Monday, August 2, 2010

“Offspring” by Paul Lingas

The boy stands at the window looking out into the falling rain, blown nearly sideways by the constant wind. The window with embedded chicken wire is growing foggy with the boy’s breath, and his hair is creating streaks in it as he shifts slightly, resting his forehead against the glass. He looks up into the sky and muses that perhaps the sky has grown lighter in the past minutes. The squeaking of a wheel moves steadily closer and as its sound becomes clear, he turns to see the janitor pass into the hallway and into a room, pushing his battered and filthy cart. Of course that ancient cart has a squeaky wheel, the boy thinks, its almost as old as the janitor. The boy turns back and sighs, completely obscuring his view with the new puff of fog that covers the rain streaked glass. The boy walks out of the brick building and into the cold and blustery day. Leaves swirl in the wind and he pulls his thin blue sweatshirt about him. He is furtive and shy, a natural result of what was about to befall him, and what befell him almost every day.

“Hey dorkface!”

The boy merely looks down to avoid the rain and trudges down the steps, awaiting his encounter.

“Oh, you already crying?”

Kevin, that was the boy’s name, stops and turns. There, approaching from the matted grass in front of the school are what Kevin likes to call the three little pigs: Darryl, Eric, and Bobby. Though they were all older, looked to be ready to shave in the sixth grade and looked more like a replicated version of the big bad wolf, Kevin knew better.

“So are you crying already or what?” persists Darryl.

Darryl was always the leader, mostly because he was the dumbest but also the biggest. If that didn’t make sense then you understood how Kevin’s world worked: nothing happened for the right reason.

“Maybe he’s all cried out from yesterday,” offers Bobby.

Darryl walks up to Kevin and puts a finger through a hole in Kevin’s sweatshirt.

“That’s a nice set of clothes your dad provides you with,” says Eric.

“Yeah, he bite that hole in it?” asks Bobby.

“Sure,” continues Darryl. “Probably his mom didn’t cook dinner so they had to eat some of dorkbrain’s clothes. Your underwear gone?”

Kevin peers up into Darryl’s eyes with a cold look that causes Darryl to stop rotating his finger in the ever-widening hole. Eric and Bobby exchange glances, unsure of Darryl being challenged in any way.

“That’s right,” replies Kevin, his voice slightly hoarse, “my dad ate a hole in it. He’s got big teeth.”

The three little pigs all exchange looks and after a moment in which the air seems to stop blowing for the first time all day, they begin laughing. Kevin surprises himself by slapping Darryl’s hand away, a slap that would leave a red mark brighter than the cherry blossom tree leaves that were still clinging to the branches around them. That mark is all the excuse the little pigs need. Darryl grabs Kevin by the hood of his sweatshirt and pulls it over his head, causing him to stumble forward. Eric and Bobby each grab an arm and the three of them pull Kevin into the grass and throw him down into the trampled green and brown mixture of mud, leaves, water and grass. As he hits, his bag seems to float above him before landing with a dull thud on the back of his head. Kevin spits some of the mud out of his mouth and begins to push himself up before being quickly shoved back into the ground.

Darryl stands over him, a foot planted in Kevin’s back, the mud from his shoe squeezing out from beneath and over the blue fabric. Eric and Bobby chuckle as they watch Kevin squirm beneath Darryl’s hamish leg.

“Get away from there!”

Kevin feels the pressure immediately release and he can hear the splashing and squishing as his tormentors run off over the wet grass. Kevin follows with his eyes and takes small comfort when Bobby slips on the leaves and skids onto his butt, leaving a dark trail of wormy mud across his backside.

Kevin picks himself up and looks toward the building, where the janitor stands in the doorway. Kevin raises a mud-streaked hand in thanks and shakes off the worm that clings to the backside of it. The janitor nods imperceptibly and returns inside, the door closing with a squeal that causes Kevin to smile in spite of himself. He looks over at his book bag, which is mud spattered and leaking papers which blow away until they become heavy with the rain and fall to the sticky ground like disowned chicks, cast out of the nest and left to perish in the elements. As Kevin surveys the scene and is overwhelmed by the smell of mud rising into his nostrils from his nearly blackened front, the tears spill out of his eyes, mingling with the rain to accentuate the growing streaks of white that mark his face. He pulls the stretched hood back over his head and trudges over towards the bag, picking it and some of the papers up. Most of them come apart in his hands but he does his best to save them before trudging off the school grounds and into the surrounding neighborhood.

Smashed and sad pumpkins line the curbs as Kevin walks down blocks of residential streets towards the looming forest beyond. A house to his left has a paper skeleton swinging underneath the porch, its jack-o’lantern black with flame marks. The next house had a mock cemetery, but the small headstones have mostly blown over and the constant rain has washed away some of the dirt that covered the small mounds, revealing the rocks beneath, placed there to simulate a fresh grave mound. Kevin pauses and looks at it, thinking about how much sadder and hopeless the little graveyard looks now that its perfection has been augmented by the elements. He looks up at the frosty windows of the house, a warm light emanating into the growing darkness in which he stands. Kevin can imagine a stove putting out the smell of baking cookies somewhere inside, but when he draws a deep breath all that he is greeted with is the constant smell of cold mud.

Further down the street he comes upon a group of smashed pumpkins, their insides strewn all over the street. Kevin pauses to examine the tire marks in them, the orange patterns interrupted only wherever a white pumpkin seed lies in their path. He pokes at some of the pulp with a foot, enjoying the sound it makes as the water squeezes out of it with even the slightest touch. He holds up one of his feet to look at the shoe bottom for a moment and then carefully presses his right foot into a somewhat virgin patch of pumpkin guts. He presses firmly and evenly, making sure to get a good reproduction. He enjoys watching the mud from his shoes mingle with the orange, the rain causing the two to mix with tiny rivulets of brown.

A screaming causes Kevin to turn his head around to look back up the street, but all he can see is a pair of cats bolting across the street from one pair of manicured and toilet papered bushes to another. The cats scream again as they disappear from sight and Kevin takes a moment to look around, making sure there are no pigs about. After a moment in which he begins to think about warm cookies again, he turns his attention back to his little project.

Kevin carefully lifts his foot, making sure not to take any of the orange and brown mixture with him and then gazes with satisfaction upon the new tread marks. He leans over to double check something and lets out a small chuckle upon being able to read the shoe logo imbedded in the muck. A strong gust of wind blows his hood nearly off his head and he readjusts it, looking up towards the forest, which now lies just at the end of the block, a dead end sign marking the obvious. Kevin can see some white streaks against the yellow and as he approaches, he realizes with appropriately juvenile amusement that the streaks are bits of shaving cream that stubbornly hold out against the cleaning ability of mother nature. Kevin can smell the aloe from the cream, and littered just past the sign in the bushes that mark the beginning of nature lie at least half a dozen Barbasol cans, their nozzles blackened and melted. Kevin picks several up, shaking them and trying a few, but the most he can get out of any is a sad and messy bubbling froth that resembles the mark of a spit bug. He tosses the can back amongst the others and heads into the forest.

Underneath the canopy of trees the light and rain lessen, though the drops that do fall through are larger and somehow colder. The ground is a brown mass of mud, pine needles and leaves. The smell of decay assaults Kevin’s nostrils and he thinks again of the baking cookies. He trudges on, this thought lightening his mood for a few dozen paces until the sharp snap of a breaking limb causes him to stop and turn around, startled. He looks around, his breath coming out in quick, steaming jets. Listening only brings the sound of rain, dulled by the canopy overhead and the softness of the ground. After a moment he continues on into the growing darkness, but the forest is easy for him to get through.

At one point in the past he lived next to a cemetery, and in the winter he would have to walk through it in the dark to get home from school. He never had a problem maneuvering through the hedges and headstones. He always liked it, because the bullies would never follow him into it. They were too afraid. This was something that Kevin didn’t understand, but he’d never had a reason to fear the dead. It wasn’t they who pushed him into the mud. If anything, he felt like they protected him, since they always let him pass through without protestation. Maybe the bullies lived with the dead and this is why they feared them. He shakes his head clear of these thoughts and of the droplets that are forming on the crown of his hood.

Kevin pushes on and through the darkened trees a single light begins to dart in and out, like a firefly avoiding the raindrops. Heading toward the light, he soon breaks into a clearing, the light shining eerily yet clearly from a cracked and dingy glass lamp. Two sides of it are coated in red glass and small yellow bands on the uppermost portion cast a rancid pall onto the surrounding wood. The lamp hangs off of a square wooden post that is thrust unceremoniously into the ground. Next to it and dominating the space is a wooden, wheeled caravan wagon, the type that both gypsies and circuses use, the type that every children’s book contains. Its walls and wheels are painted red, its roof a dark and shiny blue. Three green wooden steps lead from the edge of the carpet of grass and into the wagon. The door itself is also painted red, though it is badly faded and has a crossing of yellow wood that forms a large X at the top of the stairs. Ordinarily this would be the type of thing to tingle Kevin’s mind into amusement, as he wouldn’t think it necessary to paint an X on the solitary door to a dwelling. Only the very stupid would be unable to find the door, like the three little pigs. The trouble was, this wagon was so ordinary and familiar to Kevin that there was nothing funny about it. In fact, it scared him more than anything else. Cemeteries he could handle, the wagon he often couldn’t. The living scared him, not the dead.

An owl screeches, causing Kevin to jerk around in fright as it flies past and lands unconvincingly on the lamp. Unsatisfied with this hot, unbalanced and by now badly swinging perch, the owl blinks at Kevin and alights. This has the effect of causing the lamp to swing even more and its yellow, red and white light undulates sickeningly throughout the clearing, causing the shadows to move in a way that makes Kevin peer into the surrounding forest in trepidation, making sure the movement isn’t one of the living, come to dirty him further. As the lamp settles into its swing, Kevin begins to enjoy the effect the light gives to the trees. They seem to be swaying back and forth, bowing in and out of the clearing. Satisfied that nothing else is planning on startling him, Kevin continues toward the wagon.

Something else tickles his nose, fighting through the wormy mud and the imagined cookies. He looks up to see faint gray smoke spilling from a small, battered tin chimney in the rear of the wagon. A wary and involuntary smile crosses his lips and with one last furtive glance around, he mounts the steps and places his hand on the door. On either corner, beneath the eaves, a small pool of water has been eaten into the ground by the heavy drops that spill from the roof. Kevin listens to the sound of the heavy drops, audible amid the rest of the water that is pouring from the dark sky. Looking back to the door, he sees the dirt running from his hand and onto the door. This causes him to look back down at himself. He moves down the steps and tries to brush the thickest mud from his pants and sweatshirt but only succeeds in spreading it around more evenly. He takes off his sweatshirt and, stepping back up to the door, wipes away the handprint with the inside of the material. The results are less than satisfactory, as the sweatshirt is so soaked with dirt and water that even the inside succeeds only in smearing the door. Nevertheless, Kevin uses the sweatshirt to slowly push open the door.

He looks in cautiously, his head on a swivel, scanning the interior before stepping in, causing more flakes of mud to crackle off his pants and onto the steps. The interior is long, narrow and dark. To the left, a long bench is set into the wall, its wood worn smooth in many places. To the right are a series of battered shelves and cupboards, the dark blue paint faded and chipped in myriad places. Just inside the door is a tabletop that has been dropped from the adjoining wall, held by a shiny metallic clasp. To the rear, on either side, are small-bedded areas and in the back, giving off an eerie red glow, is a coal stove.

Kevin steps in and closes the door behind him, careful not to touch anything too much. He walks gingerly to the back of the wagon, stopping to lay his pack on one of the crude bunks. Bits of straw and hay poke out here and there from underneath a patched quilt. He turns to the stove and opens a battered steel door set into the wall. He pulls out a few chunks of coal with his hands, figuring he can’t get any dirtier, and throws them into the stove. Kicking the door closed, he sets a pot of water on top of the blackened surface.

“Hey! Quiet!”

Kevin nearly leaps out of his skin as the tattered curtain covering one of the bunks rustles in annoyance.


“Of course, Darla. Can you not be so loud when you come in?”

“Sorry. I didn’t know anyone was here.”


Kevin watches as a very hairy hand reaches around the edge of the curtain and pulls it out of the way. Inside, normal to Kevin but very strange to anyone else (as are most things), his sister, Darla, sits up in bed. She is a typical teenager in almost every way, except for the one minor detail that takes her out of the race of humanity. Darla hangs her feet over the bed, a very hairy pair of feet. As she does so, a smell not unlike a wet dog slides into Kevin’s nose. He stands there a moment, looking at her.

“What?” she asks.

“I was just thinking that your hair looks a little messed up,” says Kevin.

Darla lifts a hairy hand (or is it more of a paw?) and begins to smooth her long brown hair.

“The rain always makes it stick up.”

She seems to really look at him for the first time, the mud and grass stains taking up more of him than his clothes.

“What happened to you?”

“What do you think?” responds Kevin.

“You should tell dad about those boys,” offers Darla, in that uniquely helpful yet patronizing tone that only older sisters can master.

“No thanks.”

Kevin turns away and holds his hands out to the stove, rubbing some of the mud off of them.

“You need to stop being afraid of him,” she says.

Kevin ignores her and he peers into the softly rumbling pot of water. His reflection moves along the surface, white eyes peering out of a dark face. He didn’t realize just how muddy he’d gotten. Next to his reflection there suddenly appears the face of a longhaired, pug snouted brown wolf. To anyone else this would be a source of much fright and at least a small amount of concern, but to Kevin it is not a big deal. He turns towards Darla, who stands behind him, her eyes looking on him kindly, her wet nose twitching. She smiles wryly, revealing a sharp white fang on one side of her mouth.

“It’s okay, little brother. We can’t all be tough.”

“Easy for you to say,” replies Kevin.

The door at the far end bangs open and Darla and Kevin both look toward it. The smell of wet dogs again assaults Kevin, though it is a much more potent and present odor now. Darla’s long hair blows in the cold breeze that flows into the wagon, causing some of it to brush against Kevin’s cheek, tickling it. His mother and other sister walk in, shaking water off of their coats and out of their hair. Kevin doesn’t like being in the back of the wagon when everyone is home. He feels trapped. More than the simple reason that the door at the other end is the only way in or out is the reason that he’s looking at three wolves, not in sheep’s clothing but in nothing at all. His mother is feminine looking, with soft brown eyes framed by long, soft lashes and light brown hair that is going a bit gray near her legs. His other sister, Cody, is younger than him, barely three feet tall, a spitting image of their mother with a pink bow in her hair. She sneezes violently just as her mother closes the door.

“Bless you, my dear,” says the mother.

“Mommy, I don’t like this weather,” complains Cody.

“You don’t like any weather,” Darla points out.

The mother turns to see Darla and Kevin standing side by side at the far end of the wagon. Her eyes brighten momentarily upon seeing them until she sees Kevin’s clothes.

“What in the name of heaven happened to you?” she asks.

“The three little pigs,” Kevin answers.

“Excuse me?” replies his mother.

“Nothing. I fell down on the way home.”

“You must have rolled around to get that dirty,” says Cody.

His mother shoots Cody a silencing look and then walks toward the only son. With the door closed, Kevin can smell her coming closer. He winces away the smell of soggy hair and notices Cody begin to lick herself clean. His mother stands in front of him and licks her nose in a sign of irritation.

“Now Kevin,” she begins, “you’re father isn’t going to like this at all. Not at all.”

“It wasn’t my fault.”

“Either way, he’ll not like it at all. Turn around.”

Kevin turns and his mother lifts off his shirt with her soft paws. She hands it to Darla.

“Put that in the hamper, please.”

When she turns back to him, his mother notices a red mark in the center of Kevin’s back, exactly the size of a footprint. She leans in and sniffs it, giving it a few probing licks. Her whiskers tickle Kevin’s back and he squirms to fight off the sensation.

“I see you have a footprint in your back,” his mother says.

“I do?” says Kevin, genuinely surprised. “That jer-.”

His mother turns him back towards her with a hairy paw on each shoulder.

“Who is a jerk?” she asks.

“Nobody,” replies Kevin.

“Now Kevin, nothing is going to happen if you tell me,” assures his mother, her tone kind and patient.

“He’s afraid dad’ll do something,” Darla offers from the other end of the wagon, where Cody is still licking herself clean. Darla smacks Cody in the snout.


“Mom, will you tell her to stop licking herself so much? It’s gross,” says Darla.

“Both of you stop being yourselves and get the plates ready for dinner,” warns their mother. “And no using your mouth, Cody.”

The table is now covered by a red and white-checkered cloth, and plates and utensils are at four places. Kevin is combing his wet hair in the background, every bit of him now clean. As he combs, he wonders whether all of the shaving cream has been rinsed from the dead end sign and decides he’ll see in the morning, even though there is no school the next day. Behind him, his mother is finishing up the cooking over the coal stove, its heat making her sweat and causing her tongue to loll out grotesquely. Kevin looks at it, wondering how much of her saliva is going to end up in tonight’s dinner. Cody and Darla are in the latter’s bed, playing a game of cat’s cradle with thin rope instead of string. They always used to break the string, Kevin remembers. That rope sure was a good idea.

The relative silence is broken by what to Kevin is a sudden and bloodcurdling howl that lasts for a few long moments. Kevin’s heart begins to beat faster. His mother hasn’t reacted to the sound, though she has her back turned to Kevin and he can’t really see anything but her back and tail, which hangs behind her, it’s graying hairs brushing lightly against the floor. Usually, if she’s anxious or excited, his mother’s tail tends to bristle and twitch slightly.

The howl sounds out again, this time much closer, and Kevin drops the comb with a clatter. Darla leans out of the bed.

“You all right?” she asks Kevin.

Kevin picks up the comb hurriedly, pretending he’s fine for the moment until the howl resounds, so close now that it shakes the cupboards slightly and causes him to lose his grip on the comb again.

“Daddy’s home!” squeals Cody in delight.

She bounds out of the bed and towards the door.

Darla and Kevin exchange looks.

“It’s not like he’s going to eat you,” Darla mutters, and Kevin’s breath catches.

Before he can restore his breathing, the door bangs open with force, rattling the plates and dishes clamoring to escape the cupboards. The wind howls into the wagon and lightning cracks, illuminating the rain that continues to fall outside and silhouetting a large, hunched shape that fills most of the doorway. The fresh smell of wet dog hits Kevin again, but this time it is more powerful than before and seems to be mingled with something else, a metallic and raw smell that Kevin can’t quite place. The lightning flashes again and the bristling hairs of a large animal are blackened by the flash. Kevin can hear the sound of hot air passing through wet nostrils until it is overwhelmed by the boom and subsequent long roll of thunder that seems to erupt out of the mass of hair in the doorway.

Kevin is shaking from not only the cold air that continues to blow in but also from the residual imagery of Darla’s last comment.

“In or out, dear. Please don’t leave the door open,” his mother says over her shoulder, continuing to stir the pot.

The shape in the door growls, so low and resonant that it seems to rattle around in Kevin’s chest. Kevin stands transfixed, unable to move. He can feel his eyes drying out from the constant wind but he is unable to even blink.

It as not as though his father has never come home before, an event that Kevin dreads more than encounters with the three little pigs (a comparison that explains his resignation towards the porcine terrors), but this time there is something in his nose that tells him this might be the night to force himself to wake up to his strange reality.

Cody reaches into the doorway and towards the shape.

“Come on, Daddy, you promised to read me a story tonight.”

She tugs at one of the legs and it reluctantly picks up and steps forward. As it enters the light, Kevin’s heart skips another beat; an event he has read about at school but from which he thought there was no return. Standing in the doorway, on all fours, is the largest and meanest looking wolf you’re ever likely to see. This is a wolf from fairytales, or, rather, from the nightmares of youth that fairytales try and arouse to keep naughty children in line. It stands there, panting, it’s breath now visible in the interior light. The eyes bloodshot and wide, fangs glistening. This is no intruder, but the master of the house, as it were. The great eyes roll around the heavy-topped, hairy sockets, coming at last to rest on Kevin. Kevin is finally able to move, at last! His eyes drop to the ground, and he notices that two trickles, one clear and one red, are moving across the floor to him.

I guess the floor isn’t level, he thinks, somewhere in the back of his mind, so far back that it threatens to pop out the back of his skull and splash into the boiling pot.

“For goodness sakes, close the door,” his mother says again, her voice getting firmer.

“Don’t move. Something’s wrong.”

This whisper comes from Darla, and it drifts to Kevin upon the wind from outside and the fetid breath coming from the wolf. Kevin hasn’t moved at all, continuing to watch the two tiny wet streams run into and around his shoes. The two streams deflect between the soles and mix, turning pink as they move out of his field of vision and towards his mother’s feet.

Cody continues to tug at the massive front paw, but her fingers keep slipping off.

“Daddy,” she whines, finally twisting her fingers into the bristly yet matted hair and giving it a quick yank.

The wolf turns his massive head and brusquely nudges Cody out of the way. She bumps down rigidly on the bench and opens her mouth to protest, but under the sharp and malevolent gaze of the wolf, she stays quiet and begins to lick her coat.

The wolf turns slowly back to look at Kevin, who watches as a drop of sweat runs off his nose to fall with a mighty splash in the pink stream below. The wolf opens its mouth and grunts, a great hot and moist blast of air. The raw metallic smell reaches Kevin again, and he has to blink away the sting it gives his sensitive nose.

The mother finally turns around with a wooden spoon in one hand and sees the wolf.

“Oh my,” she gasps. “Your father seems to have gotten into something. Kevin, don’t move or provoke him in any way.”

Kevin doesn’t hear her. He’s thinking of the janitor and his squeaky cart. I should thank him someday, he thinks. He’s helped me with the piggies a lot. Maybe I could bring him something.

Kevin’s thoughts are jogged back to the moment by the grating sensation that shivers up both of his legs. His eyes jerk up to see the wolf’s sharp claws dragging sharply across the floor. Cody’s ears prick up at the sound and she lets out a small sound of irritation. Kevin watches the paw as it digs up four slivers of wood that curl as they get longer.

“Mom, he’s ruining the floor,” Darla pipes in with a proper dose of teenage annoyance.

The wolf grunts, a warning sound that briefly rattles the dishes again.

“Now is not the time, Darla,” cautions the mother. “Dear? How was your day? Are you all right?”

The wolf just rolls its huge eyes around again, the whites visible all around, so much so that Kevin thinks the eyeballs might pop out and roll between his feet. The wolf takes another step in and everyone except for Kevin gasps as the light falls on the rest of the upper body. This is clearly a large wolf, no less than six feet long. Revealed in the light, blood and muddy water cover the front legs and chest of the wolf. Kevin notices for the first time that there is something fleshy hanging from the right side of the wolf’s mouth. He stares at it in seemingly calm fascination until the wolf flicks at it with his long tongue, causing it to waggle below his jaw.

Kevin notices for the first time that he’s getting cold from all the air pouring into the formerly cozy wagon. It is a strange feeling that rises up inside of him, wanting to simply push past the wolf and shut the door. He can feel one of his feet beginning to pick itself up inside his shoe and he has to do everything he can to fight it, to keep the roof of his shoe from bulging with the shift and press of flesh. I wouldn’t want him to see that, he thinks. So what do I do? Just stand here? I guess so. It’s worked before.

Something brushes against the left side of his face and he realizes Darla has swung her feet over the top bunk. Kevin can smell the polish she puts on her nails. It’s such a pungent and sudden smell that, mixed with the ever-present metallic smell, he has to fight off an increasingly horrible need to cough. Instead, Kevin thinks about the raw metallic smell. Where could it be coming from? He looks at the wolf’s snout again and the blood staining it. Ohhh, he thinks. He watches as the wolf licks its snout again, little flicks of blood and spittle falling to the floor. The bit of flesh bounces again as the tongue moves past. The wolf is breathing more quietly now and some of the hairs are not bristling as much. Another flash of lightning causes Darla’s feet to twitch into the side of Kevin’s head. The thunder follows very quickly, resulting in another sudden blow to the head. Kevin loudly exhales with the second blow and the wolf ceases its facial grooming and looks up at Kevin. It begins to move slowly forward, its shoulders moving above the head. After only two strides it stands face to face with Kevin. It leans in and sniffs at him. Kevin tries with all his might not to wince at the terrible hot breath. As the nose passes around his face, it blows little bits of hair out of place on Kevin’s head.

The wolf leans back slightly and considers Kevin. Kevin still hasn’t moved, so he’s looking straight at the wolf’s black and shiny nose. He flicks his eyes quickly to the side of the snout and sees that the bit of flesh is no longer there. Some part of him deep inside sighs with relief. His eyes flick back to the eyes of the wolf. Kevin realizes that at this distance, he can’t focus on both eyes, he has to flick back and forth between them. He tries looking at one eye but then feels the other looking at him and moves to that one. The eyes look crazy, as if they truly belong to someone who has gone crazy. Kevin can’t remember seeing anything so awful in his life. The pupils are huge, making the center of the eye a black pit. The whites of the eyes are crisscrossed with so many red veins that it looks like a bed of red vipers writhing around an egg yolk. Both of the eyes roll around for a moment and then meet Kevin’s gaze directly. The side of each eyelid pushes into the writhing vipers and Kevin realizes the wolf is baring its teeth at him. The raw metallic smell returns on the heavy breath, whose sudden warm blast reminds Kevin of the wave of heat that hits him whenever he opens the oven door to look inside at what might be cooking. Kevin’s gaze shifts to the snout, with its rows of razor sharp teeth. They are perfectly white and draw a stark contrast to the black gums and dark hair that surround them. Kevin realizes that the wolf is almost smiling at him. He looks back into the right eye and then the left before settling back on the right one.

“Mom,” whispers Darla, her voice hoarse and weak.

Kevin knows what this is. He knew it would happen one day. What a weird life this has been, he thinks. He sighs, this time exhaling hard enough to cause the wolf to blink. The smile disappears and the tongue flicks around the mouth again. Kevin notices that the bit of flesh is back. He can see it hanging from between two teeth. It swings unpleasantly again and Kevin has to force himself to look away.

Suddenly, he finds himself speaking.

“I’ll go.”

The wolf’s ears prick up and the eyes roll around again. Kevin almost wants to laugh. What is it about serious situations that makes them so funny? he muses.

The front lips of the wolf pull up, revealing four of the nicest white and sharp fangs anyone or anything could ever hope to have. Those things give me the creeps, Kevin thinks. This is probably for the best.

“I’ll go,” he says again. No one moves. Lightning flashes outside and Kevin can see the tail of the bolt outside the door. It hits the far side of the clearing with a loud but muffled Whump! Strangely, there is no boom of thunder, just the feel of the wagon as it jostles momentarily and a sizzling sound as a puff of steam rises from the spot of the strike.

The wolf’s eyes are again focused on Kevin. Its shoulder muscles tense up and it dips its head, giving Kevin a clear view of outside and of Cody, who is curled up on the bench, her eyes wide.

“Bye. Thanks.”

Kevin strains to lift his right foot out of the puddle beneath him. He can feel his pants shift over his leg, the big toe poking through the hole in the sock, the tensing of muscles in his left leg as it prepares to hold his body’s weight.

The wolf’s head continues to dip and the lips pull back from the snout but at the same time it is shifting slightly to its right. Kevin leans forward and his right foot falls onto the floor. The pounding of the rain has joined with that in his ears as he lifts his left foot and pulls it after him. He must raise it a little bit higher to pass over the paw of the wolf, who continues to look at Kevin with fixed eyes. Out of the corner of his eye Kevin can see Darla sitting on the bed, her face white, if such a thing could be said. Kevin’s left foot plants with an audible splash in the river of water that flows from the doorway. He continues toward the door, looking out at the rain, thinking he just might make it and whether or not that would be a good thing, considering. Kevin is always considering. It is his favorite pastime.

He reaches the door and then passes a hand behind it, a hand that returns from its short but dangerous journey with a tattered baseball cap. Kevin turns his head to look at Cody, who is still curled up on the bench next to him. He pulls the cap down tight over his head, the rain blowing sufficiently to moisten his face.

Kevin steps outside into the rain and blinks his eyes a few times. He turns to look back inside. His mother is still standing in the back; the pot steaming behind her in such a way that her head looks like a locomotive. Darla is looking at him from her perch and the wolf is standing in the middle, watching him. Its eyes roll once more and Kevin finds relief in knowing he’ll never see those bloodshot orbs again. They all look at each other while the rain efficiently soaks through Kevin’s clothing. No one says a word. No one moves, except for those eyes, rolling round and round like spinning saucers. They begin to make Kevin dizzy and he looks away, blinking. He looks at Darla once more and a small smile, more like a grimace, passes across his lips. He turns down the steps.

Kevin is stuffed inside a tree that is being eaten from the inside out. His legs are pulled up so tightly to his chest that he is having difficulty breathing, but if he relaxes even a little bit the toes of his shoes poke out into the ever-falling rain. For him, right now, wet toes or constrained breathing is a fifty-fifty proposition. Part of Kevin thinks this is neat. I’ve always wanted to see what it was like to live in a tree, since I’ve always lived in the forest. It’s not as neat as it looks in books, though.

Another flash of lightning causes something to catch Kevin’s eye. He pushes the brim of his cap up and looks out towards another tree. In the darkness all he can see is the rough outline of another trunk about six feet away. He can’t even see the rain. In the darkness, Kevin fixes his eye on the black spot he thinks represents the location of the mystery object and waits. What if I blink at the exact moment the lightning flashes? I’ll miss it. He tries to go long periods keeping his eyes open, but they tear and sting from the cold air.

There! Thunder booms nearby as Kevin stretches out his legs, preparing to get up. I knew I was looking in the right place, he thinks triumphantly. Gee, I have pretty good eyes. Kevin slides out from his shelter and readjusts his hat against the fat drops that fall from overhead. He stands, trying to keep his eye on the imaginary spot that represents his new hunt. He walks towards the outline of the tree, his hands outstretched. After a few steps he bumps into the tree and begins to feel up along its trunk with his hands. The bark feels rough and slimy to his skin, a bit like his mother’s kisses. He fights off a momentary sense of loss and tries to concentrate.

Where is it? I know I saw it. It should be right…up…here!

Kevin’s left hand passes over what feels like a bit of fabric, flapping lazily in the wind. He grabs a hold of it and tries to pull but it is clearly stuck. He tugs a few times but it still won’t move, giving him only a few runnels of water that course down his arm and inside his shirt.

I could really use another flash of lightning.

Two or three sustained flashes that pile up on one another give Kevin just the time he needs to pull the fabric out of its hiding place. He runs it over his hands, trying to find a beginning or an end, attempting to make sense of the shape. He holds it up close to his face, trying to discern anything, and in doing so he is greeted somewhat rudely by the raw, metallic smell. Kevin’s hands release the fabric and he steps back in alarm, his head spinning this way and that. He listens for the sound of breathing, but only the rain and his heart answer. After a few moments he relaxes and bends over to pick up the fabric. As he does so, another flash of lightning illuminates the ground before him. His hand is bright white against the swatch of shredded fabric that lies in a lump near his foot. It is dark and splotchy. Kevin picks it up again and realizes it feels slimier than before. It must be something on the ground, he thinks. Patiently, he lifts the fabric to his face again and, with a grimace already crossing his face in anticipation, he draws a deep breath through his nose. The same raw, metallic smell claws its way into his nostrils and slides down his throat and over his tongue. Kevin gags and tosses the fabric away again. He coughs viciously a few times, clearing his throat and spitting, anything to get rid of the smell and taste. Lightning flashes again and Kevin dives back toward the hole in the nearby trunk. As he does so he knocks his head against the back of the tight space and another white light flashes in front of him.

Kevin jerks awake, raising his head off of his crossed arms. He looks up to see the teacher looking at him sternly. Thunder booms outside, rattling the windows and in this moment of slight distraction, Kevin wipes the bit of spittle that has crept from the corner of his mouth with a dirty sleeve that smells a bit like mildew.

“What do you have to say for yourself?” asks the teacher.

Kevin looks to his left and right at the students on either side of him. They seem to be weary of the day. Kevin turns back to the teacher.

“May I go to the restroom? I don’t feel well.”

The teacher frowns adultly. She points to the door.

“Go see the nurse if you’re not feeling well.”

Kevin nods abruptly, rises from his seat and pushes his way out the door. As he closes it, he notices through the door window that three seats in class are conspicuously empty.

Kevin walks down the hallway, where he suddenly realizes how cold he is. His shoes squeak on the tiles and he rubs them with each step to increase the length of each squeal. Between squeaks, another sound sets in, complementing the shoes. Kevin stops as the janitor pushes his cart out from a classroom ahead. The janitor stops the cart and silence falls upon the hallway like snow. The janitor looks at Kevin and puts a finger to his brow, a simple little greeting. Kevin raises a hand briefly in acknowledgement.

“Seems those boys won’t be bothering you no more.”

Kevin tilts his head quizzically. The janitor reaches into the trash bag that dangles benignly from the cart and pulls out a bit of dark material. He flicks it so it will unfurl and holds it up briefly before deftly tucking it back inside the bag. In that brief moment, Kevin realizes that what he held up was a pair of pants, well, part of a pair. Just the backside actually. What remains is the seat of a pair of blue jeans, both legs torn off just below the pockets. A clean streak of mud runs up and down the middle, as if the wearer had at one point slipped and fallen on his backside. Speckles and spots of a darker substance that Kevin can’t make out dot the fabric as well.

The raw metallic smell invades Kevin’s mind and he has to fight off the sensation to gag. The janitor repeats the salutation and pushes the cart on ahead, leaving Kevin alone in the hall with nothing else but the diminishing sound of a squeaky wheel and the distant sound of rain.

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