “But you did an amazing job,” which is true.  On his toenails, anyway.   The countertop and the floor have sustained some damage.

He stares down at his toes.  Grimly serious.

Squatting down to inspect the bottle, Petra says, “Purple Mountains Majesty, a classic.”

“I’m calling it something else.”  Squinting up at her now.  “Can I do that?”

“Sure.”  When he was younger and still learning to read, Del liked to puzzle out the names, which led to an appreciation for puns that his teachers didn’t share.  “Something funny?”

“Apoopalypse.”

“Always the poop jokes.”

Shrugging,  “Can I do my fingers too?”

She barely hesitates.  “Go for it,” she says.  “A little less on the floor, though.”

Petra spends the rest of the morning cleaning out the basement storage room and going through Del’s winter clothes, trying to figure out what still fits and what she’ll need to replace.  He has stuff over at Mike’s, but she’s already heard the lecture about No Sharing Between Houses.   Because That’s How Things Get Lost, and by Things we mean things that Mike and Noreen bought.   So, okay guys.  Two pairs of galoshes it is.

Now and then Del asks her opinion about a new color.  By late afternoon he’s settled on a light blue shade that Petra can’t remember buying.

“Blue Skies Ahead,” she says.

“Morris the Orangutan,” he counters.

“Okay, yeah.”

She has to help him with the right hand, trying to draw him out without giving him the full-court press.   Not easy with Del, whose first complete sentence came at age four.  A lot of speculation about autism and other developmental disorders.  The diagnosis changed every year, but to Petra, her son only seemed wrapped in this odd cloud of melancholy from which he periodically, though infrequently, emerged.

Cleaning up after dinner, she reminds him to take off the nail polish and tells him where he can find the remover.

“But why?” he asks.

“Well,” she says, “school tomorrow.”

“So?”

She hesitates.  Sometimes she wonders if she isn’t flawed in some fundamental way, lacking this parental instinct that everyone else is born with or magically acquires upon becoming a parent, the one that lets you automatically answer your kids with absolute conviction, immune from self-doubt.   Instead she usually, now being included, finds herself wondering if she’s really qualified to dispense wisdom at all, even to an eleven-year-old.  Especially to an eleven-year-old.

“Kids can be mean,” she says.  “You know how it is.”

He turns his hands over and considers them for a long couple of seconds. “So you think I should take it off?”

Has to put her on the spot and call her out.  So, what to say?

Well okay, yeah.  Yeah, I think you should take it off.  Because you’ll be teased and it’s something the other kids will remember: that you’re the boy who wore nail polish to school.  You’ll be that kid.  And even though it shouldn’t matter, it will.  Long after you think it’s forgotten, after you’ve discarded nail polish and moved on to the next curiosity of childhood—sizing yourself up, asking yourself who you are, what you’re supposed to make of yourself—someone will be there to remind you that you were, what, a deviant?  An eleven-year-old deviant, sure.  And you don’t even care about this stuff, any of it, but you will someday.  Skip the nail polish and follow along like everyone else, toe the line, and sooner or later you’ll be called out for something anyway, some little thing you never knew was wrong with yourself.  The way you say your Rs, your taste in cartoons, the kind of clothes you wear or the way you wear them, the shape of your eyes, the way you pull at your lip when you’re lost in thought.  Your laugh, jesus, your batshit crazy laugh.  Someone will call you out, maybe not say anything but just give you a look, a smirk.  A goddamn smirk.  And then you’ll care.  You, Del, who have innocently and terribly never cared at all, will suddenly care.  Because you won’t want to be left out, you won’t want to be the outcast, the dork, that kid, the one who just doesn’t get it.  And then, damn it all, kid, you’ll do it to someone else.  You’ll take that from someone else, you’ll take it with a shrug or a wisecrack to impress your friends, not even being mean, just trying to fit in.  Because you’ll forget this shit ever mattered, like everyone forgets it ever mattered.  And maybe it doesn’t anyway.  Fuck, Petra.  Maybe there’s a remedial parenting course you can take online somewhere?

Del’s still looking at her.  Patient.  Trusting that she’ll give him good advice, because she’s a parent and there’s this whole infallible parental instinct thing.

“Sure, hey,” she says, “leave it on.  If the kids say anything, fuck ’em.  Right?”

Which prompts a raised eyebrow, at least.  And then he’s off to play, the matter quickly and easily forgotten.

*   *   *

In the morning she drops Del off at Mike’s before school.  Still a little contentious, these Monday morning transitions.  Letting Petra extend the definition of weekend to include a few extra hours with Del had been a moment of weakness for Mike at the time of the court hearing, and at least once a month Noreen suggests with her bug-eyed smile that they might want to revisit the agreement.

She carries his overnight bag in behind Del, gives him a hug while Noreen hovers, monster-like, in the background.  He acknowledges Noreen with a grave little nod and then tears off to get his books for school.

“Really, Petra,” Noreen says.

“Hmm,” blinking at this.

“The nails.”  With a quick glance back toward the stairs, “You could’ve discussed it with us.  We’ve all got to work together as a team, Petra, don’t we?”

“Guess it didn’t seem like it required a conference, Noreen?”

“But that’s just it, isn’t it?  You guessing, I mean.”  With a thousand-watt smile, wholly unnatural.

“Not totally following,” says Petra.

“The thing is,” standing up and brushing off her pantsuit, symbolically Petra assumes, “we see Del all week long.  So we have maybe a better sense of what Del needs, at this point?  Than you?  And we’re the ones who have to deal with the consequences.  I’m sure you can appreciate that, Petra, right?”

Mike has appeared in the middle of all of this, keys his hand.  Takes in the scene without saying a word, glancing back and forth between the two women.

Petra resists the urge to back up a step.  “I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

“It’s just, Petra,” with a sidelong glance at Mike, “that we don’t want Del to get hurt again.  And you don’t have the greatest track record?  When it comes to keeping Del out of, well, harm’s way?”

“Hey,” says Mike.

“Ah,” says Petra, “right.”  Feeling a little wobbly.

Del at that moment comes racing down the stairs, and the scene comes to an abrupt conclusion.  Moments later she’s in her car, heart thumping madly, speeding off into the gray morning with Noreen’s words ringing in her ears.

*   *   *

At work, Petra drinks too much coffee, re-reads the same paragraph on-screen for hours at a time, practices her trashcan basketball alley-oop skills.  She tries not to wonder how things are going for Del, tries not to imagine all the different scenarios in which he’s humiliated or disappointed or disillusioned by his classmates.  Instead tries to imagine one scenario—there has to be one—in which none of those things happens, and Petra doesn’t have to accept that she sent her son off to deal with that bullshit.  Irresponsible.  Fuck, maybe old bug eyes is right.

At three o’clock she calls Mike’s place, finds Brittany between text messages.  Asks about Del and gets the usual.

“He doesn’t seem, well, a little off?”

“More than regular off?” says Brittany.

“So,” when Del gets on the phone, Petra trying to sound nonchalant.  “School,” just to clarify.  “Anything interesting?”

“You mean the nails.”  She can hear him flipping the page of one of his comics.

“Sure,” says Petra.

“I’m thinking,” he says, “of maybe purple tomorrow.”

It’s days before she hears the whole story, and even then she only gets bits and pieces from her son.  The rest is fragmented and apocryphal, like an origin story from one of Del’s comics, overheard in office hallways and coffee shops and grocery stores, half of countless cellphone conversations, worried parents wondering—in between shuttling their kids to yoga lessons and violin practice and Chinese immersion programs—what the fuck, exactly, is happening here.

What’s happening is that on the day Del goes to school wearing Morris the Orangutan on his fingers, a dozen other boys come home with their own nails painted. Fruitless and one-sided interrogations ensue over a dozen dinner tables.  Conversational lead-ins range from Explain yourself  to Is there something you’d like to discuss to Dear god why are you punishing us?  The boys blink quietly and reach for the potatoes with their sweetly glittering fingers.

The number doubles, then triples, and by Thursday, half the sixth-grade male population is sporting painted nails.  Star-spangled nails, dayglo-green nails, burgundy and orange nails, skull and crossbone nails, checkerboard nails, zebra stripe nails, paisley nails, tie-dyed nails, superhero logo nails, camouflage nails, nails decorated with letters and zodiac symbols and emoticons, some crudely painted but others suggesting the assistance of experienced sisters, cousins, classmates.  A few take to wearing make-up on their faces too, applied in bold streaks like war paint, and when Brent Bowman—face invisible under alternating layers of red and gold color—is sent home for some unstated violation of school policy, painted faces start appearing in every classroom, gestures of solidarity toward a cause the boys are either unable or unwilling to identify.

Del is cheerfully oblivious to the weirdness.  Petra only knows that the world, or at the least the world of eleven-year-old boys, has mysteriously passed on the chance to put her oddball son in his place.

We are concerned about some recent behavior patterns, the first but not the last of the emails to be sent out by the middle school principal.  The specific behavior patterns of concern remaining unstated, the idea being, maybe, that we all know what’s going on here.  A little more ominously, the origin of the disruptive behavior is unknown, but we are investigating.  The word disruptive appears at regular intervals throughout the email, plosive drumbeats of danger.

There’s a proportional response from the other flank.  The girls start wearing boys’ clothes to school: oversized pants and mismatched shirts, bandanas and chains, pink skullcaps, football and baseball jerseys, madcap eyepatches, their brothers’ basketball shoes, blazers and ties stolen from their fathers’ closets.  They take on the boys’ speech patterns, communicating with monosyllables and grunting, walk around with their suddenly polish-free hands stuffed in their pockets, and shoot rubber-bands across the classroom at each other and at unsuspecting teachers.  They yawn openly in class and stop brushing their hair.  They draw crude pictures of boobs and penises inside the stalls of the girls’ restroom.

Carly, who started the same day as Petra and has a niece at the school, supplies this last bit of gossip in the break room.  “They’re saying it’s like a cult.  Nobody’s heard of such a thing.”

“Who’s saying?” Petra asks.

Shrugging, “Anyway my sister’s bringing Jane to the doctor.  Psychiatrist, psychologist, whatever.”

“Maybe a little,” says Petra, “extreme?”

“But these are like gateway behavioral patterns, is what they’re saying.”

Petra repeats the phrase, seeing it float in the air above her like a cartoon bubble.

“Del’s good, though?  No trouble?”

In fact, Del called Petra this morning while in the act of appropriating makeup from Noreen’s bag while his stepmother slept, wanting to be done up like an Egyptian pharaoh.

Del, I’m not going to help you steal.

Well let’s say I had permission.  What would I need?

Later she received a text from Noreen—maybe you can explain this—along with incriminating photos.  Del with thick gold and black mascara around the eyes, rope necklace, dangling hoop clip-on earrings he discovered in an old plastic bin in the basement.  Also mismatched tennis shoes, green laces on the left, purple on the right.  And a series of hieroglyphs penned along both forearms.  Circle, crescent moon, squiggly thing like an ocean wave.  Presumably important dots.

“No trouble at all,” Petra tells Carly.

*   *   *

The next email from the principal arrives with the subject line, On new policy re: gibberish in school.

Whatever mutinous fever-dream is overwhelming the student body has apparently spilled over into its language.  Words are substituted randomly for other words, tenses added and subtracted, inflections changed and subverted.  Boys and girls who are increasingly unrecognizable are now incomprehensible, too, at least to the parents and teachers who eavesdrop on their conversations.  The kids themselves have either picked up the new language with maddening speed—chatting between classes, mock-fighting on the playground, passing exclamation-heavy notes in study hall—or else they’re all complicit in some lunatic prank whose primary and only purpose seems to be frustrating anyone over the age of eleven.

It is imperative that we maintain order in our classrooms.  So, for the duration of what the principal calls “the current crisis,” Spanish and other non-English languages are to be classified as gibberish, the faculty being a hundred percent monolingual.  The email closes with the announcement of an emergency meeting, and all engaged, concerned parents are invited to attend.

Petra hangs out in the back of the auditorium, invisible.  Listens as teachers and then parents take the microphone.  The whole thing takes on a weird post-traumatic stress support group vibe.   Whitney’s been dressing like a train hobo and hasn’t turned on her phone in two days.  Drew sits in bed at night reading the dictionary with a highlighter, giggling like a loon.   Sarah’s been giving away her toys, her clothing, her mom’s jewelry to random girls she meets god-knows-where.  Richie announced over dinner he’s a pacifist—and where’d he even learn that word?—and won’t be playing football or delivering the fist of justice to anyone this year.  And more of the same.  Their children, the children they knew, have been stolen from them.

The rhetoric intensifies and Petra feels herself start to detach.  In Tbilisi, she heard her mother and grandfather arguing all the time.  Petra’s grandfather with his portrait of Stalin hanging in the living room, not so much a fan of mass murder as a loyalist to Georgia’s most famous celebrity.  Petra’s mother, Irina, half his size, but making up for it with volume and arm waving.  Arguments unintelligible to four-year-old Petra, who did her best to map the crossfired words against her limited vocabulary, seizing on the few familiar ones, like dzaghli, which she knew because of the hordes of stray dogs that plagued the city.  Petra’s grandfather and the other sanitation workers were charged with culling them.  A task which, to his granddaughter’s endless horror, involved snatching them up with massive iron claws that broke the dogs’ backs.  Petra was convinced the arguments were about the dogs, whose presence threatened, according to her grandfather, all of Georgia.  Led by the mongrels Shanidze, Kostava, Gamasakhurdia, whom Petra imagined in great detail, prowling the highlands above the city in exile, noble even as they were hunted to extinction.   She understood only that her mother, moghalate, was somehow in league with them, which fascinated her and gave her an appreciation for her mother that would last until they moved to America a few years later.  Petra’s too-eager assimilation into the American culture and language put an end to that.

In the school auditorium the talk turns to strategy, and when that doesn’t prove fruitful, to assigning blame.  Someone started this.  Things like this don’t come out of nowhere.  Names are thrown around, families who aren’t present and haven’t, coincidentally, been totally and completely reliable.  Getting too hot in the room.  Petra slides out quietly, just as Brent Bowman’s father, a police officer, floats the idea of bringing in a few of the kids for one-on-one interrogations.  Just the known troublemakers.  Just to get to the bottom of things.

Out in the street, Petra wanders.

Kids are everywhere.  Some but not all of them dressed in rags or makeshift costumes, a few with painted faces.  They’re either communicating telepathically or talking just below eavesdropping level.  Petra watches them move through the park and down past the skating rink alone and in pairs, in threes and fours and fives.  Whenever two groups cross paths, some of the children in each group exchange places, like electrons gained or lost in some weird chemical reaction, cliques forming and dissolving, an infinite loop of rearrangement or reassignment or something else that Petra can’t name.  And all of it happening not quite in silence, but without any obvious direction from the children.

It’s December and the sun falls early.  The adults in town leave their offices and head out into the dusk, and the stream of children fades as they’re called back home before the newly announced curfew.   Petra’s left with this melancholy vibe, brought on not so much by the presence of the adults around her—with their dark clothes and their secrets and their anxious, distracted faces—as by the children’s absence, some gradual decline of energy.

On the way to her car, she runs into Mike.

“You left early,” as soft plumes of breath surround his face, still maddeningly youthful, like a halo.

She almost responds sharply but sees that there’s no malice in the comment.  “Suffocating in there, that’s all.”

“Yeah.  Listen.  Sorry about, you know, the other day.  Stupid thing for her to say.”

Petra shrugs, “I’m the fuck-up, Mike.”  Snow begins to fall.  “A little too adorable a moment for me, hope you don’t mind if I split?”

“As long as you know,” he says.

“That you’re sorry,” she says.  “Got it, Mike.”

She drives a couple blocks in the snow and then pulls over.   Opens the car door and surprises herself by throwing up.  After sitting for a few minutes, she shuts off the ignition and gets out.  Scoops up a handful of fresh snow to rinse her mouth, steadies herself against the car.

No, she doesn’t want Del to get hurt again.  To wander off while Petra fucks someone in an upstairs bedroom, drunk.  Some nameless idiot she picked up because, well, because he looked tough and mean, he looked like he could beat Mike to a bloody pulp, which in those days seemed like an awfully good reason.  Del, always the wanderer, half-present, long gone by the time she went in to check on him, still half-drunk. Bleak couple of hours then, parade of flashlights bouncing through the woods as a light cold rain fell.  Self-hatred settling in for the duration.  When Del was found, an hour before dawn, Petra caught her reflection in the window of the paramedics’ truck.  A madwoman wearing a robe made of dirt and leaves, her hair a shock of moonlight white, face empty.  Sidelong glances, easily decoded, from the neighbors who had spent all night searching, who smelled the alcohol and the sex on her.  Not one of us.  Maybe she’d never been one of them.  Never adjusted to the suburban life she’d accepted as part of the deal with Mike, and her disguise, like the false mask of a witch in a fairy tale, was finally wearing thin.  Not a Georgian anymore either.  Just a woman grown old, residing uneasily here, hopelessly liminal.

She leaves the car by the side of the road and walks.  Not thinking about where she’s going, she wanders over like some masochistic somnambulist to Hillwood Glen, the old neighborhood.  Blandly imposing five-bedroom houses rise up along well-lit streets, each with a Wind or a Meadow or a Vale in its name.   The holiday lights, already in place a week after Thanksgiving, seem perfectly coordinated from house to house, a coordination that Petra remembers to be anything but coincidental.

She’d preferred their apartment by the river and the train tracks.  But the schools were better here, less crime, etc.  And the house, the giant goddamn house with a three-car garage, because their two Mercedes needed room to breathe, possibly procreate.   Petra’s mother had come to visit exactly once, dismissing it all with a familiar and peculiarly Georgian shudder.  The old radical, unrepentant and unchanged.  She’d been arrested four times in Tbilisi and another four times in America, and she disapproved of Petra’s clothes, house, husband, cars, all of it.  Off somewhere now, either manning a picket line or working the front lines of the revolution, which these days means blogging mercilessly and, to Petra, incoherently.  Their only conversation in the last five years was after the divorce, when Petra admittedly went off the rails a bit, the incident in the woods serving as only the final act of a pretty spectacular performance that, as a whole, gave Petra a brand-new reputation in town, and prompted the call from Irina. You cracking up or waking up, bavshvi?

Finding herself at the guardhouse, she taps on the glass.

“My lady Petra,” with a bigger smile than she’s encountered in a pretty long time, “didn’t think it was pick-up time yet.  Or are you just coming to see me?”

“Just being a vagrant tonight, Ray.  How’re the mean streets?”

“Manger pranks on the rise,” says Ray, “’specially sheep theft.  Plus someone thought it’d be funny to rearrange the street signs, so the folks on Rumbling Meadow are getting mail now for Rustling Heather Way.  Tensions running high, as you’d expect.”

“Crazy times,” Petra agrees.  “On my way.  Say hi to Lula.”

“Be good,” Ray calls out as she departs, the words drifting past her like smoke rings.  “Be safe…”

Past Hillwood Glen, intermittently working streetlights announce the school district boundary.  Children are out romping through the half-inch of snow, ignoring the curfew, some playing freeze tag and snake in the gutter, others just huddled together, heads curiously close, arms around shoulders.  Even in the twilight Petra can see their mismatched clothes and painted faces and nails, streaks of color that, as the children move, carve through the dark like iridescent paint strokes on a black canvas.  She walks on.  Growing cold now, and her legs are stiffening.   She passes other adults, their hands stuffed in winter coats and their eyes half-closed against the wind.  There’s a strange aimlessness to their movements.  Petra wonders if they, like her, simply found themselves wandering for no good reason tonight.  Searching or running.  Petra isn’t sure which, of the two, she’s doing herself this evening, only that she has to keep moving.

Not far now from the river and her old pre-Del apartment with Mike.  Only every fourth or fifth streetlight is working, casting yellow arcs of light on potholed streets that will only get worse as the winter progresses.   She hears footsteps behind her, and turns.  The footsteps stop immediately.

“Ah, fuck,” she whispers, not trying to be paranoid here, but she gets moving anyway.  Down side streets she once knew a lot better, past shuttered storefronts and thrift stores and tenements still on the far side of gentrification, her heels too loud on the cracked sidewalk.   Music drifts down from an upper-story apartment, some Latin tune that lends the scene an unearned liveliness, masking the menace Petra suddenly feels or is imagining.  Up ahead, a group of three or four shadows dislodge themselves from the wall and walk toward her.  She turns and sees, or thinks she sees, others coming toward her in the gloom.

Someone grabs her hand.  Come, and then she’s being pulled inside the apartment building, down a half-lit hallway, around a corner, out the back exit and across the street and immediately into another building.

She allows herself to be led forward in the dark.  Following behind her guide—a child, she thinks but can’t be sure—she glides ghost-like past open doorways whose doors have long since been ripped off their hinges, through which she sees the shadowy forms of men, women, children.  Huddled on old mattresses and under blankets, in candle-lit rooms filled with cast-off furniture and stuffed animals the color of ash, refugees from some localized apocalypse that didn’t make the evening news.  A young girl looks up at Petra as she moves past.  She’s pulled forward by her guide, around hallway corners and deeper into the building.  Deeper in, graffiti covers the walls, lit imperfectly by the refracted glow of streetlamps and passing headlights.  Here are idealized women and sunglassed street toughs, anthropomorphic dollar signs, lines of scripture and hip hop lyrics, a Last Supper of anime girls with Alice in Wonderland eyes, long-forgotten names emblazoned in five-foot neon letters.  Here are declarations of revenge, love, remembrance, the words faded and painted over, letters repurposed for another message, so that the final “E” in ELVIS RULES becomes one of the “E”s in the stoner-cryptic WHOEVER YOU ARE, MAN.   Farther along the images and text grow less distinct.  Her eyes play tricks as she’s pulled faster, toward some unimaginable terminus in the center of the building or maybe the center of the earth, and here, at the bottom of things, she begins to see, or thinks she begins to see, repeated and familiar shapes: circles, crescent moons, ocean waves.  Barely visible beneath layers of graffiti, as if they’ve always been here, ancient and original.  She calls out again, Wait, and the small hand in hers slips free.  A young voice recedes in the dark: You’ll be okay now, and then a door opens at the end of the hallway and December rushes back in.

It’s late when she finally makes it back to her car, miraculously untowed.  At home she sits in the bath and tries to come back to herself, but she’s nowhere to be found.

Later, on the phone with Del, she says, “Do you ever go down by the river?  To where we lived before you were born?”

“You sound weird,” he says.  “You okay?”

“I’m fine.”  She realizes she’s drawing shapes on the kitchen counter, tracing them invisibly with her finger, and stops.  “Del,” she asks, “you weren’t out tonight, were you?”

“Curfew,” he says.

Which isn’t quite an answer.  Later, lying in bed trying to fall asleep, Petra stares up at the shadows on the ceiling.  Imagines Del’s hieroglyphs, recombining endlessly, spelling out something in a language she can almost, but not quite, understand.

*  *  *

Friday after work, Petra stops and grabs takeout on her way to get Del.  Over naan and chicken tikka masala she learns that he’s supposed to see a psychiatrist on Monday.

“At the school?” she asks.

Shaking his head, “Think it’s Noreen’s psychiatrist.”

“You don’t have to do that, Del.”

“I know,” very simply.  Then: “Some kids got suspended for talking gibberish.”

“Heard about that.  So what’s next?”  As if she takes it granted that there’s a next, that this is all moving inexorably toward some climax.  Which is almost as ridiculous as thinking that Del will tell her what’s on his mind.

“Something new,” he says.  “Silent.”

“Sign language,” Petra suggests, and then, holding up her hand, “I know, I wouldn’t get it.  Age restrictions and whatnot.”

“I can show you.”  And he walks her through it.  Not sign language or not exactly sign language.  Not a true correspondence, but instead a set of ideas, coded into the tilt of the head, the sweep of an arm, the texture of a smile.

“What ideas,” as she tears off a piece of bread.  “Say something to me.”

He holds open his hand, palm open and fingers splayed, and then in a slow quiet motion he curls the fingers around into a fist, which he lifts and then moves across his body as if he’s tracing the arc of the moon.  Then he pulls the fist toward his chest as he closes his eyes.

“What does it mean,” Petra says.

“It’s like,” says Del, “when you’re in a fight and you don’t know what to say, how to end it.  Or like, ‘let’s be good to each other.’  Just that.”

She feels a chill.  “Why can’t you just say that in English, though.”

Shrugging: “I don’t know.”

“Tell me something else.”

For the next half-hour he talks, he shows her his silent language, and she watches and listens.  Sometimes she suggests things, asks questions, even makes up her own signs.  Eventually they stop talking completely.  They sit on either side of a table full of dirty dishes, barely moving at all, and they say these things to each other, among many other things:

I miss your laugh.

You look so lost sometimes.

You have beautiful teeth.

Sometimes I feel that I’m not good enough for you.

This moment, I am troubled.

Sometimes I am disappointed with the world.

There’s nothing to be forgiven.

I am humbled, and shaken, by your love for me. 

Let’s be good to each other.

I am happy for this moment.

*  *  *

Later they’re on the sofa together under a blanket, head to toe, while an old Cary Grant movie plays on television.  Del’s asleep, snoring gently beneath a bowl of popcorn.  The big Mount Rushmore scene coming up.  Petra’s in the process of attempting to transfer the bowl of popcorn to the coffee table without waking Del when something smashes through the window above the front door, and the popcorn goes flying.  She’s on her feet and tearing through the closet to find the baseball bat without any real awareness of what she’s doing, moving soundlessly, or maybe it’s only that there’s a ringing in her ears and it’s all she can hear.  She only starts to become fully aware of herself minutes later, with her back to the wall beside the door, gripping the bat so tightly that her hand will be bruised for days.

Del stares down in fascination at Petra’s bare, bloody feet.

*   *   *

On Sunday the fires start to appear.   In the parking lots of yoga studios and coffee shops, on construction sites in gated communities, in overflowing trashcans on neglected playgrounds.  Never large enough to cause great damage, never endangering anyone.  Almost—this is what Petra thinks—as if they’re totems, fire spirits erupted from the earth or the heavens, hard to tell which.  Running apocrypha is that they all go up at once.  And so all through the day on Sunday, if you were to walk outside, you’d see dozens of columns of white smoke rising from the earth.  You’d hear an unsettling silence punctuated only by the sound of the fire trucks moving from scene to scene.  Giving the town the general character and appearance of either a war zone after all the combatants have been slain, or the breathless aftermath of an armistice.

Standing outside with Del, Petra sees her neighbor across the street staring back at them.  Petra lifts her arm, opens her hand, palm forward.  A sign.  I see you, and it’s okay.  The blinds close, in a way you’d have to call pretty abruptly.  Another sign.

*   *   *

The transition is quiet, uneventful.  Maybe too uneventful.  Later Petra gets a call from Noreen and Mike, on speaker.

We think Del should stay with us for a while.  Until all of this plays out.

The conversation lasts a while.  When it’s over, Petra walks to the closet, a little dazed, and takes out the baseball bat.  Then she goes from window to window on the first floor of the house.  When she’s done, she carefully cleans up the glass.  She curls up on the sofa as the curtains blow ferociously behind her.   Her hands are balled into fists against her chest, and she thinks: how strange.  They smell like gasoline.

*   *   *

“House arrest,” Mike says, a couple days later.  “Of course they’re not calling it that.  It’s like suspension, except they’ve got like a car stationed outside and they told us not to let him leave.  They think it’s like an occult thing.”

Del isn’t the only one.  Maybe two dozen other boys and a handful of girls, “the ringleaders,” Mike says, which makes Petra laugh.

Turns out one of the boys on house arrest is Brent Bowman.   One morning he’s in with the private tutor, and his mom walks in and asks him, kind of absently, what’s the name of that breakfast cereal you like, and Brent says well, okay, if I’m being totally honest then I’ll say I’d rather have yogurt, and his mom shrieks because, upon closer inspection, the boy sitting at Brent’s desk with the private tutor isn’t Brent at all but some other kid.  And isn’t even, technically, a boy.

The scene plays out across town, as parents everywhere discover that their children have been interchanged, scattered haphazardly between houses like playing cards.  The children jump out of bed, laughing, lacking even the good sense to be properly mortified by the shame of discovery.  Instead they stare innocently at their adopted parents, asking to be seen, to be provided for.  To be, of all things, loved.

Petra falls asleep and dreams of the dogs.  She dreams it’s her job to spot them and point them out to her grandfather, who’s standing by with his iron claws.   She understands that she can protect the dogs only by not seeing them.  But she can’t help it.  She can’t help betraying them, giving them away.  Her grandfather pats her on the head and comforts her, and then he goes off to slaughter the dogs.

When the morning comes again, the children are gone.

Clothes are left in drawers, pajamas on the floor where they’ve fallen, textbooks neatly stacked on dressers.  No notes are left behind.

With the rest of the town, Petra goes out to search.   The fires are still burning and the town smells of smoke and ash.  They head, all of them, to the highlands beyond the town’s northern boundary.  For no reason except that there’s no other place to look.  They make their way silently, through the tall grass, while behind them the fires smolder and the streets lay empty and quiet.  They’re anxious and uncertain.  The children may, must surely be, there beyond the next rise.  Or the one after that.

Petra looks back.  A ghost town, behind her, purified by fire.

She looks ahead.   No sign of anything, really, except the advancing night.  Huddled forms with their faces to the ground, unsure where they are, what they’re seeking, what they’re prepared to find.  She wants to reach out to them, to say something comforting, but they share no language for this.

Far away, Petra sees a familiar face.  For a few moments they stare at each other across some implausible distance, the tall grasses swaying between them, too far from each other to make eye contact.  Mike raises his hand in front of him, so that she can see his nails.  Painted baby blue.  He closes his fingers into his palm, making a fist.  And then he raises his arm and moves his fist in a slow, sweeping arc across his body.

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Sunday morning Petra wakes up to find her nail polish laid out on the bathroom counter, while her eleven-year-old son sits bent over in concentration on the tile floor.  Eight of his toenails are purple.

“Was bored,” says Del, without looking up.

“Okay, yeah.  It’s not even seven o’clock.”  Leans down for a closer look, says, “But you did an amazing job,” which is true.  On his toenails, anyway.   The countertop and the floor have sustained some damage.

He stares down at his toes.  Grimly serious.

Squatting down to inspect the bottle, Petra says, “Purple Mountains Majesty, a classic.”

“I’m calling it something else.”  Squinting up at her now.  “Can I do that?”

“Sure.”  When he was younger and still learning to read, Del liked to puzzle out the names, which led to an appreciation for puns that his teachers didn’t share.  “Something funny?”

“Apoopalypse.”

“Always the poop jokes.”

Shrugging,  “Can I do my fingers too?”

She barely hesitates.  “Go for it,” she says.  “A little less on the floor, though.”

Petra spends the rest of the morning cleaning out the basement storage room and going through Del’s winter clothes, trying to figure out what still fits and what she’ll need to replace.  He has stuff over at Mike’s, but she’s already heard the lecture about No Sharing Between Houses.   Because That’s How Things Get Lost, and by Things we mean things that Mike and Noreen bought.   So, okay guys.  Two pairs of galoshes it is.

Now and then Del asks her opinion about a new color.  By late afternoon he’s settled on a light blue shade that Petra can’t remember buying.

“Blue Skies Ahead,” she says.

“Morris the Orangutan,” he counters.

“Okay, yeah.”

She has to help him with the right hand, trying to draw him out without giving him the full-court press.   Not easy with Del, whose first complete sentence came at age four.  A lot of speculation about autism and other developmental disorders.  The diagnosis changed every year, but to Petra, her son only seemed wrapped in this odd cloud of melancholy from which he periodically, though infrequently, emerged.

Cleaning up after dinner, she reminds him to take off the nail polish and tells him where he can find the remover.

“But why?” he asks.

“Well,” she says, “school tomorrow.”

“So?”

She hesitates.  Sometimes she wonders if she isn’t flawed in some fundamental way, lacking this parental instinct that everyone else is born with or magically acquires upon becoming a parent, the one that lets you automatically answer your kids with absolute conviction, immune from self-doubt.   Instead she usually, now being included, finds herself wondering if she’s really qualified to dispense wisdom at all, even to an eleven-year-old.  Especially to an eleven-year-old.

“Kids can be mean,” she says.  “You know how it is.”

He turns his hands over and considers them for a long couple of seconds. “So you think I should take it off?”

Has to put her on the spot and call her out.  So, what to say?

Well okay, yeah.  Yeah, I think you should take it off.  Because you’ll be teased and it’s something the other kids will remember: that you’re the boy who wore nail polish to school.  You’ll be that kid.  And even though it shouldn’t matter, it will.  Long after you think it’s forgotten, after you’ve discarded nail polish and moved on to the next curiosity of childhood—sizing yourself up, asking yourself who you are, what you’re supposed to make of yourself—someone will be there to remind you that you were, what, a deviant?  An eleven-year-old deviant, sure.  And you don’t even care about this stuff, any of it, but you will someday.  Skip the nail polish and follow along like everyone else, toe the line, and sooner or later you’ll be called out for something anyway, some little thing you never knew was wrong with yourself.  The way you say your Rs, your taste in cartoons, the kind of clothes you wear or the way you wear them, the shape of your eyes, the way you pull at your lip when you’re lost in thought.  Your laugh, jesus, your batshit crazy laugh.  Someone will call you out, maybe not say anything but just give you a look, a smirk.  A goddamn smirk.  And then you’ll care.  You, Del, who have innocently and terribly never cared at all, will suddenly care.  Because you won’t want to be left out, you won’t want to be the outcast, the dork, that kid, the one who just doesn’t get it.  And then, damn it all, kid, you’ll do it to someone else.  You’ll take that from someone else, you’ll take it with a shrug or a wisecrack to impress your friends, not even being mean, just trying to fit in.  Because you’ll forget this shit ever mattered, like everyone forgets it ever mattered.  And maybe it doesn’t anyway.  Fuck, Petra.  Maybe there’s a remedial parenting course you can take online somewhere?

Del’s still looking at her.  Patient.  Trusting that she’ll give him good advice, because she’s a parent and there’s this whole infallible parental instinct thing.

“Sure, hey,” she says, “leave it on.  If the kids say anything, fuck ’em.  Right?”

Which prompts a raised eyebrow, at least.  And then he’s off to play, the matter quickly and easily forgotten.

 

*   *   *

 

In the morning she drops Del off at Mike’s before school.  Still a little contentious, these Monday morning transitions.  Letting Petra extend the definition of weekend to include a few extra hours with Del had been a moment of weakness for Mike at the time of the court hearing, and at least once a month Noreen suggests with her bug-eyed smile that they might want to revisit the agreement.

She carries his overnight bag in behind Del, gives him a hug while Noreen hovers, monster-like, in the background.  He acknowledges Noreen with a grave little nod and then tears off to get his books for school.

“Really, Petra,” Noreen says.

“Hmm,” blinking at this.

“The nails.”  With a quick glance back toward the stairs, “You could’ve discussed it with us.  We’ve all got to work together as a team, Petra, don’t we?”

“Guess it didn’t seem like it required a conference, Noreen?”

“But that’s just it, isn’t it?  You guessing, I mean.”  With a thousand-watt smile, wholly unnatural.

“Not totally following,” says Petra.

“The thing is,” standing up and brushing off her pantsuit, symbolically Petra assumes, “we see Del all week long.  So we have maybe a better sense of what Del needs, at this point?  Than you?  And we’re the ones who have to deal with the consequences.  I’m sure you can appreciate that, Petra, right?”

Mike has appeared in the middle of all of this, keys his hand.  Takes in the scene without saying a word, glancing back and forth between the two women.

Petra resists the urge to back up a step.  “I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

“It’s just, Petra,” with a sidelong glance at Mike, “that we don’t want Del to get hurt again.  And you don’t have the greatest track record?  When it comes to keeping Del out of, well, harm’s way?”

“Hey,” says Mike.

“Ah,” says Petra, “right.”  Feeling a little wobbly.

Del at that moment comes racing down the stairs, and the scene comes to an abrupt conclusion.  Moments later she’s in her car, heart thumping madly, speeding off into the gray morning with Noreen’s words ringing in her ears.

 

*   *   *

 

At work, Petra drinks too much coffee, re-reads the same paragraph on-screen for hours at a time, practices her trashcan basketball alley-oop skills.  She tries not to wonder how things are going for Del, tries not to imagine all the different scenarios in which he’s humiliated or disappointed or disillusioned by his classmates.  Instead tries to imagine one scenario—there has to be one—in which none of those things happens, and Petra doesn’t have to accept that she sent her son off to deal with that bullshit.  Irresponsible.  Fuck, maybe old bug eyes is right.

At three o’clock she calls Mike’s place, finds Brittany between text messages.  Asks about Del and gets the usual.

“He doesn’t seem, well, a little off?”

“More than regular off?” says Brittany.

“So,” when Del gets on the phone, Petra trying to sound nonchalant.  “School,” just to clarify.  “Anything interesting?”

“You mean the nails.”  She can hear him flipping the page of one of his comics.

“Sure,” says Petra.

“I’m thinking,” he says, “of maybe purple tomorrow.”

It’s days before she hears the whole story, and even then she only gets bits and pieces from her son.  The rest is fragmented and apocryphal, like an origin story from one of Del’s comics, overheard in office hallways and coffee shops and grocery stores, half of countless cellphone conversations, worried parents wondering—in between shuttling their kids to yoga lessons and violin practice and Chinese immersion programs—what the fuck, exactly, is happening here.

What’s happening is that on the day Del goes to school wearing Morris the Orangutan on his fingers, a dozen other boys come home with their own nails painted. Fruitless and one-sided interrogations ensue over a dozen dinner tables.  Conversational lead-ins range from Explain yourself  to Is there something you’d like to discuss to Dear god why are you punishing us?  The boys blink quietly and reach for the potatoes with their sweetly glittering fingers.

The number doubles, then triples, and by Thursday, half the sixth-grade male population is sporting painted nails.  Star-spangled nails, dayglo-green nails, burgundy and orange nails, skull and crossbone nails, checkerboard nails, zebra stripe nails, paisley nails, tie-dyed nails, superhero logo nails, camouflage nails, nails decorated with letters and zodiac symbols and emoticons, some crudely painted but others suggesting the assistance of experienced sisters, cousins, classmates.  A few take to wearing make-up on their faces too, applied in bold streaks like war paint, and when Brent Bowman—face invisible under alternating layers of red and gold color—is sent home for some unstated violation of school policy, painted faces start appearing in every classroom, gestures of solidarity toward a cause the boys are either unable or unwilling to identify.

Del is cheerfully oblivious to the weirdness.  Petra only knows that the world, or at the least the world of eleven-year-old boys, has mysteriously passed on the chance to put her oddball son in his place.

We are concerned about some recent behavior patterns, the first but not the last of the emails to be sent out by the middle school principal.  The specific behavior patterns of concern remaining unstated, the idea being, maybe, that we all know what’s going on here.  A little more ominously, the origin of the disruptive behavior is unknown, but we are investigating.  The word disruptive appears at regular intervals throughout the email, plosive drumbeats of danger.

There’s a proportional response from the other flank.  The girls start wearing boys’ clothes to school: oversized pants and mismatched shirts, bandanas and chains, pink skullcaps, football and baseball jerseys, madcap eyepatches, their brothers’ basketball shoes, blazers and ties stolen from their fathers’ closets.  They take on the boys’ speech patterns, communicating with monosyllables and grunting, walk around with their suddenly polish-free hands stuffed in their pockets, and shoot rubber-bands across the classroom at each other and at unsuspecting teachers.  They yawn openly in class and stop brushing their hair.  They draw crude pictures of boobs and penises inside the stalls of the girls’ restroom.

Carly, who started the same day as Petra and has a niece at the school, supplies this last bit of gossip in the break room.  “They’re saying it’s like a cult.  Nobody’s heard of such a thing.”

“Who’s saying?” Petra asks.

Shrugging, “Anyway my sister’s bringing Jane to the doctor.  Psychiatrist, psychologist, whatever.”

“Maybe a little,” says Petra, “extreme?”

“But these are like gateway behavioral patterns, is what they’re saying.”

Petra repeats the phrase, seeing it float in the air above her like a cartoon bubble.

“Del’s good, though?  No trouble?”

In fact, Del called Petra this morning while in the act of appropriating makeup from Noreen’s bag while his stepmother slept, wanting to be done up like an Egyptian pharaoh.

Del, I’m not going to help you steal.

Well let’s say I had permission.  What would I need?

Later she received a text from Noreen—maybe you can explain this—along with incriminating photos.  Del with thick gold and black mascara around the eyes, rope necklace, dangling hoop clip-on earrings he discovered in an old plastic bin in the basement.  Also mismatched tennis shoes, green laces on the left, purple on the right.  And a series of hieroglyphs penned along both forearms.  Circle, crescent moon, squiggly thing like an ocean wave.  Presumably important dots.

“No trouble at all,” Petra tells Carly.

 

*   *   *

 

The next email from the principal arrives with the subject line, On new policy re: gibberish in school.

Whatever mutinous fever-dream is overwhelming the student body has apparently spilled over into its language.  Words are substituted randomly for other words, tenses added and subtracted, inflections changed and subverted.  Boys and girls who are increasingly unrecognizable are now incomprehensible, too, at least to the parents and teachers who eavesdrop on their conversations.  The kids themselves have either picked up the new language with maddening speed—chatting between classes, mock-fighting on the playground, passing exclamation-heavy notes in study hall—or else they’re all complicit in some lunatic prank whose primary and only purpose seems to be frustrating anyone over the age of eleven.

It is imperative that we maintain order in our classrooms.  So, for the duration of what the principal calls “the current crisis,” Spanish and other non-English languages are to be classified as gibberish, the faculty being a hundred percent monolingual.  The email closes with the announcement of an emergency meeting, and all engaged, concerned parents are invited to attend.

Petra hangs out in the back of the auditorium, invisible.  Listens as teachers and then parents take the microphone.  The whole thing takes on a weird post-traumatic stress support group vibe.   Whitney’s been dressing like a train hobo and hasn’t turned on her phone in two days.  Drew sits in bed at night reading the dictionary with a highlighter, giggling like a loon.   Sarah’s been giving away her toys, her clothing, her mom’s jewelry to random girls she meets god-knows-where.  Richie announced over dinner he’s a pacifist—and where’d he even learn that word?—and won’t be playing football or delivering the fist of justice to anyone this year.  And more of the same.  Their children, the children they knew, have been stolen from them.

The rhetoric intensifies and Petra feels herself start to detach.  In Tbilisi, she heard her mother and grandfather arguing all the time.  Petra’s grandfather with his portrait of Stalin hanging in the living room, not so much a fan of mass murder as a loyalist to Georgia’s most famous celebrity.  Petra’s mother, Irina, half his size, but making up for it with volume and arm waving.  Arguments unintelligible to four-year-old Petra, who did her best to map the crossfired words against her limited vocabulary, seizing on the few familiar ones, like dzaghli, which she knew because of the hordes of stray dogs that plagued the city.  Petra’s grandfather and the other sanitation workers were charged with culling them.  A task which, to his granddaughter’s endless horror, involved snatching them up with massive iron claws that broke the dogs’ backs.  Petra was convinced the arguments were about the dogs, whose presence threatened, according to her grandfather, all of Georgia.  Led by the mongrels Shanidze, Kostava, Gamasakhurdia, whom Petra imagined in great detail, prowling the highlands above the city in exile, noble even as they were hunted to extinction.   She understood only that her mother, moghalate, was somehow in league with them, which fascinated her and gave her an appreciation for her mother that would last until they moved to America a few years later.  Petra’s too-eager assimilation into the American culture and language put an end to that.

In the school auditorium the talk turns to strategy, and when that doesn’t prove fruitful, to assigning blame.  Someone started this.  Things like this don’t come out of nowhere.  Names are thrown around, families who aren’t present and haven’t, coincidentally, been totally and completely reliable.  Getting too hot in the room.  Petra slides out quietly, just as Brent Bowman’s father, a police officer, floats the idea of bringing in a few of the kids for one-on-one interrogations.  Just the known troublemakers.  Just to get to the bottom of things.

Out in the street, Petra wanders.

Kids are everywhere.  Some but not all of them dressed in rags or makeshift costumes, a few with painted faces.  They’re either communicating telepathically or talking just below eavesdropping level.  Petra watches them move through the park and down past the skating rink alone and in pairs, in threes and fours and fives.  Whenever two groups cross paths, some of the children in each group exchange places, like electrons gained or lost in some weird chemical reaction, cliques forming and dissolving, an infinite loop of rearrangement or reassignment or something else that Petra can’t name.  And all of it happening not quite in silence, but without any obvious direction from the children.

It’s December and the sun falls early.  The adults in town leave their offices and head out into the dusk, and the stream of children fades as they’re called back home before the newly announced curfew.   Petra’s left with this melancholy vibe, brought on not so much by the presence of the adults around her—with their dark clothes and their secrets and their anxious, distracted faces—as by the children’s absence, some gradual decline of energy.

On the way to her car, she runs into Mike.

“You left early,” as soft plumes of breath surround his face, still maddeningly youthful, like a halo.

She almost responds sharply but sees that there’s no malice in the comment.  “Suffocating in there, that’s all.”

“Yeah.  Listen.  Sorry about, you know, the other day.  Stupid thing for her to say.”

Petra shrugs, “I’m the fuck-up, Mike.”  Snow begins to fall.  “A little too adorable a moment for me, hope you don’t mind if I split?”

“As long as you know,” he says.

“That you’re sorry,” she says.  “Got it, Mike.”

She drives a couple blocks in the snow and then pulls over.   Opens the car door and surprises herself by throwing up.  After sitting for a few minutes, she shuts off the ignition and gets out.  Scoops up a handful of fresh snow to rinse her mouth, steadies herself against the car.

No, she doesn’t want Del to get hurt again.  To wander off while Petra fucks someone in an upstairs bedroom, drunk.  Some nameless idiot she picked up because, well, because he looked tough and mean, he looked like he could beat Mike to a bloody pulp, which in those days seemed like an awfully good reason.  Del, always the wanderer, half-present, long gone by the time she went in to check on him, still half-drunk. Bleak couple of hours then, parade of flashlights bouncing through the woods as a light cold rain fell.  Self-hatred settling in for the duration.  When Del was found, an hour before dawn, Petra caught her reflection in the window of the paramedics’ truck.  A madwoman wearing a robe made of dirt and leaves, her hair a shock of moonlight white, face empty.  Sidelong glances, easily decoded, from the neighbors who had spent all night searching, who smelled the alcohol and the sex on her.  Not one of us.  Maybe she’d never been one of them.  Never adjusted to the suburban life she’d accepted as part of the deal with Mike, and her disguise, like the false mask of a witch in a fairy tale, was finally wearing thin.  Not a Georgian anymore either.  Just a woman grown old, residing uneasily here, hopelessly liminal.

She leaves the car by the side of the road and walks.  Not thinking about where she’s going, she wanders over like some masochistic somnambulist to Hillwood Glen, the old neighborhood.  Blandly imposing five-bedroom houses rise up along well-lit streets, each with a Wind or a Meadow or a Vale in its name.   The holiday lights, already in place a week after Thanksgiving, seem perfectly coordinated from house to house, a coordination that Petra remembers to be anything but coincidental.

She’d preferred their apartment by the river and the train tracks.  But the schools were better here, less crime, etc.  And the house, the giant goddamn house with a three-car garage, because their two Mercedes needed room to breathe, possibly procreate.   Petra’s mother had come to visit exactly once, dismissing it all with a familiar and peculiarly Georgian shudder.  The old radical, unrepentant and unchanged.  She’d been arrested four times in Tbilisi and another four times in America, and she disapproved of Petra’s clothes, house, husband, cars, all of it.  Off somewhere now, either manning a picket line or working the front lines of the revolution, which these days means blogging mercilessly and, to Petra, incoherently.  Their only conversation in the last five years was after the divorce, when Petra admittedly went off the rails a bit, the incident in the woods serving as only the final act of a pretty spectacular performance that, as a whole, gave Petra a brand-new reputation in town, and prompted the call from Irina. You cracking up or waking up, bavshvi?

Finding herself at the guardhouse, she taps on the glass.

“My lady Petra,” with a bigger smile than she’s encountered in a pretty long time, “didn’t think it was pick-up time yet.  Or are you just coming to see me?”

“Just being a vagrant tonight, Ray.  How’re the mean streets?”

“Manger pranks on the rise,” says Ray, “’specially sheep theft.  Plus someone thought it’d be funny to rearrange the street signs, so the folks on Rumbling Meadow are getting mail now for Rustling Heather Way.  Tensions running high, as you’d expect.”

“Crazy times,” Petra agrees.  “On my way.  Say hi to Lula.”

“Be good,” Ray calls out as she departs, the words drifting past her like smoke rings.  “Be safe…”

Past Hillwood Glen, intermittently working streetlights announce the school district boundary.  Children are out romping through the half-inch of snow, ignoring the curfew, some playing freeze tag and snake in the gutter, others just huddled together, heads curiously close, arms around shoulders.  Even in the twilight Petra can see their mismatched clothes and painted faces and nails, streaks of color that, as the children move, carve through the dark like iridescent paint strokes on a black canvas.  She walks on.  Growing cold now, and her legs are stiffening.   She passes other adults, their hands stuffed in winter coats and their eyes half-closed against the wind.  There’s a strange aimlessness to their movements.  Petra wonders if they, like her, simply found themselves wandering for no good reason tonight.  Searching or running.  Petra isn’t sure which, of the two, she’s doing herself this evening, only that she has to keep moving.

Not far now from the river and her old pre-Del apartment with Mike.  Only every fourth or fifth streetlight is working, casting yellow arcs of light on potholed streets that will only get worse as the winter progresses.   She hears footsteps behind her, and turns.  The footsteps stop immediately.

“Ah, fuck,” she whispers, not trying to be paranoid here, but she gets moving anyway.  Down side streets she once knew a lot better, past shuttered storefronts and thrift stores and tenements still on the far side of gentrification, her heels too loud on the cracked sidewalk.   Music drifts down from an upper-story apartment, some Latin tune that lends the scene an unearned liveliness, masking the menace Petra suddenly feels or is imagining.  Up ahead, a group of three or four shadows dislodge themselves from the wall and walk toward her.  She turns and sees, or thinks she sees, others coming toward her in the gloom.

Someone grabs her hand.  Come, and then she’s being pulled inside the apartment building, down a half-lit hallway, around a corner, out the back exit and across the street and immediately into another building.

She allows herself to be led forward in the dark.  Following behind her guide—a child, she thinks but can’t be sure—she glides ghost-like past open doorways whose doors have long since been ripped off their hinges, through which she sees the shadowy forms of men, women, children.  Huddled on old mattresses and under blankets, in candle-lit rooms filled with cast-off furniture and stuffed animals the color of ash, refugees from some localized apocalypse that didn’t make the evening news.  A young girl looks up at Petra as she moves past.  She’s pulled forward by her guide, around hallway corners and deeper into the building.  Deeper in, graffiti covers the walls, lit imperfectly by the refracted glow of streetlamps and passing headlights.  Here are idealized women and sunglassed street toughs, anthropomorphic dollar signs, lines of scripture and hip hop lyrics, a Last Supper of anime girls with Alice in Wonderland eyes, long-forgotten names emblazoned in five-foot neon letters.  Here are declarations of revenge, love, remembrance, the words faded and painted over, letters repurposed for another message, so that the final “E” in ELVIS RULES becomes one of the “E”s in the stoner-cryptic WHOEVER YOU ARE, MAN.   Farther along the images and text grow less distinct.  Her eyes play tricks as she’s pulled faster, toward some unimaginable terminus in the center of the building or maybe the center of the earth, and here, at the bottom of things, she begins to see, or thinks she begins to see, repeated and familiar shapes: circles, crescent moons, ocean waves.  Barely visible beneath layers of graffiti, as if they’ve always been here, ancient and original.  She calls out again, Wait, and the small hand in hers slips free.  A young voice recedes in the dark: You’ll be okay now, and then a door opens at the end of the hallway and December rushes back in.

It’s late when she finally makes it back to her car, miraculously untowed.  At home she sits in the bath and tries to come back to herself, but she’s nowhere to be found.

Later, on the phone with Del, she says, “Do you ever go down by the river?  To where we lived before you were born?”

“You sound weird,” he says.  “You okay?”

“I’m fine.”  She realizes she’s drawing shapes on the kitchen counter, tracing them invisibly with her finger, and stops.  “Del,” she asks, “you weren’t out tonight, were you?”

“Curfew,” he says.

Which isn’t quite an answer.  Later, lying in bed trying to fall asleep, Petra stares up at the shadows on the ceiling.  Imagines Del’s hieroglyphs, recombining endlessly, spelling out something in a language she can almost, but not quite, understand.

 

*  *  *

 

Friday after work, Petra stops and grabs takeout on her way to get Del.  Over naan and chicken tikka masala she learns that he’s supposed to see a psychiatrist on Monday.

“At the school?” she asks.

Shaking his head, “Think it’s Noreen’s psychiatrist.”

“You don’t have to do that, Del.”

“I know,” very simply.  Then: “Some kids got suspended for talking gibberish.”

“Heard about that.  So what’s next?”  As if she takes it granted that there’s a next, that this is all moving inexorably toward some climax.  Which is almost as ridiculous as thinking that Del will tell her what’s on his mind.

“Something new,” he says.  “Silent.”

“Sign language,” Petra suggests, and then, holding up her hand, “I know, I wouldn’t get it.  Age restrictions and whatnot.”

“I can show you.”  And he walks her through it.  Not sign language or not exactly sign language.  Not a true correspondence, but instead a set of ideas, coded into the tilt of the head, the sweep of an arm, the texture of a smile.

“What ideas,” as she tears off a piece of bread.  “Say something to me.”

He holds open his hand, palm open and fingers splayed, and then in a slow quiet motion he curls the fingers around into a fist, which he lifts and then moves across his body as if he’s tracing the arc of the moon.  Then he pulls the fist toward his chest as he closes his eyes.

“What does it mean,” Petra says.

“It’s like,” says Del, “when you’re in a fight and you don’t know what to say, how to end it.  Or like, ‘let’s be good to each other.’  Just that.”

She feels a chill.  “Why can’t you just say that in English, though.”

Shrugging: “I don’t know.”

“Tell me something else.”

For the next half-hour he talks, he shows her his silent language, and she watches and listens.  Sometimes she suggests things, asks questions, even makes up her own signs.  Eventually they stop talking completely.  They sit on either side of a table full of dirty dishes, barely moving at all, and they say these things to each other, among many other things:

I miss your laugh.

You look so lost sometimes.

You have beautiful teeth.

Sometimes I feel that I’m not good enough for you.

This moment, I am troubled.

Sometimes I am disappointed with the world.

There’s nothing to be forgiven.

I am humbled, and shaken, by your love for me. 

Let’s be good to each other.

I am happy for this moment.

 

*  *  *

 

Later they’re on the sofa together under a blanket, head to toe, while an old Cary Grant movie plays on television.  Del’s asleep, snoring gently beneath a bowl of popcorn.  The big Mount Rushmore scene coming up.  Petra’s in the process of attempting to transfer the bowl of popcorn to the coffee table without waking Del when something smashes through the window above the front door, and the popcorn goes flying.  She’s on her feet and tearing through the closet to find the baseball bat without any real awareness of what she’s doing, moving soundlessly, or maybe it’s only that there’s a ringing in her ears and it’s all she can hear.  She only starts to become fully aware of herself minutes later, with her back to the wall beside the door, gripping the bat so tightly that her hand will be bruised for days.

Del stares down in fascination at Petra’s bare, bloody feet.

 

*   *   *

 

On Sunday the fires start to appear.   In the parking lots of yoga studios and coffee shops, on construction sites in gated communities, in overflowing trashcans on neglected playgrounds.  Never large enough to cause great damage, never endangering anyone.  Almost—this is what Petra thinks—as if they’re totems, fire spirits erupted from the earth or the heavens, hard to tell which.  Running apocrypha is that they all go up at once.  And so all through the day on Sunday, if you were to walk outside, you’d see dozens of columns of white smoke rising from the earth.  You’d hear an unsettling silence punctuated only by the sound of the fire trucks moving from scene to scene.  Giving the town the general character and appearance of either a war zone after all the combatants have been slain, or the breathless aftermath of an armistice.

Standing outside with Del, Petra sees her neighbor across the street staring back at them.  Petra lifts her arm, opens her hand, palm forward.  A sign.  I see you, and it’s okay.  The blinds close, in a way you’d have to call pretty abruptly.  Another sign.

 

*   *   *

 

The transition is quiet, uneventful.  Maybe too uneventful.  Later Petra gets a call from Noreen and Mike, on speaker.

We think Del should stay with us for a while.  Until all of this plays out.

The conversation lasts a while.  When it’s over, Petra walks to the closet, a little dazed, and takes out the baseball bat.  Then she goes from window to window on the first floor of the house.  When she’s done, she carefully cleans up the glass.  She curls up on the sofa as the curtains blow ferociously behind her.   Her hands are balled into fists against her chest, and she thinks: how strange.  They smell like gasoline.

 

*   *   *

 

“House arrest,” Mike says, a couple days later.  “Of course they’re not calling it that.  It’s like suspension, except they’ve got like a car stationed outside and they told us not to let him leave.  They think it’s like an occult thing.”

Del isn’t the only one.  Maybe two dozen other boys and a handful of girls, “the ringleaders,” Mike says, which makes Petra laugh.

Turns out one of the boys on house arrest is Brent Bowman.   One morning he’s in with the private tutor, and his mom walks in and asks him, kind of absently, what’s the name of that breakfast cereal you like, and Brent says well, okay, if I’m being totally honest then I’ll say I’d rather have yogurt, and his mom shrieks because, upon closer inspection, the boy sitting at Brent’s desk with the private tutor isn’t Brent at all but some other kid.  And isn’t even, technically, a boy.

The scene plays out across town, as parents everywhere discover that their children have been interchanged, scattered haphazardly between houses like playing cards.  The children jump out of bed, laughing, lacking even the good sense to be properly mortified by the shame of discovery.  Instead they stare innocently at their adopted parents, asking to be seen, to be provided for.  To be, of all things, loved.

Petra falls asleep and dreams of the dogs.  She dreams it’s her job to spot them and point them out to her grandfather, who’s standing by with his iron claws.   She understands that she can protect the dogs only by not seeing them.  But she can’t help it.  She can’t help betraying them, giving them away.  Her grandfather pats her on the head and comforts her, and then he goes off to slaughter the dogs.

When the morning comes again, the children are gone.

Clothes are left in drawers, pajamas on the floor where they’ve fallen, textbooks neatly stacked on dressers.  No notes are left behind.

With the rest of the town, Petra goes out to search.   The fires are still burning and the town smells of smoke and ash.  They head, all of them, to the highlands beyond the town’s northern boundary.  For no reason except that there’s no other place to look.  They make their way silently, through the tall grass, while behind them the fires smolder and the streets lay empty and quiet.  They’re anxious and uncertain.  The children may, must surely be, there beyond the next rise.  Or the one after that.

Petra looks back.  A ghost town, behind her, purified by fire.

She looks ahead.   No sign of anything, really, except the advancing night.  Huddled forms with their faces to the ground, unsure where they are, what they’re seeking, what they’re prepared to find.  She wants to reach out to them, to say something comforting, but they share no language for this.

Far away, Petra sees a familiar face.  For a few moments they stare at each other across some implausible distance, the tall grasses swaying between them, too far from each other to make eye contact.  Mike raises his hand in front of him, so that she can see his nails.  Painted baby blue.  He closes his fingers into his palm, making a fist.  And then he raises his arm and moves his fist in a slow, sweeping arc across his body.

Author: Tom Howard

Tom Howard’s fiction has appeared most recently in The Cincinnati Review, Booth and Willow Springs. Individual stories have won the Willow Springs Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award in Fiction, the Masters Review Short Story Award, and the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction. He’s in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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