Ryan E. Felton
Charlie didn’t like it at all when we told him they were building a new house on the vacant lot.
He loves to play out there, you know, with the neighbor kid. Tall grass and rock pits and ditches for hide-and-seek. Big hills to tumble down, dirt clods to throw, lots of space to ride bikes.
But now they’re gonna mow it down, pave it, put more houses back there. I’m a little sad, too.
Jen— She’s relieved.
“Maybe he’ll spend less time with that Kowalski boy,” she said when the notice came in the mail. “We can keep an eye on him, anyway. I mean, where do they disappear to?”
I never imagined she’d be the disapproving mom who frowns anytime Charlie’s buddy comes knocking, who sits reading by the door, waiting for him to tumble back in and wolf down a cold dinner. Who’d say things like “that Kowalski boy” un-ironically.
There is something weird about him, I’ll grant. The kid. But come on, I say, he has a first name. (Danny? No. I’ll remember it.)
Sometimes you’ll hear him and Charlie in the garage, and this kid says things that make you think, “He could go bad.” Nothing scary, just— Something to make note of. Like one time I heard him laughing about a dead deer he saw. Just laughing, like it was the funniest thing he ever saw. He thought it was hilarious how its tongue was sticking out.
When I think bad of him, though, I feel guilty. I’ll take the boys out for ice cream and try to pick his brain, give him an adult to talk to. The dad’s not around, I heard, and the mother, from what I know— Well, maybe he’d be better off if she wasn’t, either.
But that isn’t the kid’s fault, you know?
“And look,” Jen said, watching when the crewmen broke ground. The lot’s across the road that cuts through our backyard, dividing domestic life from whatever summer night adventures Charlie finds out there.
Jen said, “I bet they’ll finally uproot that stupid tree.”
There’s this big old oak looming over the side of the country road, leaning at a forty-five degree angle. You can’t drive under it without an acorn bopping the windshield, or a branch clattering on the hood of your car.
When Charlie was real little, he’d go quiet in the backseat every time we approached it—actually hold his breath. He used to wake us up in the middle of the night and climb into bed with us, having had some nightmare about the big eyesore finally dropping right onto our Blazer and crushing us. One time it was just me and Jen that got smashed, leaving Charlie alone and defenseless.
Since he’d told us that one, I tended to swerve my car out from the shadow of that tree.
I sipped my coffee and nodded, watching one of the crewmen fight a losing battle as he tried to lay flat a big blueprint in the wind. And good riddance, I thought, and the tree’s limbs swayed back at me like a shaking fist.
“Why do they have to build over it, Dad?” Charlie swirled his cereal but didn’t eat any of it. “It’s already somebody’s home.”
A lot of these kids’ movies are sort of hippy-dippy, with talking forest animals, and the human builders as the baddies.
“The raccoons and the ‘possums will just have to find somebody else’s garbage cans to knock over,” I said, and clapped him on the back. He spilled his cereal and cleaned it up without us asking. He didn’t pour another bowl.
And in the meantime Charlie’s still going out there after dark. Jen still hates it, still calls his buddy “that Kowalski boy,” still waits at the door half-expecting the police to show up dragging the both of them in by the ears. But I’ll be honest: I kind of love the idea of Charlie getting into a little trouble out there. Carving his name into things, catching bugs, shooting off his BB gun—maybe even egging a house or two. That’s what you’re supposed to do at that age, you know?
To cool Jen down a little, what I did was, I bought a two-pack of flashlights and gave one to Charlie. Told him that every half-hour I’d stand at the window and flash mine three times. Then he was to flash his back. Three times.
If anything was wrong—a broken bone or something, I figured, would be the worst-case scenario—he should flash his light back only once. And if he didn’t shine back at all, I was marching right out there to bring him back home no matter how much it embarrassed him.
“Like spies,” he said, accepting his flashlight like he was 007 and I was handing him an exploding pen or something. Nine-year-olds love that shit.
By the time the new house’s wood framing went up (“It looks like an X-ray of a house,” Charlie said scowling), the neighbor’s kid (David? No. What is it?) stopped showing up at the door to kick off the night’s festivities. I think he’s sensed how Jen doesn’t like him. So instead Charlie asks oh-so-polite if he may be excused after every dinner and sets off on his bike alone, flashlight in his pack. We do the three flashes every thirty minutes. He’s very good about it (though I never let slip to Jen that his light usually seems to be coming from inside the exoskeleton of that house under construction).
And Charlie always comes home around eleven. We all go to bed.
But lately he doesn’t seem so fired up about leaving, always comes back slumped over, dragging his feet.
I joked once that he was starting to look like me, leaving for and coming home from work. Like my manager was out there in the fields, shouting at him about deadlines, too.
He has more bruises than Jen thinks is normal.
“I swear to God if that Kowalski boy’s bullying him…” Jen said in bed one night.
“He’s not,” I said. “They’re goofing around. You get banged up outside.”
“I don’t,” she said.
“Well, I don’t think they’re out there reading.”
Tonight it’ll storm pretty heavy. They keep calling for it on the news, anyway. But as muggy as the air’s getting, it was looking like it might hold out after all. So Jen and I finally relented and said Charlie could jet out and play, but at the first droplet of rain he’d better have his keister back inside.
He was okay with that. He slid his pack on and jolted for the garage and his Huffy. I looped a finger on his belt to snag him. “Forgetting something?” I put his flashlight in his hands.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, and left.
We don’t like to keep booze in the house, not since we had Charlie, but this particular night—I don’t know why—Jen brought home a bottle of Malbec. She uncorked it the second the door slammed.
She poured two glasses, handed me one, and clinked my glass.
“Here’s to Ansom & Reilly Suburban Development,” she said, all one cute little smirk. We drank the wine, which was pretty bad, and we weren’t drunk exactly, but something got into her, and we went into the bedroom. That was a lot better than the wine.
Which is why I forgot to flash my light out the window.
And now here comes the rain, and it’s a doozy. That first thundercrack rattled the empty wine glasses on the nightstand.
“Charlie’ll be back any second,” Jen says. We both get dressed and turn on the weather.
Only Charlie doesn’t turn up.
“Okay, this is ridiculous,” Jen says, after about fifteen minutes. “It’s pouring out there. If he’s goofing around with that—”
I hold up a hand. “Don’t say it. C’mon. That’s his pal.” I take up my flashlight and go to the window. On-and-off, on-and-off, on-and-off. Like always.
For the first time, there’s no light blinking back at me from across the road.
“All right, what the fuck, Chuck?”
I say it so Jen can’t hear.
“Well?” she joins me at the window. A flicker of lightning makes the worry lines on her forehead look more like deep cuts.
I flash again three more times. Nothing.
Nothing out there, except the silhouette of straight angles that is the house-in-progress, and the rocking scorpion claws of that old, crooked oak. I think of the kite-eating tree from the Snoopy comics. How every time Charlie Brown turned his back, the tree bared its fangs in an inverted triangle.
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll get him.”
Jen grabs the flashlight right out of my hand.
“I’ll go,” she says.
And she steps out into the dark, and the rain, and the night.
I wouldn’t want to be Charlie when she finds him.
Knew something like this would happen.
Two seconds outside it took to zip up Andy’s slicker and the purpose is already defeated. Shirt and pants: drenched.
Straight for the construction site. Charlie’s been going there. They don’t think I know. I know. Probably there right now.
Only— what if—
Sharp tools, heavy equipment, rickety structures in a place like that. Gaps in the floor, hard-to-see holes where the plumbing goes in. A million scenarios play out while I dart across the road, winded and soaked. Some plausible, some less so. My son is pinned under a concrete pipe, leg pulverized. Coyotes are gnawing on his arm, taking wet bites out of his throat. He’s getting stuffed into the trunk of some predator’s SUV.
I can just see it all. I see—
That Kowalski boy— Don’t like him. I see him hurting Charlie. In my head, I mean. I envision that a lot. In dreams. Awake. All the time.
Ever since Charlie went over there for that sleepover, came slinking back to the house in the dead of night. Scared me and Andy to death, tapping on the bedroom window. Crying.
“I don’t wanna go back there, Mama,” he said.
“You don’t have to.”
You don’t have to.
Shit. Wind and rain have blown me off course. Lightning’s bright—oh, God. I’d have tripped right over that tree root. Can’t see anything except when the lightning flashes. Hop out of the way. There.
Sandal on wet grass: Not so smart, Jen. Here we go, legs up like a clown on a banana peel. Idiot.
Oh, God, my ankle. Get the weight off it. Roll over. Let the worst pass. Take a breath.
More lightning and there’s the tree—the beshitted eyesore, slanted, dumb ugly oak tree. Its stout body and spider web of branches hanging over me. Gnarled and ancient ugliness, black against an instant of white.
Charlie used to be scared of it. Swore it would fall over on him if he ever went under it.
Well, here I am. Wouldn’t it be funny if it just fell right over on top of me? Just—squish. Closed casket funeral. After, the boys can keep playing their boy games. Flashlight signals and trespassing on construction sites. Mom can’t ruin your fun if she’s a pancake.
Charlie. Charlie’s maybe hurt. Get up, idiot.
My palms sink in mud. Pull yourself up. Ignore the cascades, the buckets of rainwater, pouring and pouring onto chest, face, legs.
My hands are swallowed by a slurping vacuum of slop. I wrench one free with a sludgy sucking noise. The other, though.
Someone is holding onto the other.
Around the wrist. Something gripping. Tight. In the dark.
I tug. The hold tightens. A spasm, like shifting tendons under thin skin.
Pull harder. Yank. Fight.
OhthankChrist, I’m loose. Something moans, like disappointed. Scrapes my wrist, arm, the back of my hand. Thin and sharp as razors.
Lightning again—and I see. I see nothing there. Just the open inverted V at the base of the tree.
In the strobe-light pulse of the storm, I see the pencil-thin cuts around my wrist and hand. Blood being washed away by rain.
Get up. On your own. Do not lean on that oak, that crooked oak. The crooked oak is not your friend. Just the added pressure of my weight would send it toppling down. And once it’s uprooted, anything could come spilling out from under it.
Okay. Step carefully. But keep going. Favor your good foot, ignore the pain in the other. There’s the house skeleton. Right there. Charlie’s so close. Go get him. Go get your boy.
I scream it. Thunder strikes. Drowns me out.
Call again. Step for step, biting my lip—think I broke the skin. I really should ground the kid, really lay into him, but if he’s just chilling inside the house-frame totally fine and unharmed, I won’t be able to do anything but hug him and kiss his face. I’ll be so goddamn relieved, he can stay up late and play Uno with us. Have ice cream before bed. I don’t care. I don’t—
Jen, you dumbass. You have a flashlight. Switch it on, stupid.
A wooden grid of parallel lines stick straight up out of the ground, all around and high above me. Glistening wet wherever my small circle of brightness lands and swirls. Step up onto the raised concrete foundation. Turn sideways, slip through two wood planks, and there you are. Tall vertical boards surround me, every foot or so.
It’s like a prison in here. Like a cage.
I whisper my son’s name. I don’t hear myself, just the rumble of thunder, the hiss of the sky emptying itself.
No roof to keep the rain from drenching me. But I’m already drenched. The floor— There’s no floor. Just long, thin slats turned sideways and laid out like the wall framework, only horizontally. In the gaps: depth and dirt and stone. The basement. What will be the basement.
For now, just a pit.
This is where Charlie comes to play? I’d feel more at ease in a graveyard.
“Charlie?” I say it again.
Shine the light between my feet, each one on its own inch width of board. Run it up and down longways into the pit. “Hey, kiddo.” Don’t sound angry. “Time to go home.” Don’t sound scared.
Squint through curtains of falling water. Crouch, stick my arm and light between the slats, scanning. Can’t— Can’t see—
It starts to hail.
A couple pea-sized pellets bang the top and back of my head. Bigger one gets my shoulder so hard I gasp.
My hands cover my head and get walloped. Basement-trench below, I see, has a few slim nooks where the foundation goes in further. Those corners gobble the ray of my light. They go on, I guess, forever. Into nothing.
Hail keeps coming. So I squat, stick my good leg between the beams first, then gingerly the other one. Got a real good grip on boards up to my armpits. Slowly lower myself. And drop.
Hell on my ankle. Ribs throbbing, too. Haven’t moved like this in a while. Haven’t taken so many dings.
Worse down here. Sense of captivity more hateful. I could get back up— See the ladder? No problem. But still feel so alone, so hopeless, so—
Like Charlie’s hamster. Like I’ll only ever leave if a giant hand lifts the lid and pulls me out.
Hobble to the corner, where the hail, at least, can’t get me. Feel around in the dark.
“Charlie.” Say it. “Are you down here?” Breathing so hard, talking’s a challenge. “Didn’t we say— Come get you if— Big trouble—”
Something tickles my arm. More than the rain running down my body. I touch it, feel slithering life, hundred-thousand squirming legs of a millipede, or some—
“Fuck!” Fling my arm. Bang it on stone. “Fuck!”
Hail pummels the wood overhead. The hard ground down here. Plink plink plink. Plinkplinkplinkplink.
Hands off any surface, pull the light back out, flick it on. For the first time I can see, really see. But no sign of Charlie. Even if he was knocked unconscious somewhere (don’t think that) I’d at least see him curled up on the ground. Nothing here but dirt, bugs (in my hair in my clothes oh shit), a mounting layer of berry-size ice bullets. Just one big rock, in the far corner. I’m alone.
The rock moves.
There. See that? When my light touched it, that gray blob shifted. Heaved. Rocked.
Put the light back on that mound. See? That scuffling thing at the bottom, that’s a shoe. The craggy gray lump is somebody. Huddled. Pelted by hail. My arm drops and the flashlight with it.
No answer. He stops moving. Just a rock again.
Can you army-crawl? Crab-walk, Jen? Stoop like a monkey, drag your knees through the mud. Raise the light. Look.
In the light the body shifts, writhes, sways. Whoever you are, here I come. White pellets tap my skull. I stoop, hand over head. Hard ice knocks against my wrist and I drop the light.
The thing (not Charlie) freezes.
Rattles. From the throat.
Sounds like the baseball card Charlie tucked into his bike spokes. And I am so glad that inside, I know it’s not him. Know it’s not my son. So glad, I don’t even care that I think it’s got to be the Kowalski boy. Don’t care that my neighbor’s boy is hurt, because that means my boy isn’t this curdled, crippled thing.
Eyes are adjusting. A little. Good.
Right thing to do. Help.
“Hey. You okay, kiddo?” (Dennis? No, that’s not it.)
This thing, with the rumble in its chest. This gray lump of a boy. Turns his head to me.
Can’t find my breath.
Can’t hold myself up.
He— It— Looks up at me. Elbows bent at wrong angles. Struggling to sit up. Looks at me. Caked in mud. Made of mud.
The face hangs off of it. Like a mask too big. I see bone, gums, eye sockets. It’s melting, or unraveling. It lifts a splintered wrist to hitch up the skin around its exposed jaw. Like when you catch your towel as it’s slipping off your body.
It reaches. For me.
I fall back.
Twist my ruined ankle. Scream.
“I— I— I can’t carry you,” I say. Think I say. Idiotic. “I’m hurt. We can call…”
The boy, the thing, it’s on one hand and two knees, crawling forward. With the other hand it’s kneading, massaging loose and pliable skin sagging off its jaw. It almost looks like it’s taking shape. It almost starts to look like a child.
There’s a lightning strike. Something small, round, backlit as it whizzes past you and smacks into the thing’s head. It whimpers, crumples. A rock sticks out of its forehead. Trembling hands pull it out with a wet slurp.
Who threw the rock?
“She’s not yours,” Charlie says.
“She’s not your mom.”
And my son comes from nowhere. Is just there. Puts his arms around me and falls onto me, in the mud. We both cry. We both hold on.
The hail stopped.
She’s not your mom.
You got a mom and Ill take you to her but you can’t have mine. Come on let’s take you to her. She lives down the road. Be pashent.
Who is that mom says and I say Dustin. Just dustin. What’s wrong with him she asks. Nothing. Look. Just Dustin.
And he already looks like him. He’s a little bubbly still but looks like Dustin. Nobody will know. His mom wont even notice I bet.
The lady in the crooked tree was right you cant even tell.
I hope I never see her again. Hope she keeps her promis.
Mom cant walk so good so I help her up and she says lets go back to the house and clean your friend up and get him some help and call his mom. No I say lets just take him home.
Don’t want it in my house.
We start walking to Mrs. Kowalksis house and mom stands on the other side of me so she isn’t standing next to it. Him. Dustin.
It’s Dustin now.
The gray lady she told us she needed one of us. Could be me or him and I’m sorry I’m so sorry. I said take him. Take him, I have to go to summer camp and grandmas lake house in June and it’s not fair. She said ok she said I’ll take him instead. Ill give you another a replacement to live with his mommy and everything will be just like it was.
And Dustin was screaming like no no no please Charlie nooo. But she took him to the tree where theres that big hole at the bottom and she said turn around little boy this next part you cant see but I said I didnt want to.
I was sad but really it had to be him. The real Dustin was weird. Is weird?
The time he cut me with that knife we found. Or when he just pulled down his pants and starts peeing on my foot and when we found the dead deer and I was crying and he laughs at me.
Bet his mom wont even notice the difference.
Where were you my mom asks. Dad was flashing his light why didnt you answer.
I say Im sorry mom.
This other Dustin doesnt talk very much but neither did the real one except to say hey shit-head and lets go look in mrs. Richards window when shes getting dressed. And shut up dumb baby.
We take him to the Kowalski door and mom’s kissing the top of my head, she says dont ever ever do that again.
Im sorry mom.
Nobody even comes to the door but its open and the boy that the tree lady brought up out of the ground just goes inside. He really looks a lot like Dustin. They wont notice wont ever know.
I wonder what hes made of but dont think about that.
When we are walking back home mom cusses because her ankle and I just wish it didnt hurt her anymore, its my fault she got hurt.
I dont want you playing with that Kowalski boy anymore mom says and I say I wont.
I dont really like him anyway.