The first story was done as a writing prompt, the rest of it finished this morning.
Around midnight, I creep to the window and peek through the blinds. He’s still outside, sitting in the park on the swingset. I go downstairs, where Dad is still passed out in the living room in front of the TV, sneak around beer cans into the kitchen, make two peanut butter sandwiches. Because everyone likes those. Dad doesn’t stir. I cross the street and head into the park, feeling both scared and silly at the same time.
I saw a ghost once, after Grandma died. I asked Dad about the weird person at the funeral, and he’d said it looked like Grandpa who had been dead for years and years. So I’m expecting a ghost but not a kid. Maybe ten, pale with pale eyes, just sitting on the swing and sucking his right thumb as he rocks back and forth.
“Hello?” I say, because he doesn’t look like any little kid I know, and I’m almost thirteen. He doesn’t have a single grass stain on his jeans or dirt under his fingernails.
His eyes widen. “You can thee me?” he says around his thumb.
“You’re sitting right there, so yes.” It feels like a very grown-up thing to say. “I’m Iola.”
“Jay,” he says, and pops his thumb out of his mouth. “You’re human, yeth?”
“Yes,” I say, though it seems a little silly. “You’re not?”
“Nope,” he says proudly.
“That’s why you lisp?”
“Yeth.” He glares, as if daring me to comment further.
I sit on the other swing, not sure what else to do. “Are you going to eat me?”
He just stares. I hand him one of the sandwiches and he wolfs it down in two bites, then the second without a hint of shame.
“Are you waiting for someone?”
“My mathter went thomewhere thidewayth from here, where I can’t follow. And people can thee me now,” he says, soft and furious.
“People will come asking questions if you just sit here.”
“Oh.” He shoves his thumb back into his mouth and sucks on it again. “I don’t care!”
“My little brother went to stay with mom. When she left,” I say, and somehow it hurts less because there is no judgement in his face. “You can sleep in his room, if you want? Dad won’t notice.”
“Oh. You’d make a binding even if I don’t know you at all?”
He pops his thumb back out of his mouth and offers up a huge, goofy grin. “Thankth!”
“Your welcome?” He follows me home, giving, giving Dad a wary look and relaxing when nothing happens. No questions, no comments on the beer cans or Dad’s stained shirt. He comes up the stairs into Connor’s room and then hugs me.
I’m not eaten. He pulls back, says thanks again and curls up on the bed, dead asleep in moments. I think about my friends, and the neighbours, what they say and what they think as I go into my room.
I’m crying and I don’t know why.
Dad is still in the couch – his couch, now – when I wake up. My alarm didn’t wake him, or the birds. Jay was awake in Connor’s room, poking at a cell phone and followed me into the kitchen in silence. I know what floorboards in our house don’t creek: he doesn’t, but they still don’t creak under his feet and the kid accepts peanut butter and jam sandwiches with a grin of thanks. He eats three by the time I’m half-done one and cleans up the dishes after without being asked, like no little brother in all the world.
I’m starting to think he really is not human. I’m almost done my sandwich when he’s in the living room and on the couch so fast I’d swear he vanished through the wall. He has his right thumb shoved into his mouth and is sucking on it, making him look so much younger than ten as he flicks cartoons on. I stand frozen in the doorway as Dad wakes, turns his head.
Dad’s fist moves. That’s the worst part: everything slows down, except me: I can’t move any faster as Dad’s fist impacts with the side of Jay’s head and sends the kid out of the couch and across the room into the wall, hard enough to crack it.
“Dad?” I almost don’t realize it’s my voice as he stands.
“Who is that?” he says, and his voice is deep-drink deep and ugly. I try to speak; words don’t come. I’ve never seen Dad like this, like the father’s in every movie ever made, all twisted up and dark like wicked step-mothers in stories. Like that. I’m thinking that because it’s easier than thinking about this, and Dad is in front of me. His hand is raised, open, calloused.
I can’t move. I don’t believe he’d hit me enough to move.
“No.” Jay’s voice is calm, and his hand is holding Dad’s arm. No pressure, just fingers pressed against it. There is no bruise on the boy’s face at all but no smile either. “Her Dad would never hurt her,” he says firmly.
Dad turns, and raises his left knee – his bad one, from the accident – and drives it right into Jay’s nose. Jay stumbles back but doesn’t fall at all, just offers a grin of small teeth and a nose that isn’t even scratched.
“I’m tough,” Jay says, “and that body ithn’t and I’m ten and he knowth that so you can’t hit me again.”
Dad goes still. “I can do anything I want to,” he says, and it’s not Dad’s voice at all. It’s too deep, and ugly, and his eyes are like dead mud from edge to edge like bad movie CGI. I make distance, but it doesn’t stop me from letting out a gasp.
“It’th okay, Iola,” Jay says. He’s beside me, so fast I didn’t see him move, his hands wrapped about my right hand and squeezing gently. “It will be okay,” he says, staring up at me, and I just nod because – because it’s look at him or what Dad is, and I can’t do it yet.
Jay turns and stares up at Dad for me. “What are you, inthide him?”
“I do not know the word ‘inthide’,” the Dad-thing says.
“I’m athking,” Jay snaps. “I could make you tell me and you don’t want that.”
“You think to scare me, little thing from Outside who sucks his thumb like a baby?”
Jay snickers at that. “I thcare me, tho I thould thcare you as well. And anyway, it meant you didn’t actually look at me, and I did it last night tho Iola wouldn’t think it was odd for me to do. My mathter took my hiding with him, when he went away. You can thee me, if you want to.”
And Dad stumbles back toward the couch as if struck, face the colour of off-milk with eyes wide and dark. I’ve never heard Dad whimper in fear, not once. Not ever. He wasn’t even scared when Mom left, just – stood, got a drink. Said nothing, let me read her note. All of it.
“Humans get sad,” the Dad-thing says, and Dad’s body trembles like jello. “And sadness is a way inside, to drown them in themselves. To give us a host to play games in, to do things they would never dare to do. Because it is safer to be sad, because they don’t know what they would do if they were angry, because they don’t know how to voice the longings in their hearts and haven’t for long and long.”
Jay snorts, the sound weirdly adult. “No one knowth how to do that, except maybe a magithan. But he doethn’t want to be you, tho you can get out and go away. Or I can make you go, and I don’t think you’d want me to become what I’d have to in order to do that?”
The Dad-thing smiles a strange smile, and then sits down on the couch and Dad’s eyes are just his, confused and small.
“Nap,” Jay says, and Dad just – closes his eyes and goes to sleep as Jay rubs his throat. “You have water? That really hurt and I can’t make thleep work at all.”
I go into the kitchen, get water. He follows, drinks, says nothing.
“Adults shouldn’t have eyes like that.” It slips out.
“All adults do, I think?” Jay gulps back water. “They just hide it.”
“You knew what happened to Dad.” He looks over, nods. No grin. “He would have....”
“He would have done thingth he didn’t know about,” the boy says firmly. “You can take all the canth to a recycle plathe while he hath a nap?”
“So the lisp wasn’t part of you tricking me at all?”
He rolls his eyes at that. “No.”
“And you’re stuck waiting for this master of yours?”
Jay nods, says nothing else. I don’t think his being scared last night was an act. I’m not sure all the thumb stuff was either, but I just thank him, hug him, and he takes a sandwich and a few bags of cans I give him to recycle. I wait until the door closes, and a few minutes after that before I shake Dad awake.
He looks at me with normal eyes. I say, “Dad?”
He says, “Iola?”
He doesn’t ask about the beer cans. We don’t talk about what happened. I don’t think we ever will.
I’m happy I met Jay, and I’ll be happier if I never have to meet him again and I can’t begin to imagine what that kind of life must be like. So I go into the kitchen, make coffee, and Dad goes upstairs, showers, changes. Drinks coffee and goes outside to mow the lawn.