A Rabbit Named Justice
Prelude: Thursday, a Month Previous
“You got a light?” the kid asked. He sat in front of the 7-Eleven on Fremont.
“Yeah. You smoke?”
The kid reached into his board shorts, pulled out a pack of cigarettes, and tapped the box against his palm. “Yeah,” the kid said. “Doesn’t everyone at some point?”
“Shit, I guess,” John said. He was looking at the kid’s bare feet, wondering where his shoes were.
“What do you carry a lighter for if you don’t smoke?”
“I don’t smoke cigarettes,” John said.
But that was the night he started. Twenty-six years old, would’ve been twenty-seven in March, almost thirty, almost dead and smoking with a kid who was maybe ten? eleven? Somewhere around there, around his own kid’s age. Must be an old ten, John thought, because the kid sucked down a pack a night.
Candy-flavored cigarettes: mousse, strawberry swirl, caramel apple. There was also the mutual favorite—kiwi supreme. They smoked kid’s cigarettes with cowboy stares. They had men’s conversations, which, of course, consisted chiefly of not talking.
It was a good scene. That’s why John went there, especially after he got fired from his gig bussing for the only club in town. He spent his nights at the 7-Eleven playing cards with Jorge, the big white guy who night-clerked there, and smoking cigarettes with Charlie Burns. John would show up at two, maybe three in the morning. He and Charlie would nod at each other. Charlie would pass him a cigarette, they’d light up, and the evening would begin.
On Wednesdays and Fridays there was the added bonus of Jorge’s cockfighting ring in the back of the store, by the milk. Jorge kept a caged rooster behind the counter—the backbone of his operation. Twice a week, maybe ten or twelve guys came in and waved cash in the air, trying to get Jorge’s bird and some other chicken to peck each other to death. Some guys even showed up early to put Jorge’s rooster off its game, poking their fingers into the cage to rile the bird up (You goin’ down little man. You goin’ down, motherfucker). It got Jorge’s panties in a knot; the fat man even shut down a fight once because the rooster’s “feelings” were hurt. But usually he just rode it out and told them, “Hey. Respect the bird, man. Respect. The bird.”
John had seen it happen, though his wallet was too thin to get in on the action. Jorge made it sound like a clashing of titans—in miniature, with feathers—and John had to agree. It was probably the only thing Jorge was right about.
But Charlie Burns never went into the shop. John urged him to, because the weather was getting colder and everything, but the kid wouldn’t budge.
“Man, when I was your age,” John said, “I would’ve loved to see a live fight, any kind of live fight. You don’t know what you’re missing.”
“I’m not a kid,” Charlie reminded him. “I’m one hundred and thirty-seven.”
“Oh, man I thought you were like forty-three or something,” John joked.
“No. One hundred and thirty-seven; I was one hundred and thirty seven last week and this week I am still one hundred and thirty-seven years old.”
“Right,” John said. “Sorry.”
“I’m really not a kid,” the kid said, his voice high and indignant. “I just took this form so I wouldn’t scare you.”
“Right, right. Because you’re a Bulgarian spider—”
“Because I’m a seven foot tall Turkish man with the head of a hammerhead shark,” the kid whispered at him, looking towards the store and then around in the dark.
“Right,” John said, nodding. “Turkish guy. Really tall. Shark-head.”
Once, John pushed Charlie for the real reason he didn’t just hang inside. Yeah, Jorge was a little weird (for one thing, John was sure his name was not fucking Jorge) but he wasn’t a bad guy. And John was sure he’d let them smoke in there.
Charlie said he couldn’t go in.
“Had a falling out with the guy who runs the place.”
“What—Jorge doesn’t run the place.”
“I know, but his boss does. Eli.”
John shook his head, “I don’t think I’ve met Eli.”
“Count yourself lucky. He used to tear people apart.”
“Well…” John frowned at the cement. “Just say you’re with me. I’ll watch out for you if this guy comes around. That’s what friends do.”
And then the kid laughed in a way that really rattled him. He turned and said, “John. What makes you think we’re friends?”
Here’s one. Two kids walk into a forest, each for a different reason. One is running toward something and one is running away. Like the doors to a house, the trees swing shut behind them, obscuring the path to their village. One is afraid she will never find her way back, the other afraid he will not find his way forward. They walk on. They promise to remain together but they are lying. Each is lying in a different way.
TUESDAY 2:05 AM
Josh listened closely to the rest of the house and, when he didn’t hear anything, climbed onto his desk, popped the screen off his window, and jumped out. He closed the window behind him, walked around the side of the house to the front. He was ten years old. He had his good coat on, thirty dollars in his pocket, and a mostly-empty backpack.
This time he was really leaving. He’d disappear into the forests of Oregon, the cutting rain of Washington, the husky-pocked hills of Alaska. He had been a devout reader of National Geographic for two whole years; he knew what was out there. And he knew he could handle it.
He had a plan.
It was a good plan—he’d worked on it for a while. It didn’t include anyone else, and that was key. It did include eventually becoming famous. He’d be a man about it too; he wouldn’t mention anyone if it came up, like, if some reporter said that super successful people often had bad childhoods, Josh wouldn’t mention his at all. He’d just smile like Really? I didn’t know. See what they thought of that. He wouldn’t even complain. That’d show them.
But a slamming door behind him made his heart seize up. He reeled around, hoping not to see his mom or one of the upstairs tenants, the nosey couple who called CPS that one time. That was all he needed. Meddlers. But as the shape got closer, Josh saw it was only his little sister, running down the driveway in her pajamas, her shoes half on, limp blond hair waving.
“What are you doing?” he hissed.
“Don’t go,” she whispered back.
“I’m not going anywhere. God. Why do you have to be so stupid all the time?” Josh especially wouldn’t mention Christie in any of his interviews. Even her name was annoying.
“Go back inside.” He shoved her shoulder.
“I’ll go if you go,” she said, and he winced because it echoed off the other side of the street. Josh turned and started walking quickly into the shadows, beyond the set of streetlights on his block. If she wanted to get caught that was fine, but she wouldn’t take him with her.
He turned and walked up the hill. She was with him.
“Where are you going?”
“Nowhere,” he said. “Away. I’m just walking. God.”
“You’re gonna get in trouble. You’re gonna get in so much trouble.” She followed him anyway, mumbling into her collar.
Josh got to the top of the hill and kept going. Cars passed and honked at them and Christie started whispering more intently to herself. He glared at her. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“It’s Justice,” she said.
He gave an exasperated sigh and turned away. “You don’t even know what that means.”
She bugged her eyes out, indignant. “Yes I do.”
They walked into a forested part of the sidewalk and the trees hung their thick, stiff arms around them, like many-fingered hands reaching down. Things started to move in the dark. The wood crackled. Joshua almost tripped over a body slumped in a nest of garbage bags. The man sleeping there turned over, all rotted wood and stale beer and shit. Joshua wasn’t sure where he was taking them until he saw the back of the Denny’s at the top of the next hill, lit up and warm-looking.
That was where his uncle worked. Joshua wondered if he was there now, whether or not it would be a good idea to see him. He might be mad. He might wish that Joshua hadn’t come and maybe Christie would be annoying and then he’d definitely get mad.
“Where are we going?”
He didn’t want to be in the trees anymore. He didn’t want to go home, but it seemed like all the sounds around him were getting louder—the wind and shaking leaves, the crunch of twigs that sounded like approaching footsteps. Like someone was walking right behind them, rising up in the dark. So he went further up the hill, toward the back of the Denny’s. Neither child saw the thing that loomed and let them go, salt water dripping from its teeth.
Christie whispered to herself and Joshua grabbed her sleeve as they crossed the street. Her eyes had gone blank and she looked spaced out, so he started talking to her.
“Okay so these two kids walk into a forest,” he said, catching her eye, “and one of them has a magic bike that tells the future, but only like five minutes into the future. So…”
“So the man says, ‘Why would I bring pants? You’re a laundress!’” Jorge smacked his fist against the counter, scattering the cards. “Gold! Comedy gold!”
John was losing his patience. “Man,” he said, “you’re supposed to put the punch line right after the joke. Not an hour later.”
“Well.” John stared at his cards, thought about upping the ante another dollar. “Humor is subjective.”
Jorge sniffed. He stared at his hand. The comment rattled around in his big head for a while before he mumbled, sotto voce, “’sides. It wasn’t an hour.”
John checked his watch. “It was a good forty-five minutes, Georgie-boy.” He put another dollar down.
Jorge kept his mouth shut but his jaw was still moving. John used to think the fat man was like a cow chewing cud that way, with his blank eyes, his empty mind. Now he knew better. Jorge was defending himself with his mouth closed. He let out manly little clucks, voicing his finer points. On another night John might have thought this was funny. But tonight he was not doing well. He’d have said he was a bad loser, but anyone who knew him would disagree. No, they would say, he’s a fantastic loser, really. It’s the only thing he’s good at.
“Jorge, man, you gonna see me, fold, or what? And don’t fuckin’ say ‘Comedy gold’ to me, okay? ‘Cause I am this fuckin’ close, man. Don’t push me.”
John watched Jorge’s shoulders droop a little. He wished Jorge wasn’t such an asshole so he wouldn’t have to be mean to him.
Jorge dropped a dollar onto the counter. John’s phone vibrated in his pocket, but he kept his eyes on his cards.
“Busy night,” Jorge said.
“Lotta phone calls.” He smiled at John, bobbed his eyebrows. “A family man.”
“I don’t hear anything,” John said. Whoever was calling could leave a message if they had something to say. She’d told him she didn’t need any help. She said it was his night off, no responsibilities.
“Maybe somebody’s sick?”
“Only you, man. Only you.”
Jorge wet his lips and put his cards down, his smile so big the five greased blond hairs that made up his mustache touched his teeth. “Full house.”
“Fuck me.” John threw his cards on the counter and straightened up. The lights in the 7-Eleven were almost surgically harsh, so that John’s already pale face looked hollowed and wan.
“Chúbalo,” Jorge said, sweeping the pile of ones off his side of the counter; he licked his thumb and ran through them, opening the cash register. John looked out the window. “You want some Fritos, ѐse? Want to lose another hand to the house?”
John patted his pockets, felt around his hoodie for a pack of cigarettes.
“I don’t know,” he said, still looking out the window. “You seen Charlie tonight?”
“Nope,” Jorge said, shuffling the cards for a second time.
Caleb flipped his phone shut and glanced toward the back door. Still no answer. And God knows what was up with Marissa.
“Nobody answering?” Topher asked from the sink, where he hosed down dishes.
Caleb sighed and slid his hair net off. “Nah. Looks like it’s my problem.”
“Jeff won’t let them in?”
Caleb shook his head. They’d run through that conversation before: Does this look like a daycare? No man, but— Does this look like a charity? No man, but—. And so on. He couldn’t disagree. When they were younger, the kids were quiet. They’d had tiny faces with tiny mouths and the biggest eyes you’d ever seen, like cartoon animals. Now if he left them alone in a booth they got louder than the drunks.
“What a douchebag,” Topher said, but Caleb shrugged.
“I only have fifteen minutes left on my shift anyway. Cover for me?”
“Fuckin’ Scrooge,” Topher said. “What if Josh gets, like, cancer out there, man? Or pneumonia? Or the clap?”
Caleb smiled. “He’s not going to get the clap.”
“How do you know, man? It gets fuckin’ cold out there.”
“I don’t think that means what you think it means.”
Topher scoffed, turning back to his dishes. “Fuck it, man, I’m just saying. Jeff oughta watch out for his fuckin’ life choices. That’s all I’m saying.”
That was a low blow, Caleb thought, coming from a twenty-five-year-old with a bowl-cut.
“Cover for me?” Caleb glanced toward the back door again, where his sister’s kids were waiting.
“Yeah, man. Bail.”
A slow night, almost over. Gloria idled near the curb, waiting for the dispatcher to call her in. Twelve hours and only five fares. She was lucky this wasn’t her only job. She checked her mirror. Deep brown eyes framed by black and iron curls. Her hair had once been dark, her face thin. Now everything was bloated and falling.
No one ever got out in once piece.
She heard him jimmying the handle before she saw him, the small boy with board shorts and a wife beater down to his knees, ribs showing in the streetlight on his skinny white chest. She always kept the passenger’s side locked but he never remembered. She let him in.
“Let’s just go home,” he said. “I want to go home.”
Gloria put the cab in gear. “Okay.” She switched on her high-beams. “You eat something?” He shook his head.
“Almost caught something on David, but I let it go.”
She glanced at him, accelerating to seventy, seventy-five. “Should be somebody on David. Homeless season. There’s always someone there.”
“Don’t patronize me.” The kid put his chin on his fist, curled against the window. “You know I don’t eat garbage.”
Gloria pushed eighty-five up to ninety-two, fluttering the pedal at ninety-seven. Her nostrils flared—she could smell their fear, knew that their knees would buckle in the direction of the road. They wouldn’t be able to help themselves. They’d cock their strange heads to catch the streak of yellow hearsing through the night. No choice but to fling themselves at her. She mumbled a few commands she’d known since childhood and called one of them by name. And then his wife.
The buck’s legs splintered on contact. The deer rolled onto the hood, hitting and cracking the windshield before he bounced off the top of the cab and hit the ground behind them. Gloria yanked right until her car slammed to a stop.
After a time, cartilage suction-cupped bone back into place. Tendons braided back into thick ropes. Fluid crawled back into sockets and congealed, muscles inflated, and her heart clenched itself and let go. A shock to the system: wake up.
Gloria lifted her head to see the car elongating, and there was the hiss of the engine re-pressurizing, the ping of dents popping out. The dashboard jerked away from her sternum and she sat up. She saw Charlie outside, skinny white arms crossed, looking down at the doe she’d impaled against the oak’s wide trunk.
“Spot on,” he said, “as always.”
Here’s one: two kids walk into a forest. They don’t have any bread crumbs so on the way they leave bits of themselves behind, thinking Hey, this’ll be even easier to find; I’d know this anywhere. And so they walk on through the forest. They walk on for so long they forget why they started walking to begin with. Forget what they were searching for, or if they were searching for anything. They continue to put pieces of themselves down, here a love of hockey, there a mannerism with a fork; lost is the story told before bedtime. Eventually they come to the opposite edge of the forest. Imagine their terror when they behold one another in the light of day, no longer children. Imagine their terror when they look into the stream in the open field and try to find what they knew in what they’ve become.
No. He partially opened his eyes, registered the fact of almost-noon. Caleb had sworn he’d get up at six-preferably-seven-ish to get… to get.
There was crash from the next room.
Fuck. Parts of his brain were reaching for their Lists of Things to Remember from last night but other parts of his brain were sending emails to main headquarters that his bed hadn’t been this comfortable since he’d bought it. And he hadn’t really heard anything, had he? No. There was no one else in the apartment.
Shit. It was barely even morning anymore. Caleb sat up with deep, whole-hearted regret. Here he was, literally abandoning his dreams.
He found the bathroom somehow. He was grateful it hadn’t moved, as it sometimes did out of spite. Then he’d wander around the small apartment, dick in hand, eyes shut, holding on to sleep, muttering Goddamnit,? wasn’t there another fuckin’ door in this place? But today was a machine that would work for him.
He showered, he shaved, he woke up. When he got to the other room he found that children had landed at the table and were colonizing the wilderness there with an open bag of sugar and the last stale handfuls of Life cereal. They had pushed a lot of the papers aside; clear-cutting, Caleb thought, imposing their will on the area. They were eating out of wet coffee cups. Joshua was already in the middle of a story.
“And then Alphonzo made him unscrew all his teeth and put them on the table.” Joshua motioned twisting teeth out of his head.
“And then they drew up the contracts?” Christie said.
“I’m getting there. God.” Joshua stabbed at his cup with a spoon. “He can’t just get out the contracts when he’s still negotiating for witnesses.”
“Okay, okay.” Christie tried but it was too late.
“No.” Joshua hunched. “Forget about it.”
Caleb whistled. No joy in Mudville for her. He’d been looking for food in the part of the living room designated as the “kitchen,” under the theory that if he had any, he would have hidden it there. He came up with a can of spray cheese and a moldy cinnamon-raisin bagel. But if you cut the mold off just right, he reasoned, and filled in those gaps with cheese… why then you’d have something vaguely French.
“See really,” Caleb explained to his imaginary television audience, gracious as always in front of the camera, “being a stand-in, short-order cook at Denny’s was where I got my foothold in the exotic food industry. I do a Hawaii-meets-Chicago-meets-Venice-Beach kind of a thing. Or just the whole of South Dakota, really, that’s how I’d characterize my cooking, my work, as it were. Kind of a white trash gourmet.”
He turned, holding the bagel slices up to better lick the cheese off the back of his hand, and saw that both kids had turned in their chairs to watch him.
“I don’t believe in breakfast,” Caleb said. “It dulls the mind and rots the spirit and starving children everywhere get along without it. I do, however, believe in lunch.” Caleb slammed the cheese can down on the table and stared meaningfully into Joshua’s eyes. “Because it’s American.”
The kids smiled begrudgingly. Caleb grabbed Christie’s wrist and cheesed a watch onto it.
“Have I ever told you about the invention of spray-cheese and its import in the bringing of World Peace?”
“Yes,” said Joshua.
“No,” said Christie.
He smiled at his niece. “I like you. You should hang around here more often.”
Joshua started stabbing his cup with his spoon again. “Did you call our Mom? Shouldn’t we have gone to school already?”
“You hate school.”
Joshua ground the spoon into the ceramic, like he was digging for something. “Still should’ve gone.”
“Well, I’m sorry,” Caleb said. The kid was bringing down the vibe. “My phone’s dead. I’m sure your mom called you in sick.”
They sat there for a tense moment, staring at the table. Caleb slid wedges of stale bagel along his gums. He chewed. He thought. It would be easier to extradite these midget criminals into another’s jurisdiction if they were in a good mood, but he’d do it either way. Even if it turned out like the trip on the Eastbound Five when the bus driver pulled over and threw them out and said—
“It was the time of the Sultan of Memo,” said Joshua, and Caleb blinked at him for a second before the kid added, “who invented spray-cheese.”
“Right,” Caleb said. The Sultan was a famous figure to his niece and nephew, a ruler of nowhere in particular who believed wholeheartedly in justice, flying carpets, and pomade. He had a turban, of course, and a thing for hookahs.
“And the Sultan was a lover of two things in this world,” Caleb said.
“Whipped Jell-O and cheddar cheese,” filled in Joshua, because these were thoroughly ascertained facts.
“And he had fountains of both,” Christie added, because these were also facts of the story, and to hear them was to know their truth. Caleb and Joshua nodded sagely at her wisdom.
“But a great and terrible sadness had come over the land of Memo, when the lakes of Jell-O ran dry, when the laborers refused to whip anything, even cream, and the canyons of cheese were empty. The Sultan wept night and day.”
“Men don’t cry,” Joshua said.
Oh for fuck’s sake, Caleb thought, would you let me have five fucking seconds to do something? He rubbed his eyes and imagined himself on Oprah, her warm, maternal understanding as he let it all out: It was just terrible. He bullied me all the time. And you can’t hit a ten-year-old back where it hurts so you just take and take and take—
He snorted. Shit. Sometimes he even made himself laugh.
“No, men don’t cry,” Caleb said. “They weep. It’s different.”
That seemed to do it. They both nodded at him so he went on, making sure to bring up Alphonzo, who was Joshua’s alter-ego lately, and Justice, who was Christie’s new imaginary friend. He also tried to bring up NATO, slipped in a line about the recent influx of troops into Baghdad, said something about the rape of ancient cultures and the brimming tide of capitalism. Because hell, if he didn’t teach them something about the world, who would?
Charlie clicked the television onto Maury, who was breaking the fourth wall, shocked about pregnant, teenaged strippers.
“You’d think he’d have grown a thicker skin by now,” Charlie said. Gloria was in the kitchen, supervising the deer while they cooked themselves. You had to keep an eye on them. Usually they were pretty considerate about taking off their coats when they came in the house, but there was that time a doe forgot she had skinned herself and shook like a dog to get rid of an itch. It had taken three days to scrub the blood off the walls and ceiling, and the poor thing had wiggled herself to pieces. Gloria’d had to boil the doe herself.
“What are you doing?” Gloria asked, standing in the doorway, drying her hands on her apron.
Charlie didn’t take his eyes off the screen. “Maury’s having an intervention.”
“Strippers who are really men who are really women-trapped-in-men’s-bodies who have bad credit but winning smiles?”
Charlie watched a fifteen-year-old dive onto her mother, kicking, screaming. “Pregnant teenagers who are also strippers.”
“That sounds exhausting.”
“They seem to have a lot of energy,” he said, noting the muscles in the girl’s arms as security tried to pry her off her mother’s neck. The girl seemed to have practice cutting off people’s air supply, and pretty soon the mother went down. Security piled on top of them. Even Maury joined in, grabbing an arm, a leg, cajoling everyone to calm down with his paternal smile, his upbeat, can-do voice.
Charlie Burns said, “I could go for her.”
“Honey, how long has it been since you ate?”
“I don’t know.” He scratched the underside of his arm, glancing down at the upholstery he’d gnawed in his sleep the day before. “About a week? A week and a half? I can’t remember.”
Gloria sat on the couch with him, looking at his thin jaw, his skinny, pale shoulders.
He turned, pointed at her. “No, see. There was that guy from Safeway. A bagger. Remember? The guy I got a Capitol One card from that you threw out? He was good. Spicy. And he struggled the whole time. He didn’t seem to get he wasn’t going anywhere.”
“Right,” Gloria said, but she wasn’t listening.
“Look, I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “You just can’t eat around here like you used to. This town just ain’t growing. People start disappearing and it turns into Phoenix.”
“Right,” Gloria said, “Phoenix.”
Maury waved to commercials and then there was a cartoon bathroom being cleaned by grinning, sentient brushes.
“Should we think about moving?” she asked.
Charlie didn’t look at her. “You know what I think about moving. You’re the one who wanted to stay here.”
There was a wet thud from the next room.
“You could eat with me,” she said.
The Maury show came up as a “technical difficulties” screen. “I don’t eat dead animals,” Charlie said, staring into it.
“Well, I don’t know what to tell you.”
She went into the kitchen where one of the deer had fallen out of the fire, her legs cooked solid. Gloria put on her oven mitts and stood the animal back into the flames. As she stood back, waiting for the other one to fall, she bumped into Charlie.
“You know what you could do, if you’re not real busy,” he said, staring at the fire.
He glanced at her sheepishly. “You know…”
“Charlie, I’m right in the middle of this.”
“It’s just one hand. You don’t need both hands,” he said. She raised her eyebrows. “Really,” he said, “you have a fantastic sense of balance. And I’m not just saying that.”
Gloria sighed and pulled off her left mitt. “Just watch the arteries,” she said, “because the last thing I need is—”
She locked her jaw, staring at the large Turkish man with the head of a hammerhead shark now standing in her kitchen, seawater leaking from his teeth, her arm up to the elbow in his maw.
“You gonna let me finish or what?” Gloria said, tense.
And to the degree that a shark can look apologetic, he did. Then he ate the rest of her arm.
The bus shook and rattled. Christie swung her feet, stared at the fat woman across from her, and tapped her face with the tips of her fingers. She heard the jangle of her miniature bones, the major xylophone chord of a smile, the slow minor cadence of a frown. Joshua reached over and yanked her hands down.
“Stop it,” he hissed. “Why do you have to be so weird?”
“I’m not,” she said, and went back to tapping her face. She looked at the fat lady’s handbag, a red leather monster whose creases almost formed a face. She heard Justice saying something, almost caught some piece of conversation. She leaned forward, staring into the face on the bag until she was right in front of it, focusing on the creased eyelids. The face’s smile deepened.
“Boo,” it said. Christie jolted and her brother grabbed her collar, pulling her back to their seat.
“It had a face,” she started to say, but he was already gritting his teeth at her.
“Shut up shut up shut up! Everyone’s looking!”
Everyone was not looking but she shut up anyway. She stared at her brother’s profile, the beginnings of a hook nose there. At Halloween she told him he could be a witch and he didn’t say anything. So she’d told him again. And then one more time, close to his face, breathing on him. You could be a witch. He’d shoved her off her feet, right in the middle of the store. Their mom had gotten mad, dragged her up, told her brother not to hit her, told her not to bother him. But none of that was the point, and even when she—
Caleb tapped her shoulder, his arm over Joshua. “Christie, stop talking to yourself,” he said. And Christie shut her mouth. She went back to tapping her face.
She glanced around after a minute and saw her uncle staring at the front of the bus, waiting for their stop. Then she turned to her brother and asked what she was really wondering since the night before, when she’d watched Josh reach under Caleb’s mattress, take out an envelope and put it in his backpack. “Why are you taking his money?” she whispered. “He’s going to be so mad.”
“I’m not.” But he didn’t look at her, his face tight and pale.
“I saw you.”
“Shut up,” he said, and they both glanced at Caleb, but he wasn’t paying attention. Josh turned back to her, his eyes wide. “You didn’t see anything.”
“Yes I did.”
“No you didn’t, stupid.”
The bus lurched over a curb and every passenger grabbed their seats. Christie felt the song of her face melt, the long chromatic scale of a tear, when she said, “I saw you. I did.”
Josh started to claw at her face. “Stop doing that with your hands, you look weird. People are staring.”
“I saw you.”
“He’ll never forgive you,” she said, really crying now, “never.”
When Caleb looked over, Josh had his arms wrapped around Christie’s neck and was muttering at her to shut up. He pried one kid off the other but it was too late. The bus lurched to the side of the road, hissed to a stop.
“Sir,” the bus driver called, “I’m going to have to ask you and your children to exit the vehicle.”
He nodded. “Okay guys, that’s us.” He pushed Joshua ahead of him, motioned for Christie to follow.
“That should teach you to hit your kids in public,” an old lady with a red leather purse said as Caleb stood. She had a face like a bulldog and a bark like one, too. He shook his head at her, taken aback.
“But I didn’t—”
The bus driver gave a warning, “Sir, please.”
“But they’re not… they’re not my kids” was what he finally ended up saying, staring at the leather bag lady.
It was apparently the wrong thing to say, because the rest of the passengers started to stand in that menacing way regular people have of steeling themselves right before they get heroic.
Caleb and the kids had to run off the bus to get away. It was scary. All those people leaning in to stop them, their hands outstretched. Like a living forest of sweaty, angry flesh.
“The part that really, like, worries me is that it’s a delusion. It’s not pretend. It’s not something this kid just made up to cope through whatever.” John took a drag. “I mean he actually believes he’s a manshark.”
His grandmother squinted at him. “A manshark?”
“Yeah, you know, like this seven-foot-tall Turkish man with the head of a hammerhead shark.”
“Why is it important you tell me he’s Turkish?” she said. “What are you trying to say?”
“Nothing, Nams.” John ashed his cigarette. “I’m just saying that it’s weird.”
“To be a shark? Or Turkish?”
“Jesus, Nams.” He picked up the ashtray to look at the coaster, which had a Maine coon on it, looking demurely over its shoulder. He wondered if cats had some equivalent of Playboy. Or did a tomcat—poor bastard—just do whatever was in front of him, as long as she was in heat?
Is that how it’d happened to him? Eleven years ago, barely sixteen?
He put his cigarette out and lit another. Here he was, back at his Grandma’s, arguing about nothing. The light was filled with dust, and they both breathed it in, sitting at the kitchen table because there was too much clutter to sit anywhere else. What between the crates and beds and toys and feed bags for her rescue animals, and his Grandpa’s construction projects—which were still laying around, nails and boards and pliers right where the old man left them when he wandered off, scratching his scalp through his thinning hair, thinking of another project he had to start and shouldn’t he get to it before he forgot about it? John may as well have not graduated and Joshua never been born. Time stood here and died, dried out and fossilized.
“I don’t want you to take this as a criticism,” his Grandma said, cocking her head and looking at her hands, “but I think it’s interesting you take so much interest in this young man, or shark, or,” she raised a palm at him, “whatever. I think it’s strange you invest so much energy worrying about him when your own son…” She took a labored breath. “Well, I don’t know the last time either of them were here. Let alone when you’ve been so…”
“Look, Nams, I don’t…” He stood up, put his hands in his pockets. “I don’t want to do this right now.”
“Where are you going?”
He yelled back that he didn’t know before he let the door slam behind him; he winced a bit, because he hadn’t meant to.
He breathed through his nose, checking for a pack of cigarettes, letting his thoughts run over him.
He paused on the street corner, lighting up. He squinted at the red stopwalk sign on the other side of the street. What did it matter anyway? Life was just a shitty temp job and you never got a say in where you got sent.
The little walking man popped up on the lights.
Man, am I tired, John was thinking as he stepped off the curb and got hit by a car.
Josh stood in his room and repacked his bag. He had $596.75 and his favorite National Geographic issues, which included specials on Oregon and Washington, where he was going. He had re-flipped a coin on it (a 1985 lucky quarter he’d found two years ago on the playground) and the coin had remade the original decision. Mexico was still out of the question; Canada was still in.
He would have left earlier if Caleb dropped them off at school like he was supposed to, but in the big picture—and Josh was nothing if not a big-picture person—four or five hours wouldn’t mean much when he was 25, famous, and unbelievably rich. Maybe he’d even laugh about it then.
He had a moment of pause in the kitchen, stealing the-people-upstair’s Power Bars, when he heard his sister turn on the TV in the living room and start watching Roseanne reruns, heard his mom turn over on the couch. His mom had been asleep when they got home—she’d taken her medicine too late. He almost wanted to be in there too, almost felt he should be.
But the laugh track pushed those feelings away. He swept the rest of the Power Bars into his backpack and went back to his room.
He shut the door behind him and made sure his desk was still wedged against the wall. He opened his window. He tried to memorize this moment. This was the end of his life as a kid on 241 Morgan Street. From now on he’d be somebody else. He was trying to sort through what he remembered—that Christmas when they made tiny cabins out of milk cartons and frosting and candy, or when they went to the hospital for his Grandpa’s heart attack/birthday and everyone sat on the bed and ate oranges. When his dad taught him how to fill up the car, back when they had a car, and he did it right the first time. Back when they all lived together.
Josh was getting cold, crouching there on the desk, his face hanging out the window like a dog in a car watching a disappearing landscape. It was cold even through his coat.
In the back of his mind, an idea toddled, rocking, trying to get his attention. Maybe I could do this later. Maybe I could try tomorrow. Go on a weekend. Maybe—
But when the door knob rattled he was out the window and running into the street, feet faster even than his heart.
Charlie Burns was playing the original 1972 version of Pong in the living room when he heard Gloria’s taxi pull in. He went to the back door and waited for her to roll down the window before he asked, “What are you doing here? Aren’t you working tonight?”
“I’ve got something for you,” she said, and popped the trunk, shut off the engine.
He stepped out, eyes wide. “Is it alive?”
She smiled at him as she got out. She walked to the trunk, raised it slowly.
“Happy Christmas, Charlie.”
He looked in at the body bent circular, his teeth elongating, his shoulders broadening. He put his hand out to take the pulse.
He said, “Hey John,” in a low growl, before he leaned in, mouth wide.
The moon hung in Joshua’s open window like a clean, white bowl. Christie eyed it from the middle of his room. She saw the rabbit in it, then the empty-socketed, howling man, then the rabbit again.
She had a copper-bottomed pot and her sleeping mother’s hairbrush. She had a spoon from her uncle’s house and her father’s old nail-clippers. She had herself. She arranged all the items into a circle around a stuffed-animal squirrel her brother said he gave away a long time ago.
She saw the rabbit, then the man, then the rabbit.
She tapped her face, listening to her feelings. She didn’t take her eyes off the moon.
Man, rabbit, man, rabbit, man…
And then a rabbit, white and rocking on the window sill. The rabbit licked a stubby arm, dragging it across its face. “Well it looks like you’re off to a good start,” the rabbit named Justice said.
Justice leapt down to the desk and surveyed the child’s work. It was a good start. There was powerful emotion there, definitely things the girl could use in the future if she was willing to develop the skill. And Justice had a good feeling about the girl. A really good feeling.
WEDNESDAY 2:05 AM
There’s a forest with a road running north through it into other forests. There’s a kid walking slow in the dark.
He has his good coat on and his backpack. He has the lucky quarter that told him to come here. He has his stories in his head and he’s eaten half his food and his feet hurt on the road heading north in the dark.
But every step makes the money in his backpack more his.
He hears sounds in the trees, shuffling and scattered fallings. He doesn’t look over. There’s a big moon in the sky but he can’t see anything outside the road.
A kid appears in front of him. Josh didn’t see where he came from. He stares at the kid: pale and skinny, clothes ragged. The kid has large, aquatic blue eyes. Looks about Josh’s age, but Josh doesn’t recognize him. The kid raises his hand in greeting. Josh nods, tries to pass, but the kid steps in front of him. Joshua sees the kid doesn’t have any shoes on.
“Hi,” says Charlie Burns, flashing a toothy grin.
Josh nods again.
“Where you headed?” Charlie asks.
“Kind of a long way. You going by yourself?”
“What’s it look like?”
Charlie smirks at him in the moonlight, his grimy hands in his pockets. “I’m headed the same way.”
Joshua stares at him guardedly. They start to walk up the road. Josh crunches leaves under his feet. His feet are still killing him but he doesn’t want to stop now that someone is with him. If he stopped he’d have to sleep and he can’t sleep and watch his stuff at the same time.
“Why Canada?” Josh asks after a while.
“I have some friends I’ve been meaning to visit in Oregon. You could stay with us for a while if you want.”
Charlie can see the boy pretending to think about this.
“Yeah,” Josh says. “We’ll see.”
Charlie reaches out his hand. “I’m Charlie.”
Joshua takes it and says, “Joshua.”
“Joshua, you gotta be less defensive when you’re trying to make friends, okay?” Charlie says.
“Yeah,” Josh says. “We’ll see.”
The moon is high and breakable over the ridge of forest, a face glancing down on unfinished work.
Christie is using the trees to Listen.
She is in front of the 7-Eleven on Fremont. She crushes one foot with the other to get some feeling back into it. She is waiting for Justice to come back.
Christie hears the other boy ask her brother how old he is and hears her brother lie and say fourteen. She hears the boy give a snorty laugh and say that when they get to Oregon Joshua should say he’s a hundred and fourteen to blend in. And Joshua says “Really?” and the boy says “Really.” And the boy starts to say to Joshua that there’s something familiar about him and then they are both out of the range of Christie’s hearing, but that’s okay. Because he’s okay.
Christie starts to tap her face as she sits there, suddenly alone. She smiles to herself.
Jorge is cleaning up after the fight. He’s getting chewed out by Eli (“You just don’t have a sense of timing. I could’ve had that guy, coulda nailed him and what do you do? You—”) when he sees a small girl push the door open for a white rabbit. The girl waits outside while the rabbit hops to the counter. Eli stops yelling and imitates a rooster.
But it’s too late. The rabbit hops around the counter and sniffs the cage by Jorge’s feet. The bird inside twists and jerks its head, does a few quick roosterly turns. But no one is convinced.
“I don’t know who you think you’re fooling,” the rabbit says. “I heard you when I came in and I can see your cigarette from here. Besides, that ridiculous dance you just did wouldn’t even fool people expecting a chicken.”
Both Eli and Jorge are quiet for a minute. Then Eli whips his tiny cigarette back into his beak and squawks at Jorge, “Don’t you have something to Windex?”
The clerk shuffles off to sweep up the feathers and blood in the back.
Justice settles in front of the cage, tucking her paws beneath her. “You know, I heard about your whole setup, but I didn’t really believe it. A cage? Honestly?”
“Wave of the future, J. The illusion of control is important to them. They don’t want to be Friends anymore. They don’t know what that means.”
“Illusion. Fantasy is what you mean.”
The rooster shrugs. “Whatever.”
“You know, I had a Friend once who tried to convince me to do the same thing. The cage and all. Like I was a prop to his act.”
The rooster sneers. “Bet that got you going.”
“Go to hell.”
“Been there. Didn’t like it. Besides,” he says, lighting another cigarette, “that boy knows who the prop is.”
Justice taps at the cage with a paw. “What are you doing here, Eli?”
“Farmers don’t live as long anymore,” Eli says, starting to pace. “Chickens don’t either for that matter. The whole niche disappeared. Got to get the years where you can nowadays and I got lucky. I’ve got that lump over there for at least half a century. It’s some security. I gain a few years every fight, get some life where I can. I have some fun. That’s all you can do, in the end. Get some food, have some fun. You been around a while, I’m sure you’ve noticed.”
Justice brings her ears forward in surprise, “You’ve changed.”
Eli shrugs again, looks down. “Maybe I have.”
Justice begins to rock back and forth. “Well, I just came here to say hello before I left. I’ve got a Friend-in-training.”
“You bringing Gloria back up to snuff?”
Justice scoffs. “There’s nothing left to work with.”
“Still don’t like Charlie, huh?”
“Beings of power should not have amorous relations with other beings of power. If you have to have someone, you go out and find someone you can kill afterwards. That way things don’t get messy.”
“I killed 784 people on the battlefields of love,” Justice says. “In the 1850s alone.”
Eli shakes his head. “There’s just something about a man with a top hat and kid gloves.”
“Well I have a new student, anyway.”
Eli presses his head against his cage to look over Justice’s shoulder.
“Not even enchanted,” Justice says.
“I know.” Justice turns. “I’ll come back in a generation or so. See how you are.”
Eli goes back to pacing. “See you then.”
The rabbit waits until Jorge holds the door open and then she goes over to Christie, presses her head against the child’s leg.
“Time to go.”
The girl blinks. “He’s dead.”
Justice watches the cars go by impatiently. She doesn’t ask; she doesn’t care. “Well?”
“I heard him,” Christie says, eyes filling. She turns sharply. “They’re coming.”
“Well are we going or not?” the rabbit says.
The child waits, pressing her lips together. Then she nods.
So here’s one. There are these kids, right? And they walk into a forest, although not necessarily together and not necessarily the same clump of trees. But they all walk into a forest. And they are all walking into the forest all the time. Walking and wandering. Looking for something or running away. Trying to help themselves, trying to help somebody else; and they are always zigzagging and running ahead or falling behind and planning to get out, get in, get ahead, give up. They are always trying and failing and trying and failing and failing to try and trying again. They do this all the time. They have always done this.
Sarah Goodman does not believe in breakfast but wholeheartedly believes in lunch because it is, after all, American. She doesn’t look particularly threatening, but she does have the tendency to bring up cannibalism, especially when dining in public places. She is also a fantastic at parallel-parker, though it’s a rare day she’ll exhibit this skill.