by Natalie Wood
It’s my first time tonight. I’m scared as hell. I’m trying not to rub my nose so this slimy black face paint doesn’t get all over the place, but it’s hot out here and this whole neighborhood is itchy and alien. Everyone else looks so calm. I want to look calm. I catch Ally smiling and Blaine just hugs his big black duffle bag and looks up at the empty dark sky like he couldn’t care less. The two of them huddled together remind me of cats before and after the kill.
I wanna ask Jimmy if I pissed him off, but I don’t dare. Blaine says he likes to be left alone, but Jimmy’s so damn cute. Big brown eyes, the whitest blond hair ever, and his legs don’t look chicken-like in his bells like most skinny guys. But now he’s kinda freaking me out, sitting against the wall of buckthorn, staring up into the big white stucco house all crazy-like, and clutching that jar of black widows like he is holding onto stolen gold.
My heartbeat is shoving the upper I popped in the car through my veins and it feels like a stampede. I keep looking at Jimmy for some kind of support but he’s not looking back at me. Hasn’t since he found me on the boardwalk a month ago, where I was offering to pierce ears for a few bucks. He’d bought me a slice of pizza and told me I had the most amaaaaahhhhzing green eyes he’d ever seen, told me he thought my butterfly necklace was just fab, and he carried my bag all the way back to his apartment. But then he passed me off to the other guys who come and go, and ain’t said nothing since. Sometimes I don’t want to stay, but I don’t know where else I’d go, or if they’d let me leave.
I don’t remember why I wanted to be here, ‘cept for everyone else was always talking about going and I didn’t want to stay back alone, and I swear I saw Jimmy’s face light up when I asked about coming with. Ally hounded me about the rules all week long. She’d wake me up when I was trying to crash and piss me off and make me recite them. I couldn’t go ‘til she told them I was ready. “You need to hurry up,” she teased me, “His wife and kids aren’t going to be gone forever, Minnesota! You want to miss out?”
She’s so smart, all California summer tan, and the other guys call her Bunny, and they just call me Minnesota even though I’m not even from there. After tonight they’re going to give me a new name I bet- I memorized their rules so fast!
Well, there were only three rules to remember:
Trust. Trust my friends to be next to me the whole time, and trust that Blaine, who scoped out the house, found one worthy of our time and effort. The man who lives here sends his wife and kids to travel three days ahead of him. Blaine says they make the same trip every summer, but I don’t know how long Blaine’s been watching. I asked Blaine where they went, but he didn’t answer and instead just passed his hand through his long red curls and told me what the man did with his three days. Tonight’s the third night, and the man sent away the chick he brings over when his wife is out, and he’s gone to bed early. We don’t wanna miss him. He needs to be there and see our work in the morning.
Ally said: “The man needs to walk through his space of hardwood floors and brass-framed photographs and understand that what is material is not his alone to possess.” Someday I’ll talk heavy like her and Jimmy- but not Blaine, he’s a jelly brain.
I’ve also got to trust my black cape to turn me into the décor of the night. To be honest, I thought it was sort of dorky at first. But when I put it on tonight it made me feel different, like a shadow on a wall other people don’t see. It will turn me into a shrub or the side of a car or a trash can. Ally said that no one walking around at midnight in L.A. will be looking for us anyhow. “They take their scenery for granted,” she promised. “Careless pigs in their golden pens, so full on slop they need for nothing but want for everything, you dig?”
I’d nodded. I wanted to agree and understand. If I didn’t, they might send me away, and where would I go?
Rule two was silence. I’d asked how I was supposed to know when to go into another room, or get out, or let someone know the old man was up and walking to the kitchen. Ally whispered, “Say it with your eyes. Say it with your fingers.” She traced letters into my forearm that I think spelled out H-E-L-L-O and then her eyes got wide and she grinned and then burst into giggles. I laughed with her, but I wasn’t really sure what she meant. I felt like I had in school when the teacher would call on me, but I’d been dreaming and not paying attention. And my mom used to get so angry at me when I was caught not paying attention. She never said she wished I was like my sister, but I knew. She’d look at Tracy’s butterfly necklace I’d started wearing and I just knew she was wishing I was more like Tracy was. I wanted to say to her, “Hey! I’m older than Tracy was when she died. I made it and she didn’t!” But I never said that.
The third rule is…umm… oh God, I don’t remember the third rule right now. What was it? Listen? Wait? Oh crap oh crap ohcrap! I think it’s time to go in and I don’t fuckin’ remember rule three. Maybe it’s like my mom said when I was walking out the door, that I’m only 17 and don’t know what the world has out there for me.
I should be back on the old red couch listening to the new King Crimson record and making’ a meal of Blaine’s leftover crusts. I’d just wanted a place to crash for a while, maybe let my mom calm down and then I would go back and maybe start school again or try for my GED or whatever. But they were so nice, ‘specially Ally, and the others who came in and out with new pills and sometimes food or cash. I’d waited for Jimmy to be nice again, too, and the drugs made me kinda lose track of days, and then it wasn’t July anymore. They wanted me to stay. Ally said she’d always wanted a little sister, and I wanted a big sister who was still alive and not all straight A’s and things I didn’t wanna be. But why didn’t my mom come to look for me?
What was that third rule?
But now it’s too late. Jimmy’s standing up – I can see the flood light shine off his blond hair. Why does he get to keep it bright while mine had to go black? Ugh! Calm down! Look at your game, girl! I hear him tap the jar. He’s been doin’ that since he collected the last of the spiders in baby food jars and then tossed them into the big pickle jar he’s got tonight. Took him all week. I heard him say that if he doesn’t tap the jar, they will become angry and start to kill one another.
My stomach is tangled and it hurts. I don’t remember the last time I had food or slept for more than an hour. I’m thinking’ of the things I could be doing if I was somewhere else, and there is an urge in the back of my mind to ask Ally if I could stay outside. Just watch once. But it doesn’t work that way and I know it. I follow them, and the breeze that blows past my ear reminds me of the spiders walking’ all over each other and I shudder and wrap my cape ‘round my arms. I wish I could disappear and end up somewhere else, but my feet are taking me anyhow, over the softness of the cedar wood chips and onto the hard gray concrete and then I glide over the deck railing like a trained gymnast. Tracy wanted to be a gymnast after she saw Nadia get those tens. I’m trying not to think about her anymore and just follow the wisps of Jimmy’s blond hair in front of me until I slip through the open sliding glass door into the blackness.
It’s not like I thought it would be in here. It doesn’t smell like anything but cold air tinged with lemon cleaner. My eyes are adjusting and the living room is filled with big simple shapes that remind me of things in the fog. The haze begins to wear off and I can focus on the others, moving around the room on tip toes, their capes floating about like smoke. After a few minutes the dull gray dissolves and I can make out the pale green ottoman, a wicker toy basket in the corner, the thick orange rug, and finally an entire wall of gold-framed family photographs with little faces smiling back at me. I look to Jimmy, who actually nods back to me, and I feel my whole body tense and I hope he doesn’t notice. I watch Ally slink off to the left toward where I think the kitchen is and Blaine waves goodbye to her and walks slowly down a long hallway in the opposite direction. I can feel Jimmy still watching me, and I know he’s waiting to see if I will get to work.
Ally didn’t tell me directly what I was supposed to do, but I heard them talking about doing this before, so I get the gist of things. I crouch down and start with the bottom row of frames on the picture wall, taking one down so carefully ‘cause I don’t really trust myself right now. It’s easy to open- my little fingers make quick work of it- the little metal tabs fold back easily and the whole thing opens up like a flower into my shaking hands. I slide out the photo and study the people. The wife has her arms around the man’s waist, and they’re wearing matching white shorts and peach polo shirts. The little boys are standing, arms folded, with huge black sunglasses covering most of their faces. They’re all ginger tinted and pale except for who I’m guessing is the man, and he reminds me of Christopher Walken from that shark movie. His face looks hollow. I punch my thumb through every face, until all that is left are giant holes hovering over hugging bodies. One down. So many others to go. The frame goes back together and back up on its nail.
Three more happy family memories are gone before I feel a finger on my back, and I freeze, breathless, and my heart is pounding so loud I wonder if I am breaking the second rule. It’s Jimmy. He’s tracing letters into my back. I think I feel an A and maybe an O. I try to stand up and turn around and shrug, to let him know I don’t understand, but he grabs my shoulders and faces me back to the wall and goes back to tracing. I inhale and try to understand. M-O-R-E-R-A-N-D-O-M. Morerandom? Oh, more random! I reach up and grab a frame from the top row and wait for some hint I’m doing it right, but all I get is the tippy tap of Jimmy’s shoes moving away from me, and the flutter of twenty spiders being shaken in a jar.
I get through four more pictures when Blaine comes back in to the room. He’s still carrying the bag, which surprises me a little because I figured he left whatever was inside in a room off the hallway. He plops down on the couch, checks his ponytail, and puts his feet up on the coffee table and slowly, slowly, slowly unzips the bag. Even through the chill, the smell comes fast. It’s some dead thing. I think it’s a possum, or a raccoon. As he pulls it out, I can see fur and a tail. Blaine lunges forward and sets the thing across the table where his feet had rested seconds before. He positions its arms and legs so it looks like it’s doing a jumping jack and then he takes the TV remote and places it in one of the dead thing’s paws. The other paw gets some lipstick Blaine must have found in one of the rooms down the hall. I smother a giggle inside my sleeve. He looks back at me and gives me a thumbs up. Maybe this isn’t so scary.
A cough bursts like an explosion from the bedroom. Oh god, what if he wakes up? Blaine bolts up and moves toward the sliding glass door, but I’m stuck in place like I am trapped in some nightmare. Another cough echoes through the house, followed by a chorus of hacking until the sound is phlegm-filled and this time I hear the shuffling of footsteps that are not ours. I look back to Blaine, but all I see is his back as he runs out the patio door. Oh, fuck me.
Everything goes silent. The air seems so thick, as if even my breath will be stuck and hang like a cloud and give me away. I’m still standing in the same place, straining my ears to pick up if the man is walking around or if Ally and Jimmy are still here. My question is answered by Ally: I hear a single metal utensil hit the floor and I know. This is the bomb dropping.
I remember the third rule: Be deliberate. Only tamper with what you can handle. Only carry what you won’t drop. I refuse to think about what will happen to Ally when Jimmy gets back.
A light flows from the last door in the hallway. Ally pushes past me, but then she pauses and steps back and kisses me on the cheek like she is saying goodbye. She follows Blaine’s path out to freedom. My legs feel like pins and needles, but I must make them move. I think of something my mom always said- Just resolve to do something and do it. Come on, legs. Run! Run as fast as I can through the neighborhood until I can find a place to hide and in the morning I will beg some change and call my mom and get the hell away from this.
But I can’t move, and it’s just like when I watched that car come at Tracy when she was in the crosswalk. I swear I couldn’t move then either. He’s coming closer! He’s gonna find me! But I can’t move, and I’m whimpering and shaking and-
Jimmy’s right hand covers my mouth, and his left arm wraps around me and I struggle as he hugs me harder. His left hand is still clutching the spider jar and pushing it tight into my stomach to sandwich me closer to him. He steps backward and finally my feet free themselves and slide backward. Jimmy smells like he’s been standing near a campfire, and his breath is hot against my ear.
The footsteps come closer until I see the man’s form standing in the living room. He shuffles toward us and soon he is only a few feet away from me, wearing nothing but baggy boxers and sandals. I want to close my eyes. I don’t want to see him see me, but I make myself watch him, and I wait for his eyes to meet mine and the crazy to start. This speed is running over me, and my head feels like it is going to float off of my body.
The man runs his hand through his hair and Jimmy stops breathing. He doesn’t see us! He walks right past us, and I hear him kick whatever Ally dropped on the floor, and he groans to pick it up and it hits the sink with a loud clang. He never even turned on the light!
I’m smiling into Jimmy’s hand. I watch the man slump back past us toward the hall and with every inch he gets away from me, my body relaxes. But Jimmy’s still holding on tight, a little tighter even. I sway towards the door, to say, “OK, we can go now,” but Jimmy doesn’t budge.
He is pushing me towards the man’s bedroom. I resist, but he pushes harder. He sings into my ear: “Don’t you wanna be my girl?” It’s so soft and low and I’m not sure if I’m imagining it or not. I let him lead me.
We mimic the steps of the man until I hear him get back into his bed and then we step slowly, but sporadically, so there is no pattern. We pass the other rooms and I see hints of Blaine’s work; piles of stuffed animals, stuffing removed, and turned inside out. I see a bookcase where every book has been turned backwards. And I think of my own contribution and see the whole plan and I’m kind of proud. I did it! I didn’t run! I relax even more into Jimmy. It feels good now, against his body. We dance this way until we are standing over the man’s bed, and I am looking down at his hollow face, sleeping and secure in his white sheets.
Jimmy’s hand leaves my mouth and flows over my wrist. He places it on the jar and keeps his hand over mine. I bring my other hand up to the jar, and he lets me come under, so now I’m the one holding this container of little black demons. We’re so still that I can feel the vibrations of them climbing against the glass. I’m in control and brave and powerful and this feels so good.
Jimmy brushes my hair from my neck and kisses it, and before I can even register the sensation, his mouth is back up by my ear and he’s singing again, “Poor little doll, you’re too young for tears.” And he reaches up and grips my necklace and it’s like he just knows all my secrets and understands and he sings, “You don’t have to be your sister when you can be my girl.” I feel everything that was in my head just disappear and my soul feels weightless and like I’m not gonna cry ever again.
The pop of the lid startles me because I hadn’t noticed Jimmy unscrewing it, but it’s not like before. I thrust the jar out right over the sleeping man. Jimmy grabs my wrist to give it little shake to buy us some time. I calmly set the jar down, saying goodbye to the way the cool glass felt and goodbye to being afraid and worried about anything. I leave it where the man’s stomach is rising and lowering under the covers. I watch the black flood spill onto the sheets like ink on paper and we back up away from it. It looks so beautiful, and I want to watch it forever.
The first screams are coming from the bedroom just as the heat of the outside hits my face. But I don’t look back. The sky is wide open and the night hugs me and welcomes me back. We find Blaine sitting alone where we started, against the hedge, looking up to the white stucco house. He hums along with the cries like they’re music. No one asks about Bunny. I’ll have to find a new big sister. We watch the lights come on in the big windows and the man’s shadow is running back and forth and forth and back all zappy until the sky turns orange. When the sirens start getting’ close, Jimmy takes my hand to lead me away. I grab the stupid butterfly necklace and yank it off, and toss it into one of the man’s trash cans on the curb. The air has cooled and feels like the inside of the house and I follow Jimmy and I’m grinning because everything is going to be alright.
Natalie Wood is a writer, photographer, and designer living near Portland, OR. Her writing has appeared in Stories of Oregon, the 2011 Crypticon Anthology, and Fate Magazine. You might have also seen her work on the web via Offbeat Home, Ephemera Magica, and The Killer Blog. She is a member of Willamette Writers and the Zeitgeist Writers League. Her website is www.neverwood.me.